Analysis: The pastoral approach of Archbishop Charles Chaput

chaput Archbishop Charles Chaput. CNA file photo.

Archbishop Charles Chaput is not a cardinal. He has never been an officer at the U.S. bishops' conference. He has never lived in Rome, and, in an international Church, he is not a polyglot.

Chaput's resume is not typical of most influential figures in the Church's hierarchy.

But when Chaput turns 75 and submits his resignation to Pope Francis next month, his admirers and his fiercest critics are likely to agree that the archbishop's 31 years as a diocesan bishop have shaped, in significant ways, the voice of the Church in the U.S.

In light of that, the archbishop's approach to episcopal ministry offers lessons worth noting, both for bishops who agree with him, and those who don't.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should make clear my own bias: I love Archbishop Chaput. I met my wife at a lecture he gave, and the archbishop has been very kind over the years to my family. He gave me my first job in canon law and diocesan administration, and he has invested in my professional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual development. Some of the happiest years of my professional life were spent working for Chaput in the Archdiocese of Denver, where, among many other talented colleagues, I worked alongside the National Catholic Register's Jeanette DeMelo, Real Life Catholic's Chris Stefanick, the estimable Fran Maier, and then-auxiliary Bishop James Conley.

It is also worth noting that Chaput was an early supporter of Catholic News Agency, and is a board member of EWTN, of which CNA is a service.

And while I am insistent that CNA, and this analysis, treat him fairly and objectively, I am also proud to acknowledge that Archbishop Chaput is my friend.

The first Native American to become a diocesan bishop, Chaput spent nine years in Rapid City, South Dakota, 14 years as Archbishop of Denver, and eight years in Philadelphia, where, in 2015, he hosted Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families.

Chaput is the author of two bestselling books, a regular contributor to secular and religious publications, and his weekly column, his talks, and his homilies are "must-reads" for a broad swath of bishops and priests, for pastoral workers and intellectuals, and for a large following of practicing Catholics.

The archbishop has been a leader from the floor at the U.S. bishops' conference; he has served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and he has been a member of the Vatican's permanent council of the synod of bishops.

More quietly, the archbishop has served as a mentor to priests, deacons, and religious across the country. Countless lay people, religious, and clerics cite his influence in the discernment of their vocations or apostolates. And his first auxiliary is Archbishop Jose Gomez, who now leads the largest U.S. diocese, and is poised to be elected president of the U.S. bishops' conference in November.

Chaput's reputation in the media is rather polarized. By critics, he has been portrayed as triumphalist, reflexively conservative, impatient with disagreement, and a kind of ideological foil to Pope Francis. One critic even characterized him recently as a "devout schismatic." Supporters paint a different picture, saying that Chaput is doctrinally orthodox, intellectually engaging, humble, self-effacing, and pastorally available. 

But love him or loathe him, Church-watchers generally agree that among U.S. bishops, Chaput has been more effective than most at achieving his vision, and leaving a legacy.

As his career as a diocesan bishop comes near its end, it is worth noting three aspects of Chaput's approach to leadership that have characterized his ministry as a bishop.

Lay collaboration

A sometimes overlooked aspect of Chaput's ecclesial career is his formation as a Capuchin. But Chaput attended a Capuchin seminary high school, professed vows in the order at 23, and became a Capuchin provincial superior before he was 40; the archbishop is a Capuchin Franciscan. And the long emphasis within that religious order on collaboration between lay and ordained brothers seems to have shaped the archbishop's vision of diocesan leadership.

Chaput has frequently emphasized the "co-responsibility" of laity and clergy for the Gospel, and encouraged Church leaders to call upon the expertise of laity. While he has most often mentioned the importance of lay voices in public life, his episcopal ministry has involved the cultivation of lay leaders in ecclesial contexts, the delegation of ecclesiastical functions to lay advisers and staff collaborators, and the encouragement of lay-led and administered apostolic projects.

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During Chaput's time in Denver, the archbishop supported the formation of lay-led apostolates like Endow, the Augustine Institute, and FOCUS, while also welcoming lay-led ecclesial movements like the NeoCatechumenal Way to his diocese, and appointing a lay chancellor and other senior lay officials within diocesan institutions. In Philadelphia, he is known to have expanded the role of the lay-led archdiocesan pastoral council, while hiring laity for open leadership positions.

The Second Vatican Council notes that laity can "be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy," adding that laity "have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose."

It is obvious to those who have worked in the Church that bishops have understood and assented to that teaching in different ways. Some bishops, most comfortable in the company of clerics, continue to fill senior leadership positions almost exclusively with priests. Others seem to talk about "lay collaboration" as a kind of virtue signal, leveraging the term to indicate progressive positions on ecclesial questions, or, on the other hand, to be uncomfortable with an emphasis on lay collaboration because of those same connotations.

Chaput's approach to lay collaboration, according to several of his current and former staffers, is neither ideological nor forced. It is collaboration, they say, borne of his sense of equality in dignity among clerics and laity, and his sincere trust that the Holy Spirit can move as powerfully through the laity as through those entrusted with mitres and croziers.  

Chaput told me once, shortly after I began working for him, that among a bishop's most important tasks is to help people discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in their own lives, and to help remove obstacles as they follow God's call. Other staffers say he has told them similar things, and offered similar advice.

