The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 2:05:15

What do I have against Archbishop Chaput?

Katie van Schaijik, Mar 09, 2018

I have no quarrel with any particular point in this interview with Archbishop Chaput. But something about it sticks in my craw, as does a lot of his writing lately—articles and public speeches wherein he seems to me to consistently, if discretely, set himself up as an opponent of the pastoral teaching and priorities of Pope Francis.

That may sound rather extreme, but I mean it sincerely, and I’m bothered enough by it to want to make my thoughts and feelings known to others. I will have more to say in future about what I see as his serious misunderstanding of "accompaniment" and his incomplete account of Veritatis Splendor. For now, I'll limit myself to the short CNA article linked above.

I’m with the Archbishop entirely when he writes about the greatness and enduring relevance of Fides et Ratio. I agree with him whole-heartedly that we urgently need to re-acquire the habit and skills of rigorous moral reasoning. Like him, I deplore the dearth of sound catechetical, philosophical and theological formation that has afflicted every Catholic generation since Vatican II, including priests. I, too, reject “faddish theology” and the downgrading of conscience to sentiment or personal opinion. (Newman called this "dispensing with conscience in the name of conscience.")

Still. When I read parts of this interview, I feel perturbed and think he’s doing a disservice. He’s not doing justice to the issues at hand or to fellow Catholics who have views different from his own. He’s leaving out too much nuance and perspective, in a way that is likely to exacerbate tensions and divisions among us at a moment when what we need above all is more openness and receptivity toward the Pope and toward one another.

Take the following paragraph, which comes in answer to this question:

If someone finds himself or herself in a cultural or ecclesial environment dominated by poor philosophy and theology, how should he or she respond?

Ignore the nonsense, read, watch and listen to good Catholic material, and live your faith in conformity with what the Church has always taught. The basics still apply on marriage, sex, honesty and everything else. There are no “new paradigms” or revolutions in Catholic thought. Using that kind of misleading language only adds confusion to a confusing age.

It sounds dismissive to me, "excessively objectivistic," and wrong. It’s true that the essential teaching of the Church doesn’t change, but it's false that there are no new paradigms. 

To my mind, Vatican II represents a quite dramatic paradigm shift in the Church, and, as Pope Francis has said, we’re still a long way from having fully assimilated it. John Paul II's Theology of the Body offered a new paradigm for understanding conjugal love and theological anthropology, didn't it?

In an important essay published in 1958, a young Josef Ratizinger wrote of the “fundamental change in the structure of the Church” that he saw as a fact of the modern world, necessitating the Council. Here is something he said much later, after he had already retired from the papacy, when he was asked what the changes we’re seeing under Pope Francis mean:

It means that the Church is flexible, dynamic and open, and that it is developing from within. That it is not frozen in old patterns, but that surprising things happen again and again. That it carries a dynamism which allows for constant renewal.

“Pattern” is another word for “paradigm.”

I don't have a reference to John Paul II using the term "revolution" at the tip of my fingers, but a line from retreats he offered to young adults in the 1960’s and '70's comes close. 

Rebellion even contains a positive element, so long as it is a struggle for authentic values and not simply unmotivated and self-centered revolt.

This insight undergirds the Solidarity Movement that brought down the Iron Curtain without war. It, like the American Civil Rights protests, was what George Weigel calls "a revolution of conscience."  

Pope Francis has been known to use the term too, e.g., when he called for “a revolution of tenderness” during the Year of Mercy. In itself, the word is not so different from "conversion" or “metanoia.”  It needn't imply any menace to fundamental doctrine. Nothing Copernicus discovered altered the operations of the universe in the slightest degree, and yet his work brought about a scientific revolution. How? By radically changing our perspective and our understanding of celestial bodies and the physical laws governing them.

A paradigm shift in the Church similarly represents not a change in doctrine or the objective moral law, but a change in our perspective and our understanding—one that yields new insights regarding their application in our day and age.

John Paul II's writings and teachings are chock full of this kind of newness. So are Pope Benedict's. The philosophical personalism of the modern period, which both great popes cite as vital to their own intellectual and spiritual development and whose influence suffuses their magisterial teaching represents nothing less than a new paradigm in Catholic thought.

As Benedict put it: "Modern thought has opened up a new dimension for moral theology."

And new dimensions in thought have practical and pastoral implications. Those are being worked out in the current papacy. It's not an easy or straight-forward task. It's made harder when, instead of lending a hand, major Catholic prelates and conservative opinion-makers treat the task itself as worse than pointless—something to be resisted rather than embraced.

I really wish they'd stop doing that.