Being pro-life, about that document, and in case you missed it
The Friday Pillar Post
Happy Friday friends,
As well you know, this was USCCB meeting week.
There was, indeed, a lot of news to come out of that meeting and we’ll get there in just a second. But before we do, I just want to draw one or two things to your attention.
Lessons to learn
JD revisited yesterday some of the ongoing stories we’ve published out of the Diocese of Cleveland, especially on the case of Fr. “Bobby” McWilliams, who has been sentenced to life without parole for his heinous crimes.
The Cleveland diocese says McWilliams is a calculating sociopath who was able to deceive formators, raising no red flags during his preparation for ministry. The priest’s lawyers argued in court that he is a sick man, himself the victim of some unknown and serious trauma.
As JD observed: either way, you would expect such a catastrophic failure in the seminary screening system to prompt reflection and reform, but it hasn’t. And you can read what that is likely to mean for local Catholics, priests and laity alike, here.
Will the pope speak?
Hearings resumed on the Vatican financial scandal this week, with lawyers still locked in pre-trial motions about evidence and the defense demanding the whole case be thrown out.
But the trial hearings took an unexpected twist this week when lawyers began discussing the idea of Pope Francis being called to the witness stand, as it began to look like maybe the pope has known more about the Vatican property scandal than anyone is letting on.
Defense attorneys argued on Wednesday that, in recorded interviews with witnesses, prosecutors had alluded to some kind of meeting with Pope Francis in which he might have given a witness statement unseen by the defense.
The exchange raises the prospect of Francis being asked — respectfully, and from the comfort of his own office — if he’d consider volunteering to tell the judges what he recalls about the London property fiasco. It’s about as risky and unlikely an idea as I can possibly imagine, but there might just be some merit to it.
Being pro life
Oklahoma’s Gov. Kevin Stitt announced yesterday he would be commuting the death sentence of Julius Jones to life without parole.
If you aren’t familiar with the case, Jones has been on death row for more than 19 years, after he was convicted of a 1999 murder and carjacking. He and his family have always insisted he is innocent. The governor’s clemency came hours before he was scheduled to be executed.
Jones’ case has been taken up by hundreds of thousands of petitioners, as well as notables of various stripes, all of whom had called on the governor to spare Jones and revisit his case.
Among those welcoming the news Thursday was Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who has repeatedly pressed the governor to choose life in Jones’ case.
Coakly praised Stitt’s “tremendous courage in the face of intense pressure” in stopping the execution.
“To oppose the death penalty is not to be soft on crime. Rather, it is to be strong on the dignity of life,” Coakley said.
If you ask me, Coakley is right.
Coakley’s tenure as chair of the USCCB’s Domestic Justice and Human Development has coincided with a sharp rise in the number of executions being performed in this country, and the archbishop has made opposing the death penalty a signature priority of the committee.
It’s a frequent canard that the US bishops are somehow unduly focused on abortion, to the exclusion of other aspects of respect for all human life.
It’s simply not true.
Indeed by any measure of the bishops’ time, treasure, and attention, it’s a vicious falsehood. The Church’s pro-life teaching witness is authentic in a way no political party’s is, precisely because it is consistent. The unborn, the incarcerated, the infirm, the elderly, the poor, the refugee: every life is sacred.
It’s not a message the bishops deliver selectively, but it certainly is selectively received — often the Catholic politicians most vocal about their “pro-life” credentials are notably absent in the fight to end the death penalty. As Archbishop Joseph Naumann observed on Wednesday, if the Catholics in Congress in both parties all supported the whole of the Church’s teaching on life, there would be supermajorities in both houses.
Back to Baltimore
As you know, JD and I spent the week at the USCCB meeting, where the bishops managed to get through the usual full slate of agenda items. While most of the focus, of course, has been on the vote to adopt a teaching document on the Eucharist, a lot else went on:
Archbishop Gomez gave a speech opening the public sessions on Tuesday in which he talked about the Church’s role in a rapidly secularizing America. The country is “losing its story,” Gomez said, but the Church isn’t here to offer a new story, but the true story of Christ’s salvation of mankind.
Citing Pope Francis’ call for the Church to rediscover her missionary identity, Gomez told the bishops that
“The Church’s position in society has changed. We cannot count on numbers or our influence in society. None of that ever really mattered anyway. We are here to save souls.”
Also speaking Tuesday was apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who offered the bishops an address on synodality. While the nuncio’s remarks were widely picked apart for signs of implied criticism of the conference and Gomez’s leadership of it, a lot of what he said actually dovetailed well with the conference president’s address.
Also during the meeting this week, there were committee elections (JD absolutely trounced me in our winners picks), a new general secretary, presentations on the causes of new potential American saints, an update on the upcoming Eucharistic revival program, and a lot more.
About that document
Whatever else happened during the USCCB meeting, the focus was always going to be on the debate and vote to adopt the much-discussed teaching document on the Eucharist.
