Happy Friday friends,
It’s been another week on the road for me.
I was in Rome again to work this week for a few days — though thankfully it wasn’t as much of a journey, or expensive a trip, since I was only traveling from London, where I’m staying this month with my in-laws.
Why? Well, there’s a lot bubbling up around the Vatican these days.
From Archbishop Gänswein to Cardinal Müller, and including Pell and Benedict, there are a lot of books and articles coming out these days, all of them feeding a feeling that we’re living in a strange moment — even if no one can quite put their finger on why, exactly.
There’s hard news happening too, of course, from Vatican court cases to big papal interviews. And just a reminder that the absolute best way to keep up-to-date on everything going on is to make sure you’re signed up to Luke Coppen’s Starting Seven morning email.
Starting Seven brings you what you need to know, and what you should be reading from across the whole of Catholic media, every day, and includes Luke’s own daily analysis — usually analysis of something interesting, which most of us hadn’t even realized was happening.
I’m not selling you something extra here: Starting Seven is free to all our paying subscribers; just tick the box on your account profile under “emails” to tell us you want to get it.
We reported this week that Frank Pavone, the prominent pro-life leader laicized last year, was accused of sexual misconduct towards young women, years before his dismissal from the clerical state.
Along with reporting the substance of the allegations, we spoke with one woman who made a report. Her account is both sad and striking in its detail.
The woman alleges that Pavone began “grooming” her soon after she arrived at Priests for Life, when she was 20 years old.
“There was a lot of weird stuff like that early on that was blurring all the lines... Looking back now, it seems to be part of a whole grooming process, of trying to get me more familiar with him.”
“I look back on it now, as an adult, and I see that. But mentally I wasn’t an adult then — and I was very trusting, and very innocent, and just didn’t understand some of what was happening in this situation.”
A spokesperson for Pavone, who was laicized late last year, told us that “complaints Fr. Frank was made aware of” were “resolved satisfactorily.”
That is not how the woman who spoke with us sees the situation.
“I can't imagine what gave Frank Pavone or the Diocese of Amarillo the impression that the case was ‘resolved satisfactorily,’” she told us.
“I was never notified if Frank Pavone or Priests for Life even knew about the accusations. Nothing was shared with me about how the diocese handled the case… A 20 minute phone conversation with a bishop, to my mind, is not the complete handling of a complaint of sexual misconduct; I don't believe that the Diocese of Amarillo's response was comprehensive, compassionate, or a just whole.”
As you can imagine, the woman we spoke to also told us about the spiritual difficulties that came after her experiences.
Pope Benedict XVI’s final book, “What is Christianity,” was officially launched on Jan. 20, three weeks after his death at the age of 95.
There has been a lot of, well, clamor about this book, too, though not always terribly well-informed clamor — it’s only available in Italian for the moment. For example: a lot of media attention has fallen on a reference in the book to “homosexual cliques” in seminaries — though that reference actually comes from a Benedict published in 2019.
So what does the book actually say? How much of it is actually new? What do you need to know about it to sound like you’ve already read it?
The Vatican this week gave a firm nein to German plans to establish a permanent “synodal council” in Germany, in which lay people and bishops would oversee certain policy issues for local churches, and set rules about them.
Rome stepping in (again) to tell the Germans bishops to knock it off is news in itself, of course.
But a number of readers asked us how the proposal for a permanent “synodal council” is different from the body created after the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, when Rome gave a solid jawohl to the creation of a permanent “ecclesial conference” for the region consisting of lay people, religious, priests, and bishops.
It’s a fair question. And, as Luke Coppen explained this week, the plans for the Amazonian “conference” actually needed quite a bit of tweaking and ironing out before the Vatican actually knew what to make of it, and how to treat it.
You can, and should, read all about the differences between the Amazon’s conference and the Germans’ plans here.
But the key takeaway is probably this: the drafters of the Amazonian proposal were willing to work with Rome to get things right. The Germans seem interested in telling Vatican officials they’re misunderstood, and then carrying on regardless.
