PHILADELPHIA — It was a late August Sunday evening Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and Archbishop Charles Chaput was giving the homily. Chaput would host Pope Francis in his city in a few weeks. But now, the man tasked with saving Philadelphia’s troubled archdiocese spoke to parishioners about the role of God’s law in the lives of Catholics.
What came next was classic Chaput: brutal honesty, enough to make some Catholics in the City of Brotherly Love bristle.
Catholicism remains opposed to same-sex marriage, Chaput reminded his flock. But he gets quite a lot of letters from folks who don’t like the way he talks about it, he said. Many are Catholics, who make sure to mention their own Catholic education.
Then Chaput dropped the zinger: Going to Catholic school “no more makes them a Catholic than being in a garage makes them a car.”
Good Catholics know how to witness to, rather than question, God’s law, he said, adding: “Adam and Eve thought they knew better, and we tend to do the same.”
Chaput’s barbed words — delivered in a Midwestern tenor rasp — have earned him a reputation as an “anti-Francis,” a culture warrior who stands in contrast to the “Who am I to judge?” Francis. But Chaput disagrees. He implies that the contrast exists only in the minds of nosy reporters looking for a good story as Philadelphia prepares to host the World Meeting of Families, the world’s largest gathering of Catholic families, which will be headlined by the presence of the pope.
When the Kansas-born Chaput — the first person of Native American descent to be an archbishop in the United States — came to Philadelphia from Denver four years ago, the archdiocese had more than $350 million in outstanding bills and was reeling from the revelation of a major sex-abuse coverup involving dozens of priests. Chaput was tasked with fixing it all, a heavy lift that occupies the majority of his attention — along with the upcoming papal visit, of course.
But when Chaput does step out onto the culture war battlefield, he gets noticed. Especially with someone like Francis headed into town.
Whereas the pope has made the church seem more welcoming, Chaput recently defended a local Catholic school’s decision to fire a popular religious educator because of her same-sex marriage. Francis hosted a high-level meeting last year to open dialogue on expanding the place of divorced and gay Catholics in the church. Chaput, who didn’t attend that meeting, worried in remarks last year that it left a public impression of confusion. Citing Scripture, Chaput added, “I think confusion is of the devil.”
The comment encouraged a comparison between Chaput’s attitude and Francis’s vision. It’s a framework that has stuck, much to the exasperation of Chaput and his supporters.
In fact, Chaput sees a lot of himself in Francis. Pitting him against the pontiff, the archbishop said in an e-mail, is “a great narrative, except that it’s not true.”
That very narrative, however, says a lot about the wild frontier that bishops such as Chaput find themselves navigating in an era when the concept of what a Catholic leader should be is in flux.
Until Chaput arrived in 2011, Philadelphia’s archbishops lived in a sprawling, 16-room mansion protected by intricate iron gates. Cardinal Dennis Dougherty bought the place in 1935 to serve as the home of the diocesan bishop, a symbol of the ascension of Philadelphia’s Catholics as a political and social force in the city.
But Chaput, a member of the simple, modest Capuchin order, had a different way of doing things.
He sold the mansion in 2012 for $10 million and moved into an apartment at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Chaput also got a driver’s license, shocking longtime diocesan staff members, who assumed the new archbishop would require a chauffeur.
Chaput’s aversion to the finer offerings of Philadelphia’s archdiocese is deeply rooted in his past. “The thing that shaped me the most, outside of my parents, was my life in the Capuchin Franciscans,” Chaput told The Washington Post. The Capuchins are a reform movement within the Franciscan order who are known for leading lives of simplicity.
“Capuchin life, when it’s lived honestly, requires a serious effort to live the Gospel without caveats and to follow Francis of Assisi radically — the real Francis, not the flower child of modern mythology,” Chaput said.
Chaput spent most of his years serving the church in the West, particularly in Colorado and South Dakota. As Denver’s archbishop, Chaput grew the archdiocese, and the success bolstered his own reputation. The archdiocese had an expanding seminary, financial health and robust participation from lay members. Chaput in 2009 wrote a best-selling book urging Catholics to live out their faith in a public way — including by being involved in politics, even if it cost them their careers.
