Chaput to Catholics: Don't use Francis to 'further own agendas'

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, left, chats with Brooklyn, N.Y., Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, their first national meeting since Pope Francis was elected. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, left, chats with Brooklyn, N.Y., Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, their first national meeting since Pope Francis was elected. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Posted: November 14, 2013

BALTIMORE - Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, a leading conservative in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, defended himself Tuesday against perceptions that he is hostile to the more liberal inclusiveness of Pope Francis.

"I think the question is: Is there a discontinuity between the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and the new kind of leadership of Francis? I think no," he said in an interview.

"Francis keeps saying he is a son of the church, which means he's not going to abandon the church's teachings."

To conservatives alarmed by some of Francis' recent remarks - such as "who am I to judge" homosexuals, or assurances that atheism is no bar to heaven - Chaput proposed that "we should look at him after a year, rather than trying to size him up at each speech."

He predicted that if Francis perceived that the laity was misconstruing his message, he would "adjust his style."

Chaput, 68, made his remarks during a break in a daylong session of the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Criticism that Chaput had publicly faulted Francis as voicing tolerant views toward homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and artificial contraception, all of which the Catholic Church has long opposed, is "not fair," he said.

"I was not criticizing the Holy Father," Chaput said of remarks in June to the National Catholic Reporter.

"What I brought up was that I'm aware there are people who are critical of the Holy Father" for perceived liberalism on some issues, "and that it's important that he talk to them, too.

"That is the fact," said the archbishop. "I've never been critical of the Holy Father and would never speak ill of him."

A priest of the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan order, Chaput described as "a great freshness, a great blessing for the church," Francis' call for greater care for the poor and openness to those who feel excluded from the church for reasons such as sexual orientation or divorce and remarriage.

As the former cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Francis is "the first non-European pope in a very long time," Chaput noted, "and the way you see things from South America and the Southern Hemisphere is very different from northern Europe."

But he cautioned against those who "want to use the pope to further their own agendas, and others [who] want to ignore the pope so they can promote their own agendas."

Despite his assurances that he is in accord with Francis' new direction, Chaput's remarks in June could have cost him votes in Tuesday's election for the presidency of the bishops' conference.

Chaput was one of 10 bishops and archbishops nominated to succeed Cardinal Timothy Dolan as head of the conference, which issues public policy positions on social issues such as immigration, abortion, and poverty, and approves new liturgies and translations for use in the United States.

The successor is traditionally the current vice president, and the 229 voting bishops chose Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Jesuit magazine America and now a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal weekly, said after the election that the mere perception that Chaput might be in opposition to Francis' agenda might have made some of his fellow bishops nervous.

"I think there was concern that the secular media would be coming out with headlines reading 'Bishops Elect Critic of Francis,' " said Reese.

Chaput nevertheless took second in the election for vice president (and likely successor to Kurtz), losing by 147-87 in a runoff against Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston - for which he said he was "grateful."

"I have way too much on my plate" to be president of the bishops' conference, Chaput said. "I didn't even vote for myself."

He said he voted both times for the Mexican-born Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who was his auxiliary bishop when both were prelates in the Archdiocese of Denver.

The election of Gomez would have been an important way, he said, to honor the "growing presence and leadership" of Hispanics among the nation's nearly 70 million Catholics.

In September 2015, the Philadelphia archdiocese will host the church's eighth World Meeting of Families, a triennial event that draws hundreds of thousands of Catholics to the host city.

Chaput, who arrived in Philadelphia in September 2011, has also been saddled with bringing down the Philadelphia archdiocese's estimated $400 million in debt - much of it pension-related - while raising money nationally and internationally for the World Meeting.

Both tasks "will keep me busy for the next two years," said Chaput. "A papal visit is very expensive."

Francis may be bringing a new twist to that five-day gathering.

Last month he sent a letter and questionnaire to all the world's Catholic dioceses asking bishops to launch a conversation among the laity about what they understand and accept of the Catholic Church's teachings on a broad range of family issues.

Among the questions Francis wants bishops and laity to explore are:

Is cohabitation among unmarried couples a reality in their diocese?

Are large numbers of divorced and remarried Catholics a reality in the diocese?

Are civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples permitted in the country or state? "What pastoral attention can be given [by the church] to these types of unions?" Francis asked. "How can we transmit the faith to children of these unions?"

What is the acceptance locally of the church's teaching against the use of artificial contraception?

What are other church teachings on family issues not understood or not accepted?

Francis distributed the questionnaire in preparation for two forthcoming synods, or gatherings of bishops, to be held in Rome next October and in October 2015, to discuss the Catholic Church's positions on these topics. There is some speculation that he may use these synods to launch a discussion of whether the church's teachings on some of these issues should be revised.

Chaput said that because the World Meeting of the Family will take place in Philadelphia just a month before the second major synod in Rome, he expects that issues on the synod's agenda will likewise be topics of lively discussion during the meeting's keynote speeches and breakout sessions.

He intends to have Francis' questionnaire posted soon on the archdiocese's website, with ways for laity to respond online.

He will also present the questions to the archdiocesan council of priests, and his advisory council of clergy and laity, but neither encourage nor discourage pastors from promoting discussions in their parishes. He said that could be "premature," since the second major synod on family matters was two years away.

"And the pope's presence in Philadelphia - it looks like he's coming - will be a great boost," he said, "to enthusiasm for the issues."


Bishops' Leader Rooted in Pa.

The new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the head of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., has strong ties to Pennsylvania.

Born Aug. 18, 1946, in Mahanoy City, northwest of Reading, he earned bachelor (1968) and master of divinity (1972) degrees from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and a master's degree (1976) in social work from the Marywood School of Social Work in Scranton. He was ordained a priest March 18, 1972, for the Diocese of Allentown.

Kurtz worked for more than two decades

in Allentown, before becoming bishop of Knoxville, Tenn. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to lead Louisville, an archdiocese of 200,000,

in 2007.

Kurtz, who was elected with just over half the votes

Tuesday in a field of 10 candidates in Baltimore, succeeds

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is ending a three-year term. The conference president is the main spokesman on national issues for the Catholic Church in the United States

and acts as a representative of the American church to the Vatican and the pope.

Kurtz takes on the role as the bishops are considering what direction they should take in the new pontificate. Pope Francis, elected in March, has said he wanted pastors, not ideologues, and an emphasis on mercy over divisive social issues.

At a news conference, Kurtz underscored the bishops' commitment "to serve the voiceless and vulnerable," including advocating for immigrants and the poor. He said they would continue to fight abortion and seek a broader religious exemption to a federal requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers artificial contraceptives. - AP


856-779-3841 doreilly@phillynews.com

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