Happy Friday friends,
We made it.
It’s been a week seemingly without end, and much of it has been consumed by the two big Vatican stories which blew up on Saturday, and then Monday.
We have tried to cover those from every angle we can, and we’ll get to that in a moment.
But before we do, our inboxes and DMs have been full — but FULL — of people, including priests and even bishops, expressing a great deal of anxiety about the state of the Church right now.
It is, by anyone’s measure, a time of turbulence. And there is a lot being said and done which is disturbing for many. It’s taken many of us out of the seasonal joy and anticipation which we’ve all been carefully husbanding, or trying to.
It strikes me though that this has all come at the perfect moment. Or, to think of it backward, the season of Advent and the feast of Christmas come as a perfect answer to the disquiet and even fear expressed by so many of us.
In Advent, of course, we look forward to the coming of the Lord, in the manger and at the end of time. But neither event comes in the midst of tranquility and quiet certainty.
If it would be a stretch to call Our Lady’s maternity a “crisis pregnancy,” it was almost certainly a crisis delivery, at least from her and Joseph’s perspective. And the coming of the Lord in glory seated on the clouds is, we are told, a great and terrible event. The context of both events is a world unsettled, a world in conflict, a world far from God, who desires us to draw close to Him above all things — even to the point of coming to us.
More than anything, I think, Christ arrives at a time, in a place, and in a manner as unexpected as it is needed.
The bishops of the world seem to be urgently falling out of step, not to say communion, with one another. A declaration from the Vatican is being, it seems, rejected both by those who insist it is beyond the pale and those who say it doesn’t go far enough. And I see little inclination from Rome to act as the rock on which the Church can rest firm; on the contrary.
I have no real idea of how things will shake out. And I have no idea how God will act to preserve the unity of His Church. But I also know that, had I been walking past two thousand odd years ago, I’d have been a little incredulous that a child in a stable could effect the salvation of the world.
Doomscrolling the news to watch tempers flare and communion fray is not going to provide you, or me, with much spiritual edification this Christmas. Though that’s certainly a temptation for us, working here at The Pillar.
It’s easy — and almost certainly profitable — for us to go full SCHISM WATCH for the holidays and crank out as much “content” as we can. From a journalistic point of view, the sun’s shining and there’s hay to be made.
But here’s the thing, leaning into that comes at a price for all of us. For us, as journalists, it makes us cynical and bitter, and turns the state and fate of the Church into a kind of spiritual bloodsport. For readers, it inflames all the wrong emotions and instincts — rancor, suspicion, despair.
Unsettled times call for settled prayer, I think. And that needs a measure of quiet, even if we have to make it for ourselves.
So we will not be bringing you a blow-by-blow of every time a Jesuit performatively blesses a couple for the New York Times. Nor will we be posting breathless updates of the latest fulminations against the same.
We at The Pillar are taking Christmas week off, like we do every year. We do this because taking a break from the news cycle of the Church to focus on the spiritual life, and to live it joyfully with our families, is the only way we can serve this work we do well the rest of the year.
I’d encourage you to do the same.
Obviously, if something seismic happens, we’ll be keeping an eye on it and come back to our desks if we have to. But absent that, we’re turning the volume down for a few days to pray and to celebrate the coming of the Lord of history in history. On the website, we’ll publish some of our favorite features and interviews from the year.
And for myself, I’ll be meditating much on the prayer of St. Teresa of Ávila:
Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.
Now, let’s round up the news.
Of course, the principal item of news this week remains Fiducia supplicans, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration on blessing for Catholics either in illicit and irregular nonmarital partnerships or same-sex couples.
The reactions from bishops and bishops’ conferences across the world have been as varied as they are immediate, and we have been keeping a rolling, updated summary of who-has-said-what right here.
We have also been working to break down and analyze where support for and opposition to Fiducia supplicans has emerged most strongly and consistently.
Our data guru, Brendan Hodge, took a look this week at differing regional approaches to engagement with modernity and secular culture, how differences are rooted in the histories and religious demographics of the local Churches, and how they play into the reception of Fiducia supplicans.
Nowhere has seen a sharper and more unanimous pushback of the DDF’s declaration that Africa, where the pan-African bishops’ conference issued a call for concerted action, signed by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of Kinshasa, himself a Francis appointment.
He’s also taken a close look at where Africa sits relative to the “Western” reaction to Fiducia supplicans, and the emerging pattern of a growing and vibrant Church in Africa diverging in priority and tone from a shrinking and increasingly desiccated Church in many European countries.
Among the general chorus of reactions, there have been those which stand out, either for clarity of thought or the significance of the one reacting. Sometimes both.
We do not, as a rule, go in for guest posting at The Pillar. But the cardinal’s people got in touch and asked if we would consider hosting the English-language translation of his essay.
Given his status as a former head of the same department that has caused a global news event, and since he was asking us to carry it exclusively, we felt it was worth stretching a point for.
“In order to accept the blessing of situations that are contrary to the Gospel, the DDF proposes an original solution: to broaden the concept of a blessing,” Müller writes.
