Archbishop Chaput's Remarkable Challenge to Pope Francis

by Michael Sean Winters

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Archbishop Charles Chaput aligned himself with Cardinal Raymond Burke on Monday night as a severe critic of the Synod on the Family. According to this news reports from David Gibson at RNS, +Chaput was asked about the synod at a First Things symposium, and replied: “I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” This will be the line of attack from the Tutiorists of our day, those who believe the only means of evangelization entails a rigoristic moralism, to the synod: It created confusion. Is that claim true? Was confusion the result of the synod?

Confusion may come from the devil, but the synod came from Pope Francis. And, I would note two recent comments from those who actually attended the synod did not strike this note of confusion being spread abroad by the discussions of the synod fathers. In a blog post at the archdiocese of Washington website, Cardinal Donald Wuerl spoke about the synod process, the frank discussions of various “hot button” issues, and reading +Wuerl’s comments, I do not think he was confused nor did he suggest confusion was the principal outcome of the synod. In an interview with La Nacion, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan, Puerto Rico, also spoke about being a synod father and he seemed to think the gathering was not only worthwhile, but was to be commended for its frankness, that it was "a new chapter in the history of the Church." Again, I did not detect any confusion in the archbishop’s answers, nor did he whine about the synod sowing confusion among the faithful.

So, is Archbishop Chaput easily confused? I do not think so. He is a very bright man and in the text of his speech on Monday night, entitled “Strangers in a Strange Land,” he showed the clarity of his thought. It might surprise some people to know that I share many, even most, of +Chaput’s concerns and even some of his diagnoses for the problems that face the Church at this moment in our history. When he says that “there are no unhappy saints,” and recalls Chesterton’s observation that joy is the “gigantic secret” of the believer, I nod in agreement. I do not disagree when +Chaput says, “For the past 20 years, the clergy abuse crisis has badly eroded the confidence many Catholics have in their own bishops. And we bishops have too often deserved the resentment -- not only of our people, but also of our own good priests. We earned it by responding with the wrong priorities, slowly, defensively and at times even callously; trying to protect reputations and the standing of the Church at the expense of the innocent and the suffering.” I even like his use of the phrase “consumer democracy,” to describe some of what ails our body politic, although I think invoking “Leviathan” is a bit overwrought.

But, when +Chaput detects “confusion” in the synod, I detect an agenda in +Chaput. He is clearly criticizing the process of synodality if it means wrestling with difficult issues which he and other Burkeans thought were settled and no longer up for discussion. +Chaput and the Burkeans had neatly divided the sheep from the goats, and in their worldview, everyone knew that to break bread with a Democrat was not kosher, and to acknowledge the fact that some Catholics struggled with the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics was the first step in “caving in” to the ambient culture. When +Chaput states, as he stated in his talk, “We also need to thank God for the gift of this present, difficult moment. Because conflict always does two things: It purifies the church, and it clarifies the character of the enemies who hate her,” we all see the marks of a culture warrior in full battle array.

The most vexing issues at the synod were the case of divorced and remarried Catholics and the Church’s pastoral care for gay and lesbian Catholics. The Holy Father clearly allowed a discussion, a wide ranging, free and frank discussion, of these issues. But, if you think these issues are settled, that pastoral practice requires nothing more than consulting the Code of Canon Law and standing strong against the culture, what is there to discuss? We all know the parable. When a sheep gets lost, or perceives himself to be lost to the Church, be the sheep a divorced and remarried sheep, or gay and lesbian sheep, the role of the shepherd is to stick with the 99 sheep who have stayed with the flock, and protect them. The wandering sheep can fend for himself. Oh, wait a minute. That is not how that parable goes, is it?

There was no confusion at the synod. There was discussion about how the Church can go out and find the lost sheep without exposing the other sheep to danger. But, if anything is clear about Pope Francis, it is that he wants the ministers of the Church, from the highest office to the lowest, to go out to the world, to engage people’s lives in all their messiness, all their inability to fit into moral categories, all their broken lives. The pope calls for the Church to be a field hospital but I wonder if +Chaput, or those listening to him at First Things, recognize that they, too, should make a trip to the field hospital? They are the ones who have been complicit in the project of reducing religion to ethics in the public square, baptizing an upper middle class Catholicism that is morally correct and evangelistically dead. They are the ones who preach a Gospel with all the warmth of Javert in Les Miserables.

This past Sunday, at Mass, two things jumped out at me. First, the collects had some powerful verbs: “grant that we may always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty,” “through the purifying action of your grace,” “we may be helped by what you give in this present age and prepared for the gifts that are eternal.” This is the language of our faith – conform, serve, purify, help, prepare. I suppose someone can put an ideological construction on those words, but they speak to all of us. Like the Holy Father’s powerful closing address to the synod, an address which was not confusing to me, the Holy Spirit challenges anyone who puts their ideological blinders on so as to preclude the action of the Spirit. The pope warned against:

a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

Archbishop Chaput sees confusion where Pope Francis is, as far as I can see, trying to soften the landscape so that the Church can allow itself to be surprised by God again. Unlike +Chaput, I do not believe a Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage is the proper measure of our culture’s secularization. I believe it is our inability to even think that God might have some surprises in store.

The other thing that jumped out at me at Mass was the last verse of the hymn “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” in which we sang, “Cast each false idol from its throne, The Lord is God, and he alone; To God all praise and glory.” Those who see “confusion” as the primary fruit of the synod have made an idol not of the Church’s teaching but of the Church’s current pastoral praxis. Conversely, those who speak breezily of doctrinal change too often make an idol of their agenda too. But, the hymn calls us to cast each false idol from its throne, each and every one. Between Christ and the culture, Archbishop Chaput erects a neo-conservative, socio-political narrative that is not of the essence of the Gospel and, whatever its explanatory value, it is a failed project for evangelization. It is a false idol. Pope Francis, who is about the least confused person in the world, clearly wants the Church to move to the peripheries not only because our brothers and sisters are in need, but because they are the face of Christ, and if the Church cannot look on the face of Christ, it will always turn to a false idol. The pope wants all of us to leave our comfort zones, to let the Gospel disturb us anew. But, +Chaput and the other Burkeans do not wish to be disturbed. They have all the answers. The idol may be false but it provides comfort.

Next year, Archbishop Chaput is slated to host the Holy Father in Philadelphia a few weeks before the commencement of the next synod on the family. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. Will +Chaput lecture the pontiff on the need to avoid “confusion” as Cardinal Burke lectured the pope on the need to do his duty and speak out against the things being said in the synod hall? I have always been an ultramontane, but this is about more than fidelity to the Roman Pontiff. This is about whether the bishops will accept the challenge of Pope Francis – which is the challenge of Jesus Christ – to go off in search of the lost sheep. The terrain may be unfamiliar. We may encounter people and situations that make us uncomfortable. That is the point. If we get out of our comfort zones and away from idols, perhaps we can appreciate the Gospel as the only thing that is ever truly new, and the only guarantor of salvation, the person of Jesus Christ. The Blessed Mother did not give birth to a summa, still less to a code of canon law. That child is still with His Church, is He not? And, with the confidence, the unsettling, provocative confidence that Christ has not abandoned His Church, why should anyone sweat a little confusion, if confusion it is.   


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