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Watching America, diary of a monster, and a time to sing

Happy Friday friends,

If what I’ve been reading this week is anything to go by, there’s trouble in America.

I did not watch a certain “town hall” broadcast on cable news with a prospective presidential candidate, though it does seem to me to be almost inevitable at this point that we are going to see a presidential election featuring two candidates whom a clear majority of voters do not want to run, let alone win.

I’ve written before about the essentially fractile nature of society in a popular democracy, that the political process incentivises, requires even, finding and deepening points of division, which function like alcohol in fermentation, as both desired byproduct and toxin. 

To be honest, while that makes me fairly… unsentimental about our democratic process, it doesn’t especially get me worked up, either. It’s a flawed system, all human political constructs are, and in many ways, it’s the best one we have come up with so far. But I am increasingly depressed about our common reaction to the current political landscape.

After a pandemic, lockdowns, economic crises, and a war in Europe, to say nothing of widespread outbreaks of social unrest at home, I’d have thought we would be looking for some kind of reboot, or at least showing some sort of collective urge for something better. 

Instead, we seem to be slipping into a democratic zombie apocalypse, with our politics lurching forward without any animating force from the majority of us, across all sides. 

Part of this, I am sure, is down to a general social trend to view ourselves as spectators and commentators, passive rather than active participants in the world around us, rage tweeting as we watch CNN instead of, you know, voting for a candidate we would actually support in a primary election.

If we decline to try to shape the world around us, it doesn’t hold still, it just shapes itself — whether we like it or not. 

This same phenomenon is, by the way, why I think the advent of AI is likely to be even more disruptive, in far bigger ways, than we are even thinking about preparing for. I think we have simply grown used to life as a kind of high speed ride with the cruise control on.

Along with the torrent of “information” (I’m using the term loosely) and “content” we imbibe from social media, we’ve internalized a mentality of consumption rather than output when it comes to interacting with the wider world.

I think a lot of this is due to our rapidly shifting sense of scale, along with new technology. Twenty years ago, “millions of people” was something we conceived of as an abstraction, today it’s the number who might watch a video of your cat posted on Facebook. It can leave a feeling that our world is just moving too big and too fast for us to effectively put our hands on, for all the “connectivity” we supposedly have at our disposal.

The answer to all this, of course, is to recognize that the world is too big and too fast for any of us to get our heads (let alone hands) around, and to accept that no one of us can somehow switch our culture or our politics off and on again. But that recognition is only a part of the solution. The full answer is to know and proclaim that the world isn’t ours to control or perfect or save, it belongs to God.

That may sound like a cop out, but it isn’t. It’s a commission, the great commission, in fact. The mandate to proclaim to the Good News is anything but abstract — it is grounded and immediate. And it is the easiest way to prove our own lives and actions can have profound effects.

You might not change the whole world by announcing the death, resurrection, and love of Christ to just one person today, or tomorrow, or the next. But there’s every chance you could change their whole world, and who knows how many others in the process. 

As Christians we are called to scatter the seed of the Word for a harvest we won’t reap ourselves, but even I have at times seen the first fruits of my own faltering efforts to evangelize. 

While conversion is — of course — always a work of the Holy Spirit, not us, seeing the hope the Gospel can bring to another is the surest nourishment for my own faith that I have found. It’s also the most powerful motivator I know. 

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The News

On May 7, eight people were killed after they were struck by an SUV outside the Ozanam Center, an overnight shelter founded by the Brownsville diocese to house Central American political refugees.

The SUV was driven by George Alvarez of Brownsville, who has been charged with manslaughter, while police officers investigate whether the crash was intentional. Bishop Daniel Flores spoke for everyone when he expressed shock and heartbreak at “the horrific loss of the lives of the … immigrant men.”

But who were these men, where did they come from? Edgar Beltran talked to their families this week. One of the men was Richard Bustamante.

“He was my only son, he was 27 years old,” said Gloria Pérez, Richard’s mother. He a police officer in his hometown of Guanare, in central Venezuela.

His sister Karina told us she is “desperate” in her attempts to bring Richard’s body home. “We do not want his body to disappear or to be cremated. We want to bring his body home, to give him a Christian burial in Venezuela,” she said.

Remember Richard’s name, and those of the men who died with him. And pray for them and their families.

This week, Pope Francis announced that the 21 men beheaded by Islamic State on a Libyan beach in 2015 will be incorporated into the Roman Martyrology, having died for the Christian faith.

The men have been recognized as saints by the Coptic Orthodox Church since the time of their killing and theirs is the unusual distinction of being recognized as martyrs by both Churches.

One of them, Matthew Ayariga, has an even more impressive distinction: he is recognized by the Catholic and Copitc Orthodox Churches as a martyr, even though he was, so far as we know, neither a Catholic nor Copt.

So who was he, and where did he come from? Luke Coppen took a look this week.


