Archbishop Chaput’s Pastoral Restrictions Are a Losing Strategy

The following is a statement of Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, released on July 6, 2016, in response to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s new pastoral directives.  For more information, contact (301) 277-5674 (office) or (240)432-2489 (cell).

In a move which seems diametrically opposite to Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput has instructed pastoral ministers in his archdiocese not to distribute communion to divorced/remarried and cohabitating couples, and not to allow individuals involved in same-sex relationships to occupy leadership or ministerial roles in parish life.  Chaput’s instruction came in a six-page document which he called “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” the apostolic exhortation that Pope Francis released in April.

Sacramental denials and restricting parish involvement are not effective pastoral strategies for the Church to be following.  Pope Francis’ emphasis has been to move away from such measures, and instead, offer an open and welcoming hand to all–even, and perhaps especially, to those whose lives do not always conform to all of the church’s official teachings.  Denials and restrictions will only cause more people to leave the Church, thus contributing to its demise, rather than towards building it up.  Chaput has offered a losing pastoral strategy.

Though this instruction will anger and frustrate many Catholics, whose hearts are much wider in accepting people regardless of their state in life, it is not a strategy that will pass the test of time.  It is just one more attempt to hold on to a model of church which has long been rendered obsolete.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Chaput’s directives are distinctly at odds with the tone and recommendations of Amoris Laetitia which stressed church leaders should provide pastoral accompaniment and encounter, as well as encouragement, instead of discipline.  In many places, Chaput’s instruction reads schizophrenically, by emphasizing the need for such accompaniment, but then each time concluding with a recommendation that is a harsh restriction.

Chaput’s instructions should be, and most likely will be, ignored by pastoral ministers in his archdiocese.  They will most likely use their own pastoral judgement about administering sacraments and appointing people to ministerial and leadership roles.   Such is what happened last year when Newark’s Archbishop John Myers sent out similar instructions to pastoral staff in his archdiocese.  On the whole, the directives were ignored.

This issue becomes worrisome, though, because it is also very possible that self-appointed conservative “watchdogs” will take it upon themselves to report violations to the archdiocese.  Should this be what happens, then Chaput would have opened a Pandora’s box or problems for himself and the church of Philadelphia when dismissals and communion rejections become public, along with the guaranteed protests by Catholics who support those dismissed and rejected.

Because of these possibilities, in one sense Chaput’s instructions may end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  With such an outpouring of protest, his leadership, already widely ignored, will become more irrelevant, paving the way for new leadership and directions for this archdiocese which has already had more than its share of tragedies caused by rigidly conservative leaders.

Also troubling is the fact that Chaput was recently named chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee to implement Amoris Laetitia nationally.  This archdiocesan document does not bode well for the direction this committee may take.  Since Chaput represents the most conservative wing of the U.S. church, it is unlikely that any recommendations which emerge will be useful to most bishops, who will likely take a more compassionate approach to implementing the apostolic exhortation than the narrow one that Chaput has offered.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

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