Skip to content

A ‘pigeon pope’, groundhogs in Texas, and being pro-life in London

A ‘pigeon pope’, groundhogs in Texas, and being pro-life in London

Happy Friday friends,

And a happy feast of St. Fabian to all who celebrate it.

For those of you who don’t know, Fabian was elected pope in January 236, in the days before conclaves and cardinals. Papal elections as we now think of them were brought in first by Pope Nicholas II in 1059 with the bull In nomine Domini, but back in Fabian’s day papal succession was a much more fluid process.

According to the best history we have, he was a gentleman farmer who came into town for the general gathering of the local Christian community after the death of Pope Anterus which would elect a new Bishop of Rome by general consensus.

There were a few names under discussion, we are told by Eusebius, and debate about the best candidate dragged on for nearly two weeks.

Fabian, “while present, was in the mind of no one” for the papacy, which makes sense — he was just a country squire, probably not especially well known, and not even a priest or deacon.

Then things got weird.

A bird — a dove, according to Eusebius — landed on Fabian’s head in a manner which reminded the assembly of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ at his baptism. “Thereupon the people, all as if impelled by one divine spirit, with one united and eager voice cried out that he was worthy, and immediately they set him on the episcopal seat.”

It’s a great story, and it may well have happened exactly as Eusebius records, but we should also be careful not to over-spiritualize these things.

To be absolutely clear, the Church does not teach that the Holy Spirit alighted on Fabian to designate him pope, nor was the manner of his election proof of his living saintliness or anything.

Legally speaking his election was according to what canon lawyers like to call acclamatio — the spontaneous and effectively unanimous acclaim of the assembly. And as best we know, Fabian was a good guy, a kind of nobleman, and well-respected, but not an obvious saint.

History does not record much detail of the bird-on-the-head election. It could be that the clouds literally parted and a dove descended in a shaft of heavenly light while the assembly heard choirs of angels singing Fabian’s praises. But I doubt it.

Perhaps more likely, after 13 days of fruitless debate, a bird landing on a guy’s hat was enough to capture the imagination of the room and the next thing he knew, he was Bishop of Rome.

Honestly, I like the second version more. If Fabian’s election was a kind of frustrated, spontaneous compromise occasioned by a pigeon, it probably struck Fabian himself as surreal. Yet he still went on to lead the Diocese of Rome well, and eventually to embrace martyrdom. I find that deeply encouraging.

You never know what might happen to you, but even if it seems crazy, you can always embrace it and strive for sanctity.

Subscribe Now

Anyway, here’s the news.

The News

Today is the March for Life in Washington, D.C., the first since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It will be a changed event, I am sure. Or rather, maybe I should say the event is in the process of changing — along with the whole pro-life movement in this country.

The end of Roe doesn’t mean the cause of ending abortion is any less urgent, or the great public witness of the march is any less needed. On the contrary. But, with the Supreme Court no longer the immediate focus of our political efforts, emphasis is shifting to Congress and state legislatures.

I don’t know how this will affect the logistics of the annual march in D.C., though I suppose time will tell. I wonder if one possible idea might be to move the venue in years to come — taking the march from Washington to state capitals like Boston, Albany, and Springfield, where the pro-abortion movement has its cultural and political roots most deeply planted.

Wherever and however the march goes on, the pro-life movement must surely work to combat the kind of deliberate and vitriolic smears being thrown at the cause of the unborn, and the increasingly unhinged demands of abortion champions, many of whom now seem comfortable promoting outright infanticide as part of their agenda.

But the witness to life is a witness to love — of the unborn, their mothers, and the families and communities from which they come. Our witness to life and love must, it seems to me, be joyful if it is to be effective. And it is a witness which is already being met with anger and hate — as we can see from the violence which has been visited upon crisis pregnancy centers across the country in recent months.

It takes grace, and faith, to believe that love can conquer hate, that life can win out over death. And communicating that grace and faith needs a special kind of witness. And in Washington today, marchers will be hearing from two such speakers — twin sisters, both named Casey.

Casey and Sister Mary Casey, both 40, will speak to demonstrators from a unique perspective — Casey has Down syndrome, and her twin, Sr. Mary Casey, S.V., is a member of the Sisters of Life, a religious order devoted to promoting and serving the Church’s “Gospel of life.”