We all know what happened: yes, the document did reference the denial of Communion to Catholics persisting in a state of grave sin; no, it didn’t name names or mention politicians.
The bishops voted to adopt the text 222-8, something of a landslide given that just months ago a letter at least purportedly signed by dozens of the same bishops insisted even the idea of such a document shouldn’t be discussed. So what changed?
JD and I both talked to a few bishops about what went on behind closed doors, and JD wrote a really interesting analysis on at least one explanation of what happened, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, this was the result of some of that synodality all the kids keep talking about.
So, how did the bishops in favor of the document win such a critical mass of their brothers over to their way of thinking? We just don’t know and, forgive me, I think that rather undercuts the impact of the text.
The document itself is a fluent and accessible recapitulation of what the Church teaches about the Eucharist, and what she has always taught about it. But however well written, and even for all the hype this one has received, the percentage of Catholics in the pews who will actually read it cover to cover is likely to remain quite small.
USCCB documents are an odd kind of sausage, in as much as everyone wants to see how they’re made, but few people end up ever trying one.
The final texts of USCCB documents tend to live more briefly in memory than even the debates that shape them. In part, that’s because of the power of the voices of individual bishops: I don’t know how many Catholics read the bishops’ 2019 cover letter to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, but I would be willing to bet that it’s fewer than the thousands who have watched YouTube videos of an exchange between Bishop Robert McElroy and Archbishop Charles Chaput during its debate.
In the case of the Eucharistic document, we saw some of the very contentious early stages of preparation — bishops wrote letters to each other, they traded articles in magazines, and occasionally exchanged barbed comments in public discussion with each other. But how did we get from that to an overwhelming majority for “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church?”
Was it synodality? Did the bishops, through patient listening and thoughtful and respectful dialogue, arrive at true consensus? Well, it depends who you ask. But there is one unusual thing about the text, and the bishops who signed it.
We now have a document which, inter alia, reasserts the Church’s teaching that to receive Communion in a state of grave is an act of “sacrilege,” and asserts the Church’s responsibility to regulate the reception of Holy Communion.
But, at least some of the bishops have indicated they are committed to the idea that people in manifest states of grave sin should not be denied Communion. And not so many months ago, more than 50 bishops voted for this Eucharistic document not to be drafted at all — during their debate, there was obvious division on basic theological concepts like states of sin, grace, and communion with the Church.
It is hard to square that with the document’s text. In short, we know the bishops voted 222-8 to adopt the document, but we don’t know how many of them actually believe what it says.
If it seems uncharitable to admit a doubt that all the bishops who voted for the text actually believe everything it says, I can only say it is a doubt the bishops created in their public debates, but opted apparently to resolve in private.
In case you missed it
A highlight of the USCCB meeting was, for me anyway, a video presentation from CDF adjunct secretary Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, on the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law.
It was a forensic and subtle walk through the Church’s new universal penal code, well worth the time.
However, I am aware that springing a graduate level presentation of the evolution of canonical penal law on someone can be a little bit like asking them to sit through Mountain Jam: sure it’s great, but not many people can follow or appreciate it without the necessary context. And it did sometimes appear that — how can I put this delicately — Scicluna’s video did not command universally rapt attention in either the hall or the press room. Their loss.
Scicluna weighed in on a major point of debate among canonists, both in the U.S. and in Rome, on the handling of cases of vulnerable adults, and made a substantial addition to the average diocesan bishop’s canonical to-do list in the process.
According to how the archbishop interpreted the new law for the bishops — an interpretation he repeatedly suggested was the pope’s, too — two things are now clear: (i) the term “vulnerable adult” as used in Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi is a new legal category (ii) cases of sexual misconduct by diocesan clerics or officers against “vulnerable adults” is a crime diocesan bishops are now required by law to prosecute with the same rigor with which Rome prosecutes clerical child sexual abuse.
This is, believe it or not, kind of a big deal. Scicluna’s reading is not an official interpretation of a debated canonical subject — but it is the official presentation given to U.S. bishops on the subject. So what he had to say carries some weight.
A lot of situations involving clerical sexual misconduct could be considered to occur with a “vulnerable adult” — things involving seminarians with priests or formators, an affair between a pastor and someone he was giving spiritual guidance to, diocesan employers and employees even.
In the past, bishops have tended to treat these as cases of serious moral failure, but not crimes. Now, according to Scicluna’s reading of the law, they have to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute canonically every such instance - and if they don’t, they could find themselves facing an accusation of negligence under Vos estis.
Just as a final note, it’s been a very long week and a lot of news to cover in it. JD and I sincerely love what we do, and we hope you agree that the hours and effort are worth it. We’re grateful to our subscribers for making sure we could do what we do in Baltimore, and keep bringing you smart, faithful, fair coverage of the life of the Church.
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See you next week,