Archbishop Charles J. Chaput on vocations, elections, apostolic exhortations

If Amoris Laetitia "has elements that some serious Catholic scholars see as ambiguous," says the Archbishop of Philadelphia, "then the issues they raise need to be dealt with honestly and directly."

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., 72, was born in Concordia, Kansas, in 1944.  He attended Catholic schools in the area before joining the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, St. Augustine Province, in 1965.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1970.  He served as a teacher and pastor an in a variety of roles in his community.  He was ordained Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1988, and appointed Archbishop of Denver in 1997.  Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Archbishop of Philadelphia on July 19, 2011, and he was installed as the 13th bishop and ninth archbishop of Philadelphia on September 8, 2011. 

Archbishop Chaput recently corresponded with CWR about a number of topics, including specific challenges in Philadelphia, current controversies over “Amoris Laetitia”, and the recent U.S. Presidential election. 

CWR: You’ve now been in Philadelphia five years. What were some of the most pressing challenges you recognized, and how have you met those challenges?

Archbishop Chaput: Starting in 2003 the Church in Philadelphia weathered nearly a decade of very tough clergy-abuse related issues.  We’re still dealing with the aftermath.  To his credit, my predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, worked very hard to reach out to victims and restore confidence in the Church, but morale among our people and priests naturally suffered.  There was a lot of confusion and anger.  Rebuilding trust was a priority, and we’ve made some good progress.  Philadelphia has a very faithful presbyterate, and I think that kept things together during the worst of the crisis.

The biggest surprise for me was the financial state of the archdiocese.  It was very precarious, and our problems had nothing to do with paying lawyers or making abuse settlements.  We were $300 million in debt.  We had schools, ministries and parishes that had long since effectively died because of demographic changes, but we were keeping them open by covering their annual losses.  And we’d been doing it for many years — with the best of intentions, but at massive cost.  Putting our finances in order was painful for everybody.  We’re still not entirely “there.”  But again, we’ve made very good progress.

CWR: How has the Archdiocese of Philadelphia been doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

Archbishop Chaput: We’ve added about 25 new seminarians from our own archdiocese each of the last two years, and we’ve also had increases from other sending dioceses.  So we’ve had good, promising growth.  The men we’re attracting are impressive.  Our current vocations director and our rector are both doing a great job.  But like the rest of the archdiocese, the seminary needed a rethink, a comprehensive structural and financial renewal.  We’re working on that right now. 

CWR: There continues to be much discussion and controversy over the two Synods on the Family and Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. And now four Cardinals, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, have asked the Holy Father for clarifications about key points on that text. Why do you think there has been so much tension about Amoris Laetitia? How have you worked to implement Amoris Laetitia in Philadelphia?

Archbishop Chaput: In Europe and North America we’ve had 50 years of sexual revolution.  Christian beliefs about marriage, family, sexual identity and sexual behavior are often ignored or criticized.  The surrounding culture is not friendly to the Gospel.  So people are tense.  They struggle with a lot of confusion and unclarity about these issues.  And remember that ambiguity about communion for the divorced and civilly remarried impacts our understanding of not one but two sacraments: marriage and the Eucharist.

The Holy Father’s commitment to the integrity of marriage and the family is very obvious.  I saw it up close last year at the World Meeting of Families. Strengthening marriage and families is the whole purpose of Amoris Laetitia.  If the document has elements that some serious Catholic scholars see as ambiguous, then the issues they raise need to be dealt with honestly and directly.  The differences and discussions bishops are now having over the reception of the document are probably necessary to its proper incorporation into the life of the Church.

Our own diocesan guidelines for Amoris Laetitia, issued back in July, came from a very thorough consultation.  They’ve been well received.  Other local bishops have taken similar steps, and I hope more do the same.  It’s the local bishop’s responsibility to govern and teach.  

CWR: It seems that there is a growing concern among some Catholics about certain actions and statements by the Holy Father, not only about aspects of Amoris Laetitia but also regarding liturgy, doctrine and more traditional expression of the Faith. Are such concerns justified? Or are critics misunderstanding what Francis is trying to communicate and accomplish?

