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Everybody knows you're wrong about the Super Bowl

Happy Friday friends,

And an especially happy feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Devotion to Herself under that title is something for which I have a real soft spot, and the role of the Lourdes shrine in the life of the Church is, I think, hard to overestimate.

There are the miracles, of course, and the power and generosity of the intercession of Mary is one of the great manifestations of heavenly love and life in the Church. I think, though, what strikes me about Lourdes, and the countless thousands who stream there every year (pandemics permitting) is not what they leave with, but what they bring with them.

From what I have seen of pilgrims, and the Catholics who make it their special ministry to assist them, trip to Lourdes are rarely undertaken with much expectation — and certainly not with expectations of a miracle. 

Rather, pilgrims go bound by love and, above all, by hope.

They do not, from what I have seen, usually hope for some profound supernatural intervention (mystical or medical). They go instead full of hope in Our Lady’s maternal love and the love of her son and our God.

Hope in the Lord, not in earthly things, is a great virtue indeed. It sustains us in times of acute suffering, but also in times of more quotidian discouragement. It teaches a holy detachment from the transient and the unfulfilling, and points us always to the only good that truly matters, truly satisfies, truly saves.

It is a kind of reorientation, pointing us to our true home and father. In this way, I have come to see hope as fundamentally ennobling and, not being of a naturally optimistic temperament, I’ve taken to pursuing this virtue in that spirit.

I wasn’t actually expecting to write about any of this, and I’m not sure where that came from. So, moving swiftly on, let's get to the news. 


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We have been keeping an eye on the process to appoint a new rector at the North America College, the U.S. bishops’ seminary in Rome. The process hit an unexpected stall after the seminary’s board sent in its shortlist of candidates.

Yesterday, JD wrote about a surprising new twist in the story, which you won’t read about anywhere else: the Congregation for Clergy has written to all the metropolitan archbishops of the U.S., asking for their input in the process. 

It’s an odd decision, and for odd reasons  Rome explained to bishops that it wants to make sure the process is regionally representative, and is thus asking the heads of the country’s provinces. But the seminary board is actually made up of bishops elected to represent the USCCB’s regions, so that doesn’t exactly make sense.

Some of the bishops we spoke with noted that there was no hold up to the appointment on the American end, and said that the new consultation smacked of an end run around an established USCCB process. They pointed to Chicago’s Cardinal Cupich — a known fan of strengthening the influence of metropolitan archbishops in Church structures, and a vocal critic of the USCCB — as having played a part in the new consultation process.

It’s a fascinating development — with implications that go well beyond the North American College. And it’s one worth watching.

The great “we baptize you” controversy was back in the news this week, and JD has written a thoughtful analysis trying to parse the significance of the whole thing, both sacramentally and ecclesiologically.

According to the CDF, whenever a minister of baptism says “we” baptize you instead of “I”, there’s a common, invalidating failure of intention to do what the Church intends, and how, in baptism. 

Few people, myself included, would naturally be able to reason their way to the CDF’s conclusion, and that seems like kind of a big deal, which needs a concerted catechetical response — but will we get one?

JD asks that question, and thinks the whole thing through here.

There was news yesterday in the Vatican financial scandal and trial, with more witness testimony emerging about senior figures at the Secretariat of State, including the sostituto, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra. 

Apparently, the archbishop brought in Italian intelligence officers to sweep offices and phones for bugs and compile “reconnaissance” files on some individuals “trying to break into the economic structures of the Holy See with malicious intent.”

The claims, made by a former official at the department, are at once fairly wild and almost par for the course at this point.

What’s fascinating in this week’s installment is that the Vatican’s effective interior minister and papal chief of staff was - allegedly - bringing in Italian spies to run sweeps for electronic surveillance. Why? The Vatican’s own gendarmes actually have, believe it or not, considerable expertise and resources in this area and would seem the natural first port of call for the Secretariat of State.

Unless, of course, you’re worried that it’s Vatican law enforcement bugging your office in the first place. Who can say?

Read all about it here.

Medicine is supposed to be an art and science focused on the good of the patient — on health and wellbeing, on human flourishing. Healthcare is supposed to be about healing, right? But what if it’s not?

