Biden meets the pope, the knights’ gambit, and coming soon...

The Friday Pillar Post

Happy Friday friends,

A word of explanation before we get going: This newsletter is a little longer than it’s been recently, and a little punchier, too.

After three weeks of mawkish notes on new fatherhood, it’s about time I get back to my fighting weight around here. 

So with that said, the news:

Quick links 

It’s the Feast of All Saints this weekend, which means, of course, that Halloween stuff will be at full volume.

The Pillar’s Michelle McDaniel talked about Halloween, hauntings, and ghosts with a professor of theology, who has done some serious thinking about what happens after we die.

Are hauntings real? Should Christians celebrate Halloween? Read it here.

Share, but in a SPOOKY way

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The Diocese of Cleveland said Tuesday it will reopen its investigation into allegations of harassment and sexual coercion, made by several former seminarians against a diocesan priest. 

The allegations involve the priest allegedly giving the seminarians alcohol and telling them to be “naked before God” while encouraging them to go skinny-dipping with him. In some cases, he allegedly took photos. 

The diocese is reopening the investigation “in light of several disparities between the account offered in The Pillar’s original article and the evidence provided to the diocese during its investigation” by the seminarians themselves.

The seminarians told us they couldn’t have been clearer about what happened with the diocese. 

Read the whole thing.

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The attorney general of Wisconsin issued an update this week on his investigation into clerical sexul abuse in the state; it’s one of 13 state investigations currently open.

This one is different because the biggest diocese in the state is pushing back, rather directly. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has called the process “not an investigation that incidentally targets the Catholic Church, it is an investigation that targets the Catholic Church.” 

Their emphasis, not mine.

The whole thing raises some interesting questions. Read it all here.

Taiwan is back in the news: Last week I wrote a piece looking at the Holy See’s diplomatic relations with the island nation, pressure from China about that, and what might happen if China were to invade Taiwan.

The Taiwanese foreign ministry announced this week that all diplomatic lines with the Vatican are “smooth and open,” after reports that China was, you guessed it, pressuring the Vatican over its diplomatic links to Taipei. 

Read all about it here.

Coincidentally, this week another Chinese bishop disappeared — bundled away by government agents for a compulsory “vacation.” 

This is not the first time Bishop Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou has been given an invitation he can’t refuse; he’s been repeatedly disappeared for weeks and months at a time to “re-educate” him about the benefits of taking the oath of allegiance necessary for recognition by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. 

A handful of bishops in China have refused to take the oath, noting that it involves pledging loyalty to the Chinese state and acknowledging Communist Party doctrine as above Church authority. The Vatican’s advice to them has been, in effect, to cross their fingers and take the oath anyway. 

If they absolutely cannot bring themselves to make that kind of equivocating mental reservation, well, the Secretariat of State “understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions.” 

In those cases, “the Holy See remains close to them and asks the Lord to help them to safeguard the communion with their brothers and sisters in the faith, even in the face of those trials that each one will have to face.” 

No doubt the Holy See “remains close” to Bishop Shao as he faces those trials, again. 

I pray the Lord remains close to him.

You can read the whole thing here.

Roll cameras (out)

Today President Joe Biden arrived in the Vatican for his private audience with Pope Francis. By all accounts, the two stayed in conversation for over an hour. 

You can be sure there will be some very serious-minded commentary explaining exactly how many minutes Biden had with Francis, especially compared to previous presidents, and probably breaking down the exact significance of each additional minute Biden stayed in there. 

My advice is to treat that stuff as the nonsense it is. We don’t know, and we never will know, what exactly went on behind closed doors. In fact, we know less than usual, because yesterday the Vatican press office did something interesting and unexpected — and that doesn’t happen very often.

Announcing the details for Biden’s visit, the Sala stampa said that live cameras and reporters would not be allowed in the room to witness the opening pleasantries, exchange of gifts, and smile-and-wave moments before the pope and president sat down to talk. 

This is contrary to custom.

So why the change? We don’t know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate to entertain ourselves.

It’s possible there was concern President Biden would immediately kneel before the pope, kiss the fisherman’s ring, and pledge his unquestioning obedience, validating every Masonic conspiracy theory and integralist fantasy about popes and Catholic presidents. 

It’s unlikely, but it is possible.

Perhaps Pope Francis, who has had in recent weeks some strong words about abortion, intended to wag the papal finger and twist the presidential ear about his policies, but, as a matter of pastoral concern, had no intention of shaming Biden before the cameras. 

Again, that’s possible, I suppose.

But, really, I suspect the press office was aware of the freighted significance of the papal audience and did not want to open the door, even a crack, to allowing the pope to be used as a prop for the president - footage of Biden’s previous Vatican visits had a habit of making its way into his campaign ads.

Or maybe the Vatican press office simply didn’t trust the vulgar circus of the White House press pool not to behave like boors, shoving for position and shouting a bunch of impertinent questions, probably while chewing gum inside the Apostolic Palace! That stuff flies fine in the cultural cow town of Washington, but it lacks the kind of quiet dignity they prefer in the Palazzo Apostolico. 

