Happy Friday friends,
This week was USCCB week for us at The Pillar. JD and I were here in Baltimore, together with our contributing editor and data supremo Brendan Hodge.
Our managing editor Michelle La Rosa was riding herd over events as they happened, along with our old friend Carl Bunderson, who kindly agreed to join us for some freelancing this week. And we have a lot of news to get through from the conference, which we’ll come to in a minute.
Of course, the rest of the world didn’t stop turning just because the USCCB met this week, and we’ve been on top of that, too. Mostly thanks to the incomparable Luke Coppen.
So, let’s take a look at what’s been happening.
Anti-Christian persecution in Nigeria and other countries “clearly passes the threshold of genocide,” according to a report released this week by Aid to the Church in Need.
The human rights group found that oppression or persecution of Christians increased in 75% of the countries it tracked between October 2020 and September 2022.
Aid to the Church in Need had an especially grim conclusion regarding the situation in Nigeria, where anti-Christian tribal violence continues to be a daily reality for many:
“A genocide is taking place, but no one cares.”
Of course, if people don’t know, they can’t care. It’s one of the reasons we are tracking events there as closely as we can and reporting on it as best we are able.
Read all about the report here.
It has been yet another week of hard news for the Church in France.
On Wednesday, emeritus Strasbourg Archbishop Jean-Pierre Grallet announced he is facing both civil and canonical investigation for having “acted inappropriately toward a young adult woman” in the 1980s when he was a young Franciscan.
“I wish,” the archbishop said, “through this public declaration which I am handing to the president of the French bishops’ conference, to contribute to the process of truth and assume my responsibility.”
The archbishop’s announcement followed the scandal of Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, who last week said publicly he had behaved “in a reprehensible way” toward a teenage girl, also in the 1980s, and the recent news that Bishop Michel Santier had been allowed to resign in 2021 for “health reasons” when he was facing claims of spiritual abuse.
Also on Wednesday, a French priest set to be consecrated a bishop in the coming weeks announced he has decided against taking up the position.
Msgr. Ivan Brient was appointed last month to become auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rennes, but said this week he’d told Pope Francis he had reconsidered and was declining the position citing “burnout.”
I suspect many French Catholics can sympathize with Msgr. Brient this week.
Libero Milone, the former Vatican auditor general, has said he expects to face criminal charges in Vatican City, as a strike against his wrongful dismissal lawsuit.
Milone, who was the first person to serve as Vatican financial auditor, was forced from his role when Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu accused him of “spying” on his private financial arrangements and those of other Vatican officials.
The former auditor has said that Becciu (who is on trial for corruption, abuse of office, embezzlement, conspiracy, and other crimes) organized a campaign to sabotage his work and get him fired, because Milone was turning up evidence of systematic corruption in the Vatican.
Talking at a press conference and to The Pillar this week, Milone described an hours-long “interrogation” by Vatican prosecutors on Monday, which went on until 1 a.m.
Instead of handing over the “evidence” used to dismiss him five years ago, and allowing Milone to clear his name, promoter of justice Alessandro Diddi instead went after him for acts of what he apparently called “espionage” — which Milone says he can prove are, you know, ordinary auditing procedures.
Milone said he expects Diddi to file charges against him because a criminal case would suspend any hearing of his wrongful dismissal suit and could delay his claim indefinitely.
That’s only a theory, from a guy facing criminal charges, but as a long-time observer of Vatican financial affairs, it doesn’t sound like an outlandish theory to me.
The risk for the Vatican right now is Milone’s claim — that he has files which back up his allegations about corruption in the Vatican. Milone says that if he goes to court, he’ll name names and produce the paper to back it up
In the meantime, Milone might well decide to demonstrate the veracity of his claim by opening up files — which could impact a lot in the Vatican. And he’s probably not the only one who could do so.
If that happens, it could be the single most seismic moment of financial transparency the Holy See has ever faced. I certainly am looking forward to it, though if Milone has half of what he claims, the Vatican may end up wishing they’d agreed to settle.
Stay up to date with the case here.
On the Waterfront
As I mentioned at the beginning, we were all over the USCCB conference in Baltimore this week, and there was a lot going on.
We have, though I say it myself, arguably the most comprehensive coverage of what you want to know about what happened on the harbor waterfront you can find:
The top story was the election of a new USCCB president and vice president, along with a slate of new committee chairs. You can catch up on all the results here, with some great data visuals from Brendan.
The election of Archbishop Timothy Broglio and Archbishop William Lori as P and VP respectively took a lot more voting than many were expecting — both elections went to a runoff. There’s a lot to be divined from the voting, not least because Archbishop Lori’s age (71) means the bishops will face another clean slate election in three years’ time.
