The liturgical season of Christmas continues for almost another week, and you’re reading The Tuesday Pillar Post.
I’m not sure what you should expect of this newsletter, because, well, I’ve got Covid. I’m pretty sick. Mrs. Flynn and I both started feeling ill on the first days after Christmas, and it’s gotten worse since then, not better.
Now I’m not one to complain. And I’m nervous even to discuss Covid here in the newsletter, because I don’t want to get in the middle of some political debate over such things. That was for 2020, or maybe 2021. This is 2024; we’re well past people fighting about Covid, right?
But I will say this — I had assumed that since the coronavirus was unleashed on the world (attribute whichever cause floats your boat), each new iteration, variant, or strain would have gotten milder.
By now, in the Year of Our Lord 2024, I would have guessed that getting Covid would be practically indistinguishable from getting a particularly unpleasant head cold.
Please be assured — that is not the case.
In the Flynn house, our Covid is awful. It compares unfavorably even to the Covid I had in late 2020, during which a swampy fever-dream gave me a vision for a new journalism project, which became The Pillar.
This Covid has not given me any ideas as good as that, although I did have a strange dream last night about becoming a kind of Gilded Age manufacturing tycoon.
Anyway, that’s been my Christmas week. And I’m not telling you that for sympathy. Rather, it’s because this bout of Covid has changed my plans a bit. While I expected to come back from a break champing at the bit, I suspect I’ll be rather easing back into work as my fever comes down and as I catch my breath.
I want to express my appreciation for your patience.
And if I was supposed to return a phone call, text, email, or dm to you in recent days, well — I haven’t. Now you know why.
As you might know, we take days off between Christmas Eve and today, and we republish on our website some of our favorite features and interviews of the past year — which means there’s not a lot of new news to share with you from The Pillar.
But I’ll tell you what we’ve got:
First, while on Christmas break, we sent an email out to you, to let you know that The Pillar’s Edgar Beltran had interviewed Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In an interview conducted by email, we asked Cardinal Fernández about Fiducia supplicans, the DDF’s declaration-heard-round-the world, regarding “spontaneous” blessings for same-sex couples, and other couples in “irregular” relationships.
The cardinal made some interesting points, including allowing for the possibility that bishops can regulate the implementation of Fiducia supplicans in their territory — a claim not foreseen in the text itself.
Fernandez has since given a few other interviews about Fiducia supplicans, but this was the first, and you should read it.
Next, we published yesterday afternoon an excellent report from moral theologian and journalist Charlie Camosy, who talked with a number of ethicists and theologians about some burgeoning moral and anthropological questions: How should Catholics engage with artificial intelligence? Could AI ever be considered a person? How ought we treat “chatbots” — and for what reason?
If you’ve got questions about AI and education, healthcare, sex, and art, Charlie talked with some interesting thinkers about what might be coming — and what that means.
Here’s an excerpt:
“[Joseph] Vukov … worries about the quiet ways AI could harm the world by ‘robbing it of its flavor’ — by ‘muting creativity’ in ‘a world painted in 50 shades of beige.’
He argues that our primary worry should likely be the slow burn and cumulative effect this could have over time as life is flattened into the lowest common denominator in ways people will find it difficult to recognize.
Vukov said he suspects AI will ‘seep into places we never expected, much as the internet has crept into our watches, audio systems, cars, and refrigerators.’
[Brian] Green hopes that society’s reaction to the current AI moment is that the prospect of such inhuman blandness, such soul destroying and encounter-less existence, will make it ‘obvious to us that what makes us human is our capacity to love and care for each other.’
‘AI is a judgment upon us human beings who are creating and using it,” said Green. “If we use it wrongly, we will reap our own punishment. But if we use it wisely, we might come to live in a better world.’”
Want to think better about the “AI moment?”
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2024: What’s coming?
