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Notre Dame renovations, something new, and the politics of law

Happy Friday friends,

The first week of Advent has come and nearly gone; have you got that eschatological feeling yet?

I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat. Meditating on the second coming of Christ, and the attendant end of all things temporal is not the sort of thing that lends itself to idle reflection. 

The reality is we are hurtling towards Christ and his judgement at God’s own chosen speed. When the Son of Man comes, he wonders in the Gospel, will he find any faith on Earth? That should lend us, should lend me, a sense of urgency at the close of another year. It hasn’t yet, but that’s what I am praying for at the moment.

This having been said, the daily cycle of the news continues. So, here’s what been happening:

In the news

Yesterday, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said that it is pursuing the laicization of Fr. Geoff Drew, after the priest pled guilty to the rape of a minor 30 years ago, before he became a priest.

We’ve been following Drew’s case since 2019, and while the crimes to which he pled guilty predate his ordination, the handling of accusations of against him triggered the resignation of a diocesan auxiliary bishop. 

There is a canonical wrinkle in this story: The way forward for removing Drew from the clerical state might be a little more complicated than you’d expect; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may decide it cannot take the case because Drew’s crimes were not committed while he was a priest.

It’s not an easy story, but you can read it here.


Pope Francis is away this week on his 35th apostolic trip, this time to Cyprus and Greece. 

You can catch up on his full itinerary here. While he visits the two countries, he will be putting two of his most treasured priorities front and center: care for migrants, and ecumenism.

Greece and Cyprus are the doorstep of Europe and, as such, have also found themselves at the forefront of the migration crisis which has been ongoing since at least the start of the Syrian Civil War a decade ago. 

Coincidentally, a key player in both the current migrant crisis and the plight of many Christians in Cyprus is Turkey’s revanchist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Francis has repeatedly urged that migrants and refugees not be used as pawns in political power plays, but that is exactly what Turkey has been accused of doing for years now, all the while ratcheting up pressure internally, eroding civil liberties and further marginalizing the country’s Christian population. 

In an analysis this week, I asked if the pope might look east towards Turkey during his trip, as he makes his case for the human dignity of those suffering on the margins of the countries he’s visiting.

Read the whole thing here.

Debate continues to swirl over the leaked plans for the restored, or rather “renewed” interior of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. 

The final presentation of the proposals are due to be formally presented to the government’s heritage commission next week, but according to press reports they include some controversial and distinctly modern ideas, arguably out of step with the character of the world heritage site and definitely not to everyone’s taste.

But the priest responsible for drafting the plans has come out swinging, insisting that the idea isn’t to create what critics have called a woke spiritual Disneyland. Instead, he has defended the plans as an attempt to make the cathedral a more intentionally catechetical experience for the majority of visitors, who have little or no understanding of Christianity at all.

You can certainly argue the good taste of some of his ideas, but, I asked this week, shouldn’t we be asking about his underlying point?

In a secular, post Christian world, do we want our great Christian buildings to be beacons of evangelization, or museums of a faded order?

I think it’s a discussion worth having.

I’m very pleased to announce a new regular fixture here at The Pillar. Theologian Charlie Camosy of Fordham University has agreed to join us with a new weekly series of conversations with, well, interesting people on interesting subjects.

This week, Camosy talked with Ulrich Lehner of the University of Notre Dame about his new book “Think Better,” a kind of user’s guide to the rational process. It’s a really interesting conversation about truth, how we experience it, and what it means to be human. Here’s a taster:

“Good thinking means that you can understand what others are saying, can articulate it in your own words, but also that you are able to describe your own experience of the world to others. If I am not able to put my suffering and pain in words others understand, I become frustrated and withdraw.

The more we learn to think better, we recognize our own limitations, and see in others members of the same species, endowed with the same dignity and reason. We can build a ‘home’ together, a society that is just and empathetic.”

Read the whole thing.  

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Cherchez la femme

Heading back to Paris, yesterday Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit. 

Aupetit offered to resign following an article in Le Point magazine last week which cited several anonymous sources claiming, at second hand, that the archbishop had had an “intimate” relationship with a woman while he was still a priest of the archdiocese. 

The archbishop admitted the relationship was “ambiguous,” but has insisted it was never physical or romantic, and that he had ended it in 2012, informing the previous Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, when he did so.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit, 17th Apr, 2019. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Media coverage has cast the news of the “ambiguous” liaison and the pope’s decision to relieve the archbishop of his office as straight cause and effect, but that seems unlikely. 

