Vaccine tension, Dinger, and Britney

The Tuesday Pillar Post

Hey everybody,

JD Flynn here, and this is The Tuesday Pillar Post.

Today is the Feast of St. Lawrence, the Roman deacon of charity who was martyred in 258.

Lawrence was famously (though perhaps apocryphally) martyred on a flatiron grill, quipping to his tormentors “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”

If you’re one of those Catholic families who commemorates the martyrdom of St. Lawrence by grilling up steak or hamburgers — celebrating the saint’s victory o’er the flames, I suppose — please know this is an extremely weird tradition, and exactly the type I endorse wholeheartedly.

St. Lawrence, patron of cooks, comedians, seminarians, deacons, and butchers, pray for us!

In our headlines

Argentine officials have announced that Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta will stand trial on charges of sexual abuse, stemming from his time as bishop of Orán, Argentina.

The bishop was first accused of misconduct when pornographic photos, including selfies, were found on his cell phone in 2015.

Allegations of both additional sexual misconduct and financial impropriety came to light in 2017, and Zanchetta resigned from his diocesan post that year. The bishop is accused of harassing and abusing seminarians.

But the case is a difficult one for Pope Francis.

Zanchetta, who worked as the administrative head of the Argentine bishops’ conference before he became a bishop, was given a job in a Vatican financial office after he resigned as bishop — a fact which advocates for abuse reform have criticized ever since.

Some critics have said that the provision of a Vatican job for Zanchetta is a scandal for Francis, and has diminished his credibility on ecclesial reform. The pope has countered that claim, citing an unresolved canonical trial for Zanchetta at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The bishop reportedly stopped working at APSA, the Vatican’s central bank, in June. He is now expected to return to Argentina for his October trial.

We put together an explainer on Zanchetta, the facts of the case, and the Vatican’s role. Read it here.

In the desert outside of Gallup, New Mexico, a shrine to St. Kateri Tekakwitha is under construction that aims to “to help create a spiritual centerplace for our native brothers.”

Reporter Joe Slama visited the shrine for The Pillar. Here’s what he found:

“[Kateri] is the one that really would understand why we pray with the cornmeal,” said Ed Riley, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in the Diocese of Gallup.

The use of cornmeal in sacred native ceremonies predates Christianity. It has been incorporated into the practice of many native Catholics within the United States as a sacramental, similar to the use of blessed salts. 

“It’s always the things that we request as native people: that there be peace in the world, there be love and respect for all people, for all plant life, animal life,” Riley said. “This is the thing that we pray for with our cornmeal. We can pray to St. Kateri in that way, and she will understand what we’re talking about.” 

“The idea was, we have this beautiful, high desert here,” Bishop James Wall of the Diocese of Gallup told The Pillar. “It’s hard to touch, the beauty of this place. We said, ‘Let’s put a rosary walk here. Let’s do something that she’s associated with: God’s creation, and the rosary.’”

Bishop Wall hopes the center eventually be designated a national shrine. 

I promise, this piece is worth reading: It covers the Catholic community in Gallup, the volunteer laborers constructing the shrine with traditional methods, and the place of American Indians in the life of the Church.

“You look in the Church itself, there’s been groups that sometimes feel more relegated to the wings, or non-existent. I think a lot of Native Americans feel that way, both in our country and in our faith. A lot of people don’t want to think about the suffering that native people went through, a lot of people don’t want to think of the conditions that natives are living in now.”

Read the whole thing.

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Episcopal vaccine tensions — again

At The Pillar, we’re watching an emerging rift between bishops regarding their approach to the coronavirus vaccines — again.

Bishops took markedly differing approaches earlier this year on the morality of receiving the coronavirus vaccine — an issue which has fed ongoing tensions among Catholics, reflecting the broader American cultural divide over the vaccines. But as governments and private employers have begun requiring vaccinations for their employees, bishops are now split over the plausibility of claiming a Catholic religious exemption to vaccine mandates.

In an Aug. 1 memo, the Archdiocese of NY warned priests that “there is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine. By doing so he is acting in contradiction to the pope and is participating in an act that could have serious consequences to others.”

