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Chaput: 'Speaking the truth is polarizing'

Archbishop Charles Chaput has a view on some central issues in the life of the Church.

Archbishop Charles Chaput administers the Eucharist during the 2012 Tekakwitha Conference, held in Albany, NY. Credit: angelamcave via Flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., is the emeritus archbishop of Philadelphia, and a long-time leader among American bishops.

The archbishop, 78, became in 1988 the second priest of Native American ancestry to become a diocesan bishop. After serving nine years as the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, Chaput became in 1997 the Archbishop of Denver, and was appointed in July 2011 to lead the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Chaput and the Philadelphia archdiocese hosted in 2015 the World Meeting of Families. In the same year, Chaput was a delegate to the Synod of Bishops on the Family, and was elected to a term on the Permanent Council of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican.

The archbishop, the author of four books, talked with The Pillar this week about the deaths of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell, the synod on synodality, and the Second Vatican Council.

Archbishop, with the deaths of both Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell this month, it seems that two guiding stars for many people in Church have been lost.

What will be the impact on the Church of their deaths?

The Church will continue her work and her witness because she depends on no individual except Jesus Christ. But their absence is a very heavy loss because both men embodied articulate, faithful Christian intelligence in a remarkable way. No one in current Church leadership has the capacity to replace them. That will happen in time, but the talent bench at the moment seems pretty thin.

Whether fairly or not, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell were portrayed as polarizing figures. Perhaps polarization in the Church is not a new reality, but it seems that various “camps” within the Church have become more hostile to each other in recent years.

Why is that?

Speaking the truth is polarizing. It got Jesus killed. Bad people with bad ideas dislike good people trying to do good things. And that accounts for the contempt, resentment, and outright lying directed at both men over the years, including from people who describe themselves as Christians; people within the Church herself.

Archbishop, interpreting and understanding Vatican II seems to be at the heart of much current disagreement in the Church. Sixty years after the council concluded, why is an authoritative reading of Vatican II still in question?

Was Vatican II an organic development and reform of Church life, or a break with the past and a new beginning? That’s the central question, and the answers to it lead down very different paths. Breaking with the past seems to disregard any notion of a genuine development of doctrine. Both Ratzinger and Pell saw the council as an experience of continuity and reform. They were right. But division and conflict have been common in the aftermath of many councils. They just have to be endured and worked through.

With 60 years of hindsight, do you assess Vatican II as something good for the Church?

Yes, without a doubt. But the value of every council has limits imposed by its times and the issues it faces. That’s why there’s more than one of them. Vatican II doesn’t repudiate Trent or Vatican I, for example, but the Church did need to adjust her approach to the world and speak to the new conditions framing her mission. That was the intent of John XXIII in convening it; of Paul VI in concluding it; and of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in applying its teachings.

While the Church talks about interpreting Vatican II, there’s also re-emerging debate today about some fundamental questions of moral theology.

For example, the Pontifical Academy for Life, under the leadership of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, is challenging moral principles articulated in Humanae vitae, Veritatis splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Seemingly settled questions are now reopening. What are the faithful to make of that?

I suppose it depends on how you define that word “faithful.” I think some of the changes over the past few years at the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute have been imprudent and destructive. In fact the whole purpose of the institute that St. John Paul established has been turned upside down; a clear insult to his magisterium and legacy. There’s no fidelity in watering down or breaking with the substance of the documents you mention.

For some Catholics, this relitigation of Catholic moral teachings has come to be seen as a defining aspect of the Francis pontificate. Do you think this is what the cardinal-electors of Pope Francis expected when they elected him?

This pontificate has been a surprise to a lot people.

What sort of reform do you think the cardinal-electors expected from then-Cardinal Bergoglio?

The cardinal-electors would need to speak for themselves. But I do remember Cardinal Francis George, who was a friend, telling me shortly before he died that the cardinals at the conclave were calling for the pope to reform the Roman Curia, not to “reform” the Church.

As for the rest of us, Catholics serious about their faith instinctively respect and support the pope — any pope. But they expect a basic continuity in leadership, and they’re confused when there’s ambiguity at the top.

While you are not a Vatican official, what is your sense of things in Rome? Is there support for the reforms of the Holy Father?

I’m not in a position to know. I do think the Holy Father’s annual addresses to the curia, which are a matter of public record, have been excessively dark. I’m not sure they inspire or motivate anybody.

But was that the case under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI? If not, what is different?

Intentionally or otherwise, Pope Francis seems to take a harsher approach in his comments than the preceding two popes. Depending where you stand on the theological spectrum, you could be fearful in any pontificate. Liberals wrote often about the amount of fear during the pontificates of both Blessed Pius IX and St. Pius X. Theology makes a huge difference. A lot is at stake.