In this week’s conversation with interesting people, Charlie Camosy talks to physician Farr Curlin and philosopher Christopher Tollefsen, and asks: What happens when medicine loses its focus, becoming mostly about technocratic moral reasoning and the desires of patients, however harmful?

It’s a very interesting conversation:

“Medical practitioners make a commitment to the pursuit of the health of their patients. They commit to serve their patients’ health, and they also commit never to act contrary to the good of the health of their patients.

But a lot of medicine operates according to a different vision, which we call the Provider of Services Model. In the PSM, physicians have a set of technical skills which are used to satisfy patient desires and preferences, provided only that the desired use of these skills is legal, is technically feasible, and is chosen by the patient.

Medicine is increasingly used for purposes that are obviously contrary to the good of health, such as physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and surgeries that damage or mutilate a person’s secondary sex characteristics.On this model, then, physicians operate in a de-moralized arena of service to patient desire. That hardly seems a vision in which medicine can be practiced as a vocation, not merely a job.”

Read the whole thing. 

Bishop Oscar Zanchetta has a new court date in Argentina, it was announced this week. The former Bishop of Oran resigned for “health reasons” in 2017, and is facing charges of aggravated sexual assault against seminarians.

Zanchetta’s case is… delicate. He is a longtime close friend of the pope’s, having worked with him when he was the general secretary of the Argentina bishops’ conference and Francis was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Indeed, he was one of the first people Francis promoted after his election.

He was originally due in court in October, but his lawyers asked for a delay so the files from Zanchetta’s investigation and trial by the CDF (results unknown) could arrive from Rome.

The files still haven’t arrived, but the judge has lost patience it seems. And it’s unclear if there is any reason to expect that they ever will — despite Pope Francis having lifted the pontifical secret on cases like Zanchetta’s in 2019, and the CDF’s own departmental regulations saying that files of cases like these could and should be given to civil courts when requested, at least by local dioceses.

Catch up on the whole case here.

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Everybody knows

Even in cases not nearly as sensitive as Zanchetta’s, Rome’s culture has not noticeably shifted much towards transparency, despite years of explicit reforms aimed to achieve exactly that.

With the possible exception of the Secretariat for the Economy, answering questions (still less volunteering information) is simply outside of the working climate and experience of the Roman Curia, and the very concept of transparency is often viewed in Rome as a slightly unhinged response to some regrettable, isolated, instances like the McCarrick scandal.

Consider, for example, the pontifical secret, which JD and I wrote about this week, along with the very varied ways in which it is interpreted and applied throughout the life of the Church.

While the pope has explicitly lifted its application to cases like Zanchetta’s, the CDF does not seem actually inclined to release its files, even when legitimately asked to do so by a court — despite a Vatican policy which encourages doing exactly that. 

Meanwhile, the pontifical secret is still formally applied to, for example, episcopal appointments prior to their official announcement in the Roman daily bolletino, but those often aren’t an especially well kept secret.

Anyone familiar with how these decisions are announced will tell you that, whatever the supposed application of the pontifical secret, word gets around fairly quickly once a decision is made and the incoming and outgoing candidates have been notified.

Even as the information circulates around the chancery watercooler and the parish pastors, the news is passed along with a kind of theatrical secrecy — often as an obvious kind of currency of status or relationship. In these cases, far from keeping things quiet, the formality of a secrecy winkingly honored actually creates the kind of gossipy clerical culture Pope Francis often speaks out against.

Set this next to the policy-versus-practice on transparency in cases like Zanchetta’s, and you might be left with the feeling that the Church has somehow got things exactly backwards on the pontifical secret, and that’s only further sapping the confidence of the faithful watching.

There are legitimate areas of Church life which require the highest levels of confidentiality, and the Vatican has every right to expect that to be understood and respected. But the current culture seems to demand secrecy when the law doesn’t, and impose it by law while the culture winks at it. 

It’s hard to sell anyone on the idea that this is progress on “transparency.”

Read more here.

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You’re wrong

About a week ago, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the European bishops’ conference, made news by saying that “the Church’s positions on homosexual relationships as sinful are wrong.”

