A Catholic archbishop, a Presbyterian professor, and his wife walk into a bar.” While this might sound like the opening line of a bad religious joke, precisely such a scenario marked the beginning of my friendship with Archbishop Charles Chaput. He had invited me and my wife to join him for dinner before one of the wonderful lectures that he sponsored during his tenure. We still look back on that evening as one of the most delightful of our years in Philadelphia. In view of the archbishop’s impending retirement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, it seems appropriate to pay a debt of honor by offering some personal reflections upon my most unusual of friends.
When I reflect on Archbishop Chaput, three particular things stand out. The first is that he has taken consistently courageous and unpopular stands on matters of pressing concern. In Philadelphia, he was decried by the press, and , for his views on sexuality. The pope apparently spoke disparagingly of him as “ideological.” And the usual suspects in the Catholic press derided and sneered at him. His crime in each case? Taking seriously the catechetical teaching of his church. I even to one such journalist myself, pointing out the irony of criticizing a Catholic bishop for defending Catholicism rather than adopting the wearisomely conformist pieties of liberal Protestantism.
Of course, plenty of conservative Christians have spoken out on matters such as sexuality and abortion. What makes the archbishop interesting is that he has done so to his hurt. In the conservative Protestant world, many leaders have taken stands on the LGBTQ or the abortion issue, yet many of those same leaders thereby enhance their popularity and power within their institutional and subcultural contexts. Such stands may be correct, but they are scarcely courageous. And when those same leaders are silent, for example, on the damaging impact of critical theory within their own institutions and subcultures, then certain obvious questions about true courage would seem appropriate. Not so with the archbishop: He has taken positions that arguably damaged his standing with the power brokers of his own church. That is true courage.
Second, I want to reflect on a comment the archbishop made at his 2014 Erasmus Lecture. Asked by one audience member if the church should change with the times in order to stem the loss of her young people, he gave a profound and pointed response. He told the audience that churches were losing young people because his—and my—generation had not taught young people that church was important. If you take your children to a ball game on Sunday instead of to church, he observed, you are telling them that church is less important than recreational sports. There is a lesson there for conservative Protestants who have all but abandoned the idea of Sunday observance and who seem to regard the practice of attending church more than once on the Lord’s Day as a sign of dangerous religious fanaticism.
Third, I once asked the archbishop why he thought the Catholic Church had so rapidly declined in North America and was surprised (and again instructed) by his answer. He told me that even though his generation was the best-catechized in the Catholic Church’s history, nobody had ever told him that he needed to trust in Christ for his salvation. There was no existential urgency or personal imperative attached to the dogmas he was taught. Again, is there not a lesson for all Christians there? The Reformed tradition to which I belong is dogmatic, as is that of the Roman Catholic Church. But, as Kierkegaard might have put it, it is not enough that something is true—it needs to be grasped as true by each and every one of us.
There are many other things I could say about the archbishop. His book Strangers in a Strange Land (I interviewed him about it ) is a profound reflection on our current moral and social climate. His seminars at the archdiocese were not only wonderful moments of intellectual challenge but times when minds were sharpened and friendships forged. And his kind emails to myself and my wife have been a source of endless encouragement over the years. That we have profound and important theological differences is clear. But friendship enables such differences to co-exist with bonds of deep personal affection.
For his service to his church, Archbishop Chaput should have received a cardinal’s hat (in a lighthearted moment, he once promised to give me one if he ever became pope). That he was not made a cardinal might be indicative of the difference between his theology and the policies of the current pope. It might also reflect the increasing irrelevance of North America, with its broadly conservative hierarchy, to a papacy less concerned with the Catechism and the affluent West. Whatever the case may be, it seems clear to me as an outsider that the vision of the church that Archbishop Chaput represents is not that of Francis. And it is equally clear which vision is more faithful to the church’s historic teaching.
I wish the archbishop well in his retirement. I hope that he will not spend too much time reading medieval whodunits but will continue to offer reflections on our present age in essays and books. And I hope that our friendship, with all of its theological complexities, might continue for many years to come.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.