For archbishop's camp, the church is the hierarchy

Posted: July 26, 2011

By David J. O'Brien

Miracles do happen. Who would have believed anyone could topple Irish Catholicism? But masses of Irish Catholics no longer attend church, and those who do have lost confidence in their priests and bishops. The Irish people are finally disengaging the church from its control of education, social services, and public morality.

What brutal British occupiers could not accomplish over centuries, Ireland's bishops and their Vatican masters have brought about in little more than a decade.

Now those who run the Catholic Church have jeopardized another legendary center of Catholic solidarity: Philadelphia.

Cardinal Justin Rigali is retiring as Philadelphia's archbishop, disgraced by a second grand jury report documenting the hierarchy's cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. It was announced last week that his successor will be Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, one of America's most outspoken Catholic conservatives. The appointment shows that the Vatican accepts the strange idea that the church's problems in this country have come about because Catholics are too American - too tainted by America's "culture of death" - and because U.S. bishops and priests are too sensitive to what lay people and non-Catholics think.

What is needed, the Vatican seems to believe, are leaders who "put the church first," assert the authority of bishops and priests, and make no pastoral or political concessions on supposedly nonnegotiable Catholic teachings about abortion, homosexuality, and female priests.

This winter will see the introduction of a revised liturgy produced by the Holy See, whose handpicked committee made some 10,000 changes to the version approved by the vast majority of bishops in the English-speaking world. Locally, bishops and priests can make use of lay ministers and advisers, but they are required to make the difference between laity and priests very clear - as if this were somehow in doubt. Restoration of hierarchical and clerical power in the church, under the guise of "real Catholicism," appears to be the order of the day.

Chaput fits this pattern. His promotion most likely came about because of the support of Americans with influence at the Vatican. The most powerful of these is Raymond Burke, now head of the Vatican's highest court, who regularly makes the restorationist agenda clear. Chaput is cut from the same cloth as Burke, who launched the church's continuing campaign to humiliate Catholic Democratic politicians when he denied Communion to a respected Catholic congressman, David Obey of Wisconsin, in 2003.

Chaput thought that was a great idea, and he made it clear that then-presidential candidate John Kerry should not appear at the Communion rail in his jurisdiction. He wrote a book arguing that real Catholics would reject John Kennedy's famous distinction between his religion and his public service, and would always support legislative efforts to enforce Catholic moral teaching.

Like Burke, Chaput makes no secret of his disdain for outspoken Catholic reformers, especially women, and he played a leading role in reducing the influence and resources of the national bishops' conference. Chaput is, in short, a company man - a churchman.

Like the Americans who serve at the Vatican, Chaput puts the institutional church first, and he seems to think everyone else should, too. According to this view, the church is not the "people of God" - a biblical idea restored by Vatican II that conservatives think has done much damage. For them, the church is the hierarchy, and especially the pope.

In Philadelphia, as in Ireland, ecclesiastical corruption is an obvious fact. What to do about it is now up to Chaput.

Thousands of hardworking priests, sisters, and lay people are still offering the sacraments and serving people, especially the poor, in Philadelphia. As in Ireland, many of them are ready to help if they receive a credible invitation to do so.

But if they don't, they will have to decide either to leave the church's destiny to the Vatican and the archbishop or to find a way to take responsibility for it. Many may simply leave the church altogether. So far, very few Catholics have been ready to take responsibility by engaging in church politics. Until they do, Chaput and other churchmen will determine the American Catholic future.

David J. O'Brien is a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton.

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