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The coronavirus vaccine ultimate explainer, and Cardinal Sarah retires

Hey everybody!

On this day in 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln traveled in disguise from Harrisburg to Washington, DC, in order to avoid an assassination plot against him. Lincoln wore a shawl and a beaver pelt hat, and he slept in a berth in an ordinary train car, while his official train traveled without him.

When Lincoln was safe and word got out, the president-elect was widely mocked in the press for sneaking into town in a disguise.

Anyhow, here’s what’s new at The Pillar:

First, Catholic bioethics professor Michael Deem put together a user-friendly guide to just about every question you might have on the morality of the coronavirus vaccines.

I don’t think you’re going to find 7,000 words (!) on the moral principles, magisterium, and science of the vaccines anywhere else. In fact, I know you’re not.

Check out The Ultimate Catholic Coranavirus Vaccine Morality Explainer™

Share it with your friends, coworkers, parishioners, parents, and anyone else with questions about the vaccine.


On Friday, the Vatican announced it’s projecting a near 50 million euro budget deficit in 2021. That’s a lot of money. But while most coverage focused on the deficit, Ed pointed out that the announcement also indicates progress is being made in the efforts of Pope Francis to bring Vatican spending under control, and to bring budgets into the light.

“It is a giant leap forward for transparency and accountability that the Holy See is in a position to release annual budget statements and financial reports at all, a step the secretariat’s Friday statement noted has been ‘repeatedly requested by the Holy Father,’” Ed wrote.

I found it most interesting that while deficit spending is covered by the Holy See’s reserves, no one, including Vatican financial administrators, has been able to figure out quite how much cash the Holy See actually has on reserve.

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The Holy See announced on Saturday the retirement of Cardinal Robert Sarah, who had been head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Sarah, who is from Guinea, submitted his resignation when he turned 75 last year, as is required for cardinals who lead Vatican offices.

Ed and I each wrote about Sarah’s retirement.

For his part, Ed pointed out that it’s unusual for a Vatican prefect to retire before his successor is announced. He looked at two theories floating around the Vatican on Saturday about Sarah’s resignation, and explained why neither is satisfying.

Ed’s piece also criticized “the danger of interpreting events through the predetermined framework of ideology or partisanship.”

My analysis noted that most media coverage of Sarah’s retirement played into the set of predictable tropes that pit the cardinal and Pope Francis as foes, or suggest that Sarah was suspected in the Vatican of undermining the pontiff.

I aimed to look honestly at the relationship between Sarah and the Holy Father, without giving into the sensationalism. Here’s an excerpt:

“For better or worse, the Church is a human community with the same tendencies as any other. The Church’s hierarchy is not a meritocracy, nor do oracles divine mystically the candidates to be chosen for ecclesiastical leadership. Instead, filling postings in the Church is often about who you know, or who knows you, and who is encouraging or discouraging your appointment to various positions.” 

“Sarah is from a different ecclesiastical crowd than Pope Francis. The cardinal’s friends do not hold positions of influence. Sarah has few advocates, if any, in the pope’s inner circle, and none likely to encourage keeping Sarah in place much past his retirement.”

“But none of that seems to make the case, repeated frequently in coverage of the cardinal, that Sarah is a foe of the pope.”

Read the whole thing here.

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What we’re doing at The Pillar

As a reminder, we’re grateful to those of you who subscribe, share, and even read The Pillar. Most of the stuff we’re working on is medium-term or longer-term reporting - which means that as we publish new stuff each day, we’re also doing a lot of reporting behind-the-scenes.

Right now, Ed is working on his ongoing public accountability investigation into Vatican finances, and I’m looking at several aspects of the Church’s implementation of Vos estis lux mundi - Pope Francis’ policies for addressing sexual abuse and cover-up in the Church.

We’re also getting ready to publish some deep-dive financial reporting that’s not about the Vatican, as we tend to do, but instead focuses on how the Church has fared during lockdowns and the pandemic. Stay tuned - it’s really interesting stuff.

And last week on our podcast, Ed proffered a ridiculous perspective on beer that still has me pretty ticked off. You can find The Pillar Podcast on whatever apps you use to listen to podcasts.


Links and thoughts.

By most counts, yesterday the U.S. surpassed 500,000 deaths attributed to the coronavirus. We should pray for the repose of the souls of the dead, and also for those who have suffered in this year of isolation, job loss, economic tribulation, and uncertainty.

In one sense, as hospitalizations decline and more people are vaccinated, the U.S. seems to be turning a corner. In another sense, though, we should expect to see coming another period of sharpened social tension and division, as public health authorities say that distancing and masking should continue even after vaccination, as those with conscience objections to the vaccine will begin to face pressure at work and elsewhere, and as public officials face increased pressure to lift the restrictions that, whatever health benefit they’ve offered, have had profound cultural and social effects on us all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Christian amid all that turmoil. I keep coming back to a Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

I’m not sure I know yet what it means to be a social and cultural peacemaker at a moment like this, but I’m praying for wisdom about that. May the Lord guide us all.

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My friend Ryan Anderson published “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment” back in 2019. It’s a good read - not inflammatory, serious, and thoughtful. This weekend he discovered the book had been de-listed on Amazon. He wasn’t notified or anything, it was just gone.

Amazon has declined to respond to questions about why the book was pulled. But you can find copies of it here.

If the book was delisted because its topic is transgenderism, well, that might mean, as Ross Douthat suggested, that “a mid-level censor at Amazon appears to be conducting an experiment in what they can get away with.” But it might also mean that delisting books like Ryan’s is good business for major retailers: Not, most likely, because of customer complaint, but because amid the inevitable backlash from believers, the company has an opportunity to signal that its “values” are the socially appropriate values of secular culture. It is very good marketing to appear unwilling to sell a book like Anderson’s.

But consider that while Amazon signals its social conscience, if that is its intention, it is also accused of bribing warehouse workers not to unionize, has been accused of failing to protect workers during the pandemic, and, according to the Federal Trade Commission, “siphoned tips and slashed wages” of contract delivery drivers.

When man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him,” John Paul II wrote. Indeed.

On Monday, my friend Fran Maier published some observations from a research project he’s conducting into the lives and ministries of diocesan bishops across the U.S. Read them here. Here’s a thoughtful excerpt:

“I asked each of the bishops I interviewed a concluding question: At the end of the day, what worries and what encourages you the most? In case after case, a bishop gave the same answer to each question—young people. The greatest pain is the number of young persons exiting the Church. The greatest source of hope is the zeal and character of the young people who remain faithful and love Jesus Christ. And this is why, at some mysterious level, every bishop I interviewed was both vividly alert to the challenges he faces and simultaneously at peace.”

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This is an iceberg simulator. Enjoy. Set a timer, or you could end up spending more time than you expect simulating icebergs. Forewarned is forearmed.

Please be assured of our prayers.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

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