Today is the third of October, and you’re reading The Tuesday Pillar Post.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — while Easter is the highest point on the liturgical calendar, and Christmas our biggest cultural celebration, I have a strong personal preference for the early days of October, as a fantastic smorgasbord of saints and Catholic history.
On October 1, we celebrate St. Thérèse — a day on which the Flynn family usually drives around for a few hours to deliver roses to the homes of our friends and family, with the colors chosen at random — or, if you prefer, left to Providence.
On Oct. 2, we get the guardian angels. On Oct. 4, the feast of the Seraphic Father, St. Francis. Next, Oct. 5, is St. Faustina. On Oct. 6, St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians. And then on Oct. 7, the Church commemorates Our Lady’s extraordinary intercession in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.
Later in the month, we get St. Edward the Confessor, St. Teresa of Ávila, and Pope St. John Paul II, no small beer themselves. But it’s that early October run of saints I love — angels, mystics, prophets, and our Blessed Mother herself — a reminder of the existential and transcendent unity of the Church, of her many forms and expressions of extraordinary holiness.
This year, the October “saint run” comes in a crazy week for the Church, in which the synod on synodality kicks off, the pope will release a kind of Laudato si 2.0, and everybody’s talking about “the dubia” — which we’ll talk about a little later below.
But I think it’s providential that while there’s lots developing regarding the Church on earth, the liturgical calendar reminds us of the Church Triumphant, and our own call to holiness. Every era is a great one for sanctity.
Now, what are we called to individually? To take up the heavy mantle of a deep life of prayer, like the Little Flower or St. Bruno? Or to be a weird, walking sign of contradiction like San Francesco? Or to take up the fight for goodness, for the protection of the vulnerable, under the banner of Our Lady, for that matter?
I don’t know. That’s the skillion-dollar question for each of us: How do you want to use me, Lord? How do I follow you?
Here’s what I do know: Whatever it is, it’s demanding. God calls no one to comfortable or easy holiness. God calls no one to the path of least resistance, however much we might wish for it. But the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.
And the answer begins on our knees, in what the October saints have in common — the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the love of Christ in the Eucharist. Whatever cross is plaguing our lives, that’s the right place to get started.
Happy October saint-week. Buy your household some early Halloween candy to celebrate.
— In our ongoing “solutions” series, which looks at practical solutions to concrete pastoral challenges, journalist Laura Loker looks at a group helping to start spiritual support groups for Catholics with mental health issues.
One in 25 American adults lives with a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia or major depression. This group aims to give those people a place to talk about their spiritual challenges, and to get support — as a pastoral supplement, not a replacement — to mental health care. And if you want to bring that to your parish, they’ll give you the training to get started.
— In northern Nigeria, at least eight people were killed and five more injured in an attack on Sunday, which has been attributed to Fulani militants. The youngest victim was nine years old.
Other research says that pattern is echoed in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. — but is less evident in non-English-speaking countries.
— In the Vatican trial, lawyers for APSA, the Vatican’s sovereign wealth fund, have recommended that some charges against Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu be dropped — those touching on his payment of hundreds of thousands to Cece Marogna, a self-styled geopolitical strategist who has said she worked as a private spy for the cardinal.
But while Becciu has said APSA backs his “absolute good faith,” the fund has also urged that Becciu be convicted on a host of other charges, and sent to prison. So that’s probably less of a Becciu endorsement, and more of a pragmatic recognition that the Marogna-related charges haven’t been especially well proven in court.
On Monday, a group of cardinals confirmed that this summer, they had sent Pope Francis five dubia, or questions, regarding the synod on synodality, their sense of its agenda, and their concerns about the synodal language which has become prevalent in the Church.
The pope answered those questions, pretty quickly, with a lengthy set of responses covering several pages.
But the cardinals weren’t satisfied with the answers, so they rephrased their questions, asked the pope to answer with only a “yes” or “no,” possibly criticized their sense that he had used a ghostwriter, and sent them back.
