This is the third (and hopefully final) installment in a series on the Pillar’s interview with retired Archbishop Charles Chaput, a man whose opposition to Pope Francis and his teachings appears to run deep. In my first article, I addressed Chaput’s rejection of synodality as a concept and his bizarre claim that Vatican II did not call for synodality as a permanent feature of the Church. In my second article, I responded to Chaput’s false claim that the pope’s defenders refuse to address the substance of important doctrinal issues, when he asserted, “Turning serious doctrinal concerns into a personality debate is just a convenient way of evading the substantive issues that need to be addressed.” Today, I focus on the document that is likely at the center of Chaput’s opposition to the pope: Amoris Laetitia.
Chaput’s response to this apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, released on April 8, 2016, has varied at times from duplicitous, to coy, to condescending, to sarcastic, to passive-aggressive, to downright hostile. At times, he presents himself as an expert on the document, at other times he expresses confusion about what it really means. And throughout much of the time following the document’s release, he was the bishop appointed by the USCCB with the responsibility of overseeing its implementation in the US Church. Similar to his handling of the issues addressed in the last article, Archbishop Chaput has never issued a substantive critique of Amoris Laetitia nor clearly articulated what he thinks is wrong with the document. Instead, he’s dropped hints and insults about faithful Catholics who assent to the teaching. Additionally, he’s leveraged his positions and used his public platform to mislead the faithful about the Holy Father’s teachings and to undermine Pope Francis’s Magisterium.
Despite what Chaput might claim, many substantive defenses of Amoris Laetitia have been written by cardinals, bishops, priests, theologians, and ordinary Catholics. At Where Peter Is, our contributors have written more articles explaining and defending Amoris Laetitia than I can count. Two of our contributors, Stephen Walford and Pedro Gabriel, have written books on the subject, complete with nihil obstat and imprimatur. Walford’s book has a preface by the pope and the endorsements of four cardinals. The arguments against the orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia have been taken seriously and refuted thoroughly.
Back in October 2015, during the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome (the Synod on Marriage and the Family), Archbishop Chaput delivered an intervention to the participants. In his speech, he criticized the synod’s working document and attempted to warn his fellow bishops that they faced a choice between “pastoral despair” and “a decision to hope.” According to the archbishop, the wrong decision would result in “a spirit of compromise with certain sinful patterns of life and the reduction of Christian truths about marriage and sexuality to a set of beautiful ideals — which then leads to surrendering the redemptive mission of the Church.”
Archbishop Chaput was, of course, referring to the possibility that the synod fathers and Pope Francis might endorse a change in the Church’s practice of denying communion to Catholics living in “irregular situations,” including those who are divorced and civilly remarried. Much of the debate surrounding the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family revolved around proposals to modify the Church’s position.
Ultimately, Amoris Laetitia — Pope Francis’s official teaching document that followed the synods — did allow the possibility of admitting some Catholics in irregular situations to the sacraments on an individual basis. Such cases require a process of discernment with a pastor and a determination that the person’s culpability for sexual sins in the relationship is decreased due to insufficient consent (meaning that due to their particular circumstances, the sin was found to be venial or even entirely mitigated). As a document of the ordinary Magisterium, Francis’s teaching should have settled the matter, but many Catholics — including bishops and cardinals — found the teaching morally unacceptable and devised strategies to avoid having to accept it.
Archbishop Chaput was among them. He never admitted it outright, but his pastoral guidelines on Amoris for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia contradicted the pastoral discernment Pope Francis lays out in chapter 8 of the exhortation. Chaput’s guidelines not only contradict the document on the question of sacraments for those in irregular situations, but in their participation in the life of the Church. For example, he says in his guidelines “divorced and civilly remarried persons should not hold positions of responsibility in a parish (e.g. on a parish council), nor should they carry out liturgical ministries or functions (e.g., lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion).” Amoris Laetitia, by contrast, says,
They are baptized; they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted. Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel. (AL 299)
Furthermore, Archbishop Chaput made it clear that he rejects the change in discipline in Amoris Laetitia in a 2017 interview with journalist John Allen. Allen asked him, “If there were some kind of binding magisterial declaration from the Vatican saying that the answer to this question is yes — that is, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics without an annulment and without living as brother and sister could be eligible for the Sacrament of Communion — what would that do in your opinion, to our witness to marriage?”
Chaput offered a lengthy response, in which he lamented “efforts to have the gospel say something that it didn’t say, or that … Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.” He continued, “So it seems to me that we ought to take Jesus at his word, about divorce and remarriage — about it being adultery, are very clear. I mean, there’s just no doubt about what Jesus said in the Gospels, so it seems to me that it’s impossible for us to contradict the words of Jesus. And it’s also not possible for a teaching to be true 20 years ago and not to be true today when it’s the teachings of the pope.”