Ahead of the march, the sisters spoke with The Pillar about their message, their unique friendship, and their witness to human dignity.

Casey told us that, while she is heading to the march to represent all people with Down syndrome, “Down syndrome does not define me, or any person. I am defined by God.”

“God put a price tag on every life — it says we are all priceless. Born or unborn, disability or not, God says we are all priceless.

“Some people are scared to have a baby with Down syndrome; maybe they feel like they can’t handle it.

“But I can tell them: They can handle it, with the power of God, and with the Holy Spirit. They have the Holy Spirit in them.”

Her sister, Sr. Mary Casey, told us that taking her twin’s name in religious life is “one of the greatest honors of my life,” and said it wasn’t a sentimental tribute but a true reflection of what her sister meant to her own formation:

“She's one of the most significant, important, and special people in my life — she's formed my heart, and my view of life and she’s helped shape even my understanding of God and his love.”

“For us to be up there together, sharing about the goodness and the sacredness of life, is a real joy and a real honor.”

We need witnesses like these. Read the whole conversation here.

Mass attendance in Poland has seen a “dramatic fall,” according to newly released figures. Less than a third of Catholics in one of Europe’s most Catholic countries went to church on the September Sunday the bishops used to sample their religious practice.

That does not sound good. And it sounds worse when you consider this still puts Polish Catholic practice ahead of Spain, Italy, and France.

But when you look under the hood, what does the data say, and how are researchers interpreting it? And what is the Church doing in response to the decline? Luke Coppen took a look this week.

There is a tendency in the secular media to present every decline in Polish Catholic practice as a negative judgment on the Church’s stance on disputed political issues, such as the country’s abortion law and same-sex unions, as well as the clerical abuse crisis, says Luke. And while these are undoubtedly factors, the bigger influence may be the coronavirus pandemic.

So what does the data really say, and what are the bishops of Poland doing about the situation? Read the whole thing here.

This week, the Archdiocese of Paris announced that a prominent priest who helped develop Vatican policy on gay seminarians has been barred from priestly ministry, and ordered to a life of prayer, over allegations that he abused young men, including a 14- year-old, under the guise of “therapy.”

Msgr. Tony Anatrella has been a prominent figure in the Church for decades. He helped to write the 2005 Vatican policy that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not be admitted to seminaries, helped coordinate a Vatican conference on clerical celibacy, and served as an expert at the Synod on the Family.

Now, the priest, who helped the French bishops craft their 2003 document on “fighting pedophilia,” has also been accused of sexually abusing young men and teenage boys under the pretext of giving them therapy to treat “homosexual impulses.”

According to the Paris archdiocese, a canonical process against Anatrella was started in 2016, after several complaints against the priest were dismissed by the French courts because the statute of limitations had expired. That was just weeks after Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin thanked Anatrella for helping to organize a conference on the theme “Priestly celibacy, a path of freedom,” sponsored by the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The priest had been barred from public ministry since 2018.

After the canonical process, the Vatican’s DDF also ordered Anatrella to cease his psychotherapy practice, and the archdiocese added a broader set of prohibitions and restrictions, by issuing a penal precept.

And it’s worth noting that, while Paris opened its canonical process into Anatrella in 2016, it reportedly first received a complaint against him in 2001 — from a seminarian who said he was abused by the priest as part of his “therapy.”

Coming hot on the heels of the Rupnik scandal, the Anatrella case raises more of the same questions about how an apparent predator could maintain his status at the highest levels of the Church while apparently using his area of special expertise to facilitate his abusive behavior.

Honestly, I am not sure what the answers to all this should be. Pope Francis has promulgated reams of law and policy on the handling of accusations of abuse, and yet cases like Anatralla and Rupnik keep coming to light.

I’m not sure there is a procedural solution. But the problem, I think, can be summed up simply: personnel is policy. If after everything the Church has been through, men like Rupnik and Anatrella can still enjoy tremendous reputations, what does that say about the people around them? Nothing good, I am afraid.

You can read all about the case here.

Subscribe Now

A new age of Francis?

Since the death of Pope Benedict, there has been a spate of “news reports” covering a supposed plot to force Pope Francis from office.

