A Catholic “Culture Warrior”

Michael Sean Winters has a tough job. A regular contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and America magazine, he speaks for the strain of American Catholicism that most identifies with the generation that embraced the Age of Aquarius. Unfortunately for Winters and others, that constituency is dying out. As the “new faithful” come of age, and “evangelical bishops” are appointed to influential positions, the Church in the United States is experiencing what John Paul II elegantly called “the springtime of a new evangelization.”

If this is the Church’s new springtime, Winters is aptly named. His newspaper, which claims, in the “inspiration of the Second Vatican Council,” to possess an “independent” spirit, is struggling to stay germane to Catholics now being evangelized by priests, bishops, and laity who seek not an “independent” spirit, but a Holy Spirit, intimately familiar with the Father and the Son.

Despite growing obsolescence, however, Winters presses on, struggling to stir up distrust and opposition to the Church’s magisterial hierarchy. Sometimes doing so requires a kind of intellectual gymnastics that, were it not so sad, would be impressive.

Consider Winters’ NCReporter blog post last Tuesday, “Chaput: The Problem with Culture Warrior Bishops.” The piece suggests that Archbishop Charles Chaput, newly appointed to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has chosen for his ministry “paternalistic” cultural skirmishes, rather than a life of pastoral engagement.

The evidence for this is quite scant. Unsurprisingly, Winters mentions that during the past few years Archbishop Chaput offered public commentary on Notre Dame’s honoring of pro-choice President Obama, and that he made a pastoral decision about the Catholic-school education of children from homosexual families. He spins these two decisions, of course, as scowling, paternalistic, intolerant, and discriminatory. Chaput, says Winters, is more apt to “throw bombs” than “provide balm.”

Anyone who knows Archbishop Chaput knows how ridiculously off-base this is. Just watch Chaput on television or YouTube. He looks far more like a grinning schoolboy than churlish headmaster. Listening to him talk, you often have the feeling that a self-deprecating joke is waiting just beyond his serious point. And it often comes.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

But the ad hominem aside, Winters’ argument just doesn’t hold together. First of all, he doesn’t know enough about Chaput’s stance on the issues he cites to judge whether they were born from and handled with pastoral sensitivity. Pastoral care is directed towards salvation, not comfort. That Chaput takes uncomfortable positions doesn’t mean he’s not pastoral. If Winters means that Chaput isn’t polite, he certainly doesn’t provide much evidence. If Winters means that Chaput is improperly “paternalistic,” he’s forgotten that the bishop is ordained to be a patriarch, a father in faith.

On Catholic school admissions, Winters offers a counter-argument to Chaput’s position, and then inexplicably states that the only reason Chaput might disagree with him is “to score a point in the culture wars.” Perhaps Winters has forgotten, or his readership requires him to forget, that reasonable people can disagree on policy matters, and for motives grounded purely in reason – or that charity requires presumption of good intentions – not the attribution of evil motives to support a thesis. The tactic Mr. Winters uses is classical circular reasoning, which makes all judgments but his “intolerant.”

On Notre Dame, Archbishop Chaput stated that Catholic universities are bound to observe Catholic policy, and uphold Catholic doctrine, at all times. Winters’ response is to suggest that a pro-abortion stance might be less significant because President Obama is not Catholic, and condescendingly to point out that, were the president not invited to Notre Dame, African-American Catholics might be offended. Does Winters prefer Catholics be told the truth, or risk feeling bad?  

More fundamentally, Winters’ problem is the presumption that a bishop cannot lead a diocese in a public, vocal way, and also engage it pastorally. The people of Philadelphia, he says, “need someone who can focus like a laser beam on the ‘ad intra’ difficulties facing a local Church…not someone who seems only to be stirred by ‘ad extra’ concerns. But why can’t a capable bishop do both?

If you’re writing for a newspaper whose “inspiration” is the Second Vatican Council, you should be familiar with Christus Dominus, the Vatican II decree on the life and ministry of bishops. This document calls on bishops to use the media to “seek out men and both request and promote dialogue with them” and to “faithfully direct and coordinate all the works of the apostolate in the diocese.” In other words, Vatican II calls bishops to engage in both “ad intra” and “ad extra” concerns. 

In the judgment of the Holy Father, it seems, Archbishop Charles Chaput can do just that, and his  track record confirms it. He is equally comfortable among the poor and in the halls of power. He has supported, with equal zeal, a traditional defense of marriage and the rights of undocumented workers. He is as adept in building Catholic seminary culture as he is in advising political leaders. It would be unfair to characterize him as focused on matters inside or outside the Church, or, for that matter, “liberal” or “conservative.” Like the Holy Father himself, Archbishop Chaput defies labels.

Winters, though, abandons his sometimes more sophisticated touch to engage in flat caricature of Archbishop Chaput as a “culture warrior.” “In the culture war world,” he explains “all disagreement is total, it is always us vs. them, one always places the worst possible interpretation on other’s intentions.”  If this is the standard, it seems that Michael Sean Winters can teach Archbishop Chaput quite a few things about the ways of the culture warrior.

J.D. Flynn, formerly a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska, is editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, a division of EWTN.