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Simple truth, good faith, and wasted effort

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Happy Friday friends,

Tomorrow is the great feast of saints Peter and Paul. 

It is, as countless papal homilies over the centuries have reminded us, a feast of the catholicity of the Church — its great universality, encompassing as it does these two very different personalities with two very different missions who ended their ministries in the same city, which itself was the great universal capital of their world’s empire.

It’s also, of course, a great feast of the apostolic nature of the Church, linked through time by the unbroken succession of the faith handed on through history by the men chosen to shepherd Christ’s flock in his name.

But I like to think of it as a feast of the very human nature of the Church, since it is, after all, founded by Christ as an institution both human and divine.

Both Peter and Paul represent distinctly human failings of faith to which I too am regularly prone. Peter’s fear and willingness to disown Christ in the breach becomes his founding experience of Christ’s forgiveness. Ditto Paul’s violent conviction, seen at the stoning of Stephen. 

But both men’s sins, while forgiven, echo throughout their lives and ministries. Peter was still prone, as we read, to moments of timidity when faced with pharisaic calls for converts to be circumcised. Paul’s heated temper flares up throughout his writing — and, while I admit I’m not reading it in the original, I detect a familiar note of satisfaction when he speaks of telling Peter off to his face.

The twin pulls to either resile from speaking simply and boldly when required, or to revel in being in the right are impulses I know well. Indeed, I feel them daily.

At the center of both is what I perceive to be a real sin of character in myself: that my delight in being “right” is linked to my love of being vindicated. 

Certainly, in doing what we do here at The Pillar, the temptation for me is to pause in front of a tough truth or uncomfortable analysis and allow myself to weigh who, exactly, is going to end up angry about it and ask if I really want that fight just now. Or, equally, to take too acute an interest in being right versus someone.

Serving and proclaiming the truth, with love and without ego, is an essential aspect, I think, in recognizing that the truth never belongs to the one speaking it. There is no “my truth,” or to put it in the language of journalism, “my story,” only the truth and the story. 

The same is true for the Church. She is custodian and herald of the Good News, but it doesn’t belong to her, either to keep it silent or wield it as a cudgel. The test of her, our, my willingness to embrace this is given by Peter and Paul, who in the end both gave their lives for it, because it is greater than them.


Anyway, here’s the news.

The News

A round of layoffs at the U.S. bishops’ conference has seen the USCCB shed as many as 12 staff positions, with many of the cuts coming in the department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development.

The layoffs have kicked off something of a storm, with some insisting the move is a kind of ideological purge at the conference, hitting the department that handles beleaguered grant programs like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, or turning out educational materials on issues like the environment and social justice.

As JD noted in his analysis of the news yesterday, some conference sources put it more prosaically: “They overspent, and now they have to downsize.” But that can be the case and there can still be questions raised, including among some bishops, about how broad was the episcopal consultation ahead of what feels like a pretty sizable “reorganization.”

Read the whole analysis here.

New reports continued to surface this week about a draft document supposedly aimed at further restricting the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass.

As I wrote in an analysis, we’ve been unable to get hold of a copy, or speak to anyone who can claim “eyes on” familiarity with its alleged provisions. Of course, that doesn’t mean the draft doesn’t exist, or that curial officials aren’t talking about it.

But assuming the text does exist, and Pope Francis is being lobbied hard to sign it, what could it hope to achieve? At a practical level, one official we spoke to said it was aiming to take the whole issue out of local bishops’ hands altogether — and squeeze the TLM out of ordinary parish and diocesan life.

“The thinking, and some will put it in these terms, is to ‘force them [traditionalist Catholics] onto reservations,’ with everything that goes with that kind of imagery,” he told us.

Of course, real problem outliers, like Archbishop Viganò and his supporters, who do seem to see the old liturgy as an expression of rejecting Vatican Council II, do exist. But they are by any reasonable assessment a minority of a minority, and likely to be untroubled by further Roman action against them.

The majority of families and communities with an attachment to the TLM are nothing of the kind — and it is they who would (will) bear the brunt of any new restrictions.

At a time when Rome insists it has adopted a posture of “listening” and a synodal approach to the “peripheries” of ecclesiastical life, it is hard to see how a renewed clampdown on communities who already largely perceive themselves to be unloved and unwanted by the hierarchy could achieve a positive outcome. 

And it's equally hard to see how any advocates for such action can think it won’t increase the chances of an eventual snapback in the other direction.

You can read the whole analysis here.

A court ordered two Belgian Church leaders to pay compensation Tuesday after a woman was not permitted to enroll in a diaconal formation program.

The court ordered the retired Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and Archbishop Luc Terlinden, his successor as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, to pay 1,500 euros (around $1,600) each to Veer Dusauchoit, a 62-year-old woman who is part of a lay team administering a parish without a priest.

Dusauchoit describes herself as “a religious, socially committed, feminist, and ecologically inspired woman.” She argued that the archdiocese’s decision to deny her entry into the diaconal training program, irrespective of her eligibility to be ordained, “violates the principle of gender equality, is unlawful, and also legally flawed.”

