The Prince of Peace, encyclical speculation, and keeping cool
The Tuesday Pillar Post
If you live in Tasmania, you’ll need mittens and snowboots today, but just about everywhere else on the planet, it’s a hot one today — but don’t worry, you are reading a very cool edition of The Tuesday Pillar Post.
This is kind of a long newsletter, so let’s start with the news, shall we?
One year ago Saturday, Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis custodes, a policy that restricted significantly the celebration of the Mass and other sacraments using the liturgical books and rubrics which precede the Second Vatican Council. The move effectively reversed Benedict XVI’s broad 2007 permission for the use of those liturgical books.
On its anniversary, Luke Coppen took a look at the implementation of Traditionis custodes, and spoke with people on all sides of the controversial document. This is probably the single best assessment to be published of the text and its impact on the life of the Church.
Luke found that a lot of people are asking the same questions about the text:
The pope’s convictions are consistent and clear, but his application of the motu proprio is less so. With so much else vying for his attention - from the Ukraine war to his painful knee - how much energy is he willing to put into enforcing Traditionis custodes?
And if you want more to read about Traditionis custodes, here’s a timeline of the document’s key moments in its first year, and a sense of its impact on the life of the Church.
The Holy See has issued a formal reprimand, called a rebuke, to retired Bishop Carlos Seville, SJ, of Yakima, Washington, over the bishop’s handling of clerical sexual abuse cases in the diocese.
The rebuke came after an investigation by Seattle’s Archbishop Paul Etienne, undertaken at the behest of the Vatican.
But in a now familiar pattern, the Holy See has not disclosed actual information about the Vos estis investigation that led to the rebuke - or even confirmed its existence.
In fact, the rebuke is only known because a local man, who reported obscene images on a priest’s computer back in 2003, talked with local media.
The Vos estis process, you will recall, was promulgated in 2019 with a promise of transparency and justice in the life of the Church. I don’t think anyone knew then it would become a secret Vatican process.
Bishop John Bakeni became this month an auxiliary bishop in Borno, the northeastern Nigerian state that is home to Boko Haram, and is the epicenter of violence against Christians in Nigeria. Bishop Bakeni has an academic and a pastoral commitment to ecumenical dialogue, and it’s not by accident he was appointed auxiliary in a global hotspot of religious violence.
In the ongoing story of Medjugorje, the Vatican has backed a German bishop’s decision to dissolve a Catholic lay group associated with the disputed Marian apparition site. In addition to controversy surrounding the alleged apparition site in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Holy See has expressed concern in recent years about the quality and formation of leadership in lay associations of the faithful.
Controversy continues to swirl around the “synodal way” process in Germany — a years-long series of meetings between bishops, clergy, religious, and lay groups, which has proposed changes to Church doctrine and discipline on sexual morality, sacramental theology, and ecclesial leadership structures, all aimed at a kind of accommodationist version of Catholicism thought to be more appealing to modern Germans.
But for all the talk about the process, very few people seem to have actually read the documents.
The Prince of Peace, and the source of hope
On my personal calendar of milestones and significant dates, two important moments have anniversaries this week.
First, 10 years ago this week was the Aurora Theater shooting, during which an armed man shot indiscriminately into a movie theater that was then only a few miles from my house. Twelve people were killed that night, 70 were injured.
I was then working as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver. And July 20, 2012, was the first day in the office for Denver’s new archbishop, Archbishop Samuel Aquila. He’d been installed on the 18th, spent the 19th with his family, and was set to come into the office July 20 ready to work.
With other staffers, I’d helped set up meetings for that first “office day” of the new archbishop. We figured he’d want to be briefed by advisors, meet with department heads, talk with some leaders in the presbyterate.
Instead, the archbishop texted me at about 7:00 that morning. He wanted to go to Aurora. He wanted to spend the day with families. He did. I spent part of that day with him there, and I was changed by the suffering I saw. I helped organize a prayer service that night, for families and friends, in a packed church just a few miles away. I watched moms and dads, and teachers, and friends break down in tears.
