Archbishop Chaput of Denver: America's plain-speaking Pope's man

Archbishop Chaput of Denver: America's plain-speaking Pope's man

Peter J. Boyer

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver is a compact sixty-year-old of Native American descent whose manifest loyalty to the Pope and Magisterium makes him an exemplar of a group of American bishops who have been called the "John Paul II bishops".

Referring to the progressive agenda, Archbishop Chaput told me: "The lack of orthodoxy has already proven that it's empty. So I can't understand why people want to move in that direction. I mean, all the things they're pushing for have already been tried by mainline Protestant churches, which are shrinking in numbers. And these religious orders, where they've abandoned the tradition, there are no vocations, but they still talk like they're the future. Why would they? You just have to open your eyes and see."

Archbishop Chaput argues that orthodoxy has a growth market - "It's huge" - and can cite as evidence the case of the seminary he runs in Denver. For decades, it was known as St Thomas Seminary. Housed in a handsome old Spanish mission style compound, it was run by the Vincentians.

In the years after Vatican II, when Catholic academics felt increasingly unbound by Church teaching, St Thomas gained a reputation for being particularly freewheeling in its theological approach. Over time, some bishops became reluctant to direct their young candidates to the Denver seminary.

Archbishop Chaput's predecessor, Archbishop Francis Stafford, frustrated in his efforts to sway the faculty, eventually began to direct his own candidates to other seminaries. Enrolment dwindled, and in 1995 the Vincentians closed the seminary and sold the campus to the archdiocese.

When Archbishop Chaput took over, he renamed the campus the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, and moved the archdiocesan headquarters there. In 1999, he opened a new seminary, St John Vianney, with an entirely new faculty and a markedly orthodox approach.

The new seminary's rector is an intense forty-two-year-old priest named Michael Glenn, a West Point dropout who had avoided St Thomas Seminary himself because of its reputation - "I thought I'd have conflicts". Fr Glenn attended Franciscan University, in Steubenville, Ohio, a campus that attracts orthodox and charismatic Catholics. He then received a bishop's appointment to the Pontifical North American College, in Rome, an institution regarded as the Pope's own training ground for the evangelisation of America.

Nowadays, young Americans at the Rome seminary refer to themselves as "John Paul II's soldiers," and that is very much the image projected by Glenn's students in Denver. "To them," he says, indicating the dark-suited seminarians filling the lunchroom, "John Paul II wasn't a hero, he was a superhero."

The Denver project, judging by the numbers, has been a success. There are now eighty-five seminarians studying at the former St Thomas campus.

While theological inquiry is a valued Catholic tradition, there is not likely to be much dissent on Chaput's campus. "This is a seminary where people love the Church, and they love Jesus Christ," the Archbishop says. "And dissent is not part of that kind of love here. I think there's real serious theological reflection, and we study all the issues of the time. But we don't see them as being equal opinions. The opinion of the Church is the opinion. The others, it's just important to know them so that you know what the Church's challenges are."

Father Richard McBrien, of Notre Dame, is unsparing in his view of the loyalist bishops appointed by John Paul. "His greatest deficiency, in my judgment," McBrien said a few weeks before the Pope's death, "is when it comes time to make bishops. Promoting bishops within the hierarchy to high ranking positions in the hierarchy, he has named and I'm not exaggerating, he has named the worst group of bishops in modern Church history." Of Archbishop Chaput, McBrien said, "He's one of the worst."

It would not surprise any of these critics of the late Pope that, on the day Cardinal Ratzinger was elected John Paul's successor, Charles Chaput gave thanks to God. "There's a special kind of joy knowing that I don't have to be anxious about the care of the Church," he said. "Any of us would have been if we didn't know the new Pope very well. And we know this man very well."

Abortion issue

Archbishop Chaput has had dealings with Cardinal Ratzinger over the years, most notably in regard to a matter that greatly complicated John Kerry's campaign for President: the question of a Catholic politician's duty, to his faith and to his constituency, on the issue of abortion. Chaput was one of several bishops who challenged the propriety of Catholics in public life presenting themselves for Communion while advocating policies favouring abortion rights.

In April, Archbishop Chaput wrote a column in the archdiocesan newspaper, headlined "How to Tell a Duck from a Fox". In it he wrote: "Candidates who claim to be 'Catholic' but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness."

But Archbishop Chaput, like Cardinal Ratzinger, believes such controversy might ultimately prove salutary. "Whenever the Church is criticised, she understands herself better and is purified," he wrote last spring. "And when she's purified, then she better serves the Lord. We're at a time for the Church in our country when some Catholics - too many - are discovering that they've gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. That's sad and difficult, and a judgment on a generation of Catholic leadership. But it may be exactly the moment of truth the Church needs."

This is an extract from a much longer article published in the 'New Yorker Magazine', 16 May 2005, titled "How the New Pope and His Predecessor Redefined Vatican II".

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