The Assumption, the silly season, and Simone Biles

The Friday Pillar Post

Happy Friday friends,

It’s August, traditionally the “silly season” for journalists; the time when, absent bigger stories unfolding at their usual brisk pace, things which might otherwise struggle for attention become big news.

Rome calling

Probably the most-trafficked story in Catholic media this week was that Pope Francis took a phone call. I know, nail biting stuff, right?

Toward the end of the Wednesday papal audience, a member of the pope’s security team handed Francis a mobile phone, into which he spoke briefly, before exiting the stage for less than five minutes and then returning. 

One Italian journalist seems to have zoomed in on the iPhone screen, to show the caller was Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the sostituto at the Secretariat of State - basically the pope’s curial chief of staff. 

We don’t know what they were talking about. Some have speculated it was to do with the bullets someone tried to send the pope in the mail. Others wondered if it was about China, or the ongoing Vatican financial trial. But we don’t know. What we know is the pope took a five minute phone call, probably from his chief aide.

That’s it, that’s the whole story. It made big headlines nearly everywhere. Like I said, it’s the silly season. 

But just because it’s August doesn’t mean there aren’t stories really worth reporting, and so we’ve tried to bring you a few of them this week:

For a start, it’s the feast of the Assumption on Sunday, one of those rare solemnities which trumps the Sunday itself. 

We’ve got a primer to get you in the Assumption holiday spirit, with papal teaching, Eastern tradition, and some Assumption customs you might not have known about. 

Check it out.

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What is ‘goalball’? And why it’s awesome.

You may have never heard of goalball. I had not. It’s a Paralympic sport for the visually impaired, and it’s unique, in the sense that it was created specifically for the blind, not as sport adapted for blind players.

Matt Simpson is an anchor of this year’s U.S. Paralympic goalball team, a past silver medalist, and one of the world’s best players. He is also a recent convert to Catholicism. 

We talked to him this week about representing your country on the international stage, going for gold, and finding faith. It is an absolutely fascinating conversation.

In addition to explaining the ins-and-outs of a sport you’ve probably never heard of — and believe me this is an intense game; a blindfolded cross between handball and dodgeball — Matt speaks with incredible power on the experience of living with a disability, and what that means for faith, humility, and loving your neighbor:

“Being able to recognize that I need help, both in a blindness sense and also in a salvific sense, but also recognizing that God has prepared and equipped me, exactly as he saw fit, and that being contrite or kind of backing down because I am disabled is not what God wants for me.

You can tell very, very easily who thinks they know what it means to be blind or disabled or whatever. And they're going to treat you as something lesser, no matter what. 

As a faithful Christian, I want to love people in their wrongness, even as I am so blessed and reliant upon the generosity of others. You know, there's not a day goes by that I’m not in a situation where I need the assistance of someone else, and that's just the reality of blindness, but also, of course, of life.”

Seriously: Read the whole thing.

Vatican prosecutors won’t roll the tape

Hearings in the Vatican’s criminal financial trial are not set to resume until the first week of October, but that doesn’t mean lawyers for the prosecution and defense teams aren’t logging their billable hours.

This week, the chief magistrate of the Vatican City tribunal hearing the case ordered prosecutors to turn over evidence which the defense said they had not yet received. Discovery, we’d call it in the U.S. system. 

The Promoter of Justice’s office immediately filed a response, noting that much of the information requested had already been handed over, and promising to deliver most of the rest.

But Vatican prosecutors also argued that they should not have to turn over certain kinds of files, especially hours of video recorded interviews with key witnesses like Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, the former Secretariat of State official-turned-whistleblower.

Vatican prosecutors argued that witnesses who come forward voluntarily can only have their interviews recorded with their express permission, and only for delineated purposes. In the case of Perlasca, they argue, he agreed to be filmed only so that investigators could prepare an accurate summary of his relevant evidence for him to sign — he did not agree to be on the record on camera for hours at a time. 

