On Friday, the Pillar published a new interview with the retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, under the headline “Chaput: ‘Speaking the truth is polarizing.’” The 78-year-old responded to a series of questions about Pope Benedict, Cardinal Pell, Pope Francis, and the state of the Church. Throughout the interview Chaput voiced many criticisms, both direct and veiled, about Francis and his pontificate, revealing major divergences in the two men’s visions for the Church. Chaput also criticized the pope’s supporters and defenders, suggesting that their defenses of Francis and his pontificate are lacking in substance and that they are trying to water down the faith.
In his responses to questions about the pope, Chaput sends unambiguous signals that he and Francis are not on the same page. On several matters central to Francis’s papacy, Chaput openly expresses an opposing position. Some of these statements — even if they do not rise to the level of doctrine — reveal that Chaput does not understand or altogether rejects the pope’s vision for reforming the Church. Other responses by the archbishop suggest that he harbors a deep underlying dissent from some of Francis’s official teachings on morals and doctrine.
When asked about the impact of the deaths of Pell and Pope Benedict, Chaput replied, “Their absence is a very heavy loss because both men embodied articulate, faithful Christian intelligence in a remarkable way.” In what appears to be a critique of the leaders Francis has appointed, he added, “No one in current Church leadership has the capacity to replace them. That will happen in time, but the talent bench at the moment seems pretty thin.”
In fairness, at the time of this response, Chaput may not have been aware of the degree to which Cardinal Pell opposed Pope Francis. The news that Cardinal Pell wrote the “Demos” letter and of his final article in the Spectator broke only two days prior to the release of the interview. That said, even if Chaput did not know these details at the time he offered such high praise for Pell, he certainly would have had time to request a revision. Given his comments later in the interview, however, it is likely that he and Pell have similar feelings about the pope.
It seems that Archbishop Chaput has adopted the view popular among papal critics that Pope Francis views the Second Vatican Council with a “hermeneutic of rupture,” when he offers a familiar dichotomy: “Was Vatican II an organic development and reform of Church life, or a break with the past and a new beginning?”
Leaving no doubt that he believes Francis sees Vatican II as a rupture, he listed the popes he thinks held the correct hermeneutic, saying, “That was the intent of John XXIII in convening it; of Paul VI in concluding it; and of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in applying its teachings.” Considering that Pope Francis sees the continued implementation of the Council at the heart of his pontificate, for Archbishop Chaput to believe his interpretation of the Council is illegitimate means — in ecclesial terms — the two could not be farther apart.
But does Pope Francis see the Council as a break with the past? To the contrary. Even in his most contested teachings — including Amoris Laetitia, the teaching on the death penalty, and the Document on Human Fraternity — Pope Francis has insisted that they are in continuity with Sacred Tradition.
Pope Francis does not see a synodal Church as a break in Tradition, but as part of our Tradition. According to Francis, our renewal of the Church’s synodal dimension is both the recovery of an ancient, constitutive principle of the Church and the fruit of Vatican II. The preparatory document for the current global initiative, “For a Synodal Church,” (commonly known as the “Synod on Synodality”) articulates Pope Francis’s view of the Council, stating, “The Second Vatican Council is anchored in this dynamic of Tradition.” It also quotes the Council’s understanding of Sacred Tradition, saying, “Through action of the Spirit, ‘this tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church’ so that the People of God may grow ‘in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down’” (13).
Archbishop Chaput, however, when asked about the Synod on Synodality, responded, “The claim that Vatican II somehow implied the need for synodality as a permanent feature of Church life is simply false. The council never came close to suggesting that.”
The archbishop has apparently forgotten Christus Dominus, the conciliar Decree concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops promulgated on October 28, 1965. The document says, “Bishops chosen from various parts of the world, in ways and manners established or to be established by the Roman pontiff, render more effective assistance to the supreme pastor of the Church in a deliberative body which will be called by the proper name of Synod of Bishops” (5).
