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Chaput and the ‘Issue of Our Time’

As has been widely suspected by those who follow such things, the former Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, was officially announced today as the new leader of a troubled bastion of American Catholicism, the archdiocese of Philadelphia.  In a fascinating interview with NCR’s John Allen, Chaput says something many more bishops need to say far more often to a culture addicted to consumerism:

As far as the social justice question goes, I don’t think you can be an evangelist, or part of this evangelical movement in the church, without being as clearly committed to social justice as the church has been in the past. We can’t preach the Gospel and not live it. If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we’re going to go to Hell.

Here Chaput stands on solid Biblical and traditional ground.  Jesus speaks of Hell almost always as the result of a failure to aid the most vulnerable, the Church fathers compare ignoring the poor to homicide, Thomas Aquinas claims that the poor are owed the basic goods necessary to for human flourishing, and the Catechism discusses failure to paid the poor under the commandment ‘Thou Shallt Not Kill.’  Doesn’t get anymore serious and central than that, does it?  Especially when many millions are dying of easily preventable causes while most Catholics in the United States, by comparison, live in consumerist coma of luxury.

Why, then, in response to Allen’s question about gay marriage, does Chaput say it is “the issue of our time”?  Surely having stable families, and a coherent understanding of sexuality, is a very important and even essential topic, but the argument over gay marriage is only one piece of that puzzle, and the other pieces (divorce, epidemic pornography and other exploitation of women in the media, the hook-up culture, sexual violence, etc.) have been unraveling for some time now.

Perhaps a better candidate for the issue of our time happens to be one on which the institutional Church has some street cred, along with the infrastructure/know-how to get the goal accomplished.  Rich and poor are now connected in ways which the world has never seen–not only are we aware of the suffering and death of the vulnerable with the touch of a button, but we can literally save a life with the touch of another button by giving resources to organizations (like Catholic Relief Services)  working with local communities to use the best technologies and social science to attack absolute poverty.  And this strategy is working: the proportion of people living in developing countries who are not getting 2200 calories per day (a basic sufficiency) has declined from more than one in two to just one in ten in two generations.  If we keep our foot on the gas, people like Jeffery Sachs believe that it is realistic to end absolute (as opposed to relative) poverty by the middle of this century.

The Church also recognizes the moment currently before us.  In preparation for the great Jubilee year 2000, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (‘one heart’) produced a document called World Hunger a Challenge for All: Development in Solidarity.  The document has a goal of “the elimination of hunger and malnutrition and the guarantee of the right of proper nutrition.”  And a couple years ago the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops  unleashed an intense Zero Poverty campaign to mobilize one million people to join the fight against global poverty, which, they say, “is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Chaput says in the interview that he agrees with the ‘both/and’ approach to Roman Catholicism and does not like being called a conservative.  If that is the case, we can look forward to seeing Church leadership taking bold public action on our duties to the local and global poor.  Indeed, given just how many Catholic politicians “make decisions contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in public way” with regard to the Church’s social doctrine “in a way that causes scandal”, maybe we can expect to see Archbishop Chaput denying communion to several different kinds of Roman Catholic politicians that come through his diocese.  And given the amazing opportunity we have to end absolute poverty,  perhaps we can expect that he will unite his focus with that of the great Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who said that those “whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family” are guilty of “indirect homicide.”



  1. Sigh – this is what frustrates me – I simply do not understand how you can view the world in which we live and say that gay marriage is THE issue of our time.

    I am reminded of a Vincent De Paul Quote that goes with your reference to St. Ambrose — in response to a meeting where the Ladies of Charity wish to withdraw support from an orphanage -particularly relevant to contemporary budget discussions.

    Vincent states:

    “There’s only enough food for them for six weeks, and the means must be found to provide for their needs: (1) Because they are in extreme want; in which case you are obliged to provide of that. ‘You did not feed them, [and so] you killed them.’ A child can be killed in two ways: either by a violent death, or by refusing to feed him.”

    If you do not feed them – you have killed them. Looking at the levels of hungry in the US and the inhumane suffering in the drought area between Somalia and Kenya — it seems to me that it is not just misguided to label gay marriage the issue of our time but dangerous.

  2. Thanks for your post, Charlie. It was a very interesting interview. I think you are absolutely right that we think too little about the moral demands on us as Christians (indeed, as human beings) in response to our brothers and sisters in poverty. I hope that Eucharist is not used to humiliate, though. When a baptized Catholic seeks communion in the context of a Mass, I do not believe that is the time to scold, exclude, and point fingers. We are called to unity, and that requires dialogue and listening. That difficult conversation has to happen outside of Mass, not during a confrontation at the altar.

