Christine Flowers: An unfair attack on Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput

A few months ago, I was representing a woman from El Salvador who was seeking asylum in the United States. I don’t need to go into her story of abuse, but there was a unique aspect of the case: she is a devout Catholic.

She was beaten and terrorized by her abuser, who resented the importance of the church in her life. He tried to prevent her from attending Mass, and ridiculed her devotion to Mary.

He beat her so badly that she lost the baby she was carrying. Then, he taunted her with the fact that she’d had “an abortion,” something so devastating to this poor woman that she is still haunted with guilt.

My client was very close to her godfather, a parish priest in a small town near  San Salvador. Their bond was so strong that he flew to the United States to be a character witness for her, and to testify to horrors he himself had suffered at the hands of gang members. It's not safe to be a Catholic these days in Central America.

When I met Padre Carlos, he asked me a favor. He wanted to meet Archbishop Chaput, a man he had heard about when Pope Francis visited Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Padre Carlos’ schedule was tight and he was headed back to his parish the next day — despite my urging that he should file for asylum.

I contacted the Archbishop, not sure whether he had any time for us. The answer came back immediately: “Come by this afternoon at 4 o'clock.”

I led a crew of four Salvadorans: my client, her two brothers and Padre Carlos. We went from Immigration Court at Ninth and Market to the Archdiocese on Race Street, with a brief detour to Starbucks because Padre Carlos loved mochas. Archbishop Chaput and one of the Spanish-speaking priests at the archdiocese greeted us warmly.

I watched as Padre Carlos told the Archbishop of his work in El Salvador, of his fears and of his determination to go back home and serve his people. The Archbishop was visibly moved, and showed immense respect and kindness to this brother in Christ.  The Archbishop, though busy, wasn’t rushed. He focused on his guests as if they were the only people in the world.

A gracious host, he gave us hugs and blessings as we left.

This is the image I have of Charles Chaput. That’s why I couldn’t recognize the picture that was painted of the man in a column that appeared this week, criticizing the prelate for his conservatism, his half-hearted support for Donald Trump and his “rigidity.”

The writer suggested that the Pope, amply praised, would likely not elevate Chaput to the college of Cardinals with their accompanying signature red hats. But, the Archbishop, the writer said, was suited for “a red Trump hat.”

Everyone is entitled to an opinion and I, of all people, have to acknowledge that. I am also aware that there is a large contingent in Philadelphia that has a problem with Archbishop Chaput because he isn’t “touchy-feely” in the manner of other clergyman and maintains a deep appreciation for the tradition, structure and culture of Catholicism.

He is a man of great erudition. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read his newest book Strangers in a Strange Land, but I have practically memorized his Render Unto Caesar. The older book sets out a blueprint for how to live as a Catholic in the secular world, balancing obligations to Caesar against our duty to our faithful selves.

His words have helped me in many a rhetorical battle with the “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” types.

But what I find particularly unfair in the profiles of Archbishop Chaput is the seeming shock at a man who reiterates obvious and established principles such as abortion is a sin, same sex marriage is not recognized by the church and there is no authority for the ordination of women, let alone a married priesthood.

He has been unfairly blamed for the closing of schools and parishes that were financially doomed before he got here from Colorado, and there is always that subliminal suggestion that he is culpable in the historical crimes of abuse and cover up that occurred decades before his arrival.

This recent column faulted Chaput for arguing that the press has shown hostility toward Donald Trump. This, despite the fact that the Archbishop has criticized the same things that I protested at the airport last month: Trump’s ban on refugees.

In fact, shortly after the Ninth Circuit permanently stayed that ban, Chaput shared on Facebook a statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praising the court’s decision.

The statement ended with this: “At this time, we remain particularly dedicated to ensuring that affected refugee and immigrant families are not separated and that they continue to be welcomed to our country. We will continue to welcome the newcomer as it is a vital part of our Catholic faith and an enduring element of our American values and tradition."

Hardly full-throated support for Trump.

Charles Chaput is a man who understands quite well the obligations of our faith. He has compassion grounded in that faith, something I saw up close when I watched him comfort a fearful Salvadoran brother.

But his compassion is not the showy, shallow type that appeals to the media and doesn’t accomplish much more than to make people feel good about themselves.

I’ve spent over a half century in this church and almost a quarter century practicing immigration law. To me, Charles Chaput is the best and highest example of who and what we are.

I know a Salvadoran priest who would agree.

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