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Happy Friday friends,

And a happy feast of St. Catherine of Siena, to whom I have always had a special devotion. 

She is a saint of many virtues, and her Dialogue is about as full-bore as spiritual reading can get. But, if I am honest, it is her letters to Pope Gregory XI — the last Avignon pope — which I find myself thinking about most often.

In one, she implored the pope to be, well, “a manly man, free from any fear or fleshly love toward yourself.” 

“Since He has given you authority and you have assumed it, you should use your virtue and power: and if you are not willing to use it, it would be better for you to resign what you have assumed; more honor to God and health to your soul would it be,” she wrote to Gregory.

I mean, hot damn. 

When this saint wrote to you, you knew you’d been written to.

It goes without saying that you better be a saint if you’re going to write to the pope and tell him God says man up or quit. But I often find myself applying her papal admonition to my own life. 

The Lord, thankfully, has not given me authority, but he has given me much — and many jobs to do, first and foremost as a husband and father. Love of myself, for my own time, and comfort (and sleep), over selfless love for my family is a daily vice I have to fight. And, unlike Gregory, resignation from either role isn’t an option.

In my day job here at The Pillar, too, I often think about St. Catherine’s warning when we are dealing with stories which, frankly, it would be easier, more popular, and certainly more profitable for us to simply let go. There are a few of them.

But, it seems to me, if we are not willing to treat this project as a service, and when necessary a prophetic witness, then it would truly be better for my soul to chuck it in and do something else. Mercifully, I’m not there — but St. Catherine is a reminder to me to pray to do the work God gives me in a way I will be prepared to answer for.

On that note, here’s some news:


We had new reporting Wednesday on the situation of Bishop Rick Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville.

According to files obtained by The Pillar, an allegation against a diocesan seminarian dismissed as a “boundary violation” by Stika actually involved the seminarian forcibly pinning a fellow student down after subjecting him to a barrage of graphic sexual advances.

And diocesan records suggest that Bishop Rick Stika played down the assault allegations against the seminarian while giving him thousands of dollars in cash, furnishing him with expensive electronics, and paying his cell phone bill.

We have previously reported that when the diocesan review board appointed someone to investigate this “boundary violation,” Stika intervened to dismiss the investigator because he was “asking all these questions.”

Although Rome did order some kind of investigation into Stika and the diocese (this isn’t an isolated case), there’s been no word on the results of that. Stika himself has apparently told priests in the diocese that the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, has assured him he is in the clear — we haven’t been able to confirm that with the nuncio.

You can read our latest reporting here. The situation is, as they say, quite serious.

As it happens, next week marks the three year anniversary of Vos estis lux mundi, Pope Francis’ landmark legal reform on episcopal accountability in dealing with cases of sexual abuse. 

VELM is set to expire at the end of next month, and next week we’ll be looking at the last three years to chart what has worked, and what might be improved, as the pope considers re-upping the law. Cases like Stika’s certainly seem to highlight the opaque way processes, standards, and results are communicated.

We have news on Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres, formerly of the Puerto Rican Diocese of Arecibo.

New correspondence we obtained this week shows that, for months prior to the Vatican’s still officially unexplained decision to depose him, Fernández tried to understand what it is he was supposed to have done wrong, and he received no explanation.

Fernández wrote to both Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and to Pope Francis asking for someone, anyone, to present him with a formal explanation for why the local papal representative was demanding his resignation.

All he was told, verbally by the delegate, was that he had failed to maintain communion with his fellow bishops — charges he refuted and explained in his letters while offering to resolve any outstanding concerns — and been disobedient to the pope, though he had no idea in what way. 

The bishop pointed out that the delegate told him that if he refused to resign, it would be taken as proof of his disobedience, which made no sense logically or legally.

The more detail that emerges about this story, the weirder it seems. We will keep trying to figure out what we (and apparently Bishop Fernández) are missing.

In the meantime, you can read our latest coverage here. 

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Earlier this week, Pope Francis named Bishop Mark O’Toole as the new Archbishop of Cardiff. At the same time, the pope also made him the new bishop of the neighboring Welsh Diocese of Menevia.

The two sees remain juridically distinct but are now united in persona episcopi, an unusual arrangement in the Church, historically speaking. But the thing is, it isn’t as unusual as it used to be — this is the third time Francis has made such an appointment in the last six months.