    Meghan, I share your concern. I’m frustrated when gay marriage and women’s ordination distract us from dehumanizing poverty and persistent gender inequalities. On a methodological note, it seems like Chaput was trying to distance himself from previous statements in which he said that leadership is not about dialogue and consensus. In this interview he talks about the importance of listening and of collaboration. Maybe it is just wishful thinking, but if this signals a shift in his attitude, it could bear much fruit.

  3. From Archbishop Chaput’s perspective, gay marriage is the current theological/political issue of the moment. Social justice is a given, and is ongoing. Christ told us the poor would always be with us. His commandment to love our neighbor is timeless. We should always care for the poor, that should be who we are, essentially, in any time. However, the most prominent public issue facing the Church (and other faith communities) right here & right now is gay marriage.

    It’s not really an either/or.

  4. Happily, Emily, the interview describes a process which takes every chance to deal with the issue privately first, thus trying to avoid the humiliation you describe and which I agree should not be the goal.

    Nora, IS social justice a given? How often to you hear bishops making the statement I quote in this blog post relative to statements about abortion and gay marriage? Are Catholics following the teachings of the Church’s social doctrine? I agree that it isn’t and either/or, but the message we are getting sure doesn’t seem like a both/and. We may always have the relative poor with us, but we need not always have the absolute poor with us…and our tradition is clear about what we should do in a situation where we can eradicate situations where people die of easily preventable causes. We must act.

  5. Nora, Given our current budget situation, global financial crisis, inequality and the concerns of development — I just do not see how gay marriage is the most prominent public issue facing the Church and other faith communities. Regardless of where someone stands on gay marriage, I simply do not see it how it could possibly be the most prominent public issue facing the Church.

    And I agree with Charlie – I am not sure how you argue social justice is a given? I think in part because if it is not focused on, it is so easy to ignore and avoid. I will grant that significantly more is done by the Church on behalf of the poor in politics than receives media attention….but a casual glance at the USCCB page whenever they post on the poor or concern from immigration/migration will demonstrate social justice is quite far from a given – in fact it is often quite hostilely rejected by the faithful.

  6. I think any argument about what is “the issue of our time” is probably bound to be unproductive, and is best left unargued.

    I took Chaput to mean that marriage is “the issue of our time” because the lines of debate are still coming into view–not that it possesses a gravity other issues lack.

    I could be wrong on both counts.

  7. Without claiming to speak for the Archbishop or read his mind, I think he is trying to get to fundamental issues.

    The push for gay marriage is an attack on the traditional family, certainly as the Church sees it. And the family is the fundamental unit of society – not the individual, the community, and certainly not the State. Undermine the family, and everything else goes by the board.

    CST sees the family as the fundamental economic unit of society as well. And empirically it has been shown that many of our social and economic ills can be directly attributed to a weakening of the family. The poverty rate among single mothers and their children is but one example.

    Gay marriage redefines the family in a voluntarist way, and so further exacerbates the atomization of society. An atomized society is one whose solidarity is weakened, and this further exacerbates socio-economic ills.

    So, it seems to me that the archbishop is not going off on a tangent by saying that gay marriage is the issue of our time. He is highlighting the fact that, no matter what sort of nostrums we come up with, our society will not have or even approach economic justice if we do not recognize, strengthen, and yes, even legally and economically privilege the family.

  8. See this is where this particular argument loses me….because I agree that the family is the foundation and central for the church…but how exactly does gay marriage become the primary attack on the family in society? In the abstract, I understand how this argument gets made – but in reality, I just don’t understand how it connects to the world we live in.

    Social and economic structures, generational poverty, poor education access and healthcare access all seem much higher on what contributes/impacts the poverty of single mothers and their children…

    Families are struggling. the middle class is shrinking. wages have been stagnate among the middle/lower classes for the past 30 yrs….families are weakened and struggling for reasons very difficult, in my mind, to connect to gay marriage. (and the voluntaristic argument is much harder to make given current divorce rates and no-fault divorce…)

  9. Oops, I guess I didn’t say that very well! :-)

    What I meant to say is that social justice is not a new or time specific issue, as gay marriage is. Yes, it’s infinitely more pressing, it matters more, and we tend to pay lipservice to the needs of the poor but aren’t very good at backing up our words with material support, but it’s not particular to “our time”.

    BTW, I did a quick search, and Archbishop Chaput seems to be fond of that particular figure of speech — he uses phrases like “most important issue of our time”, “most pressing issue of our time”, “transcendent issue of our time”, et al., when he refers to whatever he happens to be talking about at the moment.

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