A month earlier, Pope St. Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops. In his motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo, he wrote, “It was also the Ecumenical Council that gave Us the idea of permanently establishing a special Council of bishops.” The purpose of this special Council, or Synod, was “with the aim of providing for a continuance after the Council of the great abundance of benefits that We have been so happy to see flow to the Christian people during the time of the Council as a result of Our close collaboration with the bishops.” The Council called for a revised code of canon law, and the Synod of Bishops has a chapter in Book II of the 1983 Code.
Paul VI also made clear that the Synod of Bishops “can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod.” (Pope Francis gave his blessing to the possibility of granting this authority to the assembly in 2018.) Additionally, Paul VI explained that he was promulgating this initial set of guidelines with the understanding that this permanent Synod, “like all human institutions, can be improved upon with the passing of time.”
The Church’s understanding of synodality has certainly expanded during Francis’s pontificate, and clearly he has widened the scope of the synod’s participants to include the faithful around the world — at least in the current synod. But the theological and spiritual motives behind this expansion have been explained at great length. These reasons are in continuity with and deeply rooted in the teachings of the Council, particularly the teachings on the People of God in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. And at a practical and foundational level, even this synod can fairly be described as episcopal. The bishops of the Church were responsible for seeking feedback from the faithful in their dioceses and they oversaw how it was compiled. Further, each episcopal conference wrote its national synthesis through a process directed by bishops. The Vatican has not indicated that the makeup of the assemblies in October 2023 and 2024 will be dramatically changed, and I think we can be confident (at least until further notice) that bishops will make up the bulk of the voting members.
But I don’t think Archbishop Chaput’s problems with the Synod on Synodality really have much to do with whether synodality has its basis in Vatican II. His complaints about the synod are procedural and could be applied from many directions to countless initiatives in the Church. He gripes about the organizers of the 2018 Synod, in which he took part, saying that he felt that “the way ‘synodality’ was smuggled onto the agenda was manipulative and offensive.”
Ironically, the way that Chaput and other anti-Francis critics describe the one-sidedness of synods under Pope Francis — as being “hijacked” by Rome and having “pre-determined outcomes” — mirrors the way progressives viewed them under his two predecessors. For example, Fr. Thomas Reese wrote in a September 22 column, “Synods under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were stage-managed affairs, where the agenda and debate were carefully controlled. Curial cardinals instructed the gathered bishops what topics could not be brought up or discussed.”
Chaput’s primary objections to the synod likely have little to do with the process, but with what he fears the outcome might be. During the interview, however, Chaput only hints at what really worries him: “Synodality risks becoming a kind of Vatican III Lite; a rolling council on a much more controllable, malleable scale. That wouldn’t serve the needs of the Church or her people.”
Synodality is just one of the topics Archbishop Chaput addresses in the article. He manages to pack a large amount of passive-aggression and less-than-straightforward assertions into this interview. But what are Archbishop Chaput’s true concerns? He, like many other US bishops, has been very reluctant to speak about them publicly. Astoundingly, during the interview, he criticizes Catholics who defend Pope Francis by saying, “Turning serious doctrinal concerns into a personality debate is just a convenient way of evading the substantive issues that need to be addressed.”
The irony, of course, is that many of the faithful Catholics who defend Pope Francis are willing to discuss — and have been discussing — the substance of the issues at stake and the theological questions surrounding this pontificate in great depth. We have addressed the concerns of his critics repeatedly and in depth. The reality is that most prominent and influential Catholics — like Chaput — who disagree with the pope on matters of substance are rarely interested in engaging in serious dialogue or discussion with those who agree with the pope. I for one, would love to have this conversation.
And that will be the subject of my next article.
 By “Us,” of course, St. Paul VI meant “me.” Prior to St. John Paul II, the pope referred to himself in all official papal texts in the first-person plural.
Image: Vatican Media.