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A man named Martin, secrecy for thee, and a sultan for himself

Happy Friday friends,

And a happy feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the day after the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, when we “celebrate” in our distinctly Catholic way, the suffering of Our Lady at the foot of the cross.

“Celebrating sorrow” is one of those quasi-oxymoronic formulations the practice of our faith can sometimes seem to throw up. But really I don’t think it’s so. Love is always, I think, bound up with a measure of sorrow - for Our Lady the terrible love of a mother for her suffering son and, we are assured, for all of us her children. 

In many ways, at least this side of heaven, to love is to suffer, at least some of the time. But we celebrate in our sorrow, and celebrate the sorrowful love of Mary at the foot of the cross for Christ and for us, because our love is grounded in the sure hope in the resurrection.

Love, suffering, sorrow, and hope are much on my mind today. In the small hours of the morning a very dear family friend died after a long, and I mean long, period of illness.

Martin was a dear friend, and something of a mentor to me in the first years of my marriage, dispensing wisdom and practical experience over pint glasses and through the smoke of hand-rolled cigarettes.

In the 1970s, Martin was a policeman, first in London and later in Manchester, where he ended up as a senior detective on the vice squad. At a certain point, he was told he was in line for a big promotion — head of department, effectively — it was a career moment.

The night before the promotion was to be announced, his boss came in to talk to him and told him that, with his new rank, it was time for him to “join up,” whatever that meant. It soon became clear he was being offered membership in the Freemasons, which he graciously declined, pointing out that he was a Catholic and absolutely prohibited.

The conversation escalated from there, Martin used to tell the story with great animation, and the two parted crossways. The next morning he walked into the office and was greeted like a ghost. Tacked on his office door was a notice he’d been demoted to foot patrol on the other side of the city. He later left the force and became a prison chaplain.

I tell this story as an interesting tale - it was the inspiration for my canon law dissertation on Freemasonry, which I dedicated to Martin.

But I also tell it because in all the times I heard this story, Martin, a man of absolutely iron principle, never betrayed a hint of resentment or anger about what happened. To him, what he went through was as inevitable and uncontrollable as the weather; it just was. He was a man who, despite years of serious and often visibly painful illness, bore it with faith and a kind of celebratory sorrow, buoyed by his love for his family and his hope in the Lord.

He would often listen to a younger me, sitting at his kitchen table drinking his beer and venting spleen about whomever had set me off at work that week and, when I finished talking, cock his head and nod slowly. 

“Oh, aye?” he’d enquire. “You’ll just have to pray for them, won’t you?”

I’ll just have to pray for him too, now. And of your charity I’d ask you to as well.

Now, here’s the news.


The News

The Archbishop of Seattle has rescinded a controversial request for the resignation of every parish pastor in the archdiocese.

Archbishop Paul Etienne announced Tuesday he was scrapping the request, previously reported by us, which had been part of a wholesale reorganization of the archdiocesan parish map, with parishes being reorganized into “family” groups.

Many dioceses are having to rethink their parish footprints as demographics shift, and the Seattle project is in this sense by no means unique. But pastors are, canonically speaking, meant to have stability in office and bishops are only supposed to ask for their resignations or attempt to move them for cause, on a case-by-case basis. So that part of the plan was controversial.

While the reordering of the archdiocese is still going ahead, Etienne told his priests in a letter this week that “in the light of the recent attention [the resignation issue] received on social media, and more importantly, of my own staff fumbling the official mailing, not once, but twice,” he was rescinding the request.

Several priests of the archdiocese told us they were grateful to the archbishop for taking their concerns onboard, though he didn’t mention having done so in his letter to them.

You can read the whole story here.

An Iraqi militia leader who has targeted the country’s cardinal managed to get a picture with Pope Francis, the Vatican confirmed this week. 

That Rayan al-Kildani, who leads Iraq’s 50th Brigade militia and the Babylon Movement political party, managed to snag a picture as the pontiff was exiting a general audience is awkward enough, you would think. But there’s a lot more to make this story something of a PR nightmare for the Vatican.

In addition to being on a U.S. sanctions list for allegedly cutting off a handcuffed detainee’s ear, the militia leader is absolutely at odds with local Catholic leaders — and in a big way. 

