The Political Obligations of Catholics: A Conversation With the Most Rev. Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Denver
Catholic civic engagement plays a central role in American politics, and the question of how Catholic convictions translate to the public square is a matter of frequent discussion. In his recent book Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008), the Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver, argues that Catholics should take an active, vocal and morally consistent role in public debates, particularly on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and other matters they consider central to social justice.
How should members of the Catholic Church, especially elected officials, balance their religious beliefs and obligations with their political priorities? And what should we expect from Catholic leaders with respect to the policy decisions of President Barack Obama and those of future administrations?
To discuss these issues, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life invited Archbishop Chaput, who was appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1997 and who is the first Native American archbishop to be ordained in the U.S.
The Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
This luncheon is part of the Pew Forum’s mission of bringing together journalists and policy leaders to discuss important issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. I’m pleased to welcome all of you on this day, St. Patrick’s Day, to a discussion on the political obligations of Catholics. Alas, there is no Guinness on tap, but I am informed that there is Guinness in the soup, which is maybe why some of you have been raving about it.
Our format at these gatherings is very, very simple. After our special guest speaks for 15 minutes or so, we open it up for questions and comments from all of you. It’s meant to be a conversation, so we encourage everyone to participate. The Pew Forum’s partners in this series are Mike Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. It was Mike’s turn this time to organize the session, so he will serve as the moderator as well.
Before I turn things over to him, I’d like to mention that this meeting is on the record and is being taped; that’s because we want to post the written transcript on our website so many others have a chance to benefit from the conversation. A few of your out-of-town colleagues are also listening in on this – I think half a dozen journalists or so by conference call – and we welcome them here as well. Mike, it’s all yours.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you, Luis. I am going to introduce Archbishop Chaput, but by way of introduction it is not my habit to read to you the bio that you have right in front of you. I would call that bio to your attention, and of course, I know a lot of you are here because you know Archbishop Chaput, either personally or by reputation. But I would want to mention that he has written a book recently called Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. You can find it on Amazon.com. It’s a great read. One of the most impressive things about the book is that there are at least two footnotes in this book to previous Pew Forum discussions. We were very touched by that.
ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT: I actually put that in hoping to be invited. (Laughter.)
CROMARTIE: And it worked! I got to know Archbishop Chaput personally. He and I served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom together and traveled the world together. What you don’t see in your bio is the kind of man that Archbishop Chaput is. He is a man who cares passionately and deeply about social justice and human rights, and I was privileged to serve with him in that capacity and to witness his concern for those who are victims of governments that don’t respect religious freedom or freedom of conscious or religious liberty. We’re delighted that you could be with us, Archbishop. We look forward to hearing from you, and then we’ll have a conversation.
CHAPUT: Thank you, Michael. Our friendship is valuable to me, and I’m very, very grateful for the continuation of that friendship through this time together today. I have a few written remarks, which I’ll read to make sure I stay limited in my comments, and then I welcome our conversation, which will be very valuable to me personally. My remarks are rather brief. I think they are also candid, and I hope that you’ll be candid with me, because as long as people treat each other with charity and respect, the virtue of honesty is always the best way to have a useful conversation. I don’t think there’s enough candid conversation in the church, and certainly in our broader society.
Michael Cromartie has asked me to speak about the political obligations of Catholics. I’m happy to do that. But I hope you won’t mind if I back into the subject. I don’t often get a chance for real exchange with journalists, so I’ll start with some thoughts on how the media cover the Catholic Church. Now I wrote these remarks before I knew who was going to be here, so none of these remarks are directed at anyone here. I may have actually changed them if I had known the quality of the people who are gathered in this room.
The reason I want to talk about this is simple. Public understanding of the Catholic role in our political process depends in large part on how the mainstream media frame church-related issues. I don’t know if any of you had the chance to cover Mother Teresa when she visited this country over the years. She once joked that she’d rather bath a leper than meet the press. Mother was not known for the ambiguity of her feelings. A lot of people in the church, especially those who practice their faith in an active and regular manner, would agree with what she meant because they feel the same way.
Now it turns out that I don’t feel the same way. In my experience, dealing with the press has usually been rather enjoyable – not always, but usually. I’ve worked with some very good journalists – some in this room – and I don’t think that we should ever fear the truth. I tend to like challenging questions – not everybody does – and I think many people in the church are afraid of the press because of the challenging nature of many of your questions.
But I also know reporters and editors who were and are uniquely frustrating, not because they write bad things about the church and not because they lack skill or intelligence. It’s because too often they really don’t know their subject or they dislike the influence of religion or they have unresolved authority issues or they resent Catholic teachings on sex or they’d rather be covering the White House but this is the only beat they got, you know? (Laughter.)
I don’t expect journalists who track the church to agree with everything she teaches. But I do think reporters should have a working knowledge of her traditions and teachings. I do think editors should have the basic Catholic vocabulary needed to grasp what we’re talking about and why we’re talking about it. Too often they don’t, and here’s a very simple example. In 20 years as a bishop, I’ve never had a single reporter ask me why I so often refer to the church as “she” or “her” instead of “it,” just as I’m doing today. I find that extremely odd because those pronouns go straight to the heart of Catholic theology, life and identity. I don’t know if people don’t notice or they just think I’m a strange guy and they just won’t ask that question.
CROMARTIE: You will get it today.
CHAPUT: Okay. Let me share with you two of my assumptions about the role of the media in a free society. Here is assumption No. 1: The media – and I mean here the news media, not necessarily all media – serve a vital role in American life. The reason is obvious. A democracy depends on the free flow of truthful and comprehensive information between the government and the governed. Public debate has little meaning when people don’t have accurate, unbiased information.
Here’s my second assumption: Journalism is a vocation, not a job. Pursued properly, journalism should enjoy the same dignity as the law or medicine because the service that journalists perform is equally important to a healthy society. I really believe that. You form people; you form the way they think and the way they live their lives. So journalists have a duty to serve the truth and the common good – not just the crowd, not just the shareholders they work for and not just their personal convictions. In other words, your core business as journalists is to explain in an honest way, with honest context, the forces and characters shaping our lives – our common life – together.
This is why I admire good reporting. That’s why I enjoy being with journalists. Good reporting has social and moral gravity. And thankfully, many journalists are experts in their fields. But that expertise doesn’t seem to extend to religion coverage always. John Allen and Eric Gorski do outstanding work. Terry Mattingly and his colleagues offer a wonderful tool for understanding the interplay of media, news and religion at getreligion.org. Sandro Magister at L’espresso and Alejandro Bermudez at ACI Prensa both offer excellent and well-informed international reporting on religious affairs.
But for many Catholics, these journalists and others like them seem to be the exception. No serious media organization would assign a reporter to cover Wall Street if that reporter lacked a background in economics, fiscal monetary policy and these days at least some expertise on Keynesian theory. But reporters who don’t know their subject and haven’t done their homework seem common in the world of religion reporting, at least in my life.
I wrote my book, Render Unto Caesar – Michael, thank you for promoting the book – to answer the question we’re talking about today: What are the political obligations of Catholics? My answer is very simple: The political duty of Catholics – all people who are Catholics – is to be Catholic first – to know their faith and to think and act like faithful Catholics all the time. That includes their life in the public square, which means it also includes an obligation to promote policies and candidates that reflect the natural law, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the social and moral teachings of his church.
Put it another way – we Catholics serve Caesar best when we serve God first, and that means living our Catholic beliefs vigorously, faithfully and without apologies at home and in the public, at work and in the voting booth. We can’t ignore the sufferings of the poor or the homeless or undocumented immigrants and then claim to be good Catholics. We also can’t ignore the killing of unborn children without struggling to end that daily homicide – not just through supportive social policies, but by changing the law.
The law not only regulates, it also teaches. The current law of the United States teaches that it can be acceptable to kill an unborn child. But it isn’t acceptable; it never was and never will be. And Catholics can’t make peace with this kind of deeply evil law without lying to themselves, lying to the believing community and trying to fool God. It doesn’t work.
