PHILADELPHIA – While many people were involved in putting together Pope Francis’ week-long visit to the United States, probably none played a more central role than Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who hosted the World Meeting of Families which the pontiff wrapped up on Sunday.
In many ways, the 78-year-old pope and the 71-year-old archbishop may seem an odd couple.
For one thing, Francis doesn’t really speak English, and Chaput doesn’t really speak Spanish. More basically, Francis is seen as a populist reformer stressing mercy and tolerance, while Chaput has long been acknowledged as a leader of the Church’s conservative wing and a strong voice in America’s culture wars.
Yet during their time together, each man seemed to show flashes of the other.
Francis stressed the importance of religious freedom, one of Chaput’s signature issues, throughout the trip. Not only did he make a point of visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are involved in a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the contraception mandates, but he also apparently met Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who spent five days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
For his part, Chaput insisted that the Church is not on an ideological crusade.
“When the Church defends marriage and the family, the unborn child, and the purpose of human sexuality, she’s attacked as too harsh,” he said in welcoming Francis to Philly’s Independence Hall.
“When she defends immigrant workers and families that are broken up by deportation, she’s attacked as too soft,” he said, insisting that the Church is actually neither of those things. Rather it’s a mother “who understands and loves the whole human person; from conception to natural death; always, consistently, and everywhere.”
Chaput sat down on Tuesday for an exclusive Crux interview about his experience with the pope in Philadelphia, and also what he gleaned from the experience that he’ll bring with him to the Synod of Bishops on the family, which opens in Rome on Sunday.
The following are excerpts from that interview.
Crux: Overall, how do you think Pope Francis’ nine-day trip went?
Chaput: In terms of the whole trip, his visit to Cuba and the United States, I really don’t have an educated opinion because I spent all my time paying attention to the World Meeting of Families and the congress we had here .… He seems to have caused a good impression everywhere he talked in the States, and we seemed to have caused a good impression for him.
Are you bringing any of what you learned at the World Meeting of Families to the Synod of Bishops next week?
I can’t help but bring it, because it’s now a part of my life. And it was interesting … you can always tell a lot about what a crowd thinks through the applause. And most of the applause, during the keynote speakers, and I mean a lot of applause, were for lines that endorsed the traditional understanding of marriage in the Church: one husband, one wife, open to children, or even the issue of Humane Vitae teachings on contraception. It was amazing how the crowd was spontaneous on their support of what the Church teaches.
Can we get a preview of what you’re going to bring to the Synod?
I haven’t written it yet …[and] I don’t know if we’re allowed to talk about this, but I’m going to anyway. I’m going to talk about the importance of having hope as we approach these difficult problems of family life, and also the work of the Holy Spirit in married life, for people who’re in a sacramental marriage especially, and also in the life of the Church.
But also, it means that we have to be willing to challenge Catholic families in the way that Jesus challenges us. Many say: “it’s much too hard.” And when Jesus was told it’s much too hard by the apostles, he said “for men it’s impossible, but not with God.” …. [Marriage] is not easy, many times in contradiction with the prevailing spirit of the world, but when it’s done, it really does create happiness and stability for the children.
There’s been a lot of talk about two specific issues regarding the Synod: the situation for the divorced and civilly remarried, who cannot receive the sacraments, and about the Church taking a more welcoming stance toward gays and lesbians. Many, including the pope, have said it shouldn’t be centered on these two topics. What would you like to see the focus be?
There are a lot of divorces. But most Catholic weddings end up in a faithful, lifelong commitment to one another. And for us to depart from them, to be focused on one question with big implications, it’s foolish.…
How do you deal with married couples trying to remain faithful? How do you teach young couples who’re preparing to get married to be faithful? How to support your neighbors if they’re struggling with divorce? How do you accompany people who’ve already been through divorce and want to remain faithful? How do you manage to [sustain] your family when you don’t have a job?
But there are many people who have had a divorce and feel they’re no longer welcomed in the Church.
We need to invite them to come back, but also think, when they come back, what are we going to give them? And we have to give them the teachings of Jesus, because it gives us life and the truth, but what in terms of support?
And on gay couples?
Members of the Church have been bigoted toward people with same-sex attraction, have actually been cruel, and also physically violent at times. We have to repent for that. But in the US, this doesn’t happen so often in the Church anymore.
