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.