Archbishop Charles Chaput is not a cardinal. He has never been an officer at the U.S. bishops’ conference. He has never lived in Rome, and, in an international Church, he is not a polyglot.
Chaput’s resume is not typical of most influential figures in the Church’s hierarchy.
But when Chaput turns 75 and submits his resignation to Pope Francis next month, his admirers and his fiercest critics are likely to agree that the archbishop’s 31 years as a diocesan bishop have shaped, in significant ways, the voice of the Church in the U.S.
In light of that, the archbishop’s approach to episcopal ministry offers lessons worth noting, both for bishops who agree with him, and those who don’t.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should make clear my own bias: I love Archbishop Chaput. I met my wife at a lecture he gave, and the archbishop has been very kind over the years to my family. He gave me my first job in canon law and diocesan administration, and he has invested in my professional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual development. Some of the happiest years of my professional life were spent working for Chaput in the Archdiocese of Denver, where, among many other talented colleagues, I worked alongside the National Catholic Register’s Jeanette DeMelo, Real Life Catholic’s Chris Stefanick, the estimable Fran Maier, and then-auxiliary Bishop James Conley.
It is also worth noting that Chaput was an early supporter of Catholic News Agency, and is a board member of EWTN, of which CNA is a service.
And while I am insistent that CNA, and this analysis, treat him fairly and objectively, I am also proud to acknowledge that Archbishop Chaput is my friend.
The first Native American to become a diocesan bishop, Chaput spent nine years in Rapid City, South Dakota, 14 years as Archbishop of Denver, and eight years in Philadelphia, where, in 2015, he hosted Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families.
Chaput is the author of two bestselling books, a regular contributor to secular and religious publications, and his weekly column, his talks, and his homilies are “must-reads” for a broad swath of bishops and priests, for pastoral workers and intellectuals, and for a large following of practicing Catholics.
The archbishop has been a leader from the floor at the U.S. bishops’ conference; he has served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and he has been a member of the Vatican’s permanent council of the synod of bishops.
More quietly, the archbishop has served as a mentor to priests, deacons, and religious across the country. Countless lay people, religious, and clerics cite his influence in the discernment of their vocations or apostolates. And his first auxiliary is Archbishop Jose Gomez, who now leads the largest U.S. diocese, and is poised to be elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference in November.
Chaput’s reputation in the media is rather polarized. By critics, he has been portrayed as triumphalist, reflexively conservative, impatient with disagreement, and a kind of ideological foil to Pope Francis. One critic even characterized him recently as a “devout schismatic.” Supporters paint a different picture, saying that Chaput is doctrinally orthodox, intellectually engaging, humble, self-effacing, and pastorally available.
But love him or loathe him, Church-watchers generally agree that among U.S. bishops, Chaput has been more effective than most at achieving his vision, and leaving a legacy.
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