Is Archbishop Chaput Trolling Pope Francis?

One man reaches out to gays. The other dismisses them. And they appear to be heading toward a showdown for the future of the church.

Pope Francis, giulio napolitano / | Archbishop Chaput | Jeff Fusco

Pope Francis, giulio napolitano / | Archbishop Chaput | Jeff Fusco

“So,” a colleague asked me this week, “Is Archbishop Chaput trolling the pope?”

It was a funny notion — putting the leader of the city’s Catholics on par with a commenter — but my colleague had a real reason for asking the question.

On Saturday, Pope Francis punctuated his trip to Latin America by meeting with Paraguayan activists — including Simón Cazal, an LGBT activist who has been married to his partner since 2012, and who had been specifically invited to the gathering by the church.

On Monday, Archbishop Charles Chaput put out a statement praising local Catholic school Waldron Mercy for firing a long-tenured, much-loved teacher … who happens to be gay.

“There are no people of first, of second or third class,” the pope said. “Dignity is for everyone.”

Maybe not everyone, the archbishop seemed to respond. “It’s a simple matter of honesty,” he said.

The disconnect was so abrupt, so dizzying, and so soon before the pontiff’s September visit to Philly that my colleague’s inquiry didn’t seem so crazy. Was the archbishop trolling the pope?

The likely answer? Probably not — at least if you understand “trolling” to be meaningless incitement for its own sake. On the contrary, Chaput seems to have a specific mission in mind — to lay down a marker for what the church’s teachings on gay relationships and should be — and he doesn’t have time to wait until after the pope’s visit to begin making his case.

Why? Consider the following:

• While it’s true that Pope Francis hasn’t changed church teaching on homosexuality — short version: gay relationships are “intrinsically disordered” — it’s also true that he’s made a tremendous effort to reach out to the LGBT community. It started with his “who am I to judge?” comment in 2013, and then was followed by a private January meeting — in the Vatican! — with a trans man from Spain, which itself was followed by a March meeting in Naples with 10 gay, transgender and HIV-positive prisoners.

• Publicly, at least, Chaput has been far more focused on what gays and gay rights might to do damage the church — warning of a loss of religious liberty and suggesting American priests should cease to perform civil marriage ceremonies, lest participants get confused about the church’s stance on the issue. Even before Waldron Mercy fired Margie Winters, Chaput was the big ol’ wet blanket on Philly’s celebration of the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

The difference between the two men, then, might be one of tone more than substance — but it’s such a difference of tone that it has substance.

Consider too:

• Winters worked at Waldron Mercy for seven years, and was in a relationship the entire time. Why was now — precisely now — the time to fire her? The school says a parent complained about her curriculum decisions, but if that’s the case, why not solve the curriculum issue? Why was her gayness an issue now? It’s odd to contemplate.

• And once the news of her firing broke, Chaput raised the matter’s profile by wading in. The archdiocese had said he had nothing to do with Waldron Mercy’s decision; he could’ve let the moment pass with almost no direct public involvement. Instead, Monday’s public statement drew national attention to a previously local matter.

“Schools describing themselves as Catholic take on the responsibility of teaching and witnessing the Catholic faith in a manner true to Catholic belief,” Chaput said. “There’s nothing complicated or controversial in this. It’s a simple matter of honesty. I’m very grateful to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and to the principal and board members of Waldron Mercy for taking the steps to ensure that the Catholic faith is presented in a way fully in accord with the teaching of the Church. They’ve shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon.”

It sure seems like Chaput was trying to make a point.

On one hand, this is Chaput being who he’s always been. When he was in Denver five years ago, he oversaw the expulsion of a young student from a Boulder Catholic school — because her parents are lesbians. That surprised church officials in other jurisdictions who generally opted not to make children bear the weight of their parents’ actions. “The idea that Catholic schools should require support for Catholic teaching for admission — and a serious effort from school families to live their Catholic identity faithfully — is reasonable and just,” Chaput wrote at the time.

On other hand, Chaput and the archdiocese have spent much of the last year trying to tamp down any suggestions of rebellion against or daylight between him and the pope. So why break that discipline now?

One guess: Because a reckoning on the issue is coming anyway. And it’s coming sooner — just days after the pope’s visit — rather than later.

October will bring the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family. Chaput is a delegate to that meeting. At a similar gathering last year, the bishops were urged to consider — and narrowly rejected — Francis-backed measures that would’ve opened the church doors wider to divorced and gay Catholics. It was a tumultuous session. More of the same can be expected this year — it’s possible, in fact, that the church’s divisions will be exposed as never before.

So while he’s preparing to welcome the pope to Philly in September, it also seems likely that Archbishop Chaput is girding for battle in October. In that light, then, events of the last week make sense. No, Chaput isn’t trolling the pope. But he’s not backing down, either. And he’s almost certainly getting ready to battle for the future of the church.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.