"Philadelphia" magazine wants to make them adversaries, but Chaput and Francis are allies
In many ways, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput should be a darling of the media: He lives simply; he engages with the culture; he’s among the most supportive bishops of the laity in modern history, he communicates in a straight-forward manner, and he makes himself exceptionally accessible to the public.
None of that seems to be enough, however. Philadelphia magazine just ran piece called “Archbishop Charles Chaput: The Hardliner.” Even the photo they chose appears to be designed to portray the archbishop as uptight, stern, and removed from his people’s concerns. Less than a month before Pope Francis arrives in the City of Brotherly Love for the World Meeting of Families, it’s a profile all too transparent in its agenda.
J.D. Flynn, writing in National Review, who met Chaput as a student and then worked for him for a time, is quick to point this out and says that the media spin in Philadelphia is simply inaccurate:
“Chaput is among the most supportive bishops to laity in the Church’s modern history. He helped laity found movements dedicated to Latino leadership, to campus and youth ministry, and to the development of the ‘feminine genius’ among young women. He’s made it a point not to direct any of those projects. He offers guidance and he helps cut through ecclesiastical red tape. In Philadelphia, the archbishop has bolstered the lay-led pastoral council, and put qualified laywomen and laymen in nearly every possible leadership position.”
Flynn goes on to share that Chaput has, for many years, celebrated a weekly Mass where he waits afterwards to greet anyone who would like to see him, plus he’s “a regular at shelters, schools, and religious houses.”
But what might surprise people the most is how much time Chaput spends emailing people who want to communicate with him. Flynn himself has been a recipient of such correspondence:
“I am on the lowest professional rung of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. But when I e-mail Chaput, even for a banality, he writes back within hours. When I worked for him, he’d often send me e-mails long after I went to bed, and again in the morning well before I got to the office. He corresponds with the media, with faith-seekers, and with those who disagree with him. But his availability is often rewarded with vitriol. He’s probably called a ‘faggot,’ an ‘a**hole,’ or a ‘pervert’ more often than any other churchman. He’s probably told to go to hell twice a week. He remains undeterred.”
Flynn is right about Chaput’s availability being rewarded with criticism. It was some of Chaput’s emails that Philadelphia magazine used in its piece to try and paint the archbishop as an uncaring, harsh cleric who has little in common with the friendly, relationship-building Francis.
Robert Huber, the author of the Philadelphia article, found two people whose email correspondence with Chaput went south after many back and forths about concerns over parish closures. The tone of Chaput’s final responses to them, which are printed in the piece, could certainly be considered direct, and even sharp. But anyone who has corresponded with someone over a long period of time and not gotten anywhere can sympathize with Chaput. In fact, a lot of people, let alone other bishops, wouldn’t have responded at all. Chaput has not only kept up ongoing correspondence with these people—one for two years—but has taken the time to draw the conversation to a close and offer his prayers, even if he’s annoyed while doing it. Archbishops are people, too.
Of course, none of this is good enough for Huber, who wants a story here — one about long-suffering, polite parishioners who simply want to be heard by their Church, versus the powerful man in charge who has no time for their concerns and chastises them harshly.
Which leads us back to the real point of the Philadelphia article: establishing Chaput as an adversary to Francis as the country prepare’s for the pontiff’s visit. As Flynn writes in his piece:
“As the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia approaches, some members of the media seem hell-bent on depicting Chaput as disloyal to the pontiff and disdainful of his flock. A populist pope, painted by the media as a sexual progressive, will be held up as a model, and a foil to “culture warriors” like Chaput. The “archconservative” Chaput, by the way, has railed against the death penalty for years, and partnered with liberal legislators to talk about immigration reform. The “liberal” Pope Francis, by the way, made opposition to abortion a central argument in his encyclical on the environment. Catholic social teaching hardly fits in the narrow strictures of partisan political platforms. But the real story is less satisfying to the media. The real story is that Chaput and Francis have much in common. That they’re allies, and that they’re both working, in partnership with laity, for Christian renewal. The real story is that Francis is committed to the Church’s moral teaching, and that Chaput is committed to the Church’s social outreach. But that story isn’t good clickbait. Beating up on a generous leader, for the sins of being transparent, candid, and human, is a stretch by journalistic standards. But it does build a straw man, and it works to advance a social agenda. Even if it’s “blinded to reality.”
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer at Aleteia