On Potter, Politics, The Passion ... and Everything

Archbishop Charles Chaput has rarely been out of the news since he was consecrated archbishop of Denver on April 4, 1997.

Recently, Archbishop Chaput drew the media's attention for his spirited public defense of Mel Gibson's upcoming film The Passion and for his criticism of opposition in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

When Archbishop Chaput was appointed by President Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last month, he spoke with Thom Beal of The Rocky Mountain News. The Denver daily gave the Register permission to reprint the interview.

What are the major challenges facing the archdiocese?

The big one facing any Christian community these days is to preach the Gospel without compromising in a culture that is increasingly unfriendly to its basic message. Some Christians and Christian groups might be willing to adjust the Christian message to fit the times. The role of a bishop is to do all you can to make sure the Church is faithful to the teachings of the apostles. We don't have a right to change the teachings. So the ultimate task is to preach in a modern way but clearly and without compromise. And there are all kinds of pressures to compromise.

We also have a booming population of Hispanic members, many of whom are young and with children. Many of them lack financial resources and come from a culture in which the Church has been supported by the government rather than by individual members of the Church community. So we are trying to meet these new needs. For example, we're short of Spanish-speaking clergy. Clearly though, the challenge is different from the past when the Italians settled in one part of the city and the Polish in another. The Hispanic people are everywhere.

Could you elaborate a little on what you mean by “pressures to compromise”?

I'm referring primarily to the life issues — abortion, capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide. Catholics face pressure on other important issues, especially regarding sexuality, such as contraception, homosexual marriage and cohabitation outside of marriage. The genetic issues, including experimentation on embryos and certain fertility techniques, are also a source of conflict between faith and popular opinion.

The Church is often accused of being “primitive” with regard to these, but the purpose of the Gospel is to guarantee the right relationship of human beings to God and to each other. How can that be primitive? The Church has a clear role to play in preserving the dignity of the individual and promoting society's common good. We have to make sure everything we do — in all of our budgets, in all of our decisions about institutions — embodies these basic principles. The culture in which we live makes this a particularly difficult task.

You frequently write and speak about the state of the culture and seem particularly concerned about values and the family.

The classical way Christians talk about salvation through Jesus Christ is that Jesus saves us from our sins. It's also true that he saves us from our culture. He saved individuals from the shadows of the culture in which he lived and he has done so since. I think to be a Christian means to live differently from what the culture dictates.

Not that the Church means to be completely negative about our culture. But I do think its role is to challenge the culture in areas in which it has a negative impact on human dignity and the common good.

You recently defended the Harry Potter books against censorship, arguing that the problem isn't the magic and sorcery in the books but how the culture alienates us from responding to them in an appropriate way.

Any excessive focus on witchcraft or sorcery is bad, but I think the Harry Potter books and films can be enjoyed as a children's fantasy. Nothing in either attacks the Christian faith, and good does win out over evil. But I can understand people's uneasiness. I think it is rooted in an uneasiness about how much times have changed. Today's moral environment is much more consciously non-Christian than in the past. As I've said, the popularity of a television series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is not insignificant. Chesterton once said, “When we stop believing in God, we don't believe in nothing — we believe in anything.” People who have reservations about Harry Potter are concerned about this.

The Church respects the freedom of individuals. She doesn't impose her views; she proposes, suggests and recommends. In today's world, however, where there are so many competing voices, in order for the Gospel to be heard it sometimes looks like we're harping on the issues when what we're really trying to do is just get people's attention. Our competitors are formidable. Television wants to entertain us. The news media want to challenge society's established institutions and in doing so take a certain amount of delight in their faults and failures. We've become a very wealthy country in which our money buys many distractions. We can easily direct ourselves away from the difficulties of life, from the serious questions of life. The role of the Church is to constantly call us to a greater freedom, to help promote clarity of thought about why we're here.

You defended Mel Gibson's film The Passion from the charge of anti-Semitism before seeing it.

I have since seen it.

