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Diving Deep: Coups, Catholic schools, and Quebecoise

Happy Friday Friends,

It was another week on the road for me. I’ve never been much of one for travel, but it is, I suppose, good for the soul. Certainly nothing affirms my faith in the doctrine of original sin like a few hours in your average airport terminal. 

Anyway, I spent a few days in Denver with JD, we had some meetings and caught up on a few things. 

Here are a few links to catch you up on The Pillar:

On Thursday, we interviewed Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon on the coup d’etat which occured in his country of Myanmar (or Burma, if you prefer) just over a week ago. It was one of the more fascinating conversations we’ve had with a cardinal. His perspective on Myanmar, China, and the U.S. is worth reading.

Also this week, JD took a deep dive into falling enrollment numbers at Catholic schools, and what the pandemic might mean for the future of Catholic education.

This morning, we published a really interesting feature on the past and future of the Church in Quebec, one of North America’s oldest and most interesting Catholic communities which has very much been under siege in the last few decades.


I’ve got a few thoughts about these.

Knowing Bo 

Cardinal Bo talked with The Pillar, as maybe you would expect him to, about the need for Burmese Christians to drink deep from the faith to fortify themselves to respond to the military takeover of their country.

“Evil asserts itself in history in inhuman ferocity,” he told us. “Facing that needs spiritual energy and a sense of calm and resistance based on love for even the enemy.”

What you might not have expect, at least I didn’t, was the breadth with which the cardinal was able to see the global state of affairs, and place the tragedy facing his own people in the international context.

“When the Church speaks against violations of human rights, it is articulating her faith in the public square,” he said. “It is more than prophetic. It is our existential identity.” 

Bo went on to discuss the situation in China, where more than a million Uighurs are being held in concentration camps, where systematic torture, rape, forced abortions and sterilizations, and anti-religious brutality are being meted out to them, the BBC reports. Meanwhile, the world is watching as human rights in Hong Kong are being eroded in real time. Yesterday, China banned the BBC.

“China's problem is its enslavement to an ideology that killed millions in the past. Now it is trapped into a curious mix of state power married to reckless capitalism. Unregulated market economy is a monster, and in the company of the Chinese Dragon this is an end-time conflict between naked materialism and struggle for human dignity,” Bo told us.

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Closer to home, the cardinal was no less direct about the “visceral wounds inflicted on the idea of democracy and elections” in the U.S. since November. 

“As recent history in your country proved, inflated egos can bruise the whole nation, tearing asunder the moral fiber of a great nation,” Bo said, and he drew an unsettling line of cause and effect between civil unrest following the presidential election here, and the coup which has seen the legitimate government of his own country arrested.

“Myanmar is a symptom. The U.S. as a moral power collapsed in recent times. The contention about 'election fraud' in Myanmar gained steam after the Capitol Riots of your revered democratic tradition. Someone sneezes in Washington and an elected government is toppled in Myanmar. This is an infectious moral Covid.”

You can read the whole interview here, and it is really worth your time.


Crisis or opportunity?

While Catholic school enrollment has been down for decades, and the covid crisis has made matters worse in terms of the raw numbers, the signs aren’t all bad — waiting list numbers are actually up 10%, and several experts JD talked to are bullish about the future of Catholic education.

But those educators also say that the Catholicity of Catholic schools is key to their long-term viability. Plus, being Catholic is the whole point of anyway, right?


Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the education secretariat at the U.S. bishops’ conference, talked about the effects of at-home learning in the last year, and said that many parents are taking a new, much more informed look at what their kids need: 

“This crisis has made it abundantly clear to parents that they really are the primary educators of their children. They have to see to it that their children get whatever education is most appropriate for them. In some cases, that really has benefited Catholic schools,” she said.

Donoghue also noted that in many places, Catholic schools are getting a second, or even first look from families as they are able to reopen safely faster than many public school districts.

“People who may not have ever been attracted are giving this a second look, because there is a lot of respect for Catholic school teachers who are offering in-person instruction,” Donoghue said.

With many families suddenly considering their educational options, some are saying that it’s a time for Catholic schools to refine and re-emphasize what really makes them unique, and in doing so help arrest decades of decline.