While we’ve published very few stories already in 2024, that doesn’t mean that news isn’t already unfolding. And in the first Pillar Post of the year, I thought I would offer a few of what I think will be the biggest storylines in the Church in 2024:
We’ve had a trial and a conviction — Cardinal Angelo Becciu has been sentenced to prison, even — but the criminal proceedings over Vatican finances aren’t done. Becciu’s appeal will be launched in January, and the cardinal will push to insist that he was in the right, and that he shouldn’t face incarceration. He’ll be highly motivated to continue alleging that Pope Francis approved of his dealings in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and to point fingers at his former boss, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Meanwhile, a “wrongful termination” lawsuit from former Vatican auditor Libero Milone is inching closer to a resolution. Milone has said that he was pushed out for doing his job — looking into financial malfeasance in the offices of the Apostolic See. If he doesn’t get satisfaction in court, expect that he may well become a whistleblower — or that charges of serious administrative misconduct might begin leaking out of the court itself.
But those dramatic scenarios sit above the major Vatican finance story of 2024: The Holy See is broke. Its cash reserves are dwindling, its austerity measures have not quelled the gap. And some announced measures, like a plan to charge cardinals for their apartments, have become deeply embroiled in politics, because of the way they’ve been handled.
The Vatican’s offices have a mandate to assist the ministry of diocesan bishops around the world — and some of their offices have critical jobs to do. But without operating cash, and with salaries too low to attract lay people competent to share the work, some kind of change at the Vatican will happen, whether officials plan for it or not.
The curia can’t economize its way out of its problems, and money from local churches brings with it a lot of other operational problems.
Will 2024 be the year in which some of that has to give? Could be.
Just days before Christmas, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released a declaration regarding the “spontaneous” blessings of same-sex couples, which has prompted serious pushback from bishops in some parts of the world — with bishops in some places saying the document goes too far, and the Church in other places saying it will proceed with publishing liturgical texts for same-sex blessings, despite the document’s prohibition on those texts.
Cardinal Fernández, mentioned above, has given several interviews in which he’s said there can be real variation regarding the local implementation of the declaration, which appears to be a walkback of one of its explicit statements. Meanwhile, the Italian press reports that same-sex couples have begun requesting Vatican-issued parchment papal blessings, and a Jesuit-affiliated LGBT advocacy website has been promoting blessings which, some say, defy the Vatican’s text.
The history of other Christian denominations in recent decades suggests that the controversy over Fiducia supplicans is not going to go away anytime soon. Indeed, a Congolese cardinal has begun trying to organize the response of African bishops’ conferences, seemingly to work as a mediator between them and the Holy See.
The situation is volatile, and the Apostolic See does not seem ready to rein in the episcopal conferences and diocesan bishops who have permitted celebrations in excess of the document — nor does it seem prepared to deal with the wholesale opposition it has gotten from other parts of the whole world.
For his part, Cardinal Fernández told The Pillar he’s preparing a visit to Germany for some difficult conversations regarding liturgical blessings, but it remains to be seen whether that will be effective.
Among the challenges this raises for the Church is that in October 2024, delegates from around the world are prepared to meet in Rome for the final session of the synod on synodality. Some delegates will likely argue that Fiducia supplicans was unilateral, and not synodal, while others will insist that it’s too restrictive. The document will loom over the meeting, to be sure.
Rest assured, there will be a lot of figures eager to offer their view on Fiducia supplicans. There will also be Church leaders holding their cards close to the vest, but discussing quietly the document, the Vatican’s approach, and the next papal conclave. Whether in open fora or behind closed doors, Fiducia supplicans has prompted a lot of fights, and for some Church leaders, the gloves are coming off.
Hundreds of Nigerian Christians were killed in a three-day “Christmas” massacre last month across 20 villages in the country’s Plateau State. Nicaragua has increased its crackdown on clerics, arresting several priests in recent weeks, along with a bishop. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has said in recent weeks that Palestinian Christians have faced attacks during Israel’s war against Hamas. And violence against Christians intensified in some regions of India during 2023.
In 2024, the persecution of Christians around the world is sure to continue, and could well be worsening.
America’s aging bishops
I don’t expect that Fiducia supplicans will be a topic of much public discussion among U.S. diocesan bishops, regardless of what they think about it.
There will doubtless be controversy about the document in the U.S. — but don’t expect much public discussion about it at USCCB meetings, or a great deal of pushback from many American bishops either — with perhaps a few exceptions.
The big public story for the U.S. bishops this year is July’s national Eucharistic Congress, the first in the U.S. since 1976. The congress will be preceded by four national pilgrimages, which will make their way through many American dioceses.
