The recent announcement by Archbishop Charles Chaput that he intends to sell the eight-acre estate that has served as the residence of the Philadelphia archbishops since 1935 struck me as a sign of an impending shift in the tectonic plates of Catholic culture in the United States. Archbishop Chaput’s announcement comes not long after a frank letter to the Catholics of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia about significant challenges they will have to face in the immediate future. The Archbishop warned of “very serious financial and organizational issues that cannot be delayed” and that “the process will be painful.”
One can infer from the Archbishop’s words that the ax is about to be laid to the root of some of the institutions of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, specifically, parishes and schools. This news comes at a time of crisis for the Church in Philadelphia as Catholics and their Archbishop continue to deal with the devastating news that the standards and practices established by the USCCB to protect children from the horror of sexual abuse were seemingly circumvented or not rigorously applied in the Archdiocese by Chaput’s predecessors. Archbishop Chaput is faced with a task akin to the Herculean labor of cleaning the Augean stables.
Archbishop Chaput, in his decision to sell his residence, is not the first American prelate to relinquish such a legacy. Cardinal O’Malley sold the mansion that housed the Archbishop of Boston in order to secure the necessary resources to deal with settlements of sex abuse claims against his Archdiocese. It seems in his own decision, Archbishop Chaput is making sure that as he insists the Catholics of his diocese make sacrifices, that it is clear that the one asking them to do this is not exempt from the hard work ahead. Of course, this does not mean that the Archbishop will be out on the street or living in squalor, but he is giving up a way of life that has for many years become a symbolic representation of prestige and influence of Catholic bishops, not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the United States.
It may just be that the Archbishop’s gesture is more than a symbolic move and represents a significant change in terms of Catholic culture in the United States. By this I mean that a way of being Catholic that has prevailed for many years is giving way to something else, and as a result former ways are passing away. This way of being Catholic places a primary emphasis on institutions as the bearers of Catholic identity and mission, a strategy that was extremely successful for many years, but as of late has been becoming less effective and more problematic—I call this strategy “institutionalism”—an ethos by which being a Catholic is marked by those institutions through which one has matriculated.
One can, of course, be imbued with a great deal of the Catholic “thing” by an encounter with Catholic institutions, but whether or not they will generate the assent of faith is not a given, and it has become even less so in recent years. The reasons for the current state of affairs are manifold, but whatever the explanation, Catholic “institutionalism” or a nearly singular reliance on Catholic themed infrastructure to advance the mission of the Church seems to be at a critical juncture.
Granted, the Church will always need institutions to fulfill Christ’s mandate for her mission in the world, but the manner in which these institutions have defined Catholic culture is relative to time and circumstance. What the Church maintains as a necessity in one generation just might outlive its effectiveness in another. Given this truth, detachment is necessary, but this disposition of the soul proves to be difficult, especially when so many resources are and have been dedicated to keep institutions operational, along with the emotional connection that people have towards places, things and the identity institutions impart. Unfortunately, the truth that to be Catholic is primarily a relationship of communion with Christ can be overshadowed by the significance of finite realities. Such an overshadowing can be spiritually deadly as it morphs into what can only be identified as idolatry—the substitution of things of finite significance for what should our ultimate concern.
It might be easier to think of an Archbishop’s mansion in these terms because we have a tendency to think of the grandeur that formerly surrounded the Church’s prelates as venal and are not willing to even entertain the notion that in a different age these things were actually needed. But detachment also extends to things closer to the hearts and minds of the faithful—like their local church building or the parochial school. It can also mean those institutions like universities, hospitals, or other charitable endeavors that can no longer bring themselves to muster the resolve or resources to maintain their Catholicity in the face of secularist incursions and will have to be abandoned.
Losing the buildings does not by necessity mean the Church is paralyzed in its mission, but it might mean that the Church’s mission is to be accomplished in different ways and with different resources. In this respect discernment is necessary (as is great deal of prudence) to determine that if one mission has ended, what is the new mission that must now be accepted? One of the predicaments of our time is that the Church's loss of buildings is usually interpreted as evidence that the Church has failed or is in decline, rather than considering that it may just be that the mission has changed and the resources needed for that apostolic work are not the same resources that were necessary in the past.
Given all this, when Catholic institutions do fail it is not enough just to attribute the cause to changing circumstances or demographic shifts. Sometimes an intense examination of conscience is necessary, as is real contrition, in regards to what Catholics have done and what we have failed to do. The accommodation to a secularist ethos by many Catholic institutions is a case in point. Another is a growing and more frightening issue that was identified by Archbishop Chaput in an important article that appeared several years ago in the journal First Things concerning the relationship of Catholic charitable foundations to the state. Whatever the future is for Catholic institutions in our culture, the ground has been shifting. It seems to me that with the action taken by Archbishop Chaput in Philadelphia, the Church in our culture is moving away from, not only old assumptions and paradigms, but also certain institutional forms which, until now, have been the privileged and protected bearers of the Catholic way of life.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.