Nearly 500 people packed the gymnasium at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania late Saturday afternoon to hear Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap address the issue of Catholics in politics.
Archbishop Chaput spoke for about 45 minutes, followed by eight questions from the audience. The last question was from a Catholic woman who described herself as a “conservative” who asked the Archbishop why so many Catholics were “liberal.” His answer typified the Archbishop’s manner and message:
“I call you as a Catholic, to forget about the labels, be a liberal sometimes, a conservative sometimes, but a Catholic first.”
The Archbishop follows his own advice: Chaput’s presentation included a strong affirmation of the abortion and marriage issues as belonging to political debate, some very direct criticism of Vice President Biden’s comments during the debate this past week, and the admonition, “If you are not for social justice you are not being a Catholic.”
Archbishop Chaput is no stranger to engaging in political debate. His book Render Unto Caesar: Serving Our Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, published in August, 2008, infused that year’s presidential campaign with an authoritative Catholic voice. The book also drew some harsh criticism for what was called a “partisan” effort by the Archbishop to influence the outcome of the election.
Chaput remains unapologetic for his book, which now has been republished with an additional chapter on his habit of addressing controversial issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, and religious liberty. He rejects the accusation that for a priest or bishop to instruct the faithful on these issues is ‘partisan’. It is for the clergy to preach and teach and for “the laity to act on what they’re taught.”
He asked for a show of hands of those who were “more serious about being a Democrat than being a Catholic.” None appeared. Then, for the hands of those who were “more serious about being a Republican than a Catholic.” Again, no hands were raised. The Archbishop then said, “All of us should be more serious about being Catholic than a Democrat or a Republican.”
“What if you had to choose between our country and Jesus, what would you choose? We have not had to make that choice, yet.” With that last comment, a ripple of recognition could be felt in the audience, as if the Archbishop was tapping into the deep concern that brought them into the gymnasium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in autumn.
“I don’t want to go to jail,” the Archbishop said with a laugh, as he explained that during the coming year the bishops would have to decide how to respond to the HHS mandate. “Biden was wrong” in what he said about the mandate during the debate, and “he should not get away with saying that in the public square.”
The archbishop added that the HHS mandate “could lead to the closing of schools and other Catholic institutions. This is a serious matter.”
Earlier in his lecture he described Biden’s debate comments as the “latest outrageous example” of the false division between personal Catholic belief and political action.
He singled out President Obama and Secretary Sebelius only in the context of the absurdity of how the mandate defines a religious institution: “Our institutions,” Chaput said, “would be considered religious if we served only Catholics — now that wouldn’t be very Catholic, would it?”
“We believe in the separation of Church and State, but that is not the same thing as a separation between faith and politics. Faith is what we believe, politics is how we act. We are hypocrites if we fail to act in accord with our beliefs.”
One point Archbishop Chaput made with a particular note of force in his otherwise gentle voice: “It’s a sin if you do not vote in the upcoming election.” He cautioned that Catholics, “should not vote their party line blindly but apply the principles of Catholic social teaching — such as the common good and subsidiarity to their voting decisions.”
If your political party is for abortion, Chaput told the crowd, “You can’t just be quiet; you must try to change your party.” He went on to explain that the reason for abortion on demand in our nation was the historic failure of Catholics to impress pro-life beliefs on both parties.
One of the questioners raised the issue of the three exceptions to abortion mentioned by vice presidential candidate Ryan during the debate and urged the bishop to correct him. In response, Chaput explained:
“Everyone knows the bishops admit no exceptions. Biden knows where the Church stands, and he chooses not to believe it. Ryan was stating the position of his party led by a Mormon who holds the same position of his faith, Mormonism, which allows those exceptions.”
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During his presentation and answers to questions, Archbishop Chaput made some very penetrating comments about the history of the Church in our nation. For example, he described the present generation of clergy — those his age or close to his age — as having been formed during the age of the civil rights struggle, the struggle for social justice. “It’s an emotional thing for many priests, and this is why you have nuns attacking Paul Ryan.”
He explained further that the demand for social justice and human dignity includes a “right to health care but not the right to the government providing health care.” He came back to this distinction during the Q & A period when he reminded the audience of the importance of subsidiarity as a political principle, one that is “often forgotten,” he said.
The one statement in a very rich speech that drew the loudest applause, was when Chaput described Jesus as having been killed “because he spoke the truth” and refused to back down from it. I think the applause was a response not only to the admonition but also to the example of a bishop who is willing to speak the truth in the public square, Archbishop Charles C. Chaput of Philadelphia.
LifeNews Note: Deal W. Hudson is president of the Pennsylvania Catholics’ Network and was chairman of Catholic Outreach at the RNC between 2000-2004 and is
the author of Onward Christian Soldiers: the Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon & Schuster 2008).