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A perfect week, ironic invites, and the social network

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Happy Friday friends,

I took a day off this week, which I rarely ever do. My wife was out of town for a family event over the weekend, so, for a whole glorious couple of days, my daughter and I got to spend some true quality time together.

Her current favorite movie is the 1995 classic “Babe,” which is a perfect film by any clear-eyed assessment. For weeks now, she has been cheerfully bottle-feeding her stuffed pig, and her every word and fascination is barnyard animals, much to my delight.

So, while we had the chance for a day trip, I took her to a farm upstate which occasioned several of those moments of pure parental joy when a toddler realizes that something she thought exists only in books and on screens is real — though she showed an unshakable suspicion that the turkeys were some sort of trick being played on her.

Rounded off with lunch at America’s finest restaurant, Waffle House, at which she ate voraciously and charmed universally, we were both emotionally and physically exhausted by the time we got home. 

It was a perfect day. Perhaps the best day I have spent with her since she came into my life. 

It’s one of those hackneyed truths that having children is an accelerant on life — time suddenly telescopes, yanking the years closer and faster together. 

As she snored and farted gently on the couch next to me Monday evening, I did the math and realized that if I get one day like that every two and a half years, the best I might hope for is a perfect week aggregated across her whole childhood — and that’s assuming she still wants to visit farms with me as a teenager.

It doesn’t seem like a lot. And I suppose there’s some sort of admonition in there to make every moment count, or count every moment, or maybe take more days off, or whatever. 

But it left me thinking that if one perfect week is all I get, it is very much a life’s worth. 

That, and that pigs make people happy.

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Here’s the news.

The News

Pope Francis has laicized Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, almost 14 years after the Belgian prelate resigned after admitting that he had abused a nephew.

The apostolic nunciature to Belgium said in a statement Thursday that “serious new elements” had emerged in recent months, prompting the Vatican to reopen the case of the former Bishop of Bruges, and remove him from the clerical state.

The statement did not mention what those “serious new elements” were supposed to be. 

The bishops of Belgium have repeatedly petitioned Pope Francis to laicize Vangheluwe over the last several years, writing to the pope in 2017, 2019, and last year to emphasize the national scandal caused by the bishop retaining his rank.

In January, the bishops’ conference general secretary told a Flemish Parliamentary Committee that “those responsible in Rome are aware of the magnitude of the scandal” and that “it will be difficult for Pope Francis to make a peaceful visit to our country in September until there is clarity on this matter.”

A cynic might conclude that it wasn’t thanks to any “serious new elements” that Vangheluwe’s case suddenly changed, but that the bishop was only laicized as PR damage control because of the public outcry ahead of Francis’ trip to the country, and maybe point out that some people saw this coming months ago.

But we should, all of us, resist the urge of reflexive cynicism. 

Instead, you can read the whole story here and make your own mind up.

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Bishop Stepan Sus, head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church’s pastoral and migration department, spends a lot of time on the road traveling to the 18 countries under his jurisdiction.

He’s also a former military chaplain.

This week, he sat down to talk with Filipe d’Avillez about the current state of his country and his Church, what he makes of the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts, and what he thinks about young men who don’t want to fight to defend Ukraine from the Russian invasion.

This is a bishop who speaks his mind. 

You read the whole interview here.

The list of former students at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute reads like a who’s who of Eastern Christianity today.

Alumni include the Orthodox leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the new Syro-Malabar head Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, and Vatican Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti.

But the Jesuit-run institute, founded in 1907, entered a new phase of its history this week, after Fr. David Nazar told students and staff that, from May onwards, the Orientale will be merged into the Pontifical Gregorian University, where it will operate as an academic department.

The announcement this week followed a 2019 order from Pope Francis that the Orientale and the Jesuit-led Pontifical Biblical Institute (the Biblicum) be merged into the Gregorian while (hopefully) retaining their names and distinctive missions.

You can read a history of the Orientale, and the reasons for the merger here.

The Vatican City financial trial may have ended three months ago, but the PR battle over its results is still being waged — with many outlets struggling to tell the difference between “independent experts” and “lawyers for the defense.”

An Italian academic journal carried several articles this week from lawyers commissioned by the defendants’ legal teams, picked up by several outlets including AP. 

In them, they challenged the legitimacy of the Vatican court, the trial, and the prosecutions’ methods, successfully prompting secular reporters to pick up their spin as news and repeat (again) the claim that Pope Francis “changed the law four times” during the investigation and trial to deny the defendants due process.

Since there seems to be some lingering confusion on the basic points of fact and law on these issues, I wrote an analysis (again) this week, explaining (again) that the pope did no such thing and turning over some of the other defense arguments to see if they hold legal water.

It’s not the first time I have done this, or the second, but I will keep writing these analyses until other reporters stop asserting obviously untrue things as fact. 

In the meantime, when you read somewhere that “Pope Francis changed the law four times” you can safely assume that either they haven’t actually read the relevant legal documents, or couldn’t understand them if they did, or don’t care enough about the facts to stop using a snappy, obviously untrue, line from the defense. 

You can read the real news here.