When reporters talked with me last fall about my book, Render Unto Caesar, I learned a number of things. First, many hadn’t really read it, but they interviewed me. Many lacked even a basic understanding of Catholic identity that you need for useful disagreement, although they wanted to disagree. And many weren’t interested in learning what they didn’t know. At the same time, some did, unfortunately, know what they planned to write before they walked into my office for the interview.
Render Unto Caesar was never designed to encourage Catholics to be Democrats or Republicans. But I certainly want to remind American Catholics what it requires to actually be Catholic, to reason as Catholics and to act as Catholics. The church is not a political organism. But the moral witness of the church – when people take her seriously – will always have political consequences. If a particular party doesn’t like those consequences, well, unfortunately that’s the party’s problem. It’s the party’s own fault based on its own choices; it’s not the fault of the church. Nor is it the job of the church to help Catholic public officials by removing inconvenient moral dilemmas.
Where the media see Catholic politicians, Catholic bishops see a soul. For a bishop, the question of Catholics in American public life is only secondarily about electoral politics. Really it’s a question of eschatology – that’s another word that should be in every religion journalist’s vocabulary, but it usually isn’t. Eschatology refers to last things – heaven and hell, salvation and judgment. It reflects the teaching of Jesus, that what we do in this life has consequences for the life to come.
That’s what the debate over who receives the Eucharist in 2004, 2008 and even today has finally been about. Sometimes in reading the news I get the impression that access to Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is like having bar privileges at the Elks Club. I’m reminded of the story of the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Conner. She was at a cocktail party talking with fellow writer Mary McCarthy, who had left the church. McCarthy, though no longer Catholic, said she still thought the Eucharist was a pretty good symbol of God’s presence. O’Conner replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
For believing Catholics, the Eucharist is not a symbol, or rather, it’s enormously more than a symbol. It’s the literal, tangible body and blood of Jesus Christ. Since the earliest days of the Christian community, honest believers have never wanted to and have never been allowed to approach the Eucharist in a state of grave sin or scandal. Saint Paul said that if we do that, we profane the body and blood of Christ, and we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.
In other words, we commit a kind of blasphemy against God and violence against our own integrity and the faith of other believers. There’s nothing casual about this kind of sin, and the American notion of civil rights is useless and flatly wrong in trying to understand it. No one ever has a right to the Eucharist, and the vanity or hurt feelings of an individual Catholic governor or senator or even vice president does not take priority over the faith of the believing community.
Blasphemy and violence are unpleasant words in polite conversation. But for believers they have substance. They also have implications beyond this lifetime. That’s why no Catholic, from the simplest parishioner to the most important public leader, should approach communion with grave sin on his soul. The media have no obligation to believe what the church teaches, but they certainly do have the obligation to understand, respect and accurately recount how she understands herself, and especially how she teaches and why she teaches.
I want to end with two modest suggestions. The first comes from Susan Sontag. In one of her last talks she said, “The writer’s first job is not to have opinions, but to tell the truth and to refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.” That’s a noble task for the journalist in the 21st century. And while I’m quoting nonbelievers who had no love for the Catholic Church, here’s my second suggestion. It comes for George Orwell. He said, “Very few people, apart from Catholics themselves, seem to have grasped that the church is to be taken seriously.”
Most of you came here today because you already do try to take the Catholic Church and religious issues seriously, and I thank you for that. You do try to write with depth, integrity and a sense of context. I thank you for that too. Now please tell your friends in the newsroom to do the same.
I think history teaches us that the religious impulse is hardwired into human identity and that faith is one of the engines of human dignity and progress. When religion gets pushed to a society’s margins, politics takes its place with the same vestments but less conscience. We need the church to remind us of the witness of history – that human beings remain fallible; that civil power unconstrained by reverence for God – or at least a healthy respect for the possibility of God – sooner or later attacks the humanity it claims to serve; and that we’re all of us subject to the same excuse-making and self-delusion in our personal lives, in our public actions and even in the corridors of national leadership. Thank you for listening. I look forward to our discussion.
CROMARTIE: Thank you.
SALLY QUINN, THEWASHINGTON POST-NEWSWEEK‘S“ON FAITH”: I’m particularly interested in the whole issue of communion and the Eucharist. I had a personal experience that I wrote about on my website, “On Faith,” where my friend, Tim Russert, died and I went to his funeral, and Cardinal McCarrick was there and he invited the congregation to take communion. I’m not Catholic and –
CHAPUT: With a name like Sally Quinn, I’m surprised you’re not.
QUINN: I know, I know, I know. I’m sorry – somebody along the way screwed up and changed to Episcopalian, right? I had actually only taken communion once before, about a year ago at the church – we were in Virginia, Falls Church. That was the first time I’d ever done it – it was not a Catholic church – and I wanted to do it because I wanted to see what it felt like, since I’m now – as you say, reporters should know about religion. I want to experience a lot of different religions.
But when Cardinal McCarrick invited everyone up, I felt very much like I wanted to do this for Tim. He was a very close friend of mine and it was a very emotional time. So I went up and I took communion. He used to tell me that he was going to win me over, that anybody named Quinn should be Catholic. He used to call me Sister Sal and say he was going to bring me back to the fold.
So I went up and I took communion, and I basically said, okay Tim, this is for you from Sister Sal. It was very helpful to me, and I sat down, and I then wrote about the experience on my website. And I got killed. I mean, absolutely killed. You can’t believe the hate mail I got and the criticism I got from all kinds of Catholic magazines and blogs and everybody writing saying how dare she and this is blasphemous. It was so totally not what I had done.
I actually called Cardinal McCarrick to apologize to him, because I – you know, there was nowhere written in the missalette that only Catholics could take communion. He actually said that he didn’t think that God would have disapproved. But I must say that I was shocked by the reaction to that because of what my own personal feelings were and what motivated me to do that.
Then I started looking into the Eucharist and communion more. I had interviewed Tim Russert before about the idea of transubstantiation, and he had sort of wiggled around a little bit on it and kind of said, boy, you’re really going after me today. He didn’t quite answer the question of whether he believed that it actually was the blood and flesh of Christ. But at any rate, in trying to understand the Eucharist and what it means, you set very harsh guidelines right now for those who can and can’t.
It seems to me, listening to you and trying to understand who is really acceptable, it would seem that nobody should be able to take communion, given your guidelines, because everyone is a sinner. Everyone has scandal in their background; everyone has done something wrong. When I look at the people in a Catholic church, when I see them getting up and they are friends of mine – even at Tim Russert’s funeral – whose consciences I know are not clear, I think why are those people allowed to take communion? I think about the Catholic priests who abused young children who still take communion. I think of those who knew about it and stayed silent and are still taking communion. How do you resolve those issues?
CHAPUT: I don’t know the style of this meeting. Am I free just to respond?
QUINN: Just lay into me. Go ahead.
CHAPUT: I certainly wouldn’t want to lay into you, and I want to apologize to you if people have treated you harshly because they accuse you of doing things you didn’t mean to do or you probably didn’t have an awareness of this at all in the same sense that the church has.
QUINN: Excuse me, let me just say one thing. I did know that, for instance, the pope had given communion to a Swiss theologian who was not Catholic and also that Bill Clinton had received communion from a cardinal in South Africa. So I knew that the pope had actually done this. So it didn’t occur to me that if the pope had given communion to a non-Catholic that it was – oh, Tony Blair – he gave communion to Tony Blair before he had become Catholic.
CHAPUT: I’m going to try to respond briefly, although you brought up many, many things. First of all, I do want to apologize for any Catholic who treated you viciously or harshly because no matter if we disagree with you, we should treat you with love, and that was inappropriate. You said my guidelines are harsh guidelines and no one is acceptable according to them.
First of all, in the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Eucharist, individual priests don’t set guidelines, or individual bishops don’t set guidelines. The church sets guidelines. The teaching of our church about Holy Communion isn’t that you have to be perfect or that you even have to be good. It’s that you have to be sorry for your sins and you have to believe what the church believes – not just about the Eucharist, whether it’s the body and blood of Christ, but about what we believe as Catholics.