In other words, Archbishop Chaput admitted that he would defy the pope rather than assent to what Amoris Laetitia teaches. Of note is the fact that the Church does not accept this sort of pitting the teachings of the pope against loyalty to Christ, as Pope Pius XII warned in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:
They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it. (MCC 41)
In the days following the release of Amoris Laetitia, many Catholics who opposed the teaching chose to respond in one of three ways. The first way was to praise the document but deny what it said, a tactic employed by Msgr. Livio Melina, who was then the president of the St. John Paul Institute. Melina published an article on the exhortation four days after its release, in which he wrote that “the Holy Father’s teaching is characterized by the great pastoral concern to announce the Good News of the Family in the perspective of mercy.” But he also insisted, “there remains only one possible conclusion: the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia does not change the Church’s discipline.”
The second tactic was to claim that Amoris Laetitia was only the pope’s pastoral or personal “reflections,” with no weight or magisterial authority. The same day Melina’s article was released, the National Catholic Register published an article by Cardinal Raymond Burke claiming that “Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium.”
The third tactic was to declare the document heretical and prepare for the end of days. This approach was demonstrated on the day of Amoris Laetitia’s release by Maike Hickson in One Peter Five, who wrote of paragraph 301 in the document, “This statement of the pope seems to do away with any moral foundation on the question of marriage and divorce. It breaks apart the very basis of moral law, and opens the door to a lax and relativistic approach to the sanctity of marriage” (emphasis in original).
Archbishop Chaput was a strong adherent to the first approach, issuing a carefully-worded response to the document that begins, “Amoris Laetitia is a serious and extensive reflection on Christian marriage. While it changes no Church teaching or discipline, it does stress the importance of pastoral sensitivity in dealing with the difficult situations many married couples today face.” He goes on to praise the document’s “great expressions of support for family life” and calls it “a great gift.”
Shortly thereafter, Chaput was appointed chairman of the US Bishops’ working group on Amoris Laetitia, which was formed with the intention of facilitating the implementation of the exhortation in the United States.
It might seem odd that a bishops’ conference would select a bishop who disagrees with the content of a papal document to direct its implementation. But this isn’t odd in the US Church. For a bishops’ conference that shows no interest in listening to the pope or accepting his teaching, Chaput was the perfect choice. Within months, he took part in a public clash with Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, who voiced objections to the timing and contents of Chaput’s Amoris guidelines for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Chaput shot back at Farrell, and when Catholic News Service failed to report his comments in their entirety, he turned to other outlets and had them published in full.
In these comments, he asserted the superiority of his understanding of the Synod on the Family and Amoris over that of Farrell, saying, “You’ll recall, I’m sure, that I was a delegate to the 2015 synod and then elected and appointed to the synod’s permanent council. So I’m familiar with the material and its context in a way that Cardinal-designate Farrell may not be.”
His appointment as USCCB chair on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia made him an influential figure in developing the public’s understanding of the exhortation. He spoke publicly about Amoris Laetitia on numerous occasions, and did not hesitate to show his disdain for the document. For example, in November 2017, he delivered a speech in Houston to the National Assembly of Filipino Priests in which he said,
My job today is to talk about Amoris Laetitia. Papal documents are always important. But — if we can be candid for a moment — some have the energy of a lead brick. Amoris Laetitia is very different. It has passages of great wisdom and beauty on marriage and on family life. And it has other passages that have caused some obvious controversy. The controversy has obscured much of the good in the document. So we need to engage the text with open hearts and the discipline of clear thinking.
In an essay in First Things that same month — ostensibly in honor of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor — he took a poorly-veiled jab at Amoris Laetitia and other topics discussed during Francis’s papacy, writing, “To a great extent, today’s debates within the Church—on issues of sexual identity, sexual behavior, Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, the nature of the family—simply exhume and reanimate the convenient ambiguities and flexible approaches to truth that Veritatis Splendor forcefully buried.” So that no one would be mistaken about whom and what he was criticizing, he added, “In the long run, Veritatis Splendor will be remembered long after many other works of popes and politicians are forgotten.”
Later, in April 2018, Chaput welcomed dubia Cardinal Raymond Burke and the New York priest and EWTN Papal Posse member, Fr. Gerald Murray, to lead a conference in the Philadelphia Cathedral on the topic of, “Matrimony, Rediscovering its Truth.” It’s unlikely that Chaput could have sent a clearer signal of disapproval than to approve two of the pope’s most outspoken critics speak on the truth of marriage in his own cathedral.
Unlike the open attacks on the pope employed by Burke and Murray, Chaput has preferred to keep his cards closer to his chest. This has allowed him to have direct influence over the Church’s hierarchy — and, by extension, the Church — on the reception of Amoris. Rather than step up to the center of the Church’s dance floor and state his “substantive” concerns with Pope Francis’s landmark document on marriage and the family, he’s standing in the corner spiking the punch bowl and making sarcastic comments.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Steve Skojec was the author of the piece in One Peter Five, rather than Maike Hickson.]
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.