The fraternity of 'Vos estis', from Thames to Tiber, and Pope Francis and the Americans

The Friday Pillar Post

Happy Friday friends,

Much like a week old baby, the news never sleeps. And we have had a full slate this week, so let’s just get to it.

Quick links

Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati announced a massive shake up in its institutional footprint with a sweeping plan to first “cluster” parishes and, in time, merge and close many of them. These are the kind of hard choices which many U.S. dioceses are going to face in the coming years.

The Pillar’s contributing editor Brendan Hodge took a deep-dive look at the numbers, the demographics, and the wider cultural trends reshaping parish life in this country — there are a lot of crosscurrents at work here. 

Understanding these underlying trends, and how and why they are reshaping the ecclesiastical landscape, is crucial to understanding where we are headed. I really can’t think of anything we publish that better exemplifies what we set up The Pillar to do.

If you only read one thing from us this week, let it be this. 

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Pope John Paul I is moving on down the road to sainthood this week, with Pope Francis recognizing a miracle attributed to his intercession, the 33-day pope will soon be formally beatified.

His was a short but eventful time in the chair of Peter, and there is, of course, much more to his life than the month he spent as pope.

You can read our primer on the life and times of JP I here.

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This week brought yet another blow to the work of Vatican prosecutors in their handling of the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal. 

Italy’s highest appeals court overturned “precautionary measures” placed against Gianluigi Torzi, the broker accused of extorting the Vatican for control of a London building purchased through him.

The decision suspends an Italian arrest warrant issued for Torzi earlier this year. The warrant was issued on charges of tax evasion and fraud, and was based substantially on evidence gathered by Vatican prosecutors.

We’ll have to wait a few weeks for the full decision to be released. For now, the matter will be revisited by a lower court, throwing Torzi into legal limbo: he’s in London awaiting the outcome of an extradition request from Italy, which was based on the warrant. 

We are following every development of this trial, and you can get up to speed here.

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It’s nearly USCCB meeting time, again. One thing to keep your eye on is the slate of committee chairs up for election. Usually, the candidates have some demonstrable expertise or obvious interest in the committee’s work, and they often represent different schools of thought or personality within the conference.

But one of these elections is not like the others.

The two bishops seeking to lead the committee on divine worship are surprising candidates. One of them had to hastily repeal a pandemic policy which would have allowed hospital workers to administer (invalidly) the holy oil for the Anointing of the Sick, and the other doesn’t actually celebrate the ordinary Latin Rite for his daily liturgy.

It’s a strange choice to put to a vote, and it raises some interesting questions about what the committee will be working on in the next few years, especially after Traditiones custodes

Is liturgy going to be a bit of third rail? Is that deterring more obvious candidates from putting their names forward? You can read my analysis here.

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The drums beat on this week, in the long battle over vaccines and their exemptions. 

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who leads the Archdiocese for the Military Services of the United States weighed in this week on the Pentagon’s order for all service personnel to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Broglio, who has previously urged his flock to get vaccinated, issued a statement emphasizing freedom of conscience on the issue. The archbishop warned that failure to grant exemptions to troops under religious freedom protections “would be contrary to federal law and morally reprehensible.”

If the Pentagon’s order results in sizable departures from the services, as it might, it will be interesting to watch the ensuing political and legal battles that kicks off.

His brother’s keeper

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan paid tribute this week to his episcopal neighbor, friend and mentor, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who is retiring as Bishop of Brooklyn.

Dolan gave a glowing tribute to a man who has enjoyed widespread affection and popularity among local faithful, and who has consistently blended pastoral closeness with the kind of steely leadership needed to, for example, successfully resist draconian and discriminatory treatment of churches during the pandemic lockdowns.

But DiMarzio also had to contend with accusations of historical sexual abuse, dating back to the 1970s; allegations he fiercely denied and which a Vatican investigation determined lacked even a “semblance of truth.”

It was, of course, Dolan who coordinated that investigation, and JD noted this week that his (no doubt sincere and well-meant) tribute to DiMarzio may strike some Catholics as a little odd. As the Church continues to try to battle back to credibility following the McCarrick scandal of 2018, the optics of bishops investigating their brother bishops remain problematic. 

It’s perfectly possible to accept the credibility of Dolan’s investigation and its conclusions while also noting that the obvious friendship between the two men makes the appearance of impartiality difficult. 

That spells some broad credibility problems for the pope’s chosen instrument of clerical reform. 

Read JD’s whole analysis here. 

Thames to Tiber

A former Church of England bishop announced yesterday that he is joining the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and will be ordained a priest. 

Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester (St. John Fisher’s diocese), is something of a big deal in the CofE, a much respected theologian and ecumenical worker, and a big cultural presence in UK public life. 

He is the thirteenth Anglican bishop to “swim the Tiber” since 1992, and follows closely behind Jonathan Goodall, the former Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet, who made the same move last month. 

Goodall was something of an Anglo-Catholic and served the more traditional community within the Church of England. But Nazir-Ali hails from the more evangelical wing of Anglicanism and was not known as an arch-conservative hold-out; a biblical scholar, and hardly a progressive, he also chaired the committee which paved the way for female Anglican bishops, and was usually found on the center ground of church affairs. 