“In the absence of any limit to the possible subsequent disclosure [of the footage],” said the prosecutors, “the right to privacy of the information would be irreparably compromised for the people involved.” And they may have a point.

The case’s most famous defendant, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, has already announced he is suing Perlasca for defamation over his whistleblowing. If prosecutors turned over hours of footage of Perlasca speaking candidly to Vatican police about his old boss, it’s entirely possible that could be used against him in a defamation case. 

How so? Well let’s take a hypothetical — and I want to stress this is absolutely an invented hypothetical: Perlasca is talking about how business was conducted under Becciu at the secretariat and giving some important technical details about who signed off on what, and when. At some point he’s asked why he didn’t say something sooner and he responds — hypothetically — that he was afraid because Becciu was known around town — hypothetically — to be a sinister blackmail artist who crushes anyone who crosses him. 

Now, in this totally invented hypothetical, did Perlasca come into the Vatican cop shop to accuse Becciu of blackmail and threatening people in the course of his job? No, he came to give technical evidence about specific financial transactions. Are the prosecutors treating this sidecar comment as evidence of a crime? No, they’re only interested in the details of who signed off on what and when, and that’s all they’re presenting in court. 

Would Perlasca be intending to make a public, legally actionable, potentially defamatory, statement about his old boss? No, he would just be spontaneously answering a question about his own reasons for not speaking sooner.

BUT, could a tape on which he had said such things be used against him in a defamation case if it leaked to the public? Very much so. And that’s the prosecutors’ argument.

It’s not, by the way, that the prosecutors are saying the defense can’t see the Perlasca tapes; they have suggested that lawyers be allowed to view them at the court’s offices. They are just arguing that they shouldn’t be compelled to copy the tapes and hand them over, at which point they could show up on YouTube or in another court.

The whole argument is an interesting legal back and forth. Read it here.

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Meanwhile, in Germany

Next month’s German federal elections have not drawn much attention in the U.S., but they are rather a big deal for the future of Europe. The country’s long-time chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to step down, and her likely replacement is Armin Laschet, the new head of Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union. 

One of Laschet’s senior staffers, Nathanael Liminski, was targeted this week in a campaign ad from the rival Social Democratic Party. The ad broke longstanding German campaign norms both by mounting a personal attack and by focusing critically on Liminski’s Catholic faith.

Liminski keeps out of the professional spotlight, and hasn’t publicly discussed his faith since beginning a career as a professional political staffer. But in his 20s he was a co-founder of Generation Benedict, a group of young Catholics who wanted to promote a positive and engaged image of faithful Catholic youth after the World Youth Day meeting in Cologne. 

In that role, Liminski made several media appearances affirming a range of apparently “ultra- Catholic” teachings, like opposing abortion, affirming marriage is between a man and a woman, and explaining that pornography is harmful to human beings. For those positions, the ad paints him as a sinister religious nutter.

While the SDP campaign spot may prove to be just a blip in the run-up to the election, the treatment of Liminski is instructive about the wider trend in German society, in and out of the Church, in which public adherence to even the Church’s most basic moral teachings is branded as quasi-extremist. 

The SDP ad called Liminski an “ultra-Catholic” who believes sex outside marriage is “taboo,” and a subsequent profile of him posted on the official website of the German bishops’ conference noted his “arch-Catholic family,” citing his parents’ affiliation with the “controversial community Opus Dei.” 

You can read the whole story here.

For me, the main takeaway is this: If voicing adherence cheerfully to basic Catholic teaching in your 20s is now framed as disqualifying for public life in Germany, where exactly should we expect the still-ongoing German synodal process to end, and how surprised should we be when we get there?

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Celebrity Catholics

In his Tuesday newsletter, JD noted the weekend media frenzy over Britney Spears Instagramming, then deleting, that she was “Catholic now.” 