That’s not - to employ some synodal language - a sustainable mode of ecclesiastical dialogue and engagement.
Last week, Americans United for Life and Democrats for Life of America made an interesting proposal in the fight to decrease abortions: Make giving birth free.
In a white paper entitled “Make Birth Free: A Vision for Congress to Empower American Mothers, Families, and Communities,” the groups argued that women, babies, and society as a whole all suffer as a result of the high costs associated with childbirth in the United States — costs that far exceed those of other developed nations.
So, the paper reasoned, a federal policy to make childbirth free to mothers would discourage abortion, and encourage rising birth rates.
There are many ways to make birth free to mothers, Shakely told us. Congress could, for example, exempt prenatal and birth-related expenses from deductibles and copays in all Affordable Care Act-compliant public and private insurance, much as preventative care is under the existing healthcare system.
And, as he noted, ACA-compliant plans presently make contraceptives freely available, but not prenatal care like ultrasounds — which isn’t exactly family-friendly, is it?
Court was back in session in the Vatican this week, with judges hearing arguments in the wrongful dismissal suit brought by the Holy See’s auditor general, Libero Milone.
Milone was famously forced to resign in 2017 for allegedly “spying on” — or, alternatively, “auditing” — the private financial affairs of senior curial officials, like Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu (currently on trial for embezzlement and abuse of office).
The auditor claims he was forced out because he discovered evidence of corruption among senior curial officials and cardinals, and that he has the documents to prove it.
But this week, lawyers from three different Vatican departments lined up to argue that the case should be thrown out, insisting that, Milone’s claims of a legal pause on the statute of limitations notwithstanding, the clock had run out on Milone’s window to sue while he tried to negotiate a settlement with his former employers.
And, while admitting they hadn’t had time to read the full 550-page cache of documents Milone’s legal team deposited in evidence, lawyers for the Secretariat of State, the Office of the Auditor General, and the public prosecutor’s office all simultaneously said that those documents were fakes, or maybe real but possibly stolen — but said Milone should face criminal investigation either way.
The Secretariat of State said it shouldn’t be party to the lawsuit at all, since it had no “working relationship” with Milone. This is hard to square with Milone’s letter of appointment, which was signed by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, or that it was Cardinal Becciu, then sostituto at the secretariat, who told Milone he had to go, and publicly took credit for threatening him with criminal prosecution if he didn’t leave his employment.
We will see where it goes. But it all seems like an extraordinary gamble on the part of the curia’s legal team. If Milone can prove half of what he says he has evidence of regarding Vatican corruption and decides to go public, the effects could be seismic.
We aren’t talking about a few senior or former Vatican officials being caught with their hands in the curial piggy bank here: Milone has suggested he can prove the kind of systematic corruption that could lead to international sanctions against the Holy See — at the extreme end, it could see the Vatican’s financial institutions frozen out of the international financial and banking systems.
That’s not a joke, or an exaggeration.
We don’t know when the next hearing will be, or even if there will be one. The judges have reserved judgment on the various motions to dismiss for the time being. But given that they are still denying Milone his own choice of lawyer in the case, the entire Vatican legal system seems to be going out of its way to provoke him.
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Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego prompted widespread conversation among Catholics this week, after he published an essay in which he called for a very broad change to the Church’s Eucharistic life.
JD noted in an analysis this morning that the cardinal’s essay also surprised some Catholics, because it seemed to deviate from the stated position of Pope Francis on a central issue of Catholic doctrine.
The essay, published in America Magazine, called for the Church to “embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord, rather than a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the Eucharist.”
In doing so, McElroy argued that Catholics living in sexual relationships which defy the doctrinal teaching of the Church should not be precluded from receiving Holy Communion.
Perhaps just as notably, McElroy also discussed a set of proposed changes to Catholic doctrine in the context of the Church’s synod on synodality — including the proposal, floated in the synod, that the Church ordain women to the priesthood, even though the issue has been declared closed by successive popes, including Francis.
All in all, the cardinal made some controversial interventions on some hotly disputed topics.
