Competing realities, and what 2022 will bring
The Tuesday Pillar Post
Happy New Year, and welcome to The Tuesday Pillar Post.
Today, as it happens, is also the one-year anniversary of The Pillar’s launch. More about that later. More, too, about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose feast we celebrate today.
But before the news, one quick update: We told you frequently last month that we would send $10 to Aid to the Church in Need for every new paying subscriber to The Pillar in the month of December.
Well, we have to add up the tally for the final days, but, because of you, we’ve already sent $2700 to Aid to the Church in Need — money that priests living in the developing world will use to support themselves, and their communities. And those priests will be offering Mass for you, for your intentions, and for the holiness of the Church. So thanks for being a part of that with us. We’re grateful.
We took the Christmas octave (mostly) as a holiday, and we’re working our way back into some serious news coverage this week - so stay tuned.
But if you want to see the big picture of U.S. Catholic news in 2022, here are the storylines worth paying attention to.
Now, before you say anything, this is a U.S.-centric list, and by design. We’ll take a more global perspective later in the week. But for now, these are some of the U.S. stories we’ll be watching closely at the The Pillar in the months to come, including this one:
It is clear already that bishops are not all on the same page about some elements of their planned “Eucharistic revival” project, and there is no obvious front-runner for the USCCB’s presidency either, which will be voted upon in November. Moreover, budget projections suggest the USCCB itself will probably have to make some cuts in the next year, and the U.S. bishops and the Vatican have not yet resolved questions about the “spirituality year” and the future of American seminary formation. Plus, the Biden Administration is planning to make some moves that will be met with frustration by many at the USCCB.
In short, if bishops are inclined towards fighting in 2022, there is a lot to fight about.
But after the November USCCB meeting, some bishops told The Pillar that the bishops’ conference may have landed upon a new way forward — that with more executive sessions on the calendar, and more scheduled time for prayer, the bishops might be poised to work out differences with less grandstanding, and more discernment.
That would be a sea change for the USCCB, if it happens.
A new memo has emerged in the sprawling Vatican financial crimes trial — one which suggests that the prosecution’s star witness, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, might have been the driving force for a lot of problematic decisions made in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
We report about that here. And, just fyi, we suggested some months ago that Perlasca - who has testified against his former bosses in the Vatican - might soon face some rebuttals from them, in a bid to discredit testimony critical to prospect of convicting any officials of wrongdoing.
In the days following Christmas, there was a bit of a row on social media, as video surfaced of a rather freewheeling Eucharistic prayer during the Christmas Eve Mass offered at St. Sabina Parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Why — some asked online and in the Catholic press — has the Extraordinary Form of the Mass been restricted in the Chicago archdiocese, while St. Sabina’s is permitted to deviate, rather significantly, from the rubrics of the Mass?
Ed offered yesterday a serious assessment of that question, and explained that “as other bishops wrestle with Rome’s latest guidance on how to implement Traditiones custodes, they might well take a leaf out of Cupich’s book.”
‘History has its eyes on you’
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a uniquely American saint — the first person born in the territory of the United States to be canonized a saint. And living in Revolutionary War-era New York City, Elizabeth Seton rubbed elbows with other influential members of early American society - including an American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton.
Back in March, we wrote about Elizabeth Ann Seton’s friendship with the Ten Dollar Founding Father. Today, on her feast day, read all about it.
Competing realities, ecclesial division, and ecclesial renewal
While we made an effort in our coverage this week to make mention of the 2022 stories worth watching in the U.S. Church, there is one storyline we didn’t mention, but which is worth understanding: The way in which fracturing in American social structures over the past two years has accelerated and exacerbated fracturing and division in American ecclesial culture, which was already being remade by shifts in the Church’s theological and intellectual landscape.
The old cliche says that history is written by the victors. Right or wrong, we’ve learned in the past two years that before history can be written, there is sometimes a period in which wildly divergent narratives compete to account for even the most basic sequences of events.
If there are “two Americas,” there are also at least two versions of recent history.
Consider that two days from now is January 6, the anniversary of events at the U.S. Capitol that are known to near every American, but are subject to mutually exclusive interpretations and re-tellings at both the highest levels of government and family dinner tables.
And now in the 22nd month since parishes, schools, and offices began closing over Covid-19, we are more divided over what the virus is, and how we should respond, than we have been at perhaps any other point in the last two years.
Many of us, no matter our own perspectives on things, have seen our families, or workplaces, or parishes gradually divided by viewpoints which began in mere disagreement, but eventually became fundamentally opposed accounts of reality itself.
It does not seem to me that situation is easily or amicably resolved.
And the Church has not been spared that division.
There have always been left-right divides in the Church in America — it is wholly unrealistic to talk about “polarization” in the Church as if it were an original idea. But the kind of fracturing we’re experiencing now has the effect of dividing Catholics into increasingly smaller subgroups, ghettos, and niches.
In the Catholic media, the fragmentation can be seen like this: “Progressive” Catholic media has become split in recent years over Pope Francis, in a certain sense. A growing number of “progressive” media figures lament that Francis has not met their expectations, which would have required making changes to the Church’s doctrine on issues related to sexuality, gender identity, and deconstruction of the Church’s traditional authority structures. Other media outlets seem content to avoid engaging seriously on those questions, focusing their energies on criticism, sometimes legitimate and sometimes cartoonish, of “conservative Catholicism.”