Nazir-Ali’s decision comes as the Church of England is locked in a very public dispute about its own future, with plans underway which would see mass church closures and the elimination of many clerical jobs. Opponents of the plan say it represents a gutting of the parish as the pastoral core of the CofE; its supporters say that, well, the times are changing. 

Simmering underneath all of that is a broader question about how “religious” an institution as culturally ingrained as the Church of England can and should be - at times it seems like what’s at issue is a vision for a post-modern, maybe even post-religious church.

Is Nazir-Ali’s decision an indication that it’s not just “traditionalist” Anglicans who will increasingly find the Catholic Church a more natural home? We shall see. What seems certain is that the ordinariates are shaping up to be a much bigger cultural force in the Church, at least in places like the UK, in the years ahead. Watch this space.

In the meantime, for a former Anglican’s perspective on what it means to become a Catholic, and the sometimes personal trails which come along the road to Rome, you can read our interview last month with Fr. James Bradley, professor of canon law at Catholic University, here.

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Pope Francis and the Americans

Last week, much of the Catholic commentariat wrestled with Pope Francis’ meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This week, the White House confirmed what was already widely expected - President and Doctor Jill Biden are set to make their own way to Rome to meet with the Holy Father.

As with the fallout of the Pelosi visit, there will be a lot of back-and-forth about the significance of the audience, which would be run-of-the-mill, almost perfunctory, were it not for the fact that the U.S. government is currently led by two Catholics who are openly, defiantly, (in Biden’s case ever increasingly) at odds with the Church on the inhumanity of legal abortion.

Ever since Inauguration Day, the U.S. bishops and the Vatican have been in a tug-of-war over what to do about the world’s most famous Catholic layman, who also happens to be stridently in favor of the right to end innocent human life in the womb, and a weekly Mass goer.

While the U.S. bishops have debated addressing politicians like Biden’s status and public example in a document on Eucharistic coherence, Rome has preferred a more cordial “business as usual” approach to dealing with the administration. But, with Biden almost sure to come home and make hay from his papal photocall, it is clear the two approaches can and will be pitted against each other, even if both the USCCB and Vatican would prefer they were not.

The root of the problem, it seems to me, is the Vatican has the luxury of occasion. Biden, still less Pelosi, is not a daily concern in Rome. Turning a blind eye to the problem of their Catholicism and abortion activism is an easy diplomatic calculus to make: the headache of “pope vs Catholic president” would be global, and lead to expectations that Francis would or should weigh in on the orthodoxy of every Catholic government leader the world over. No one in Rome wants that, and no one is going to let that happen.

For the U.S. bishops, on the other hand, the Biden/Pelosi problem is daily and personal — something Francis might even recognize as an urgent “pastoral concern.” It’s one thing to treat the politicians as governmental and diplomatic abstracts, but it’s another to have to weigh the effect of Biden and Pelosi’s public actions on the good of souls, including their own.

Watching the tension between the two approaches, some Church pundits leap to the conclusion that the pope simply doesn’t care about abortion, or the politics of life issues. Those assertions are simply untrue, and tend to spring from the selective media coverage the pontiff so often receives — or else they are just made in bad faith.

Only yesterday Francis told a gathering of healthcare workers “I have been very clear — [abortion] is homicide and it is not licit to become complicit.” 

The pope went on to say the rights of medical workers to conscientiously object to anti-life procedures and policies — rights very much under siege by the Biden administration — are “never negotiable.” 

But, given the apparent stand-off between the USCCB and the Vatican over how to press these truths on a government led by Catholics, how are American bishops meant to proceed? 

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Part of the problem may lie among the U.S. bishops themselves. While the USCCB last year voted to reiterate that ending the scourge of legal abortion is the “preeminent” social concern of the Church in this country, that was by no means a unanimous result.

American bishops who parrot the language of Francis on abortion are, paradoxically, often accused of being out of step with the pope, even by some of their brother bishops. Others within the USCCB ranks prefer to smile warmly and change the subject as fast as possible when asked about the subject, instead of offering a version of the Holy Father’s unequivocal denunciations.

It is worth asking: If the whole of the bishops’ conference spoke out against abortion as regularly and as starkly as the pope, would the Biden and Pelosi questions be as acute a national issue for them? And might local interventions, like the mass prayer campaign for the conversion of Nancy Pelosi organized by her own archbishop, appear less radical and more obviously pastoral?

Whatever the answer, by the time the American bishops meet in Baltimore next month Francis will have met, in quick succession, Pelosi, then the USCCB’s president and vice president, Archbishops Gomez and Vigneron, and then Biden. 

On the back of those meetings, it’s impossible to imagine the eventual draft of a document on the Eucharist, scheduled for debate next month, will not reflect the pope’s preferred tone, and likely steer clear of any statement on denying Communion to politicians. Even so, the problem is not going to go away for the bishops. It will be, instead, what it has always really been: a local issue, and the responsibility of local bishops. 

The pope is the visible sign of unity among the world’s bishops, even American ones, but it is one thing for the pope to signal what he doesn’t want them to do about a particular situation, quite another for him to offer a solution. 

Hopefully, the pope will have given Gomez and Vigneron some idea of what he would like the U.S. bishops to do about the most contentious issue in the national Catholic conversation; absent that, there’s likely to be more wrangling, and less communio.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
editor
The Pillar