BALTIMORE — In the days after the synod on the family at the Vatican, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput made headlines after blasting what he described as “confusion” coming from Rome. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion,” he said.
Some, including Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, interpreted his remarks — made in response to a question from the audience after he gave the 2014 Erasmus Lecture in New York — as criticism of the pope, the synod, or both. But not so, says the 70-year-old Capuchin, who will host Pope Francis during his expected visit to the United States next year.
“There are people who, I think, deliberately want to twist the truth, and divide the Church, and use my words as saying I was critical of either the pope or the synod, and that absolutely wasn’t true,” he told Crux in an interview last week during the US Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting.
Chaput was reportedly selected by bishops during a secret election this week to attend the second part of the synod next October. Before that takes place however, Chaput said, Catholics have their work cut out for them.
Bishops, priests, and laypeople must “study the results of the synod and do further reflection under the guidance, the leadership, of the pope. He’s asked us to do that, and I think each diocese needs to do that in some creative way, and not just to let the next 12 months pass without anything happening, but actually use the document as part of a reflection process.”
Philadelphia will play host to the World Meeting of Families in September, which Chaput called a “unique contribution” to the synod’s preparation.
In addition to a likely papal Mass in downtown Philly, Chaput said a range of speakers will address issues facing families across the world.
“We’re reaching out to the Muslim community. We have several Jewish speakers. We even have an atheist who’s part of the program. The Mormons are going to give a talk on their techniques of holding families together,” he said. “So I think it should be a very rich mixture of reflections on family life.”
During a talk to bishops at the conference, Chaput said the World Meeting would not focus on hot-button issues familiar to Americans, like same-sex marriage and contraception.
“Families with children with disabilities is a big issue,” he told Crux. “Spouses who have been abandoned by their spouses, and how does the Church reach out to them. This is a really big issue, because it’s not just the spouses, but the children. Mixed families, where there are children from two families who come together when their parents marry each other. How do you work those things out?”
The agenda guiding the bishops’ conference during the two days open to the press included updates on religious liberty, the Church’s fight against same-sex marriage, and an hours-long debate over translations of liturgical texts. Absent were in-depth conversations on immigration or poverty, two issues bishops have highlighted in the past.
But Chaput dismissed the notion that the poor weren’t represented at the meeting, saying that solutions to poverty aren’t “just a simple matter of socio-economic changes.” Instead, he said, Catholics must work on conversion, on accepting the teachings of Jesus, which will ultimately lead to changes in policy.
The Church, he said, spends “so much more time, energy, and money helping the poor than we do on anything else. We’re already doing that. I don’t mean we’re doing enough; we’re never doing enough. But it isn’t like we’re not doing anything.”
The synod produced a sharp debate between bishops who favor loosening restrictions on Communion for the divorced and remarried — and, to a lesser extent, support for gay Catholics — and bishops who want the Church to double-down on enforcing doctrine.
This led to public bickering among some senior churchmen. Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who was recently booted from his position as head of the Vatican’s supreme court, called the Church under Francis “a ship without a rudder.”
Chaput, however, said this kind of public dissent is nothing new.
“Back in the days of Pope John Paul II, it seemed like Cardinal Martini was held up as a dissenter from [the pope’s] teaching by those people who tend to be on the left side,” he said. “I don’t know if that was true, because I didn’t know Cardinal Martini, never met him, but that was always said. So to say this is something new, I don’t know that that is the case. It seems like the press is creating much of this.”
The late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini, archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002, was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, but he held liberal views on social issues at odds with the more conservative Polish pontiff, such as support for women deacons and gay civil unions.
Chaput is critical of the media, saying he believes his words have been twisted to advance certain ideological agendas. He said he suspects some journalists are intentionally trying to “drive a wedge between me and the pope,” which he called “a sin, a sin against the unity of the Church. They love to sell newspapers doing that.”
He said he has “loved and admired” the pope since meeting him at the synod for the Americas in November 1997, when the two sat near one another.
“We had a friendly relationship then, and we do now,” he said. “So for people to say that I’m criticizing him, it’s absolutely untrue, and it’s contrary to my own heart.”
Chaput has been especially vocal in his opposition to gay rights. When he was archbishop of Denver, he defended a Catholic school’s decision not to enroll the child of a same-sex couple. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last year, he said same-sex marriage would “compete with and diminish the uniquely important status” of heterosexual marriage.
Most recently, during the Erasmus lecture in New York, sponsored by the magazine First Things, Chaput said, “We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome [to the Church] on their own terms.”
But, he told Crux, that applies to everyone, not just gays.
“We’re all required, as Catholics, to bring ourselves to the teachings of Jesus, so we become members of the Church on his terms, and not our own,” he said. “I think Jesus changes us. And if we’re not willing to be changed, no matter if we’re on the left or the right, Republicans or Democrats, Catholics or Protestants, if we’re not willing to be changed, we’re tying to have it on our own terms, and not the terms of Jesus. What’s so startling about that?”
A gun dealer or a member of the Mafia or someone who promotes abortion rights, he said, may have more of a challenge living a Christian life than a Catholic schoolteacher, but everyone is called to conversion.
“It’s always difficult to be faithful to Jesus, but it’s not difficult to know what he calls us to, because it’s so clear,” he said. “To say we can’t do what he calls us to, is to say that God is asking the impossible from his people. And I just don’t believe that to be true. It means radical changes, though, for some of us. It means radical changes for all of us.”