Iraq’s Cardinal Louis Sako blames al-Kildani for persuading the country’s president to de-recognize the Chaldean Patriarch as head of the Catholic Church in Iraq and forcing him out of Baghdad.

Even worse, al-Kildani’s office had the picture photoshopped (not very well) and put out statements suggesting he’d actually got a private audience and personal blessing from Francis, trying to bolster his claim to be the real Catholic leader of Iraq — a position that comes with considerable legal status and control of Church assets.

You can read what happened here.

As the Church in Switzerland deals with its unfolding clerical abuse crisis, the point man at their bishops’ conference announced he’s repealing canon law on diocesan record-keeping.

Bishop Joseph Bonnemain of Chur announced Tuesday that “the Church regulation to destroy files will be repealed,” and all records pertaining to historical abuse cases will be preserved in perpetuity.

You might have some questions about that. Questions like “does the Church actually have a law telling dioceses to shred old abuse files — and why?” 

So we published an explainer this week on exactly what the law says, and why the Church does in fact have a rule telling dioceses to shred files on penal cases after 10 years. 

You can read that right here.

The latest round of talks to end the fiery liturgical dispute rocking the Syro-Malabar Church has hit an impasse.  

Representatives from the Church’s governing synod and from the rebel priests who object to the new uniform mode of the Eucharistic liturgy had appeared to strike a deal to bring to an end the conflict which at times has threatened to turn into a full-blown schism. But that deal is now in doubt.

As Luke reports, despite meaningful progress (on paper at least) to secure acceptance of the new liturgical form in theory, talks have broken down over what timeline, if any, should be agreed for its adoption in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

We’re keeping on top of this story because, while it might seem like a long way away, it is right at the heart of a lot of core issues in ecclesiastical life: Roman authority, liturgical reform, and the communion of the Catholic Church.

Stay up to date here.

Pope Francis has approved the establishment of the permanent diaconate in the Philippines this week. 

It might surprise you to learn that, 50 years on from the reinstitution of the permanent order of the diaconate, the country with the third-largest Catholic population in the world didn’t have them until now.

But, as Luke and Brendan teamed up to show you this week, the permanent diaconate has been very unevenly implemented throughout the global Church, and even across dioceses in the U.S.

So, where are all the deacons? Take a look.

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This newsletter is sponsored by an anonymous Pillar reader in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast day is today. 

Synod of secrets

The Holy See has announced that next month’s meeting of the synod on synodality in Rome will be, essentially, a closed-door event. 

Reporters will be spoon-fed the approved digest of events from the press room podium, and any and all requests to speak directly to participants will have to run through the sala stampa. There is even talk that participants will be bound to pontifical secrecy for the duration of the event, making talking out of a school a spiritual disciplinary matter.


As JD wrote yesterday, Pope Francis has said from the beginning that he wants an “ecclesial” event: a time of common, prayerful discernment on the life of the Church, not a parliamentary political floor fight. And the decision to move the synodal sessions behind closed doors seems to be a direct attempt to help make that happen. 

Of course, as JD argues, a lot of people have a lot of very reasonable anxieties — anxieties that will be reasonably amplified by this decision. As he writes in his analysis, the pope’s hopes for a truly ecclesial event open to the Holy Spirit might be better served by going hard in the opposite direction and committing the synod to radical transparency.

I have to say I agree with him. Read the whole thing.

For myself, what seems most likely to happen, and absolutely will fuel the kind of politicking the pope doesn’t want, is that any bid to enforce secrecy on the synod will be visibly one-sided.

Those participants on the synodal secretariat’s unpublished, maybe even unwritten, approved list will brief and tweet to their heart’s content, offering what I expect to be a very slanted take on proceedings. 

Those same figures will, I’m betting, be the first to demand punitive action against anyone else who makes unsanctioned comments, scolding them for betraying the trust of the process and of the pope, while they make notes for their inevitable book, of course. 

I’m expecting it will be very much a “secrecy for thee, not for me” affair. While that might make it a more authentically Vatican atmosphere, I’m not sure it’ll do much to welcome the Holy Spirit into the assembly.

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Before we finish, I just wanted to flag something that is going to happen here at The Pillar next month. At the end of October, we’re going to be raising our base subscription rate from $5 to $8 per month. 

