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A day to remember, a tale of two bishops, and a man named Toad

Happy Friday friends,

Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It will be, for many, many families in this country, a day of profound memory, of grief, and of loving recollection for those who were killed.

We have compiled a reader of some of Catholic homilies, stories, and remembrances to mark the day. Some are quite powerful.

As Cardinal Tobin of Newark said in a homily earlier this week: “The Mother of God is also called the sorrowful mother. May she comfort those who are overwhelmed in sadness as they remember 9/11.”

World Trade Center Cross, displayed in New York City. Credit: Shutterstock.


Quick links

In the news this week, Pope Francis appointed a new head of the Governorate of Vatican City. It’s not a job that gets a lot of attention, despite having oversight of the city-state’s administrative offices, police department, post office, and museums, among other things. 

The actual status and functioning of Vatican City isn’t well known either, but it is fascinating — so here’s an explainer.


Last week, Kazakhstan’s most famous auxiliary bishop, Athenasius Schneider, courted headlines by claiming that QR codes used to show COVID-19 vaccine status in some countries could be “a prefiguration of the sign of the Beast.” 

Similar claims have been made by others in the past about bar codes at grocery stores, social security numbers, and a host of other unlikely things. So, we asked some biblical scholars to explain what the Bible’s “mark of the beast” is all about, and how seriously to take these ideas. Read it here.


Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory spoke at the National Press Club earlier this week. Much of the event coverage’s focused on his remarks on abortion and President Biden. But Gregory also spoke about the sexual abuse crisis and his predicessor-but-one in office, Theodore McCarrick.

“I can only act on that which I know. And I do it clearly, honestly, straightforwardly, and I continue to do it,” Gregory told the room. 

JD has some interesting thoughts on what Gregory, as Archbishop of Washington, is in a position to know, and what he might usefully do with that information to help rebuild trust with Catholics in the pews. 

Read his analysis here.

Also this week, China got a new bishop — the sixth to be appointed under the double secret probationary terms of the 2018 Vatican-China deal. And, just like the last time a bishop was consecrated in China, the appointment didn’t make it into the Vatican’s official bolletino. 

We first heard about it thanks to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Communist-run state church brought into communion with Rome by the deal.

The Vatican rushed out a response to reporters’ questions, insisting that Rome knew all about the appointment, and Francis had given the green light months ago. But I talked with some people close to the Chinese deal, who called that a “generous” version of what happened.

There is a new, and unusual, normal for episcopal appointments in China.

I took a look at what happened, and what it all means for the Vatican’s relations with Beijing, which you can read here.

Be serious

On Tuesday, the permanent secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome published a preparatory document and handbook for the forthcoming synod on synodality, which will proceed over the next two years to feed up from the local level of every diocese and into a final meeting of the bishops in the Vatican in 2023.

The preparatory document came packaged with the kind of graphics and font which childhood early learning centers would probably think a little de trop, but which have become the hallmark of synodal documents in recent years.

Both texts make for ponderous reading, written as they are in the viscous vocabulary of a local government community outreach program; long on jargon and rather light on the clarity of the Gospel.

Much of the verbiage seems as unserious as the Crayola-style font in which it is written. But buried within the text is a notion with rather serious potential. 

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The synodal handbook and document go to lengths to encourage maximum participation, especially from those “most at risk of being marginalized,” including those who “rarely or never practice the Catholic faith.” 

Those voices are to be given an equal, even privileged forum within the synodal process, which is fine, in and of itself, and maybe even good. Except for what the synod’s voices are understood to mean. 

As the texts discuss how the synodal dialogue is meant to create a space for the sensus fidelium to be expressed, they make something of a radical departure: 

Vatican Council II describes the consensus of the faithful as a guarantor of the faith when ​​“the Bishops down to the last of the lay Faithful show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

But the synodal documents propose a new understanding, in which the sensus fidelium is an authoritative voice of the laity, distinct from the Church’s hierarchy and “in dialogue with” the “teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops.”

The construct of a new kind of vox populi contra ecclesia, especially when mixed with maximalist approach to participation and a minimalist approach to assigning weight to different groups, seems likely to produce exactly the kind of calls for extreme ecclesiastical and doctrinal reform currently being proposed in the German synodal process.

Of course, it’s down to every individual diocese and bishop to implement the local synodal process, so results will vary depending on the prudence and wisdom of the organizers. But I’d be lying if I didn’t note the potential for real problems. You can read the whole analysis here. 

We love what we do here at The Pillar, and we’re glad you think it’s worth reading. So help us keep doing it — your Catholic conscience knows you should.

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A tale of two bishops

This week kicked off with an op-ed in the Washington Post from San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who made a bold, heartfelt, uncompromising defense of the dignity of human life for the unborn.

Cordileone’s column appeared in the days following the Supreme Court’s decision not to injunct the Texas heartbeat law, and our “devout Catholic” president’s decision to order a “whole-of-government” effort to prevent that law from coming into force.