“It is hazardous to invent new terms that go against the traditional usage of language. Such a procedure can give rise to arbitrary exercises of power. In the case at hand, the fact is that a blessing has an objective reality of its own and thus cannot be redefined at will to fit a subjective intention that is contrary to the nature of a blessing.”
“Here Humpty Dumpty's famous line from Alice in Wonderland comes to mind: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ Alice replies, ‘The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ And Humpty Dumpty says: ‘The question is which is to be master; that's all.’”
As it happens, some outlets didn’t much seem to care if Müller had asked us to publish the English text exclusively — they went ahead and republished it — but that’s fine.
Amid all the reactions to the DDF’s declaration, many have accused the media of perpetuating a “false narrative” on the document, because some reporters failed to appreciate the text’s careful distinction between blessing “couples” and blessing the union of those couples.
According to JD, some bishops who want to avoid pointing fingers at the Apostolic See — even while privately describing the document as incendiary — have been happy to take up the “false narrative” trope, blaming the media for a firestorm, rather than the Vatican.
While I think the space between blessing the persons of a couple and blessing their union isn’t a distinction without difference, necessarily, on the broader point I think he’s right.
Exodus 90 starts January 1 for tens of thousands of men around the world. Are you tired of returning to the same ‘modern Pharaohs’ over and over again — overconsumption of social media, numbing your problems with alcohol, pornography, or binge-watching TV? Our culture today has no shortage of Pharaohs and idols that hold us back from true unity with God. Exodus 90 offers you a way out.
Before we finish with it, I would like to make an observation of my own about the whole business of Fiducia supplicans.
It is already hackneyed to say that it seems obvious that it has — perhaps by intention — created exactly the kind of confusion and contradiction about the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality which the text claims must be avoided.
In the short and perhaps even medium term, this kind of doctrinal and pastoral chaos seems inevitable.
Not because of the text, but because of how it is being used, people will be led to believe the Church teaches something it does not, and can bless something which it cannot.
And there will be those who knowingly — and, I would say, therefore maliciously — promote this misbelief, pushing the DDF text like a kind of paraliturgical methadone on those who want the Church to validate same-sex marriage as a sacrament.
They will have to answer to their own consciences about that.
But longer term, this situation is untenable. And my observation is this: when something cannot go on as it is, it usually doesn’t, one way or another.
The DDF has made it clear it will not be making any further interventions on this topic, and I think that expecting Pope Francis to issue some kind of authoritative set of guiding practice on all this is fanciful, to say the least.
But the pope is also 87 years old, and an increasingly frequent visitor to the Gemelli hospital. The reality is this declaration’s final implementation is going to be settled by his successor, and it will probably be the hottest topic of debate in the next conclave, whenever it happens.
And for those of you who might be tempted to think that is all a foregone conclusion, I would just remind you that it is Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, a Francis appointee and member of the pope’s kitchen cabinet C9 council of cardinals, who is leading the African call to clarify and respond to the “ambiguity” he sees in the text.
A lot of people are already saying that Fiducia supplicans marks the breaking of a dam, and that no future pope will be any more able to bottle up its abuse than Francis appears inclined to respond to such abuses featuring on the front page of the New York Times.
I was talking to a learned and astute friend about it earlier this week and he suggested that the next pope might simply develop Fiducia supplicans in the same way Pope Francis has developed the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.
Looking ahead to what he called the “Pope Leo XIV” revision to the Catechism in 2025, he proposed a simple text, borrowed from Pope Francis:
"Today, in fact, given the widespread confusion and rejection of the truth about marriage and the purpose of human sexuality, cases in which a public blessing for couples in a same-sex relationship or in an irregular marriage could be done without giving scandal or causing confusion are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
“In the past, such public blessings were tolerated. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that that society is unable to receive without confusion and scandal such gestures of pastoral solicitude. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that such blessings are inadmissible because they are an attack on the inviolability and dignity of marriage and she works with determination for the abolition of such blessings worldwide.”
If you think that’s an impossible turn of events, I’d invite you to consider recent history. Stranger things have happened.
There was also a fairly important story last weekend involving a certain financial crimes trial which, despite its historical nature, managed to fall conveniently out of the news cycle. But we didn’t forget about it.
Following the conviction of nine of the 10 defendants in Vatican City court, notices of appeal have been flowing in. In an analysis this week, I took a look at who’s appealing, and what kind of chances they have at winding back their jail time.
The odds at appeal, for the most part, including for Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu, are not great. Though I did note one obvious exception in the case of Raffaele Mincione, who has several lawsuits in progress against the Vatican in other courts, including in the U.K.
Given the very narrow grounds on which Mincione was convicted, and that exactly that ground is the subject of a lawsuit which could see any penalties imposed by the Vatican court offset by a finding in his favor elsewhere, I think this is really the one to watch.
I also took a last look at the chorus of criticism of the state of Vatican justice following the trial, and the allegations that Pope Francis monkeyed with the court and the law, denied due process, and generally swung the decision his way.