Stepping aside from analysis for a moment here, and just giving you my own opinion — it is my newsletter after all — I must confess, I didn’t find McElroy’s America essay easy reading.
The cardinal’s writing style did not, in my personal opinion, lend itself to readability. It came across as a pottage of passive verbiage, seasoned with the vocabulary of “inclusivity vs exclusion.”
As prose, it’s just hard to follow. It left me with the taste of a local government diversity action plan, or corporate HR policy.
And despite the passive voice throughout, the cardinal’s calls for “radical inclusion” also felt aggressive, and oddly selective. While he name-checked more politically fashionable marginalized groups for inclusion, he noticeably excluded any mention of the disabled, who often face real, practical, institutional barriers to inclusion at all levels of parish life.
Similarly, despite the cardinal’s prolix calls for dialogue, and for the Church to move beyond animosity and from “Babel to Pentecost,” he appeared to give in to the temptations of “polarization” himself.
“It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T. communities. The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation.”
In this much, I agree with McElroy.
Yet the cardinal followed this statement by criticizing “the distinction between orientation and activity” in the Church’s pastoral outreach for “dividing the L.G.B.T. community into those who refrain from sexual activity and those who do not.”
According to McElroy, this cuts against a witness to “the dignity of every person as a child of God struggling in this world, and the loving outreach of God.” Put another way, McElory seems to be arguing that in matters of sex, loving the sinner and hating the sin just isn’t possible — in fact it’s homophobic.
Errors of basic fact also detracted from his other points, some of which should be open to legitimate debate. It was jarring to read, for example, that “the barriers to women” in the life of the Church “presently prohibits any layperson from being the administrator of a parish community.”
Lay parish administrators have existed in canon law for decades, and are common practice in many American dioceses (where women often serve in the role). Such administrators are often called “parish life coordinators,” while canonists refer to them as “517-2s,” in reference to the canon (promulgated way back in 1983) which created the option.
But leaving aside the style of Cardinal McElroy’s prose, and a miss on the finer details on some chosen subjects, the substance of his arguments is still worrisome.
No one with a heart for the Church or love for their neighbor would dispute that Christians are called to reach out to, to love, and to make welcome everyone we encounter in our lives, in and out of the Church. But the cardinal’s in-text conflation of marital status and sexual orientation with sexual activity raises a number of concerns.
Perhaps the most subtle of these is the cardinal’s argument that sexual sins aren’t “at the heart” of the Church’s “hierarchy of truths,” and that concern about sinful sex is “disproportionate.”
That line of thinking is equally fashionable among strains of LGBT activists and German bishops, often with the implication, or argument, that sexual activity is a kind of intrinsic act of self-expression and fulfillment.
Of course, that whole approach leads to evaluations of sexual activity only against the metrics of desire and consent.
Those metrics open the door to a host of problems - and abuses - with which the Church and wider society have been left to reckon for decades.
“The exclusion of men and women because of their marital status or their sexual orientation/activity is pre-eminently a pastoral question, not a doctrinal one,” McElroy argued, while going on to define the “exclusion” as primarily evidenced through the Church’s “tradition” that those who are engaged in habitual sexual sins should not receive Communion.
Citing Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital, McElroy said that the Church’s discipline that people in a state of grave sin, including sexual sins, should refrain from receiving Communion is, in effect, discriminatory, because it has “the effect of excluding certain categories of people from full participation in the life of the Church.”
This is, McElroy maintains, “at odds with this pivotal notion that we are all wounded and all equally in need of healing.”
We are, surely, all sinners in need of healing. Though, as every first-year med student could tell you, not every medicine is appropriate for every ailment — improperly administered, some can kill as easily as cure.
The Church’s teaching that contrition and absolution of grave sins must precede reception of Communion is not an act of “exclusion,” but an acknowledgment that to receive the Eucharist in a state of grave sin does further grave spiritual harm to the person in need of healing.
