Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who was appointed to the position by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, has long been known as a theological and political conservative, often at odds with Pope Francis.
By Elizabeth Dias and
Pope Francis sought to shift the ideological balance of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States on Thursday, replacing one of his most prominent conservative critics as the archbishop of Philadelphia.
Pope Francis announced in a statement that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia was retiring, and that Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Cleveland, a former Philadelphian and relative newcomer to the national scene, would assume the role.
“The Holy Father has accepted the resignation” of Archbishop Chaput, the statement said, adding that the pope had named Archbishop Perez to take his place.
“I cannot think of a better successor to lead this Archdiocese,” Archbishop Chaput wrote on his Facebook page Thursday morning, calling the nomination a “moment of great joy” for Philadelphia’s Catholics. He said that Archbishop Perez “is already known and loved by our priests and people.”
Archbishop Chaput, who was appointed to the position by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, has long been known as a theological and political conservative, often at odds with Francis’ mission to move beyond the culture wars. The move is a sign that the pope, who has installed key allies in Chicago and Newark, is still intent on changing the ideological direction of the American church by directing one of its most traditionalist dioceses toward a more pastoral approach.
Francis recently acknowledged that a good deal of the opposition to his pontificate emanated from the United States, telling a reporter who handed him a book exploring the well-financed and media-backed American effort to undermine his agenda that it was “an honor that the Americans attack me.”
Archbishop Chaput’s departure was expected, as he had offered his resignation to Pope Francis when he turned 75 in September. Church law requires every bishop tender his resignation to the pope at that age, but the pontiff can choose not to accept it, often allowing prelates to remain in office for several more years.
In this case, the pope did not wait long before saying yes.
Archbishop Chaput became a favorite among Catholic conservatives for supporting the denial of communion to Catholic politicians who back abortion rights, opposing the legalization of gay marriage and, as archbishop of Denver before gay marriage was legalized nationally, helping defeat legislation that would have legalized civil unions for gay couples in the state.
Many conservatives around the church counted his removal as yet another power play by Francis, whom they have called a “dictator pope” who ignores their complaints that he is diluting the faith and breaking church traditions.
A small but vocal and influential group of American prelates has consistently raised the possibility that Francis may be leading the church toward schism. But Francis has mostly brushed those threats off as dust on the shoulders of his white robes.
“I pray that there are no schisms,” he said on a flight from Africa in September. “But I am not scared.”
At a press conference in Philadelphia on Thursday morning, Bishop Perez thanked Archbishop Chaput for his influence in his life, calling him “a great mentor, a great friend.”
“I am concerned of the shoes that I have to fill,” he said. “We thank him for his incredible ministry for the church.”
He also acknowledged the complexities of his new assignment, apologizing directly to victims of clergy sexual abuse, and he addressed Hispanic Catholics, at times in Spanish, raising concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
“There’s a rhetoric at times that happens with our immigrants that is just not dignified, and we have to respect the dignity of the human person,” he said. “It is the role of the state and the government to protect our dignity.”
Archbishop Chaput said he would continue to live in Philadelphia and be involved in the archdiocese. He plans to take three months to read, cook, and pray, and then resume activities like giving talks and leading retreats around the country, a sign he likely will remain influential in the church as a prominent conservative thought leader.
A significant posting for the church in the United States, the archdiocese of Philadelphia is traditionally a cardinal’s seat, meaning that its leader is usually named a cardinal, the church’s highest clerical rank after pontiff. Cardinals under age 80 elect the pope, giving them critical sway in the future of the church.
Pope Francis notably never elevated Archbishop Chaput for the red hat. That denial has frustrated many conservatives, especially as Francis appointed a cardinal and ally to the archdiocese of Newark, which had never before had a cardinal, and which has outsized prominence as part of the New York media market.
In a June 2017 interview, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, then the top doctrinal watchdog in the Roman Catholic Church, said he was “disappointed” that the archbishop of Philadelphia had not been elevated to cardinal, “because the appointment of the cardinals should not be a personal relation with the pope to these bishops.” Asked why Francis had declined to make the appointment, he said “politics.”
Weeks later Francis removed Cardinal Müller from his position.
As it became clear that Francis would never make Archbishop Chaput a cardinal, many church analysts noted that the conservative became more vocal in his criticism, often using a column on the archdiocese’s website as a soapbox to express a dissonant view.
Archbishop Chaput was also a firm administrator, tapped to reform a region in financial and spiritual disarray after extensive allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the area. A county grand jury in 2005 reported that leaders of the Philadelphia archdiocese, including two cardinals, had covered up extensive sexual abuse of minors.
A second grand jury in 2011 accused the archdiocese of not stopping the abuse, and Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop Chaput to lead the archdiocese about five months later.
Archbishop Chaput removed priests accused of abuse, closed 49 schools, and sold the archbishop’s mansion for $10 million as part of a plan to reduce the operating budget deficit.
Archbishop Chaput is also the first Native American archbishop and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe.
Bishop Perez, a Cuban-American born in Miami and raised in New Jersey, will be the first Hispanic priest to lead the church in Philadelphia. In a statement released by the Cleveland diocese, he said he accepted the appointment with a mix of “joy that I will be returning to serve the archdiocese in which I was ordained to the priesthood,” but also “sadness that I will be leaving an area and the incredible people in Northeast Ohio I have come to love deeply.”
The Hispanic population of the Philadelphia archdiocese has grown dramatically in recent years while the non-Hispanic population has remained relatively stagnant. The region has about 200 parishes and about 1.3 million Catholics.
Pope Francis has put himself squarely on the side of the immigrants whom many experts consider the future of the faith in the United States.
“Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses,” Francis told American bishops in a 2015 visit to Washington. Speaking “as a pastor from the South,” the church’s first South American pope gave the recommendation “close to my heart” that the bishops “not be afraid to welcome them.”
Francis also visited Philadelphia during that trip, for the World Meeting of Families, a global gathering of Catholics. He was welcomed by Archbishop Chaput, who by that time had already said that his fellow conservatives had “not been really happy” with parts of Francis’ reign.
Pope Francis named Bishop Perez the bishop of Cleveland in the fall of 2017, making his elevation relatively quick. Bishop Perez chairs a committee on cultural diversity for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His return to Philadelphia is a homecoming of sorts, as he spent 23 years serving in different Philadelphia parishes after ordination to the priesthood.
His installation as archbishop is planned for Feb. 18.
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