A Long Chat with Archbishop Chaput

Did you hear about the bishop who was so conservative that he wanted Congress to investigate corruption in the hypostatic union?

Okay, I made that joke up. But if any lizard in an all-Catholic lounge were to tell it, his audience would probably imagine The Most Reverent Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, who is preparing to succeed Cadinal Bevilacqua as archbishop of Philadelphia. Whatever else can be said for Chaput, he gives a good interview, as he did yesterday, with Nationl Catholic Reporter’s John Allen. Allen promises that Chaput “put no limits on the topics to be covered.” Indeed, under Allen’s guidance, Chaput ranges far and wide.

On his reputation for conservatism:

I actually don’t see myself as a conservative at all. I try to be faithful to the church’s teaching, as the church has handed it on to us. I don’t feel that as a Christian or as a bishop I have a right to play with that tradition, which is the apostolic tradition of the church. I hope that I’m creative and contemporary, however, in applying that teaching and in the structural living out of it in the local church.

I think that if people came and looked at the Archdiocese of Denver for themselves, they’d see that we’re not a ‘conservative’ diocese but we’re a very creative diocese. We’re open to lay leadership, the new movements, and alternative ways of doing things beyond how they’ve been done in the past. As an example, I certainly want to be faithful to the Holy Father and his teaching about the traditional expression of the Roman liturgy in the Tridentine form. I supported that and will continue to support that. It isn’t, however, my personal interest or direction.

Chaput says that he’s “not terribly interested in criticisms of the past,” meaning the 1960s and 1970s, and believes that the bishops of that era were “guided by the Holy Spirit.” He also sees no contradiction between the “centrist, social-justice oriented position” of the Bernardin-era bishops and the “more evangelical stance associated with John Paul II”:

As far as the social justice question goes, I don’t think you can be an evangelist, or part of this evangelical movement in the church, without being as clearly committed to social justice as the church has been in the past. We can’t preach the Gospel and not live it. If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we’re going to go to Hell. It’s very clear from the gospels that we have the duty to do that. To be an evangelist means to preach that too, but it also means you don’t just preach that. There’s a clear difference between being a social worker and being a preacher of the Gospel. You can be a social worker without believing in God, but not a preacher. The Gospel calls all of us to be social workers, in a sense, but not all social workers are called to be evangelists.

For me, the most fascinating part came when Allen drew out Chaput on the subject of his personal dynamism. He readily concedes that evangelization “is where my heart is,” and admits he’s “very worried” that the bureaucratic demands of serving in Philadelphia — which apparently exceed those of serving in Denver — will leave him little time for it.

Chaput agrees with Allen that he’s “not a very clerical bishop.” “Part of that is my Capuchin background,” he says. “We’re not a clerical order, and we emphasize the importance of being brothers not only to one another but to the people around us, and even to the world of creation.” He commits himself to engaging with the strains of thought coming from the world, and “to show how the Gospel makes it better and richer, and how the Gospel at the same time corrects it and purifies it. There’s no way the Gospel can embrace and purify the world unless it knows the world.”

Chaput also defends the Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation of American women religious and Communion bans for pro-choice politicians. Regarding the Catholic Health Association’s support for President Obama’s universal health coverage, he thinks, “we ought to continue to insist that when it comes to matters of faith and morals, bishops, in the name of Jesus Christ, have to be the ones who make the final decisions.”

There’s nothing very surprising there, nor in the cautious tone Chaput generally adopts when discussing the sex abuse crisis, including the report issued last February by a Philadelphia grand jury. Nevertheless, I found it a revealing interview, even an inspiring one. I can’t share Chaput’s attachment to the Tridentine Mass, but I see no point in begrudging him it as long as someone fairly close by me is saying the Novus Ordo. More than anything, I admire his commitment to evangelization and his personal bounce and confidence. My thoughts on this are just starting to sort themselves, but it seems to me that a good cure for superstar priests or even superstar laymen — and there’s no need to name any names — might be superstar bishops.

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