WHEN POPE Benedict XVI transferred Archbishop Charles Chaput from Denver to Philadelphia, one of the nation's most prominent Catholic archdioceses, the appointment captured the attention of faithful Catholics, the media and undoubtedly a few nervous elected officials.
The archbishop has earned a reputation as one of the church's most outspoken conservatives. During the 2004 presidential race, he warned Catholics they would be "cooperating in evil" if they voted for Democrat John Kerry, a devout Catholic who does not favor criminalizing abortion but whose positions on support for pregnant women, immigration reform, nuclear disarmament and other issues align with Catholic teaching. The archbishop has also scolded the University of Notre Dame for honoring President Obama and, in contrast to most of his fellow bishops, insists that Catholic politicians who depart from church teaching on abortion should be denied communion.
Chaput's appointment is likely to have national implications in the 2012 election. As the presidential campaign gains momentum, Pennsylvania Catholics will again be aggressively courted as swing voters in this battleground state. GOP presidential candidates Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are staunch Christian conservatives. "Values voters" are back in the news. If history is any guide, Catholic voters in Pennsylvania will be key to who wins the White House.
Despite the media fixation on the religious right, the Public Religion Research Institute and other experts on faith in politics consistently find that most religious voters reject a culture-war approach to politics and instead embrace a broad spectrum of values - protecting the poor from budget cuts, passing immigration reform, expanding health care to all Americans and building a moral economy.
A disproportionate focus on criticizing politicians who do not accept that criminalizing abortion is the only way to solve this terrible problem gives the false impression that the Catholic Church is a religious wing of the Republican Party. Elected officials who support the death penalty, demonize immigrants and slash programs that protect the poor and most vulnerable, all in contradiction to church teaching, rarely receive the sort of public rebukes Chaput and other conservative Catholic bishops direct at those who deviate from the church position on abortion.
I believe in the sanctity of human life and support policies and laws that care for pregnant women and prevent abortions. But Catholicism is not a single-issue faith. Catholic social teaching and the moral principles of diverse religious traditions challenge the agendas of both political parties by insisting that the poor, the unborn, the undocumented immigrant and even the prisoner are children of God. Religious leaders must preserve this essential voice as a prophetic witness to truths that transcend the partisan fray.
Philadelphia will officially welcome its new archbishop today with an installation Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. The pageantry of a ceremony both solemn and joyous will soon give way to sobering realities. Five years after a grand jury excoriated archdiocesan leaders for protecting abusive priests, a new grand jury report unsealed in February found that nothing had changed. Chaput arrives in an archdiocese where three priests have been indicted for sexual assaults on children and another priest, an archdiocesan official, has been charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of children. Philadelphia has replaced Boston as the epicenter of the clergy child-sexual-abuse crisis in the U.S.
The archbishop has pledged to do all he can to address this crisis. The pope has tasked him with other sensitive assignments in the past, and the archbishop has demonstrated integrity and strong leadership in carrying them out.
As a former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, I encourage Chaput to bring fierce urgency to the daunting task of rebuilding trust among the Catholic faithful in Philadelphia who have been wounded by the clergy's sexual abuse of children and his predecessors' collusion in it.
Until this task is accomplished, Chaput would be well-advised to leave politics aside. Issuing divisive political rebukes will only undermine his ability to minister to a city in desperate need of healing.