But the story that might go unnoticed is that 2024 will be a big year for aging in America’s episcopate. Fifteen U.S. diocesan bishops will turn 75 this year — with about 10 diocesan bishops in the U.S. already serving past their retirement age.
Among the 15 bishops turning 75 in 2024, eight of them lead metropolitan archdioceses. Two are cardinals — in Chicago and Galveston-Houston. One archbishop, in Connecticut, already has a coadjutor, assigned to take his place.
But there were already four superannuated sees among U.S. metropolitan archbishops, which means that 12 metropolitan sees will either see turnover, or continue with a leader over retirement age.
Here’s another way to see it. By the end of 2024, more than one-third of the 32 metropolitan sees in America will either see turnover, or have an archbishop serving past retirement age.
That amounts to a significant moment for the future of the Church in the United States — because the men appointed to those sees will have considerable influence over the appointment of future bishops, and the likely merger of small and declining American dioceses in the years to come.
And after 2024, the turnover situation won’t be done — fully 38% of U.S. diocesan bishops will be up for replacement between now and 2028. We now have the greatest number of diocesan bishops over 70 years old in U.S. history.
What kind of men will be chosen? What kind of men will say yes? That’s the story — and if personnel is policy, it’s a big one.
At the polls
There's a political election. The likelihood is that neither major-party candidate will support federal restrictions on abortion — Biden is Biden, and Trump (assuming he gets the nomination) has most recently said the issue should be left to states, and has otherwise ducked conversation on it.
But the absence of a mainstream candidate campaigning with a pro-life platform on abortion doesn't mean that bishops, pundits, and preachers won't have a lot to say about how Catholics should weigh their vote. They will.
And, as with all things in an election year, all of that could get very ugly, and very unpleasant.
Merged — or gone bust
Thirteen U.S. dioceses are presently undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, and several others have indicated that bankruptcy could be coming. That’s no small potatoes. When a diocese goes bankrupt, properties are sold off, and services and personnel departments are restructured — often with layoffs.
Some diocesan leaders who’ve been through the process say that bankruptcy is eventually the best thing to happen to their local Churches — that it leads to clarity of thought and to good internal communication and processes. But the process is painful — and more dioceses are likely to declare bankruptcy in 2024.
At the same time, a number of U.S. dioceses are undergoing parish consolidation and merger processes — in some places, those are going well, and in some places, they have been met with pushback from laity and even clergy. More are likely to begin in 2024, though a consistent template for approaching them has not yet developed.
There is also on the table the prospect of merging small or declining U.S. dioceses. The possibility of merging the Diocese of Steubenville with its neighboring Columbus diocese — which began with controversy in 2021 — is back on the table. Others are likely to follow.
Vos estis lux mundi?
It has been more than five years since the controversy began over the sexual abuse allegations concerning former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. While the Church has developed new processes — including Pope Francis’ landmark Vos estis lux mundi — it has yet to demonstrate that those processes will have positive impact on some of the Church’s most high-profile cases.
Pope Francis’ legacy as a reformer is compromised by his treatment of clerics like Fr. Marko Rupnik, the notorious artist-and-abuser who is now incardinated in a Slovenian diocese and apparently living with his artistic community in Rome, after charges the Holy See mishandled serial abuse allegations against him.
As new abuse cases emerge around the globe, and as people like Rupnik get new rounds of investigation, the scandal of failures to handle them adequately will be a story.
But despite calls from victims and their advocates, it does not seem likely the Holy See will adopt more transparent approaches to investigations and canonical proceedings in 2024. Will there be continued push for those things, or will the frustration of years past lead to diminished interest — and hope — in the Church’s efforts toward reform?
And closer to home, will Rupnik’s artwork come down from the U.S. chapels and sacred spaces where it hangs?
I shared this list with some friends the other day, asking for their comments, and for what I might have missed regarding the big stories of 2024.
One friend put it well: some of “those things from your list + 3 things nobody is expecting.”
Indeed. In the reign of the “pope of surprises,” and as it seems like news comes in the Church at every corner, if there are only three things “no one is expecting,” I think we can count ourselves lucky.
Whatever they are, The Pillar will be ready to cover them. Buckle up.