It’s not only the reception of the Lord, but it’s a sign of our unity together. This man is a good friend of mine, but I would not invite him to Holy Communion in my church, nor would he expect me to receive in his because we don’t believe the same thing. And the fact that he shouldn’t receive in my church doesn’t mean ours is better and his isn’t as good. It’s just that it would be a lie for us to receive communion in each other’s communion because we don’t belong to that communion.
What I think the basic problem is most of the time, Sally, is that people think that they can make up their own meaning for the Eucharist – for me it means that I admire Catholics, and for me it means that I like Tim Russert. But that’s not what the church means, and that’s why we don’t invite people to communion who don’t share our faith. Catholics who don’t believe what the Catholic Church believes shouldn’t receive.
Someone who is pro-abortion, for example. They might be absolutely morally upright, and they never had an abortion themselves or participated in one. If they are pro-abortion and really think it’s an alternative that’s acceptable for Christians, they shouldn’t receive communion because they’re not in communion. Communion is a matter of your mind as well as your heart. It’s not just simply about loving your neighbor, although that’s the foundational thing, but it’s also believing the same things.
QUINN: Did you believe that the pope made a mistake by giving communion when he was here to Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry and those other Catholics?
CHAPUT: I’ve given communion to people who come up who aren’t Catholics. We kind of joke that every time there’s a funeral, you have a lot of first communions because you don’t embarrass people when they come to communion and chase them away because that’s a terrible pastoral decision. But to tell them beforehand that it’s not appropriate unless you’re a Catholic is appropriate.
So there are all kinds of different issues going on in your question. I don’t think that my guidelines are mine; I don’t think they’re harsh. I think they’re just what the church has always understood. Now people don’t have to agree with us. If I don’t agree, let’s say, with an Evangelical church, I’ll still respect what they ask of me when I’m there. And I think that those of you who aren’t Catholics or who are non-believing Catholics or whatever, if you come to a Catholic church, it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to receive communion out of respect for what the church believes. So this isn’t about me being better than you or you being better than me; it’s simply what our church believes and practices.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: Thanks a lot. This will be an interesting discussion, I know. During the campaign, as you know, people like Doug Kmiec and Nick Cafardi decided that they wanted to support Barack Obama, partly because they felt that the Republican Party had failed them, that after 35 years of Roe v. Wade and promises that the Republicans would somehow chip away at that enough to outlaw abortion, they had failed to do so. And therefore, what Nick Cafardi and Doug Kmiec wanted to do was to try to find an alternative to reduce abortions.
I’m just curious, is there any wiggle room here? I mean, given that the Republicans may have stated that they are against abortion but simply did not reduce the number of abortions versus someone who has said that he believes in a woman’s right to choose but would like to reduce abortions – is there wiggle room for people to believe as Doug Kmiec and Nick Cafardi believe within the church?
CHAPUT: I think the Catholic Church has always done all it can and continues to do all it can to reduce abortions. So that’s nothing, from my perspective, that’s new. We should have been doing that whether it was Republicans or Democrats through these years, and I hope that we will continue to do that.
That wasn’t the issue that I would argue with these gentlemen about. It was about let’s stop fighting on the issue of overturning Roe v. Wade. I thought Nick Cafardi’s argument was much more honest, where he says, well, we’ve lost, so let’s try another approach. But to say that the position of the Democratic Party platform or President Obama was more pro-life than the other party’s platform, I think is – it’s hard to imagine you can say that without laughing. You can say maybe it’s more effective, that theirs is not working. Catholics aren’t monolithic, as you know. Even the Catholics around this table wouldn’t be – but the words wiggle room always scare me because we should never try to wiggle away from the truth. On the issue of killing unborn human beings, there can’t be any wiggle room. It’s always wrong, so I can’t wiggle.
Now I can say, let’s try this to reduce abortion, but also let’s try to overturn the law that supports abortion. I think you have to take that position if you’re going to be a sincere Catholic, just like you have to favor just immigration. You have to favor the traditional meaning of marriage. You have to, to be a Catholic. You have to live with reality; you have to deal with people who disagree with you, but your own personal position – to give up or to reduce the church’s position to some kind of wiggle room in the long run won’t prove effective either.
It will just be used by – both parties use Catholics. The Republicans have used them; now the Democrats are using these other Catholics. Parties use people; that’s what they do. I’m not being harsh about it. Parties, you can’t trust them; you really can’t. Being elected is the issue.
HAGERTY: If I could just follow up with that. As you said in the beginning, the Catholic Church is not supportive of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. The Catholic Church has its own beliefs, and the parties either come in line with those or not. But it really does sound like there is no alternative for a Catholic politician or voter except to vote Republican because of –
CHAPUT: No, you can be a pro-life Democrat and just take positions contrary to your party platform on issues where you disagree.
HAGERTY: So Nick Cafardi and Doug Kmiec were within – what they were saying was acceptable?
CHAPUT: I think they were making imprudent, wrong judgments, but they weren’t taking anti-Catholic positions, no. But to say that we’ve lost the abortion war, I don’t believe that’s true. It looked like we lost the slavery issue just before we won it. I think we ought to keep fighting this battle with respect toward those who disagree with us, but nevertheless, not give up. I think they did a disservice to the pro-life cause by suggesting that the battle was over and let’s just approach this in a different way. If they had said, let’s approach this in a different way and keep fighting, that would have been an entirely different position.
HAGERTY: Just one other thing. Doug Kmiec was denied communion after he supported Obama – he was actually a pro-life Republican for a long time working in Republican administrations – but then he was denied communion after coming out in favor of Obama, and I’m just curious whether you think that was the right move.
CHAPUT: No, it wasn’t the right move; it was wrong. There are a lot of Catholics who voted for Obama who should receive communion. That was a wrong decision on the part of that priest. I don’t know why he got so much coverage. He’s an unknown priest – people don’t even know his name – and to get so much attention, you know? We can all make mistakes.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK, THE NEW YORK TIMES: This takes us a little bit away from some of these hot-button topics, but could you talk a minute about who you might see within the history of the American church as models? Are there other bishops or archbishops whom you look to in that way?
CHAPUT: The one I use in my book who is really a model for me, because I remember him when I was a kid, is Archbishop Rummel, New Orleans, who really stood up against both the popular view of the Catholic community and against politicians in the state of Louisiana over the issue of integrating Catholic schools there. He just was very clear, and he was patient –
KIRKPATRICK: Integrating Catholic schools?
CHAPUT: Integrating Catholic schools in New Orleans at the time when this was a big issue in the South. He excommunicated three Catholic politicians because they opposed his decision to end segregation of Catholic schools there. And The New York Times wrote a nice editorial praising him for that – very different from the one criticizing Archbishop Burke for acting somewhat similarly on the issue of abortion.
KIRKPATRICK: I don’t write the editorial page.
CHAPUT: I know, I’m not accusing you. (Laughter). I’m just saying TheNew York Times in both cases. It’s just how generations and time change things. If a Catholic bishop acts strongly to the point of excommunicating somebody over an issue that we think is important, we cheer. If it’s an issue that we oppose, then we think he was somehow intolerant. Rather than criticize his decision, it somehow is, how dare he do this? Now Catholic bishops are required, under some circumstances, to exercise that kind of authority. You can disagree with their act, but to argue that they can’t act that way in the context of Catholic life or don’t have the authority to act that way, is to impose kind of an American view, a democratic view, on a structure that is not only democratic but has other elements to it too.
But Rummel would be an example of that. There are many – I very much admired Archbishop O’Conner of New York for his willingness to say difficult things. He was somebody, you know, you probably all remember him. He was quite a guy, quite a personality. And I have many of my fellow bishops I admire very much, too, today – many of them, actually. They are not all perceived as being on the right of things. I think that it requires as much courage in Colorado, for example, to speak on the immigration issue as it does to speak on abortion.