The court agreed, arguing that her application for formation “concerns admission to a training course, not the question of effective appointment as a deacon.”

Read the whole story here.

New figures indicating that more than 400,000 Catholics disaffiliated in Germany in 2023 show that the Church is in a “comprehensive crisis,” Bishop Georg Bätzing said yesterday.

In a statement following the publication of new Church statistics June 27, the German bishops’ conference chairman insisted that the changes proposed by the country’s controversial “synodal way” were urgently needed. 

“Reforms alone will not solve the Church crisis, but the crisis will worsen without reforms. And that is why change is necessary,” he said.

Say what you like about the German bishops, but they are consistent — consistent in the decline of Catholics in their dioceses, and consistent in their response. The synodality will continue until morale improves. 

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Read the whole story here.

A community of schismatic Poor Clares have ejected an excommunicated self-proclaimed “bishop” from their convent in the Spanish Archdiocese of Burgos.

I could tell you more, but be honest: If that one sentence doesn’t make you want to read the whole story, I’m not sure anything will.

Upstream, a new podcast from Patrick Lencioni, provides ideas and encouragement so courageous priests can more effectively run their parishes and spread the Gospel. Pat is not only a passionate Catholic but is the pioneer of the organizational health movement and one of the world’s foremost experts on leadership and teamwork. 

‘Good faith’

Hearings began in London this week in the lawsuit brought by Raffaele Mincione against the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. 

The businessman who sold the secretariat the famous London building is seeking a judicial declaration that he acted in “good faith” in his dealings with the Vatican, after he was convicted of financial crimes in Vatican City late last year.

This is, as you might expect, given the subject, a long and complicated case to litigate, with a lot of background and a complicated cast of characters. And I can see from our data that interest in reading the whole thing is… limited.

I get it. A certain amount of financial scandal burnout is understandable at this point. I’ve been covering this story for five years now, and I can tell you it weighs a little on me, too. But this trial matters, and this story matters.

The trial matters because the stakes are seriously high for both sides. 

For Mincione, he is fighting for his career, his reputation, and pretty much every cent he has. Being backed by a U.K. court — by no means unschooled in or unused to complicated financial cases — would do a lot to bolster his claims that he has been made a scapegoat for the corruption and incompetence of others, and was railroaded in Rome.

For the Secretariat of State, and for the Holy See more broadly, this isn’t about unpicking a disastrous deal. Their lawyers have made it clear that ship has sailed. This is about laying out their claims that they got swindled out of hundreds of millions of euros by a coordinated effort to extract money meant to serve the Church.

Consider how much criticism has been poured on the credibility of the Vatican judicial process by the secular media in recent years because of this story. A verdict from the High Court of England and Wales saying, in effect, “yeah, you got taken by bad faith actors” would be a huge implied endorsement for everything that has come before.

The nuts and bolts of the story matter, too, though.

In fact, I’d argue they are essential to the projects of honesty, accountability, and financial reform in the Vatican. I’ll offer one example from Wednesday’s opening arguments from the Secretary of State’s lawyers.

They are arguing that Mincione pulled a bait and switch on them, and they had to go along with his investment proposals because the money they had out for investment “had been secured through lines of credit which needed to be serviced.” Basically, they were playing with 200 million of someone else’s money and the meter was running, so they had to act fast.

Where did the 200 million come from? Well, the Vatican’s lawyers said, the Secretariat of State “borrowed the money by taking credit lines from two banks (Credit Suisse and Banca Svizzera Italiana), with securities deposited as collateral.”

Why does this matter? I’ll tell you: because when I reported exactly that, about exactly those banks, back in 2019, when this whole scandal first erupted, secretariat officials flat out denied it; they called it fake news. 

Pillar reader Cardinal Becciu said I had “shamefully misled the faithful with another FALSE article.”

Now that fake news is fact, and it’s the basis of the secretariat’s entire legal case. 

That’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about a fact pattern:

The Secretariat of State mortgaged hundreds of millions of euros in Church assets for high interest lines of credit so they could play the Angolan oil and London property markets. Then they denied it and denounced anyone who had the temerity to point it out. Now they are presenting themselves as the victim, without a word of explanation or apology to the people of God.

The secretariat’s lawyers also, we noted in our report, claim that Msgr. Alberto Perlasca — the star material witness in the Vatican City trial — is “unavailable” to give evidence in the London hearings. 

Given Perlasca was reappointed — in a decree signed by, guess who, the Secretary of State — to a senior position at the Vatican’s canonical supreme court earlier this year, I think his sudden “unavailability” to appear speaks volumes about the Vatican’s commitment to real transparency.  

Accountability means someone has to point all that out, and that means someone, somewhere, has to be obsessively staying across the minute details. Otherwise, casual untruths and indifference to their discovery remain the operative way of dealing with scandal in Vatican institutions.

