(RNS) The most obvious reason that Pope Benedict XVI sent Archbishop Charles Chaput from Denver to take over the prestigious Archdiocese of Philadelphia was the same one that has shaped almost every major development in American Catholicism over the past decade: the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
Chaput replaces Cardinal Justin Rigali, a consummate church insider who was appointed to Philadelphia in 2003. Rigali, 76, is the latest and most senior churchman to fall under the shadow of scandal after a grand jury report accused him and his administration of failing to pursue claims that priests sexually abused children.
Despite Rigali’s ignominious exit, however, the pope’s Tuesday (July 19) choice of the 66-year-old Chaput was actually about much more than the abuse crisis.
In fact, Chaput’s appointment may portend a pivot away from the crisis-management era of the past 10 years toward the kind of assertive and even combative stance that was Chaput’s signature style in his 14 years in Denver.
Chaput is a Native American who has two Indian names, one from the Potawatomi tribe of his mother that means “he who makes the leaves rustle like the wind” and the other from the Lakota, meaning “good eagle.”
Overseeing a growing flock in the Rockies, the Kansas-born Chaput developed a national reputation as a champion of Catholic orthodoxy and conservative activism. He decried John F. Kennedy’s famous dissection between his Catholic faith and his public duties, and argued that Catholics should take a “more active, vocal, and morally consistent role” in politics.
His 2008 book, “Render Unto Caesar,” was released just as Democrats gathered in Denver to nominate Barack Obama; four months into Obama’s presidency, Chaput became a sharp critic when the University of Notre Dame invited the president to give the commencement address and pick up an honorary degree.
Chaput also stirred controversy by declaring that gay couples cannot send their children to Catholic schools. His penchant for outspokenness even extended to many of his fellow bishops, who he believes have been too quiescent when it comes to battling cultural trends in America.
“I don’t have a whole lot of concern about what people think of me,” the congenial Chaput said in an interview last September. He traces his penchant for admittedly “frank and direct” talk to his role model, St. Francis of Assisi, and to his passionate belief that ideas and beliefs—and the actions that flow from them—matter.
“Everything we do has huge consequences,” said Chaput, a member of the Capuchin order of Franciscans. “To me, NOT to say something is really very destructive, because silence implies consent.”
“So I feel obliged to talk.”
“A lot,” he added with a chuckle.
Not that Chaput is a blunderbuss. He is savvy with a lifelong passion for politics, though he started out as a Democrat. As a seminarian he worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign; as a priest he volunteered for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980.
Like many leading Catholic conservatives today, Chaput felt mugged by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. He is unapologetically conservative (though he embraces many of the “liberal” policy stances of the hierarchy, such as immigration reform). Yet he maintains close friendships with Democrats, including old friends from the campaigns and new ones like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Observers shouldn’t expect Chaput’s immersion in the East Coast establishment to prompt yet another political conversion, however. Pennsylvania is a key electoral battleground for 2012, and it has a large and prominent swing bloc of Catholic voters.
The 2012 campaign and his newly prominent pulpit will provide no end of opportunities for lightning-rod statements, though Chaput may have to calibrate his approach. He is moving from a diocese of 400,000 Catholics to one that is nearly four times that size.
Chaput will encounter a media environment that is more competitive and persistent than anything he has experienced before. For several years, he declined to speak with The New York Times because he thought it treated him unfairly; that kind of cold shoulder could backfire when you are in the Times’ backyard and speaking from one of the church’s bulliest pulpits.
Just as important as Chaput’s newly elevated public profile, however, will be his newfound prominence within the hierarchy.
In recent years, Chaput has often been as critical of his fellow bishops—including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—as he has of politicians and culture war slackers. He has dismissed any notion of running for office within the U.S. hierarchy, and his brother bishops have obliged by not electing him when he is on the ballot.
But now he is something of a wild card in the East Coast establishment. Current leaders of the other prominent dioceses—Cardinals Sean O’Malley in Boston and Donald Wuerl in Washington, and Archbishops Timothy Dolan in New York and Edwin O’Brien in Baltimore—are solid doctrinal conservatives. Yet they all have reputations as conflict-averse churchmen who are focused on rallying scandalized Catholic spirits and shoring up a disintegrating parochial infrastructure.
In Denver, Chaput’s challenges were more with a growing rather than a shrinking Catholic population, and the abuse scandals were largely distant thunder. It’s telling that Benedict chose the outsider Chaput over the conciliatory Pennsylvania native Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., or a clean-up man like Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who led the bishops’ abuse reform policies.
Like the 2005 papal conclave that chose the German theologian Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) as a sort of last-ditch effort to resurrect the faith in Europe, Benedict has chosen Chaput to try to reinvigorate the U.S. church in the Rust Belt of American Catholicism.
To succeed, Chaput may have to upend conventions in the most conventional of Catholic cities, and he may have to ruffle feathers both inside and outside the church. Even then it may not work.
But Chaput enjoys nothing as much as a challenge.
“I find what I do enjoyable,” he said in last year’s interview. “I don’t find being a bishop a burden. It’s very exciting, it’s a great adventure. I really do believe in what I’m doing. … Who could have a better job than to have a platform of bishop to influence Christ’s people?