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The Kingsmen, the pope’s man, and apples and oranges

Happy Friday friends,

And a happy feast of St. Bernadine of Siena, the 13th century Franciscan missionary and preacher. St. Bernadine, inter alia, was known for his devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, and for coming up with the IHS Christogram, taken from the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek.

Believe it or not, Bernadine was eventually put on trial for heresy over his fervent promotion of the devotion to the Holy Name — but he was acquitted, as you might expect, and so impressed the pope during his trial that he was invited by Martin V to preach in Rome, which he reportedly did for 80 days straight.

He was also known as a pioneer in the science of economics, and wrote one of the first systematic treatments of the subject from a Scholastic perspective.

He sure looks like an economist to me.

I hope you also took time out yesterday to celebrate the feast of St. Dunstan, the tenth** century Archbishop of Canterbury. I could go on about the interesting age in which he lived - the century just before the Norman Conquest - and the effect his relationship with the crown had on centuries of Church-state relations in England, but I will spare you.

You probably know him, or not, best because of a legend about the saint which gave rise to the horseshoe as a symbol of good luck.

Before his elevation to Canterbury, Dunstan spent time as a hermit monk in Glastonbury, doing metal work in his cell near St. Mary’s church. According to legend, the Devil would come and distract Dunstan from his work at the forge, tempting and taunting the saint until he got so fed up he used his red hot tongs to grab old Nick by the nose — with some versions adding that he hammered horseshoes onto the devil’s hooves until he begged to be released.

Since that time, Catholics have taken to hanging horseshoes over their door frames to invoke the blacksmith saint’s protection and as a warning to the evil one to walk on and try somewhere else.

Anyway, speaking of friars, let’s get on with the news.

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Pope Francis this week issued a change to canon law, allowing clerical religious orders to elect lay religious members as major superiors with case-by-case Vatican approval.

This might seen like kind of a little thing, but it’s actually kind of a big deal.

There’s a difference in canon law between religious “lay” and “clerical” religious orders — in practice, clerical orders tend to have plenty of non-ordained members, the distinction has to do with whether the order’s core mission requires the exercise of priestly ordination.

Lay orders, as you might expect, can have lay superiors as a matter of course. But giving lay religious brothers the ordinary executive power of governance over clerical members is a real change — it gives them the authority to confer sacramental faculties, to incardinate and excardinate priests, and to otherwise exercise aspects of the power of governance that are usually understood to flow from sacred orders.

The exact limits of the tie between sacred orders and the power of governance is something which canonists discuss constantly, and it is a subject which is tied up closely with the Church’s ecclesiology and the nature of her hierarchical structure. 

Earlier this year, when the new constitution on the Roman curia was being presented at a Vatican press conference, one senior canonist, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda was being asked about the kind of governing power a lay person would be exercising if the pope named them to lead a Vatican dicastery.

Expanding on the concept of vicarious and delegated power, Ghirlanda made the surprising claim that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of Holy Orders, but from the canonical mission.” To call this a controversial statement is putting it very mildly.

Now, in terms of lay major superiors of clerical orders, they aren’t exercising the full power of governance, only executive power (not legislative or judicial, as a diocesan bishop does). And it is worth noting that Pope Francis issued the change as a rescript — a kind of legal special permission — instead of changing the universal law. 

The presumption seems to be that this change by the pope is going to be an occasional exception, not the new rule. But if it signals future moves towards a change in how the Church understands sacred ordination, governance, and the very concept of hierarchical power, it could prove to be a very significant development indeed.

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The Kingsmen

Earlier this week, we covered the fallout of the funeral of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot May 11 while covering an IDF raid of a refugee camp in the West Bank. 

The journalist’s funeral procession in Jerusalem was broken up by police forces, who can be seen in video footage using tear gas and stun grenades, and striking mourners with batons, in a show of force the police claimed was aimed at preventing a riot.

Akleh was a Melkite Catholic, one of 1.6 million members of the Eastern Church sui iuris in communion with Rome. To be honest, when we reported on the funeral earlier this week I didn’t know much about the Melkites, beyond the barest facts. 

But we asked Fr. Justin Rose, a Melkite priest, an adjunct professor of patristics at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the pastor of St. George Melkite Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama, for a bit of a primer on the Church’s history and patrimony.

