On the same page with Francis?

Chaput, with Pope Francis in Vaticcan City last week, sounds more like the pontiff these days.
Chaput, with Pope Francis in Vaticcan City last week, sounds more like the pontiff these days.
Posted: April 04, 2014

IT WAS 33 months ago that Archbishop Charles Chaput rode into Philadelphia from out west, with a whirlwind of social conservatism at his back.

The former top cleric in Denver had made a national name for himself with harsh words for President Obama and Catholics who were blase about Obama's support for abortion rights - and in his first major Philadelphia interview he proclaimed that stopping gay marriage is "the issue of our time."

But a little more than a year ago, Pope Francis took charge in Rome - and the winds of Catholicism shifted 180 degrees.

Under former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the mission of fighting poverty has taken center stage while the hard-line approach on social issues has been moved to the background. As the new pope famously said of gay priests, "Who am I to judge?"

So does that put Chaput - who's hoping to welcome Pope Francis to Philadelphia in September 2015 for a World Meeting of Families - in a bad spot?

Local Catholic watchers say Chaput - who arguably has been more focused on the local financial and sex-abuse-scandal problems of the Philadelphia Archdiocese than on the Vatican - has proved adept at sticking his finger in the air and gauging the political breezes. In recent months, they say, Chaput has been more prone to play up his anti-poverty views and adopt a tone of inclusiveness that mirrors the new man in Rome.

Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphian whose popular blog Whispers in the Loggia is closely followed by the Catholic hierarchy, said Chaput surprised some people just days after Francis' elevation last year when he scrapped a prepared sermon at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul to endorse the new pope's declared mission of a much more open church.

"Perhaps the humiliation that we've experienced over the last several years has been, in some sense, a way that God has called us out of that worldly church to be a humbler church, so that we can once again become an evangelizing church," said Chaput, addressing the woes of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. "There has to be some grace from that humiliation and that pain."

Chaput's aides said he was too busy this week to be interviewed, but his supporters say that any differences between him and Pope Francis - then and now - have been a matter of style and emphasis, not church doctrine. They note that he's had a consistent message on poverty - "If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell," the archbishop has said, going back to 2004 - and in opposing the death penalty.

Even their personal styles are somewhat similar. Observers note Chaput prefers to live simply - he sold the lavish, $10 million 16-room mansion and property where his predecessors had lived on City Avenue to reside in a small seminary apartment. He prefers to drive himself, sometimes hitting the drive-through for a late-night lemonade.

That has given Chaput a leg up on others in the church who've been scrambling to follow the lead of Francis - like the archbishop of Atlanta, who this week put his newly constructed $2.2 million mansion residence up for sale, apologized to parishioners and said the new pope "has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don't share our communion."

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit who grew up in Plymouth Meeting and is editor-at-large for the order's magazine, America, said American bishops - including Chaput - who perhaps seemed wary about Francis at first, are now eager to embrace the pope, sensing his rising popularity among both Catholics and non-Catholics.

"The pope has not changed any church teachings - but what has shifted is a change in tone and a change in emphasis," Martin said, adding that he believes Chaput "has responded to that invitation and has also been genuinely moved by the pope's example."

But most agree that the big picture for Chaput has been blurred by the more immediate day-to-day crises of the Philadelphia Archdiocese - including the sex-abuse scandal involving dozens of priests named by two grand juries, multimillion-dollar budget deficits and controversial school and parish closings.

"Being vocal is not going to help him," said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, suggesting another reason that Chaput has been less overtly political since arriving here.

Indeed, the raw feelings caused by the abuse scandal has some local Catholics saying that Chaput could still be even more humble.

One group calling itself Catholics4Change questioned the cost of the recent donation-funded trip in which Chaput and top Pennsylvania pols went to Rome, as well as the archbishop's failure to meet with their protesters outside the Center City cathedral on a recent Sunday.

The group's leader, Susan Matthews, said that despite his recent remarks on inclusion, she believes that Chaput is still "all about a smaller church, a more pure church."

Either way, it's a church that continues to defy the easy labels of American secular politics.

In Chaput's most recent weekly newspaper column, the archbishop touted "the many Catholic social and charitable ministries that serve the poor, the homeless and other vulnerable groups in our country," but then quickly added they "now face growing government interference" - from birth-control coverage mandates in Obamacare.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

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