The memo was met with considerable criticism, both among those opposed to receiving the vaccine, and among theologians who said that the Church’s guidance on the vaccine has specifically noted the right of Catholics to refuse vaccines produced or tested on fetal cell lines, while urging them to “do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.”

Some ethicists have said that Catholics who object to receiving the coronavirus vaccines are doing so for essentially religious reasons, whose legitimacy the Church has recognized.

And other bishops have taken a tack quite different from that of the Archdiocese of New York.

The bishops of Colorado published an Aug. 6 letter stating that “the Catholic Church teaches that a person may refuse a medical intervention, including a vaccination, if his or her conscience leads them to that decision.”

The Colorado bishops added that “the vaccination question is a deeply personal issue, and we continue to support religious exemptions from any and all vaccine mandates.”

Their statement provided a template religious exemption letter for pastors — the very kind of letter the NY archdiocese told pastors they should not sign.

It seems obvious that in the weeks to come, tensions about the vaccine will continue to escalate across America. The Church will not be spared that tension — and with bishops already taking conflicting positions on the issue, the stage for ongoing difficulties is set.

At The Pillar, we’ll continue to cover the divide among bishops over religious exemptions, and we’ll aim to bring you ongoing guides to the Church’s moral and ethical guidance on the issue.

In other news

You might have seen headlines yesterday about an odd package mailed to Pope Francis: A note about the Vatican financial scandal sent along with three ammo shells meant, apparently, to intimidate the pontiff.

The package was intercepted by an Italian postmaster and is now under police investigation. Some media outlets have given rather breathless coverage to the whole thing, which is too bad, since in all likelihood the package was sent either as a prank or by someone unwell.

But if the sender wanted to intimidate the pope or some other Vatican figure, his choice of ammunition was either terrifically misguided, or cleverly poetic.

The package contained three 9mm Flobert shells — about the smallest, least lethal shotgun ammunition money can buy.

9mm Flobert shotguns are practically unknown in the U.S., but in Europe, where higher caliber firearms are tightly regulated, farmers use them to shoot barnyard vermin. The guns are popular because they’re very quiet and very easy to shoot. In fact, King George V was reputed to use a custom-built Flobert-type shotgun to shoot moths for display.

But the shells are not especially intimidating, and shooting them at a person would not likely have a lethal effect. As ammunition goes, they’re just about the weakest thing you can buy. So if they were sent as some kind of a threat, or as a display of power, the symbolism may have backfired, so to speak.

On the other hand, the 9mm Flobert shotguns are used to shoot rats. On the cusp of a Vatican trial in which defendants are looking to save their skin and make deals with prosecutors, maybe the sender knew exactly what message he wanted to convey?

Italian police say the sender was a French citizen known to them, and that they’re continuing to evaluate the situation. Probably the shells were sent by someone unbalanced, and apart from more dramatic media coverage, it’s unlikely anything will emerge from the whole affair. But we’ll keep you posted.

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Dinger and Britney

Perhaps because it’s August, and perhaps because the media is tired of covering the pandemic, a raft of half-composed and misleading media stories have emerged in recent days, and they have something in common.

On Sunday night, a fan attending a Colorado Rockies game could be heard on television shouting something that sounded to a lot of people like a racial slur. The man was roundly condemned by the Colorado Rockies and a number of prominent media figures.

But by noon on Monday, a review of the videotape made it clear that the fan was not shouting a racial slur, he was calling to the Rockies’ mascot, a purple dinosaur named Dinger.

The Rockies, of course, walked back their expression of disgust. Presumably, the fan condemned on Sunday night will end up with some free tickets and a meeting with Colorado’s favorite dinosaur mascot.

But it’s clear what happened: With a short clip gaining traction on social media and a narrative emerging, both the Rockies and national media figures jumped onto a bandwagon without sufficient information, largely to avoid seeming insensitive, out of step, or insufficiently concerned with the prospect of a racially-charged incident taking place at Coors Field.

When the facts proved that initial narrative untrue, the Rockies abandoned their position, with no harm done to anyone but a baseball fan who probably spent a half-day distressed at the prospect that he’d been roundly condemned as a racist both by the national media and by his hometown ball club. His distress was the cost of a react-first PR strategy that aims to respond well ahead of the facts to the lightning quick demands of a social media culture.

