National Catholic Register


Archbishop Chaput Answers Questions About His Stunning Letter

BY Jimmy Akin

| Posted 12/12/11 at 11:09 PM


The Register’s own Edward Pentin scored an interview with Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput when the archbishop was in Rome for his ad limina visit last week. The interview was conducted after the release of the archbishop’s dramatic letter to his flock and contains some additional detail on the subjects he touched on in the letter. Here’s the portion of the interview that deals with that:

You issued what seems to be a very well-received pastoral letter to the archdiocese on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in which you aired a variety of serious concerns and spoke about difficult times ahead with the completion of your review of priests accused in the grand jury report and church and school closings. Could you tell us more about why you wrote it?

The circumstances in Philadelphia are difficult at the moment. We’re in a period of responding to a grand jury report that was negative about the way the archdiocese has handled the issues of sex abuse of minors by the clergy.

In addition to that, we have a major study about the number and locations of Catholic schools. Philadelphia was a place where parochial schools began in the U.S. under the leadership of St. John Neumann, so Catholic education has an extraordinary place in the hearts of our people. But we have huge financial problems as a result of schools using up their resources of their parishes, because we don’t have enough students in the schools and yet we have to pay living wages to our teachers in ways that wasn’t the case when we had large numbers of religious working.

So we needed to re-order the way we do Catholic education, not to do it less, but to re-order in a way that we save our system so that it doesn’t kill itself by just using up all its resources.

We have the issue of priest personnel, Catholic schools and the issue of multiple parishes in the same neighborhood because they were ethnic parishes. But as time has gone on, the people who founded them have moved to other places. We have on the same city block sometimes three to four parishes — how do we manage those in a way that is financially feasible and also respects the tight personnel situation with priests in the local Church?

Also, I’m concerned about the number of seminarians we have. We only have 48, and yet where I come from prior to September — a diocese one-third of the size in terms of Catholics — we had 80 seminarians. So I’m concerned about the number of seminarians. We have a great seminary, Saint Charles Borromeo, but it’s underutilized.

You stressed there would be tough times in the year ahead.

All of those issues are coming to a head at the same time. It’s the “perfect storm” they talk about. The grand jury has led to the indictment of four priests that have served in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. One of them is a former vicar for clergy who’s being accused of participating in an assignment of a priest who had a previous accusation of sexual abuse against him. So we’ll have a trial probably in the last three months [of 2012], and you can imagine what that does to the psyche of a diocese where we’re in the headlines of the newspapers every day for three months.

All of this is coming together at the same time, and there’s a new bishop who’s responsible for making decisions and leading us through this difficult time. … [My letter] was, therefore, to say to people: Be prepared because things are going to be tough, and they’re going to get worse for us for a while before they’re going to get better.

In the answer to the first question, Archbishop Chaput hits the three major “bad news” themes mentioned in his pastoral letter—the sex abuse situation, school closings, and parish closings. There is interesting new detail added about all three of these, including information in the follow-up question.

On the subject of sex abuse—in his second answer—he gives a little more background about the current state of affairs, including the trial expected next year. This is helpful, especially for those who haven’t been following the Philadelphia situation closely.

On the subject of school closings he identifies a key cause of the financial problems that have led to the present situation. This cause is not, as some have suggested, a lack of funds due to settlement of sex abuse cases. It’s natural to wonder about that in many places, but diocesan finances are more complex than many realize. It’s not as if all the money collected in every parish goes into a giant diocesan slush fund that can be disbursed however the archbishop wishes. In fact, as anyone who’s experienced the non-profit world knows, charitable funds that are received often represent what is known as designated giving, which means that *by law* they can only be used for particular purposes specified by the donors. Designated giving, contracts, loans, and a host of other considerations prevent funds from simply being disbursed at whim. At least, they do so in many cases. That’s not to say there haven’t been dioceses that have suffered from financial mismanagement and the improper use of funds. There certainly have.

But the cause that Archbishop Chaput names in the interview is certainly a plausible one: the retreat of women and men religious from the Catholic education scene and the consequent effect on the faculty. Women and men religious, living communally and being under vows of poverty and being able to solicit donations for their order and even subsidizing Catholic schools directly, were able to operate for substantially less money than a faculty composed of lay people supporting families and trying to maintain a place in the middle class (i.e., avoid poverty). The exodus of religious from faculty and the consequent influx of ordinary lay people is certainly going to affect how much it costs to educate a student, and as tuition rises it can lead to a decrease in the number of students: a vicious cycle.

I don’t know how the finances of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are structured or how specifically the schools might be affected by legal settlements, but Archbishop Chaput is certainly right that the change in the composition of the school workforce is going to impact the economics of the situation in a significant way.

On the subject of parish mergers he also mentions a factor not involving the sex abuse scandal: declining attendance at ethnic parishes.

It’s quite true that there has been a falloff in attendance since many East Coast parishes were built. People can debate the extent to which that is due to cultural forces and the extent to which it is due to pastoral failures on the part of Church leadership (both are undoubtedly a part of it), but its a fact nonetheless.

It’s also true that in many cities on the East Coast there were multiple ethnic parishes established for different types of immigrants. Thus in a single area there might be a parish for Irish immigrants, a parish for Italian immigrants, a parish for German immigrants, a parish for Polish immigrants. With declining attendance—for whatever combination of reasons—maintaining that many parishes to serve a single area, whose religious composition also may well have changed, may just not make sense.

And there’s another factor contributing to that phenomenon: the priest shortage. The Archbishop touches on this when he mentions his concern about the number of seminarians in the archdiocese. This is something not mentioned in the pastoral letter, and it is handled with his characteristic polite frankness. Without laying blame for the problem, he frankly acknowledges substantial room for improvement, citing the example of his prior diocese and suggesting that that his current one might reasonably have five times as many seminarians as it does.

Chaput’s polite frankness is also on display elsewhere in the interview, as when he remarks that a particular change in the way ad limina visits (those are the periodic visits bishops make to Rome to meet with the pope and officials of the Roman curia) struck him as “wasn’t a good idea,” though he finds value in the way the situation has worked out.

I encourage you to read the piece simply for the look at how ad limina visits are conducted. Most people are unaware of this, and it’s an interesting look in how the world of the Vatican works.

Archbishop Chaput is also asked about politics, a subject he is imminently qualified to speak on as the author of a book on faith and politics.

I was a little surprised, knowing Archbishop Chaput’s pro-life commitments, that the life issues didn’t get mentioned in the interview. (Economics, business ethics, and religious freedom did.) I wouldn’t read too much into that, though, because interviews can often take unexpected turns and it can be difficult for both interviewer and interviewee to get back to subjects they meant to mention.

Click here to read the interview with Archbishop Chaput.

And click here to read my prior discussion of the pastoral letter.

Also, here is Joan Frawley Desmond’s piece Church Closings: Is Bigger Better?

What do you think?