Then, Chaput was assigned to go east, a decision that he said “surprised” him. “I didn’t want to leave Denver,” Chaput told The Post. “I expected to retire there.”
The Vatican didn’t tell Chaput why he was moved to Philadelphia, but he guesses that “it probably had more to do with needing a particular kind of mechanic to fix a particular set of problems.”
Many believe that Chaput was assigned to Philadelphia to bring fiscal accountability to an archdiocese that was simply too big to fail in the eyes of the church. There are 1.4 million Catholics in the five-county metropolitan area.
Despite its rich place in American Catholic history, Chaput’s new archdiocese was an unforgiving home.
His first two years in Philadelphia were “a little rough,” he said, but “things are much better now.” He added: “Whether I fit in — that’s a question better asked of our people and priests.”
Supporters such as Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia writer who covers the church and has been close to Chaput since Palmo was a teen, calls the archbishop’s style just “a Kansas frankness that people respect.”
Others, such as Anthea Butler, a Catholic and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, see Chaput as “more like an evangelical culture warrior than a Catholic,” she said. “That’s the problem.”
Francis has not changed Catholic doctrine, she added. “The difference is how do you say it.”
But, Butler, adds, “It’s hard to run a popularity contest when you’re cleaning up someone else’s mess.”
Soon after he arrived in Philadelphia, Chaput knew how to start fixing the archdiocese: The city with, in some places, a parish on every block couldn’t support all the churches and schools within it.
He cleaned house, creating a lay independent board, merging 44 elementary schools down to 20 schools and closing an additional 21 outright. And 266 parishes were pared to 219. When Chaput took over, the archdiocese operated on a $17.9 million annual deficit. It’s now less than $4 million annually, according to archdiocese spokesman Kenneth Gavin.
Although the school and parish closings were necessary, the transition was brutal for many Catholics. Philadelphia is the sort of city where even non-Catholics sometimes identify their neighborhood by what parish is nearby.
Chaput hopes that the pruning will help the archdiocese renew itself. But, he said,“human nature being what it is, that usually doesn’t happen without some pain.”
The members of churches that have closed or will close have let Chaput know exactly how they feel about it. Protesters have been known to show up at Chaput’s weekly Mass with tape across their mouths.
It is in that context that Philadelphia’s Catholics learned about Chaput’s sharp tongue. In letters published by Philadelphia magazine this summer, the senior cleric told regular parishioners seeking information about their closing parishes that they were “impossible to talk to,” “arrogant” and lacking in “basic common sense.”
Palmo argues that the archbishop’s candid approach is exactly why Chaput was the right man for the troubled archdiocese. Chaput “was someone who has proven himself ready for a fight — everyone knows that,” Palmo said.
The archbishop “is a change agent,” he added. “He’s the nuclear option.”
Francis will come to Philadelphia as the result of a question asked by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Soon after Chaput’s arrival in Philadelphia, Benedict asked the archbishop to consider applying to host the 2015 World Meeting of Families, an international conference customarily attended by the pope.
Chaput replied with a “not super-enthusiastic” letter to the Vatican but applied anyway. “I thought we wouldn’t be chosen,” he told a room full of religion reporters at a speech in August, “and I was stunned when we were.”
Just before Benedict announced his retirement in 2013, the Vatican announced that Philadelphia would host the conference. The new pope eventually agreed to attend.
The archbishop hopes that the meeting this weekend, along with Francis’s visit, will bring some much-needed renewal to the city’s Catholics. “As a city and a church, Philadelphia has been through a lot over the past decade,” Chaput said. “It deserves better.”
Some of Chaput’s critics are waiting to see whether the pontiff’s visit will encourage their archbishop to emphasize issues such as poverty over abortion and religious freedom, a comparison that Chaput says is a “false choice.”
He says his diocese and virtually every other diocese in the country spend far more on programs for the poor than on fighting abortion.
“All three are important. But poverty and employment are material policy issues,” he said. “Religious freedom speaks to the underlying purpose and meaning of the society we share.”
And it seems unlikely that Francis disagrees, although he might not say it in the same way. When the pope gives his big speech at Independence Hall on Saturday, he’ll talk about two issues: immigration and, at Chaput’s suggestion, religious liberty.