Chaput Replaces Rigali in Philadelphia — What Does It Mean for Catholic America?

The most pressing need is for a bishop who will listen — to the voices of the victims and the critics.

Tragedy? Farce? Or something different?

These are the questions still swirling around the resignation of Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Cardinal Rigali and the appointment of his successor, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput.

One could not help but be struck by the tragic dimensions of the press conference in which Cardinal Rigali’s resignation was announced. The cardinal definitely tried to hit the right notes of hope and renewal. The tragic aspect lies in how an otherwise mild-mannered former Vatican diplomat was overtaken by events that he could never really manage. Now past the age of retirement, Riglai’s career will be associated with scandal in Philadelphia, and not his close relationship with Pope Paul VI, his work for Catholic schools in St. Louis, or his self-evident piety.

But this is not tragedy. Tragedy is about “forces outside of human control,” according to a 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report that investigated clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese. In its very first paragraph, the report left no doubt that Philadelphia scandal concerns not “acts of God, but of men who acted in His name and defiled it.” These men were not only abusers, but also those who “excused and enabled them” — particularly Cardinals John Krol and Anthony Bevilacqua who presided over the diocese before Rigali’s installation in 2003.

And so, if it’s not tragedy, then it’s farce. After the grand jury report was issued in 2005, a number of reforms were initiated: the archdiocese committed not only to internal investigations but also to cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office. But only a year later, prosecutors assigned to grand jury case personally wrote to Rigali and argued that the archdiocese was “offering assurances and the appearance of action while failing to take steps needed to prevent sexual abuse.” It was therefore not surprising that another grand jury report, released this past winter, found that 37 priests with credible allegations of abuse were still in active ministry in Philadelphia. Cardinal Rigali had initially claimed that were no priests in active ministry “who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them,” but then suspended twenty-one priests after the report was made public. The chair of the archdiocese’s sexual abuse review board admitted to the difficulties of her task and argued “Cardinal Rigali and his auxiliary bishops also failed miserably at being open and transparent.” When Cardinal Rigali addressed the archdiocese by video there was a noticeable contrast between his evocation of beautiful Catholic devotional themes and his evident reluctance to take personal responsibility.

So, will there now be something different in Philadelphia? Certainly there is now someone different. Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver, has been heralded as a “great pastor” by George Weigel and described as an “in-your-face” leader by Thomas Reese. These two views, of course, are not mutually exclusive, but they do suggest how something different might happen in Philadelphia.

Archbishop Chaput brings a skill set different from what Philadelphia’s Catholics have usually known in their diocesan leadership. Credited for administrative decisiveness, Chaput has spoken intelligently about the Church’s zero-tolerance policy: affirming that it is necessary, while stating that removal from ministry during an investigation should not be immediately interpreted as a sign of guilt on the part of the accused priest. Even his critics will admit that Chaput is one of the most intelligent and thought provoking figures in the American Catholic hierarchy. But herein lies the dilemma: Chaput will need to deemphasize what he is extraordinarily good at. He might not need to become someone different, but he will need to do some things differently.

Archbishop Chaput excels in painting a grand narrative in which Catholicism stands in resistance to Western secularism.   In a speech given in Slovakia in 2010, Chaput reflected on the indifference of many Catholics in the West to the process of secularization that “presumes a post-Christian worldview.” This post-Christian worldview confronts Catholicism with serious choices about its own nature and identity.

The sexual abuse scandal can lend itself to grand-narratives: it is either a sign of the decay caused by secularization, or a symbol of a failure to appreciate the positive aspects of secular culture. One can find defenders and critics of the Catholic Church often operating on these opposing assumptions. But painting a grand narrative of the causes behind clerical sexual abuse gives less room for the voices of the diverse victims of the scandal. In Philadelphia, the most pressing need is for a bishop who will listen — listen not only to the voices of the victims, but also to voices of critics. For some bishops, engaging in dialogue with critics is tantamount to giving legitimacy to forces attempting to undermine Catholicism: silence or confrontation can often be the preferred tactic. When Archbishop Chaput made his remarks in his press conference today, he did strike a humble posture. Perhaps an “in your face” style will become associated not with confrontation, but with attentive listening. Listening well is usually the best way to avoid a narrative that ends in tragedy or farce.

Image courtesy of angelamcave.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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