The effect of that approach, according to observers, has been that on many issues, including clerical sexual abuse, Chaput's dioceses have generally been recognized as being ahead of national trends on consultation, transparency, and accountability. Chaput's collaboration with lay experts is frequently credited with untangling the Gordian knot presented by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's legal and financial difficulties. And the effect of encouraging lay apostolic projects outside the chancery is evidenced in the fruitful national reach of apostolates like FOCUS.
Public engagement

Chaput drew attention last week for a column he published after mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio.

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The column, which evoked his own experiences in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting, said that "assault rifles are not a birthright, and the Second Amendment is not a Golden Calf." It called for greater restrictions on the sale of firearms.

But, in making a point about fighting the deep causes of a "culture of violence," the archbishop wrote that "only a fool can believe that 'gun control' will solve the problem of mass violence."

It was the last quote that made the headlines. Local television stations, and then national publications, led with the quote, and a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer said the archbishop had "foolishly missed the mark," before accusing him of racial insensitivity.

Chaput is a lightning rod for controversy, and neither the archbishop nor Church observers are surprised when his weekly column garners national attention.

In short, it is not news when Chaput is in the news.

In 2010, the archbishop told reporter David Gibson that "I don't have a whole lot of concern about what people think of me."

"To me, NOT to say something is really very destructive, because silence implies consent," he added.

"So I feel obliged to talk. A lot."

The archbishop is a frequent commentator on American public life, on issues that reach well beyond internal ecclesiastical affairs. He is not shy to express opinions on political issues, on film and television, on family life and economic justice. And he is not hesitant to make unlikely allies.

In Colorado, Chaput made headlines for speaking engagements he arranged with then-Congressman Jared Polis, who is now the first openly gay American to be elected a state governor. The unlikely pair had common cause on immigration reform, and worked together to forge alliances on the issue. He has engaged with Pennsylvania politicians in a similar way.

The effect of Chaput's engagement with culture is that his influence on the lives of ordinary people extends far beyond the boundaries of his diocese. Livestreamed Facebook homilies are credited with his popularity among younger Catholics. Writing in secular journals and magazines is often seen as a factor in the archbishop's credibility with non-Catholics, and the catalyst for Chaput's recognition as a focal point of engagement among Catholics and evangelicals, Mormons, and Jews.

The hallmarks of Chaput's speeches and columns are citations from a broad and deep bibliography, the framework of a Catholic worldview, and a clear and digestible series of points.

While bishops are both free and encouraged to engage meaningfully on topics of importance to the Church, few actually do, and even fewer give evidence of having done the necessary homework. But the reach of Chaput's engagement is evidence that bishops can successfully engage culture as both pastors and public intellectuals, and are likely find an eager audience when they do.

Pastoral availability

In 2015, Philadelphia Magazine reported that "Chaput has long been known to have an 'open-door policy' of sorts with emailers." Church-watchers note the same thing. So, in fact, do perfect strangers to the archbishop; those who are surprised when a bishop responds to their emailed notes.

Pastoral availability is not subject to theological viewpoints or ideological positions. But it is, by many accounts, the mark of a good priest, and is often the defining characteristic of a priest's legacy.

Those who have worked in parishes know that the parish priests most fondly remembered are those who made time to visit a sick relative, to listen after a loss, to patiently accompany a parishioner through a personal struggle or a period of difficulty.

By the metric of pastoral availability, Chaput's legacy as a bishop will likely receive high marks.

Chaput is well-regarded among staffers, priests, and a broad circle of friends and acquaintances for his availability by email, a phone call, or a short visit.

It is not uncommon, staff members say, for the last email received of the night, and the first received the next morning, to be from Chaput.

Nor is it uncommon for the archbishop to forward to staff members emails from Catholics seeking advice, or looking for solutions to problems, and to follow up later on how the matters were resolved.

When he celebrated his last Mass in Denver before his move to Philadelphia, Chaput stood at the door of his cathedral shaking hands for hours. Some of those who waited on line were surprised when their archbishop remembered their names, and something about their stories. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he greeted his new subjects in the same way, and after his resignation is accepted, he is expected to do the same.

In Philadelphia, he is also praised for making "surprise visits" to parishes, announcing only to a parish pastor that he intends to be present for Sunday Mass, and visiting with Catholics after Mass often for hours.

The archbishop has also been recognized for making available pastoral care in styles or forms that are not his personal preference. Though he has admitted that the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is not his personal liturgical preference, he established a quasi-parish in Philadelphia for the Extraordinary Form and a personal parish in Denver for the same. He has, at the same time, welcomed charismatic communities, ecclesial movements, religious orders, and other apostolates of evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral life, without presuming to impose one model of spirituality or ecclesial life on his dioceses.

Of course, anyone who engages in public life needs thick skin. And Chaput has sometimes been criticized in Philadelphia for terse responses to those who disagree with him. He has also, it is worth noting, reportedly received his share of vulgarities and hate mail.

Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of a bishop's availability to his people, using the oft-quoted image of a bishop "smelling like his sheep." As bishops face mounting pressure to spend time on their legal problems, or on complex financial challenges, the pope has reminded them to make themselves available first to their people, and to spend the time and energy required to attend to them. Chaput, according to those who know him best, seems to have made that priority the defining characteristic of his ministry as a bishop.

Chaput is said to delight in defying expectations, and he has not yet announced what he will do in his retirement. Nor is it certain when the pope will accept his resignation. But whenever Chaput's resignation is accepted, a mantle of episcopal leadership will be passed. Whether bishops will have the courage to take up that mantle remains to be seen.