He’s done it before, too, as a precursor to formally joining two dioceses and, in an analysis this week, I took a look at the chances that a raft of diocesan mergers are on the horizon. 

Given the aging episcopal population in this country, and the shrinking talent pool from which to draw replacements, it seems inevitable, to me anyway, that the Vatican will start doing with dioceses what U.S. bishops have been doing with parishes for the last few decades: begin by “clustering” them under a single pastor before formally merging them.

It’s going to be a hell of a culture shock when it starts happening, but I struggle to see things going any other way. But feel free to read the analysis and tell me I’m wrong.

Dr. William Husel was acquitted this month. He was accused of murdering 14 patients to whom he had given lethal doses of fentanyl. One of the expert witnesses called in that trial was Dr. Wes Ely, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and an expert in the treatment and ethics surrounding critical illnesses.

This week, he talked to our own Charlie Camosy about the Husel trial, the ethics of death, and the mechanics of dying. How do all these things come into play around issues like organ donation; when are we “dead,” exactly?

This is a fascinating conversation:

Do I believe that brain death is a reality? I believe that when the brain is overtly not receiving blood and oxygen for an extended period of time, say five to 10 minutes, the person is dead. 

There has not been a single person accurately described as dead by neurological criteria who has come back to life, cognitively and functionally. 

But there have been many, many people who have been declared brain dead erroneously, who weren't brain dead by the classic neurological criteria. 

There is an emerging literature on the poor job that we do enforcing strict application of these diagnostic criteria in clinical medicine. Thus, the public is subjected to erroneous calls, in patients who ended up waking back up again, making it appear that brain death doesn't work [as a criteria].

Read the whole thing.

This Friday Pillar Post is brought to you by the University of Dallas, “The Catholic University for Independent Thinkers.”
The University of Dallas invites you to check out their free 5-episode video series “The Quest,” available at

What could he do?

The Vatican financial scandal trial was back in session this week, with the former director of the AIF, the Holy See’s financial watchdog, in court to answer questions.

For the most part, Tomasso Di Ruzza repeated what his former boss, René Brülhart, told the judges during his own recent appearance: Yes, the AIF was aware of the London deal, but there were not obvious indications of (alleged) criminal activity from what they saw, and it wasn’t their job to oversee the Secretariat of State’s financial arrangements.

And anyway, all the Vatican top brass, from Pope Francis to Cardinal Parolin to Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra were all committed to seeing the deal go through and getting full control of the building at 60 Sloane Ave., possible extortion be damned, he said (in effect).

So far, so much the same. I will not tax your patience by rehashing how it is an open question how much Pope Francis understood of the alleged shakedown scheme Gianluigi Torzi was running on the Vatican, especially given Peña Parra’s own evidence about the way officials in his department routinely bamboozled superiors into approving schemes apparently designed to lose money.

Now, it is certainly true that Di Ruzza and Brülhart’s agency had no remit to oversee the Secretariat of State’s financial deals. The AIF (now the ASIF) has a mandate to inspect exactly one Vatican financial institution — the IOR. Coincidentally, the IOR was the bank from which the secretariat sought a 150 million euro loan to finance the whole fiasco.

Now, please, take a walk with me here for a moment:

We’ve reported before how Peña Parra and Parolin pressured the bank’s leadership to approve their loan application, which the IOR found “suspicious” and “opaque.” 

That seems like an issue to me.

And the court has already heard from officials at the Secretariat of State that Peña Parra ordered a retaliatory investigation into the IOR’s director when he had the temerity to turn down the loan application.

Again, seems like an issue.

And we know the loan was meant to be for a deal bad enough that the secretariat posted a loss somewhere north of 100 million euros on it.

Again, issue.

The AIF took no action, which is why Di Ruzza and Brülhart are on trial for abuse of office. But when asked about this decision on Wednesday, Di Ruzza responded incredulously: “Who was I supposed to denounce, the sostituto?”

Well, I mean, that’s exactly what the IOR did. 

Since the AIF weren’t taking their calls, and the Secretariat of State were probably bugging the phone anyway, the bank went straight to Vatican prosecutors, who went directly to the pope, who authorized them to perform some actual due diligence on the whole affair, which led to a two-year investigation, which brought us to this trial — one in which it feels like everyone except Peña Parra has been charged.