The pope didn’t respond to those second questions, and so on Monday, they released both sets to the Italian journalist Sandro Magister.
The Holy See responded by releasing the pope’s answers to the first set of questions, and with the DDF’s prefect arguing that it’s not Pope Francis’ job to answer questions twice, just because the cardinals didn’t like the first set of answers.
And, as you probably already know, the biggest story to emerge out of this pertains to remarks the pope made on the prospect of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples. The remarks were ambiguous enough to have some suggesting the pope had been permissive about the prospect, and others restrictive.
And with bishops and priests in Europe becoming increasingly permissive — and proactive — about the question, the pope’s decision not to intervene will likely have far more actual effect in the Church than whatever he has to say.
Qui tacet consentire videtur, as it were.
There is a lot more to reflect on in the dubia presented and published, and in the pope’s answers. I’d like to offer a few initial points:
— Some theologians are debating the pope’s comments on confession, which, to some, seemed to suggest that a confessor can presume contrition by the fact that a penitent has entered the confessional. To those theologians, the pope’s approach seemed to diminish the importance of a “firm purpose of amendment” as an integral component of sacramental confession, or to argue for some broad — albeit vague — circumstances under which manifesting that purpose of amendment would be impossible.
Given the controversy surrounding Amoris laetitia in recent years, the pope’s comments on confession are sure to become a source of heated theological dispute.
— From my own point of view, apart from the possible development on the pope’s view on blessings, there is nothing in the dubia responsa that was not already known by those who pay attention to Francis.
Neither those who agree with him, nor those troubled by the pope’s positions, learned very much new in these responses.
I’m not sure what to think of the fact that the cardinals asked their questions, got an answer, sent a second set of questions, got no answer, and then published both sets.
I’ve deliberated over the whole thing for 24 hours now, and I’m still not quite sure what I think — I’ve gone back and forth several times.
To a lot of observers, releasing publicly the second set of questions seemed designed as much to spark controversy as to provide clarity — a move that seemed to shed heat, but not light, ahead of the synod on synodality.
Some observers, looking at the questions, say that the cardinals seemed less interested in getting clarity themselves, and more interested in testing the pope. It’s not clear that setting up orthodoxy tests for the Roman pontiff framed as dubia, and then publishing them, is an especially great way to engage with him. And it seems obvious, at least to me, that the pope was never going to answer the second set of questions.
In fact, that practice seems to differ concretely even from the dubia posed after Amoris laetitia, when there was — and remains — genuine uncertainty about the precise intended meaning of certain texts.
This week’s release has called into question the good faith of the cardinals involved, which may well impede their efforts to teach the faith, maintain communion with the Church, and urge Christian unity in a difficult time.
On the other hand, the pope’s answers illustrate the kinds of doctrinal issues that do concern many Catholics, and that likely should be discussed openly if the synod on synodality is going to visit issues pertaining to the Church’s teaching office.
In a synodal Church, it’s good to have those answers, I think, and to be able to address the questions they raise — and Cardinal Fernández seemed to say as much earlier this week.
So as I say, I’m really not sure what to think about all of this. I’m sure there are readers who think the cardinals did just the right thing, and readers who think the opposite. I admire, if nothing else, your clarity of vision on this.
But whatever the cardinals’ intentions, the questions — both sets — and answers have now been released. In some corners, the questions themselves are controversial, in others, the answers given by the pope are the controversial part.
And whatever can be said of both question-and-answer, the dubia have served at least one definite purpose — they’ve conveyed just how much we should expect to unfold in the month of the synod on synodality in Rome.
If this is the opening move, there should be no illusions that October in Rome, as the synod proceeds, will be a placid, peaceful, or languorous month of discernment.
There are instead clear lines emerging, and neither side seems inclined to back down. The synod on synodality may soon become anything but synodal. And the synod of the media, so to speak, has already devolved into a war of words, and will be framed as a referendum on the legacy of the pontiff.
Ed and I head to Rome for the second of this month — and I’m already eager to take things in.
