Archbishop Chaput Talks Politics ... and Philadelphia

Catholics need to be more involved in politics, Philly archbishop says.

Archbishop Charles Chaput
Archbishop Charles Chaput (photo: Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

In the wake of his surprisingly frank pastoral letter on the challenges ahead for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and as a presidential election draws near, we spoke with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life during his ad limina visit. During a wide-ranging interview, he reflected with characteristic directness on the distinct but overlapping roles of Catholic bishops, the laity and politicians. 

The Capuchin archbishop spoke from Rome with Register correspondent Edward Pentin on Dec. 10. 

What have been the highlights of your ad limina visit to Rome?

The highlight is always the visit with the Holy Father. The bishops of Philadelphia — there are five of us (I have four auxiliary bishops) — met with him the day after we arrived. And it was a wonderful half hour where he listened very intensely about our concerns for the Church in the United States and in our own diocese of Philadelphia. He was very supportive in calling us to be good and faithful bishops in the work that lies ahead for us. One of the things Jesus told Peter to do was to confirm the brethren, and this Pope has an extraordinary way of doing that.

There was a change in the ad limina visit from the past. Each bishop used to have a one-on-one with the Holy Father, but now he meets in groups. Those who have had previous experience (including myself) thought that this wasn’t a good idea because we very much liked the one-on-one time. But having experienced the method by which he does this, we think it’s good for everyone because he focuses on every bishop present. He makes sure everyone says something, looks at the person who speaks, and gives them his full attention. He has a huge ability at the end to synthesize the things that are spoken about.

Is it rather like a tutorial with a professor, in which everyone is free to participate?

It’s more like a fraternal experience than it would be a teaching experience. But he’s certainly very interested in hearing from us, so he gets to know the Church internationally, but he also knows that we very much look up to him and depend on him as our brother, but also “Peter,” who confirms us in the faith.

How useful were your meetings with the various dicasteries?

The bishops pick and choose which dicasteries they go to, and it’s generally the ones that are most involved in the life of our local churches. Because of the issue of sex abuse, we certainly talked about that issue with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and also with the Congregation for the Clergy. But the bishops are also interested in the New Evangelization, so the newest Pontifical Council (of the New Evangelization) the bishops went to in great numbers, and also the Congregation for the Laity, women and young people. There was a huge interest in 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 who 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.

What issues should Catholic voters consider most during the upcoming presidential election year?

First of all, Catholics shouldn’t only be interested in politics during an election year. My biggest concern is that no serious Catholics enter politics, whether in active participation of the party they belong to or run for office. So, really, I wish this would be on the minds of Catholics all the time.

An election year [has] an impact on the direction of our country. ... So the role of bishops is really to encourage, inspire and motivate Catholics to become involved politically. Catholics do believe in the separation of church and state, but that’s not at all the same as separation of our faith from political life. What it simply means is that the state doesn’t tell the Church what to do, nor does the Church have control over the state; they’re separate.

But … it’s very important that the Church be active. [That] means its people have to be active. Many Catholics aren’t active and say there doesn’t have to be a moral issue involved in voting and running for office.

There are some very big issues … before us. The Church does have a deep tradition regarding economic issues, and the impact of Catholic morality on the way we do business is very important.

We have ongoing concerns about religious freedom. I’ve been talking about this for 10 years, but I think everyone is finally aware that this isn’t just a passing issue; it’s a very fundamental issue. If we don’t speak about it now, we’ll wake up one day and find we’ve lost our freedom.

The Holy Father often says it’s the fundamental human right because from it come all other human rights.

Yes it is, and it’s a way of protecting the right of God over us as compared to the rights of the state over us. Our duties to God are more important than duties to the state. But you know: Our duties to the state flow from our duties to God, so these are very, very important issues.

And yet they’re now more under attack than they’ve ever been.

People say we have our issues with this administration, but this administration is elected because of the mood of our times. It isn’t just this administration that has brought these issues upon us — they [have] been in discussion in public life ... for a very long time. We have to also look at Europe [which has] marginalized and sidelined religion in a way that it hasn’t been sidelined in the United States.

We need to say, “Just look at Europe” — where Catholics are embarrassed to be religious in the public sphere, especially politicians. They’re astonished when people mention God in public discourse.

But isn’t the United States different, much more a nation of a people of faith?

We have been, and this would be guaranteed if people would speak up and act because we are still a deeply religious people. But the leadership of a country isn’t always representative of its membership, and they tend to be the elite. The elite are very clearly not as religious as the vast majority of people.

Should the Church be more pastoral and corrective in dealing with those publicly dissenting Catholic politicians?

The Church should be with all of our people, not just politicians. People love to hear about people speaking about politicians because it’s interesting or controversial, but politicians aren’t different from any other Catholics. They have the exact same duties, and they can’t make themselves exceptions to obligations Catholics have by saying: Well, I personally believe this, but I can’t act that way publicly. They’re … asking to be dispensed from being Catholics in public service, and none of us can. Doctors can’t be non-Catholic in their practice; lawyers can’t be non-Catholic in their practice; so I’d think politicians can’t be non-Catholic in their practice.

Would you want to see more leadership from other bishops to say these politicians must offer a coherent witness?

I’d like leadership of bishops on all these issues, not just about politicians. It has to be every day of every year and not just in the election cycle. If we dealt with these questions all the time, we wouldn’t have to deal with them in special ways during election cycles.

Should a candidate’s own moral failings and inconsistencies in the past have a bearing on how one votes?

Well, it seems to me, we all can change. The heart of all Catholic moral theology is conversion, so if conversion’s possible, then we really can trust people to be converted if they say they are — and if they show they are. We have to do more than just to say it; we have to show it.

If someone held a position a year ago, does that mean they’ll hold the same position now? I don’t think so. I think people genuinely can be converted and genuinely change their mind about things. Someone said a sign of intelligence is to change your mind. […] I think that’s true, except when it comes to matters of faith and morals, when we have to submit our own mind to the mind of Christ.

You’re held up by some as a model bishop who takes a stand on crucial issues when other bishops often don’t. What advice would you share with other bishops?

First of all, I think comparisons are odious. I don’t like to be compared to other bishops; I’d like to be compared to Christ and the apostles, and there I fail miserably. So I don’t have any advice for other bishops — except that which I take myself, which is: Be faithful to Christ without compromising … to be clear in our preaching and our teaching, and then to model it in our own lives.

Looking ahead to the future of the Church in the U.S., what are the other priorities, the most urgent issues that the Church should be focusing on?

The New Evangelization is the most important issue for the Church generally, everywhere in the world, especially in the West. In Africa and Asia, the first evangelization is going on in some areas, but the New Evangelization is the evangelization of those who claim to be Christian but aren’t captured by Christ. Their imaginations aren’t captured by the Gospel. It seems to me that all the areas we talked about are contained in that responsibility to teach the Gospel in ways that are always fresh and clear and faithful to the Gospel.

So the New Evangelization should be the preoccupation of all bishops: to make sure that our budgets are in the direction of evangelization, that we don’t just maintain structures, but that we promote the faith. It’s very easy in an older diocese, which is more complex and as institutional as Philadelphia, to be caught up in managing buildings and the past rather than walking or running into the future. So we have to be sure we don’t get strangled by our institutions.

[We should] listen to people, be creative and judge ourselves and our success in preaching the Gospel by conversion. … Personal conversion … takes place one soul at a time. You don’t convert an institution — you convert people.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.