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Identifying the Enemy

May 23, 2018 | (2,304 words)

I am now well into my seventh decade of continuous residency on the western fringe of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, though I did enjoy a twenty year sabbatical from belief and practice in the middle trimester, to pursue some bad behavior.

After Justin Cardinal Rigali turned seventy-five and submitted his retirement papers in April 2010, many of us were excited to learn in July 2011 that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, at a spry sixty-six, was being reassigned here from Denver, since he enjoyed a national reputation as a pro-life champion.

In the ensuing years my initial enthusiasm for this stalwart defender of traditional faith and morals has noticeably waned, however, as he has revealed himself to be a rather conventional neo-con Republican when it comes to the political and economic order.

Of course his positions regarding these “public square” issues have only further endeared him to Catholics who identify as conservative, since that contingent has long derided what they consider to be the odious liberal political/economic tendencies of the Most Rev. Chaput’s fellow members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

I have unexpectedly found myself in a different camp these days. Not because I agree with the liberal bishops (perish the thought), but because I have come to view Archbishop Chaput’s favorite public square themes of “economic freedom” and “religious freedom” as nothing less than twin pillars of the moral anarchy he and I both abhor.


… the twin pillars of moral anarchy.


Still, characterizing the Archbishop as being “the Chainsaw Al of the American hierarchy” for his “ruthless liquidation of Church assets which took generations to acquire” may lead unsuspecting readers away from the central issue under discussion. Just as George Weigel may be unduly burnishing the man’s reputation by claiming no one else in the American episcopate could have righted Philadelphia’s financial ship the way Archbishop Chaput has done.

It’s certainly no secret there was a financial crisis of epic proportion waiting here in July 2011, one that had been kicked down the road by the Most Rev. Chaput’s immediate predecessors. It’s not that the aforementioned Cardinal Rigali, or the now-deceased Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, had ever been accused of financial mismanagement. Rather it was a straightforward case of expenses far outpacing income: a simple numbers game those previous two prelates failed to address properly.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, when Philadelphia’s Dennis Joseph Cardinal Dougherty successfully managed a coalition that was able to erect an impressive array of parishes and schools and hospitals and other Church-sponsored facilities here, he was doing so to serve a certain level of population. And, it sort of goes without saying, such an extensive physical plant would require the same level of population to financially maintain it all.

In an open letter issued soon after he arrived, to announce the emotionally-wrenching consolidation he was being forced to undertake, Archbishop Chaput acknowledged as much, when he spelled out in no uncertain terms how the difficult task ahead was the direct result of “families deciding to have fewer children.”


… families deciding to have fewer children.


Upon hearing such a bracing statement of fact, some of us were on hopeful stand-by, waiting for the other shoe to drop. That is, we were waiting for the Archbishop to tie all this pending heartbreak to the blatant and widespread disregard on the part of the rank-and-file for the Church’s traditional teaching on martial activity, embodied in the landmark papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae (HV), “On The Regulation Of Birth”. But to date no such synthesis has been forthcoming.

To briefly establish the pertinent historical context, this massive shift in the Catholic demographic centered around two related events. The first was the Griswold vs. Connecticut decision of 1965, in which the leader of the Connecticut office of Planned Parenthood, who also happened to be the wife of the president of Yale, brought a trumped up case before the Supreme Court. That august body ruled sales of the then newly-developed pharmaceutical designed to prevent pregnancy should not be restricted.

The second was the promulgation of HV in July 1968, in which Paul VI reaffirmed traditional Church teaching on birth control. Though this position was being widely contested by the cognoscenti in Western Europe and America at the time, our Pope stood tall in the face of popular opinion and told the world, “Sorry, folks, not on my watch.”

To arrive at his foregone conclusion, he courageously set aside the swelling tide of contrary advice provided by a blue-ribbon panel of expert advisors, which included the influential John D. Rockefeller III, who couched his advocacy in a sincere desire to end world poverty, among his many other philanthropic causes.

Paul VI shared that same concern. In fact, he was known to describe himself as a humble servant for a suffering humanity. But rather than suggest the poor stop procreating, he called for a more just distribution of the world’s bountiful wealth. In his encyclical Populorum Progressio, “On The Development Of Peoples,” promulgated in March 1967 (yes, that’s right, the year before EV), he demanded significant changes from the rich in North America and Europe in favor of the poor in the Third World. Sound familiar?

With the benefit of fifty years’ worth of hindsight, it is glaringly obvious that American Catholics choose to embrace Griswold while turning their back on Humanae Vitae. Just consider how our parishes are now populated with a preponderance of two-child families. What is less widely discussed by traditional defenders of the faith is how these decisions have always been based on economic factors.


… unfortunate decisions based on economic factors.


In many cases, the harsh new economic reality made it difficult for the average, run-of-the-mill Catholic to maintain a simple, middle-class existence. Two incomes were now required, where a single income provided by a single wage-earner had once been sufficient. Mom could no longer forgo her prime earning years to stay home with the kids. This naturally resulted in fewer children.

At the other end of the spectrum, certain Catholics were benefiting from the harsh new economic reality, and found themselves able to “increase their material circumstances” in a truly remarkable fashion. Just maintaining a meager middle-class lifestyle was no longer good enough. Such upward mobility was an invitation to adopt the habits and behaviors of apostate associates. Even when Mom could afford to stay home, she often chose not to. All this extra income financed the raising of one’s much-smaller family “in the right way.”

