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A Bishop in the Public Square

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Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was named the next archbishop of Philadelphia on Tuesday, and mainstream coverage of the story immediately turned to sex abuse scandals. Which makes a lot of sense because, you know, that has dominated his tenure in Denver. As John Allen pointed out, that’s not the case at all, but George Weigel reminds us not to expect anything else.

What Archbishop Chaput is justly notable for is his Christian contribution to public debate. In his books, including the influential best-seller Render Unto Caesar, his writings in periodicals, and even his testimony before Congress, the Archbishop has been a model of evangelization of the secular world. He sees the Christian vocation to preach the Gospel as inseparable from an engagement in the public square. As he told John Allen, evangelization “is about trying to see the best of the world around us and to show how the Gospel makes it better and richer, and how the Gospel at the same time corrects it and purifies it. There’s no way the Gospel can embrace and purify the world unless it knows the world.”

Now Archbishop Chaput has been considerably more engaged in public life than many bishops, but he insists that an engagement driven by the Gospel cannot be a passive one, that a cleric is “unavoidably a leader, not a facilitator or coordinator of dialogue. A priest can’t just be a man of dialogue and consensus, because at some point he also has to lead.”

The Archbishop is a model for other Christian leaders whose congregations look to them for guidance when religion and public policy intersect. He combines Christian charity with absolute fidelity to Christian moral precepts and proper circumspection. His position on Health Care exemplifies this attitude:

Health care, of course, is one of the things the church has done in imitation of Jesus Christ, who came to heal the sick and to drive out evil in the world. It’s very important for us to be involved, but in a way that Jesus is involved, and not to do anything at all that would contravene the teachings of the Gospel.

As St.Paul said, “We may never do evil that good may come about” (Romans 3:8). Chaput is one of those bishops who understands that while Christians may have prudential disagreements about how to realize a good end, there are certain accommodations that a Christian may never make. The distinction is missed by many Christians and non-Christians.

Archbishop Chaput’s approach to public discourse may best be summed up by his answer to Allen’s Benedict-or-John Paul question at the end of their interview: “I hope that I have the evangelical energy of John Paul II, and the clarity of preaching of Benedict XVI.” That is quite an aspiration, but it is one which all Christians, and especially clergy, ought to share.

Kenneth Spence


  • Archbishop Chaput has a very sound understanding of what it means to be a religious leader. We are absolutely called to engage and transform the world, while simultaneously remembering our Holy Father’s admonition to not get too carried away by our role in the political realm.  Our priests are called to be “experts in the faith,” and should enter into the political realm always with that in mind.

  • I was very pleased when I heard the Bishop was coming to Pennsylvania.  I’ve read his book, Render unto Ceasar, and also a number of his talks.  His wisdom and perspective is profound and he is truly a man listening to the Lord.  As the world continues to shift and our country continues to fall under the shadow of evil, we do very much need leaders who are not afraid to lead us all as followers of Jesus. 

    Sometimes I wish I didn’t know what I know after having read the health care bill.  It is hard to believe that it was only last year that it was passed.  Being tied into and watching what is going on in the health care, educational, and political scenes everything I had seen is coming to pass.  My prediction is that Catholic preschool, grade school, and universities will close.  Hospitals, and health care programs will be shut down.  (When the bill was proposed I had emailed Sr. Keenan expressing horror at what is actually “in the bill” and admonished her stating that she will be one of the people responsible for the persecution of the Catholic Church in America through her support ofthe bill)   The groundwork is being laid for this persecution and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens very quickly.  Subtle but significant shifts are going on.  Do not underestimate Maryland’s new regulation requiring that in order for students to get a high school diploma they need to demonstrate competence in environmentalism.  This was announced the week after Al Gore came out and said that it is very important that girls need learn not to have babies because it is bad for the planet.

    I look forward to having the opportunity to learn more from Bishop Chaput and other leaders who have the courage and conviction of the Gospel.  Dark and challenging times are ahead for Catholics — and you don’t need to be a prophet to see it coming.  Just open your eyes.  The Bishop’s words are profound on so many levels:   “It’s very important for us to be involved, but in a way that Jesus is involved, and not to do anything at all that would contravene the teachings of the Gospel.”

  • The Archbishop’s comment that we can’t evangelize what we don’t know is especially perceptive.  Too often we imagine that we simply need to know Jesus and by virtue of this knowledge are exempt from knowing (much less loving!) those to whom we would bring the Gospel.

    • I very much enjoyed your own post on the subject, Father.

  • Indeed! And how much more are we called to speak up in a republic. If statecraft is soulcraft, there’s a lot of pressure on those who know what souls are!

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