Interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput
November 13, 2007
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has long been a leading point of reference in Catholic debate in the United States. In 2008, his new book on the intersection between faith and politics will be published by Doubleday. He sat down for a brief interview on the morning of Nov. 12 during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting.
What did you make of the discussion yesterday of the John Jay study on the causes and context of the sex abuse crisis?
tI thought it was very interesting. I was fascinated by the fact that the initial results of the study kind of confirmed what I suspect many of us who are my age already understood to be the fact, which is that the church was hugely influenced by the extraordinary movements in our culture when we were young men. None of what was said surprised me. If there’s any consolation – and it’s not consolation, it’s sadness – it was the fact that what they said corresponded to our experience.
In the immediate wake of the crisis, there was a lot of armchair analysis from both the left and the right, with the left arguing the crisis was about clericalism and a culture of secrecy about sexuality, and the right saying it was about excessive tolerance of dissent and inadequate exercises of authority. In other words, both cited intra-Catholic factors. Does this study mean both were wrong?
tI think it shows that both were right. Two things happened at the same time. There was a huge collapse in confidence around the traditional teachings of the church on human sexuality, and at the same time a collapse in terms of leadership, knowing how to deal with the crisis. I remember the vacant look of religious superiors at that time, just not knowing what to do with what was going on. Even those who firmly believed what the church taught were somehow dazed by the spotlight of the oncoming truck, and just didn’t know how to respond to it. Both sides who were critical of that time are right. Those who had positions of responsibility weren’t confident about it and didn’t know how to deal with it, because it was such a change. There was real confusion in the ranks about whether the church was right or wrong on its traditional teachings. That led to the disaster that we had.
Is the main lesson that the crisis is an example of the church being ‘evangelized,’ in a sense, by the culture?
tI don’t know if I would say that the church was evangelized by the prevailing culture, but the church was hugely influenced by it, and it took a long time to find solid ground on the issues. The church listened, and it’s our responsibility to listen, but we listened for so long that it led to confusion in the ranks. We didn’t really act with confidence and vigor. I don’t want to sit in judgment on that, because I wasn’t a superior in those days, and it was a huge change, an incredible change.
The sexual revolution.
tYes, the sexual revolution. I think that the Second Vatican Council helped us to be more ready for it than we would have been without the council.
tIt gave us tools to analyze it, and not to be reactionary. If we had been reactionary, we would have lost as much ground, if not more, than we did. It gave us tools to be reflective. The gradual changes in the church that led to the reflections of Pope John Paul II on the theology of the body and on human sexuality couldn’t have happened without the sexual revolution. As we look back on it, there’s huge tragedy that resulted, but at the same time there’s very positive growth. We have a much more positive understanding of human sexuality. I think there’s a greater patience with human frailty in the area of sexual sin and failure. There’s probably a deeper humanity in the church, in our official reflection anyway. There’s always been a deep humanity in the church in the sacrament of penance.
Are you satisfied with where we are now in terms of the response to the crisis? Have all the right lessons been drawn?
tI would hate to say that yet, because I think we need a few more years to confidently say that about the church’s response. I think there’s still a great deal of fear in the church over this issue. It’s caused to a great extent by the lawsuits against the church. How do you deal with that kind of possible collapse of the infrastructure of local dioceses? I think may bishops respond with fear, and that fear is directed at victims who bring lawsuits – but that’s not an appropriate response to victims, to be fearful of them. We should be deeply concerned about them.
Even when they’re suing you.
tYes, even when they’re suing us. But it’s very hard to do that with a peaceful heart, because of the consequences those lawsuits might bring. I think we have a way to go. I think the best solution for everyone involved is for us to understand the causes and the context. I think the recent studies of the Associated Press on this problem in public schools demonstrate that. That’s nothing for us to rejoice over, but if our culture can look at the whole picture and make judgments about what we should do in the future in terms of the legal system of our country, that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t isolate the church as a particular problem, or scapegoat.
What do you think of the draft of Faithful Citizenship?
tI think it’s much better than it was. I think it’s too long. I really admire the patience that the various committees showed in working on it, and everyone’s trying to accommodate the other side. I think it’s really a good document that way, but it’s too long. I think the real question is how you interpret the part of the document, which flows from Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter to us when we met in Denver. It’s this: what is a ‘proportionate reason’ [to vote for a pro-choice candidate]? That’s part of Catholic theology, those are the facts. We can’t just dismiss that. But, what does that mean? I wish we could flesh that out better with some examples, and some clearer guidance. I think people can use that as an excuse.
What do you think it means?
tAs you know, I have written a book [on faith and politics], and in it I write that it means a reason we could confidently explain to the Lord Jesus and the victims of abortion when we meet them at the end of our lives, and we will meet them. I think there are legitimate reasons you could vote in favor of someone who wouldn’t be where the church is on abortion, but it would have to be a reason that you could confidently explain to Jesus and the victims of abortion when you meet them at the Judgment. That’s the only criterion. It can’t be that we favor a particular party, or that we’re hostile to the war, or so on.
You’re also voting on a new law requiring bishops to obtain approval from their finance councils and colleges of consultors for certain financial moves. Is this a response to recent problems such as bankruptcies, embezzlement, the $30 million debt in Detroit, and so on?
tI think it’s an attempt to meet the standards of our times. I don’t know that it’s a response to particular issues. In Denver, we don’t have any prominent scandals about this, but we’ve been trying to years to get our parishes to take their finance councils seriously, to get the pastors to take the finance councils seriously, and to get the councils to take their roles seriously to assume their responsibility for finances in the parishes. I don’t think it’s a public relations exercise.