The news was reported this week as one voice. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a “conservative” — sometimes styled a “prominent conservative” or “archconservative” — was retiring after having reached the age of 75.
This paper has already profiled the remarkable three decades that Archbishop Chaput ministered in Rapid City, Denver and Philadelphia. Yet the term “conservative” bears examination. Does it apply to Chaput?
The New York Times characterized Chaput as a “theological and political conservative.”
The first may well apply, as it is commonly used. For example, Chaput would interpret Amoris Laetitia in continuity with St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor. Pope Francis wrote Amoris Laetitia as if Veritatis Splendor was never written; there is no mention of it whatsoever, despite the nearly 400 footnotes. Does that mean that Chaput is conservative and the Holy Father is liberal?
But Veritatis Splendor was itself an innovative encyclical. It left behind the casuistry that marked the moral theology of the preconciliar period in favor of a biblical view rooted in the capacity of man, redeemed in Christ, to know and live in the truth. In ignoring that view does Amoris Laetitia return to an older, narrower view of the moral life, in which the key task is to apply the rules in a more or less creative way to arrive at this or that conclusion? So perhaps Chaput is the more up-to-date and liberal, while Francis is the conservative, preferring a pre-Vatican II approach to moral theology?
The categories are easily confused, and so are not apt for describing theological positions.
“If we don’t care for the poor, we will go to hell.”
Does that sound like a liberal Pope Francis? It does, but I don’t think he has ever said exactly that. But Archbishop Chaput has said it often.
Does that make him a political liberal, favoring the corporal works of mercy and concrete charitable acts? Or does it make Chaput a biblical fundamentalist, with a too literal reading of Matthew 25?
“Abortion is like hiring a hitman.”
Is that the politically right-wing, ultraconservative Chaput, unleashing the dogs of the culture war? No, that’s Pope Francis. So who is politically conservative?
Again the categories are easily confused. Yet there is one clear way in which Archbishop Chaput was not at all conservative.
Pastorally, the opposite of conservative would be creative or dynamic. In that sense, Chaput was perhaps the least conservative bishop in the United States.
Consider one small but telling example. At the controversial family synod of 2015, Archbishop Chaput was accompanied by one of his principal advisers — a married layman, father of a family. Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, often characterized as a liberal, brought a celibate priest along as his theological adviser. Nothing wrong with the latter approach, but the former would be the more pastorally innovative.
Indeed, Archbishop Chaput, especially during his years in Denver, was the leading model for collaborative ministry with lay people, entrusting to them real authority and responsibility. The consultative Church which empowers the laity is talked about everywhere, but Chaput put it into practice.
The traditional, conservative model of lay collaboration is to invite lay people onto parochial or diocesan councils and to attend meetings with priests and bishops. The innovative model is get the lay people out of the sacristy to become their own agents of initiative and apostolic activity. Chaput did the latter, and wherever one finds in the United States a locus of lay dynamism, there are almost always people formed by Chaput present.
Consider also his books, especially Render Unto Caesar and Stranger in a Strange Land. Both examine the relationship of Church and state, and the role of Catholic disciples as citizens. That demonstrates an adventurous pastoral spirit, being willing to engage in serious theology, history and political philosophy on the most contested questions facing his flock. A more conservative approach would be to refer Catholics to official statements of the Holy See or the episcopal conference. That was not Chaput’s way.
Does a conservative bishop generously spend his Sunday evenings with young people in his cathedral, hearing confessions and celebrating Mass? Does a liberal bishop? It’s not really a matter of conservative or liberal, but of creative engagement instead of maintaining a more cautious status quo.
Archbishop Chaput was not a status quo bishop, which is one way of defining conservative. In Denver he opened a new seminary on a new model of priestly formation. In Philadelphia he sold the magnificent seminary buildings and campus. To focus on building up the priesthood rather than maintaining the buildings is not preserving the status quo but preparing for the needs of the new evangelization.
Of course there is one way in which Chaput was a conservative, in the way that the Church is obliged to be conservative. The Church must conserve what is has been entrusted to her, the deposit of the faith.
Yet conserving the deposit of the faith does not exhaust the Church’s mission. There exists the obligation to hand on what has been conserved, to transmit what has been preserved. Archbishop Chaput for more than 30 years was creative, innovative and dynamic.
Nothing conservative about that.