Archbishop Chaput: The Holy Father is the first Pope from the global south.  He was formed by realities in some ways very distinct from the issues prominent in Europe and North America.  There are going to be differences in the way he leads and the priorities he focuses on.  This is normal and healthy.  Some elements in the life of the Church aren’t set in concrete, and criticizing the Pope is never a good idea.

CWR: You expressed strong concerns about both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump leading up to the election. Now that the election has passed, what do you hope to see from the President-elect and Congress in the upcoming years? What concerns or questions do you have about the Trump administration?

Archbishop Chaput: As I said during the campaign, I thought neither candidate was suitable for the presidency.  Both were badly flawed.  But Mr. Trump won fairly.  We owe him the respect due his office and the opportunity to govern.

Running a country isn’t like running a business.  I hope Mr. Trump has the flexibility to learn.  Some humility would help too.  His campaign comments about immigrants were ugly and deeply alarming.  So were his vulgarity, bombast and belligerence.  That kind of posturing won’t work and could easily be dangerous if it continues on the global stage.  A lot will depend on the people he chooses to listen to.

The Church may do better under Trump than under Obama or Clinton on matters of religious liberty.  There’s also at least a chance that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments will be good.  And Obamacare has been a moral and fiscal failure from day one.  It needs to be fixed or replaced.  The U.S. bishops have always believed that some form of universal health care access is vital to a decent society.  So if Obamacare is dismantled, something good needs to replace it.

One final observation:  The behavior of many of Mr. Trump’s critics has been every bit as ugly as his own.  The 2016 election surfaced a lot of poisons in our country, and “progressives” are just as implicated in the problem as “conservatives.”

CWR: The Catholic Church was active in efforts to end the death penalty in three states in this last election—Oklahoma, Nebraska and California—and many bishops expressed strong support of those initiatives. Yet all three voted to retain the death penalty; in fact, California passed a measure to speed up its use. First, is the death penalty now considered immoral by the Church? And how effective or on point were efforts to influence such changes? 

Archbishop Chaput: I can’t comment on efforts in other states and dioceses.  I don’t have the facts.  It’s also not my place to intrude on the good work of other bishops.  Both Scripture and long Christian tradition support the legitimacy of capital punishment in certain circumstances.  That can’t change.  But except in rare cases, we no longer need the death penalty to ensure public safety and the administration of justice, so we shouldn’t use it.  Life imprisonment is not an “easy” form of punishment.  And judicially killing people is not a good way to advance the prolife cause.

CWR: Various surveys and studies have indicated that young adults are attending church less than previous generations and are less likely to identify themselves with a religious denomination, such as Catholicism.  Why is this the case and how can we turn things around?  What are your thoughts on how the dominant, popular culture affects our young people?

Archbishop Chaput: That’s too big an issue to answer briefly.  Some of the factors shaping our young people are largely out of our control – the technologies of how we learn, communicate and entertain ourselves, for example.  Over the centuries the Christian faith has become heavily dependent on the written and printed word.  Now we’re scrambling to adjust to an image-based, non-typographical culture where fewer and fewer people read deeply.

But there’s one area where we do have control: how we live the faith ourselves and pass it along to our children and friends.  A lot of our current problems stem from the fact that my generation, the boomers, didn’t really live what we claimed to believe as Christians.  Young people are very skilled at seeing through the hypocrisy of their elders.  Now we’re paying for it.

CWR: How did you discern your vocation to the priesthood? What are some ways the Church has changed since your days as a young seminarian?

Archbishop Chaput: I always wanted to be a priest, and I don’t think anything really central to the life of the Church has changed in my lifetime.  Lots of the externals and incidentals, procedures, disciplines and perceptions are different now, sure, but the essentials are always the same.  The deep continuity of the Church, the fundamental serenity of her mission, is the same.

CWR: What is a basic program of spirituality you’d suggest to the ordinary layman-in-the-pew

Archbishop Chaput: Read.  Pray.  Worship.  It’s not complicated.  But you do need to actually do it, rather than just talk about it.

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About Jim Graves 225 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.