Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivers the keynote address during the Vocations Jamboree at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., March 20, 2019. CNS photo/Jerry Anderson, courtesy University of Mary

Bob Brehl: A conservative schism or media hype?

  • January 29, 2020

When Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the bishop of Philadelphia on Jan. 23, some in media were painting it as pushing the pontiff’s so-called agenda aimed at moving the Church away from traditionalists.

Indeed, because Archbishop Charles Chaput has a reputation as a theological and political conservative, some pundits speculated Francis could be fomenting a schism in the Church.

“Pope Francis, facing growing conservative opposition to his papacy from Catholics in the United States, on Thursday replaced the popular archbishop of Philadelphia, one of his most prominent critics and a prelate admired by Church traditionalists,” reported The New York Times.

“Charles Chaput espoused traditional Church teaching on marriage and sexuality, a stance at odds with Pope Francis’ more liberal agenda,” said the Wall Street Journal.

“U.S. bishops remain overwhelmingly traditional and have emerged as the most prominent conservative bloc among the Church hierarchies of Western countries. Archbishop Chaput was one of their acknowledged leaders,” The Journal added.

The Advocate, an LGBTQ-interest magazine, fanned the flames with an erroneous headline on its website: “Anti-LGBTQ Archbishop Charles Chaput Fired in Philadelphia.”

To be clear, Chaput reached the age of 75 in September and bishops are required, at that age, to offer their resignation to the Vatican. And the pontiff may or may not accept such resignations. Francis chose to allow Chaput to retire and install a younger Hispanic-American bishop, Nelson Perez of Cleveland, in Philadelphia, where he served for many years as a priest.

There are various reports saying Perez may or may not be conservative. And who is to say Chaput is an ultra-conservative? After all, he has said things that sound a lot like Francis, such as: “If we don’t care for the poor, we will go to hell.” 

There is little doubt there are those who oppose where they think this Pope is taking the Church. But it’s hard to believe accepting Chaput’s resignation is some sort of nefarious act.

There were 159 online comments to The New York Times article about Chaput. What was surprising was the near unanimous support for Francis. Granted, the sample size is not excessive, but it does say something: Perhaps Francis is more in step with church-goers (and former church-goers) than his critics give him credit.

A caveat may be that The Times is widely considered as left of centre, especially by Donald Trump. Just last year, Trump tweeted the newspaper is “a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”

But it is very difficult to believe that The Times does not have right-of-centre readers, even Trump supporters. And yet very few attacked the so-called liberal Pope in the comments section. Here are the only two I found:

“If Bergoglio is still looking for someone to accept his resignation, I’ll accept it — on behalf of Christianity,” writes someone named Jabin, who refused to honour the pontiff as Pope Francis.

“And those who think that PF is a good representation of the message of Jesus have a poor scriptural understanding of Jesus’ comprehensive message. Reputable scripture scholarship does not reduce Jesus to the Social Justice Warrior so distortedly identified with Him by modernists,” says someone named calleefornia from the San Francisco Bay area.

But the vast majority of comments support the Pope, both in accepting Chaput’s resignation and other moves.

“In October 1962, Pope John XXIII announced as he opened the historic Second Vatican Council that it was time to ‘throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through’, ” writes MWalsh5, USA. “It was an exhilarating time to be a Catholic. I think of Francis this way, too, but he faces a declining Church in turmoil. His bravery and clear thinking may yet save the day.  May he live long and prosper.”

Then there’s this poignant note from Alberta: “Having been on a 10-plus years sabbatical from the Catholic Church, I am greatly interested in its progress nonetheless. Pope Francis gives me hope for the Church. I am very pleased that he is making changes that may ultimately return the Church to fulfilling its original mission of helping the poor, healing the sick and offering comfort to all who need it in today’s unsettled world,” writes Anne from Calgary. 

To which Anne received this reply: “Well, come back to help make Francis’ vision of a Christlike Church a reality. I did,” says Tom Gawronski.

“Bravo Pope Francis! Conservatives in the Church, much like the Pharisees who denounced Jesus, only want to focus on preserving outdated rules and thwart Pope Francis from being guided by the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into the Church!” writes Cherriekiss from Paris, France.

“As my conservative Catholic friends and colleagues were fond of saying when the pendulum swung their way: Roma Locuta Est, Causa Finita Est,” writes Chris from Boston. A lose translation of the Latin is: Rome has spoken, the cause is ended.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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