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The Cross of Christ, 'Vos estis,' and other news

Hey everybody,

“The Cross of Christ is the source of all blessings, the cause of all grace.”

I read that this morning, from a sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great, and I wanted to share it with you. 

Christ Crucified. Giotto, 1310. public domain.

“God’s compassion for us is all the more wonderful because Christ died, not for the righteous or the holy but for the wicked and the sinful,” Pope St. Leo wrote, some 1,500 years ago.

“By dying he submitted to the laws of the underworld; by rising again he destroyed them. He did away with the everlasting character of death so as to make death a thing of time, not of eternity. ‘As all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.’”

Christ did away with “the everlasting character of death,” and he did it, “not for the righteous or the holy but for the wicked and the sinful.”

The Gospel in its essence is this: That Christ the Lord died and rose again so that we sinners could/would/might/will have new life in him. 

This is and has always been the faith of the Church — and it is a gift for which the only responses are joy, humility, repentance, and praise.

As we get close to Holy Week, let’s praise God together for the unmerited gift of his Passion. 

And let’s get ourselves to confession — there is no sense marveling at the grace of God’s love if we stand at the window with our noses pressed against the glass, but we don’t actually enter the life of grace. 

So go to confession — today, if you need it. 

The news

Nearly four years after it was initially promulgated, Pope Francis on Saturday released an updated version of Vos estis lux mundi (VELM), the universal policy governing the investigation of bishops and religious superiors accused of abuse or cover-ups and other kinds of administrative misconduct.

The revisions are pretty straightforward — and we’ve cataloged them, big and small, pretty exhaustively right here.

The big ones are that Pope Francis has added that lay leaders of Vatican-recognized movements or associations fall under the investigative aegis of Vos estis, and clarified that neither complainants nor witnesses are bound to maintain confidentiality about Vos estis investigations and what they entail. That would seem to preclude the requirement that participants in Vatican-ordered processes be required to sign non-disclosure agreements, as happened in the Diocese of Knoxville last year. 

The new text also made a change in terms, replacing the phrase “vulnerable persons” with “vulnerable adults” — but there aren’t clear legal implications of that change, since minors are categorically protected in the law anyway.

As I’ve said, you can read a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the changes here.

Our explainer on what has change also mentions what has not changed in Vos estis — namely, that the Holy See has no obligation to make known investigations into bishops.

And that’s worth noting. When priests are accused of misconduct and investigated, the accusation - in general terms - is announced, for the sake of the public, and to allow any possible victims to come forward. The priest is generally removed from ministry for the duration of the investigation. Bishops have said this is a necessary part of good safe environment policy. 

But things are not the same for bishops.

Since Vos estis was promulgated, the Holy See has consistently declined to acknowledge that VELM investigations are underway, with very few exceptions. When asked directly about investigations, the Holy See has not responded. And results - except for the exoneration of particular bishops - have not been published or announced.

Vos estis, you might remember, was billed as a promise for transparency in the life of the Church. In its second iteration, it has not yet held itself accountable to that transparency. 

Why is that a problem? Because if there are lessons of recent years, one is that a promise to do justice in secret is too easily abused by those with bad intentions, and the second is that for justice to be done for the sake of the whole community, it must be seen to be done by the whole community. That’s what engenders trust.

The tinkering with Vos estis promulgated this weekend offers some changes that will be welcomed by canonists and other ecclesiastical officials. 

But on the major issue of transparency, the future of ecclesiastical reform is still, as it were, unclear.

Read our VELM report here.

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Also on Saturday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, until then head of the Diocese of Osnabrück and vice president of the German bishops’ conference.

The Holy See did not announce a reason (see above), but comments from Bode and other German bishops suggested that the resignation came because of a 2022 report which found that Bode had seriously mishandled abuse cases in his diocese. 

The bishop had acknowledged that mishandling last year, but said he would stay in office to oversee reforms in his diocese — even initially hinting that Fr. Hans Zollner, a Vatican abuse expert, had supported that plan, until after reporting from The Pillar, the bishop’s spokesman walked that idea back.

But in addition to those abuse mishandling allegations, Bode has also recently been in the headlines for announcing plans in his diocese to conduct liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, despite Vatican instruction that such blessings are doctrinally impossible. That led to some speculation that Pope Francis accepted Bode’s resignation in part because of his outspoken flouting of a doctrinal issue.

In either case, Bode has resigned, and the Holy See has not said specifically why, leaving open questions.

While the Vatican seems unlikely to actually explain its decision, The Pillar’s Luke Coppen took a shot, publishing an insightful analysis that aims to unpack the reasons why Bode’s resignation might have been accepted — and assessing what ambiguity on the subject will mean for the Church in Germany.

Here’s an excerpt:

The lack of official clarity over the reasons for Bode’s departure may suit both Rome and the German Church.

The belief that Bode might have been punished for his role in the synodal way is useful when the Vatican is facing accusations that it has done too little too late to stop Germany’s rupture with the worldwide Church.

Speculation that Bode was removed for running ahead of other bishops over same-sex blessings is also convenient for Rome as it may temporarily reduce pressure for it to intervene on the matter in Germany. 

