A bishop of consequence

George Weigel

When I first met Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., more than twenty years ago, I was struck by his boyish demeanor, his exquisite courtesy, and his rock-solid faith. Then the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, a diocese that serves several reservations, Chaput was obviously proud of his Potawatomi heritage without wearing his roots, so to speak, on his sleeve. Moreover, his striking modesty and personal gentleness exemplified the Franciscan vocation he had embraced. Here, I thought, is a real pastor, living out the meaning of his episcopal motto, “As Christ loved the Church.”

He was also a lot of fun. It was no easy business to return service in the rapid-fire repartee led by our host that night, then-Msgr. Timothy Dolan. But Chaput played the rhetorical baseline like a pro.

A few years after we met, he was named archbishop of Denver. And for the next fourteen years, I watched in admiration as Archbishop Chaput led what was, in many people’s judgment, the premier New Evangelization diocese in the country. He was always the bottom line. But he governed the archdiocese in a genuinely collegial manner, which is one reason he drew many highly talented lay collaborators to Denver. No one who knew him doubted that he would have happily spent the rest of his life in the Mile High City.

In 2011, however, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was in grave trouble, and Archbishop Chaput accepted the unenviable task of fixing what had become a serious mess, financially and otherwise. To agree to that transfer was an act of fidelity and courage by a man who loved his current job and had zero interest in what might once have been thought a “promotion.” Yet when Pope Benedict asked him to do it, Chaput agreed. I thought then, and think now, that perhaps no other bishop in the country could have turned the Philadelphia situation around as Archbishop Chaput did. Pope Francis’s highly successful visit to Philly in 2015 was all to Chaput’s credit – although, typically, he publicly shared the credit with others.

Immediately after the papal visit, Chaput, who had been elected by his American brother bishops to Synod-2015, spent almost a month in Rome, where his qualities were quickly recognized by the world episcopate. After hearing him and watching his work as one of the Synod discussion-groups’ secretaries, Archbishop Chaput drew the largest vote to the Synod General Council among the elected North American Synod delegates, in an open ballot that some wags refer to as the “Iowa caucuses.” It was a striking compliment.

Archbishop Chaput has just published his third book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (Henry Holt). Like any sensible person, Chaput knows that the United States is living through a season of profound moral and cultural turbulence – turbulence that threatens to unravel the American democratic experiment. Yet for all his penetrating analysis of how the United States came to its present season of discontent, Strangers in a Strange Land is, finally, a hopeful book: a point that eluded reviewers whose familiarity with the actual text seems rather slight. Thus the archbishop closes on this note:

“The Word of God testifies to the goodness of creation, the gift that is life, and the glory of the human person. With this glory comes a duty. We are born for the City of God. The road home leads through the City of Man. So we are strangers in a strange land, yes.

“But what we do here makes all the difference.”

For years, I was angered by the vicious caricature of Archbishop Charles Chaput as a dour, stridently orthodox, rigid culture-warrior: a calumny that dominates certain circles of portside Catholic commentary, here and elsewhere. But I’m no longer angry at the poor souls who continue to treat Archbishop Chaput as an ideological punching bag or dismiss him as a pre-Pope Francis bishop. Rather, I feel sorry for them. If Charles Chaput does not embody the spiritual and pastoral qualities the Pope says he values in bishops, no one does. Those who continue to miss that truth, here and elsewhere, are to be pitied for having failed to appreciate an admirable human being, a man of God, and a great churchman.

Photo by Javier de la Flor | CNA

COMING UP: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash