New head for troubled Philadelphia archdiocese

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput figured that at age 66, there was little chance of Pope Benedict XVI uprooting him from Denver, where he’s served for 14 years, to head another U.S. diocese.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the newly appointed archbishop of Philadelphia, tries on a Phillies baseball cap during a news conference July 19 at the archdiocesan headquarters.CNS photo from Reuters

But last month the pontiff named him to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, whose head, Cardinal Justin Rigali, was one year past the retirement age for bishops.

It definitely is a promotion; Philadelphia is a historic see (and one in which Archbishop Chaput is likely to be named a cardinal) and it has three times as many Catholics as Denver. But it is also will be an enormously arduous task. Morale among laity and priests is particularly low after the publication of a damning grand jury report on clerical sex abuse and the subsequent suspension of 21 priests.

To top it off, the same week Archbishop Chaput’s appointment was announced, the Philadelphia archdiocese fired its chief financial officer after prosecutors discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars missing. An investigation is ongoing.

A Capuchin Franciscan who is also a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe (his Potawatomi name means “he who makes the leaves rustle like the wind”), Archbishop Chaput has made somewhat of a name for himself defending the right of Catholics to speak up in pluralistic societies such as the United States.

What follows is an edited transcript of a phone interview.

Our Sunday Visitor: What is the legacy you are most proud of leaving to the Archdiocese of Denver after a more than a decade as its shepherd?

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput: I always tell people when they ask me that, that they should ask the people of Denver what they think, because I don’t think we’re always the best judge of our accomplishments or failures.

Things that I think of, of course, are our two seminaries here, which are rather extraordinary. I’ve ordained 71 priests in Denver since coming here, so that’s the fruit of the seminary.

So I think the new priests that we’ve given to the archdiocese are extraordinary and an extraordinary gift, I’m grateful for them; I’m proud of the priests and for the seminaries that produce our priests.

In addition, I’ve welcomed lay movements here that have been fruitful and I’ve supported the ones that were here already, and they’ve also been fruitful.

Life in any diocese is best gauged by the energy and enthusiasm in parishes, which is a result of priests and people working together to embrace new evangelization, and I think there’s been a lot of energetic commitment on the part of our priests and parishes.

I think a bishop is always proudest of the growth of faith in a diocese and I see that all around me, and I’m grateful for it.

OSV: You’re heading into an archdiocese that is suffering from freshly opened wounds of allegations of clerical sex abuse. Do you have a plan?

Archbishop Chaput: I really don’t really know Philadelphia yet, so it’s a great priority for me to get to know them and everything about the Church, its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

I’m going to try to be open and responsive to the Holy Spirit and the needs of our priests and people.

OSV: With dealing with sex-abuse scandal, is the U.S. Church on the right track to heal this issue, is it just a matter of time to healing?

Archbishop Chaput: I think the Church is trying very, very hard to deal with this issue, both in terms of healing victims and developing policies and procedures that will protect young children into the future. But I’m sure there’s also things that we will learn to do better along the way.

But there’s certainly a huge commitment on the part of not only the bishops and priests but also laymembers of the Church. ... We’re doing a very good job, at least in most places, and we will continue to make our efforts better.

OSV: One of your new hometown papers recently tried to fit you into conservative/liberal paradigm, and said you were “downright progressive” on some issues and also “a vocal, politically engaged proponent of hard-line Catholic orthodoxy.” You don’t like those labels. How would you define yourself?

Archbishop Chaput: I just define myself as a Catholic bishop, and I don’t know why anyone would expect Catholic bishops not to be faithful to the teachings of the Church.

It seems like so much of the media doesn’t have the categories that are necessary to describe us because they define us as political creatures rather than teachers of the Gospel.

OSV: Surveying the public square, what do you see as the most critical issue for the Catholic Church?

Archbishop Chaput: The underlying issue here for so many of these situations is religious freedom and what it means to be a community of faith and to live that faith in the public square. If the government limits our ability to be who we are as a Church, that’s a limitation of religious freedom and I think we ought to deal with that upfront and directly in our political discussions in our country.

In terms of the practical issues, I think the issue of marriage is foundational because it influences the whole of society.

Our broader society is built on the staple of family life and anything we do that makes the family life unstable is to destabilize our broader social communities.

There’s no right to happiness and liberty without a right to life, so that’s a foundational issue, too. ... They equally have huge impacts on the self-understanding of our community.

John Norton is OSV editor.