Spoiler alert: I’m not just unpersuaded by those arguments, I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence to back them up. In fact, I would say that all the available facts point in the opposite direction. Those who say otherwise, in my experience, tend to have a soft spot for the star defendant and a general ignorance of the actual details of the law and the case.
And, as a final note, the Vatican’s own prosecution have announced they are appealing too. As some people predicted, the judges’ rulings managed to secure sweeping convictions while dismissing promoter of justice Alessandro Diddi’s central thesis of “one grand conspiracy.”
Diddi, it seems, isn’t willing to just take the “W” and move on. I wouldn’t rate his chances much higher than Becciu’s at appeal. But if he presses hard enough, he could end up doing the defendants a favor and undermine the case he did manage to make.
And finally, just a reminder that Christmas falls on a Monday this year, which means two Mass obligations in two days.
You have a seasonal buffet of options though, spread across three days, for how to meet those obligations and (hopefully) double dip on the joys of the Mass, the one true banquet.
This part of the newsletter is where I usually go off topic and write about something that fascinates, amuses, or enrages me away from the news of the Church.
I’ll be completely honest with you, though, I don’t feel much up to it this week. Away from the big stories out of Rome we’ve had to focus on this week, there is a lot going on in the Church that is heartbreakingly urgent, and rightly demands our time and attention.
The sad fact is, we’ve not had much of either to spare this week, though we will pick them all up in the New Year with a vengeance. But all of them are, more importantly, stories that need our prayers, the prayers of the whole Church, especially over this Christmas.
So, in that spirit, I offer them to you here as a list of people and situations I will be praying for this Christmas and, of your charity, I would ask that you do, too:
The Christians in Gaza are, as I write, waiting in fear for their lives. Israeli forces have, in recent days, shot and killed a mother and daughter as they sought refuge along with other parishioners in the church of the parish of Holy Family — according to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Last weekend, too, the Gaza convent of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity came under rocket fire from an IDF tank and is now uninhabitable. This is Christmas in the Holy Land.
Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez remains in jail this Christmas, a prisoner of the Ortega regime. The bishop, who has been behind bars since August last year, is in rapidly declining health and would, we’ve reported, go willingly into exile, yet the government shows no signs of letting him out — in fact, other high-ranking ecclesiastical officials in Nicaragua have been detained this week.
In the notorious El Chipote jail, where Álvarez is being held, prisoners sometimes receive food or drink containing laxatives or other substances to induce vomiting. The purpose is to put pressure on prisoners during the long interrogations to which they are subjected.
Because food can’t be trusted, political prisoners in Nicaragua tend to lose considerable weight and become extremely weak while incarcerated.
Pray for the bishop this Christmas, please.
Nigeria now has, by some estimates, more martyrs than any other country in history. There is no real proper word to describe the endless religious-tribal violence which is claiming the lives of entire families, even villages, on a regular basis.
The examples of these martyrs is a wellspring of graces though, both for the Church in Africa, and the whole world. But our brothers and sisters there need our prayers and our material support.
Please, do not forget them this Christmas.
Jimmy Lai, the Catholic media publisher, was back in court this week in Hong Kong. Jimmy is being used by local authorities as the ultimate instructive example of the scope of the territory’s National Security Law, and the vindictiveness with which the government will deploy it.
Lai was first arrested more than three years ago, on trumped-up charges related to the lease on one of his company’s buildings. Since then, during which time he’s remained behind bars, charges have been added alleging he is, by dint of having run Hong Kong’s last unapologetically pro-democracy newspaper and attending pro-democracy demonstrations, a danger to national security.
Lai has repeatedly cited his Catholic faith as a motivating and sustaining force in his ongoing trials.
Please do not forget him either this Christmas.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church could be headed for a real, actual, canonical schism. Christmas Day marks the deadline for hundreds of priests to accept and comply with liturgical renewals approved by the Church’s governing synod several years ago.
We’ve been covering this story for years now, but this is the make-or-break point. Rumors around the Church’s major archdiocese in India have it that several hundred priests are set to be excommunicated by Rome if they don’t comply.
That kind of schism takes years to build up to, and decades to heal. Pray it doesn’t happen.
I’m sorry if all this feels like a somber note to end on before the holiday. That wasn’t my intention.
The truth is, the Church and the world are full of suffering. But it is always thus. It is in the midst of the darkness and confusion and pain and quotidian struggle that Christ was born in Bethlehem.
And it is to our world, with all its worries, that the sign of a baby in a manger is offered again. Christ is the great protagonist of history, and the victor over death. If we hold him today in a form that seems too weak and small to answer the moment, that is nothing new in the story of our salvation.
Understanding and proclaiming the true power of his incarnation is the evangelical work of the season for me, and for us all.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is not a hollow greeting. It is the Divine imperative, announced from the mouth of an angel. God is not dead, nor does He sleep.
I wish you every joy this Christmas.
See you next year,