“In the chaos of the moment, people poured from the movie theater into the darkness of the night—the darkness of confusion, of ambiguity, of despair. We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters cast into that darkness. They do not stand alone. As Catholic bishops, we ‘weep with those who weep,’” Denver’s bishops said in a statement.
“But in Aurora, which means ‘the dawn,’ the sun rose this morning. In a city whose name evokes the light, people of hope know that the darkness may be overcome.”
A week later I sat on the stage when Denver’s auxiliary bishop, James Conley, addressed a crowd of thousands at a prayer rally in Aurora. I talked with the bishops as they traveled to the funerals.
A few months later, I went with the bishops when the theater held a strange reopening event — it bothered me, because it seemed at the time that the owners were keen to get back, as quick as they could, to commerce as usual. But the families wouldn’t get back to normal quickly.
At the time, the Aurora shooting was the second major mass shooting in Colorado’s recent history; it came 13 years after the Columbine school shooting, in which people I love - who then were children - picked up life-changing injuries.
After Aurora, politicians and pastors and community leaders made it a point to say, over and over, that this kind of suffering should not again visit Colorado.
There’s been another school shooting in Colorado since then, of course — thwarted quickly by the heroism of a young man named Kendrick Castillo. There was last year a mass shooting in a grocery store up in Boulder — a friend told me about explaining to his kids what had happened at “their” King Soopers. Just a few weeks later, seven people were killed down in Colorado Springs, when a man opened fire at a birthday party.
Colorado is not especially unique. For me, it’s just local. And I’ve no real lesson to offer here, except to say that Jesus Christ is a light that shines in darkness.
May the Prince of Peace bring peace upon us.
The second anniversary on my mind is this: One year ago Wednesday, The Pillar reported that the general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference had been using location-based hookup apps at USCCB staff housing, offices, and during USCCB travel in various parts of the country. We then reported about the use of hookup apps in some U.S. dioceses, and even about their use in the offices and residences of the Holy See.
A friend jokes that the first impact of our reporting was that hundreds of clerics might have deleted location-based hookup apps from their phones that day — I hope that’s true, I guess, but I hope more that there wasn’t actually a need for hundreds of clerics to delete such things.
The data I’ve seen suggests a problem, but, please God, does not suggest anything even close to a hookup app in every rectory. Far from it, thank God.
In either case, the reporting matters because the Church has recognized in recent years, publicly and repeatedly, that the sexual immorality of clerics has ripple effects in the Church — that it fosters and enables toleration, and a culture of laxity — and that such cultures make all kinds of misconduct more plausible. When leaders lead double lives, discipline and morale - to say nothing of spiritual strength - tend to crumble. And the Church has seen the effect of that crumbling in recent years.
We continue to report on the Church’s response to the Theodore McCarrick scandal - to ask whether it’s prompted a new and ongoing kind of reform, or whether 2018 is seen as a terrible event that “happened,” and that now is over. Readers of The Pillar would probably conclude it’s a mixed bag — that there have been efforts for genuine reform, intermixed with the more short-term strategy of “crisis management.”
“Crisis management,” as opposed to reform, is aimed at appearing to address an issue until it’s been forgotten by angry stakeholders. It buys time. Reform is a much more difficult process, fraught with the requirements of difficult conversations, disagreement, serious study of serious problems, and usually expensive. It’s no wonder that leaders in all spheres are tempted toward “crisis management” — but of course, it’s not enough. Crisis management punts a problem, while allowing it to fester and grow bigger, more entrenched, more difficult to resolve.
We want our journalism to be an ongoing reminder of the promises of reform, of the reality of the problems, of the need for the difficult work of addressing them.
Of course, as 2018 fades into the background, those still talking about that kind of stuff — about McCarrick, and hookup apps, and financial slush funds — run the risk of appearing like zealots, monomaniacal and out of step. Or like muckrakers, stirring up trouble for its own sake. Rest assured, we’ve been called both.
