Archbishop Chaput's Defense

Nothing in memory signals the depths to which official Catholic fortunes have sunk than the mayor of Philadelphia calling the action of the city's archbishop "un-Christian." This is Philadelphia, after all, seat of one of the original dioceses in the nation long considered an absolute bastion of Catholicism. The local papers took pains not to alienate it. 

But there was Jim Kenney, recently installed to head the city, blasting Archbishop Charles Chaput for warning Catholics in sexual activity outside the church's definition of marriage to stay away from communion. In the spring, the pope's document on such matters left the door open. Francis suggested no single treatment of the "irregularly" partnered was right and urged priests to listen to supplicants before deciding whether they could be admitted.

The uproar against Chaput has been strong, much of it claiming he violated Francis' openness to change. But did he?

I don't think so. It seems to me that he was perfectly within the pope's amorphous guidelines. It is entirely within the pope's broad, non-specific style of defining things in such a way that it allows a wide range of interpretations. Perhaps this is what he's aiming for: he fits a pattern that wants to leave matters to conscience. That's exactly what Chaput has done. If another bishop chooses a less stringent set of criteria, that would fit within the standard too.

Pope Francis is by all measures a good soul full of charity who has no clear mission while appearing to have one on all sides of the theological spectrum. He is the papal Rorschach. Many liberals are sure that he's legislating a reform when in fact he's warmly and somewhat misleadingly only hinting at reform or appealing for a second virtual supreme court review of decisions already made. "Who am I to judge?" Completely open-ended. Considered one way, why would he have to since John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger already did. He can fiddle with implementation and present a much more loving attitude, but the judgment on paper sticks. If something came along that justified change without insisting on admission of wrongdoing, well, that could set things off in another direction. But unless or until, the pope seems inclined to adhere to the declaration made in 1987 -- in terms of the papal tradition of never contradicting your predecessors, he doesn't have to judge.

The ambiguity in so many of the pope's comments and declarations, which seem to have no practical consequences, have also galvanized those on the Catholic right who read into that bag of potentials a distrust that he honors tradition. While he doesn't stomp on traditions, save clerical bad behavior and neglect of Gospel virtues such as mercy and embrace of the poor, he hasn't to my knowledge rewritten a single item of church business.

He is, for better or worse, less prone to revise or reverse any major teaching or company policy but is dedicated to letting Catholics do as they think best as their conscience informs them in prayer and regard for what the church has to say.

It may be monumental that Francis' legacy will be his re-assertion of conscience as one of the three legs of guidance, arbitrating between Gospel and church teaching. What makes matters confusing is the widespread lack of knowledge of either Scripture or doctrine. Conscience without that context can cause mischief.  As it is, the pope's most revolutionary move is largely overlooked: his tendency to drop enigmatic hints and letting the Chaputs make up their own minds while only appearing to tip his hand. 

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