I don’t know the significance of Ms. Spears’ Instagrams, but I was struck by JD’s observation that “It's not fair to Spears, whose entire life experience seems to have been commodified for the benefit of people basking in her reflected stardom.”

That commodification happens in Catholic spaces too, where Catholic influencers and the Catholic press are all too eager to hold out some celebrity’s Catholicity for clicks, and then to lambast celebrities who are Catholic when they don’t measure up.

This week it was Simone Biles. When Biles was headed to the Olympics, the Catholic press took pains to write stories about the Catholic faith of the gymnast — to use Biles as a Catholic+celebrity angle on the Olympics — in the hope that her reflected stardom would generate goodwill for the Church, and good traffic for Catholic media. 

It didn’t matter that Biles has only made a few comments about her own Catholic identity, or even that she has given little evidence that she consistently practices the faith. She is a Catholic, and that straw was enough to spin into gold.

But the praise was short-lived. 

This week on social media, in a thread she started on “unpopular opinions,” the gold medalist announced herself to be “very much pro-choice” and affirmed the mantra “your body, your choice.” She made mention of her experience in the foster care system, which she described as “broken.”

Biles’ opinion proved very unpopular indeed, at least among many of the Catholics who had been praising her just a few weeks before. 

Much of the reaction was, I think it’s fair to say, aggressive, including responses from prominent pro-life advocates and commentators. Biles was called “awful,” “pro-baby murder,” and “absolutely vile” in a selection of comments I saw. 

Abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human life, and each and every abortion is a grave and immoral tragedy. Our aim, even our preeminent aim, in reforming our social order should be to end abortion.

Biles’ opinion on the matter is contrary to Church teaching, and to the moral law. But, as consistent polling among American Catholics has shown, her view does not make her an outlier. 

Indeed, many Catholics dissent from Church teaching, moral and theological, on a range of vital issues. There is, clearly, a crisis of formation among many, many Catholics in the United States — many of whom have never actually been taught the substance of Catholic doctrine, let alone its coherent and transcendent beauty. 

Winning people back to the Church’s teaching might well be accomplished by patient and loving pastoral engagement, but not by the standard social media practice of branding them as “absolutely vile” —  which is probably why that tactic isn’t deployed in parish ministry very often. 

It would seem worth remembering that Biles has lived through the “broken” foster care system, and that she is a victim-survivor of sexual abuse, harmed by a person she was supposed to be able to trust, all while she rocketed to international fame as a teenager. 

Given her experiences, it is not hard for me to imagine why Simone Biles might be drawn to the slogan “my body, my choice,” however warped that idea becomes when applied to abortion. 

I would have thought that someone like Simone Biles would invite sympathetic overtures from people who would like to win her around on the evils of abortion. I would not have expected her to become so quickly a choice target for venting spleen.

But in Biles’ case, there seems to be a weird kind of dehumanizing principle at work: the more famous someone is, the less necessary we believe it is to treat them as a whole person. 

Ironic, really, given that universal human dignity is the heart of the Church’s opposition to abortion. 

Just three weeks ago, Simone Biles was celebrated in the Catholic press as an exemplar. She didn’t ask for that, didn’t frame herself that way, didn’t seek to be held out as “one of us” by people looking for a Catholic angle on the Tokyo Games. Now that she’s said something contrary to the faith, many of those same Catholics have given themselves permission to savage her online. She didn’t ask for that either. 

Who, exactly, is supposed to benefit from monstering a young Olympic gymnast instead of reaching out to her? Whose mind is changed? Whose heart touched? Whose cause helped?

It is part of a micro-climate, or maybe micro-economy, which feasts on the doings and sayings of famous Catholics, and trades on the premise that fame imparts special merit to the “good” ones and merits special contempt for the “bad” ones.

It may grab clicks, but I doubt it wins many souls; it has far more to do with a culture of celebrity than of Catholicism.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon

Editor

The Pillar