Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, leader of Philadelphia’s Catholic community, is “the best diocesan bishop in the United States … the model of collaborative, faithful, dynamic leadership.”
So wrote George Weigel, biographer of John Paul II, in the Sept. 27 issue of the Catholic Herald. Weigel has it right.
Prompting the accolades is the archbishop’s 75th birthday, a happy milestone for him but a sad one for his flock. As required by canon law of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Chaput has submitted to Pope Francis a letter offering his resignation. There is no specified timeline for the acceptance of his resignation, but the letter signals that his tenure as Archbishop of Philadelphia is coming to an end. Given that he was not elevated to the cardinalate last year, it’s likely that he will be replaced relatively soon.
It will be our loss, but my guess is he doesn’t mind. As he humbly told an audience of students at Villanova University two years ago, “When you get to be my age in this work, you know and understand a lot of things, because you’ve experienced a lot of things and developed your skills accordingly over many years. But the same experiences that give you a little wisdom and mature judgment can also tend to narrow your ability to recognize new possibilities and solutions.
“You can end up very good at naming the illness, and explaining its nature and cause, and knowing what doesn’t work in treating it, but not so good at imagining or bringing about a cure. That diagnostic talent still does have value. People need to wake up to the reality of a problem before they can begin to fix it. But the fixing belongs to a different set of faithful eyes and skills – like yours.”
Archbishop Chaput has had to fix a lot of things in Philadelphia, and he has served the archdiocese well.
He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2011 and has presided over difficult times for the Church in Philadelphia and America. He was tasked with responding to the sexual abuse crisis, managing a diocese in financial meltdown exacerbated by declining attendance, closing many of our local schools and parishes, and defending the faith against the broader cultural and political challenges to the Church and its teachings.
Archbishop Chaput has held fast to the teachings of the Church, not out of some inordinate attachment to tradition, but because he is a man of faith and principle.
It’s not surprising that he’s the author of a book titled Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, or that he opened a recent speech with the observation that “It seems like a hard time for Catholics. It’s easy to feel that so much of what we believe is under attack or gripped by uncertainty.”
Looking over back at the last eight years, one is reminded of the 1969 speculation by Father Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI, about the future of the Church: “She will become small and will have to start afresh … She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”
This describes the Church in America today. The crisis and decline of the Church is to be lamented, of course. But, paradoxically, something good might come of it as well. Ratzinger predicted that our time would be a “process of crystallization and clarification” that would result in a renewed Church led by her saints.
As if echoing this sentiment, Chaput also observed in the same speech quoted above, “If we want to be disciples and make disciples, if we want to repair the Lord’s Church in the shadow of today’s scandals and confusion, we need to understand that without saints, nothing we do will work.” Or, as he told us at Villanova, the Church “has only one irrefutable argument for the truth of what she teaches: the personal example of her saints. So the task tonight, when each of us leaves here, is to begin on that path. And may God guide us all in pursuing it.”
During these difficult times of change, Catholics have been able to count on Archbishop Chaput as a model of holiness and stability. Despite all the difficulties we’ve had to face, he’s remained dutifully committed to leading the Church and defending her teachings.
He has been accused of being a traditionalist and a conservative, but these labels indicate an inability to understand the man and his Catholicism.
Archbishop Chaput has held fast to the teachings of the Church, not out of some inordinate attachment to tradition, but because he is a man of faith and principle. He preaches what he preaches because he, following the Church in her wisdom, believes it to be true. Some wish he would bend to the opinions of the day, and they might even point to declining Church attendance as grounds for doing so. But truth is not a popularity contest, and, although the question of attendance has no bearing on the principle of the matter, it is worth noting that virtually every church that has capitulated to more popular contemporary moral positions has declined even more significantly than the Catholic Church.
Similarly, he doesn’t advance moral and political views out of partisan or ideological commitment. He does so because he takes them to be true. It is an unhappy accident when one (or both) of our major parties remains adamantly committed to positions that contradict Church teaching. Archibishop Chaput has simply defended the teachings of the Church.
Some will think he has been too willing to comment on politics, but, in truth, he has provided an excellent example, as he has remained devoted to the Church and to his country, but as a Catholic first and an American second. Hence, the title of his earlier book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political life. Isn’t this precisely what we should ask of ourselves and all our fellow citizens – to work to make our country better by holding it to the higher standard of the truth in which we believe?
We cannot say what the future holds for the Church or our country – things don’t look great, but there’s always hope – but we in Philadelphia, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, can certainly be grateful for Archbishop Chaput’s leadership these last several years. Led by the example of “the best diocesan bishop in the United States,” let us hope we can find new ways to fix things.
Steven F. McGuire is the Acting Director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University.