It’s the culture wars: on one side, we have “cool” Pope Francis and his overarching concern for the poor. On the other, there’s dowdy conservative bishops whose focus on abortion and gay marriage leaves them out of step with contemporary American society.
Sound like a story line?
Not so fast, Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a new column. If you want to know what the Catholic Church in Philadelphia cares about, look at how it spends its money.
Chaput said the church spends about $200,000 per year on what he calls "sanctity of life" issues and has just one full-time employee dedicated to pro-life work — with the rest handled by volunteers.
The archdiocese’s social service agencies employ 1,600, spend $4.2 million that is donated to the church and manage another $100 million in public dollars serving the poor, the homeless, the disabled and battered women, Chaput said.
"What's the lesson?” Chaput writes. "If there's anything "lopsided" about the real witness of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, it's weighted heavily in favor of the poor. It always has been. And that's the reality in nearly every diocese in the United States. But it's not a fact that fits comfortably into a storyline of "compassionate Pope Francis vs. conservative American bishops."
Chaput’s comments, which were first made at a conference of the Religion News Writers Association on Aug. 28 and reprinted on CatholicPhilly.com, come as the local church is preparing for a visit by Pope Francis on Sept. 26 and 27.
A March 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that seven in ten U.S. Catholics see Francis’ reign as a new direction for the church — and half of those see it as a change for the better.
Asked in June for his opinion on gay priests, Francis famously responded with the quote “who am I to judge?” On Tuesday, Francis announced that for the church’s Holy Year, women who have had abortions would be able to be granted forgiveness by all priests. Previously, forgiveness for abortion required a bishop or a specially-designated cleric.
"For many years now, parish priests have been given permission to absolve the sin of abortion here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Chaput said in a statement issued Tuesday. "But the practice has not been common in various other regions of the world. This action in no way diminishes the moral gravity of abortion. What it does do is make access to sacramental forgiveness easier for anyone who seeks it with a truly penitent heart."
Still, culture war issues continue to crop up amid the preparations for the Pope’s visit. The archdiocese is embroiled in a controversy over the firing of Margie Winters, of a lesbian teacher at Waldron Mercy Academy, who was married to a woman while working at the Catholic school.
"It's true that Philadelphia Catholics give generously to care for the poor," said Michael Sherrard of the progressive Christian group Faithful America, "but when it comes to politics their archbishop has shown more interest in partisan culture wars than in addressing the root causes of poverty and economic inequality."
Chaput says Francis has also faced scorn while serving as a bishop in his native Argentina when he wrote about sexuality and marriage.