Fish tank Reddit
My son Max loves fish tanks. He’s captivated by them. When we’re out in the world, Kate and I know that if we pass an aquarium, Max will glue himself to the front of it, and refuse to move, watching those fish for as long as he can before we find some way to pry him away. More than once, I’ve sat with him next to a fish tank at the front of a restaurant, while he watches the fish — refusing to move — and I watch him, as everyone else eats happily.
The kid knows what he likes.
So Kate and I were excited when we had the idea, just a few days before Christmas, to buy him a small fish tank as a present. With Kate taking the point on about 10 other gifts we were still throwing together, I assumed responsibility for Operation Fish Tank.
Of course, I headed to a big box pet store near my house, looked around, and selected a four-gallon model that looked like it would fit on one corner of our dining room sideboard.
But before I bought the actual fish, I decided to do a little research online. And that’s where things got very interesting. Because as I googled numerous fish tank-related enquiries, the results all pointed me in one direction — to fish tank Reddit.
Reddit, if you don’t know, is a kind of ur-social media; a website designed as a news aggregator and discussion forum, which has quietly developed over the past 20 years as a home for the extremely online, a place for meme-spawning, and the forum for niche hobbyists to gather for serious discussion of their particular passions.
Discussions among Reddit’s 52 million users take place in forums, called subreddits, which can be found on hundreds of thousands of topics. And Reddit is a kind of Wild West of social media, with its own code, enforced by discussion group moderators, many of whom become the petty dictators of their particular slice of the digital world.
Reddit is rarely for the faint of heart.
In fact, if social media is a drug, Reddit is not taking a small hit off your boyfriend’s joint at a high school party. Reddit is freebasing cocaine from a dirty glass pipe in some burnt-out house in Camden, NJ.
Forget about cute memes or Christmas pictures of your cousin’s family at Mass. Reddit isn’t that kind of social media.
But that’s where I went to get the straight dope on my son’s fish tank.
In various aquarium subreddits, I read what happened when people asked questions similar to the ones I had:
“Should I get a goldfish for my kids?”
“Can I keep four guppies in a four-gallon aquarium?”
The replies were swift and certain:
“Sure, you can keep four guppies in a four-gallon aquarium, IF YOU’RE OK WITH GENOCIDE.”
Um, whoa, I’m not. But these are just fish.
“People who use the phrase JUST FISH shouldn’t be allowed near living things.”
Oh, I see. So, are four guppies too many then?
“In a tank that small, a noob [newbie] would kill them in about two days. Maybe an expert could get them to live a week. Maybe. But you shouldn’t try. Just get a tank with some plants, that’s more your speed. If you buy fish, you’re going to torture them.”
Wow. Well, I certainly don’t want to torture them. But the store sells tanks that size. And the man at the pet store said—
“OH, Wow. Another ‘expert’ getting advice from PetDumb. Smh. These box pet stores should be illegal.”
The point is that these people take their hobby seriously. Occasionally, you’d come across someone offering a more helpful flavor of advice. Or at least a kinder tone:
“Hi, newbie. Welcome to the exciting hobby of aquarium keeping. As you can see, we all have strong opinions about fishkeeping [nervous laughter]. Anyway, the issue is with nitrites, nitrates, and ammonia exchange in the water. So if you want to keep four guppies, you’ll need to spend a few hundred dollars on the right set-up for them, to make sure that the gas exchange levels are absolutely optimal to keep your fish thriving. If you economize, you can probably get the right equipment for under a grand — at least if you’re willing to drive for it. What you do is…”
In the end, readers, I ended up buying three guppies and a snail, for a little fish tank with a filter and a plant. My son loves them, and they’ve been living for more than a week, so I guess Reddit was wrong. Color me surprised.
But I’ve learned something absolutely vital for the new year. Whenever things seem too out-of-control covering the Church — whenever rancor seems too divisive or corrosive — I’m headed over to Fish Tank Reddit for some perspective.
We’re glad to be back for 2024. Thursday marks three years of The Pillar’s operations — and we’re in business only because of the subscribers who make it happen. So thank you for subscribing. If you want to read a bit about what we accomplished in 2023, and why — you can check it out here.
And if you want us to grow in 2024, and you haven’t yet, please, seriously, become a paying subscriber. Thank you:
Please be assured of our prayers, and please pray for us. We need it.
Yours in Christ,