If that’s the reason, I get it. And let’s be honest, what are we really missing? The world’s media are perfectly capable of over-interpreting circulated pool photos to prove their editorial biases.

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Knights’ gambit

We had two stories on the ongoing reform of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta this week. There’s a lot of detail to the stories, and a lot of background, but it’s fascinating stuff. 

Pope Francis granted on Monday sweeping powers to his cardinal delegate, essentially authorizing him to act with full and direct papal authority to convene an extraordinary general chapter, ratify a new constitution, reconstitute the sovereign council, and elect a new Grand Master — and set the terms for all of those events. 

You can read about that here.

Later in the week, we reported on why the pope took such an extraordinary step. It seems the decision was for some pretty unexpected reasons, actually. You can read that story here.

In the meantime, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi now has the power to govern the knights day-to-day, essentially a papal viceroy over the order, which in international law is every bit as sovereign as the Holy See.

The pope’s decision to grant Tomasi that power is a huge intervention in the internal governance of the knights. Some told us it constitutes the “nuclear option” — and that it came to break a stalemate over a constitutional revision process that has been rumbling on since 2016, and has now seen the abdication of one Grand Master, the death of a second, and a failure to elect a third.

We’ve been asked a few times this week, purely as a legal matter, if the pope can intervene like this. What does “sovereignty” mean for the Order of Malta?

Well, it’s complicated. But let’s walk through it:

On the one hand, the order is a Catholic religious order. First-class knights make vows of obedience, and second class knights make promises of obedience. Given those vows and promises, its members owe the pope religious obedience.

But popes have legally agreed not to exercise their authority over the order, at least as it touches their internal governance. That agreement, expressed by ratification of the order’s current constitution, is a big part of why the order can claim to be sovereign.

The Order of Malta’s constitution actually says that while it is a religious order, “the religious nature of the Order does not prejudice the exercise of sovereign prerogatives pertaining to the Order in so far as it is recognized by States as a subject of international law.” 

And “religious members through their vows, as well as members of the Second Class through the Promise of Obedience, are only subject to their appropriate Superiors in the Order.” [Emphasis mine.]

A lawyer might read all this and conclude that the pope simply doesn’t have the authority to — for example —  compel the resignation of the Grand Master under religious obedience, or appoint a special representative with the power to exercise full governance over the order. 

But that’s not quite right: the Holy See’s religious authority still exists over the order, but the two parties have agreed through a series of legal acts that it won’t be used. Now it seems they’ve agreed, at least tacitly, that papal authority will be used. 

Whether that’s a great idea in the context of international law and diplomacy is a separate question, maybe for next week.

Coming soon

At The Pillar, our longform data-driven work is some of my favorite stuff. It’s the kind of thing we believe needs to be done because the Church has the answer to the problems we face as a society, and the answer is Christ. But understanding how to deliver that answer requires understanding what the problems are, and, as our contributing editor Brendan Hodge put it — we do have a problem.

We have another big round of this demographic and data work coming in a few weeks, including the results of a sizable poll we recently commissioned, so stay tuned.

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Give me justice, give me strength

The cheating, dirtbag Houston Astr*s are back in the World Series, which isn’t great. 

No one who loves the game of baseball, or who has any sense of natural justice, will appreciate seeing the same core of players return to the championship who cheated and trash-can-banged their way to infamy in 2017. 

Especially when they have suffered zero (0) consequences for their actions and demonstrated zero (0) remorse for what they did.

This matters, or should matter. Baseball used to be a kind of secular school of virtue, a place where kids — even me — learned what it meant to be on a team, to play hard, to strike out more often than not, and to do so with grace. 

At its best, baseball teaches, in a way no other sport does, that it really is about how you play the game. Now, of course, the hucksters at MLB HQ are doing everything they can to stamp out this kind of crazy thinking through absurdist rule changes like the universal DH and starting runners on base in extra innings.

The current commissioner’s tenure has been marked by a carnival barker’s zeal for novelty dumb ideas. So much so that when a reader advised me today that the anemic, ever wheedling crybabies at PETA are demanding we stop calling it the “bullpen” because that hurts cows’ feelings or something — give me strength — I just assumed Rob Manfred was already on board.

Getting back to the Astr*s, last year, before Covid effectively cancelled the season as a meaningful event, I openly championed deploying baseball’s ius commune to administer some tough love to Altuve, Correa, and friends by throwing change-ups into their numbers until they said sorry. 

You can read that argument here, I haven’t changed my mind. 

Before the season began last year, the league intervened to protect the Astr*s’ players, threatening to punish opposing pitchers with a severity they never dreamed of applying to the actual cheaters. 

One year on, there’s been no justice for, and no apologies from Houston. Go figure. And go Braves.

See you next week. 

Ed. Condon

editor

The Pillar