What we got we got was one of the most interesting interviews I have read in a very long time:

With the heresy of monophysitism in the fifth century, the Coptic Church and the Syriac Church ended up kind of on the outs over their debate, and that created a strong rift within the Church of Antioch. You had Antiochian folks who were absolutely with the emperor, and adopting the Greek, the Byzantine style of worship and spirituality, and then you had those who essentially fled to Persia.

The term “Melkite” means “Kingsmen,” and it was used as a slur initially, for those Byzantine-aligned Antiochian Christians, especially in the seventh and eighth century, in the Holy Land, when the Holy Land was outside the empire - which is why it was a slur.

This is a fascinating walk through a part of our Catholic communion you’ve probably never heard much about — read the whole thing.

The Pope’s Man

Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu was back in court in Vatican City this week, appearing before judges Wednesday and Thursday to answer more questions about his involvement in the Secretariat of State’s financial affairs. 

In an eight hour marathon session on Wednesday, the cardinal told the court that Pope Francis had personally instructed him to fire the Vatican’s fired Auditor General, Libero Milone, in 2017.

Milone was hired in 2015 to much fanfare; less than two years later he was interrogated (on Becciu’s orders) for more than 12 hours before being told to resign or face criminal prosecution for “spying on” (some might call it “auditing”) the financial affairs of senior curial officials, including Becciu.

Despite the headlines, Becciu telling the court that Francis gave him the green light to bounce Milone is not news to anyone with a passing familiarity with what happened in 2017. Legally, Milone reported directly to Pope Francis and, put simply, it wasn’t possible for him to have been forced out by Becciu without papal approval. 

If that wasn’t clear enough, Francis made a pointed and barely veiled denunciation of Milone in his Advent address to the curia later that year.

The more interesting question is: Why did Francis turn against Milone, as he appeared to do with many of his own financial reforms around 2017 (it was also with Francis’ approval, albeit post hoc, that Becciu cancelled Cardinal Pell’s planned audit of the whole curia), before U-turning again two years later and going even further with his reforming agenda?

One possible explanation is, of course, that Becciu left his role as sostituto in 2018 and with it his daily access to the pope and his status as chief advisor. The extent to which Francis was persuaded to lose confidence in Milone on the advice of Becciu, in whom the pope later also lost confidence so dramatically, is an open question.

Anyway, during this week’s session in court Becciu had to leave a number of questions open — frequently claiming loss of memory, or a total dependence on his former departmental staff, when asked about a range of documents he had signed.

It got very ill-tempered at times, with the chief prosecutor Alessandro Diddi appearing to outright accuse the cardinal of feigning to forget information it would have been too damaging for him to remember in court. At one point, Becciu was left slamming his hand on the desk and shouting that he had “always and only worked for the good of the Holy See!" 

Losses of memory and temper notwithstanding, Becciu struggled to account for how he came to lobby for a proposal from some businessmen to buy the now-famous London building from the Vatican once the criminal investigation into the purchase was in full swing, or how he managed to be unaware that apparently behind the offer was a company controlled by Gianluigi Torzi — the man charged with defrauding and extorting the Vatican over the building in the first place.

He was also asked about why he apparently encouraged Torzi, a man he’s previously said he didn’t know well, if at all, to no-show to a meeting with prosecutors in the Vatican in June 2020, a meeting at which Torzi was subsequently arrested.

It was a fascinating day in court. Read all about it here.

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It’s complicated

Those of you who’ve been reading this newsletter for a while know I’m not shy about showing some tough love for the Secretariat of State. But I always want to be fair to the Vatican’s biggest department — especially when I think others might not be.

In that vein, in an analysis yesterday I took a look at the criticism that’s been aimed at the Vatican’s diplomatic stance on Ukraine, and some of the flack Pope Francis has taken over his own comments.

On the one hand, it is painfully obvious why Ukrainians, and Ukrainian Catholics in particular, want to see Pope Francis denounce the invasion of their country by Russia in the most unambiguous way possible, preferably from Kyiv. 

On the other, though, the Holy See has a centuries old tradition of strict neutrality in state-on-state conflicts, including those with every bit as clear a moral right and wrong as the Russian war on Ukraine. This isn’t a thoughtless tradition either, in general or in this instance. 