The government of the Australian Capital Territory announced this week that it will pass a law forcibly acquiring a local Catholic hospital after talks to buy it broke down when the owners said Rome would have to approve any sale.

The ACT, which functions kind of like the District of Columbia in the U.S., said Wednesday that Calvary Public Hospital and its assets are being effectively seized by the government, and folded into the state-run health network, Canberra Health Services. Staff at Calvary, the government said, will become public employees.

According to the Catholic trust which owns the hospital, and the local archbishop, the government gave zero notice of the plan, did not consult with anyone in the hospital’s ownership, and made no engagement with the 1,800 employees.

The ACT government had previously tried to buy the hospital for AU$77 million, but those talks broke down when the Little Company of Mary Health Care said any sale would need to be approved by the Vatican as an extraordinary act of administration.

Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn said he was “stunned” by the government’s plan. 

“It is a very sad day when governments can simply decide to mount a take-over of any enterprise they like without any justification,” he said, and sets a “a very worrying precedent.”

The leader of the political opposition party in ACT  called the move “outrageous thuggery” and said the government had simply “decided to forcibly acquire the best-performing part of ACT Health” without thought or concern for the people who own the hospital or who work there.

Read all about it here.

Violence in the Indian state of Manipur has left more than 60 people dead, thousands displaced, and burned-out churches smoldering.

Catholic leaders have condemned the clashes and called for countrywide prayers for peace, but tensions have been rising for months in Manipur — one of India’s smallest states, located in the far northeast of the country.

As Luke Coppen explains this week, the conflict began as a feud of ethnic and tribal designations by the government in the region, which impact access to land and jobs in the region. But the tribal dispute quickly took on a religious flavor.

The Meitei, who are predominantly Hindu, live in the state’s more developed central Imphal Valley but are not permitted to settle in the surrounding hilly regions, which constitute 90% of the state. The hill regions are reserved for the local tribal population, mostly Christians, who are also allowed to live in the valley.

Armed mobs have attacked cars, homes, and churches belonging to the Christian Kuki community, setting them on fire. The fighting displaced an estimated 23,000 people, and troops have moved in to restore order with permission to “shoot on sight.”

This isn’t a conflict you’re likely to read about elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, or that it doesn’t matter. Get up to speed here.

The Vatican’s financial watchdog published its annual report this week, touting increased international cooperation and the implementation of new regulatory laws issued by Pope Francis.

The report from the Financial Supervisory and Information Authority (ASIF, pronounced As-If) the Vatican watchdog is making good progress keeping a lid on international money laundering and terrorist financing at the Vatican financial institutions under its care.

Though, as I noted in an analysis yesterday, ASIF is only responsible for one Vatican financial institution, the Institute for Works of Religion. And it is the IOR which detected and flagged 24 of the 28 suspicious activity reports generated by ASIF last year.

And, lest we forget, it’s the IOR who has probably the most credible leadership team in Vatican finances with probably the best reputation for cleaning house and keeping things clean. The immediate former leaders of ASIF, meanwhile, are on trial for abuse of office and a host of other financial crimes — obviously not something that gets a mention in the annual report.

I’m not especially bearish on ASIF, the new leadership team has a generally good reputation. And I think that they are trying to do some good work, and they certainly walked into a giant mess when they started three years ago. 

But the big strike against the annual report is this: they keep banging on about international terrorist financing, which no one, including Moneyval at the time of its last inspection report, thinks is a major risk factor in the Vatican. Meanwhile, the ASIF report says basically nothing at all about tackling internal corruption and fraud, which Moneyval said was basically the biggest risk in Vatican banking.

It’s all well and good to take a lap over not screwing up something everyone agrees has been going fine for years. But if ASIF wants to be taken seriously, they need to get their teeth into in-house corruption at the Vatican — and that begins by talking about it, clearly and out loud.

You can read my whole analysis here.

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Autobiography of an abuser

The bishops of Bolivia have expressed their “solidarity” with victims of abuse after a Spanish newspaper published a lengthy feature on the decades-long predations of a Jesuit priest working in the country.

El Pais reported on the life and career of Fr. Alfonso Pedrajas, SJ, during which he, by his own estimation, sexually abused about 85 boys, many of them students in a school he was in charge of.

The story received very little wider coverage in the international or Catholic media, and after decades of such horror stories I can well understand if reporters and readers alike are frankly sick of the thought of another litany of unthinkable crimes against children.

But Pedrajas’ story, I think, merits serious attention. 

El Pais spoke to several of his victims, but the bulk of what they reported came from Pedrajas himself. The priest kept a diary for decades, in which he recorded his crimes and his attempts to rationalize them to his victims and to himself. 

He also detailed the shockingly long list of Jesuit superiors and confreres with whom he spoke about his crimes and who did nothing — absolutely nothing — to stop him.

When I say “nothing,” I don’t mean they bounced him from assignment to assignment, as was all too common in some U.S. dioceses in the 70s and 80s. I mean they just left him in post, for years, at a school, where they knew he was raping the students.

