Monica Yant Kinney: Chaput isn't the change reform-minded Catholics had in mind

Posted: July 20, 2011

As messages from on high go, this one couldn't be clearer: All you reform-minded Catholics out there had better keep on praying, or exit to the nearest Episcopal church. Change is coming to the Philadelphia Archdiocese, but it's nothing like what you envisioned.

In one of the least-kept secrets of the summer, Cardinal Justin Rigali is being replaced by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput.

In Rigali, the archdiocese's 1.5 million Catholics had a seemingly disengaged leader who said little and emoted less. In Chaput, they gain a practically puritanical - and proudly political - shepherd who has so many hard-line views, he deserves his own slot on Fox News.

Chaput, 66, is praised by the right as a strict doctrinaire and pilloried by the left as a "culture warrior."

While other bishops bite their tongues as the church bleeds money from self-made wounds, Chaput scolds politicians, passes judgment on more open-minded clerics, and chastises that uniquely American species, Cafeteria Catholics, for daring to put their lives before faith.

Oh, and he once kept two little girls from attending parochial school, because their mothers are lesbians. How's that for compassionate conservatism?

Whose moral compass?

Boston may have given birth to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, but Philadelphia is where a monsignor will, for the first time, soon stand trial on charges that he failed to halt the ravages against children.

Chaput has won praise for acting swiftly when accusations arise, but scorn for launching a media war against the effort to give Colorado victims their day in court.

After enduring three cardinals accused of covering up crimes over decades, reform-minded Catholics like Charles McMahon had high hopes for Rigali's replacement.

"To send us a guy like Chaput," gripes the professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, is "insulting."

Area Catholics had been bracing for this day of reckoning. Susan Matthews, a Huntingdon Valley mom and QVC presenter, even started a website,, to give other loyal but livid parishioners a place to vent and dream.

In February, after the latest grand jury report laid bare a continued pattern of criminal audacity by men of the cloth, my in-box and voice mail overflowed with cries from people sickened by the scandal and their helplessness to fix - or flee - the only church they know.

In March, I went to Harrisburg to document yet another attempt by legislators to abolish the civil statute of limitations in child sex-abuse cases. In May, I helped tally survey results showing that area priests either don't care about restorative justice or disagree that victims deserve it. One respondent called his inquisitors a "terroristic organization" lacking a "moral compass."

Tone deaf, change averse

After months of witnessing this disconnect, I ask a knowledgeable source whether Catholics staying to fight for their church are wasting their time. After all, this is an institution so tone deaf and change averse, it allows disgraced Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to steer top staffing moves like Chaput's.

It's not as if there's a pool of progressives to choose from, my source reminds me. "Modernity and Catholicism," he says with a sigh, "are mutually exclusive."

So Chaput barks like a bulldog and is revered by those who would rather the church become smaller and purer than change to accommodate a laity that would vote for Sen. John Kerry ("cooperating in evil") or applaud the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to graduation.

And if that forced exodus of change agents leaves the Catholic Church poorer and unable to serve those most in need? So be it. At least for another generation.

"Real leadership," Chaput told an interviewer last month, "is about more than making people feel good about themselves."

Perhaps, but must it involve making faithful followers feel worse?

Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670,, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at


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