Apart from being at odds with the teaching of the Church, including Pope Francis, McElroy’s call for, essentially, open Communion as “radical inclusion” would appear to put his own preference for gesture above sacramental reality, and above the Church’s historical understanding of spiritual welfare for the very people he seeks to include.
The vision the cardinal offers is of a Church which serves exactly the same thing to everyone, regardless of who they are, whatever their circumstances, whatever they might need, and irrespective of whether it will do them good or harm.
The cardinal’s claim to “radical” pastoral imagination notwithstanding, what he proposes calls to mind not Francis’ field hospital, but a kind of sacramental McDonald’s — at once banal and unhealthy.
It seems to me that pitching the Church’s ministry to attract drive-through business by offering grace served fast and cheap isn’t likely to appeal to anyone, however big a “Welcome” sign you hang over the door.
The cost of doing business
I started up top by discussing our report this week on the allegations against Frank Pavone.
It is a story that we think matters, and it’s the kind of story we are happy to put the hours into reporting — listening to people with sometimes painful stories to tell, talking to sources in dioceses to verify what we can, and pointing to the lessons the Church is still learning about how best to handle complicated and difficult situations.
But not everyone agrees with us. We lost some paying subscribers in the days after we published that story.
In fact, we lost quite a lot of them. Indeed, this was the first story we’ve ever published that saw us immediately lose a lot of paying subscribers.
We didn’t hear from anyone who said the story was insufficiently sourced or reported — after all, we reported that allegations were made, and we obtained a copy of one such report, and then we talked with the person who made it.
But we heard from more than a few people who thought we were “attacking” Pavone, and “persecuting” a man who has been out in front for the pro-life movement in this country for decades.
For us, the account of the woman we spoke to deserved to be heard — especially since we were able to confirm that other complaints were received against Pavone, in more than one diocese - a fact now reported both by us and by other news outlets.
And sure, Pavone has been a loud voice against abortion on the national stage. He’s also been a highly controversial figure, and his laicization by the Vatican last year generated a lot of intense coverage and speculation — and a lot of people claimed he was being targeted by the Church for his pro-life work.
In that context, too, our story this week seems like news to us.
I guess what I am saying is this: If you’re one of the people who canceled their subscription this week, and you did it because we ran a story you didn’t like about a public figure you do like — that’s fine with us.
When we launched The Pillar two years ago, we did it because we wanted to report the news without fear or favor, and in a way “which looks for the truth above all else, without getting bogged down in partisan agendas.”
That can make some people uncomfortable, even angry. I get it.
But it makes me sad that the default expectation for so much media is that they pick a side, fight the corner, and not look too hard at the stories which don’t help the cause — whatever side, fight or cause it may be. If that’s what you’re looking for, we definitely aren’t it.
We cover the stories we think matter. We think that transparency, honesty, good governance, and accountability matter, and that they are all good for the causes and institutions we care most about, most especially our mother, the Church.
And we think — we certainly hope — that our work is a positive contribution to our Catholic society.
If you want to send your money somewhere else as a result, you’ve got plenty of options and there’s no hard feelings.
We accept that with some stories losing subscribers, and taking a financial hit, is the cost of doing business, of doing journalism the way we have set out to do it. If we wanted to do it another way, like I said, there are plenty of options out there.
But here’s another important thing: we also hear from people who think good governance matters, and so does good reporting. The people who have helped us build The Pillar, and who will help keep it going, are those of you who think those things. And we are grateful to hear from you.
It means a lot to us that people with difficult and painful stories have the confidence in our work, and how we do it, to talk with us.
And that depends on the community of subscribers who have had the wisdom to buy into this project — people who see the benefit, the need for journalism in the Church that doesn’t have a blind eye to the left or the right, or however you want to put it. Because journalism that only looks hard at “the other team” isn’t journalism at all.
We don’t look away from stories that make us, or anyone else uncomfortable, even if it hits our bottom line from time to time. That’s the deal we made with you when we started, and we’re going to keep it.
And, if you’ve been thinking about joining the team, well this would be a great week to do it — we could use the support right now.
See you next week,