With the loss of the pope emeritus, the narrative goes, the final check on those who consider Francis everything from an “antipope” to a subversive force against doctrine has been lifted. There’s been talk of secret benevecantist conclaves, and machinations by “conservatives” out to “get” the pope.

But is any of this real? Does it even make sense? I took a look in an analysis this week.

Frankly, I think both narratives are wrong. So-called “conservative” opposition to Francis hasn’t markedly ticked up in the last few weeks, though you can see why secular outlets might think it has.

There has been much sound and fury over Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s new book, but when you read past the often hyperbolic coverage, there isn’t much there beyond confirming what everyone already guessed: the old pope was “heartbroken” by Francis’ new restrictions on the extraordinary form of the Mass. That’s about it.

Similarly, the disclosure by Vatican journalist Sandro Magister that Cardinal Pell was the author of the so-called Demos memo certainly drew fresh attention to the sharp critique of several aspects of the Francis pontificate, but it was first published nearly a year ago — and news of Pell’s involvement was a result of his own death, not Benedict’s.

I’d suggest that renewed panic about some “vast right-wing conspiracy” against Pope Francis actually comes from the same people also now confidently predicting that Benedict’s death will usher in a new era of radical reform under Francis who, the theory goes, felt restrained by his nonagenarian predecessor living in seclusion at the bottom of the garden.

I think these are two sides of the same coin — a coin held by people frustrated with Francis’ first decade in office and its supposed failure to deliver on issues like ending clerical celibacy, ordaining women, and blessing same-sex unions.

As I wrote yesterday, a dispassionate look at what Francis has said and done on those issues suggests that he’s actually not all that in favor of the radical agenda which many insist he secretly champions.

Blaming Benedict for what hasn’t happened, and blaming conservative plots for what probably isn’t going to happen is, I think, a kind of deflected criticism of Francis himself by those who hold themselves out as his most enthusiastic champions.

While I can see why those hoping for some radical progressive upheaval of Church teaching and discipline are vexed at Francis’ stubborn refusal to be the pope they want, they may need to get used to it.

Conspiracy-mongering notwithstanding, I don’t think Benedict’s death is actually going to change much of anything in the Francis pontificate — but read the whole analysis and make up your own mind. And tell me I’m wrong if you think I am.

Leave a comment

There is one criticism of Francis which has received a lot of media attention, and has brought together the unlikely pair of Pillar readers Cardinal Angelo Becciu and Cardinal George Pell (under the pseudonym Demos).

It’s a widely repeated allegation that, by interfering in the ongoing Vatican financial trial, Francis has changed the laws of the Vatican and tilted the scales of justice against Becciu and his co-defendants.

Given that Becciu was Pell’s chief antagonist during his work to clean up Vatican finances, and the two have traded some fairly sharp words in public since the beginning of Becciu trial, you would think that there must really be something to it if both men agree.

But I am not so sure. And I wrote about my doubts in an analysis this week.

In the memo circulated last year, but attributed to Pell last week, “Demos” writes that Francis “has changed the law four times during the trial to help the prosecution.”

“Cardinal Becciu has not been treated justly because he was removed from his position and stripped of his cardinalatial dignities without any trial. He did not receive due process. Everyone has a right to due process.”

Well, I certainly agree that everyone deserves due process — Pillar readers most especially. But taking a close look at the four rescripts (executive orders) issued by Francis actually say, I’m not sold it that has been denied to anyone.

Arguably, Francis’ actions were essential to allowing due process of law to function at all in the investigative phase of the case — the substance of the acts was to waive state secrecy to allow the investigation to proceed, and to dispense the investigators from reporting through their normal channels of oversight. Those normal channels would otherwise have had the investigators reporting to the Secretariat of State — the department they were, you know, investigating.

That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

As for the pope removing Becciu from his positions and taking away his rights as a cardinal, again, I’m not sure this is a denial of due process, so much as good governance in action.

Let’s try a thought experiment:

Say the FBI comes to President Joe Biden and presents him with evidence suggesting a member of his cabinet has abused his office, engaged in criminal conspiracy, and embezzled government funds.

There’s more investigating to do, the president is told, but this is what they’ve found so far and it looks likely we will file charges. Would you not expect the president to ask that cabinet member to stand down until the investigation and criminal process have concluded?