And when you consider the way in which the Russian Church and state have, for decades, portrayed the Catholic Church in Ukraine as a subversive agent of social division, it’s at least understandable to me why the Vatican might be concerned that coming out swinging, rhetorically speaking, against Putin and his government could actually harm the religious consensus building against Russia in Ukraine.

Maybe you disagree, and that’s fine, but before you tell me so, please read the whole thing.

And before anyone asks: No, this is not a benefit of the doubt I would extend to the Secretariat of State over its deal with China. 

There is a material difference between diplomatic neutrality in a time of war between states (however unjust and unilateral its beginning) and a refusal to bear moral witness against, for example, the crime of genocide being committed against a population by its own government without any other state or government intervening at all to resist it. 

More to the point, while affirming repeatedly Ukraine’s natural and moral right to resist Russia’s invasion, the Vatican has been clear that Pope Francis still hopes to be able to act as some kind of agent for peace in Ukraine and offered himself as an envoy to Russia — there is the hope that they can do something. 

Meanwhile, every sign points to the futility of the Vatican’s engagement with the Chinese Communist Party: more than a million Uighurs are in concentration camps, churches are bulldozed by local authorities, faithful clergy who refuse to affirm the supremacy of the CCP over the Church are harassed and arrested.

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The Vatican has handed the Communist Party a role, in some instances it looks an awful lot like total latitude, in the episcopal appointments process — even while the government disappears faithful bishops on the mainland and arrests a 90 year old cardinal in Hong Kong. It seems so manifestly self-defeating as to defy all reason. 

That it has done so at the expense of the Vatican’s moral authority on the most egregious human rights violations of this century makes it even worse.

I’m not saying Russia isn’t a bad actor in Ukraine, or that Russian troops aren’t committing possible war crimes against the civilian population there. I am just saying the Vatican’s response to Russia/Ukraine and China have not been the same, or for the same reasons. Apples and oranges.

Dear Prudence

Prudence isn’t a bad word. But it isn’t exactly, you know, an attractive one. If virtues were choosing teams in gym class, you better believe justice and fortitude would be team captains arguing over who had to take it as last pick.

When I hear the word, I tend to think of moralistic scruples, or stuffy maiden aunts first, and then maybe a forgettable Beatles B-side. But prudence is actually a world away from this. 

Talking to our own Charlie Camosy this week, Fr. Gregory Pine OP explains the actual significance, and real appeal of the virtue that Aquinas speaks of as the “charioteer of the virtues.” 

I know what you’re thinking: “Am I going to click a link to read about how prudence is actually cool? No. Nice try.” But seriously, this is genuinely a cool conversation that I enjoyed reading:

“You hear prudence and conscience trotted out by those who hold positions (often in matters of human sexuality and family life) contrary to Catholic teaching... But, irresponsible appeals to prudence and conscience don’t render them bad. Instead, those appeals make it more incumbent upon us to deploy prudence and conscience well.

Prudence is a virtue of calibration. For too long, that has been interpreted [just as] reining in. We have to recover the aspect of spurring on. The charioteer aims to win the race. Though he doesn't want to get into an accident, this isn't his primary aim. In the course of the race, he has to call upon all of his moral energy in pursuit of the end. And so, he must spur on the appetites.

For the sake of order, he may have to rein in this or that desire at times, but his first task is to get after it.”

Prudence is cool now, I’m serious. So read this and get with the program.

Here’s the part where you’d be expecting me to embed the Beatles singing Dear Prudence. But like everything written primarily by John Lennon, the song is boring, up-itself, hippyish claptrap you listen to spending the whole time wondering when it will get going.

And let’s be honest, apart from a few bangers McCartney pulled out single-handedly at the end, the Beatles were mostly insufferable after they stopped wearing suits and playing live gigs.

So here’s the Stones just turning it loose. You’re welcome.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

**When this newsletter went out, I wrote that St. Dunstan lived in the eighth century. Obviously this is not when he lived, nor is it a century before the Norman conquest. That’s my fault. I was writing at 2am while one-handing a baby who wanted feeding.

I apologize for the error, and for the poor quality of general knowledge around here which prevented a literal schoolboy error from being spotted.

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