In an analysis Wednesday, I took a look at what the voting tells us about the demographics of the conference right now, and why a looming generational turnover among the U.S. bishops might now play out as expected.
Behind closed doors this week, the bishops had a consultative vote on the Diocese of Las Vegas becoming an archiepiscopal metropolitan see.
The plan to carve a new province out of the Bright Light City and the dioceses of Reno and Salt Lake City will now head to Rome for papal consideration.
You’ll only read this from The Pillar, of course.
The bishops also had a brief public exchange over the future of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the USCCB’s document on helping Catholics decide how to vote.
The interventions hinted at discussions from their executive sessions and previewed the issue that looks sure to be the next big flashpoint for the conference in the coming sessions — a plan to rewrite their political guidance for reissuance ahead of the 2028 U.S. elections.
For 2024, the bishops will just make some minor changes, basically.
We broke down what the document is, what the vote was about, who said what, and what it all means, here.
The conference also saw the final address from outgoing president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, in which he spoke to the bishops about Dorothy Day, the universal call to holiness, and his “confidence” in a new generation of American saints.
The apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, offered the conference his own reflections on forming the laity to take co-responsibility for the Church, and especially for evangelization.
What’s the conference for, anyway?
Following an epically fractious online summer session in June 2021, the bishops decided last November in Baltimore to hold many of their conversations in closed-door executive sessions. This year’s plenary followed suit, with only a day-and-a-half of the meeting taking place in the open, in front of the press.
This idea of bishops talking more without cameras is something that m'colleague JD has been pushing for years. And he got his wish, much to my frustration. From the global synodal process to the recent study from Catholic U, there’s a lot for the bishops to talk about in the life of the Church in the U.S. and, understandably, I want to listen to all of it.
But JD has pointed out a few times that TV cameras change the way bishops talk to each other, and asked about the effect of that on the Church.
And outside of my own personal interest, conversations among the bishops are subject to the same forces as the particle/wave theory of light — the act of observation changes the results. It’s understandable. Any sane person speaks and acts differently when they are on camera. And the bishops, reasonably, can be a little more free and frank when the rest of us aren’t poised to report every word and analyze exactly how they chose to say something.
I talked to auxiliary Bishop Robert Reed of Boston about this the other day, and he had a couple of interesting thoughts.
Reed, who is the chairman of the USCCB’s communications committee, made the point that all these executive sessions notwithstanding, the American conference is still pretty wide open compared to some others, like Canada or England and Wales, where the bishops only meet in closed session, and have only one press conference at the end.
He also told me that the conference decision for the bishops to have more private conversations “was born out of a real need.”
“When I first started coming to these six years ago, it was kind of frustrating. It was just reports, and you just sat there and pushed a button [to vote] and raised your hand. You had the breaks and the meals to talk to people, but there was no serious time set aside for conversation among ourselves, as brothers, as bishops, as guys who share this responsibility which is becoming more and more weighty.”
I take his point, and I do think the conference has come a long way in recent years toward becoming more fraternal. And, self-interest to one side, the bishops’ conference is supposed to be about the bishops talking to each other, not to the press or the wider Church.
“We have to be careful that these meetings don’t become bigger than life,” Reed said. “I fear that a little; that we keep adding and adding [to the agenda] and it becomes more challenging to get through it.”
“What’s most important to me about the conference is how it changes me, and makes me a better Catholic, a better priest and bishop. What’s most important is what happens at home — that’s where the Church lives, not in a plenary assembly.”
He’s not wrong. But it’s also a reality that the bishops are often seen, and thought of, and spoken about by laity and clergy as a body.
So when the bishops are talking about, for example, the collapse of trust among their own clergy, it’s a little complicated.
Every bishop I spoke to in Baltimore, Reed included, had read the Catholic U report, and described it “a hard read.” And every priest I have spoken with wants to know what the bishops think, and how they plan to address the issues the report raised.
While there’s every reason for the bishops to want to discuss all of that in private, where they can be unguarded and even a little emotionally raw with each other, seeing them have exactly that kind of conversation would probably go a long way with their priests looking for a sign that they’ve been heard.
When JD asked Archbishop Gomez about this during a press conference this week, the outgoing president acknowledged that sometimes priests might think of bishops as “the boss,” but added that “priests need to understand” that bishops are their brothers.
How do priests understand that bishops are like them? Perhaps by demonstrating what their own fraternal conversations look like?
Or take another family metaphor.
As any parent will tell you, fighting in front of the kids isn’t great but, when you do, modeling Christian reconciliation is vital.
Last year, the bishops had a public argument over the notion of “Eucharistic coherence.” Then they went into a room, talked things out, came out, and voted nearly unanimously on a document. Many of them said something real and spiritual happened in that room. But nobody saw it. No one knows why, or how.
Catholics got to see their shepherds fighting in public, for months, but they didn’t get to see them reconcile.