It’s not about declaring them guilty before the fact, it seems to me, it’s just about recognizing that you can’t credibly exercise high government office while you’re under investigation/indictment for abusing high government office.


'The Pillar' covers news you won't read anywhere else. We do it intelligently and reliably, because our subscribers know good journalism is worth paying for. So subscribe today – or upgrade your subscription!

Becciu has repeatedly said he will be exonerated, and predicted Francis will restore his privileges as a cardinal. And if he is cleared by the court, I would be the first to agree the pope should do exactly that. But until then, making someone step back from an office they hold at the pleasure of the pope and not by right seems to me to be a matter of prudential judgment for the pope.

That isn’t to say Francis hasn’t muddied the judicial waters considerably over the last two years, most notably by continuing to meet with the trial’s protagonists. But even in that, it seems to me Becciu has been a beneficiary of Francis’ “pastoral closeness” rather than penalized by it.

Anyway, you can read the whole analysis here. And I wish you would. The credibility of this legal process matters a hell of a lot for the prospects of Vatican reform.

Live, from Texas, it’s Groundhog Day!

A happy announcement for readers in the Lone Star State: JD and I are coming to town.

I’m not exactly sure why, but celebration of Groundhog Day is a big deal at the University of Dallas, and this year they’ve invited us to come along and see what it’s all about.

Having cowboy hats, and constantly looking for an excuse to wear them, they didn’t need to ask us twice. But we aren’t just going for a party. The university is sponsoring a special bonus episode of The Pillar Podcast. JD and I will be talking with UD President Jonathan Sanford about the idea and the reality of Catholic universities, and their role in the life of the Church and wider society. This is going to be a lot of fun, and I am really looking forward to it.

That conversation is happening on campus at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, in the Gorman Faculty Lounge. If you’re in Dallas, or whatever passes for “nearby” in Texas, I hope you’ll come.

We’ll be there bright eyed and bushy tailed, though we’ll have had a late night, because, of course, we’ll also be taping a dive bar live show for the podcast the night before. We’re doing that starting at 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, at the Rathskeller, also on campus, and I don’t imagine we’ll be leaving in a hurry once we’re done.

See you there, and bring your groundhogs, or whatever is customary.

I’m sadly missing the March for Life this year, something I would otherwise attend as a matter of course.

As I said before, the urgency of our pro-life efforts is utterly undiminished by the end of Roe v. Wade, and the obvious need for witnesses of love in the face of curdled contempt for life, masquerading all too often as a warped defense of “rights,” is real.

As it happens, this year I am in London. It’s the first time my wife and I have been “home” since the pandemic hit, and we are finally getting to introduce our own baby to the friends and family who prayed for us and with us for the nearly 15 years we spent hoping for a child.

It has been joyful. And seeing the joy our daughter’s very existence provokes in our friends has helped me to live the joy and the wonder I felt at her birth a little more than a year ago. She is the most powerful witness to the miraculous value of life I have.

Subscribe Now

Of course, over here the pro-life movement isn’t nearly as established, or as accepted in society as in the States. Pro-life politicians are viewed as, at best, eccentrics and weirdos, and pro-life campaigners are barely tolerated in the public square.

I say barely tolerated, in fact, they are increasingly not tolerated at all. Thanks to a High Court decision in 2018, several local authorities have issued Public Space Protection Orders (basically general restraining orders) around abortion clinics, making it illegal to do all kinds of things in the vicinity of the buildings.

These aren’t just bans on shouty, confrontational protests — indeed, those almost never happened anyway. They ban people from approaching anyone entering or leaving the clinics, including to offer them support or help.

In some instances, the PSPOs specifically define silent prayer as a banned form of protest — leading to viral videos of the cops fining or arresting people they suspect of saying a Hail Mary in their heads. It is madness. And it should make us grateful, today of all days, that we can, in cities like Washington, gather in our tens of thousands to witness to the value of every human life.

For myself, I might try to wander over to one of these clinics this weekend and see, as a journalist, what I can see. Given my tendency to say the rosary to myself whenever I’m waiting around, I guess I’ll have to hope no one fingers me for a thought criminal.

If I do get nicked, I’ll be sure to let you know.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

Subscribe Now