Last week, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia delivered another classic culture warrior speech at the University of Notre Dame. Amongst other problems, having said he did not intend to talk about politics, he spends a lot of time talking about politics. He just can't help himself. But, it is his view of the church that concerns me today.
There was much in Chaput's speech with which I agree, not least his indictment of the arrogance of societal elites and the consequent anger people feel at their own powerlessness. And he is no doubt correct that to the degree Catholics have become part of the Establishment, we stand indicted with the rest of elite culture. Certainly, the images of all those white-tied plutocrats at the Al Smith dinner indicates he was on to something.
But then the archbishop speaks about those who have joined the elites and, in his mind, cashiered the integrity of their Catholic faith in exchange for power. He said:
To put it another way, quite a few of us American Catholics have worked our way into a leadership class that the rest of the country both envies and resents. And the price of our entry has been the transfer of our real loyalties and convictions from the old Church of our baptism to the new 'Church' of our ambitions and appetites. People like Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Kennedy, Joe Biden and Tim Kaine are not anomalies. They're part of a very large crowd that cuts across all professions and both major political parties.
It goes without saying that the four people mentioned have staked out public policy positions on issues that do no cohere with Catholic social doctrine regarding the sanctity of human life, nor with the teaching of the church on the nature of marriage. But, why no mention of the Catholic entrepreneur who declines to pay her workers a living wage? Or of the Catholic legislator who frustrates the right of workers to organize by supporting right-to-work laws?
Additionally, and I think this point must be made again and again, while I have not spoken personally with any of the four mentioned public figures about why they support abortion rights, I am pretty sure none of them have a bloodlust against unborn children. I suspect all four simply have a hard time squaring what the church teaches with their sympathy with women facing a crisis pregnancy, and are unsure how to change the culture in such a way that it encourages motherhood, no matter the circumstances. The entrepreneur may only be motivated by greed or by a strange need to calculate her own power by heightening the profit margin of her company at all costs. I think that Pelosi, Kennedy, Biden and Kaine are wrong on abortion, and I wish I knew how to convince them that their sense of solidarity with the disenfranchised and the powerless should extend to the unborn, but I don't think they operate out of malice. Yes, a desire to maintain political power is a calculation, but it is not the only calculation, just as I suspect the entrepreneur has convinced herself that the profitability of her company is, in some sense, a measure of social benefit.
The image of the Blessed Mother punching the devil in the nose is certainly an engaging one, with a great deal of truth in it. But what the archbishop seems to miss, and what Pope Francis and bishops like him seem to grasp, is that while the devil can and should be punched in the nose, fellow human beings, and especially Catholics entrusted to the pastoral care of bishops, should not be so punched, even when they have fallen from the fold, especially when they have fallen from the fold. The Good Shepherd really does go off in search of the one lost sheep.
The shepherd of Philadelphia, however, sticks with the 99 sheep, and does not fret if it turns out there are only, say, 43 sheep left. In one of the more remarkable passages in the speech, Chaput said, "Obviously we need to do everything we can to bring tepid Catholics back to active life in the Church. But we should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness." This commitment to a "smaller, lighter church" is always uttered by someone convinced that they are themselves inside the fold. And that is the problem.
It is the problem at the heart of the parable we heard yesterday at Mass, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, found at Luke 18:9-14. Those who are convinced they are in the fold, and who deride those outside as mere cowards or apostates, like the Pharisee, no longer seem to think they have any need of God. The Pharisee pays his tithe and fasts twice a week. The modern-day member of the smaller church brigade goes to Mass and votes Republican. They are both self-sufficient in their faith. They have lost the radical dependence on God and God's mercy that is at the heart of the Gospel. As Pope Francis said in Amoris Laetitia, "At times we find it hard to make room for God's unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel."
I am not claiming to look into the archbishop's soul: I am hopeful he knows he is radically dependent on God's mercy. Nor am I concerned with whether or not this acceptance of a smaller, purer church will be a more effective means of evangelizing than the larger, sloppier, messier church that includes Joe Biden and all those Catholic capitalists. The problem here is that this acceptance of the smaller, purer church is not true to the evangelizing model presented by Jesus in the Gospels. That was the point of the parable at Mass yesterday.
When we, as a church, stray from the model of the Master, we find ourselves saying things like this:
If by 'inclusive' we mean patiently and sensitively inviting all people to a relationship with Jesus Christ, then yes, we do very much need to be inclusive. But if "inclusive" means including people who do not believe what the Catholic faith teaches and will not reform their lives according to what the Church holds to be true, then inclusion is a form of lying. And it's not just lying but an act of betrayal and violence against the rights of those who do believe and do seek to live according to God's Word. Inclusion requires conversion and a change of life; or at least the sincere desire to change.
A form of "lying?" Is that really the only option? Not a form of "stumbling," just like the rest of us? "Betrayal" against the "rights of those who do believe?" It is a pity that the older son in the story of the prodigal forgot about his rights! Maybe then his father would have taken the fatted calf off the fire and sent that sinning younger son back to what he deserved.
Yesterday, at his Sunday Angelus, the Holy Father said, "Today what is required of us is courage to be alternative in the world, without ever becoming argumentative or aggressive. What is required of us is the courage to be open to all, without ever diminishing the absoluteness and uniqueness of Christ, the one Savior of all." You will note the difference in tone and content. The Holy Father went on to note that it was the publican who displayed courage in the Gospel, the courage to admit his status as a sinner, radically dependent on God's mercy. It is a courage I wish I had more of, but I know this: As long as I stay more focused on my sins, I am a more credible witness of the Gospel to those Catholics who, like me, don't measure up. I am grateful ours is not a smaller and purer church because I am sure I would be left on the outside. But, the Lord Jesus has, time and time again, left the 99 to come looking for me. And that means he is looking for Pelosi, Biden, Kennedy and Kaine too. The shepherds of the church who also go searching for those of us who keep getting lost, Pope Francis first among them, are those who are following the example of Jesus.
This morning's Gospel tells of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath, for which he was criticized by the religious authorities of his day. The last words in this passage stand as a rebuke to the culture warrior approach: "When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated; and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him." The culture warriors do not only stand athwart the path indicated by Pope Francis, but the path indicated by the Lord Jesus.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.