J.D. Long-GarcíaMarch 24, 2021
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia speaks during a press conference with a delegation from Pennsylvania at the Vatican March 25, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Three weeks after he retired as archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., went into lockdown. It gave him time to catch up on a lot of things, including television.

“I’ve seen more television this year than I’ve seen in the last 40 years,” he said recently toward the end of a phone interview with America that lasted for over an hour. “I tried to be selective, but there have been some really interesting things done while I was busy being a bishop.”

He certainly had a busy episcopate. In 1988, when he was ordained bishop of Rapid City, S.D., he became the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States. He is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe. St. John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Denver in 1997, and Pope Benedict appointed him archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011.

During his career, Archbishop Chaput garnered his share of controversy, winning both admirers and detractors for his outspoken views on same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration and religious liberty.

During his career, Archbishop Chaput garnered his share of controversy, winning both admirers and detractors for his outspoken views on same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration and religious liberty.

It may surprise some that he volunteered for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. He also supported Jimmy Carter, whom he found fascinating “because he seemed like an untypical politician,” Archbishop Chaput wrote years ago in First Things. “He was plain spoken, honest, a serious Christian and a Washington outsider.” He called the two major U.S. presidential candidates in 2016 “deeply flawed.”

In his first year of retirement, Archbishop Chaput also took time to finish his fourth book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living, which was published March 16. It begins with a chapter reflecting on how memory is an essential part of Christian faith. Then he reflects on death, which he said he found “easy to write about based on the fact that my father was a mortician.” He continues to reflect on culture in society and the things worth dying for, especially God. He also highlights patriotism and the willingness to die for one’s country and family as well as the problems with dying for ideology. The final chapter is on the four last things, which he reordered to end on a positive note: death, judgment, hell and heaven.

The eighth chapter, “Ecclesia Sua,” he called his favorite. “One of the goals in my life as a bishop was to help Catholics understand that the laity and the clergy are co-responsible for the church,” Archbishop Chaput said. He granted America an interview about his book. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There was a line that struck me in particular, toward the beginning of this book: “In the mind of Jesus, we—despite ourselves, despite our failures, despite the confused creatures we so often are—were worth dying for. And since that’s so, and if we mean what we say when we call ourselves Christians, surely we can at least try to live and die for others.”

Well, that really captures the whole book. You found the right sentence. Jesus thought we were worth dying for. There must be a lot of things that we ought to think are worth living and dying for. And I drew up loosely what those would be in the different chapters.

Jesus thought we were worth dying for. There must be a lot of things that we ought to think are worth living and dying for.

You refer to Henri de Lubac, S.J., a number of times in the book, and mention a couple of quotations of his that you’ve kept with you over the years. One of the quotations reads: “All [our religious] formulas, all the precautions of orthodoxy, all the scruples of literal conformity...are powerless to safeguard the purity of the faith. If the spirit should be lacking, dogma becomes no more than a myth and the Church no more than a party.”

That’s so true, isn’t it? And it’s about the evangelical dimension of the Gospel. It’s not enough to believe facts. We have to believe in a person. If we just remove the facts about the church and don’t have a relationship with the revealer of those truths, we’re not really Christians at all. And that seemed to be the plague present in the church today; I guess every generation is the same. We have people who look like believers, but they’re really not. They’re adherents, but they’re not believers. To believe means to make an act of confidence in the one who reveals. And that’s what faith really is. It’s an act of trust in the reality of God and that God speaks to us.

And de Lubac, you know, he lived a long time ago. But one of the great contributions of the Second Vatican Council is that understanding that the church is a living reality of relationships and not just the perfect institution or the perfect society. It was spoken as an objective kind of way rather than in the fullest, kind of objective, subjective way that de Lubac talks about it. He’s the one who actually gave me the kind of theological notion about loving the church that is really central to my own life as a Christian, as a clergyman and as a bishop now.