KIRKPATRICK: Would you care to name one who’s –
CHAPUT: No, I have many of them, so if I name one, then I would not name the others, so –
CROMARTIE: I’m tempted to ask if you admire any Protestants, but we’ll save that for –
CHAPUT: Michael Cromartie is a great guy.
LUGO: You were looking for that, Mike.
CROMARTIE: I wasn’t, actually, but thank you. I’ll bring it up again.
STEVE COLEMAN, ASSOCIATED PRESS RADIO: Bishop Chaput, as you are aware, there are many prominent Catholic politicians in this town, in Washington – most of them happen to be Democrats – who disagree with the church’s position on abortion, gay marriage perhaps. I guess my question is, can they legitimately call themselves Catholic while disagreeing with church positions? It’s kind of an issue of – I guess the modern word is “branding.” Does it hurt the brand Catholic for anybody to be able to say I’m a Catholic even though I disagree with the church’s positions?
And in that vein, you’ve talked about refraining from communion. What’s the difference from that and the word excommunication, and might it actually benefit the church to separate people from the church who claim to be Catholic but disagree with the church’s teachings?
CHAPUT: There are many people who disagree with the church. I disagree with the church on some issues. But it depends on what the issues are. If they are issues of faith and morals, which the church teaches as being true without exception, then I’m not free to disagree with the church without stepping outside the church. But there are other issues that, for example, it would be wrong – no one can claim to be Catholic and think it’s okay to treat immigrants unjustly or inhumanly. But you can disagree on immigration policies because you think that one works and one doesn’t. So when it gets to those kind of things, there can be some disagreement.
But if someone would disagree with the church on abortion, I don’t see how they can call themselves a Catholic. Now they might disagree on strategies, like Doug Kmiec would say that the strategy should be this. You can be a good Catholic and disagree on strategy. But it would be important for these folks who disagree on strategy to do all they can to protect the unborn’s dignity by trying their best to still – while they approach it from another strategic point of view, still clearly say that abortion is the unjust taking of a human life and is always wrong.
But I don’t hear these folks doing that. They’ll say, I’m personally against it. Well then, show it! Demonstrate that you’re personally against it by what you say instead of just saying that and not doing anything. They say, well, we are; we’re going to limit abortions. That’s fine, but also try to discourage abortion, not just limit it, by actually opposing it. Convince people not to have abortions. If we can’t change the law, we’ve got to be active convincing people. I think it would be equivalent to using the example of slavery. There were bishops who had slaves in the history of our country – it’s embarrassing to say it. There were bishops who were slow to speak on the matter at that time. I don’t want to be a bishop like that.
COLEMAN: They were personally opposed to it?
CHAPUT: Well, they probably thought it should change sometime. I don’t know. But they had slaves; I know they had slaves. They somehow compromised on the matter. And we can’t do that on the issue of abortion. I think we’re going to be embarrassed about the silence of the Catholic Church on this issue – and it is sometimes silent – I’m talking about members of the church; the church isn’t just bishops – in the future, as we were embarrassed about our history in terms of collaborating on the issue of slavery.
Now there is a difference between asking someone to refrain from communion and excommunication. Excommunication is a formal decree on the part of the bishop or by the law itself saying you can no longer receive the sacraments until you repent from your position or your act and receive permission from either the bishop or the Holy Father sometimes to return to the sacramental life of the church. Excommunication doesn’t mean you’re going to go to hell. Someone who is excommunicated could go right to heaven. The church is not in the position to make those judgments. It means you are refused a share in the sacraments until you repent. That’s all it means, really. And it’s only done as a medicinal means of bringing people back to what we believe to be the truth.
To tell someone they should refrain is not that formal exclusion from the sacramental life of the church. It’s telling them, now, listen, we don’t want to embarrass you. I don’t know that excommunication is very effective anytime today because if we did that, the press generally would make it a sign of the overbearing church trying to manipulate the minds of free citizens. So you have to take that into consideration, and you have to see is it going to work. But to tell someone that if you don’t believe, you shouldn’t receive, I think, is a pastoral act of love for them. It’s asking for integrity. I didn’t get all your question, so –
COLEMAN: No, you’ve really answered most of it. I for sometime had a neighbor who was a former Catholic priest who then left the church and got married. And he said, I disagree with the church, but I’m still a good Catholic. So I guess that comes down to who defines what’s Catholic? Does the church define who is Catholic or does anybody just say I’m a Catholic?
CHAPUT: I think the church defines who is Catholic, just as the Lutheran churches decide what’s Lutheran and the Baptist churches decide what’s Baptist. The two issues that I get the most hate mail on are immigration and abortion, in Denver. And they always like to begin by saying, I was an altar boy or I went to Catholic school for 12 years. Somehow that gives them authority to decide what the church believes.
I was also an altar boy, and I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I don’t think that qualified me at all. Even as a bishop, I’m not qualified alone to say what the church believes. I do that in union with the pope and my brother bishops and the tradition of the church, which is embodied in the life of our saints too – it’s not just the bishops. But I think we can’t redefine the church for our own definition of what it means to be a Catholic. And this doesn’t apply merely to “bad” stuff – like a former priest who leaves the church and gets married and thinks he’s just fine, God bless him. But then for him to redefine the church for the rest of us, that’s just not appropriate.
CROMARTIE: We have some of your colleagues listening in by phone hookup, and they are sending in questions also. Could I just slip one of these in right now?
DAN GILGOFF, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Do you think the rise of progressive Catholic organizations like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have made it more difficult for traditionalist Catholics to make the case against a liberal Catholic politician like, for instance, the former governor of Kansas?
CHAPUT: I don’t know that it makes it more difficult for anybody to make the case, but I think those groups were formed to support Democrats in the face of issues in the Democratic platform that are contrary to church teaching. I don’t know why else they were formed. So I think they are dust in the air; they cause confusion. And if people say, well, it gives you justification, I think it does cause a problem – I really do. We have Catholics for Choice too, by the way. There’s a group that says, we’re Catholics for free choice on abortion. But that doesn’t make it a Catholic position. You can call yourselves Catholic journalists or something, if you want – the Catholics around this table. You can form an organization, but that doesn’t prove anything either.
PATRICIA ZAPOR, CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE: Archbishop, Sally alluded to something that probably most of us in the room have experienced, and that is the hate that gets directed at us – and at you, obviously, from what you describe of your letters – every time we present a position, whether it’s ours or the position of somebody we’re quoting, that doesn’t fit with the writer’s or the caller’s definition of what a good Catholic is, whether the caller or writer is right or wrong by whoever’s standard, it’s black and white, you’re with me or you’re going straight to hell. And this, in my sense – I’ve been a Catholic press journalist for a very long time – it’s gotten worse.
How do we deal with that? How do we tone down the black or white? Your writings, your comments, your speeches are very well-phrased. I think anybody with some of the positions that we get letters about would come from a conversation with you going, oh, maybe I need to tone down my rhetoric because the way the archbishop phrases these things, I see where he’s coming from. How do we deal with this in the general Catholic population with the people who are writing us, because it is so vitriolic? I’m not sure it does anybody any good – the pro-life, the pro-choice, the anti-immigrant, the pro – I don’t think it adds anything to the conversation to have it be so divisive. How do we attack it?
CHAPUT: I don’t know the answer to that any better than you do, Patricia. I think the internet has made it much worse. I used to get some hate mail before I was online, but not nearly as much as I did afterwards. I think the way that we have immediate access, which means we immediately speak out of our emotions rather than write a letter, send it the next day, you might change your mind. Instead you write it and you push the button to “show them,” you know, that kind of thing.
So I think our immediate ability to communicate has led to a coarsening discourse for one thing. I gave a talk recently – I think it may have been when I was in Toronto, where I said that the Lord reminds us that we are sheep among wolves, but it’s important for us not to become wolves ourselves because of our experience, and I think that often happens.