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It’s not easy to pick a birthday cake for your boss. Trying to balance budgetary considerations, personal tastes, and the judgements of coworkers can be a tricky job.

It’s even harder when your boss is a cardinal turning 75, as did Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich this week, and is obliged to submit his resignation to Rome. As Michelle La Rosa noted, you want to show him that you’re celebrating, but you don’t want to seem to be celebrating too much, lest he get the wrong idea.

As it happens, the Chicago archdiocese tweeted out a picture of its baked offering, which looked like this:

We ended up discussing how Cupich’s celebration stacked up against other cardinalatial birthday cakes (including his predecessor Cardinal George’s) and, because everyone deserves a treat now and then, Michelle ranked them for your enjoyment.

You can read the whole thing here. Grab a fork.

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An ironic invitation

Something that definitely didn’t happen this week was Pope Francis accepting an invitation to visit Moscow as part of his bid for the Vatican to be an agent of peace in the war in Ukraine.

The Vatican was unusually swift to deny reports from a French outlet that Russia’s new ambassador to the Holy See had made an invitation, and that Francis would head to Moscow in June.

Of course, I should note that the Vatican seems to have strictly denied any plans for a papal trip — not that an invitation to the Russian capital had finally been made. And, assuming the invitation was extended, formally or informally, it is ironic that Francis isn’t going and that the Vatican had to move so fast and firmly to squash the suggestion.

Since before the Russian invasion even began, the Ukrainians have been asking the pope to come to Kyiv — first in the hopes that his presence would deter war from breaking out, and later as a gesture of solidarity with the country’s suffering people.

All along the way, the Vatican has insisted that Francis wants to be an agent of peace, and would accept the Ukrainian invite only if he could make a parallel trip to Russia. Now, allegedly, he’s got his wish but cannot accept, or even be seen to be contemplating it.

The problem, of course, is the pope’s recent comments during an interview with Swiss television, in which he made a much-discussed reference to Ukrainians needing the courage to embrace the “white flag” in the name of negotiations. 

It was the latest in a series of papal attempts to plead for peace which have sought to steer clear of too obviously taking sides, and thus shutting the door to dialogue with Moscow, but have often struck Ukrainians, even and especially Ukrainian Catholics, as offensive and tone deaf — at best.

It's an especially bitter irony, then, for Francis if he has been asked to come to Russia, since going now would only further inflame sentiment against his efforts by Putin’s victims — hence the Vatican’s hasty denial. 

I don’t know if there’s a term for when the lengths required to make doing a thing possible thereby make it impossible to do it. If there isn’t, perhaps we could call it a “Franciscan Paradox.”

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Of course, the likelihood is that the origin of the story is Russia itself. 

Maybe no invitation was actually made and the whole thing is false, or maybe an invitation was made, but either way, I suspect it was leaked to the press to embarrass the pope, inflame tensions, and drive a wedge deeper between him and Ukrainian Christians of all Churches.

The reality Francis has now hit is that good-faith engagement with bad-faith actors — inhumanly violent bad-faith actors — never ends well, however sincere your intentions.

It’s the same lesson the Vatican has been learning in painfully slow motion for the last six years over its deal with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops. 

However many unilateral appointments Rome agrees to accept, or however many bishops are arrested and harassed without an expression of papal outrage, the Church has won little, if any, of the promised space for faithful Christians to breathe in China. 

The mounting humiliations of the Vatican’s impotent efforts at diplomatic pragmatism haven’t gone unnoticed elsewhere, which is why Venezuela has taken to confidently stonewalling major episcopal appointments, while Nicaragua has opted for wholesale clerical deportations.

The Vatican, in the person of the pope, can wield considerable soft power. At its most potent, it can galvanize global opinion and move diplomatic mountains, but only when it speaks from the only real authority the Church has in the world — moral clarity. 

Granted, it doesn’t always work. St. John Paul II helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union’s evil empire — and he minced no words in the process — yet he was unable to forestall the invasion of Iraq, about which he spoke in equally stark terms during his final years.

But equivocation, however sincerely intended, isn’t a witness the Church was born to give. And it is not usually the stuff of papal legacy, either.

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The social network

There’s scandal in the air in London. 

The country’s chief spy, the head of MI6, has found himself front page news, along with the head of the British civil service, who has been hauled before a parliamentary committee to answer questions, under pain of perjury.

The scandal reaches further still into the upper echelons of the establishment, implicating members of the cabinet. Even the King has been named.

Pressure is mounting on those tainted, and the tone in the media is approaching full-blown McCarthyite paranoia. 

From the outside looking in, you might well assume a dangerous threat to national security has been unearthed — a spy ring worthy of a le Carré novel, or conspiracy of McCarrick-level proportions. But, at least in the eyes of some, it’s actually worse than that. 

All these men, and they are all men, stand accused of belonging to the Garrick, a somewhat famous, and famously men-only, private London club, after the membership rolls were obtained and published by the Guardian newspaper

The Garrick, founded in 1831, is what in London is commonly called a “gentlemen’s club,” a term which I gather means something rather different and less genteel over here in America. 

