That depends on our new nuncio: and fingers crossed, he’s the Pope’s man too

The Pope has just made an interesting appointment. It is of the present Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput (pronounced “shap-you”), who is to be the next archbishop of the 1.5-million strong Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He will replace the more low-key Cardinal Justin Rigali, who has been archbishop since October 2003. This is a large and important see: its incumbent gets a red hat and he will have the national profile that implies. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Admirers and critics alike describe the outspoken Chaput, 66, as a politically attuned and emphatically conservative champion of Catholic values who will seek to re-energise Catholic identity here”.

So, that’s OK then. This is an appointment in which the Pope is personally involved; Chaput is emphatically his man: according to the well-informed John Allen Jr, “sources” told him that “Chaput was a highly personal choice by Pope Benedict”. There will, according to Allen, be in the archdiocese a major change, both of style and policy:

As Philadelphia Catholics get to know their new leader, the overall contrast with Rigali – known as a behind-the-scenes power-broker, who prefers to keep a fairly low public profile – could be jarring.

Far more outspoken, Chaput has emerged over the years as a prominent lightning rod for controversy. He’s seen as a strong voice for doctrinal orthodoxy, and he champions a robust role for people of faith in political life.

Among other battles, Chaput has clashed with pro-choice Catholic politicians, publicly rebuked the University of Notre Dame for awarding an honorary doctorate to President Barack Obama, and has been a strong force in national debates over gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research.

Chaput has also sternly called Catholics to adhere to Church teaching. In a recent address to a group of Catholic social workers, for instance, he insisted that Church-affiliated charities “have the duty to faithfully embody Catholic beliefs on marriage, the family, social justice, sexuality, abortion and other important issues”.

Ahead of the 2008 elections, Chaput published a book titled Render unto Caesar, insisting that “people who take God seriously will not remain silent about their faith”. Given that Pennsylvania is a major battleground state in American politics, Chaput’s visibility and influence seems likely to grow.

It all sounds pretty good to me: but what some of John Allen’s readers say (Allen of course writes for the ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter) practically sizzles on the screen.

He is, says one correspondent, “the very worst man for the job in Philadelphia… This man has inflicted more damage on priests and lay people in the past decade that we should not be in the least surprised that Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], would select someone such as this to carry on the rightwing agenda of the restorationist movement. …” Here’s another: ‘Chaput is a clone of the Johannine/Benedictine pattern of ruling… The entire system of selecting bishops must be opened up to a centuries old tradition of popular election by deacons, priest, laity, with confirmation of his appointment by neighboring bishops. [In other words, copy the currently disintegrating American Episcopal church] …. Here’s a third free-thinking malcontent: “The Vatican and B16 are only carrying out their plan: Wreck the church. Hope any mature Catholic will leave in disgust. Afterwards, hunker down behind the Vatican walls, with all the gold in the coffers…”

Well, there you have it: an excellent choice for Philadelphia. Archbishop Chaput has been a huge pastoral success in Denver; replying to the above comments, one member of his archdiocese, a deacon, said simply: “We are very sad to see him leave Denver… Archbishop Chaput is gentle, intelligent, and can speak the Truth in words that are kind and compassionate… that is, if you are willing to hear the Truth. He is a great Catholic archbishop, who works tirelessly!” He is not just pastoral and tough-minded but highly, incisively, intelligent. If you want to get a flavour of his mind, have a look at his official website, which gives links to interviews, statements, addresses, newspaper columns, pastoral addresses and so on.

I wish we had someone of remotely the same quality rising through the ranks in the English Church. I’m not saying they’re not there: it’s just that so far, the way things have worked in the English Church has militated heavily against them ever leaving their parishes (though there could be one exception; guess who). As my readers will know, however, I live in what I believe to be a state of realistic hope. We now have a papal nuncio who has made it plain that he is, like Archbishop Chaput, the Pope’s man. Over the coming years he will be compiling a number of vitally important ternas. In a decade from now, English Catholicism may well have been completely transformed. We need to pray for it: if we do, we may in the end be astonished by the answer to our prayers.