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Called to Rome, called to communion, and call off the doctors

Happy Friday friends,

After the virtual jamboree of the bishops’ conference meeting, I had the distinct pleasure of having JD in my house for most of this week. Apart from his ungodly consumption of Coke Zero and White Claw, he was a delight.

JD Flynn was here.

The reason JD was in town is because we have a couple of long-term investigative projects we needed to move along. It’s something we have to do every month and a half, or so, and it’s the kind of break from the daily news cycle which is both gift and necessity for us here at The Pillar.

When we started this project —  not so long ago, believe it or not —  it was to make space for doing the long-lead, deep-dive stuff we think is essential for producing journalism that goes beyond a single Twitter cycle. 

It matters to us that we’re able to do that. To those of you who have subscribed and are helping us make this project work: sincerely, thank you. If you’re new around here, please consider joining us.

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But just because we took a few days to work on the big picture stuff doesn’t mean the world stopped turning.

Quick Links

On Tuesday, the Holy See registered its formal diplomatic concern over a new anti-discrimination bill making its way through the Italian parliment. The bill, which would criminalize forms of “homophobic” and “transphobic” speech, could affect the freedoms of the Church and Catholic organizations protected under treaties between the Italian republic and the Holy See, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State warned.

JD and I looked at the likely fallout of this highly unusual diplomatic intervention, and how it will be seen to reflect on Pope Francis. You can read the whole thing here.


Back in March, the Secretariat of State announced that priests would no longer be allowed to celebrate private Masses on the side altars of St. Peter’s Basilica. The move was not well received; many lamented the lost opportunity to say a special Mass for the thousands of pilgrim groups that come through the mother church of the West each year. Some also interpreted the move as part of a move to reinforce liturgical preferences for concelebration over the individual celebration of the  Mass.

On Tuesday, the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, issued a letter loosening the restrictions, at least a little. He also made specific reference to the use of the Tridentine Mass, saying that “everything possible must be done” to accommodate those who would like to attend and celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form according to the norms of Summorum pontificum.

With many people watching for a much-rumored-but-little-evidenced crackdown on the Extraordinary Form and a revision of Summorum, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

An unexpected trend to emerge from the pandemic has been the rise in popularity of unconventional burial practices.

 More and more people are looking at coral reefs, human composting, and even arranging for their mortal remains to be launched into space instead of a traditional burial. 

Mary Farrow took a look at the rise of these unorthodox options, and talked to some experts about what the faith has to say about our final resting place, and asked them if our global brush with death is a new teaching moment for the Church.

Also this week, Brendan Hodge looked over the calls for unity among the bishops which have followed last week’s debates at the USCCB meeting, especially over the reception of Communion. 

In particular, Brendan wonders if an effort to forge a compromise between bishops could end up breaking bad for all sides. The risk, he says, is that a kind of ‘detente’ between the two camps “will not prove enough to accommodate cultural Catholics who reject aspects of the Church’s sexual and medical morality, even while it alienates more fervently practicing Catholics who expect clear teaching from their bishops.”

It’s a very interesting analysis, read the whole thing here.


Cardinal Cupich goes to Rome

Yesterday, the Vatican press officially announced that Pope Francis has asked Cardinal Blase Cupich to lead a visitation of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The cardinal will begin his work in the next few days and juggle it with his ongoing responsibilities in Chicago. 

Over the last few months, Francis has made it a newly normal practice to hold these on-site inspections of curial departments, which seem to be part of an ongoing curial evaluation ahead of a new Vatican governing constitution later this year. 

Earlier this year, there was a visitation of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and reviews are currently underway of the Congregation for Clergy and the Diocese of Rome. In the case of CDW and Clergy, the visitations came immediately before or after a change of leadership at the departments — though it's worth noting that in neither case was the bishop leading the visitation given a permanent appointment. At least, not yet.

Called to communion

In the fallout from last week, there has been a lot of discussion, informed and otherwise, about what it is to be a “practicing” or “devout” Catholic. Quite a lot of it has been… well let’s say it has been imprecise. 

Communion with the Church comes by three distinct realities: unity by faith, by sacraments, and by governance. While these are each distinct, they are also interrelated. And none of them are optional. 

