Skip to content

Canon law, Christmas trees, and cultural appropriation

Happy Friday friends,

It’s Gaudete Sunday this weekend. The importance of this day often gets lost under the endless, rather fussy clerical protestations that they are wearing rose — ‘ROSE, NOT PINK’ — colored vestments.

The third Sunday of Advent marks the turning of our seasonal focus from Christ’s eventual coming in glory to his nearness in the coming feast of Christmas. It also marks a break in the middle of a season meant to be penitential in the mind of the Church— a few weeks of fasting and abstinence. 

Some of our Eastern brethren have been fasting for weeks, they being better Christians than I am.

But however you have been keeping Advent, and however ready you feel to welcome the Lord who is close at hand, the Church gives us a simple imperative this weekend — Rejoice.

I hope you get down to it. In the meantime, here’s the news


Quick links

Pope Francis made serious changes the the Church’s canon law on clerical sexual abuse this week. On Tuesday, the day before a new universal penal code for the Church came into force, he issued changes to Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, the special law which deals with the canonical “major crimes” against the faith and sacraments.

— Just before we go any further, something we get asked to clarify a lot: Yes, priests are obliged to maintain perfect and perpetual continence, so any sexual contact with anyone is sinful, and gravely so. But, at least since the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, only the most serious cases are constituted as crimes. In canon law, every crime is a sin, but not every sin is a crime. —

Back to Francis’ changes: From now on, ignorance and error about the victim’s age cannot be used as a mitigating canonical defense in cases of clerical abuse of minors. More than a few cases in recent years, especially given the rise of online hookup and dating sites, have seen clerics become involved with a minor they thought, or at least claim they thought, was over 18. 

In some cases, these clerics have escaped civil prosecution because, they argued, they were sincerely led to believe they were dealing with an adult. The pope’s canonical change places the Church ahead of the civil law on an issue that could become more prevalent, not less, in years to come. 

Read the whole thing here.

If you hang around Catholic education in this country long enough, you will eventually hear about the so-called “stewardship model.” 

The model, most famously used in the Diocese of Wichita, is often held up as the exemplar of how parish and diocesan funding should work: Catholics are encouraged to commit to tithing their income, and donating a portion of their time and labor to support the Church. The reverse of the coin is that, for parishioners, Catholic schools are free. Wichita says their schools are full and, if not overfunded, at least they have what they need. 

But does the stewardship model actually work, and what are the trade-offs? Caitlen Bootsma did some reporting on “stewardship” this week. 

It is very interesting, read all about it here.

We write a lot about the Vatican financial scandal here at The Pillar. In fact, I am willing to say we have the best, most informed, in-depth, and original coverage of that particular curial soap opera of any media outlet in the world. 

We’ve been at this for years, and we — ok fine, I — love rolling in the complicated details, because that’s where things really start to make sense in all of this. But it is not easy keeping everything straight: I have a wall-sized whiteboard in my office that wouldn’t be out of place in a 90s conspiracy flick. 

If it’s hard to keep the rogues’ gallery of shifty players and what they have been up to clear in our minds as we write about it, it’s even harder to read along and stay on top of all the coverage — harder still if you’re trying to jump into things in the middle.

So, this week, we published our 'What-the-heck-is-the-Vatican-finance-trial-even-about?' timeline. It’s the 30,000 feet overview of who-is-who and who-did-what-when you’ve been looking for. 

If you’re looking to get caught up before the trial resumes in the Vatican this week, this is your chance.

Read it, understand it, love it.

Subscribe now

Pope Francis named Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong this week as the new leader of the Archdiocese of Xalapa, Mexico. Believe it or not, the move could have serious implications for seminary formation here in the United States.

The USCCB has been, for years now, locked in an… exchange of views with the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy about the sixth edition of the U.S. bishops’ Program for Priestly Formation — which governs the way seminaries do their thing. 

A key point of difference is how to implement Rome’s requirement for a “propaedeutic” year of formation to precede academic studies — a year of prayer, technology detox, and quiet. 

The nutshell version is: While some U.S. dioceses have embraced the idea, the conference has pushed back, and wants to see a lot more room for flexibility in how the idea is actually implemented.

