The profane, the sacred, and the sordid

The Tuesday Pillar Post

Hey everybody,

Welcome to the Tuesday Pillar Post. This week, we bring you news of the profane, the sacred, and the sordid. So here’s what’s new:

The profane (but not sordid): A Pillar special report

We’re publishing at The Pillar a special report on the impact of the coronavirus on parish finances.

Data analyst Brendan Hodge spent a lot of his time, and his kids’ time, building a two-year database of offertory collections at 100 geographically and demographically diverse parishes, and then he compared trends in their pre and post pandemic collections.

The bottom line: Parishes in our study saw on average a 12% drop in offertory collections between 2019 and 2020. The average parish we reviewed collected $599,000 in 2019 offertory, and $70,000 less than that, or $529,000, in 2020. 

Part one of the report tells you what happened with parish collections when lockdowns began, and for the rest of 2020:

Part two, which we published this morning, asks a difficult question: Why did some parishes see an offertory increase in 2020, while other parishes saw drop-offs of more than 40%?

Brendan looked far and wide for demographic predictors of parish revenue patterns. A lot of things we thought would predict collections turned out not to. The rate of local COVID deaths, for example, had no discernible impact on parish collections. Neither did lockdown norms.

But Brendan found a few factors that did correlate to parish collection declines: some made immediate sense, while others raise more questions.

Read more here, and look for part three tomorrow.

(By the way, canon lawyers and other sticklers will probably tell me that bona ecclesiastica — parish assets — are technically sacred goods, and not profane, which in this sense just means secular, or non-sacred. Technically, those canon lawyers are right. But I wanted to bring you the news with this profane-sacred-sordid motif this week, so they’re just going to have accept that’s the way it is.)

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The sacred: Religious life

This morning we published a thoughtful interview with Sister Mary Bendyna, OP, who is executive director of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an association representing 5,700 religious sisters.

Sister Bendyna talked about religious vocations, the identity of religious sisters, and the future of religious life in America:

Fundamentally people come into religious life because they feel called by God to do so. And you're not going to last if that's really not why you're here. So if you're looking for something else you probably won't find it for very long in religious life. If you come just for community or just because you were lacking something in family life, I think that's not going to work.

Read her thoughts, on the present and future of religious life, here.

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The sordid: A sad and vulgar story

Last September, Louisiana priest Fr. Travis Clark was arrested after he was discovered having sex on the parish altar, and filming the desecration with professional-quality lighting. One of the prostitutes has identified herself as a “Satanatrix” and bragged online before filming the pornography about defiling a church.

New Orleans’ Archbishop Gregory Aymond called the activity “demonic;” he had the altar destroyed and the Church reconsecrated.

Clark, along with the prostitutes who participated in his vulgarities, is now facing felony vandalism charges, which carry a maximum of two years in prison.

While Aymond said last year that Clark will never return to ministry, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has declined to disclose the canonical process he could be facing, or the canonical crimes with which he will be charged, citing an as-yet-unspecified obligation of confidentiality.

Another New Orleans priest, Fr. Pat Wattigny, was in the news last year at the same time as Clark.

Wattigny, who admitted in 2020 to sexually abusing a minor in 2013, and is accused of grooming high school boys far more recently, learned last week that he will face a felony sexual abuse charge. The archdiocese has yet to give an update on his canonical status as well.

Worth noting? When Clark was ordained a deacon, he cited Wattigny as one of his role models. Sad.

In other news

Sunday, 3-21, was World Down Syndrome Day. At The Pillar, we put together a reading, and watching list, of stories about the Church and Down syndrome.

Highlights from the list — don’t miss Archbishop Kurtz remember his brother George:

And check out the Little Sisters, Intercessors of the Lamb, a French religious community whose sisters include members with Down syndrome.

Also this week, we published a report from Australia, where financial officials admitted that internal errors in documenting money transfers from the Vatican have damaged their credibility. You probably remember headlines a few months ago about suspiciously large money transfers between Vatican City State and Australia. And you might remember those turned out mostly to be result of a clerical error. Well, no surprise, the Australian officials who made the error now say they have a little bit of egg on their faces.

‘The wages of sin…’

Last October, when the news first emerged that Fr. Clark made disturbing pornography in his parish sanctuary, I talked with some priests who knew him. I wondered how a man who would participate with a “Satanatrix” in an act of desecration had gotten through seminary, and then spent almost a decade in mostly-unremarkable priestly ministry.

Given the nature of the pornography, and the participants, I especially wondered if Fr. Clark had long been a secret adherent in some kind of covert Satanic cult, or had been an occasional dabbler in the occult.

The priests who knew him told a different story. One put it bluntly: He didn’t think Fr. Clark had the intellectual firepower for a long term double-life, he said, because Fr. Clark had not demonstrated very much firepower in his regular life. Other priests agreed.

Leave it to your brothers to tell it like it is, I guess.

But some of the priests who knew Fr. Clark had another suggestion. They wondered if he’d developed a pornography habit that had escalated over time into especially perverse, violent, and sadistic material. And they wondered if that had escalated into prostitutes, and from there, into engagement with the kind of explicitly demonic sexual perversions of hiring a “Satanatrix,” and defiling an altar.

Without denying Clark’s moral agency, and moral responsibility for his actions, some of those priests pointed out the way in which pornography consumption can set one down the path of the slowly boiling frog. A lot of sociological and psychological data confirms this, demonstrating the ways that habitual pornography viewing, to say nothing of sex with prostitutes, coarsens perception of other people’s dignity, fosters attitudes of misogyny, increases tolerance, and even interest, in explicitly violent acts, and demands escalating spectacles of degradation for satisfaction.

Habitual pornography use, in short, short-circuits the conscience, and deadens our moral reflexes. It’s also worth noting that a lot of studies find that habitual engagement with pornography and prostitution can foment both a tendency to dehumanize, objectify, and revile women, and foster explicitly dehumanizing racial biases. As we struggle to understand last week’s shooting in Georgia, those things are worth remembering.

The good news is that freedom from pornography is possible, and the cultivation of virtue always our call. It begins in the sacrament of penance, but seeking help from a therapist and other experts is nothing to be ashamed of.

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As always, thanks for tuning in. Pray for the victims of the shootings in Georgia, and the shooting that was, for me, closer to home, just up the road in Boulder, Colorado.

Pray for us as we pray for you.

And if you like the kind of data journalism we worked on this week with Brendan, as always, forward on this email, and consider subscribing to The Pillar.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
editor-in-chief
The Pillar