As Philadelphia’s archbishops, Charles Chaput and Nelson Pérez may differ less in substance than style
After back-to-back mass shootings one weekend last August prompted calls for stricter gun laws, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput publicly argued that “only a fool” would believe that gun control could deter such violence.
The people using the guns were to blame, twisted, he wrote in a pointed column, by society’s “culture of sexual anarchy, personal excess, political hatreds, intellectual dishonesty, and perverted freedoms.”
But when a gunman killed one person and injured three at a California synagogue in April, Chaput’s designated successor, Cleveland Bishop Nelson J. Pérez, applied a softer approach. He condemned the “evil act of violence” and offered prayers for “those who were injured, loving care for the person who was killed, and comfort and consolation for their families.”
The tragedies that triggered their remarks may have little to do with meaty questions of church dogma, but the manner in which both men responded might help the region’s 1.3 million Catholics see a distinction between the outgoing archbishop and the man whom Pope Francis has named as his replacement.
Much has been made of the significance of Pérez’s selection amid Francis’ perceived efforts to shift the ideological makeup of the traditionally conservative U.S. Catholic hierarchy more in line with platforms of his papacy.
Church analysts say the differences between Chaput and Pérez may be more about style than theology, less about politics than presentation. And Pérez’s limited record on a national stage may be one reason he became the pontiff’s choice for the job.
That understated profile “actually says a lot about him,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame. “He’s not making hot-button issues his platform. He’s a moderate voice and who seems interested in building bridges instead of sewing divisions.”
Chaput built a reputation as an outspoken and opinionated leader in the intellectual debate of the church and its intersection with politics and culture, according to the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for Religion News Service. Pérez, the Cleveland bishop since 2017 and one of only three Latinos to be named a U.S. archbishop, comes across as more comfortable talking about families, migrants, and the poor -- dinner-table concerns that make him more like Francis.
Or, as Reese put it: "Chaput is more interested in how we explain the faith. For Pérez, it’s more about how we live it.”
Chaput had telegraphed his departure months before he turned 75, the typical retirement age for bishops, and said he’s eager to continue his writings and public speaking. Pérez, 58, had been a Philadelphia-area parish priest for two decades before serving as a bishop in New York and Ohio. After his appointment was announced Thursday, he avoided laying out any sweeping visions for the archdiocese and won’t be installed as its archbishop until Feb. 18.
But a look at how each man has responded to some of the most debated aspects of church and public life in recent years could offer some clues.
Marriage, sexuality, and family life
In 2016, Francis issued an edict urging bishops to be more welcoming of divorced-and-remarried couples, gays, and those who live in an “imperfect manner” -- and stirred up a renewed debate within the church on issues of sexuality, marriage, and family life that has since divided the global Catholic hierarchy.
Chaput quickly issued pastoral guidelines that said divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as well as cohabitating unmarried couples, must “refrain from sexual intimacy” in order to receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
He also has criticized the teachings of a Montgomery County native and Jesuit priest, the Rev. James Martin, who advocates greater acceptance of gays within the church. Chaput also objected to the inclusion of a line referencing gay Catholics in a document produced by the 2018 Church Synod on Young People.
“There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic,’ ” Chaput said, “or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic.' "
Asked on Friday where he fell in the debate over nontraditional marriages and partnerships, and divorced Catholics, Pérez declined to offer specifics.
“I walk with the church,” he said after meeting with children at a North Philadelphia social services agency run by the archdiocese’s charitable wing. “I represent the teachings of the church, and embrace the teachings of the church, as stipulated by the church. I walk with the church, and I’m loyal to the church.”
His tenure in Cleveland shows little daylight between him and Chaput in action. In statements for the church’s National Marriage Week, Pérez defined marriage as a partnership between a man and a woman.
Last fall, he enlisted five missionaries from a group called the Culture Project to speak to students in Cleveland schools and youth groups about chastity and “a life of sexual integrity.” The missionaries, whose talk topics include human dignity and virtuous use of social media, have also received endorsements from Chaput.
Pérez is “a fairly, you might say, conventional bishop in terms of his theology,” said Paul V. Murphy, director of the Institute of Catholic Studies at John Carroll University outside Cleveland. “I don’t think there’d be much difference between Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Pérez on sexual issues in particular. Official church teachings on heterosexual marriage, LGBTQ issues, I think he would be very traditional in that regard.”
A video on the missionaries’ program includes an introduction by Pérez.
“There is a great need for direction that ensures our human dignity and embraces a culture of holiness,” he says.
In his 2008 book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Chaput wrote: “Asking Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs amounts to telling them to be barren, to behave as if they were neutered.”
It’s a mantra that defined Chaput as one of the most outspoken members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. It also resurfaced again and again in Philadelphia as he threw himself into secular public debates over gun control, whether communion should be offered to candidates who support abortion rights, and even presidential campaigns.
A prolific author and public speaker, Chaput in a 2017 op-ed denounced critics of President Donald Trump for what he described as unprecedented opposition.
“Mr. Trump is now President Trump, and curiously, some of the harshest, ongoing fury directed at him has nothing to do with his personal character,” Chaput wrote. “Rather, it’s a very special brand of ‘progressive’ intolerance for the approach his administration may take toward a range of difficult social issues, including abortion.”
That came one year after Chaput described both Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, “as very bad news for our country” in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign.
"One candidate, in the view of a lot of people, is a belligerent demagogue with an impulse-control problem,” he said then during a speech at the University of Notre Dame. “And the other, also in the view of a lot of people, is a criminal liar, uniquely rich in stale ideas and bad priorities."
More recently, Philadelphia’s archbishop called out Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for dropping his support for the Hyde Amendment, the 1970s law prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortion.