This dichotomy, this breach in the once-unified front when it comes to intimate marital relations, is the direct result of the dearth of distributive justice at the heart of our current economic status quo. The struggling have-nots can no longer afford the number of children their less-affluent parents routinely did. And the successful haves now live according to the gospel of prosperity, and can’t be bothered with the toil and trouble that little kids represent.

It continues to surprise me that conservatives are unable to see how our cultural problems are essentially economic in nature. Blaming moral depravity solely on our liberal friends is a misdiagnosis, since they are merely applying the same logic of “freedom” in their personal lives that conservatives claim is their birthright when it comes to public, economic behavior.

Similarly, to suggest that we Catholics have been abandoned by a wayward culture, only to find ourselves as strangers in a strange land, is a patently false notion. We have in fact contributed mightily to the creation of this wayward culture. We have been prime architects of the strange world we now inhabit.


… contributing to the wayward culture.


Archbishop Chaput has distinguished himself over a long career as a reliable defender of traditional faith and morals. But he has proven to be a less-than-astute social observer. As immigrants assimilated into American culture, religious boundaries replaced ethnic boundaries as the main point of differentiation among people of European descent in the United States. It what came to be known as “the triple melting pot,” the three major religious groups that people eventually assimilated into were Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Catholic portion of this melting pot functioned as the decisive element protecting American society from the libertine inclinations of the other two groups. (Those other groups naturally viewed this same effort as nefarious Catholics holding society back from “making progress.”)

The Protestant element was promoting sexual license via artificial contraception, as introduced by the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference of 1930, and commandeered in this country by the then WASP ruling establishment. The Jewish element was also promoting sexual license via the new technology of moving pictures, as commandeered by the Hollywood establishment starting in the mid-1920s.

The record shows how the Catholic hierarchy never wavered in its rejection of artificial contraception, and helped to establish and enforce a Production Code that reined in Hollywood’s more puerile instincts for three decades. Here in Philadelphia, legend has it that Cardinal Dougherty – The Great Builder – put the full force of his moral authority behind the code, when on May 23, 1934, he ordered the city’s 823,000 Catholics to boycott all movies. The impact on ticket sales was immediate. But then came the 1960s.


… Catholics as the decisive component of the triple melting pot.


People of goodwill may differ on what the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) set out to accomplish, but there can hardly be any debate that it absolutely changed the Church’s attitude toward liberal democracy. (It also changed the Church’s attitude toward Judaism – a much more elaborate discussion.) That is to say its attitude toward “classical liberalism,” which insists on the emancipation of the individual from what its proponents contend is the always-repressive hold of authority, law, and tradition.

In trying to accommodate the pluralist democratic order established by the United Sates in 1776, and that had swept over the entire Western world in the centuries since – in trying to “make room for everybody else” – the Catholic Church sort of threw the baby out with the bath water. It walked away from its primary responsibility to keep everyone honest. It walked away from its previous, two thousand year old mission to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations.

In an admirable attempt to reconcile the crystal clear pre-conciliar mandate with the new, somewhat muddled post-conciliar one, the Most Rev. Chaput has himself introduced a handy formulation into what is now the standard Vatican II syllabus: “error has no rights, but people do.”

There is no cause to single the Archbishop out for this faux pas, however, just because he has a national reputation and gives headlining presentations at big, splashy conferences around the country, enjoys connections with Washington, D.C. think tanks and the New York City world of publishing, and is often called on to provide blurbs for the new books written by his fellow neo-con Republican cohorts.

There is absolutely no point in spotlighting Archbishop Chaput in this regard, since he is, sadly, merely expressing the same lax worldview that every other American bishop in the USCCB has adopted – whether they happen to be of the liberal or conservative variety.

As we sift through the rubble and assign culpability, it is right and just to use our intelligence to discern the world around us. But we should take care that this responsible discernment doesn’t deteriorate into just another mindless form of mass entertainment.


… error has no rights, but people do.


Yes, there are some certifiable villains – and even fewer unalloyed heroes – in this world. But most of our leaders are a mixed bag of good and not-so-good, or wish-they-would-do-better. Just like those of us who lead private lives, our public figures can often be credited with doing or saying some worthwhile things. But they are only fallible humans, not saints carved out of stone, and therefore are equally prone to issue forth with some alarmingly bone-headed ideas on occasion.

Time flies, and soon enough it will be Archbishop Chaput’s turn to hand in his retirement papers. Once this gentleman gracefully departs the stage and takes his leave, another worthy prelate will inevitably be sent our way. And then we will no doubt find the time to either compliment or criticize this next bishop’s every move, as is our wont. But what matters more than who our leaders are or what they think, is our own ability as individuals to process the deluge of information that engulfs us.

In thinking about our own routines, there is a need to do more than constantly read-and-react, to confidently describe winners and losers from the comfort of an easy chair. It’s not enough to align ourselves behind charismatic people we deem as our “designated thinkers.” It’s not a matter of trying to pick the right team to be a member of. There is no hiding in the chorus.

Regardless of our various affiliations, each of us still has to do the hard work of quietly processing the sometimes contradictory, often partisan information being pushed in our direction, and reconciling it with the truth that is written on our heart.

The challenge remains the same, even if the times seem to have drastically changed. It’s still about finding a way to awaken the spirit of the Gospel in our own lives, and allowing that spirit to reveal itself in our daily chores. Any small part of this we are able to accomplish can’t help but impact those in our immediate circle of influence.

You know, the people we love and cherish, the folks we work with every day, and the neighbors we sometimes bump into at the supermarket.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
May 23, 2018

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