If we just remove the facts about the church and don’t have a relationship with the revealer of those truths, we’re not really Christians at all.

Now the second quotation you reference is: “I do not have to win the world, even for Christ: I have to save my soul. That is what I must always remember, against the temptation of success in the apostolate. And so I will guard myself against impure means. It is not our mission to make truth triumph, but to testify for it.”

That’s really an important concept, especially if you feel like your life is not always as effective as you hoped it would be. You know, it’s always ultimately in God’s hands. Mother Teresa said the same thing when she said that it’s not important that we be successful but that we try. And that’s often the case, even in the most dramatic example, that is Jesus himself. When he died on the cross, it looked like he was an absolute failure. And God is victorious even in the midst of apparent failures on our part. De Lubac talks about the importance of personally being a believer is more important than being a priest or being a theologian or whatever. To witness to Jesus, not by our fancy words or theological concepts, but by the witness of our lives, the goodness of our lives and commitment.

With respect to the sexual abuse crisis, you write that the church’s “extraordinary witness is not diminished by the evil actions of various bad clergy.” Yet the reputation of the church very much seems like it has been diminished by the sexual abuse scandal. Can you tell me more about what you mean?

Practically, it has. It has been very affected and undermined. In reality, it doesn’t [diminish the church’s witness]. It’s a very different kind of betrayal, but even the betrayal of Peter and the Apostles at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t undermine the future of the church or the truth of Jesus. All of that horrible kind of stuff, which undermined the faith of victims and their families, whom it hurt the most, but hurt the faith of many others. But it doesn’t in reality… I don’t know how to say this very clearly. But it doesn’t undermine the truth of the Gospel. It certainly leads people to question the truth of the Gospel. The church recognizes that in the midst of holiness there is also depravity and sin. In some ways, the sinfulness of the church and its members points to the truth of the story of God’s merciful forgiveness and the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus.

I don’t want to minimize in any way the damage done by sexual abuse. I don’t know of anything that has undermined the people’s trust in the church more than that. But it doesn’t say anything about the truth of the Gospel and the message of Jesus. Because he certainly didn’t preach insensitivity or lack of action on those kinds of things. If we had lived up to the Gospel, we would have done something about it—in terms of the bishops acting, and the clergy people who sinned wouldn’t have sinned. What’s so scandalous about it is that they were acting so contrary to the truth of the Gospel. The message [of the Gospel] itself is not the scandal.

In some ways, the sinfulness of the church and its members points to the truth of the story of God’s merciful forgiveness and the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus.

Nothing is worse than your clergy person, who represents God in your life, doing this. Even if it’s your mother or your father. It’s horrible, but even more horrible if it’s the person who claims to be different and claims to be the presence of the living God.

You allude to the City of Philadelphia’s efforts to make foster care available to same-sex couples. Some would characterize the city’s efforts as being more tolerant, yet you write about it as an example of tolerance being a narrow, one-way street. Can you elaborate?

The case is with the Supreme Court right now, and we hope to have that decision sometime this year. The thing we have to be careful about is that [the government] doesn’t impose or stand in the way of religious beliefs. There are plenty of opportunities for people in same-sex relationships or marriages to adopt. We don’t want to do that because we understand marriage as the relation between a man and a wife that’s permanent and faithful. That’s the kind of family we think is the ideal family and the kind of family we should bring forward when it comes to foster care.

So it’s not like we’re keeping people in same-sex relationships from doing foster care, which is work that can be done by other groups who don’t have the same religious concerns that we have. It’s that the City of Philadelphia is trying to force us to adopt an ideology, by their actions. But they don’t need to do that. We think we should have a right to follow our conscience on this matter and to be fully committed to our understanding of what family life is about.

I wanted to ask you about that specific case, but I realize that your book is more about what we’re called to believe as Catholics. And that those beliefs oftentimes come into tension with contemporary culture, if I’m reading that correctly.