But buckle up, readers. And pray for the Church.
Charlie Camosy took a deep dive on this question, talking to moral theologians of all stripes about what’s working in their discipline, and what isn’t.
Many of those theologians noted divides between scholars with different approaches to moral reasoning, and a stark divide between university academics and moralists teaching in seminaries.
That divide has led to a kind of crisis, Camosy argued, one that can only be addressed by a return to honest, good faith, intellectually serious debates among moral theologians.
But are those debates even possible? Are there places where they can take place? Are universities choking them out? How does the Vatican factor into all of this?
Camosy asks a lot of important questions, and gets some fascinating answers.
This is a well-researched, well-sourced, well-crafted analysis of a critical set of issues that may not be on your radar. But whether you work in theology, or you’re just concerned for the Church’s teaching, you should read this analysis. It’s worth the time you’ll spend, I promise.
When in Rome
I’m very proud that The Pillar publishes Sunday School, a Bible study podcast with Dr. Scott Powell.
I have learned a lot every single season.
But my very favorite season — our best season, objectively — is the one we started publishing on Sunday, a Bible study on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Our producer Kate Olivera has joined us on the podcast, and her voice is a great addition. Scott is bringing his A-game, and I hope I am too.
But I love this show because Romans is a complicated part of Scripture — cited in some of the greatest theological divides of Christian history — and Scott provides context that helps to make sense of what St. Paul is up to.
Whether you love Sunday School or you’ve never listened to it, I think this season is for you. You can find it on every podcast app, and you can find it right here.
Humbly, I ask you to listen. I think you’ll like it.
On ‘pastoral discernment’
In his answer to the dubia question on same-sex blessings, the pope made a point about the “practical discernment” in pastoral situations, emphasizing that “canon law should and cannot cover everything” in the life of the Church, “as the life of the Church flows through many channels other than normative ones.”
Of course, anyone with pastoral experience can say that practical discernment is needed on a near-constant basis, amid the complexities of trying situations unfolding in real life.
But the pope’s framing of this question gives me pause, because of how I expect it will be taken in some corners of the Church.
In some circles, an argument has resurfaced which says that charity sometimes demands a response that might contravene the Church’s law — or that moral reasoning should be done with a kind of preeminence of the immediate and concrete, rather than from certitude on enduring moral principles of divine law.
That argument takes an expansive view of “pastoral discernment,” by which the priest or deacon in a pastoral situation is given wide latitude to make judgments about what God would want, even if those judgments are a deviation from objective moral teaching.
We should be careful about that expansive view. It can make of the priest a kind of oracle, detached from a deposit of faith, and capable of divining from some wellspring of ordained magic the right thing to do.
That view of “pastoral discernment” is actually just clericalism, with the language of compassion.
It’s “Father knows best,” gussied up in some mystical rhetoric.
On Friday last week, I had two wisdom teeth removed. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, which is good, because I have to get the other two out eventually.
But before I got the extractions, I read up on best dental practices for wisdom teeth removal, and learned a bit about the tools used, and even watched a couple of somewhat gruesome YouTubes. Then I sat down in the chair, and I asked my dentist what he intended to do.
Imagine my dismay if he’d said, “Look, I’ll use dental discernment here. I know what the manuals say, but that might not be the approach I discern best for you. Don’t worry though, I’m praying. And, listen pal, the life of dentistry flows through many channels, not just the normative ones.”
I’d get the hell out of the chair.
And I’d get the hell out of the confessional too, if the priest told me, “I know what Christ’s Church says about God’s divine revelation to the world, and all of that is well and fine, but, listen pal — I’m gonna pray about things a bit, and then we’ll know how to patch up that soul of yours.”
I do want my confessor praying. I do want him discerning. But I want his discernment shaped by the Church’s doctrine, and even by the contours of her legal tradition.
Anything else would be malpractice.
Have a great week.
Please be assured of our prayers, and please pray for us. We need it.
May the October saints pray for us, and for the Church.
Yours in Christ,