As a final note: Di Ruzza pointed out to the court that his agency was primarily concerned with stopping Vatican institutions (the IOR) from being used for international money laundering and terrorist financing, and since there was no evidence of that in the London deal, they weren’t overly concerned.

Ok, fine. But here’s what Moneyval, the European Commission’s anti-money laundering agency reported last year after it inspected the AIF and IOR:

“The authorities originally concluded [after the last inspection in 2012] that the main risk of money laundering arose from tax evasion by non-residents. It later became clear that tax evasion is no longer considered to be the main source of money laundering.” 

“The dominant typologies suggested by cases and suspicious activity reports include predicate offenses of fraud, misappropriation, giving and receiving bribes, and abuse of office” within the Vatican itself, Moneyval found. (emphasis mine)

Vatican officials — like the AIF — told Moneyval inspectors “that they consider the risk of abuse of office for personal or other benefits presented by insiders and related money laundering to be low.” 

“However,” the report said, “the assessment team disagrees with this conclusion and is of the view that risks presented by insiders are important.” (emphasis mine)

“Cases which have received wide coverage in the media have raised a red flag for potential abuse of the Holy See/Vatican City State system by mid-level and senior figures (insiders),” Moneyval concluded. (EMPHASIS MINE!)

So, to sum up: Di Ruzza told the court that his agency let the loan application for the London deal skate because he was only really worried about external corruption — and two years later Moneyval issued a report criticizing the AIF for still taking exactly that kind of myopic approach, despite, you know, the gigantic international scandal playing out in the press.

I’m sure it’s fine.

Please consider sharing our coverage, it’s how we grow, and it might just keep Ed sane.


What Elon did

Can we talk for a second about Elon Musk and something he did this week — or at least made happen?

No, not buying Twitter. I couldn’t care less who owns that digital garbage disposal of bad faith and attention-seeking. Though, if he does bring in end-to-end encryption for direct messages I won’t complain.

I mean the return to earth on Monday of Axiom-1, the first mission to the International Space Station with a fully-private crew. The four astronauts, three of whom were first time flyers, spent a total of 17 days in orbit, performing some 25 research experiments during their stay on ISS.

This is a real picture of the actual Axiom-1 mission docking with the ISS. How can anyone not be excited by this? Credit: NASA/SpaceX

They launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 8 in a Crew Dragon spacecraft mounted on a Falcon 9 rocket, both pieces of equipment developed and owned by SpaceX, the company Musk founded 20 years ago to get humanity back on the Moon, and from there to Mars.

AX-1 is a big deal. It was the first test of a privately-funded and privately-run mission to the ISS, and it will, hopefully, open the door to regular missions to space which don’t rely on the vagaries of government priorities. 

People sometimes talk about private trips like this one having the ability to “democratize” space, which I take to mean make it “accessible” — to the extent that it would mean bringing democracy to the cosmos, that would be a tragedy. The last thing we need out there is politics.

Indeed, it’s the absence of politics that makes missions to space, and the ISS in particular, so philosophically important. Space exploration can and should be a shared human adventure. I have written before here about the “overview effect” — a profound cognitive shift which comes from seeing the world and our place on it, in its proper scale and without our self-created borders or conflicts. 

Astronauts regularly report coming home changed, with a deep and lasting emotional imperative to protect our common home and our common humanity.

And this isn’t theory — right now on the International Space Station Russian cosmonauts are working and living side-by-side with their international peers, despite the horrific war going on in Ukraine. This isn’t some frosty detente. On ISS, these people rely on each other, and live the reality that they are one human family, whatever their respective governments might be doing down below. 

Shared human ambition and endeavor. We need that. We need as much of that as we can get. Back to Musk, I honestly couldn’t care a straw for the man’s political opinions, and I am not really sure what they are. But he built a company that looks likely to give us a lot more of that

And it’s not like he’s doing it by simply cutting cheques for publicity stunts (Jeff Bezos). SpaceX actually built new rocket systems from scratch, and is putting people into orbit for $4,000/kilogram — fractions of what it used to cost. For comparison, at the time it was retired, the Space Shuttle program was running at nearly $55K per kg. 

Forget Twitter. SpaceX is building a starship.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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