For the second week in a row, I find myself in the odd position, as First Things’s resident “triumphalist Protestant,” of focusing on the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The occasion this week is a predictable volley of criticism aimed at Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput by the National Catholic Reporter, in response to the archbishop’s weekly column. The archbishop is a gentleman who cares not a whit for his reputation and who will not, I am sure, defend himself. But I happen to dislike unfair attacks on decent people, and I happen to like Archbishop Chaput.
Michael Sean Winters has taken umbrage at the archbishop’s despair over the two candidates for president, his criticism of Joe Biden and Tim Kaine, and his assertion that the Catholic Faith has a public content. Winters has thus once again, with great personal sadness, stepped up reluctantly to critique the archbishop, for the benefit of us all.
There is much that could be said in response, but I will restrict myself to a few salient points.
Winters takes exception to the archbishop’s comment that the wealth of the candidates divides them from the people—pointing, by way of response, to George Washington. It is a truism that our political leaders are not by the time of their election typically representative of the median income-bracket of the nation. But Trump and Clinton are not simply wealthy. One candidate uses the rhetoric of the common people while operating as a ruthless businessman. The other laments outrageous student fees and Wall Street corruption while charging both groups six-figure sums for speeches in order to fill her coffers. These facts might just be relevant to how well each candidate can “empathize” with the experience of the “common man.”
But the real silliness appears with Winters’s objection to the archbishop’s criticism of Joe Biden and Tim Kaine. The archbishop had written that Biden and Kaine seem to “ignore or invent the content of their Catholic faith as they go along.” Both men are publicly pro-abortion—a stance with which Winters disagrees, but which he says does “not add up to an ‘invention’ of the content of their faith.” His modest conclusion: “They see the public application of their faith differently, and I think wrongly, but they are hardly charlatans.”
It is hard for me, as a non-Catholic, to understand how a pro-abortion stance could possibly be a good-faith (if incorrect or otherwise regrettable) “public application” of Catholic teaching, rather than a simple contradiction of it. The Catechism is clear: One procuring a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae (Catechism 2272). If words mean anything at all, then the Church teaches that abortion is an evil, period, whatever the self-serving and specious ethical gymnastics of politicians such as Biden.
Of course, abortion has long enjoyed a peculiar privilege among Roman Catholic Democrats of the “personally opposed but publicly in favor” variety. Now, consider this statement by Winters: “I wish Kaine and Biden extended their obvious concern for the downtrodden to the unborn.” This is surely incoherent from a Roman Catholic perspective. Imagine shifting the ethical question from the polite impieties of the Manhattan cocktail set to something else the Catechism rejects: Racism.
I wonder if Winters could ever envision himself writing this sentence: “I wish politician John Doe extended his obvious concern for the downtrodden to people who belong to other ethnic groups.” To use one of the devices Winters beats nearly to death, the rhetorical question: Would he see vicious racism as a valid public application of the Roman Catholic Faith? I do hope not. Or would he consider it legitimate for a politician to be “personally opposed” to racism but happy to legislate in its favor so as not to impose his private religious beliefs on the matter onto others? There’s the rub with the Catholic Democrat stand on abortion: All sins are equal, but some are a tad more equal than others when it comes to making oneself acceptable to the liberal political culture.
As to their religion, I do not doubt that Biden and Kaine are men of faith. But on the issue of abortion, their faith is clearly not the faith of the Roman Catholic Church. And given the relevance of this issue to an understanding of what life and personhood are, this would seem a rather significant deviation. When it comes to abortion, the faith of Biden and Kaine seems happy to oppose itself in practice to the teaching of the Magisterium, to “believe” something that is then conveniently ignored in the public sphere. There is a term for the type of Christianity that exalts private judgment in this way. It is called liberal Protestantism. It is quite legal and even socially respectable in many places—Biden and Kaine would certainly find a home there, I am sure. But it is not—repeat, not—Roman Catholicism.
Winters is offended most by the archbishop’s working definition of Roman Catholics as “people who take their faith seriously; people who actually believe what the Catholic faith holds to be true; people who place it first in their loyalty, thoughts and actions; people who submit their lives to Jesus Christ, to Scripture and to the guidance of the community of belief we know as the Church.” As a Protestant, I find this an utterly routine comment. The archbishop seems to be doing little more here than saying that Roman Catholics need to be, well, Roman Catholics. But according to Winters, this is the “most regrettable” part of the whole article. Indeed, he dismisses it as Pharisaism, quoting, “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men,“ followed by (with a remarkable lack of self-awareness) a comment on “the general unattractiveness of finger-wagging.” Quite.
But the real cherry on the sundae is the last paragraph, which I quote here in full:
I admit that I find it tiresome to have to continually criticize Archbishop Chaput. I do so in sadness not in anger. But, it must be said: If I were writing a work of fiction and I wanted to create a caricature of a culture warrior bishop, I do not think I would have the courage to create one so reckless, so uncomplicated in his moral sensibilities (and not in a good way), and so quick to render judgment against others, so willing to ignore the pope, or to cite him, as it suits his own purposes, so intellectually thin and so edgily partisan, as Archbishop Chaput’s columns show him to be.
It is hard to imagine a nastier paragraph, from the opening sanctimonious cliché of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, to the concluding personal sneers about the archbishop’s intellectual abilities. Yet, unpleasant and gratuitous as it is, this paragraph stands as a suitable summary of the insubstantial whole. In fact, Winters’s overall argument could have been expressed much more concisely: “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men, especially that archbishop over there…”
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.