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McCarrick pleads, Francis speaks, and Texas’ heartbeats

Happy Friday friends.

Mr. McCarrick pleads not guilty

Theodore McCarrick, the 91-year-old former cardinal, appeared in a Massachusetts court this morning to plead not guilty to charges he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old at a wedding reception in 1974, allegedly in a pattern of abuse stretching for years.

A formal plea of not guilty was entered on McCarrick’s behalf before the judge set a trial date for October, ordering McCarrick to post a $5,000 bail, have no contact with anyone under 18, and surrender his passport.

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Credit: US Institute for Peace (CC BY 2.0)

While the session was brief, few Church watchers ever expected McCarrick to see the inside of the courtroom at all. You can read our report of the morning here.

Earlier this week, we also talked to a number of victim-survivors of clerical abuse about what they expected from McCarrick’s trial, and what it means for survivors to have the Church’s abuse crisis back in the news.

You can read what they have to say — and, really, we all should hear them — here.


Quick links

Next up in the news this week is the announcement that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has cleared Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of two allegations of sexual abuse going back to the 1970s.

Following a nearly two-year investigation, undertaken by a former federal prosecutor and FBI director and organized by New York’s Cardinal Dolan, the CDF found the accusations “lacked the semblance of truth,” which means they failed to clear the lowest possible canonical standard of evidence.

The case is notable for a couple of reasons, not least that Rome has dismissed the charges as, effectively, manifestly false and frivolous even while lawsuits are still pending in the state of New Jersey. You can read a full run down on the case, and a round-up of other similar episcopal investigations here.

Pope Francis gave a long, and wide ranging interview to a Spanish radio station this week. He touched on a number of topics, including the trial of Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Afghanistan, and the (unfounded, shock) rumours about his resignation plans.

JD and I each found other items of interest within the pope’s fairly sweeping conversation on Wednesday:

Francis went out of his way to spontaneously heap praise on Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley, widely seen as the Church’s most credible voice on combating child sexual abuse. The pope and O’Malley go back a long way, and it was O’Malley who lent the pope’s efforts a lot of credibility in the early days of his pontificate. But the world’s turned a few times since then. 

After O’Malley made a very public, albeit qualified, criticism of Francis’ comments to abuse victims as he left Chile back in 2018, the pope rather conspicuously passed over the cardinal when picking organizers for his global summit on the abuse crisis the following year, despite the cardinal having essentially created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for him.

Now Francis is back to singing O’Malley’s praises. Why? 

Well, JD has one theory:

“It might be that, as he faces new criticism for his handling of several South American bishops accused of serious sexual misconduct, Pope Francis again perceives a need for the public support of a cardinal with a still-mostly-strong reputation on addressing clerical sexual abuse.” 

It certainly seems plausible to me. Read the whole thing.

The pope also gave some rare comments on the Vatican’s dealings with China, which have attracted a lot of criticism and not shown much in the way of results.

What drew my eye was that the pope appeared to concede that the whole process had yielded “questionable results” and maybe involved a certain amount of deception by the Chinese and mistakes by the Vatican.

While doubling down on his commitment to dialogue, apparently for its own sake and without any reasonable expectations of progress, the pope also said that he was open to a certain amount of good faith criticism of the Vatican’s China strategy. That will probably come as news to Cardinal Filoni and Archbishop Hon, both of whom were demoted out of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples for, so I’m told, being insufficiently on board with the Vatican-China negotiations. 

The current version of the Vatican-China deal is set to run through 2022. With it increasingly clear that the pope expects neither good faith in diplomatic talks, nor concrete results on the ground, but remains committed to his strategy anyway, I had a look at the paradox of a plan which seems incapable of succeeding but is sure to be renewed.

It has, believe it or not, been six years since the promulgation of Mitus iudex dominus Iesus, Pope Francis’ law reforming the canonical system for trials of marriage nullity. The point of the reforms was to streamline the process, making it more accessible for people who wanted to pursue an “annulment” and less procedurally cumbersome for bishops and their tribunal staff.

So, has it worked? JD took a look at the progress of the now six-year-old changes. 

The short answer is: it depends. Read the whole thing.

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Deep in the heart of Texas

You probably noticed this week that the Supreme Court has declined to issue an emergency stay against a Texas “heartbeat law” coming into force. For the moment, on paper anyway, it is illegal to get an abortion in Texas after 6 weeks of pregnancy, and that is a very good thing indeed. 

I confess I haven’t allowed myself to get too excited; not granting a stay is not the same thing as upholding the law, and there is a lot of lawyering left to do before we find out if this legislation is going to stick. 

One person seemingly determined to ensure the Texas law comes unstuck as soon as possible is noted Catholic and president, Joe Biden. On Thursday morning, Biden issued a statement from the White House promising an “immediate response” to Texas’ “unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights.”

The president said he has ordered the White House counsel’s office to coordinate “a whole-of-government effort” to “insulate women and [abortion] providers” from the limits imposed by the law. 

Back in 2012, a moral lifetime ago for Biden, it seems, he said in a vice-presidential debate that “life begins at conception, that’s the Church’s judgement and I accept it in my personal life… I just refuse to impose that on others.” 

Well, his views seem to have changed, as he says he’s going to try very, very hard to impose his views on Texas. 

