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Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput caused a stir last week, as he often does, when he praised the firing of a lesbian teacher at Waldron Mercy Academy in the suburbs. Margie Winters had been married since 2007 but was fired when some parents found out and complained.
In a liberal city like Philadelphia, one might think a leader like Chaput would at least refrain from publicizing the incident by making punitive statements about a divisive issue. But nothing is stopping him. He has no boss in Pennsylvania or even this country. Many of the church’s biggest donors, such as Knights of Columbus and Opus Dei, are conservative organizations (plus the Catholic Church even gets help from the Koch brothers). And, despite glowing coverage for wanting to increase openness in the church, Pope Francis, set to visit Philly in September, differs little from Chaput when it comes to gay marriage and most social issues.
“Francis really shares that concern and drive to evangelize all the people,” says Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “He’s just going about it differently. The goal is the same. It’s very shrewd.”
Francis has met with gay leaders during his tenure as pope and famously said, “who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuality. But when it comes to official beliefs, he aligns with Chaput and not with most Catholics in America. According to a 2014 poll from Pew, 70 percent of U.S. Catholics say homosexuality should be accepted and 57 percent favor gay marriage. These aren’t just the so-called “cafeteria Catholics,” either. Sixty percent of Catholics who attend mass at least once a week want homosexuality to be accepted and 45 percent of them approve of gay marriage.
“Is he endearing himself to the majority of Catholics in the country?” Manson says of Chaput. “No. Does he care? No.”
But Catholics are also used to conservative messages from the church, especially from Chaput. He made national headlines as the archbishop of Denver in 2004 when he said Catholics who voted for then-presidential-candidate John Kerry because of his pro-choice, pro stem cell stance would be cooperating in evil and would have to go to confession. A couple of months ago, Chaput said gay people could attend the World Meeting of Families but would not be allowed to protest.
Mark Segal of the Philadelphia Gay News has called for people to protest Chaput by not donating to the church or seeking to stem funding to the church through political intervention. Don’t expect many who take action against Chaput to be Catholics, though.
“Catholics know this gets said all the time,” says Anthea Butler, a Penn professor who studies the intersection of religion and politics. “We know they say one thing and another thing happens … It’s, ‘we know this guy. We know he’s going to say this.’ But the reality is people are very focused for the papal visit, and they’re not focused on what Chaput is saying.”
Chaput’s relationship with Pope Francis has involved some disagreements. Last year, after a Rome summit about church teachings in which more openness toward gays and divorcees was proposed but not approved, Chaput said he was disturbed by the debate.
“I think confusion is of the devil,” he said in a lecture, “and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”
Chaput later accused the media of twisting his words when some journalists interpreted his comments as being critical of the Pope and said he and Francis share a strong relationship.
Francis, though he’s become popular for his progressive messages, hasn’t veered from the church’s traditional stance on gay marriage. Manson pointed out Francis’ evangelical ties and leanings in a column earlier this month. The “cool pope” has met with famed American evangelicals such as Rick Warren, James Robison, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen and the billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, which objected to providing birth control through health insurance for female employees.
“If there is a set of convictions that Pope Francis and U.S. evangelicals share fervently,” Manson writes, “it could be summed up like this: Marriage is between one man and one woman, children must have a mother and a father, and strict gender roles are part of the divine plan for humanity.
“A quick glance at the list of workshops at the World Meeting of Families makes it clear that these ideas will dominate the conference. (Sessions on “traditional” marriage, complementarity, religious freedom, and mandatory celibacy for gays and lesbians are abundant.)”
Manson says Chaput reflects the same beliefs of Francis. They’re just doing it in different ways. Chaput has condemned gay marriage by issuing statements on the Supreme Court’s decision to allow it, and on the firing of Winters. Francis has exalted the values of two-parent, heterosexual households while explicitly saying little about gay marriage.
“It’s an interesting tactic if you want to be well-received in the West,” Manson says. “He might be irked not that Chaput has that view but that he made the church seem so judgmental.”
Butler has a less pessimistic view of Francis’ strategies on social issues. She says Francis represents the group who is trying to grow the church and Chaput the group that wants doctrinal purity and is “living in la la land.” Whichever way Francis really wants to steer the church, she is certain of one thing: Chaput won’t change anytime soon and won’t be asked to.
“If you’ve been playing the same song for so long,” Butler asks, “how do you change the lyrics?”