The ambiguity over whether Bode was let go because of his errors in abuse cases permits German Church leaders, such as Bishop Bätzing, to lionize their colleague as a trailblazing reformer without provoking uproar among abuse survivors. 

It also allows Bode to continue to exercise behind-the-scenes influence on the German reform program.

Read the whole thing.

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The bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, issued on Friday a ban on the use of so-called hookup apps for all clergy in the diocese.

Bishop Robert McManus promulgated the new diocesan penal law March 24, warning that use of hookup app technology will lead to sanctions for priests and deacons in the diocese.

A fair number of readers have asked why the bishop would do this — shouldn’t it be self-evident that clerics shouldn’t be using hookup apps?

It should, but it isn’t, given the number of clerics who have been caught using them to meet minors in recent years, or others found to have been using them for other purposes.

And the law, as far as I can tell, pertains to something Ed and I have been talking about for a few years — and Pope Francis talked about in 2021 very convincingly — the value of progressive means of discipline enacted by particular law.

A law against hookup apps gives the bishop who finds out a priest is using them some means to sanction the man, in order to occasion his repentance and reform, to restore justice, and to repair scandal. It lets the bishop handle a problem with due process and clear sanctions. In other words, it provides clarity of both expectation and process for all involved.

It’s worth noting that such a law also clarifies that if a cleric is using a hookup app, it’s an ultra vires act — not permitted, or sanctioned by the diocese in any way. That could become relevant if priests were to face litigation over the use of hookup apps — at least, it could become relevant if the diocese demonstrates that it made good faith efforts to enforce its particular law.

Worcester is at least the second diocese to promulgate such a particular law — and it comes after the promulgation in recent years of related law and clarification from the Holy See. The risk inherent in the use of hookup apps seems to be coming onto the radar for bishops in the life of the Church. 

You can read about the Massachusetts law here.

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You may have seen in the news recently an acrimonious debate in Poland, and concern throughout the Catholic world, about recent claims regarding Pope St. John Paul II’s handling of clerical abuse cases when he was Archbishop of Kraków.

You might be unsure what all of this is about.

Well, The Pillar’s Luke Coppen talked with one of four journalists who reviewed material related to abuse cases in Poland — and here’s what the journalist, Tomasz Krzyżak, has to say.


Next, a story about a program that aims to train Catholic school teachers in a pedagogical approach rooted in Christian anthropology and the truth of the Incarnation.

The Catholic Educator Formation and Credential (CEFC) program, aims, according to its director, “at human flourishing. We understand that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, a composite of body and soul, and we want to take very careful account of the nature of the human soul, because we're not just teaching math or literacy or science. We're teaching children, we're forming human beings - for this world and the next.”

Michelle La Rosa reports that the program is used as an alternative form of credentialing in some dioceses, and is not shy about its concerns about other methods of teacher training. 

It has “become clear that nearly all teacher training programs are fundamentally secular. They're rooted in a secular philosophy that essentially omits the divine and does not take into account the nature of the human person,” Beth Sullivan of the ICLE told The Pillar.

“[Secular education] doesn't encourage a sense of contemplation, which is really the necessary foundation for prayer. It doesn't encourage looking at what is in creation as signs and symbols of God's goodness and truth and beauty. It doesn't encourage a child to discover meaning or to develop a sense of wonder and awe about this world that God has created.”

So what does the CEFC program do? And how does it do it?

Well, the story is worth reading. And you can read about it right here.  

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Finally, The Pillar reported last night that well-known Catholic intellectual Denis McNamara has been accused of sexual misconduct involving adult seminarians at Mundelein Seminary

McNamara taught at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute from 2009 until 2019, and is the author of several popular Catholic books on Church architecture, and is a prominent speaker on the relationship between the Church’s theology and her architectural traditions. He has also consulted on the construction of several recently built Catholic churches in the U.S. which draw from classical Catholic styles.

Based on what I’ve been hearing since we published the report, the news about McNamara has been hard for a lot of Catholics who held McNamara in high regard. 

According to Mundelein’s rector, men came forward to report that McNamara “engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior toward adult seminarians during and after the time he was employed here.

After McNamara left Mundelein in 2019, he became the director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. When we published this story last night, we reported that McNamara had been removed from the college’s faculty directory this month, but that we could not confirm that he was no longer employed there. We reached out to Benedictine to find out, and this morning the college confirmed that he resigned after being placed on administrative leave earlier this month. 

We have not been able to reach McNamara for comment.

You can read the report about this news here.

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How the sausage gets made

Stories like this are hard to report. They’re hard for faithful Catholics to read, especially when it feels like there is no end to the drum beat. 

They’re hard for journalists to report on, too, believe it or not. Ed mentioned the other week that sometimes we need to report to each other for “sunshine duty” every once in a while, when we get the sense the bad news is beginning to get to us. 

And it’s hard for the institutions involved — dioceses, parishes, seminaries and Catholic colleges — who have to reckon with painful events touching their community. We get that. It’s not easy, and everyone needs a little slack when dealing with stuff like this. Within reason.