Some of the worst emails I get are from Catholic conservatives who think I should excommunicate and refuse communion to Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado and to former-Sen. [and now Secretary of the Interior]Ken Salazar of Colorado, and why aren’t you doing this? I mean, just awful kind of stuff that they write. Sometimes, I must admit, that when I write back, I’m not as friendly as I should be. But I try not to be mean.
CROMARTIE: You’re straightforward.
CHAPUT: I try to be – well, sometimes I might be mean, I don’t – (laughter) – because I’m just mad because I’m writing it too soon after I get it, perhaps. But I think it’s important for me as a bishop, but also for anyone who believes that’s a Christian, to try to always speak those words clearly but with love and not to be wolves ourselves.
ZAPOR: Just a follow-up. Where is the responsibility? Who can tone it down? Who can help tone it down?
CHAPUT: Nobody can tone down this group. I don’t know who can tone down the left because they usually just – it’s really interesting, the left mail I get will use terrible words but be less vitriolic. They use the F-word and things like that, call me names like that. But the right is meaner, but they’re not as foul. (Laughter).
CROMARTIE: Mean, but not foul language.
CHAPUT: Yes. But I don’t have an answer to your question.
CROMARTIE: I think we’ve got a news story here. (Laughter.)
E.J. DIONNE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yeah, I don’t know what words I should use in this context.
CROMARTIE: I’m sure you’ll find them.
DIONNE: I’m so tempted to say, why do you so often refer to the church as “she,” just so somebody can finally ask you.
CHAPUT: Thank you, I appreciate that opportunity.
DIONNE: Yeah, so please take it. I’m going to present you with a couple of potentially annoying hypotheticals leading to another question. In your book you write, “Deliberately killing innocent human life or standing by and allowing it dwarfs all other issues.” A couple of hypotheticals. Imagine an election campaign in which one party nominates a member of the Ku Klux Klan who is 100 percent pro-life but is for repeal of all the civil rights laws, no assistance to the needy, etc., etc. versus a candidate who is quite moderate on all issues but says that abortion should not be made illegal. What is a conscientious Catholic and what is a conscientious bishop to do in such a case, in your view, given that choice?
Second hypothetical, harder one in a way because I’m making up data. If we could know the following, what is the proper conscientious course for a Catholic? What if we knew that if abortion were outlawed, the number of abortions – actual abortions performed – would only drop by 25 percent – there would be a lot of illegal abortions – and at the same time, the number of women dying from illegally performed abortions would match the number of abortions reduced? That’s on the one side. On the other side, if the government took forceful action to help women who wanted to bring their children into the world, if that led to a 35 percent drop in the abortion rate, what is the prudential position for someone who is pro-life?
And that leads to my last question – I have a whole bunch of others, but I won’t ask you. Has there been a change in emphasis on the part of some bishops – I think back to the 1980s when the bishops issued their letters on nuclear war and on social justice – where the church’s position on abortion has not changed but the public emphasis of at least some bishops has moved much more toward the abortion question – your own statement, the “dwarfs other issues” point.
Has there not been a noticeable change in the position of a lot of bishops relative to where the bishops were 20 years ago, because I think the argument among Catholics is not about abortion as such. It’s about the relative emphasis that the church should put on abortion and other questions facing it. So my two hypotheticals – the second, admittedly, perhaps far-fetched – and then the last question.
CHAPUT: Thank you very much for those questions. I’ll start with your last one first and then remind me if I don’t give an honest response to your questions. In the 1970s, I voted for Jimmy Carter and I actually – I was very active in Bobby Kennedy’s campaign when I was a student here in Washington. But then after I became a priest, I supported Jimmy Carter in the face of the fact that he was pro-choice, and I argued that, well, he’s right on all the other issues, but he’s wrong on that.
I think there was a great confidence on the part of me, but also my generation of priests – we’re the groups that are becoming bishops now – that we’d win them over. This was just kind of a period of time when we’ll put up with that, but we’ll win them over. Well, we haven’t won them over. They’ve gotten more entrenched in the pro-choice position, and actually many of the leaders in the Senate today – our speaker of the House – are pro-choice. rabidly pro-choice, Catholics.
We didn’t win them over. They became more rooted – firmly rooted – in that position. So I think what’s happened, E.J., is that many of us think, that didn’t work; let’s try something that might work. If we don’t stand up firmly against the pro-choice, pro-abortion lobby, they’re going to push us over because they’re going to stand up firm. So I think it is a matter of changing strategies because the old strategy didn’t work. And a sign of intelligence is changing your mind if it doesn’t work on things that are really important. Otherwise you’re just being stupid. That’s my answer to the question you ask, why are things different today? Besides that, these Catholics now are in positions of leadership where they could make a difference if they acted like Catholics. So there’s a double responsibility on the part of the church to challenge that.
The other questions, the hypothetical ones – you know, sometimes you don’t vote for anybody. If somebody was for overturning all those laws, you’d certainly want to make sure that everybody knew that you can’t be a Catholic and vote for somebody like that. But then you’d have to tell people that they also shouldn’t vote for somebody who is pro-abortion. Then they have to make the prudential judgment whether they are going to vote at all for that – write in a name or vote for one of those candidates. I’m not in a position to tell them who they have to vote for. I never have thought we should do that. I think we should just talk about the issues.
And the other example – again, these both/and things. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. I think that we ought to do all we can to limit the number of abortions, but I don’t know why you wouldn’t at the same time do all you can to overthrow laws that make it possible. That’s different than the criminalization of women. You might just say, how are we going to make the law? How are we going to rewrite the law where it doesn’t criminalize women but nonetheless the law speaks – teaches – against abortion and unborn human lives are protected? I think there can be some dialogue about the kind of laws you would write.
DIONNE: If I could just press you on that because it seems to me the prudential argument about whether you outlaw abortion because the law is more than a teacher – it sends somebody to jail for doing something.
CHAPUT: Or kills somebody always, in the case of abortion.
DIONNE: Right. Or you could, if you wanted to, have the death penalty for somebody who performed an abortion. So we’re not just talking about instruction here. If making abortion illegal would not substantially reduce the number of abortions – in other words, abortion would continue in substantial numbers, but the law would be different – is there not a prudential argument that says that rather than outlaw abortion, taking all kinds of measures to reduce the number of abortions would actually move you further down the road to protecting innocent human life and that someone could take that position conscientiously? Taking into account what you said – saying abortion is wrong, it should be reduced, but that making it illegal has a very high cost without achieving the end that it’s designed to produce, that’s the larger question embedded in the hypothetical.
CHAPUT: I think statistically there have been many more abortions since Roe v. Wade than there were before. So I don’t think statistically the argument that you make really is based on reality. I think if society teaches us that abortion is a moral way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, then there are going to be many more abortions. So I don’t know how to argue, in some sense, with you because I don’t think that factually your argument’s going to be based on reality. I really don’t think it would be.
I think you could argue this way: Our society doesn’t agree that we should stop abortions; let’s do all we can to limit the number of abortions, but also, let’s try to convince those who think abortion is a good thing not to favor that – to have a campaign to actively oppose abortion, not to put up with abortion.
CROMARTIE: Wendy Kaminer has sent in a question, and Wendy is a blogger at The Phoenix. This goes to the question of Catholic influence, especially on the Supreme Court.
WENDY KAMINER, THE PHOENIX: The majority of the Supreme Court – five of our justices – are Catholic. Given your sense of the obligations of Catholics to promote laws and policies in keeping with Catholic beliefs, is there a civics argument for religious diversity on the court, given its power to make law in a pluralistic society?
CROMARTIE: Let me follow up her question by asking one of my own, adding to it. What would you think about nine Catholics on the court? Is there a statute of limitations on the number of Catholics that can be on the court? Wendy, I know that you would probably appreciate that addition to your question.
CHAPUT: The Supreme Court doesn’t make law, as we know. It interprets the law. I think it’s much easier from a moral perspective to be a justice – a judge – than it is to be a legislator. Legislators are the ones who make laws and change laws. But to interpret the law in its fidelity to the Constitution is a much less morally compromising kind of position to have, I think.
