What you need to know: Bishop Hart, Venerable Lejeune, Nancy Pelosi, and more
The Tuesday Pillar Post
Today is the feast of Saints Timothy and Titus. If you’ve not read St. Paul’s letter to Titus, I encourage you to do so. It’s short enough that you can read it profitably during a holy hour, and Titus 3 contains excellent advice for Catholics on social media:
“avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
As you likely already know, last week’s presidential inauguration sparked a controversy at the USCCB, over a statement from bishops’ conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez.
Open criticism and disagreement among the U.S. bishops is rare, so on Friday I took a look at what the fallout from this disagreement might mean.
On the same issue, Ed looked today at why a correction from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bishop might be an inflection point in the rift between U.S. bishops over how to engage with pro-choice politicians.
Yesterday at The Pillar, data analyst Brendan Hodge provided an insightful look at the complicated relationship between abortion and income levels. The piece points to a constellation of questions that could be asked about abortion and economics, some of which we’ll explore in future pieces at The Pillar.
Among the U.S. bishops who have in recent years faced allegations of serial abuse and misconduct is Bishop Joseph Hart, emeritus bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Bishop Hart is accused of serially abusing teenagers in the 1970s, during his years as a priest in Missouri and his ministry as a bishop in Wyoming.
Those allegations became widely known in 2018 and 2019, in the aftermath of the McCarrick scandal.
Hart, 89, was exonerated of seven accusations, and in five cases, the penal process determined that the allegations could neither be proven nor disproved. In the case of two other allegations, the Vatican determined it could not conduct canonical processes because the alleged victims - 16 and 17 years old - were not considered minors in canon law at the time of the alleged abuse. According to the Diocese of Cheyenne, one additional allegation was not considered by the Vatican, for unknown reasons.
While Hart was not found guilty of any canonical crimes, he was formally rebuked by the Vatican for imprudent behavior, including being frequently alone with minors. He remains prohibited from publicly celebrating liturgies or having contact with minors, seminarians, and vulnerable adults.
The conclusion of Bishop Hart’s canonical case offers, in my estimation, a mixed bag of takeaways and lessons. Here are some of my observations:
It is a positive sign that a bishop had to face a canonical process for allegations against him, and a positive sign that the Vatican waived the canonical statutes of limitations - called prescription - to hold him to account.
The unanswered questions at the conclusion of Bishop Hart’s “day in court” will doubtlessly make it difficult for some Catholics to trust in the integrity of the process. Those questions include why one allegation seems not to have been addressed by the CDF.
The Church asks Catholics to trust in the integrity of its canonical penal processes with very limited transparency about the details of those proceedings. Because of the credibility lost in the McCarrick scandal, many Catholics are skeptical to extend that trust.
It will be serious challenge for the Church to introduce a far greater deal of transparency into its processes than it currently extends. But without that, reforming the penal process will have only limited success, and processes like Bishop Hart’s will have limited effect on restoring trust in the Church’s pursuit of justice.
Many Catholics will ask why Bishop Hart has not been laicized. Because he was not convicted of a canonical crime, that option was not on the table. The conditions placed upon him are designed to effectively curtail any priestly ministry on his part.
Many Catholics will ask why the bishop has not faced criminal charges. To date, criminal prosecutors have declined to file charges against him, most likely because they believe they would have insufficient evidence for a conviction, or because of the criminal statute of limitations.
Several U.S. bishops remain under investigation for allegations of abuse, misconduct, or failing to exercise proper oversight. If they are exonerated, the Holy See would do well to consider the public release of reports detailing the investigation and the decision, in order to built trust in the investigative processes they’ve developed.
Venerable Jerome Lejeune
Some readers are aware that I have two children with Down syndrome, and that until last year, my son was named for the now disgraced Jean Vanier, who was a friend and and advocate for the disabled, and also, it emerged last year, a coercive sexual predator.
Last year’s news about Vanier hit our family quite hard, because he was a champion for disabled people, and because his spirituality seemed to be very beautiful. When we found out he lived a double life, we struggled.
But we are encouraged - as are many friends of the disabled - that a different advocate for people with Down syndrome, Dr. Jerome Lejeune, has been declared “venerable” by Pope Francis — a step on the way to becoming a saint.
Lejeune was a pediatrician and a geneticist, who discovered in 1959 that Down syndrome is caused by a chromosomal abnormality called trisomy-21. His work put to rest theories that people were born with Down syndrome because of some immoral behavior of their parents, and undercut eugenicist arguments about the forced sterilization of the poor and other marginalized communities.
He was not only a researcher. Lejeune treated patients with Down syndrome, and developed new treatments for many of the physical difficulties they face. When prenatal diagnoses began to lead to increases of abortion for children with Down syndrome and other genetic disabilities, Lejeune advocated for their lives.
In 1994, Lejeune died of lung cancer. He was 67 years old.
Here is a striking, thoughtful, and terrifically funny talk given by Lejeune in 1969 on the nature of humanity, the job of medicine, and the ethics of abortion. You should read it.
One more thing
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Yours in Christ,
*correction: This newsletter originally said that Bishop Hart had been a priest in Kansas. It was in fact Missouri. This has been corrected.