At the time, you hadn't seen it when you warned critics not to rush to judgment.

I don't know what the final version of the movie is going to look like because I saw a rough cut.

And what do you think?

I thought it was an extraordinary work of art and extraordinarily faithful to the Gospels. If I was critical of the film's detractors it's because I think it's unwise for any group to try to intimidate either the Church or people of Mel Gibson's faith from speaking very clearly what they believe to be true. You know anti-Semitism is a terrible sin; it's a sin the Church has repented from and will need to continue to repent from if and when there are examples of it in Church life. But to clearly proclaim our belief that Jesus is the messiah and that he suffered, died and rose from the dead is for us something we have a duty to proclaim. We can't be intimidated from proclaiming it. It seems to me the rush to judge the film before it was even completed was an act of intimidation to prevent Christians from doing what they need to do.

I can't speak for Mel Gibson, of course, but I think making the movie was for him an act of faith. I think it's a hugely significant personal venture for him. I think it's important for him to listen to the criticisms that come his way, but I also think he should be free to pursue his best judgments on the matter.

The Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have also objected to the film on the grounds that it is anti-Semitic and that, once released to the public, it could inflame anti-Semitic sentiment.

I don't agree. I think some members of the Jewish community have felt that any Passion play, any depiction of the Passion whatsoever, automatically begins in antiSemitism. If such a case occurred the Church would act to show how it is wrong and a sin. But with Gibson's film, certainly the version I saw, this isn't the case.

You very recently publicly rebuked Senate Democrats who have blocked the judicial nomination of William Pryor, a Catholic, saying “a new kind of religious discrimination is very welcome at the Capitol, even among elected officials who claim to be Catholic.”

I was also fascinated by the reactions of some state officials who are Catholic to the Church's counsel about homosexual marriage. They rushed to say that they weren't going to let the Vatican tell them what to think or how to vote. But it's the Vatican's job to help guide Catholics in understanding and applying their faith. That's not news. Catholics believe in the separation of church and state, but if you're a Catholic and take your faith seriously then Catholic teaching informs your judgment. To say you won't let your convictions influence your political decision-making is a strange position to take. It implies that public service demands moral neutrality. That doesn't make any sense, and it results in a civic life without character or meaning.

As for the confirmation of Mr. Pryor, it just strikes me as very odd that those opposed to him protested their innocence on the charge of anti-Catholicism with the argument that they are Catholics and thus can't be anti-Catholic. People oppose him precisely because he believes what the Church teaches about abortion. Many non-Catholics also hold views similar to the Church's on abortion, since our perspective is based on natural law. But if someone can't be appointed a judge because he agrees with what the Catholic Church thinks about human life, then it's discriminatory and really a dangerous precedent in our country. I think judges have a responsibility to apply the law of the land, but they shouldn't be disqualified for a judgeship simply because they believe in the Church's views on abortion.

Are you confident in the work of the commission that is examining the allegations of sexual abuse in the Church?

Yes. The bishops of our region met with members of the commission here in Denver in early June. That meeting eased a lot of concerns. They briefed us on what to expect in the audit process. They were thorough and very professional, determined to do their job but also aware of the sensitivity of the task. I think the bishops came away impressed. The team that did our audit in July was certainly impressive. They were careful, they took their time, they interviewed a variety of people, and I think the results were very positive. We'll know their final assessment later this fall. But the audits are definitely not window-dressing. They mean business.

What are your thoughts on the Dominican nuns sentenced to prison for their anti-war protest at a missile silo?

What the sisters did, they did from sincere conviction. I respect that, but I personally don't think it was a very effective witness. I'm certainly grateful their sentences weren't as severe as they could have been. But I also hope the sisters and their supporters will start contextualizing their acts. The Church doesn't teach that nuclear deterrence is unequivocally evil. Catholics can differ on their approach to this issue within the context of Catholic teaching, and for anyone to suggest that the sisters' position is the only viable Catholic position is simply wrong.