I’d rather be a justice than a politician, in terms of dealing with my conscience, because if we write bad laws in this country that are constitutional, then the judges – the justices – have to interpret the laws as allowed by the Constitution, even if they don’t like them, even if they would think they’re not good for the country, it seems to me, even if they think they’re not moral. That’s what justices do. So I had the impression that Wendy thinks that the Supreme Court writes the law. Certainly that’s not my impression. I know it can’t write the law. In terms of not wanting all the justices to be Catholics, I agree with you, Michael. That would not be a good idea in the United States.
CROMARTIE: And you say that on the record, don’t you?
CHAPUT: Certainly I think we live in a pluralistic society that I love, and I think it’s served our faith communities in this country very, very well, and I wouldn’t want to see it change.
DIONNE: See, that line is: “Bishop Opposes more Catholics on Court.”
CHAPUT: Well, how about this: “Protestant Says That There’s Too Many Already and There’s a Danger of Taking Over.”
KIM LAWTON, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY: You have served on a government advisory panel on an issue that is pretty narrow and pretty widely accepted in this country: religious repression is bad. I’m wondering what you think about the Obama administration’s Faith Advisory Council, which seems to have a much broader mandate and will be advising the president on much more controversial issues. Was it a good idea for the Obama administration to set up this panel, and was it a good idea for religious leaders to accept a position? Is this an opportunity for them to have an influence on their particular religious beliefs, or is it a way that perhaps their ability to speak truth to power could be in some way blunted?
CHAPUT: I’d be willing to volunteer to be on the committee if he would invite me. I really think that it’s good to have advisory boards, as long as you really want to listen to their advice and it isn’t set up just to make an impression. Michael and I served for a number of years together. He still serves on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, and the way that’s set up is that the Republicans, if they’re in power, they appoint five and the Democrats appoint four, and vice versa. It’s in some sense supposed to be nonpolitical, but it’s a very political thing.
I think we were sometimes useful, but I think that we were sometimes used. So it all depends, Kim. I think it’s important to try to be useful and not to be used. I noticed recently that one of the members of this faith-based initiative – what’s it called now?
LAWTON: I think just the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
CHAPUT: Right. I noticed that a Baptist leader recently – I can’t remember his name –
LAWTON: Frank Page from the Southern Baptist Convention –
CHAPUT: Spoke out very –
LAWTON: Just expressing some concern that indeed – frustration that perhaps he wasn’t being listened to, that he says things and the outcome doesn’t seem to be any different. I wonder if that’s an unrealistic expectation on his part as well about the edges of his particular influence.
CHAPUT: I think he can be very useful even to speak publicly like he has, expressing his frustration. It’s a very useful thing. And so I would hope he stays, and I hope people like him are invited to be part of it I think our country’s better served by the free expression of opinions.
CROMARTIE: Let me get this straight though. You did just say that you’d be willing to serve on this advisory council if asked.
CHAPUT: Well, certainly I would. I always want to serve our country. I’m happy to give my advice to journalists, to presidents, to anybody who wants my advice.
CROMARTIE: Well, okay, let’s just be clear. Archbishop Chaput is willing to serve on this advisory council if asked. Thank you. Let’s see how long it takes for the invitation to come.
FRED BARNES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Archbishop, you’re against nine Catholics on the Supreme Court. How about eight?
CHAPUT: Seven? You sound like Abraham negotiating with God about Sodom and Gomorrah.
BARNES: I’m just joking on that. You said that the church favors treating immigrants justly but might disagree on a particular just immigration policy. What is your view on what would be a just immigration policy for America?
CHAPUT: I think that the primary issue for me is the people who have been here for many, many years who have children here and who are not documented. What disturbs me very much is after having invited them, at least passively by giving them all – they wouldn’t be here unless there were all kinds of jobs for the last 20 or 30 years – that we would decide that they ought to be thrown out of the country and their family life disrupted. It seems to me the biggest issue for the church is to preserve family unity in the midst of our discussion about these immigration laws.
We believe that a country certainly has a right to protect its borders and to have an immigration policy that’s ordered so that immigration is orderly and not terribly disruptive. We also believe that people have a right to immigrate if they can’t support their families where they are, honestly. So it’s important for us to listen and not just react emotionally to the situation we have in our country and then always to protect the dignity of those who are already here, who really have been invited by us, actually. They wouldn’t have these jobs unless somehow they knew they could get them, and that means they’ve been invited. They’re doing things that American citizens didn’t want to do, apparently.
I think we need to take all of that into account when we talk about reforming our immigration law in a comprehensive way, so that justice is done and our borders are protected. It’s always both/and; it’s not either/or from my perspective. We have to have the ability to reconcile things that seem on the surface to contradict one another sometimes.
CROMARTIE: How popular is that position in the larger public?
CHAPUT: The bishops have a very clear commitment to immigration reform that’s comprehensive in terms of our church. We haven’t brought people along on the issues of immigration, or the death penalty, and abortion as much as we should. It’s much worse on the immigration issue and the death penalty than it is on abortion in terms of getting our Catholic community to stand clearly with where the official church teaching is.
JACQUI SALMON, THE WASHINGTON POST: I have a question about “Faithful Citizenship,” the Catholic bishops’ – I know they don’t like to call it a voters’ guide – guide to election decision-making. There seemed to be a lot of disagreement among the bishops about what it said, particularly about abortion, about whether it did require Catholics to vote for a pro-life candidate or whether –while others said that abortion was not the only issue that should determine a Catholic vote. Where do you come down on this issue? What do you think it said? I understand that they’re reworking it. How do you think it should be reworked?
CHAPUT: I voted for it, and I think that there were probably – if I remember right – there were less than a handful of bishops who didn’t vote for it. So when we talked about it a year ago – I think it was last June, I’m not sure exactly when we issued it – there was unanimous opinion among the bishops who were there that this was much better than the Catholic voter guides that we had issued in previous years and that it was really quite clear on the issue of abortion and Catholic voting.
Now apparently it wasn’t very clear, and maybe the reason so many voted for it is people from all sides of the issue within the body of bishops read it differently. The one part that I was concerned about but they convinced me that I was unnecessarily anxious is it said that we should take into consideration other serious issues when really the teaching of the church isn’t other serious issues, it’s – what is the technical word that we use for – that Pope Benedict gave us – that reasons have to be “proportionate” to the issue.
The bishops said, well, we’re not going to put “proportionate” because people won’t understand it. Now I don’t know. American Catholics are intelligent enough to know what proportionate means, but we decided not to use it and to use other “serious” matters. Then I noticed it was being used, that all these other issues are serious. They are. Immigration’s serious; the way we care for the poor is extraordinarily serious. We’ll go to hell if we don’t care for the poor. So those are all very serious issues, but the real teaching of the church is “proportionate.”
That technical language is extraordinarily important on this issue because what is proportionate to the willing destruction of unborn human beings? What is? So I think that we are going to have to work on it and make it more precise. I voted for it. I thought it was a good document. We probably won’t get to doing this until two years before the next election, and then we’ll forget the pain. It’s just really interesting how we don’t do this right away. We always wait, put it off, until it’s too late.
CROMARTIE: Next question is from Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News & World Report, listening in by phone.
GILGOFF: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s John Green has found that President Obama got double the support of the traditionalist Catholic vote – those with the most traditionalist beliefs and practices – than what John Kerry got in 2004. John Green found that President Obama got two-fifths of the traditionalist Catholic vote versus one-fifth for Sen. Kerry. What do you think explains this dramatic increase in support? By the way, I might add that when I showed this question to my colleague E.J. Dionne, he was a little bit surprised by the number, but look, if it’s from John Green, it’s real. So there you have it. What do you think of this?