Biden has not expressed a personal opinion or private preference. He has issued a public, active, sine qua non directive to mobilize the entire federal executive branch to prevent the Texas law from stopping a single abortion.

It’s the kind of act, one might think, that his local bishop would feel a strong pastoral imperative to address in an equally direct and public manner. I suspect, though, that few are holding their breath for that. 

We can be sure that Biden's actions against the Texas heartbeat law will loom heavy over the next USCCB meeting in Baltimore this November, during which the bishops are slated to debate a draft text on Eucharistic coherence.

Many Catholic politicians have offered qualifications to their acceptance of Church teaching similar to Biden’s 2012 statement on abortion: sure, they accept what the Church teaches on abortion, they say, but it’s not right — and the Church doesn’t demand — that they impose their beliefs about abortion on others, right?

Well, actually no.

The Church teaches that every abortion is gravely evil, and always immoral, and most people know that. But it also has some fairly clear and unflinching positions on the legality of abortion. 

We put together an explainer on that yesterday (and dove into the abortion law of Vatican City State, a tangent you might find fairly interesting).

“A law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion,” the CDF said in 1974, “is in itself immoral.” But it isn’t just that abortion cannot be given legal protection, according to the Church.

The pastoral constitution of Vatican Council II called abortion an “abominable crime,” and, in 1987, the CDF issued an instruction which said that “As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of his conception, the [state] law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights.”

Read our whole explainer here.

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The other ‘yous’

Our project turns eight months old today. When we launched back in January we really didn’t know if it would take off.

Well, more than halfway through our first year, we are still here, and we’ve broken some pretty big stories across a range of subjects in the life of the Church along the way. Most importantly for me, we’ve really been able to dig into the longer form, deeper dive stuff we set out to cover - so really, thank you for helping us get this far. I want to thank especially those of you who are paying subscribers to our work here at The Pillar.

Of course, the year isn’t over and we aren’t “there” yet in terms of what we hope The Pillar can grow into being. For that, we really do need the other “yous” out there, the silent majority of those reading this newsletter every week. We’re glad you think The Pillar’s work is worth reading, and we hope you’ll agree it’s worth paying for, too.

So, if you can, please consider subscribing. JD hates it when I bang on about the cliche that our subscription costs less per month than one of those ridiculous hipster cupcakes, but actually it does. And we think what we have on offer is a far better bargain.

Yes, this is better than a cupcake.

Right, that all said, let’s carry on.

Relative humanity

While every abortion that doesn’t happen because of the Texas law is cause for joy, no one who cares about the pro-life movement should assume either that the law is here to stay, or that passing similar laws elsewhere is a sudden silver bullet that might bring down the abortion-industrial complex.

I say there’s a lot of “lawyering” still to come, but when the Texas law makes its inevitable way back to the Supreme Court, I suspect the arguments will lean less on legal nuance and more on the maundering sophistry of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the infamous decision that enshrined former Justice Kennedy’s philosophy of narcissistic nihilism.

“At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote for the majority, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.” It’s a desperately fatuous sentence, worthy of a high school student who’s just translated cogito ergo sum for the first time. But it is also horrific.

At the heart of Kennedy’s concept of existence (Descartes’ too, for that matter) is the total atomisation and relativisation of being. It presumes no common dignity, no basic principles, no existential common ground. It’s dystopian beyond the wildest dreams of the most hardened libertarian. 

“Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the state,” Kennedy continues, but that is the very effect of so many of the court’s most important, and most regrettable decisions. 

The relegation of some human lives as lesser, or even as non-persons, is what the court has done, more than once, and it is also the philosophical starting gun of every institutional atrocity in human history, abortion being right at the front of the line.

Of course, no one is compelled to have an abortion under U.S. law, so the argument goes, so everyone is free to treasure their own deeply held belief about the status of the unborn without reference to anyone else. Everyone except the child, of course. But, as non-persons, their views on the matter carry no more weight than did the rights of generations of people shamefully deemed to be counted as “property” in this country. 

It is just patently false to assert that defining attributes of personhood isn’t exactly what the state, through the court, does, and continues to do on a range of cases, including recently. 

The very essence of what it is to be a person, or a man, or a woman, is defined by the court in law, if not in fact. And those assuming that the five-judge majority which declined to block the Texas law from coming into force will, in due course, overthrow Casey or Roe in its favor, would do well to remember how much of Kennedy’s “philosophy” can be inferred from Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion in Bostock v Clayton County, which equated sex and gender identity for the purposes of Title VII.

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The supposed pressure relief valve on all of this judicial anthropology is meant to be religious liberty, under the protection of which whole swathes of religiously minded institutions can exempt themselves. But this ‘solution’ solves nothing, it only draws the tension tighter on our already strained common life.

We have created, in reality, two parallel societies: one for believers in religion, nature, biology (and women’s rights), and the dignity of all human life, and another for those who believe in cutting edge psychology, perpetual revisionism, and the absolute primacy of the will. 

Both sides are warring to cement legal gains and protections against the other, with the courts struggling to fashion any kind of compromise under Kennedy’s definition of liberty. 

Legally, it is simply untenable: there is no constitutional interpretation, no legal theory, elastic enough to bear the strain of mutually exclusive definitions of humanity. Socially, it is simply impossible for one country, one people, to hold diametrically opposed views on the origin of basic human rights and dignity. 

Whatever eventually happens with the Texas law, this cannot possibly last. 

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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