Philadelphia Metropolis


Workhorse or Showhorse?

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5956487560_7c4b68f6ca_z.jpgWhen I heard the Pope had replaced Cardinal Rigali with a man described as a "pro-life warrior," who doesn't cotton to homosexuals and is known for his blunt lectures on faith and morals, I thought: Wow! The Pope just named Rick Santorum to run the archdiocese.

I was wrong.  Rigali's successor isn't an Italian American politician, but a Native American priest, the Rev. Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver, a feisty Franciscan known for his outspoken defense of the Catholic faith and sometimes tart criticism of politicians and others who stray from the true path.

When it comes to prelates, Chaput, 66, is a kid. (Rigali is 76).   He seems to be energetic and personable. He'll need to be both in running this archdiocese because he is headed into troubled waters.

The press coverage focused on Chaput's "warrior" side.  But, really, who cares? This is America and he gets to say what he wants. Unlike the old days, a bishop's

pronouncements won't be considered marching orders by the faithful, who will make up their own minds, thank you. Besides, I am always amused to hear a Catholic bishop or archbishop called "conservative." Is there any other kind?  Some may be shy and meek, like Rigali.  Some may be outspoken, like Chaput.  But, they all hold the same views on such matters as abortion, women in the priesthood, homosexuality, etc.  Dissenters from the prevailing Catholic dicta don't get to wear red hats.

What Chaput says doesn't concern me.  What he does in his role as CEO of the archdiocese is what is important.

Chaput takes over an archdiocese in turmoil, albeit slo-mo turmoil.  For starters, there are the priest sex scandals (uncovered by not one but two grand juries), accompanied by credible evidence that the misdeeds were covered up by higher ups.

The damage these scandals have done to the local church is, in one way, immeasurable.  In another way, it can be measured: with Catholics defecting the faith, with fewer people in the pews, with less money in the collection plate.

There's not a Catholic adult who grew up in the area who doesn't know at least a few of the priests who committed sex crimes, mostly against teenage boys. (My current total is three, two of whom were at Cardinal O'Hara when I was a student there; one whom I knew in my role as a reporter.)

Rigali muddled his way through the crisis, which is probably one reason why Rome is, um, retiring him. Lately, though, the archdiocese has looked as if - at last, at long last - it is getting serious about the problem. (One solution is to hire respected former prosecutors to look into allegations, instead of some fellow priest-vicar.)

But, as serious a blow the scandals were, they are just one part of a larger problem.  In this region, the church is in decline - with fewer congregants, clergy, nuns and financial resources. Important numbers go down every year.

Let me note one.  Eight archdiocesan priests have died so far this year.  In May, Regali ordained three new priests, all graduates of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.  So, eight depart and three arrive.  That does not compute. (Overall, there are about 590 archdiocesan priests, but 150 of them are retired.)

The situation is the same with nuns, as Mike Mallowe outlined elegantly in a recent Metropolis Cover Story. (Read The Last Generation.)

Officially, there are about 1.4 million Catholics in the archdiocese.  But,

on any given Sunday, only 1 out of 4 attend Mass. Almost every indices of the church's health as an entity -- congregants, baptisms, marriages, Catholic school attendance -- is down in the last five years, some by double digits.

If the archdiocese was a corporation and you were brought in as a new CEO, your mission would be simple: reverse or, at least, slow the decline. Bring the folks back into the pews. Revive the church's fortunes or, at least, its financial footing. Revivify its managers (priests and nuns and brothers) and restore its reputation.

No easy task. 

You also would have to face the fact that the archdiocese is antiquated in its distribution of resources. It has too many parishes in Philadelphia, too few in the western suburbs. Too many schools and too few students.  Too few clergy and nuns to deal with its needs.

If you were going to be serious about correcting these problems, you would have to be willing to become a martyr bishop.  Create enemies by closing parishes. Make more by closing schools. Get rid of white elephants. (To mention one: St. Charles Seminary, with as many  faculty as students).

Then, think again.  At age 66, it is likely you will be archbishop (and, eventually, cardinal) for 10 to 12 years.  Do you need this grief?

Better to lambaste Catholic politicians on their stands on abortion than to make the tough decisions about being under staffed and over worked. Better to be a "pro-life warrior" than a pro-Catholic CEO.

So, the real question for the new archbishop is not is he pro- or anti-abortion.  He is anti, now and forever.  The real question will be: will he be a workhorse or a show horse? And what will he do - not with the theology of the Catholic Church - but with the reality of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia.

-- Tom Ferrick












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