We need to think about what we can do today, to welcome people who don’t live according to the teachings of the Church on any issue. It’s not only on this issue; there are people who don’t agree with the teaching on any number of issues, who feel alienated from the Church. We can’t say, “That’s not important, don’t worry about it, come back anyway,” because we can’t trivialize the words of Jesus and the teachings of the Church. But [we have to ask ourselves] how can we accept them?
If the Church in the US is being more welcoming, then why was a group of gay Catholics who wanted to participate in the World Meeting of Families not welcomed in a parish?
We don’t welcome any group that comes to the Church if it wants to give a message contrary to Church teaching. Other examples: There was a group that was racially biased and wanted to preach against the Church’s teaching on racism, another that wanted to do this on immigration, and we’d never give them a platform in one of our parishes to deliver their message. And people would be outraged if we did.
You spent almost two full days with Francis. What can you tell us about that time?
We shared lunch twice, and dinner and breakfast once. We had no cheesesteak…. The sisters preparing lunch for us are very used to tending to bishops in Rome in their household, so we had a very Italian meal. And the pope eats very simply. I know he doesn’t take second servings of anything. He did eat dessert on one of the meals, but not the other. He didn’t touch the wine, at any moment.
I find him to be very fraternal, very easy to be with. I wasn’t nervous at all, because he makes you feel very comfortable, his personality is immediately welcoming. It was wonderful to have him in the house.
Did he ever complain?
No, he never complains about anything. He’s a very nice man.
You were among those who helped put together Francis’ meeting with the survivors of sexual abuse. What can you tell us about the encounter?
It was very touching. I know the survivors wanted to meet with him, but it was also very courageous of them to speak. It was very beautiful: I introduced them to the Holy Father, and one of the survivors spoke for the rest of them for five minutes or so. And the Holy Father read his prepared remarks, but also went off the script, as he usually does. There were tears, and sadness, and joy, but also I think a real reconciliation with the Church. And that’s what the Holy Father was hoping for and the victims were longing for.
So it wasn’t a public relations stunt?
There’s been criticism about the Church organizing these meetings for those purposes. That’s so untrue. It’s obvious that the Holy Father really means what he said, and reaches out with mercy and love, and he’s very sincere in what he says regarding the sins of the Church. Everyone who’d been there would have known this wasn’t a public relations exercise.
There were also survivors of non-clerical sexual abuse…
Yes. Being abused by a priest is uniquely painful, but everybody needs to address abuses, not just the Church. The Church has done a better job than any other group in American society, and no matter how many times we demonstrate that fact, people seem to forget that we’ve done anything at all. … I hope that as we get criticism, deserved many times, we also get people to acknowledge the efforts we made, and we’ve made many.
It’s important to understand that if the Church is constantly attacked, over and over again, and our efforts are never recognized as being sincere, we create a greater tension and alienation on the part of the victims, who think it’s true, so we create further damage. People hear the attacks from victims groups and the press, and presume it’s all true, and that the Church hasn’t changed at all, and it’s not fair.
How important was it for the American bishops to hear Francis support religious freedom during his address at Congress, visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor, and then again in Philadelphia?
It was really good to know that he stands with us on this very important issue. In many ways, the future of the Catholic Church will depend on the right to religious freedom. Because if not, it’d be very hard for Catholics to publicly express their faith, have jobs, go to school, be accepted in political life as someone running for office.
If our country loses its unique understanding of religious freedom, we won’t be the United States anymore, because our country was founded by people who fled Europe in order to have religious freedom. It’s in our constitution, and the world looks at us as the bastion of religious freedom. If it disappears from here, the whole world is in trouble. You don’t give up your religious freedom, nor your duty to speak up about your beliefs.
Francis also talked about the need of bishops to stop fighting with each other. How do you think that’s going to play here?
I’m perceived as a conservative, but I don’t think I am on most issues. I’m orthodox. I believe what the Church believes. Having said that, some want to call me a cultural warrior. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, because there are many things in the culture today that we should fight against. But having said that, I’m not aware of fighting among the bishops. We don’t fight publicly, not even privately. We speak our mind, but there are no personal attacks. Some criticize us for being a club, with no disagreements, but that’s not true either. We’re just polite to each other, because Christians should always be polite to each other …. And loving, even when they disagree.