“The unborn child means exactly zero in the calculus of power for Democratic Party leaders,” Chaput wrote in a column in June. “The right to an abortion, once described as a tragic necessity, is now a perverse kind of ‘sacrament most holy.’ ”
Pérez has dived less frequently into the political fray. When he has inserted himself into the nation’s current divisive politics, it has been to call for calm and respect.
When Trump last year lashed out at Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) in a string of tweets describing Baltimore as a “dangerous and filthy place” and a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” Pérez pushed back with a statement cosigned by two other prelates.
“We find ourselves once more discussing how people, even our national leaders, use language that is divisive and disrespectful,” it read. “Such language is absolutely incompatible with the teaching of Jesus Christ.”
Chaput and Pérez appear to differ little from each other -- and the broader position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- in supporting comprehensive immigration reform and opposing the separation of migrant family members.
But Pérez -- a Cuban American who will become the first Hispanic archbishop of Philadelphia -- has taken the issue head-on.
“The church’s position on immigration and the bishop’s call for immigration reform is not a political issue. It is a human issue. And for us it is a moral issue,” Pérez said during Friday’s stop at the Casa del Carmen Family Service Center in North Philadelphia.
More directly, he suggested it was the responsibility of the church to advocate for immigrants by offering legal assistance and other help to those in need. He said he would seek to spotlight some of those resources in Philadelphia’s communities.
In Cleveland, Pérez has supported young immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and has denounced immigration raids in Ohio. After a raid in Cleveland, he urged people to pray for affected families and press lawmakers for immigration reform.
“This country, its soul, its heart, has been one of being a welcoming people. It’s there at the Statue of Liberty at the harbor where immigrants came by the thousands and thousands. And so it’s painful to see the conversation at times and the rhetoric that we see with our immigrants,” Pérez said in a 2019 interview. “Our rights and our dignity -- listen, there’s no wall that could stop that.”
In 2017, Pérez went to an Immigration Customs and Enforcement office with the family of a Cleveland-area man set to be deported to personally ask immigration officials to allow the man to stay in the United States, where he was the primary caregiver for a stepson with cerebral palsy.
In the waiting room, he prayed with other families, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported. He left a written statement with immigration officials, but ICE ultimately denied the man’s bid to avoid deportation.
Chaput arrived in Philadelphia in 2011 with a mandate to steady an archdiocese roiled by back-to-back grand jury investigations that implicated his predecessors, Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua and Justin Rigali, in covering up years of misdeeds by sexually abusive priests.
He acted swiftly, suspending and later removing from ministry multiple priests implicated in those reports. And while accusations have continued to emerge and Chaput has not always earned plaudits for transparency from clergy sex-abuse victims and their backers, the archdiocese under his tenure has avoided another scandal.
In 2019, he released a full list of all the accused clergy to have served in the archdiocese and established a compensation fund for victims, even those with claims too old for civil courts.
Pérez, too, has had to contend in his short time in Cleveland with the sexual-abuse issue -- one reignited by the scandal surrounding now defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report focused on six of the state’s eight dioceses.
But he likely has a different lens on the issue than his predecessor. When the first wave of the sex-abuse scandal erupted in 2002, Pérez was a parish priest at St. William church in the Lawncrest section of the city.
“The old-timers, they were trained in a very different church and I think they had a different experience of the 2002 abuse crisis as bishops,” said Terry McKiernan, founder of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org. “The new guard experienced the crisis as priests on the front lines.”
Under Pérez’s watch, at least three Cleveland Diocese priests have been suspended for sexual impropriety with minors. And like dioceses around the county, the Cleveland Diocese came under pressure to release a list naming all priests accused of sexual abuse.
It took nearly a year until the bishop did -- though victims’ groups criticized the fact that it did not list past parish assignments for the priests.
Statute of limitations legislation
The 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury not only sparked introspection and reform within Catholic dioceses across the nation, it added fuel to the legislative debate over whether victims of decades-old abuse deserve a second chance to sue their abusers.
Nine states, including New Jersey and New York, have passed laws opening a limited window for accusers to file fresh suits even if their claims fall years outside the established statute of limitations.
Chaput has fought ferociously against such proposals, both in Denver in 2006 and in Pennsylvania since he arrived, leading campaigns from the pulpit, lobbying legislators, and warning of crippling financial penalties.
“It’s a clear attack on the Church, her parishes and her people,” he wrote of a 2016 bill before the Pennsylvania legislature. “It covers both public and religious institutions -- but in drastically different and unjust ways.”
Still, in November, lawmakers in Harrisburg reached a compromise on their own version of a so-called window law, opting to leave it to voters in a statewide referendum.
Ohio debated a similar window law; it died facing opposition from the church in 2006, more than a decade before Pérez moved there from his previous posting in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Though his time as an auxiliary bishop in Long Island overlapped with the height of the political wrangling over New York’s law, he was not involved in the church’s lobbying effort there, said Marci Hamilton, chief executive of Child U.S.A., a University of Pennsylvania think tank focused on child protection and a longtime advocate for changing the laws.
“He didn’t fight to support it either,” she said. “He just wasn’t anywhere.”
Asked Thursday -- minutes after his introduction to Philadelphia priests, archdiocesan staff. and reporters as the region’s next archbishop -- whether he would oppose the victims’ window in Pennsylvania, Pérez said: “I support the issue.”
That seemed at first to be a stark difference from his predecessor.
Then, Pérez elaborated on his response, and in doing so, echoed Chaput’s language in opposition: “As long as it applies fairly to all and doesn’t single anyone out. That’s fair and that’s just.”
Staff writers Allison Steele, William Bender, and Anna Orso contributed to this article.
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