Unfortunately, “within reason,” isn’t always enough for some people. 

Last night, as we were getting the story about McNamara ready to publish, we’d confirmed what Mundelein wrote to the community there, and we noted that the rector had mentioned informing his “then-current employer.” That’s a curious turn of phrase.

As far as we or anyone else could tell, the last place McNamara had worked was Benedictine College, so of course we wanted to reflect any changes to his employment status if we could.

We checked the school’s website and McNamara was still listed as director of the college’s Center for Beauty and Culture, but he seemed to have been removed from the faculty directory. 

Now, his current employment status wasn’t exactly central to the story, and there was no indication there had been any problems involving the college, but for completion's sake we tried to get some kind of confirmation. 

As late as 9:30 Mountain Time, we were still trying: we emailed Benedictine’s communications officer, and trying to reach out to the college’s president through a former board member.

Given that Mundelein had put out the notice regarding McNamara earlier that day, we expected Benedictine would be waiting for someone to call, but it was late and there’s always a chance, with these things, that people might not respond. That’s just how it is.

We’d made a good faith effort to chase down that detail, and we published the story indicating that “as of press time, the college has not responded to a request for comment from The Pillar.” We expected we’d add to the story if and when they got back to us.

Well, the college did post a statement this morning indicating that McNamara resigned earlier this month. But a college administrator also reached out to tell us what they thought of our “bad journalism.” Lapses of temper by individuals happen, and honestly our reflex is to let these things go when we can - especially since the college official who accused us of “bad journalism” eventually apologized..

But the college also put out a statement to the campus community saying that “An article appeared early this morning regarding Dr. Denis McNamara. The article incorrectly states that Benedictine College was contacted before publication. No contact had been made.”

That’s just not right. It’s not correct, as a matter of fact, and while I understand it can be a tough time for people responding to situations like this and everyone deserves a little slack, it’s just not helpful for anyone involved.

When we called the college on this, they told us that in their view, an email “doesn’t count as contact.”

Now, we’ve been doing journalism for a while now. We’ve written about people, and we’ve been written about. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’ve been contacted by email and we contact others that way, too. That’s just how it usually happens.

If Benedictine College wanted to say, “The Pillar contacted us late at night, and we really don’t think that’s fair,” well, OK — but that’s not “bad journalism” and it isn’t “no contact.”

Differences of opinion happen.

But just to be clear: we did contact the college, we tried a couple of different ways, in fact. And we were only doing so to get clarity on a tangential detail of a story about McNamara. 

As it happens, Benedictine College seem to have placed McNamara on administrative leave as soon they became aware of allegations against him, and what he resigned 19 days ago, the college did notify students by email, they told us this morning — although the college website didn’t reflect that. A Benedictine official said the college didn’t feel it could make the reason for McNamara’s resignation public, because the allegations of misconduct weren’t made to them.

In any case, there’s no indication of any mishandling on Benedictine’s part of McNamara, the actual subject of the story. 

I’m telling you all this for two reasons. 

The first is this: We take our work pretty seriously here at The Pillar. People call us names sometimes, and some people don’t like some of the stuff we cover, and that’s all in the game for us. But we make very sure we dot our i’s and cross our t’s. We’ve got nothing to trade off of but our names and our reputations.

So if someone says we didn’t contact them when we did, we have to call that out. 

The second thing is this: Like I said, stories like this are hard for anyone involved. And it’s all too easy to slip into reflexive temper. Resisting that doesn’t come naturally for anyone. But approaching our work from a truly Catholic perspective means, sometimes, resisting the urge to make “the other guys” into “the enemy.” And, when necessary, it means shaking hands and moving on.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while we’re writing this, Benedictine has released the following statement:

“To clarify: The reporter involved in the story about Dr. McNamara referenced today did send an email asking for comment from Benedictine College at 10:29 p.m. before publishing the story at 12:10 a.m. That email was not received until this morning. For everyone’s information, 24 hour media contact information for Benedictine College can be found here:”

While the email in question was delivered, we appreciate that Benedictine administrators did not read it until this morning, and we appreciate that they appreciate this is a 24-hour business. So there you have it.

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A Miracle?

And for good measure, a story we’ve not actually reported, because we don’t have any original reporting on it, but that I want you to know about.

The Archdiocese of Hartford is investigating the prospect of a Eurcharistic miracle at the St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Connecticut.

Fr. Joseph Crowley, pastor of the parish which includes St. Thomas Church, explains that on March 5, a ciborium — the vessel which holds sacred hosts — seemed to be miraculously replenished as Holy Communion was distributed at Mass.

You can listen to Fr. Crowley talk about it here:

The archdiocese said that officials are taking testimony from witnesses to the alleged miracle, and preparing a report for the next steps.

Whatever happened — that miracle or no — it is always a miracle that Jesus Christ becomes sacramentally present to us in the holy sacrament of the altar. Thank God for that, huh?

Please be assured of our prayers in these final days of Lent, and please for us, friends, we need it. And let’s pray for the life, mission, and holiness of our Church.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

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