It’s one of a handful of such places that have survived into the third millennium, long past their heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

They once flourished as places for men (yes, men) of different sections of society to meet, eat, drink, and sleep it all off in town. Each club has (had) its own core constituency, be it the military, the literary set, politics, and so on. 

The Garrick has long had social cachet beyond its links to the world of theater and the arts, making it something of a target for fashionable criticism, though it’s not the first such club to come under fierce public scrutiny. 

White’s, the club for properly posh chaps, had its turn a few years ago, with then-Prime Minister David Cameron having to resign his long-time membership in shame after being shocked, shocked, to discover they didn’t let ladies in. 

After leaving office, “Call Me Dave” — as we used to refer to him in my time at Tory HQ — joined Pratt’s, an even posher club, where all the staff are referred to as “George” by custom. As it happened, Pratt’s let women in a few years after Dave joined, though I assume the members address all the new ladies as “Nanny.”

London men’s clubs are an object of occasional fascination and fury in the U.K. 

People, and it should be acknowledged it’s usually a certain kind of lady, get very steamed up about them whenever they remember they still exist. 

According to the popular imagination, clubs are dens of quiet power-broking and deal-making, shadowy old-boy networks, wood-paneled venues where favors are exchanged and patronage is doled out. 

They are malum in se for their sexist admissions policies, of course, but made even worse because they are locking out ladies from the true corridors of power, where the real decisions are made.

But the sexism charge is silly, really. 

That men (and women) behave differently in mixed company, and sometimes like a time and place to socialize among themselves, shouldn’t be controversial. Ladies’ nights out are a social staple for about half the people I know, and if you need convincing that dudes (or chaps) liking to hang out isn’t sinister, I doubt I’m the one to convince you.

More to the point, proper clubs for women exist, too, some of them, like the University Women’s Club, are very nice and just as old as the men’s, and they come under no political scrutiny or media ire.

The real suspicion, and the real anger against the men’s versions, is about power and influence. But that’s nonsense, too.  

The reality is that clubs intended to facilitate “networking” and mutual advancement do exist, but they tend to be set up by and for women, as a reactionary move against what they imagine goes on at places like the Garrick. And thus they tend to fail — at least in London.

One such enterprise, Chief, opened a swanky London outpost last year, promising a women-only space for the senior ranks of the sisterhood to meet and mingle with like-minded “executives.” But it had to shut down last month for lack of interest, despite offering the chance to split spritzers with the likes of Amal Clooney and Gloria Estefan — or maybe because of that.

I’m not surprised places like Chief tank, since they are exactly what many people wrongly imagine London men’s clubs to be all about, and they sound awful. Real clubs continue to exist not because the members can use them to “network,” but because they’re some of the last places in Western urban life where “networking” is forbidden. 

In fact, all the London men’s clubs I know have actual rules banning business talk. Full disclosure: I am a member of one such club, and used to be a member of another — neither as chic as the Garrick or as well-bred as White’s, though I’ve been a lunch guest at both.

What I love about my club is that, as I’m a socially awkward person by nature, it's a place where I am, as a matter of policy, welcome at any table and in any conversation, and always considered a friend. 

While critics like to imagine hushed conversations to stitch up promotions and curry influence, I’ve instantly forgotten what anyone does for a living, if ever they told me. The banter is usually obscure, rather than topical. The finer points of trivia on my true passions, cricket and watches, are common subjects.

You’d struggle to call the atmosphere “conspiratorial,” or even especially dignified. 

On one occasion, albeit several years ago, another member challenged me over lunch to recite Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” from memory and I had to be gently but insistently reminded by the maître d' not to stand on the dining room furniture, after I got too into my declamation and mounted my chair halfway through the second stanza.

The truth is, the kind of people who like to “network,” rather than socialize, make for terrible company — they instrumentalize human interaction, rather than enjoy it. It makes them insufferable, even to each other. 

Those people are why places like Chief fail, and it’s why places like the Garrick and the University Women’s Club won’t let them in. They are, ironically, the very people you join a club to get away from. 

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And their demands to be let in are probably the single greatest impediment to single-sex clubs changing their rules. It’s not that clubs like mine can’t conceive of female members fitting in around the place — or can’t think of women who’d make good company — but they suspect those aren’t the kind of women who would be applying. 

The same sort of people who are offended by the idea of all-male clubs tend to be even more offended by the idea of a club that just doesn’t want them, personally, and the tendency of clubs (like the Garrick) to attract lawsuits if they just think out loud about changing their rules is quite real. Being a single-sex space provides a modicum of legal protection in this regard.

I know some women I’d happily propose for membership, and their capacity for both claret and lyrical verse exceeds my own. But in truth, they’d probably never think of applying.

Groucho Marx famously said he didn’t want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. The best sort of people usually feel that way, male or female. The trouble is that the reverse also tends to be true. 

Clubs, really, are for the rest of us — the ones who just want a place that feels like home, safely away from, you know, other people.

Is that so wrong?

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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Seeking sanity from today's political chaos? Look no further than The Dispatch. Founded by Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, The Dispatch offers trustworthy reporting and analysis that's conservative but never partisan. Join 400,000+ readers who rely on journalism that prioritizes context, depth, and understanding. Subscribe today for a 90-day FREE trial.

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