Today is the final day of August, and this is the Tuesday Pillar Post.
In the news
Second hand papal news
I spent this weekend on the sandy shores of an idyllic Wyoming reservoir, with a tent pitched in some soft grass, and a hammock strung between two shade trees.
My children, wife, and mom played in the water, and I spent several hours with my dad doing one of my favorite things: messing around with kites, including a big purple airfoil that hung out for most of an afternoon in the winds a few hundred feet above our sandy beach.
On Sunday afternoon, I turned my phone service back on, and was greeted by a few more texts than I expected — friends, contacts, and acquaintances all asking the same question: “Is the pope resigning?”
While I was camping, it seems the rumor mill was churning, to a somewhat fevered pitch, with tales spreading in certain parts of the Catholic world to suggest that Pope Francis might soon be planning to resign the papacy, and even to issue some kind of legal document governing the office of “pope emeritus.”
There have been rumors since the pope’s surgery last month that his health is worse than the Vatican has let on. And the appointment Sunday of a longtime papal liturgy aide as a diocesan bishop in Italy added fuel to the fire.
But if you remember the waning years of the John Paul II pontificate, you’ll recall that rumors about the pope’s impending death were frequently spread, and frequently wrong. There is a way in which attention to this kind of thing can became quite ghoulish, as it was in the last months of JPII’s life.
I would suggest that we all should be careful about giving credence to gossip like this, which, now that it has begun, will probably wax and wane with frequency. We should beware that Catholic and secular media will amplify them, because each round of “the pope is resigning” or “the pope is gravely sick” stories, however dubious the sourcing, will gain a lot of clicks. But most of the rumors will be untrue.
Of course, here’s the thing about gossip: Some emergent set of rumors may eventually be actually true. There are surprises in the Church’s life, like the resignation of Benedict XVI, but news usually has a way of making its way out of high places, and eventually, some gossip about the future of the papacy might be true. But it’s the kind of thing that will come amid torrents of untruths, or half truths, and it can’t possibly be healthy to give all of it attention.
So if we at The Pillar learn something we believe absolutely, verifiably, demonstrably to be true, we’ll report it, if we can demonstrate it. But we won’t report every piece of gossip in Francis-Resignation-Watch, because that’s not spiritually healthy for any of us, and because you’d prefer we spend our time on other kinds of reporting. We’re sure of it.
For now, though, read here about signs indicating the pope is not planning to resign, learn about canon law and the pope emeritus, and read why rumors that the pope will resign to shape the next conclave are the most especially improbable.
McCarrick in the ‘cocoon of the Church.’
The-McCarrick-formerly-known-as-Cardinal will be arraigned in a Massachusetts courtroom on Friday; McCarrick is facing sexual assault charges that could end in 15 years’ incarceration.
Here’s what one abuse survivor said about the upcoming trial:
“I am absolutely sure the trial will trigger fellow survivors — and me. You know it'll be in the press. You grit your teeth and read, or you turn away and wonder. That is no easy choice. It’s emotionally impossible.”
"During the  Summer of Shame, when revelations about the then-cardinal came out, almost every survivor with whom I work withdrew into a painful isolated place. They continued to function in the world, but they staggered around with private agony. It was an essential step for the Church to weed itself of abusers, at every level, but it exacts a price of us, too.”
“It has been hurtful that he lives within the Church. Even though he's apparently paying his own rent, he is still inside the Church and Church institutions.”
“And for survivors, that he is still in the cocoon of the Church hurts.”
“For years I couldn't even step foot inside a Catholic Church, even though I wanted to. The sacraments are right there for him, and for years I couldn't go near them because I was hurting so badly. Maybe that seems unmerciful, but this situation doesn't seem just.”
Most humbling to me, and even mysterious, are the voices of clerical abuse victims who continue placing faith in the Church:
The Church can “become yet again a beacon for the world that is full of sexual violence and abuse,” one victim-survivor told me. “Our Church's healing is more needed now than ever.”
The light of Christ
Earlier this month, a man named Thomas Levergood died after a brief battle with cancer.
He had good friends, but was not a household name, even in the Church. He was well-regarded by those who knew him, but not often recognized or adulated among the Church’s mover and shakers.
But Thomas Levergood built something both unique and fascinating in the Church’s life: A center for Catholic intellectual engagement that was not defined or divided by the usual left-right paradigms and polemics that shape so much of the Church’s conversation today.
The Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago is regarded by many of its friends, supporters, and alumni as a community of friends engaged in serious, orthodox, and faithful Catholic intellectual work together, and with academics outside the Catholic “bubble.”
Pope Francis on Sunday moved to its next step the canonization cause of Fr. Placido Cortese, a Conventual Franciscan who died in 1944, at 37 years old.
He was a journalist, running a Franciscan magazine until 1943, writing articles and taking photos of the Church’s work, especially as the Second World War ravaged Italy.
His network of contacts eventually made him an organizer; he helped funnel hundreds of Jewish families to safe houses and obtain for them forged passports, he helped smuggle them, along with British prisoners of war and other political prisoners, out of Italy an into Switzerland. He built up stores of cash, clothing, and documents, and he got them where they needed to go.
Fr. Cortese ran his underground network from his confessional. He’d sit for hours in a confessional in the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, and from there, he’d put plans into motion. “Penitents” would enter, give him information in coded language, and he’d give them instructions in the same.