Until this week, Archbishop Wong was the congregation’s secretary for seminaries, in charge of riding herd on the whole discussion. 

In a closed-door session in Baltimore last month, the U.S. bishops discussed Rome’s revisions to their PPF and, over the objections of some of the conference leadership, the body of bishops agreed to go along with the Vatican. 

In an analysis this week, I asked: Will Wong’s departure trigger a new round of back-and-forth between the USCCB and Rome? Read all about it here.

Last week, we announced a new regular feature here at The Pillar: Theologian Charlie Camosy of Fordham is now bringing you a regular series of Friday conversations with interesting people about interesting things.

This week, he spoke to Dr. Matthew Levering, professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. His new book, “The Abuse of Conscience,” traces trends in moral theology during the 20th century, and argues against Catholic ethical frameworks centered on the conscience.

This is the real stuff, guys. It’s fascinating and I learned a lot. Read the whole thing.


Deck them halls

I have been looking forward to breaking out the Christmas decorations this year, despite the inevitable fight it occasions with my wife about how to rearrange the living room to accommodate them.

We’ve both always been big into holiday decorating. At first, like any newly married couple, we were excited to acquire the festive kitsch which would become part of our new family’s seasonal memories, adding to the collection year by year. Later, it was just a thing we did together, and we do it damn well, I don’t mind telling you.

But, I’m not going to lie, the enthusiasm had lessened in recent years: Seeing your favorite childhood ornaments on the tree becomes a little bittersweet when you’ve started to believe that you won’t have kids of your own to hand them on to.

But this year, after nearly fifteen years of waiting, we have our daughter with us. She’s brought the nostalgia factor roaring back to the Condon Christmas. 

Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Just get over it.

Our tree went up last night — I always get it midweek and late at night to avoid the crowds. This year, the plan worked like a treat: the place was empty apart from a hipster couple agonizing over some paltry little three-footers as they discussed boba tea and cultural appropriation (I’m just guessing). 

Speaking of cultural appropriation, it’s also the time of year when tedious amateur atheists pipe up all over the place to whine “akshually, Christmas trees are appropriated pagan symbols, it’s nothing to do with Christmas at all, so there.

Other internet experts like to make much of the fact that, for all its Dickensian nostalgia, Christmas trees came into the Anglosphere thanks to Albert, royal consort to Queen Victoria. 

Now, I’m not here to defend Prince Albert — or any of his many mad ideas, but let’s just get some things clear: Christmas trees are not pagan, and they are not German. They are English, and Christian.

Subscribe now

I can google as well as the next person. And you don’t have to actually work very hard to find out that the real story of the first Christmas tree dates back — so far as I can tell — to the eighth century.

Legend has it that St. Boniface, an Englishman born in the blessed county of Devon and sent to evangelize the barbarian hordes of northern Germany, heard tell of a mighty oak tree in the area of Hesse. The locals revered it as a kind of living altar to Thor, whom they honored with sacrifices. 

Boniface wasn’t having any of that on his turf.

The saint arrived in the town on Christmas Eve (at least according to some versions of the story), seized an axe, and proceeded to chop down the supposedly divinely protected tree. 

St. Boniface felling Donar’s Oak, Bernhard Rode, 1781.

When Thor’s hammer failed to fall on the saint, the locals found themselves suddenly open to new ideas about God. Legend has it that Boniface catechized them on the spot, pointing to a small evergreen fir tree behind the fallen oak as sign of eternal life, rather like St. Patrick is supposed to have used the shamrock to talk about the Trinity.

Now, maybe this is all just legend. But as far as I can tell, it stands up as well as any of the other nonsense I have read about the supposed pagan origins of cutting down trees at Christmas. So the next time someone starts in about the “pagan” origins of Christmas, grab your axe (for trees, for trees) and set them straight.

And just a final reminder, this Advent we are giving $10 of every new subscription to The Pillar to Aid to the Church in Need to support priests in countries where they are living in poverty and persecution.

If you haven't done your Christmas shopping yet, consider how much your pastor, religious sisters, or favorite seminarian would love the gift of The Pillar in their inbox.

Give a gift subscription

See you next week, and rejoice — the Lord is extremely nigh.

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

Subscribe now

Comments 4