If Aupetit did inform Cardinal Vingt-Trois about the relationship in 2012, it would seem neither the cardinal, nor the nuncio, nor the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, considered it serious enough to prevent him being made an auxiliary bishop the following year, or from succeeding Vingt-Trois as Archbishop of Paris in 2018.

Anonymous, second-hand accusations of an affair, one which Aupetit strenuously denies, seems thin cause to summarily cashier one of the most prominent bishops in Europe, especially if Rome has known the whole story for a decade. 

If that is the reason, as virtually all reporting on the story has assumed, it would signal a dramatic shift in Rome’s tolerance for episcopal scandal, but it would also cast serious doubt on the Roman decision to appoint him in the first place. En tout, je ne pense pas.

Far more likely, it seems to me, is that Aupetit’s resignation was accepted because of the other accusations made in the Le Point article, with several people accusing him of an autocratic and dictatorial style of governing the archdiocese, and of losing the trust of his clergy. 

Le Point’s sources were, again, anonymous, but they were able to point to the resignations of Aupetit’s two vicars general, both widely respected priests, and to a series of unpopular decisions taken by the archbishop.

If Rome called around the senior clergy of Paris and discovered Aupetit had lost their trust and was unable to govern the archdiocese effectively, that would be far more normal grounds for the pope accepting his resignation. 

Unfortunately, it’s not in the Vatican’s nature to discuss the “why” of decisions like this, so we’ll probably never know what really happened. Tant pis.

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The politics of law

The story most people have been focusing on this week is, of course, the Supreme Court hearing of the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization

You are not likely reading The Pillar for wall-to-wall SCOTUS coverage, and I doubt you need me to break down the significance of the case or feed the mounting expectation on all sides that something might change when the justices reach their eventual decision on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. 

Instead, we republished this analysis from our associate editor Brendan Hodge looking at the underlying reasons why people choose abortion in the first place. It is a commonly accepted maxim that poverty is the main driver for women choose to choose abortion. But the data suggests it is more complicated than that.

Read the whole thing.

For myself, I am not expecting much. Maybe I’m being jaded, but it seems that the Roberts court has been fairly clear that a precedent is a precedent, no matter how small, and I doubt the Chief Justice has the judicial temperament necessary to overturn a card table, let alone Roe.

One question from the bench which did catch my ear during the oral exchanges on Wednesday was from Justice Sotomayor, who asked during the session: “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception -- that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.”

Sotomayor was asking rhetorically, of course. Quite a lot of the questions Wednesday appeared to be rhetorical, at least to me.

But Sotomayor’s comment illustrates neatly a conceit particular to the Supreme Court - that it somehow operates above politics, on a more rarified plane. It is, pardon my French, bollocks.

The Constitution is a self-evidently political act, created, ratified, and amended by a political process — by votes and majorities. 

There is no higher concept of the good in American jurisprudence, no appeal to be made to the natural law — however much both are essential to right justice. Indeed, excluding them was a central part of the court’s ruling in Planned Parenthood v Casey.

The pretenses that the justices are not political appointees, and that their reading of the Constitution is somehow rendered higher and purer by a kind of judicial grace of state, are a national fiction to which I have never been able to subscribe. Does anyone seriously contend that the nine justices all heard arguments Wednesday with a totally open mind and a willingness to decide either way in the case, depending solely on their relative legal merits? Of course not. 

Legal cases in the United States, especially at the Supreme Court, are not sure to be determined by clear moral imperative, or the obvious demands of justice and the law. If they were, this country would not have had a century of slavery, or decades of segregation.  

The eventual decision in Dobbs will reflect the intractable commitment of, I would estimate, three judges to both sides of the abortion issue and a very careful calculus by three more, followed by a vote. Whatever Sotomayor may want the public perception to be, that’s just politics.

My reason for pointing this out is that the vocation of the laity is to imbue the temporal order, our politics, with the spirit of the Gospel. A win for the unborn at the Supreme Court could save hundreds of thousands of lives, and for that reason it is worth working, hoping, and praying for. But even the event of an unlikely total victory would not end abortion. 

Building a culture of life is the work of generations, not a judicial year or an election cycle. It is a labor for saints, not judges, and that is, maybe, something to think about this Advent.

On the subject of Advent, just a reminder: this month, we are giving $10 of every new subscription we get at The Pillar to Aid to the Church in Need. 

Specifically, we’ll be giving the money for Mass stipends that support poor or persecuted priests around the world, and we’ll request that Masses be offered for the intentions of our readers and subscribers, and for the holiness of the Church, and her leaders.

So, if you want to help pay for Catholic journalism that makes a difference, and help support a very, very, worthy cause this Advent, now’s the time to subscribe.

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See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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