And the entire incident, for better or worse, made me think about Britney Spears.

Why?

Because last Friday, the media frenzy was about our beat: Catholicism.

The frenzy began with a now-deleted Instagram post in which Spears modeled a dress, captioned with: “Pssss as for the next video … I just got back from mass … I’m Catholic now … let us pray 🙏🏼 !!!”

Without verifying anything, both Catholic and secular news outlets jumped on the “story.”

Reports began to emerge which tied Spears’ supposed “conversion” to her legal and personal battles, or which speculated on whether there had been signs of her impending conversion all along.

Even while conceding they had no information, numerous media outlets refused to let that stand in the way of the relentless pursuit of Britney-clicks. And so the story of Britney Spears’ “conversion” spread across the internet.

“Britney’s-a-Catholic-gate” was everywhere.

The only problem, of course, is that the post was deleted, and it now seems that Spears was probably making some reference to her sister, a practicing Catholic, and not actually saying that she’d converted.

In short, it was never a story. But there are a few reasons why it got so much traction anyway.

The first is because some Catholics were genuinely happy at the prospect that Britney Spears, a woman with her share of crosses, might have found the consolation of the Cross, and the resurrection, in Christ Jesus. Legitimate Christian joy at the possibility of a conversion is a good and beautiful thing, and should not be discounted.

But the other reasons the story took off are also worth noting. One of them is that any headline containing the words “Britney Spears” will get clicks, and for most media outlets, clicks = revenue, regardless of the facts.

(Nb: Our business model is predicated upon acquiring paying subscribers, not clicks. Since we don’t run ads at The Pillar, clicks are not worth much to us, whereas long-term relationships of trust with paying subscribers are where it’s at.)

Still another reason the story gained attention is because of a tendency among Catholics to look for signs of secular approval as a kind of affirmation of the normalcy, or legitimacy, of the faith.

It’s been a defining hallmark of the American Catholic experience to perceive ourselves as on the outside of the cultural mainstream. The American Catholic mindset is shaped by the experience of immigrants who came to a country with anti-Catholic laws and cultural values — even when we don’t recognize it. And there’s a tension among and within Catholics, between embracing the idea of being outsiders, and hoping for a kind of wholesale cultural acceptance.

That tension has impacted American Catholic identity for generations. And, to some extent, it frames the way Catholics think about something like the possible conversion of Britney Spears.

The prospect of a pop icon becoming a Catholic suggests that the faith is not so far outside the mainstream, and therefore, that we’re not so far outside the mainstream. And the prospect that someone like Britney Spears might practice Catholicism holds the promise that those of us who practice the faith might seem, or even become, less at odds with the prevailing culture we experience daily.

Of course, it's not necessary for us to commodify Britney's possible religious experience to validate our place in the American cultural landscape. We don’t need to look for a celebrity endorsement of our own religious experience: It's not fair to Spears, whose entire life experience seems to have been commodified for the benefit of people basking in her reflected stardom. Christians, who have something more powerful to lean on, can do Britney Spears the favor of seeing her first as a child of God, made like all of us for the transcendence of divine love. If she is on a journey of faith, we can — and should — give her the space to experience it in freedom, without making it the subject of clickbait media fascination, or expecting of her some representation of our faith to the wider world.

It’s also not fair to our own religious experience. The gift of faith is just that — a gift — and it’s a gift that does place Catholics, of all stripes, outside the predominant values and mores of contemporary culture. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not something to be afraid of. Nor is it unique to our time. A second or third-century description of Christians notes that “Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world.”

“They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country…They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

May we be edified to live our days as citizens of heaven, confident that we belong in our eternal homeland — and may we be missionaries of the Gospel to those seeking the fulfillment of divine love. And let’s pray for all those seeking the truth.

Finally, a note of welcome to those who have recently begun receiving The Pillar’s newsletters. We’re grateful to have you.

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Blessed Feast of St. Lawrence. Please be assured of our daily prayers, and please keep praying for us — we need it!

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
editor-in-chief
The Pillar