Biden followed up that executive order with a press conference during which he confirmed what most of us have suspected for some time now: that he has abandoned the teaching of the Church (and science) that human life begins at conception — a belief he had previously, repeatedly, publicly affirmed.

Saving the clarity and strength with which Cordileone wrote, JD on Tuesday asked when bishops might do something less rhetorical and more practical in response to those Catholic politicians who, as a matter of personal creed and public policy, deny the humanity of the unborn and bend the laws of the land to permit their killing. 

It’s a reasonable question expressing a reasonable frustration. But perhaps we can infer an answer from Biden’s own bishop in Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory.

On Wednesday, Gregory addressed a luncheon at the National Press Club. The audience was mostly composed of the kind of people who willingly attend such events, and who use the word “luncheon” without irony. The cardinal was asked about Biden’s profession of belief that life does not begin at conception (and therefore does not merit legal protection).

“The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life — human life — begins at conception. So the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching,” Gregory concluded, sharing a broad smile with his questioner, seemingly pleased with his handling of the topict was not revisited. 

I am not sure what the verb “demonstrating” is doing in that sentence, unless one is arguing that Biden is personifying a lack of humanity in himself. 

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Perhaps the cardinal meant “articulating,” or “professing,” or maybe “believing with divine and Catholic faith” or “making a religious submission of intellect and will.” Maybe the cardinal picked his word carefully so as to not say any of those things.

Perhaps he doesn’t think Biden’s radical abortion activism consitutes a grave sin, or, if it does, he doesn’t think it causes the president (or any other Catholic) spiritual harm to recieve Communion in such a state. Maybe Gregory thinks both of those things, and he just can’t find it in himself to get too worked up about it.

The bottom line is this: however strongly, even prophetically, bishops like Cordileone may speak out against the technocratic inhumanity of the abortion industry, and the moral evil of Catholic politicians’ cooperation with it, Cardinal Gregory is the competent ordinary, at least by quasi-domicile, of every federal politician in the country. 

It’s all well and good waiting with bated breath for bishops like Cordileone to impose some measure of practical pastoral discipline on politicians in their own dioceses. But what will happen when that action is simply ignored by the bishop in Washington or a state capital? 

Will the Catholic pro-choice politicians stop presenting themselves for Communion? No. 

And when Gregory or another bishop is asked about honoring the home bishop’s decision, I’d be willing to bet they offer some serious sounding words about “respecting the judgement” of their brother bishop “for their diocese,” while making it clear they won’t be respecting it in their own. 

Would such an obvious mis-alliance of episcopal discipline make explicit an uncomfortable truth about a lack of unity among the nation’s bishops? Yes. Should that truth be frankly acknowledged? Also yes. But what, in the end, would be the impression left on American Catholics and our wider society? 

My guess is this: The bishop speaking up urgently for life and the faith and the good of the souls of pro-abortion Catholics would be winkingly dismissed as a reactionary crank, a man on the fringe to be humored, but ignored. And that helps no one, and solves nothing.

I do not know the mind of Archbishop Cordileone, but my guess is that his op-ed wasn’t aimed at pricking the conscience of the president as much as his fellow bishops, for whose souls I am sure he’s as concerned as he is for any politician, and who will have to answer for their actions and inactions just like the president. 

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The man called Toad

Back in the 80s, my father, like a lot of Chicagoans of his age, played on a 16” softball team. The Rebels were a colorful confederation of near-Northside moose-faces, and a legend among them was the man known only as “Toad.” 

I was raised on the legends of “the Toadatious One,” as he was respectfully known, and his paramour Sylvia. They were, Toad assured everyone, on the run from the Illuminati because Sylvia was destined to bear a child of astral significance. 

Toad would sit, zenlike, on the pine and dispense his wisdom. On one occasion, when the Rebels were ordering uniforms, Toad observed the form’s instruction to “print NAME here” literally; whether as a deep existential expression, or out of a recreational cognitive-evaluative impairment, I do not know. Anyway, as a result, jerseys with NAME written on them have been a running gag between me and my father all my life.

So when the summer semester closed last week, and as I was ordering a shirt from the bookstore of the Catholic college which let me teach a course on canon law, I found myself reading the instruction to “enter NAME here,” and did.

The next day, a very friendly and very earnest young man phoned to say there was a mistake with my order and could I please clarify the name I wanted on the back of the shirt.

“I want it to say ‘NAME,’ please,” I confirmed, batting away his counter offer to write “CONDON,” instead. Since I hadn’t played for the school myself, having my own name on the jersey seemed hubristic. 

After some very nervous laughter, the young man agreed to process the order. But, two days later, I received an email.

I once again clarified my intentions, to the utter mystification of a poor woman clearly convinced she was dealing with a lunatic.

Why am I telling you this? Maybe there is a deeper meaning to it, or maybe I just found their confusion hilarious, and wanted an excuse to tell you all a story from my childhood. Toad would know, but he wouldn’t explain.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

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