Archbishop Chaput's Stunning Letter to Philadelphia

On December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Archbishop Charles Chaput, the newly-installed archbishop of Philadelphia, released a pastoral letter to the faithful of his archdiocese. It will be read this weekend at Masses, even as Archbishop Chaput is returning home from his ad limina visit to Rome.

A copy of the letter was obtained by Whispers in the Loggia and has now been published online.

Pastoral letters from bishops can range from being “ho-hum” letters to being “Wham!” letters. Archbishop Chaput’s is definitely at the “Wham!” end of the spectrum.

Let’s read it together.

The letter begins with the kind of gentle, winning tone that one would expect in a pastoral letter from a newly-installed bishop:

December 8, 2011
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Dear friends in Christ,

Exactly three months ago, on September 8, I was installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia. In the weeks since, traveling the archdiocese, I’ve been struck by two things I encounter again and again: the reservoir of good will in our people, and the fidelity of our priests.

The Church in Southeastern Pennsylvania has deep roots and an extraordinary legacy of saints, service and public witness. These are profound strengths, built by the faith of generations of Catholic families. But all of these good facts depend on our willingness to sustain them by our actions in the present. Advent is a season of self-examination in the light of God’s word; a season of conversion and looking forward in hope to the birth of a Savior at Christmas. There is no better time to speak frankly about the conditions we now face as a community of believers.

So far the letter has the kind of tone that might set one up for a “ho-hum” pastoral letter. But now it pivots—suddently and dramatically—and signals an entirely new direction:

Complacency is the enemy of faith.

The word “enemy” immediately sends up a warning flag.

To whatever degree complacency and pride once had a home in our local Church, events in the coming year will burn them out.


“Events in the coming year will burn them out.” Intense!

And now, perhaps, a word of reassurance?

The process will be painful.

Oh-kaaay. No reassurance just yet.

After three “Wham!” sentences in a row, we do finally get a ray of hope:

But going through it is the only way to renew the witness of the Church; to clear away the debris of human failure from the beauty of God’s word and to restore the joy and zeal of our Catholic discipleship.

Even though we finally get to words like “beauty” and “joy,” first we get “only way” and “clear away the debris of human failure.”

So, for those of us who aren’t in Philadelphia and may not have been closely following events there, what kind of incendiary “events in the coming year” are we talking about?

In the year ahead, we have a grave and continuing obligation to help victims of clergy sex abuse to heal; to create Church environments that protect our young people; and to cooperate appropriately with civil authorities in pursuing justice for both the victims of sexual abuse and those accused.

Right. Philadelphia is one of those places that has had re-eruptions of the clerical sexual abuse scandal that first took hold of the national scene in 2002. Since then there were flareups in Philadelphia with grand juries in 2005 and 2011.

According to Wikipedia (and please note that Wikipedia is scarcely a strictly objective source; it shares the viewpoints, for good or ill, of those who most aggressively contribute to it):

A second grand jury, in February, 2011, accused the Philadelphia archdiocese, still under Cardinal Rigali, of failing to stop the sexual abuse of children more than five years after the first grand jury report had documented abuse by more than 50 priests.[12] The 2011 grand jury report said that as many as 37 priests were credibly accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior toward minors. Rigali initially said in February “there were no active priests with substantiated allegations against them, but six days later, he placed three of the priests, whose activities had been described in detail by the grand jury, on administrative leave. He also hired an outside lawyer, Gina Maisto Smith, a former assistant district attorney who prosecuted child sexual assault cases for 15 years, to re-examine all cases involving priests in active ministry and review the procedures employed by the archdiocese.” Three weeks later, most of those 37 priests remain active in the ministry. Terence McKiernan, the president of, which archives documents from the abuse scandal in dioceses across the country, said “[T]he headline is that in Philadelphia, the system is still broke.’ David J. O’Brien, who teaches Catholic history at the University of Dayton, said, ‘The situation in Philadelphia is “Boston reborn.”’”[13]

The previous archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali, had reached retirement age in 2010 and submitted his resignation at that time, though as often happens, it was not immediately accepted by Pope Benedict. Wikipedia reports:

In July, 2011, Rigali’s resignation was accepted by the Vatican. He “offered an apology ‘if I have offended’ and ‘for any weaknesses on my part,’ but said he saw no particular connection between the timing of the Vatican accepting his resignation and turbulence” over the February grand jury report. Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will succeed Rigali.[20]

So this forms part of the background to the events Archbishop Chaput is discussing in his pastoral letter.

What does he want us to know about the present and coming situation?

At the same time, we need to remember that many hundreds of our priests—the overwhelming majority—have served our people with exceptional lives of sacrifice and character. Since arriving in September, I have pressed for a rapid resolution of the cases of those priests placed on administrative leave earlier this year. The first months of 2012 will finally see those cases concluded. Whatever the results, the confidence of our people and the morale of our priests have suffered. The hard truth is that many innocent priests have borne the brunt of the Church’s public humiliation and our people’s anger. The harsh media environment likely to surround the criminal trial which begins next March will further burden our lay people and our clergy. But it cannot be avoided.

So the forecast is mixed but grim. We’ve got some cases of accused priests that are unresolved but that should be resolved early next year, which—whatever happens—will not please everybody and thus create some public controversy. And then we’ve got a criminal trial coming up.

Surely this is all of the bad news, though, right? Once we get the priestly sex abuse stuff out of the way it should be smooth sailing.