No business wants to put their prices up, and given that all the paying customers we have are volunteers to the cause, we really don’t. Unfortunately, we’re just in the middle of a few compoundingly hard realities:

The cost of doing business has gone up for us, just in general like it has for everyone, but also specifically — our credit card processor put their prices up recently. 

We churn about 30% of our paying subscribers annually, mostly just to billing and card details changing, so we’re having to “grow” by a third every year just to stand still — that’s industry standard.

There’s not a ton we can do about either of these. Talking to friends at other publications of a similar size and model to us, these are just the realities of the business we’re in. But we’re also pricing our subscriptions far lower than they are, so we are working with really narrow margins, too.

We mean it when we say we really, really value every subscriber we have, and we don’t want to lose or alienate anyone over this decision. 

So we’ve worked out a way with Substack for anyone who is currently paying the $5 rate and can’t manage the extra $3 to stay at their current subscription rate.

When the tech side of that is all set, we’ll be doing a separate email to subscribers in the next week or so with a link for people who need to opt-out of the price rise. 

Of course, if you’re one of those heroes subscribing at a higher level, none of this will affect you at all. 

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And seriously. Thank you. The Pillar exists because, and only because, of our paying subscribers. 

The man in the big white hat 

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the rule of law. That’s not much of a change, I grant you, but my mind has been focused recently on a well-known autocrat, and his slide into well-intentioned despotism.

This guy:

As the father of a young daughter, my life exists with the constant background noise of Disney films. This month’s favorite is “Aladdin.” I am mostly grateful for that. 

I can remember seeing the film when it came out 30 years ago, and my parents bought the soundtrack in a bid to pacify us on long car trips, so hearing the songs on an endless loop hits my subconscious as a kind of nostalgic white noise.

I have, of course, sat down to watch the film with my daughter on a few evenings. The fact that Aladdin frees the genie on his second wish continues to annoy me just as much at 40 as it did when I was 10.

But what struck me anew about the movie is the story arc of the Sultan, portrayed as an affable but ineffectual monarch, wholly reliant on his corrupt court chancellor. 

To a 10-year-old, the Sultan’s story is about a late-in-life self-actualization, paternal love, and progressive reform. 

The crisis of the film is triggered (supposedly) by a (supposedly) unjust law that requires the Sultan’s daughter, as his only heir, to marry a prince of suitable rank before her next (unenumerated) birthday.

Boxed in by his scheming adviser, with his apparently sinister knowledge of “the law,” the Sultan comes within an ace of requiring Princess Jasmine to wed his wicked vizier.

Instead, after the “heroics” of the pathological liar and self-described “street rat” Aladdin and his pet demon in a bottle, the Sultan goes from a doddering old man-child, playing with toys, to a progressive ruler inspired by his love for his daughter.

The problem with that version of the story is it only tracks if you're a 10-year-old.

The final resolution of the film is the Sultan declaring “It’s that law [angry side-eyes all round] that’s the problem.” 

“Well, am I sultan, or am I sultan?” he asks rhetorically. 

“From now on, the princess shall marry whoever she deems worthy.”

Setting aside your emotional attachment to the characters, the reality is that if you’re going to have a monarchy, you’re going to need marriage laws for the line of succession. 

As a simple matter of dynastic stability, a law that requires a daughter to marry when she is the only heir of an aged ruler might not be romantic, but it's both reasonable and for the obvious good of the kingdom. Of course, the rights of everyone matter, and princesses shouldn’t be forced to marry if they’d rather abdicate — as Jasmine petulantly threatens to do at one point.

At the level of legal theory, the Sultan’s decree at the end of the film isn’t enlightened reform, it’s actually the opposite. It is sliding from constitutional monarchy into legal positivism — government by will, caprice, and fiat of the ruler. (Indeed, this is a common legal opinion among eminent scholars of the law.)

The Sultan puts his own misguided impulses —  and emotional desire to spare his child the responsibilities of life —- above his duty to his people and to the legal order. 

For him, the affections of his (teenage?) daughter rank before his obligations as a leader. And so, of course, he fails at fatherhood, as well as kingship. No truly loving father endorses his daughter marrying a guy who has done nothing but lie and cheat and steal and cause an apocalyptic national crisis in an effort to seduce her. 