That’s right. And you suffer if you remain faithful. Jesus says in the Gospel of John: The world will hate us if we are his followers. So we should expect that’s the case. And if the world doesn’t hate us, it’s probably because we aren’t speaking the Gospel fully or very clearly. I don’t mean that we should go about trying to be hated. But if we’re faithful to him, it will lead to a divergence from what is not of God in the cultures that we live. And we are firm believers as Catholics in original sin. And that means we have a tendency to twist things in a way that misshapes the original creation that God has given us. We want to make it after our own image or after our own desires.

If the world doesn’t hate us, it’s probably because we aren’t speaking the Gospel fully or very clearly.

To find a way to speak what we think is true in a way that respects people who disagree with us is very important. But we’ll never arrive at a situation where everybody’s peaceful because we actually don’t agree, you know. And we could pretend that we do agree. But that would be an offense against the truth and an offense against God. And I think that’s a great temptation that we have today, to fit in and not to challenge people.

You both praise and criticize the United States as a nation in your book. What, in your estimation, are America’s greatest virtues and greatest vices?

The beginnings of our country were mixed in terms of the things people said they believed in what they actually did. All men are created equal, but slavery was part of the founding of our country. Those underlying principles actually forced the country to face the issue of slavery, and to end it because our principles just were inconsistent with owning other human beings as slaves. I think our Constitution is a beautiful document that has its roots, of course, in Judeo-Christian reflections. And it was written by people who understood the importance of God being above and beyond the state. The human rights that the Declaration [of Independence] claimed we have are rights that didn’t come from the government but rights that came from God. And I think that, historically, America has done so much more good than evil in the world.

So many people want to come here because of the opportunities and freedom that they would have if they were part of our system. So I’m grateful that I personally was born in our country and had the opportunities I’ve had because of our Constitution and our culture. At the same time, it’s hard for me to understand how those principles are compatible with things that we continue to do, injustice that we tolerate in all kinds of situations, economic situations, military situations. It’s more clearly embodied in our attitudes toward abortion.

Why would religious freedom be important if religion is not important? And that seems to be one of the struggles of our time.

Religious freedom is really important to me and at the core of the founding of our country. But as people have become less religious, they have become less committed to religious freedom. Why would religious freedom be important if religion is not important? And that seems to be one of the struggles of our time.

Like your writing in Strangers in a Strange Land, you identify secular culture as hostile toward persons of faith. But rather than retreat, you argue that Christians are called to engage that culture—even if that means risking our lives. Is that a fair assessment of your position?

I’m not personally a very big fan of “The Benedict Option”as a way of life. I think we all use “The Benedict Option” as Christians when we go on a seven-day retreat. We withdraw from the world so we can get a perspective on life, so we can come back and work more productively in the world in which we live. So there’s an essential part of “The Benedict Option” in authentic Christian living, but to withdraw as a way of life I don’t think is what God calls us to do. I think the Epistle of Diognetus from the second century, where he talks about Christians being the soul of the world. I think that’s so very, very true. If we don’t stay in the world, we’re not going to be its soul. And if a country doesn’t have its soul, it falls apart very quickly. So I think it’s important for American Catholics to be a part of our country.

There’s an essential part of “The Benedict Option” in authentic Christian living, but to withdraw as a way of life I don’t think is what God calls us to do.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

The fundamental hope is that they see their lives being important and significant and that they live their lives seriously, not without thought [and not]without understanding the greater purpose that God has for each one of us. I think part of it is having the courage to stand against the world when that needs to happen.

But that’s not the reason for the book. The reason for the book is to try to have a worthwhile life by taking ourselves as seriously as God takes us. And he took it seriously enough to die for us and so we need to learn to live for him. The Gospel, ultimately, is all about life, not about death. But you can’t really reach the fullness of life unless you’re willing to die. That’s one of the ironies of the Scriptures. The willingness to die to ourselves. So I hope the book is going to help people live better lives, and once again, embrace the Gospel with the seriousness that makes life worth living.

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