CHAPUT: Well, I think Pew knows the answer to that better than I would. I would be just guessing, but I think serious Catholics have different expectations of Catholic politicians than they would of non-Catholic politicians. I think serious Catholics can put up with non-Catholics running on a pro-choice platform differently than they would a Catholic. I think there is some kind of emotional thing there. But also, people voted for President Obama primarily because of the economy and not because of these other issues, and I think that probably explains the whole number, actually, if you want my guess. I don’t know. I’m just guessing. You know, and you folks are in the business of guessing more than I am on these issues. But I don’t know. But I think the economy was the reason people voted in the numbers they did for probably both candidates in some sense.
KEVIN ECKSTROM, RELIGION NEWS SERVICE: We’re in a think tank here that does a lot with numbers, and I wanted to ask you a numbers question. Pew had a survey last year of 35,000 Americans that said one in 10 Americans are former Catholics. There’s another survey that came out last week that said the number of non-believers has doubled in the last 20 years and there were significant losses among the Catholic Church. And in the 10 years I’ve been on the beat, this was the first year that I’ve ever seen where the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches came out and the Catholics had actually lost numbers instead of gaining numbers.
In the last week I’ve had a friend tell me – who was raised Catholic, son of Italian immigrants – that he doesn’t want to be a member of a church where a Holocaust-denying bishop would be welcomed back while a Brazilian doctor who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old rape victim would be kicked out. I want to get your take on the demographic shifts. A lot of people are saying that a lot of these losses are self-imposed, that in a move to a smaller, purer church, there are a lot of people being spun off. What’s your take on the declining numbers?
CHAPUT: I think that most of us in the Catholic Church who have positions of responsibility would agree that we’ve failed at evangelization of our young. You don’t have to be on the right to believe that or on the left. It’s just common experience that we haven’t effectively passed on a commitment to the faith to the generations after us. My generation didn’t do that. The children who would have been my children have done even less because my generation didn’t teach them well. So I think a lot of the failure is there on the level of just basic evangelization.
We really thought we were doing a good job when we decided not to make people memorize the catechism and develop a warmer, friendlier kind of embrace of faith. I believe in doing that, by the way. But I think it also has to have some kind of content. So I think the failure has basically been within the church to evangelize.
Now also as a matter of fact, the Holocaust-denying bishop wasn’t welcomed back into the church. If you read more of the details of that story, first of all, the pope didn’t even know that. He admitted that it’s unfortunate that he didn’t know that. He didn’t read your news stories or he would have known that. The law of the church itself automatically excommunicates people who participate actively in an abortion. So no bishop down in Brazil excommunicated someone. I think the bishop who spoke very harshly about that made a huge pastoral mistake, and he should have done his best to bring those people back to experience the love of Christ. You can do that without saying that abortion is just fine.
But see, we’re perceived as doing things we really don’t do. Sometimes that’s our own fault by our failures to communicate very well. But it’s hard to do that when you can communicate so quickly. Everybody does it. You know, all these blog sites now. It’s just amazing. How do you ever respond to all that? I personally – on the average – spend three hours a day answering mail. Most bishops probably wouldn’t do that because they just have a different pastoral style than I do. I do it for two reasons. One, I think that if I don’t answer it, it makes the church look worse because “they don’t care about me.” But secondly, I think it’s an opportunity to evangelize. But it’s hard to do. I mean, three hours a day –
CROMARTIE: Are those emails or regular mail?
CHAPUT: Both, counting both. Without doubt, that much time. I have a secretary that does nothing but type letters for me for eight hours a day, five days a week, nothing else. Now I don’t know if I’m responding to your question.
ECKSTROM: Yeah, just a quick follow-up.
CHAPUT: But it isn’t because the church teaches what it teaches that we’re losing people. It’s because we haven’t taught what the church teaches.
ECKSTROM: It’s one thing to say we should have done a better job at x, y or z. How worrisome is it that the numbers are down?
CHAPUT: Oh, I think it’s very worrisome. I don’t like this business about, well, the church is getting small; at least we’ll be pure. We’ve gone from 75 percent participation when E.J. and I were young kids to, what is it, 31 percent nationally in the Catholic Church now? I’ve heard people say, bishops say, at least the ones who come want to come now. Before, they had to because we had this rule, which we still have by the way, that you’re supposed to go to church on Sunday. (Laughter.) But I don’t think that’s a very good response. I think we should see failure in that. And by failure, I don’t mean we blame people or that we go around beating – but it’s an opportunity to engage in: Let’s do this better. Why are we ineffective?
What I’ve experienced in the church in the United States these days is there is evangelization going on. But it’s often the young people calling their parents back to faith. It’s just astonishing to me how often that’s happening now, where college students are now getting their parents to re-embrace their faith because in their experience on a college campus or somewhere, they’ve come to know Jesus Christ and are re-evangelizing their parents. But I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re getting smaller. I don’t think it’s a good thing.
DANIEL BURKE, RELIGION NEWS SERVICE: Two questions: One, is Joe Biden welcome to receive communion in your archdiocese? And is there anything that President Obama has done thus far that you agree with or support?
CHAPUT: First of all, I haven’t said that anybody is not welcome to receive communion in my diocese – any politician. What I have said is this – and I’ll say it again – is that people who don’t accept church teaching on the matters of faith and morals shouldn’t. Now, should Vice President Biden apply that to himself – and he has to apply that to himself – but there’s no reason for me to name names.
If he called me up and said I’m coming to your parish, I’d like to receive communion next Sunday, I’d say let’s talk about it. That’s what I would say to him. I’m not going to talk to you about it; I’m not going to talk to the press about it. It’s not the appropriate way to deal with these kinds of things. But I don’t believe that I should receive communion if I don’t believe what the church teaches, nor should you, nor should anybody else, whether he’s vice president, senator, common person, not well-known, anonymous. It’s just a principle.
Now, of course, that gets reported that the archbishop says that Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t go to communion or Vice President Biden shouldn’t. I say that people who hold their position shouldn’t – not their office, but their theological position or moral position. I think they should take that very seriously. But I’m not going to say what you want me to say, what you invite me to say. I don’t know if you want me to say it or not. I’m not going to say it. Part two is – remind me of that.
BURKE: Anything Obama has done thus far that you support?
CHAPUT: I think he’s done a lot of good. I think that he has given hope to a lot of people in our country. He embodies a great deal of hope because he’s a sign that we’ve escaped our racist past as a country, which is a wonderful gift that he’s brought to our country. I don’t think that you’d make a judgment about a president three months into his – or less than that, now, right – into his term – I think two months. I think that he needs more time before we make evaluations.
CROMARTIE: Perhaps, maybe a year from now, you’d come back, and then Daniel could ask that question again?
CHAPUT: Well, I don’t think I’ll be invited back, but you sure can ask that question – he will ask that question again because I know him. I’ll see him at the bishop’s conference, and he’ll give me that innocent smile, and then he’ll ask me those hard questions. But they’re very good. He does a very good job interviewing. I’ve been interviewed by him before.
CROMARTIE: You will be invited back.
CHAPUT: Thank you very much, Michael.
CROMARTIE: We don’t know when, yet, but you will be. Mollie Hemingway, from getreligion.org, which you so kindly complimented in your earlier remarks – a website that I take it you heartily endorse?
CHAPUT: I do – well, many of them I do – but I enjoy reading it. Terry Mattingly, who works alongside you, used to be the religion reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, a wonderful newspaper that has disappeared, unfortunately, in the last month. And that’s how I came to know getreligion.org – just by that relationship.
MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, GETRELIGION.ORG: I’m curious if there are any particular areas of media coverage of the Catholic Church in the past couple of decades that you think have particularly improved or declined? If that’s too broad of a question, I’m curious how you feel the media have covered Catholic teaching on embryonic stem cell research, particularly in light of the recent decision.
CHAPUT: It’s hard to comment on your first question without naming names, and I don’t want to do that because this is a public forum. But I have real, live experiences of reporters being really good because they knew their subject matter and those who aren’t because they don’t. They ask entirely different kinds of questions, and their stories are spun in entirely different ways. I would say some are spun and some are not spun.