Paternal love means sometimes saying, “No, this is bad for you, even if you want it,” and calling your daughter to put their life in service to something higher than their teenage inclinations. 

Pretending you can bend the world to cater to your child’s disordered desires, and using your position to warp the law to that end, is just immature attention-seeking at home — from the throne, it’s the most petty-minded kind of tyranny. 

The whole film treats sovereign authority with comical superficiality, actually. The conception of status and power, along with its acquisition, exercise, and loss, seems mostly about wearing the right white robes.

When Aladdin wishes to be made a prince, he doesn’t actually acquire a principality, a people, responsibilities, or authority. And he never behaves as if he has any of them. 

The genie just gives him an outfit. That’s not “make me a prince.” It’s “make me a power suit.”

When he is magically unmasked, he loses the suit — because that’s all that actually makes him a “prince” in the first place.

In that regard, Aladdin is no different from Jafar. 

When the evil vizier wishes to be sultan, all he does is literally steal the Sultan’s clothes. The film’s whole conception of legal authority and its exercise boils down to this: the guy in the big white hat gets to make whatever laws he wants, and there is nothing much else to it.

The “sultan” does not regard himself bound to the custom, traditions, or even the common good of his people. He makes the rules he likes, he does what he wants, and his authority is backed by no demonstrated love for his people or concern for their needs.

“I’m wearing the magic white suit, so whatever I say goes” — the Sultan, Jafar, and even Aladdin all embrace this model of leadership, and to no good end.

Now I get that this is a fairly heavy-handed critique for a kids’ movie. 

You might well be thinking “It’s ‘Aladdin,’ there is simply no modern parallel to draw here, no wider metaphor to make about regnal prudence and the obligation to observe the norms and customs of your predecessors and your people.”

And maybe you’re right. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the lessons of history, just because we can’t think of an immediate contemporary application. 

The cartoonish image of an old-time Eastern king is that they could do whatever they want, they are the law. But it wasn’t so. 

Even the great (and very often egomaniacal, genocidal, and monstrous) kings of Persia and Babylon understood well that they may rule, but their power was circumscribed by the laws and customs of their land and peoples, of which they were custodians, and answerable to the one who ultimately suffered them to rule, or not — God. 

Those who forgot this and behaved as truly absolute monarchs got what was coming to them.

Consider what the Book of Daniel records about Nebuchadnezzar: “He killed whom he pleased, he spared whom he pleased, promoted whom he pleased, degraded whom he pleased.” In short, he ruled as though he was the law.

That’s not kingly power exercised rightly or justly. And so “because his heart grew swollen with pride and his spirit stiff with arrogance, he was deposed from his sovereign throne and stripped of his glory.”

All this is Biblically recalled to Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar, who similarly failed to humble his heart and against whom the Divine assessment was made: Mene, mene, teqel, and parsin.

In their place, Darius the Mede inherited their kingdom. 

The Persian takeover restored the rule of law to the monarchy. Darius knew that law is made “by signing [a] document, making it unalterable, as befits the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked,” even when it grieved him.

The permanence of law, and the recognition that the king is bound by precedent and higher justice, is, I would argue, a timeless principle. And those who honor it are usually rewarded.

Consider Darius’ example, as compared to Aladdin’s sultan: when he discovers he’s been tricked into creating a law that compels him to execute Daniel, he “wracked his brains until sunset to find some way to save him,” but accepted that “in conformity with the law of the Medes and the Persians, no edict or decree can be altered when once issued by the king.”

Instead, he trusted in the final justice of God, assuring Daniel that “your God whom you serve so faithfully will save you,” as he threw him to the lions. 

The Disney version of this story would find that monstrous, and have Darius instead proclaim “It’s this law that’s the problem; well am I king or am I king?”

In the book of Daniel, however, Darius rules wisely and trusts in God’s justice. After a night spent fasting for Daniel’s preservation, the king finds him unharmed in the morning, and is thus able to pursue justice against the prophet’s accusers and proclaim the glory of God throughout his kingdom.

That’s a story I will teach my daughter.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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This newsletter is sponsored by an anonymous Pillar reader in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast day is today. 

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