Charles J. Reid, Jr., who teaches law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, recently posted something at a blog (tellingly called www.religiousleftlaw.com ), which the National Catholic Reporter picked up and ran as an op-ed, in print and online , under the title “Archbishop Chaput’s right-wing funk.” Responding to an interview that the archbishop had given to the Reporter ’s John L. Allen, Jr. in Rio during World Youth Day, Reid describes Chaput himself as feeling an “anxiety” about Pope Francis’s “extraordinary popularity.” Reid further claims that Chaput is “worrie[d] . . . in particular” that “outsiders are thrilled by the new pope’s friendliness and his warmth.”

Reid is appalled at what he takes to be Archbishop Chaput’s critical stance toward the new Holy Father. Why, he’s behaving just like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, “the one who stayed home and toiled with his father and grew resentful when the old man slew the fatted calf upon his brother’s return.” Doesn’t Chaput realize, Reid says, that the stagnation of the Catholic Church in America can be chalked up to “the right wing” like Chaput himself that “has controlled the Church hierarchy for some three decades now”?

It’s quite a little exercise in J’Accuse . But Reid has completely misunderstood Archbishop Chaput’s interview with Allen. (In fact, so completely has he misunderstood it that one wonders why the Reporter , which ran Allen’s interview, decided to repost and publish a commentary that gets it so wrong—unless the editors themselves didn’t understand Chaput’s meaning.)

It is plain in every line of Chaput’s interview with Allen that he himself is unequivocally delighted with Pope Francis.  Literally his first comment on the Holy Father is, “Thanks be to God that the Lord has given us a pope with such universal appeal to so many people.”  The very next thing he says is this:

My sense is that practicing Catholics love him and have a deep respect for him, but they’re not actually the ones who really talk to me about the new pope. The ones who do are nonpracticing Catholics or people who aren’t Catholic or not even Christian. They go out of their way to tell me how impressed they are and what a wonderful change he’s brought into the church. It’s interesting to see that it’s the alienated Catholic and the non-Catholic and the non-Christians who have expressed their enthusiasm more than Catholics have. It’s not that Catholics aren’t impressed, too, but they’re ordinarily impressed with the pope.

How Reid can interpret this, as he does, that Chaput is alarmed, worried, or anxious about the appeal of Francis to “nonpracticing Catholics or people who aren’t Catholic or not even Christian” is beyond me. (Goodness, what kind of interpreter of legal texts is he, in his scholarship and teaching? This isn’t hard, by comparison.)

Allen follows up about these newer, more unexpected enthusiasts, and Chaput suggests that maybe some of them “would prefer a church that wouldn’t have strict norms and ideas about the moral life and about doctrine, and they somehow interpret the pope’s openness and friendliness as being less concerned about those things. I certainly don’t think that’s true.”

It’s just after this that we get the exchange with Allen that gave the Reporter its headline on the interview, and gives Reid all the ammo he has for his misinterpretation:

Allen: Do you think there will be a moment of reckoning when the honeymoon wears off?

Chaput: We’ll see what happens. The pope may have a way of managing all of that [that] will be extraordinary, I don’t know. I would think that by virtue of his office, he’ll be required to make decisions that won’t be pleasing to everybody.

This is already true of the right wing of the church. They generally have not been really happy about his election, from what I’ve been able to read and to understand. He’ll have to care for them, too, so it will be interesting to see how all this works out in the long run.


Now, whom does Chaput mean by “the right wing of the church”?  As someone who must be shepherd to all in his bailiwick, it is extremely doubtful that he means to include himself in that category, and he has already paid tribute to Francis as a gift from God with “such universal appeal,” and pronounced himself ( pace Reid) delighted at all those who are not “practicing Catholics” who “go out of their way” to praise Francis as a breath of fresh air.

Moreover, he refers to these unnamed folks in “the right wing of the church” as “they,” not as “we,” and he professes to know their thinking only from what he’s “been able to read and to understand,” that is, he has only secondhand knowledge.

It is obvious that he is not the spokesman of this “right wing.”  He must mean people on the fringe, whose attachment to today’s living Church is fragile or tenuous—folks drawn to the SSPX, or grumpily nostalgic for the old Mass, or not altogether reconciled to Vatican II.  Yes, the pope will “have to care for them, too,” won’t he?  But this is not a faction with which Chaput identifies himself, and it strikes me as either very dimwitted or very willfully biased for Reid to understand Chaput that way.

This misunderstanding feeds every other thing Reid gets wrong.  It’s why he thinks—and this mistake is truly bizarre—that Chaput somehow rejects people being drawn to the Church anew by Francis’s ministry.

But Reid is quite sure, on grounds having nothing to do with this interview, that “right-wingers” like Chaput, in charge of the Church in the U.S. for three decades, are responsible for its allegedly parlous state today.

I see where Reid is coming from, I think, but it is a place quite alien to my experience (though, as an academic, I’ve seen it a lot).  For my part, I am a prodigal son, who abandoned the faith for many years.  For converts like my wife and “reverts” like me, the fact that contemporary American Catholicism is led by the likes of Chaput, Dolan, George, Lori, Cordileone, Gomez, and O’Connell, “JPII men” shaped by the theology of Benedict XVI and full of the joy of Pope Francis, is a large part of the reason why we are in the Church today and not in the wilderness. That, and the fact that the faith is brought to life in American parishes by steadfastly orthodox young priests of the kind Charles Reid would call “right wing.” In fact, everyone I know who has either come into the Church or returned to it in the last 20 years has done so because of all the things that Charles Reid would reject and call “right wing,” things that are in fact unclassifiable by such ossified and brittle ideological categories.

Whatever place this is that Charles Reid inhabits in his head, it certainly has a cloudy atmosphere, if he can so misunderstand a prelate’s plain meaning, and twist a celebration of the new Holy Father into dyspeptic grumbling about him.

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