My Letter to Abp. Chaput

I sent a letter to Archbishop Chaput’s office on Monday, and on Tuesday, his Associate Director of Communications, Tracy Murphy, thanked me and informed me that she had passed it along to him. She also attached a link to his most recent article on the proposed healthcare bill, which he rightly calls “a bad bill that will result in bad law.” The article’s well worth the read. If you’re interested, what follows is the letter I sent:

Abp. Chaput:

(1) I wanted to thank you for your speech at Houston Baptist University. It was wonderful. And the Q&A turned out to be even better – I watched the whole thing online, and I was just very impressed. I’ve heard your basic argument before, about the appropriate role of Catholicism in the public square, and agree with you, but I was very pleased that you took the opportunity to gently remind the largely-Protestant audience that a Christianity united as Christ intended is a much better bulwark against the forces of darkness.

(2) One rather minor note, however. During the discussion, you described the Church’s tax-exempt status as some form of payment, or recognition by the government of the Church’s many charitable activities. I think that this is the wrong understanding of the tax-exemption both as a theological matter and (in this instance, perhaps more importantly) as a legal matter — I say this as a Catholic wrapping up his last year at Georgetown’s law school. I think it’s poor, theologically, because charity done for money isn’t charity. If I volunteer to pick up trash on Saturdays, I’m being a steward of the Earth. If I’m getting paid to do it, I’m a trash collector, and there’s no particular merit. That’s my understanding of the Church’s teaching, and of course, I defer to your superior judgment upon this point.

But legally, this vision is particularly problematic, and here, I’m more sure in my footing. First, if the government is paying (in the forms of tax collection), the government has a right to put strings upon that aid. We’ve seen this here in D.C., where the government is trying to force the Archdiocese to provide benefits for same-sex couples, and allow children to be adopted by gay couples. Second, the government paying the church to perform an action raises all sorts of First Amendment issues, because the Church’s charity is rightly tied to Her message of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And finally, there’s a better way to conceptualize the issue. In the infamous Lemon v. Kurtzman case, the justices of the Supreme Court repeatedly distinguished that case from Walz v. Tax Commissioner, a case involving church tax-exemption. Burger’s majority opinion as well as the partial concurrences touched on a repeated theme: tax-exemption actually prevents government entanglement, and protects a healthy divide between Church and State. Businesses have to live in fear of IRS audits, and are safely under the thumb of Caesar. The Church is free from this, not because the State owes Her anything, but because She and the State are wholly separate institutions, neither subject to the other.

This understanding, I think, still permits faith to play an active role in politics, and it’s consistent even with a belief that much of the 20th century’s Free Exercise and Establishment jurisprudence has been wrongly decided, including Lemon.

(3) I wanted to thank you, also, for taking such a crystal clear stand on the pending healthcare bill. There are a number of voices, even within the USCCB, yelling “Healthcare now!” while whispering “…but not with abortion.” That sort of approach is guaranteed (and sadly, perhaps intended) to result in the pro-choice Senate version getting passed. Thanks for making it abundantly clear what the stakes are, and who’s on the right side. I read a snippet of your article on American Papist (, and was quite pleased.

(4) Is there any chance that this clarity will be directed in-house? The fact that the Abp. Weaklands of the world can give American Catholicism such a terrible name without a peep from their orthodox brothers shames the laity trying to follow our shepherds. St. Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 14:8, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” We’ve suffered for decades in this country with bishops and even cardinals who ought to know better playing their own tune. I know that some of these men, like Cardinals Mahony and McCarrick, outrank you, or have a position of greater prominence. I know, too, that criticism would come at a steep cost. But St. Paul bravely criticized his superior — publicly — in Galatians 2, and the world is better off for it.

I ask all of this only because, as a layman, I’m baffled and frequently pained by the silence of good bishops in the face of bad ones. I have to imagine (and hope) that there are private rebukes which occur, but a public statement would serve the laity greatly. Not, mind you, to slander or harm the heterodox cleric, but simply to inform an oft-confused laity of those instances in which their shepherd seeks to lead them away from the Magisterium. A clear “Abp. x is wrong on this” might be the appropriate step once private consultation proves fruitless.

You’re in my prayers, and I look forward to seeing your continued service to Catholicism. You have served Her well so far.

– Joseph Heschmeyer.

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