Except that eventually, he was reported to the Gestapo.
He left the basilica on October 13, 1944, and was ferried off the street into a waiting car. He was taken to a Gestapo bunker by the Italian seaside. He didn’t die until sometime in November. For weeks before that, he was tortured for information. He endured unspeakable physical and psychological torture, and then he may have been buried alive.
In those last few weeks, he turned to the cross. Prisoners of war recounted that he never broke silence, never gave up information, and kept faith in Christ until his final breath.
May the Venerable Fr. Placido Cortese pray for us.
Christ is the vine
If, like me, you pay attention to the left-of center Catholic press, or the Catholic press far left of that, you may have noticed in recent weeks a spate of columns, articles, and promo pieces, promising that an upcoming meeting in the U.K. will be the spark for some John Lennon-esque Catholic revolution, in which the Church’s “inflexible laws” will be discarded, and love — apparently — will put an end to clerical hierarchy.
The meeting is called the “Root and Branch Synod.” It has been the subject of adulating coverage from some media outlets in recent weeks. The prediction is that the synod will produce a document — the much-hyped “Bristol Text” — which will be so “radical” as to “immediately liberate ordinary parishioners from fearful subservience to bishops and parish clergy.”
Maybe you don’t pay that much attention to all corners of the Catholic press, and you’ve never heard of the “Root and Branch Synod.” Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about.
If that’s the case, you’re not alone. While the coverage is real, the synod is decidedly more ephemeral. Claiming to represent the views of “millions of Catholics,” the “synod’s” Facebook page has 75 “likes;” its Twitter handle 205 followers. So far as I can tell, the synod has no Instagram.
I’m not telling you about the synod so that I can score some easy points by mocking it for a poor social media performance, or an outsized sense of its own potential. Nor am I raising it just to point out the way several media outlets have selectively framed a coffee klatsch as a global movement — though that is worth understanding.
I’m certainly not writing to feed the hype — to warn, for blatantly commercial reasons, that the “synod” and the “Bristol text” represent some serious intellectual movement of opposition to the Church’s magisterium which threatens the unity of the Church. You should expect YouTube provocateurs and sensationalist news sites to do that, but I don’t have the poker face for that kind of kayfabe.
Instead, I’m writing about the “Root and Branch Synod” because I find something charming about its quixotic quest to “transform the Church” through a couple of meetings by the seaside and a list of grievances published at the end.
Framing itself in the “spirit of Pope Francis,” the group has listed a set of positions rejected or opposed by the pope. Promising to listen to all voices, the group will probably listen to the voices with which it agrees — it’s unlikely other kinds will show up. Aiming to push the Church out of the sacristy, a group of well-meaning folks will form something that, in the end, will probably be a very polite and welcoming exercise in self-referential “dialogue.” Participants will pay only $50 for the privilege.
In short, I can’t muster up any kind of performative outrage for a group of older folks, with a few bright young people sprinkled in and likely dubbed the “promise of the future,” pining to fight together the battles of yesteryear. It’s been a hard year for everyone.
I’m mostly reminded that the folks at the Root & Branch synod are real people, probably not unlike a few real people, hard-working volunteers maybe, at my own parish. And oddly, all the way on the other end of the spectrum, so are the cadre of conservative American Catholics promoting the use of ivermectin, a medication used to deworm horses, to fight a global pandemic.
James Joyce wrote famously that “Catholic” means “Here comes everybody,” and, remarkable as it is that Joyce said something with brevity, he was right. The promise of the Gospel is as much for the “Root & Branch” crowd as for the Ivermectin folks — and for everybody who finds themselves somewhere in middle range of that spectrum.
The remarkable thing about the faith is that Christ invites the whole of this odd menagerie of a Church into communion with each other. That means conversion, formation, transformation, pruning and purifying, and, ultimately, it means choosing the faith ahead of our ideologies. But from a pastoral standpoint, or even a fraternal standpoint, it means something that stands in contrast to the proclivities of the age: It means beginning with the premise that no one is beyond salvation, which means that no one, no matter how misguided, ought remain beyond the prospect of friendship — friendship through which we might be the instruments of Christ. We ourselves, it is worth remembering, belong in this Christian community even with our own weirdness and unworthiness.
Christian friendship does not mean the antinomian relativism of Root and Branch, nor the radical libertarian individualism of the pandemic conspiracists. It means instead honest invitation to discipleship in Christ, and at the same time, the honest affection, interest, and respect which makes the Christian proposition credible. It means that the Gospel is conveyed and lived, as Newman put it, cor ad cor. That kind of thing, far more than the doubtlessly-predictable “Bristol Text,” is so radical that it just might work.
—Don’t miss this short but insightful essay from Chris Arnade. If you’re not familiar with Arnade, get his book.
— I mentioned at the top of the newsletter that I spent the weekend camping with my family. That was, of course, possible in large part because you, our readers, believe the work that we do at The Pillar is worth paying for, and many of you become paying subscribers — affording us the live prospect of making a viable long-term career out of this work, and enabling us to take a few days to relax with family. So thank you. And since your support makes such things possible, it seems only right to share them with you:
Have a great week, and be assured of our prayers. Please pray for us — we need it.
Sincerely yours in Christ,