In terms of embryonic stem cell research, that word embryonic doesn’t often appear. I don’t think the press has done a good job explaining what the Catholic Church really believes. We think stem cell research is just fine as long as you don’t kill embryos to harvest their body parts to help us. That’s always been considered a terrible thing in the history of the way human beings have dealt with others. We don’t kill people to our self-advantage, even if it’s to our physical self-advantage, and that’s what embryonic stem cell research can be.
These so-called leftover embryos that are waiting around in the frozen refrigerators are still human beings as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. We have to treat them with the dignity of a human being. So to take their body parts for our own self-betterment is a terrible thing. And see, I think the press can disagree with us, and much of it does, but they ought to at least make the distinction that we are in favor of stem cell research that is not at the cost of human life.
CROMARTIE: Can I just quickly follow up, though, on Mollie’s question? It is a public forum and you don’t have to name the negative, bad coverage, but maybe, are there some positive examples over the last few decades of somebody who – I mean, because we would like to hear their name on the record and they would probably like to hear it too.
CHAPUT: I mentioned Eric Gorski in my written comments. Eric was a tough reporter. We had many cases of sexual abuse of minors in the archdiocese of Denver 30, 40 years ago, but it all came to light five years ago. And Eric was a formidable reporter in terms of making the facts known through The Denver Post. I’m sure that because of that, he incurred the ire of many Catholics in the archdiocese of Denver, but I’ve always found Eric to be fair, which is extraordinarily important, and also intelligent – he asks the right questions. And since he’s left Denver, I think he’s continued that work with The Associated Press.
CROMARTIE: He’s still in Denver, I think, but doing The Associated Press.
CHAPUT: Yeah, he lives there.
CROMARTIE: Let me just ask, is that because he does his homework?
CHAPUT: My experience is that he does his homework and he’s very clever. He asks the questions in a way that you get as much information as you can. But he’s also very fair. He goes to multiple sources. He doesn’t go to the same five people who are always critical of the archbishop of Denver every time. He goes to 10 different sources who are critical. (Laughter.) But then he’ll also go to 10 different sources who are positive. He seems to be fair. I’ve had the experience that some reporters are just – they want to get their story done, and they don’t want to do any research.
TONY SPENCE, CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE: Most statistics point out that in not too many years from now, the majority of Catholics in the United States will be of Hispanic ancestry. Do you think that is going to change significantly how the church is going to operate in the public square? First question. And second question is, should the church do more to help disenfranchised Hispanic or Latino Catholics to step up and take a better role in public life?
CHAPUT: My most honest response would be to reflect with you from my experience in Denver because that’s where I’m bishop. I don’t know the United States; I know Denver, and 51 percent of the Catholics of the archdiocese of Denver are Hispanic. We did a demographic study a year-and-a-half ago.
SPENCE: Fifty-one percent?
CHAPUT: Fifty-one percent of the 525,000 Catholics in the archdiocese of Denver are Hispanic. In terms of the pastoral center staff – we call it the chancery – I would guess 10 percent of our employees are Hispanic. That’s just a guess. My archdiocese pastoral council, which is like the parish council to the bishop, until just this year, was probably 30 percent Hispanic, and now it’s 52 percent because we’re trying to make the organs of the archdiocese look like the people of the archdiocese. Now it takes time to do that when you come to hired personnel because you don’t fire people because they don’t speak Spanish or because they’re not Hispanic, but when you hire people, you hire people to serve the people who are there, it seems to me.
Now whether the church is actually going to do this very well in our country, I think, is yet to be seen because the organs of power are in the hands of Anglos. They certainly are; there’s no way around it. But I think that if we’re really trying to serve the reality of who we are, we have to do a lot more to engage who you call the disenfranchised. They have a lot of wonderful gifts to bring to the Catholic Church – a natural sense of community; they’re young so they bring a vitality, and they bring kind of a devotional spirit that can energize all of us, I think, in the Catholic Church. So I’m very happy to welcome the Hispanics to take their rightful place in the church.
DIONNE: Just one as a follow-up to Mollie’s, which is, the church has been very outspoken on embryonic stem cell research. Its position is opposed to in vitro fertilization, but it really doesn’t speak about that very much. Why is that, because one is tempted to sort of look at that and say, one position has support and one position has very little support? There may be a better explanation for that, since it is the in vitro process that produces the embryos that are either discarded or frozen or destroyed.
You said you have to believe what the church believes, and when you said that, I’ve been pondering the whole time, John Courtney Murray was in a lot of trouble with Rome in the ’50s, and then he later was very influential in what Vatican II said about religious liberty. The language that Vatican II used about religious liberty would have been seen as heretical 90 years earlier, and many of the bishops who wrote about it might have been thrown out of the church. How does dissent and argument work in your vision of the church because the statement “you have to believe what the church believes” – how much does that potentially suppress the kind of argument that’s actually led the church in what I think we would agree is a direction, say, the Holy Spirit may want to lead it?
CHAPUT: It’s one of the principles of the Catholic Church – and if you’re not a Catholic, you of course, don’t believe this – that the Holy Spirit protects the church from error in matters of faith and morals. And so you kind of enter into these discussions with that confidence, that the church is going to be led by the spirit of Jesus, and you have confidence in that.
But for the church to, for example on areas that we’ve talked about like abortion, to change its mind would be for it to fail the consistency test of the centuries. This is not a doctrine of the church of the last 20 years; it goes back, even in terms of the written teachings of the church, to the Didache, which is from the first century of the church’s life. So E.J., on some things you just know that the church cannot change its teaching and at the same time remain faithful to its teacher, who is Jesus Christ.
So what you ask is a very good question: Where’s the place of dissent? It goes beyond my ability to respond to it in a short way, or certainly not in a simple way, but it seems like on some of the issues we’ve been talking about, there’s no chance that the church would change its mind because of the consistency of the teaching through the centuries.
I don’t know why the church hasn’t spoken very much about in vitro fertilization. It’s absolutely true. I don’t know when I’ve ever, myself, publicly spoken about it. We just presume that Catholics know that you don’t create multiple embryos in an artificial environment and it’s a moral act. But you’re right. I don’t know why the church hasn’t done it, but you’re going to see me do it since I’ve been challenged by you to do that. Thank you. Thank you for that challenge.
QUINN: I just want to get back to the president’s Faith-Based Initiative, and I know that the White House is struggling with the notion of hiring. How do you hire people, different faiths? How do you hire people only from the faith that you represent if you’re getting government money? And how can the government tell Catholics or Jews or whoever – Muslims – that they have to hire people from other faiths? Where do you stand on that issue?
CHAPUT: I will not accept government money if it limits my ability to clearly express our religious identity as the Catholic Church. At the same time, I want to say this: I don’t know why people are afraid of government money being used for Catholic schools and for Catholic charities because what we’re doing is we’re educating kids, we’re taking a burden off the community by doing that, we’re helping the poor, we’re taking the burden off the community by doing that.
So it seems to me that these folks who want such a strong separation of church and state in the area of use of tax money are not serving our country well. It seems like they’re dedicated to a principle to the point of being willing to let people be hurt. If we have to close our Catholic schools, that’s going to hurt a lot of kids. They were built on the backs of religious women – sisters – when there were lots of sisters who didn’t get paid very much and all the money went into the buildings. That’s 60, 70, 80 years ago. Those buildings are now collapsing. We’re paying lay teachers salary, so we don’t have any money to put into the buildings. They’re going to close. You’re going to see a huge number of our schools close unless we find some way of working this out together.
So I don’t think that we should be afraid. I’m not afraid if the Jewish community gets a lot of government money to help people. Why should I be afraid of that? Or if a pagan group, whatever that would mean, wanted to do it – as long as they’re really helping people, I don’t care. So why do people care? What’s the threat?
CROMARTIE: On that note, ladies and gentlemen, join me in thanking Archbishop Chaput. (Applause.) Thank you for coming. Again, the book is called Render Unto Caesar.
This written transcript has been edited by Amy Stern for clarity, spelling, grammar, and accuracy.