What do you think will be the legacy of Pope Francis?

Legacies are only clear in retrospect. I think he’ll be remembered, at least in part, for his concern for immigrants and the poor; his emphasis on simplicity, listening and accompaniment, and reaching out to the margins of the Church and the world. These are all good things, properly understood. Other memories may be more problematic.

Archbishop, the notion of synodality seems to be a major theme of the Holy Father’s pontificate. What will be the outcome of the three-year ‘synod on synodality’ effort?

About the outcome, I have no idea. About the process, I think it’s imprudent and prone to manipulation, and manipulation always involves dishonesty. The claim that Vatican II somehow implied the need for synodality as a permanent feature of Church life is simply false. The council never came close to suggesting that. Moreover, I was a delegate to the 2018 synod, and the way “synodality” was smuggled onto the agenda was manipulative and offensive. It had nothing at all to do with the synod’s theme of young people and the faith. Synodality risks becoming a kind of Vatican III Lite; a rolling council on a much more controllable, malleable scale. That wouldn’t serve the needs of the Church or her people.

I served a term on the Permanent Council of the Synod of Bishops starting in 2015. And I remember some brief discussions about the difficulty of holding another ecumenical council because of the large number of bishops today. But I’d be very wary of the idea that synodality can somehow take the place of an ecumenical council in the life of the Church. There’s no tradition of bishops delegating their personal responsibility for the universal Church to a smaller number of bishops, so any such development would need to be very carefully examined and discussed before any attempt at implementation. That’s not the current spirit or reality of what’s happening.

Another aspect of the Francis pontificate is the prominence of Jesuits in Church leadership positions. What can be understood about Pope Francis’ relationship with the Society of Jesus?

Well, I’m a Capuchin Franciscan, and that’s shaped my life in a profound way. The Jesuit formation Francis received would naturally have the same effect. But when a religious becomes a bishop, he belongs to his diocese, its presbyterate, and its people. I love my Capuchin brothers, but I’m a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. That’s my primary loyalty. Francis is the bishop of Rome; that role, and its obligations, both to his local diocese and to the universal Church, are his primary loyalty — not the Society of Jesus. Over-reliance on your religious community and its members, unless you’re a bishop serving in the missions, is not a good idea. And I do think it’s clear that Francis governs like a Jesuit superior general, top-down with little collaborative input. He also seems to put much more emphasis on his personal discernment than on the discernment of past popes and the general discernment of the Church through the centuries.

Many of the bishops Pope Francis has elevated to the College of Cardinals do not come from the ordinary ‘cardinal track’ in the Church. What do you make of that? What do you think it means for the future of the Church?

I think it’s a very good thing, so long as the men have the spiritual and intellectual substance to discharge their duties faithfully and well.

It was once customary that the Archbishop of Philadelphia be appointed a cardinal. You were not. Are you disappointed that you’re not a cardinal?

No, and I sleep a lot better for it.

There’s a narrative about the U.S. bishops' conference right now that some bishops, including the conference president, are somehow anti-Francis, or opposed to the leadership of Pope Francis.

It strikes me that this carries a danger of turning the personality of the Holy Father into a kind of Catholic 'litmus test,' rather than focusing on continuity and fidelity to Catholic doctrine. Why does this narrative persist?

Respect for the Holy Father is a demand both of Christian charity and filial loyalty. But it never requires servility or adulation. And I can’t imagine the Holy Father, as an experienced pastor, would want either. The American bishops have always been loyal — and candidly, very generous — to Rome, and that remains the case. Turning serious doctrinal concerns into a personality debate is just a convenient way of evading the substantive issues that need to be addressed. It also shows a complete ignorance of Church history. Popes come and go, even the great ones, just like bishops and everyday Christians. What matters, whatever the cost, is fidelity to Catholic teaching — and no excuses need to be offered in pursuing that.

Archbishop, some of your comments will be seen as critical of Pope Francis. Do you think you are being disloyal to him by airing these comments publicly?

I love the Holy Father. I was very impressed with him when we met as young bishops at the 1997 Special Assembly on America in Rome. The Church needs him to succeed in his ministry. I’d just offer a respectful observation. I have a lot of friends with good marriages that have lasted a long time. There’s a lesson in that. You don’t get a healthy marriage — and certainly not one that lasts — unless you’re willing to speak the truth and listen to it, honestly, in return. The same applies to the Church. Anyone in any kind of leadership who’s unwilling to hear unpleasant truth needs to change his attitude toward reality.

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