Finally, the resources of the Church do not belong to the bishops or the clergy; they belong to the entire Catholic people, including the faithful generations who came before us. The Church is a community of faith alive in the present but also connected across the years through time. The Church holds her resources in stewardship for the whole Catholic community, to carry out our shared apostolic mission as believers in Jesus Christ. This means that as archbishop, I have the duty not just to defend those limited resources, but also to ensure that the Church uses them with maximum care and prudence; to maximum effect; and with proper reporting and accountability.

Now the other shoe starts to drop.

In the coming year we will face very serious financial and organizational issues that cannot be delayed. They must be addressed. These are not simply business issues; they go to the heart of our ability to carry out our Catholic ministries.

Okay. So who gets the bad news?

The archdiocese remains strongly committed to the work of Catholic education.

It’s the schools. Some schools are going to be closed.

Are we sure, though, that these schools really must be closed? That there is no way to keep them open?

But that mission is badly served by trying to sustain unsustainable schools. In January, the archdiocesan Blue Ribbon Commission will provide me with its recommendations on Catholic education. The Commission has worked for months on this difficult issue with extraordinary sensitivity and skill. It will likely counsel that some, and perhaps many, schools must close or combine. It will also offer a framework for strengthening our schools going forward.

Undoubtedly, this will be disappointing news for those who children are in those schools and who may have made important decisions—like where to buy a house (which are not all that easy to get shed of in the current housing market)—based on the location of those schools. On the other hand, sustaining the unsustainable is not a good idea. If something can’t go on indefinitely, it won’t, and dioceses really do have to make painful prudential judgments on such matters. The involvement of a commission shows that there is an attempt at broader consultation so that the decisions are made in the best manner possible, taking into account a broader range of factors and viewpoints.

Is that all the bad news?

Over the next 18 months the same careful scrutiny must be applied to every aspect of our common life as a Church, from the number and location of our parishes, to every one of our archdiocesan operational budgets. This honest scrutiny can be painful, because real change is rarely easy; but it also restores life and health, and serves the work of God’s people. We cannot call ourselves good stewards if we do otherwise.

So parish closings and broader budget cuts are on the table as well.

That’s a pretty sobering message.

These words may sound sobering, but they are spoken with love as a father and a brother.

This is a good touch, both rhetorically and—more important—pastorally. Unless he has made a recording of his own reading of the letter (something I have no indication that he’s done) then the letter will be read out loud by people in the parishes, some of the very people who may be most concerned or distressed about the forthcoming changes. Given the dramatic nature of the letter’s contents, the tone of voice or body language of the readers could skew its perception by the congregation. By putting in the text of the letter itself a description of the intended tone—“spoken with love as a father and a brother”—the archbishop signals both to the readers and to the hearers the impression he is trying to convey.

Good! That will help the letter’s reception.

He continues:

They [these words] are a plea to take our baptism seriously; and to renew our local Church with Christian charity, justice and zeal. As Scripture reminds us so frequently: Do not be afraid. God uses poor clay to create grandeur and beauty. He can certainly use us to renew and advance the work of the Church—and he will.

On this great feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, may God grant you and those you love a holy Advent; and lift your hearts; and make you ready for the joy of Christ’s birth. And please pray for me, as I pray for all of you and your families every day.

Gratefully yours in Jesus Christ,

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Philadelphia

So there you have it.

Definitely a “Wham!” letter as far as pastoral letters go. I can easily imagine parishioners hearing this letter being stunned. In this post I’ve tried to put myself inside the head of a Philadelphia Catholic hearing this letter for the first time, imagining what my questions and reactions would be. As an outside observer, though, as someone not directly affected by the coming events in Philadelphia, my perspective will be somewhat different, and I can imagine many parishioners have a much more intense and unpleasant reaction.

For those who have such an intense reaction, I would say this: Give the Archbishop the benefit of the doubt. Give him a shot. He’s saying some unpleasant things, but in one way or another, they need to be said. Could he have said them better? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. But we shouldn’t quibble about tone or phrasing.

The fact is that he’s agreed to take on a very difficult pastoral assignment, and there are a number of things he needs to do. One of them is demonstrate that he has a clear-eyed, realistic appraisal of the situation. That he has done quite clearly.

He also needs to show that he’s a straight-shooter who will take effective action. He’s communicated that message, too.

One of the reasons that he needs to communicate that message is that there is a perception on the part of some in Philadelphia—fairly or unfairly—that Cardinal Rigali did not take effective action on the sex abuse crisis. Regardless of the merits or demerits of that charge, Archbishop Chaput needs to counter it for pastoral reasons, to show that he will take effective action.

In fact, it was in significant measure a desire on the part of bishops not to confront the sex abuse problem for so long that allowed it to grow to the proportions it did and cause the enormous amount of suffering it has.

Frankly, we need more bishops willing to confront painful issues.

Did he need to take on the subject of the schools, of possible parish closing and budget cuts?

This is a judgment call. Sometimes when there is bad news it is better to get it all out at once. Other times a step-by-step approach is better. It’s hard to say which is better in a particular case, and so here I’d urge giving Archbishop Chaput the benefit of the doubt.

I can say that I admire and am impressed by his willingness to confront these issues in as straightforward a way as he does, and by his efforts to communicate this information in a way that displays pastoral sensitivity and directs his flock’s attention to the higher goals and the good that can come from this painful period of renewal.

What do you think?

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