We don’t expect everyone to read every 3,000-word report we write on this stuff. But I hope everyone reading this agrees on the importance of that work getting done, because it is exactly what we set The Pillar up to do.

Even if it gets called fake news.

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If you are with us on this, thank you. I mean it. 

Wasted efforts 

I don’t know why I try to garden. I’m not especially good at it. And saying I “enjoy” the effort is probably an overstatement.

I do like yard work, I suppose. Rooted deep in my psyche is a middle-class Midwestern moralism that a man should mow his own lawn, rake his own leaves, and generally keep up appearances for passing suburban foot traffic.

But that’s not the same thing as trying to get something you’ve planted to grow and flower and fruit by the sweat of your own brow. That I don’t enjoy, and yet I cannot stop myself.

Things aren't helped, I suppose, by the poor quality of my soil. My flowerbeds, such as they are, are mostly clay and contain a truly inexplicable amount of broken glass, which rises to the surface after every heavy rain like a hoard of brittle, jagged beetles.

I don’t much care for flowers, either. Well, I should rather say I don’t care about them. 

I can appreciate them as fleeting spectacle, and Lord knows I’m not shamming when I express my admiration for well-cultivated blooms in someone else’s garden — I know what it must cost in time and attention to make them happen. But flowers bring me no real pleasure when I cultivate them myself, and I know too little about them and how they work to make any great success of it.

So, instead, I sink who-knows-how-many days a month into my backyard border, trying to make it yield something I can eat. The results are maddeningly variable. 

Some years, the strawberry patch will kick out fruit in such consistent abundance I could feed my daughter from it alone for a month at a time. Other years, it sulks in its corner like a lazy green rash, looking to many guests like a vicious crop of poison ivy.

The tomatoes respond to my efforts like insolent children, stubbornly refusing to grow unless I guess exactly which random section of the fence they favor this year, and demanding utterly unguessable amounts of water depending on their mood, while giving back just enough affection to keep me from shaking them out by their roots.

My zucchini plants are spreading like spiderwebs this year, bursting forth with flowers of a brilliance and number that had me anticipating a bumper crop, until I woke up one morning to find them all — all 23 flowers — gone, nipped cleanly off at the stalk. I cannot begin to guess how this happened. I suppose some animal must be responsible, but the yard has a five-and-a-half-foot-high fence around it, so it’s not deer.

I rained a fire of profanity and malediction on the remaining green leaves, irrespective of their culpability.

The only thing that really grows in my garden are chilis, which go on performing for me, year after year, with the desperate enthusiasm of a neglected labrador. I have baskets of the things. 

I grew these. Is it a bushel? A peck? I don’t know.

Only the hot ones will really grow, of course. Sweet bell or banana peppers never seem to last long. But jalapeños, tabascos, habaneros, and scotch bonnets all seem to thrive amidst the smashed beer bottles and broken clay. 

One year, in a fit of curiosity, I planted a ghost pepper and it kicked out so much fruit, of such vermillion splendor and comically violent strength, that they became a genuine health hazard in the kitchen.

Pleased as I am with something — anything — to show for my time and sunburn, though, I never know what to do with the things. I like spicy food well enough. But you can only spike your salads with so many Madame Jeanettes before you nuke your tastebuds beyond recovery. 

I’ve pickled them, made my own hot sauces, dried and ground them, roasted and pureed them, but every summer the chili harvest outstrips my creative capacity for processing it. 

Honestly, none of this is very good.

I tried giving the ghost peppers away, safely jarred in oil, for use in “home defense”, but I had to stop because too many recipients were hearing my warning not to eat them, under any circumstances, ever, as a kind of macho dare. Their wives complained in earnest panic that I was going to hurt someone. 

I did rebrand my useless domestic hot sauce “Widowmaker,” though. I’d donate it to a food pantry, but I worry someone would think it was a cruel joke.

Anyway. This year’s batch has started pouring in and I’ll soon be buried under another useless, nearly inedibly hot crop. I really don’t know why I keep doing this.

Is it somehow wasteful to grow something you know you can’t possibly use? Or is a kind of horticultural Mount Everest mentality OK — I have to grow it because it’s there.

Part of it, I’m sure, is just me acting out my agricultural daydream of chucking this all in, going totally off grid, and getting a farm somewhere in Western Pennsylvania. Which I’d do, if I could afford to buy a farm, or persuade my wife to take me seriously.

Maybe part of it is primal, too. Maybe some part of our fallen nature urges us to till the soil in Pelagian atonement for our original sin. 

If that’s the case, I certainly haven't found salvation in the backyard. And only a fool would call it relaxing.

But I do know that I can’t seem to stop. Which must mean I enjoy it, somehow.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon 
The Pillar

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Upstream, a new podcast from Patrick Lencioni, provides ideas and encouragement so courageous priests can more effectively run their parishes and spread the Gospel. Pat is not only a passionate Catholic but is the pioneer of the organizational health movement and one of the world’s foremost experts on leadership and teamwork. 

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