In one job or another, I have been investigating, litigating, and reporting on the worst kinds of crime and cover up we have in the Church for about a decade now and honestly I thought I’d been so cauterized to the horrors that I was unshockable. I was wrong.

I’ve read therapists’ reports detailing quack treatments and BS assessments of “cured” abusers. 

But I’ve never before read how a superior positively reassured an abuser that “nothing is going to happen” to them, or a priest psychologist tell them to “avoid feelings of, and fixations on, guilt.” 

I’ve traced the paperwork of callous superiors working to cover the tracks of an abuser, or make him and his victims disappear before they could do too much public damage. But to read how they positively weighed promoting a serial child abuser, if he could just get a handle on his “certain philias and phobias,” was new for me.

I’m frankly amazed this hasn’t been a global story, but media attention to one side, I hope it is being poured over by institutions like the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The glimpse into Padrajas’ mind, his rationalizations, and the stomach churning sympathy shown him by those responsible for stopping him is jaw-dropping.

For myself, my lasting take away was an all-too real look at what spurious arguments and rationalizations about clerical celibacy and human sexuality actually look like when applied to the monstrous reality of a serial abuser — as they were by and for Padrajas.

I’d say I urge you to read our summary, and the El Pais report in full, but I understand if and why you don’t want to. All I can say is: I hate reading and writing about this stuff too. It’s left me in an absolute depression for the rest of the week.

But we, the Church, cannot stop pouring over these crimes. We have to keep bringing them to the light — first in justice to the victim-survivors of men like Padrajas and the people who protected him, and second because we have to learn everything we can about and from this kind of unspeakable darkness if we are to have any hope of effectively preventing it. 

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A time to sing

Back to the subject of endless content, the Mrs. and I have been casting about for something new to watch in the quiet hour after the child has gone to bed. 

This week, we picked up a political drama recommended by a clerical friend. We are only one episode in, but so far it’s pretty good — sharply written, solid cast, interesting setting. 

It’s also a kind of high minded escapism from the political theater of the absurd going on in the real world. Everyone is clever, professional, and slickly competent, for good or bad. If anything, the intelligence of the characters and their motivations hurts your suspension of disbelief while you watch. If only the real world was this sharp.

What it isn’t, though, is an effective emotional catharsis for the viewer, or the kind of show that can serve as a common cultural point of contact for society. For that, this weekend I will be looking back over the ocean to Liverpool, where the Eurovision Song Contest final is happening tomorrow.

If you are unfamiliar with Eurovision, I’m not really sure how to explain it other than as a transcontinental battle of the bands, but that description doesn’t capture the utter absurdity and high camp which make the event must-see TV for people across 37 countries.

The closest you can come to a ready-made window into the competition would be Will Farrell’s 2020 film. Though even that, as a friend of mine reminded me last weekend, rather undersells the crazy of the real thing.

This year’s hot tip to win is the Swedish entrant Loreen, who looks pretty middle of the road, even conservative, as these things go:

But she’s going to have to see off the likes of Käärijä, a rapper from the mean streets of Helsinki. 

This is what you’d get if Tupac was born in Finland, apparently.

And the less said about Croatia’s Let’s 3, a rock band popular across the former Yugoslavia but known for their “vulgar” performances, the better, probably.

This is from their official Eurovision video, and honestly it’s the least weird image of them I could find.

On top of the outrageous acts (previous winners include everything from a Scandi death metal band to an Israeli bearded lady) is the nakedly petty and often deeply political voting for the winner, with ballots being cast by country. You’re as likely to see simmering resentment over centuries-old regional grudges swing votes as much as the quality of any particular act.

The British entries, like the inoffensive but relatively talentless twin act Gemini, for some reason tend to finish in last place, and have twice achieved the remarkable feat of scoring zero points.

My friend and I were wondering to each other last week why something similar hasn’t been tried in this country, given the audience found by other music-act-themed adaptations like American Idol (Pop Idol, in its original format), America’s Got Talent (originally Britain's Got Talent) and the universally named X-Factor.

A nationwide song competition, with state-by-state voting, could field an incredible diversity of musical styles: East Coast vs West Coast rap battles, Nashville vs Western country rivalries, all with (presumably) the Mid Western states desperately trying to be nice to everyone at the same time. 

And it would be a welcome chance to sublimate our political and social divisions into something altogether silly and harmless, instead of channeling every angry voice of our national Id into our politics.

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The problem, I suspect, is that Eurovision only works because everyone involved is happy to hold its absurdity and significance in tension. America, at least in my experience, likes to keep the silly and the serious separate — and even when things are obviously silly, we still tend to take them too seriously, though that has its own distinctly American charm. (Think of Medieval Times!)

I guess what I am saying is: I’m just not sure we’re capable of investing emotionally in something as frivolous as Eurovision (or democracy) and still enjoying it at the same time. That’s kind of a shame.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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