At the same time, “conservative” discontentment with the Francis papacy has fueled the rise of pontificating YouTube figures, who purport to be uniquely trustworthy guardians of orthodoxy even as they attack the foundational obligations of ecclesial communion, and a rise in popularity of sensationalized tabloid “Catholic journalism.”
The popularity of YouTube provocateurs and Catholic tabloids has had the predictable effect of moving Catholic media outlets that might have once been described as “New Evangelization Catholicism” far to the right — promoting figures, for example, questioning whether the Second Vatican Council might be “corrected” or see its decrees rescinded — both for fear of losing the audience attracted to the swirling whirlwind of the tabloid universe, and because agenda-setting major donors and media celebrities are attracted to the Catholicism on offer in that ecosystem.
Those shifts have led to something like competing accounts of ecclesial realities, with markedly different spins on what’s actually happening in the life of the Church. That makes it hard to know who to trust— and what to believe. And that experience fosters a kind of disaffected alienation, a kind of existential uncertainty.
And when some new story crops up — when a video circulates, for example, of a priest warning about the rise of a one-world government amid the pandemic, it becomes a kind of revelatory moment, in which Catholics discover that friends with whom they ordinarily get along have very different conceptions of the reality around us. That experience is jarring.
Now, perhaps the politics of the Catholic media landscape are indicative of very little outside themselves, and that account is somewhat self-referential.
But the sensationalized Catholic voices have growing audiences of practicing, faithful Catholics who are looking for answers, in the face of disaffection and competing realities.
And playing into broad cultural division over issues like the 2020 election and the coronavirus pandemic has helped to build those audiences, and to accelerate more fragmentation among practicing Catholics. Fragmentation is profitable, as is demonization of an “other” — which is why Catholic voices with competing takes on what’s happened over the last two years are so willing to absolutize and entrench themselves in their positions.
Certainty sells. And the tribalistic fragmentation of Catholics is well beyond the scope of what I might have expected just a few years ago.
My own experience — in the parish, among my own friends, in conversation with priests across the country — tells me that isn’t just something happening in Catholic media or among Catholic intellectuals.
It’s happening among ordinary practicing Catholics, who are seeing friendship quietly cool, or completely fall apart, after conversations about vaccine mandates, or Vigano, or whether the parish should still be requiring masks. Or who are avoiding people who disagree with them, because they’re tired of a polemicized and politicized everything.
Division foments loneliness, and ultimately, despair.
But it persists.
In 2018, the ill-fated American Catholic Herald, a magazine idea that didn’t last very long at all, ran a cartoon depicting “six … tribes fighting for control of the American Church.”
Today, just four years later, it would be more accurate to speak of a dozen or 15 “tribes,” each of them with wildly different accounts of reality, each of them with different perspectives both on what should happen, and on what has happened.
How does all that get resolved? I’m not sure. It is my intuition that most practicing Catholics would prefer to be unified than to be divided — but when I peak in at the fiercely held opinions at nearby parish school meetings, or filter through the emails sent to The Pillar, I’m not sure how it will happen.
One idea is religious renewal. It seems to me that projects like the USCCB’s Eucharistic revival initiative might have the effect of refocusing American Catholics — away from the noise of ugly political battles waged over competing accounts of the truth, and toward the person who is the Truth. And the Way. And the Life.
But what exactly will happen? Well, that’s why I said this is a storyline worth paying attention to. Because I don’t know, and neither do you. It’s a storyline that many of have been affected by. And at The Pillar, we’ll keep watching, keep asking questions, and keep reporting to you what we’ve seen.
The NY Times ran a blockbuster story this weekend about how frequently prenatal tests are wrong about rare genetic conditions, and how often their marketing and framing is misleading to pregnant women.
There is a lot in that story to unpack and understand, and much of it is sobering. But I’m struck most of all by a kind of underlying presumption throughout most of the story — that it’s a shame prenatal testing is often wrong, because that leads to abortions undergone over false premises. But there’s a kind of baked-in presumption there — an assumption that a correct diagnosis of serious genetic conditions will lead to abortion.
That’s a sad presumption. A tragic one. Of course, many people who have prenatal tests do so to be prepared to welcome their baby, and they should get accurate information. But the tone of the NY Times story suggests a reality: that many, many people would choose abortion as a default in the case of a serious genetic condition — and the statistics bear that out.
I have friends who lost a son on Friday. Their son, who was nine, had a very serious and rare condition that left him disabled for his entire life. They’d tell you that the sufferings of mourning, and the daily sacrifices that came with raising a son with serious disabilities, were worth the experience of sharing in the Father’s love — the experience of love that comes with being in a family.
Of course, we need better social and policy supports for people with disabilities and their families. Of course, we all need to share in the work of raising and loving people with disabilities. Of course, the Church has work to do on this front.
But people who know the experience of knowing and loving people with disabilities — including very serious and demanding disabilities — will tell you that experience points to the real and enduring meaning of our humanity — most especially the kind of self-sacrificing love for which each of us is made.
If you would, pray for my friends as they mourn, and for the soul of their son, Michael Patrick.
As I mentioned earlier, we launched The Pillar one year ago today. I am immensely proud of what we’ve done in the year since we began this project, and I am deeply grateful for the Lord’s Providence, and for our readers and subscribers.
We have some cool things coming down the pike this year. We won’t unfurl them all with a big splash, but we definitely have projects in the works we’ll be excited to share with you. And mostly, we’ll keep doing our best to report on the life of the Church in a way that is fair, and honest, and, when necessary, is courageous.
So keep reading.
And please be assured that we keep praying for you. Keep praying for us — we need it.
Yours in Christ,