But neither is our intention. We love the Church enough to remember the scandal of 2018, when things mostly covered emerged on the surface. We love the Church enough to continue to call for solutions — and to continue pointing to the problems. We’re not afraid to do that, even if some officials in Rome or at the USCCB think we’re just hurting the Church, or if some longtime friends now find themselves uncomfortable in our presence.
But we also love the Church enough to have faith in her, and in the power and promises of the Holy Spirit. And we know that reform — which is a top-down approach to addressing problems, is not the same as renewal — which is the emergence, through the Holy Spirit, of new life, new energy, new clarity, new hope, and faith.
We work for reform, and we look for renewal. We’re confident in the promises of Christ and His Church. And we’d encourage you to the same. To pray for the Church’s reform, and work for it, and to look for the Church’s renewal, and trust the Holy Spirit has, time after time, breathed new life into the Church, in the moments when she seemed to be ailing on, beset by problems, with the sense that the prospects were dim. The Holy Spirit breathes life into the Church in every generation, and every age. Come Holy Spirit. We are praying for that renewal.
A Winnipeg exhortation?
Finally, Catholic journalists have reported in recent weeks on the prospect that the pope might preparing for a new encyclical, or apostolic exhortation, on the role of conscience on questions of bioethics and sexual morality.
At the moment, this idea seems just to be speculation, and is mostly sourced to questions from Fr. Jorge Jose Ferrer, SJ, a moral theologian in Puerto Rico, which have been amplified by the Pontifical Academy for Life. There is nothing more concrete, at the moment — the reporting is speculation speculation.
But some have hypothesized that an apostolic exhortation could take up themes from a 1968 document from the bishops of Canada, remembered as the “Winnipeg Statement.”
That statement suggested that Catholics who find the teachings of Humanae Vitae difficult might legitimately discern in conscience not to observe the text’s prohibition on contraception. That couples might make use of contraception in marriage in good conscience, if they “have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives.”
Of course, that statement’s notion of conscience was rejected by the Church in Veritatis splendor. And while the Canadian bishops haven’t formally rescinded the Winnipeg Statement - and even failed by vote to do so in 1998 - they have made numerous statements distancing themselves from it over the years.
The Church’s teaching on openness to life can be a hard teaching for a lot of couples, when life seems difficult, unaffordable, and beset by real challenges.
Still, the Church teaches that openness to life is an essential part of marriage, and a source of, well, life. This means that marriage comes with crosses - for some couples more difficult than others. It means that marriage, like all Christian vocations, is an invitation into genuine suffering, into the cross, into the mystery that those who lose their lives will find them.
At first glance, there does not seem to be evidence that the Winnipeg Statement made Catholicism more appealing to Canadians, or that it was a source of fruit, or new life, or holiness in the life of the Church. It’s been widely panned as a mistake, and an egregious effort at compromise that denuded the beauty of our most profound human mystery — that suffering is redeemed in Christ’s passion and resurrection.
I don’t think it very likely that a forthcoming exhortation will take up themes from the Winnipeg Statement — but some people I respect, and regard as balanced and level-headed, are taking the prospect quite seriously. And a lot of you are asking questions. So we’ll talk with people in the months to come about that prospect, and talk with sources in Rome about its plausibility.
But in the meantime, it’s useful for us all to remember the mystery — by our suffering, our frustration, our intractable situations, we are invited to be united to Christ on the cross.
The suffering is assured, it’s a function of the human condition. But only the Incarnation transforms that suffering, and turns it into the locus of unity with God our creator — in our struggles, we become holy, transformed in love, by Love himself.
Have a great day. Here’s a hilariously important reminder from the USCCB. Don’t miss it.
And think cool thoughts:
Pray for us. We need it. Be assured of our prayers for you.
Yours in Christ,