And let’s be honest — even if bishops do all the fighting behind closed doors, Catholics aren’t stupid — anyone with eyes can understand the tensions between the bishops, the factions among them, the subtext of public comments.
“We need to transmit to people what is going on among us, how we are feeling,” Bishop Reed told me.
For myself, I’ve been thinking about what the conference could do to better help that transmission happen, without compromising the quiet fraternity of the bishops’ expanding executive sessions.
The USCCB did trial a new format for press engagement this year, replacing panel press conferences with smaller, sit-down group conversations between bishops and journalists. It went well.
But maybe a handful of reporters could be allowed into the private sessions on the condition that we can’t report what is said or by whom, only the tone. We’d have to invent a new kind of ecclesiastical parliamentary sketch writing, and frankly, I would love it.
I realize that it’s not likely to happen, but given that JD managed to sing his new USCCB agenda into being, I’m going to at least make my case.
Out of the arena
This week, the Archdiocese of Washington announced that the annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life has been canceled. The event has been a fixture on the calendar for over 25 years, timed to coincide with the annual March for Life.
A statement from the archdiocese said that the decision to cancel was taken after consulting with several other dioceses who were shifting their focus to state-level events following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade in June.
The archdiocese said it was a “difficult decision” to make, and still encouraged people to travel to DC for the March for Life in January and to attend the annual Vigil for Life at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the night before — events which remain on the schedule for January.
Archbishop Lori of neighboring Baltimore also urged support for the national march in his address to the USCCB on Tuesday as outgoing chair of the pro-life activities committee.
“I would encourage participation in the national March for Life, even as I thank you for your leadership in the state marches,” Lori told the bishops, while stressing that pushing for legal protection for the unborn must continue “at both the federal and state level.”
The move to cancel the youth rally and Mass has prompted pushback in some quarters. Bishop Strickland of Tyler, Texas, took to Twitter to “protest this cancellation.”
“We have an extremely anti-life president & we cancel our national voice? Yes to state efforts but we desperately need a national voice for life at this critical time,” he said.
Strickland’s take was representative of a portion of pro-life and Catholic opinion which interpreted the ADW decision as resiling from national pro-life witness, and even implying Cardinal Wilton Gregory was probably secretly happy to end the event.
I think this was something of a rush to judgment. I’ve been a regular attendee at the rally and Mass for a while now, and, in recent years, Cardinal Gregory has obviously been there too.
From up close, it has never been my impression that he was attending under sufferance. On the contrary, he has always seemed to be visibly enjoying himself.
And while I’m sure there might have been some dip in attendance in favor of state events this year coming, it seemed unlikely to me there would be such a drop off as to merit canning the event in advance for sheer lack of numbers.
So I asked several friends in the Archdiocese of Washington if they could shed any light on the decision. They all told me much the same thing: the number of attendees was expected to drop this year, but the real problem was how that decline would impact the cost of the event, along with heightened security demands.
According to the people I spoke to, the venue, Capital One Area, was taking a new hard line on things like not allowing any bags to be brought into the arena — which is kind of a big deal when you consider that the bulk of attendees are coming straight off of buses from around the country.
Apparently, the venue was also insisting on a range of other security measures which would have made the event much more difficult to manage, and, at the same time, the total bill was going to be significantly more than in previous years — exacerbated by several dioceses saying they were opting out of the event and therefore not helping cover the cost.
Seen in that light, the decision to cancel makes a little more sense. Though, if that is the real story, it would have probably been helpful if the archdiocese was a little more transparent about it.
The highlight of the week for me, of course, was unquestionably our live podcast recording at Todd Conner’s bar on Wednesday night.
We had friends, former colleagues, listeners, readers, couples on dates, canon law students, clerics, conference staff, and more, all turn up.
I hope the show turns out well, of course. But the best part was getting to talk with everyone once we’d finished recording.
We’re immensely blessed that our newsroom here at The Pillar has grown a little bit this year, but the truth is we are a small little family spread across a dozen time zones. I cannot tell you how encouraged we are by you, our readers and listeners, writing in and turning up for things like our live show.
The people I got to meet were exactly the kind of faithful, smart, Catholics we are trying to write for, every day — people who love the Church and embrace her mission to evangelize in their own lives. Thank you to each and every one of you who turned out — you made my month.
I was edified because the people who showed up are actually engaging in so many fruitful initiatives for the renewal of the Church and the proclamation of the Kingdom. We care about reform, but we look in hope for renewal — and all of you who showed up look like the fruit, and cooperators, of authentic Christian renewal in the Church and in the world.
And really, thank you to every one of our subscribers. You are the reason The Pillar exists. We could not and cannot do any of this without you, and I am so grateful to you all for giving me this gig every week.
See you next week,