Elisabeth Sullivan, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, told JD that “the solution to the crisis in Catholic education has been hiding in plain sight all along.”

“We see that when schools step away from a secular approach, and return to the Church’s true philosophy and practice of education, we see a dramatic transformation,” she said.

It’s by no means all smooth sailing ahead, but it’s a fascinating conversation. Read the whole thing.

No surrender in Quebec

The institutional history of the Church in Quebec is fascinating, as is its role in protecting French Canadian culture from being Anglicised. The Church also had a deep involvement in the institutional running of the province, working with the local government - not always to its credit.

Today, as Mary Farrow writes, your neighbors will get your parking space revoked if your car wakes them up on your way to Mass, and everyone’s grandma has a story about the bad old days when Catholicism was the norm. Historic churches that fall into disrepair get “matches and bulldozers,” not repairs and preservation orders.

So how does the Church sow the seeds of faith when the earth seems salted against it?

Bishop Martin Laliberté, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Quebec City, said that while a new round of parish mergers was a painful form of retrenchment, there was no talk of giving up. 

The archdiocese - including local Catholics - needs to rediscover its missionary roots, he said and create a new Catholic society. 

“We have to say: ‘This community is mine, and I have to take charge of it. I have to involve myself in this community and make it a living space or a living environment where we can really experience Christ together in this community.’”

“People have to look at the Christian community and say: ‘Oh, what they live is so beautiful, I would like to be part of it,’” Bishop Laliberte said.

Read the whole thing.

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More Quick Links

Earlier this week, our site had some technical problems for a day or two, and that might have kept some of you from accessing our work. So here’s what we published at the beginning of the week, in case you missed it:

We started the week by reporting on, and publishing in full, the latest draft document to come out of the German bishops’ “binding synodal process.” In addition to the previous laundry list of doctrines and disciplines they would like to scrap, the Germans are now proposing that bishops and pastors be elected, and their decisions subject to the veto of lay committees. 

In the past, Pope Francis has expressed his “dramatic concern” at the Germans’ plans. I can only imagine his response will be something approaching apoplectic this time around, but whether Rome will take any hard action to stop it is another question.

The Bishop of Dodge City, Kansas, is under investigation by state authorities following allegations of sexual abuse. He’s now the 10th American bishop that we know of to come under investigation since 2018. We recapped those cases for you.

We also had an explainer on how, and why, the words at Mass will change as of Ash Wednesday. I’m not going to lie, I learned some things reading this. You might too.

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Last time we talked

I mentioned earlier that I spent part of the week in Denver, catching up with JD. 

The Pillar has been going for just over a month now, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had — albeit one that comes with the existential terror inherent in setting up a new venture. We got a lot done this week. But actually getting to spend time together, having dinner at his house, knocking off work and knocking back drinks together, was the most important thing we accomplished. 

JD and I talk everyday, of course. But we’re usually running down a to-do list or trying to push something out for the site. It’s not a bad way to run a news site, but it’s no way to build a partnership, still less sustain a friendship. 

I am, frankly, a terrible friend. I say this seriously. I’m easily consumed by the immediate, the proximate, and the urgent. 

The extent to which I have neglected real friendships over the course of the last year, in which we’ve all lost the common spaces and rhythms which used to keep us crossing each other’s paths, was brought home to me earlier this week. I learned that a friend of mine and his wife had suffered a miscarriage - a tragic kind of pain, all too familiar to many couples, but all too rarely recognized or understood. I learned this via social media. 

My friend had posted the news in what was a generous gesture of solidarity with other couples who often suffer the same intense grief in relative isolation and silence. But as my heart went out to them, my conscience convicted me a little. When was the last time I had called? What kind of friend was I, really, not to have known my friend was suffering until I read a day-old tweet? 

The pandemic has been hell on relationships of all kinds. And as we’ve all been forced online, via zoom or facetime or whatever else, it’s been a temptation for me to spare myself the effort, to give in and give over more and more of myself to work, and to substitute the transfat of Twitter society for authentic human interaction, like the junk food it is. 

But it is no substitute. Cor ad cor loquitur, as Newman said: people are not avatars, and real friendships are not sustained by hitting a like button. I need to do better.

See you next week, and, please, phone a friend,

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

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