Looking across the American Catholic landscape, it seems clear that on both extremes of the ecclesiastical spectrum, some Catholics have decided this essential communion is a best-two-out-of-three proposition. 


Much of the discussion over the last week has, rightly, focused on the moral and logical contradiction of the 60-some Democratic Members of Congress who signed an open letter asserting, in effect, that they were all committed Catholics, despite rejecting the Church’s teaching on the immorality of the taking of innocent human life in the womb — one of what Cardinal Lardaria called “non-negotiable ethical principles” in his letter to Archbishop Gomez last month.

For many Catholics of a more secular-progressive bent, the Church is a cultural institution which still has potency and value. They want to come to Communion on Sunday, perhaps marry in a church, and see their children be baptized. They also affirm, sometimes fiercely, the Church’s teaching on social justice and willingly (if selectively) quote Pope Francis. But on matters of moral teaching or other areas of belief (on the nature of marriage, for example), they vocally part company with the Church, even as they affirm their membership of it.

On the other side of the aisle, we have seen the rise of self-styled guardians of the faith, often with their own YouTube channels and GoFundMe pages. They trade on their rigorous adherence to Church doctrine, especially on moral matters, and offer a message of enticing clarity at a time when many criticize their own pastors for mincing words and equivocating on controversial subjects.

But paradoxically, while pledging their unswerving loyalty to the teachings of the Church, these same internet apologists often seem eager to prove their orthodoxy (and solicit donations, of course) by denouncing the legitimate governance of the hierarchy —  from Pope Francis down to their own local bishops.

What both sides have left in common are the sacraments, which still form the backbone of their weekly practice of the faith. As the divide between them deepens, building a bridge between them will become a major priority for the bishops. But, to be fruitful, any discussion will have to frankly acknowledge that neither side can be expected to feign, let alone forge, communion with each other when they are jeopardizing communion with the Church itself.

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Strong medicine

Around Washington, we seem to have entered an uncomfortable and lingering twilight for the pandemic. Masks are now technically optional in most places, but, at least near me, social norms remain in flux. While the ballpark is back to normal, you’re unlikely to see a smile returned in the liquor store, still less the local tie-dyed organic supermarket (yes, yes, I know; it was close and I was in a hurry).

For example, when JD was visiting, he asked in that same grocery store, let’s call it AYE! Organic Market, whether masks were still required. Told no, he didn’t wear one. Whatever the rule was, he got his fair share of dirty looks from fellow shoppers, which, perhaps owing to his fascination with the place’s inflated prices, he didn’t seem to notice. 

One thing which might help dial back our cultural censoriousness, and which I hope we can eventually look forward to, is the disappearance of doctors from our newspapers and television screens as the omnipresent, wheedling oracles of right and virtuous conduct. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, at the height of a global pandemic we collectively needed to hear from doctors, as any of us would individually if we had a singular health crisis. But I worry that our mass brush with mortality has turned doctors into the clergy of our secular culture in which health is increasingly mistaken for virtue. It’s become all too easy in some places to mistake perceived “unhealthy” behavior for sin, and healthy living as an implied promise of eternal life. 

I suppose I should declare an interest here. I don’t take well to being tutted in the street for sneaking a cigarette before going into a restaurant, and my last visit to the doctor was a tense affair. He was of the view that I have candle wax running through my veins and “barbecuing” does not qualify as “exercise.” I was strongly persuaded by a paper I half-remembered reading several years ago which seemed to suggest nicotine helps break down cholesterol, and considered my doctor’s response to that argument emotional, and not based in science. 

We’re both men of strong opinions, I suppose.

But the point is, pandemics to one side, a society which looks to doctors for salvation is buying time, at best — in the end, patient mortality is always 100%. Confronting the reality of death is not a light matter, and we all have to do it. 

The Church does have an answer to the final fear and doubt we all must face, one that medicine can work to forestall but not avoid forever. But the Church’s answer is not an easy one to announce. 

St. Paul was laughed out of Athens for preaching that a man had come back from the dead, and if we do it with sincerity we should expect no less today. But that is what the world needs, and it is what our baptism demands of us. And, in the Church — sacraments, belief, and hierarchy —  we have what we need to sustain us along the way.

See you next week, and take your medicine,

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

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