“I believe that the sociological and scientific foundation of this doctrine is no longer correct,” the cardinal said. “It is time for a fundamental revision of Church teaching, and the way in which Pope Francis has spoken of homosexuality could lead to a change in doctrine.”

Quite a few commentators have pointed out — rightly — that the cardinal’s statement — wrongly — suggests that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is based on the mutable conclusions of secular academia, rather than on unchangeable divine revelation and natural law. The cardinal has also made comments, more hesitant in tone but identical in premise, regarding calls for women’s ordination.

Some, like JD, have pointed out how this seems to be a clear rupture with what Pope Francis personally (to say nothing of the Church) has consistently said and taught. Others, like the veteran Vaticanist Sandro Magister, have suggested he’s shaping up to be the obvious choice for a Francis II at any future conclave. I’m not sure I have a set opinion, either way.

What I mostly wonder about is how the cardinal’s theological positions impact the ordinary Catholics in Luxembourg whom he’s meant to be leading.

Hollerich has stated publicly that Church teaching is “wrong,” and not on a matter of prudential judgment, or requiring some mere intellectual or disciplinary assent.

Of course, the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts is not going to change — indeed it can’t. And there’s an argument that Francis might as well ignore Hollerich’s comments and allow the whole issue to be wrapped up and resolved in the current global synodal process; that way everyone can be heard.

But Hollerich is a cardinal archbishop, not just another cranky “activist.” Whenever and however the Church affirms what she’s always taught, and however graciously Hollerich defers to it, his flock in Luxembourg now know, from his own lips, that he simply doesn’t believe it.

It is, to me at least, a rather shocking admission on the cardinal’s part. I find it hard to escape the question which has, I am sure, occurred to many Catholics of his archdiocese: what else does he think the Church is wrong about, what else doesn’t he believe?

Catholics are used to a particularly tendentious kind of presentation of the faith which treats its core teachings, perennially understood and repeatedly declared to be unchangeable, as mere matters of discipline.

You see it in “news” reports by some flavors of “Catholic” media, for example, which state dryly that the Church “refuses” to ordain women “yet,” — rather than acknowledging that the Church says she has no power to do so, ever. 

But you don’t see that kind of thing from a cardinal very often.

It (falsely) collapses all the Church’s beliefs, teachings, and authority into the mere exercise of ecclesiastical will, in service to a particular vision of progressive reform, often informed by fashionable sociological and scientific thought.

Hollerich doesn’t seem to feel his position is problematic, still less untenable, and perhaps the pope will agree. But it seems to me that planting that idea in the hearts of European Catholics is a terrible cruelty against his flock.

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About the Super Bowl

I understand that it is Super Bowl time, again, this weekend. Honestly I cannot bring myself to care about American football, or even to like it — at the professional level at least.

Between the absurd (and perversely dangerous) helmets and pads, and the impenetrable rules which seem to make it illegal for the players to touch each other once the ball is meaningfully in play, the game seems carefully calculated to be both lethal and regulated to death.

But my principal objection is the tedium. Games seem to take close to four hours to broadcast, despite having only an hour’s worth of playing time. Now, I understand the purpose of the Super Bowl, and the NFL generally, is primarily to sell ad space, so I suppose this is just to be expected.

And I do seem to be something of an outlier in finding NFL football to be unwatchable — JD has repeatedly, with uncharacteristic earnestness, tried to explain that I have it all wrong. So I have been thinking about this and trying to understand the obvious attraction this weekend’s game has for so many people.

My best working theory is that the tedium is the point. If cultural tropes and stereotypes in commercials have taught me anything, it’s that football watching is a communal event. People come together for the afternoon to eat nachos, drink beer and paint each other’s torsos. It’s about spending time together.

Perhaps the NFL’s very genius is that it demands so much of your time to watch a game which requires almost none of your attention, giving you weekly cover to spend an afternoon with friends.

A “football” fan. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

If that’s what’s going on, I can get behind that. Though the body paint is still weird.

In that spirit, while I will not be watching the game this weekend and know nothing about either side playing, I am prepared to declare my support for Cincinnati on the premise that I quite like that part of the country and really rather dislike Los Angeles as a city.

So, go Bengals, I guess?

See you next week.

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

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