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Worse than McCarrick, ‘resisting’ Pope Francis, and an Italian mood board

Worse than McCarrick, ‘resisting’ Pope Francis, and an Italian mood board

Happy Friday friends,

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, many people in Florida are trying very hard right now to gather the pieces of their shattered homes and lives. They need help, we know, and prayers.

For our part, we’ll be sending our own donation to the hurricane relief fund of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, And, from today, we will also donate $10 for each new subscription to The Pillar through the end of October.

It isn’t much in the grand scale of things, for sure. But loving our neighbor surely means doing whatever we can when they need help the most.

You can donate to Catholic Charities of Miami here. And if you were thinking of subscribing to The Pillar, do it now, and we’ll send $10 on your behalf to help hurricane victims recover their lives.

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The News

The bishops of Germany met this week to pregame their ad limina visit in Rome, which begins on Monday.

The last time the Germans were in Rome, in 2015, Pope Francis delivered a withering assessment of the state of the Church in their country, and urged bishops to rediscover the urgency of their evangelizing mission, instead of locking themselves into endless cycles of institutional and structural navel-gazing.

Soon after, the Germans opted to open their “synodal way” process, which has been the source of repeated Vatican interventions, cautions, warnings, and flat-out “no’s” for several years now.

So what can the Germans expect to discuss in Rome? In his analysis this week, Luke Coppen says that their Vatican hosts will most likely take their cues from Pope Francis.

You never quite know which way the pope will land, Luke says. While we know that the pontiff has deep misgivings about Germany’s synodal way, he has not directly intervened in the process since a 2019 letter to all German Catholics.

So what should you look out for? What might be on the pope’s mind as he gets ready to play host to the Germans?

Read the whole analysis here.

Bishop Philip Egan of the Diocese of Portsmouth is an interesting man. And he possesses one of the qualities I admire most in a bishop: he can talk about evangelization fluently, and with conviction.

This week, Bishop Egan spoke with Luke Coppen about the Church’s “new apostolic age” — and the bishop explained why he recently wrote a “letter to everyone” — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — in his diocese.

Here’s a teaser:

“Evangelization is two-way. It’s like breathing in and breathing out. Ad intra, it’s about ourselves growing in faith, a lifelong endeavor, and ad extra, it’s about reaching out to and helping others to receive the gift.

There are two goals. The proximate goal, I think, is the conversion of individuals. And the ultimate goal is a conversion of culture. It’s not really a program. It’s about a Person.”

This interview is worth reading. So please read it.

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After two days of hearings for a criminal trial this week, Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong will next appear in court on October 26, after a judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to try him over his role as a trustee of a civil rights charity.

Principal Magistrate Ada Yim issued the ruling on September 27. After cross-examining several witnesses — all called by the prosecution — Yim declared there was enough evidence to make a prima facie case against the cardinal and the five other defendants.

In the course of the hearings, defense objections to the case were overruled as “irrelevant” by the judge. Lawyers for Zen and his co-defendants will have to wait a month before they can call their own witnesses or make a case.

We have been following every step of Zen’s case, and we will continue to do so. You can get up to speed here.

In another courtroom, on the other side of the world, the Vatican financial trial resumed on Thursday, with the court releasing a list of the first slate of prosecution witnesses to be called.

I am not going to tax your patience with the details here. If you’re following this case as closely as I am, you don’t need a hard sell you on why you’ll want to catch up on what went down yesterday.

One thing I would note though: most of the Italian media coverage has made much of the fact that the prosecution’s star witness, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, wasn’t on the list of people to be called in upcoming hearings. The consensus seems to be that this omission is a surprise — a mysterious look into which something should be read to signify something important.

I find that reaction baffling.

The prosecution already interviewed Perlasca for hours, over months, during their investigation. They’ve already filed everything he gave them in evidence for this case. Why would they need him to come in and say it all again? If and when Perlasca comes to court, it will surely be at the defense’s request, so he can be cross-examined.

Anyway, that’s an aside about what didn’t happen yesterday.

You can read all about what did happen, and who has been called as a witness, here.

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This is a story to which the entire Church should pay attention.

On Wednesday, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor was accused of serial sexual abuse of minors, stretching back decades.

Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of East Timor waves to crowds in Oporto, Portugal, in 1999. Credit: Alamy

A Dutch news magazine broke the accusations, speaking to dozens of Catholics in East Timor, including several of Belo’s alleged victims, who say that he sexually abused teenagers and offered them money.

Belo won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for his work championing human rights in East Timor during its Indonesian occupation, which saw hundreds of thousands killed by the military.

Despite his status as a national hero, the bishop resigned just months after the country gained independence in 2002, at the young age of 54.

The magazine De Groene Amsterdammer reported that Belo’s alleged abuse was well-known among some Catholics in East Timor, and known by the Vatican at the time of his resignation in 2002, but that he was considered “too big to fail,” and so he was effectively sent into ecclesiastical exile.

The bishop went first to Portugal, where he’d studied as a young Salesian, before he was reassigned as an assistant missionary priest in Mozambique — working mostly in youth ministry, according to an interview he gave in 2005.

Now in his 70s, Belo has been living in Portugal again for several years.

On Thursday the Vatican confirmed that it had received allegations against Belo, but only in 2019, and placed some sort of restrictions on him the following year.

The Holy See press office also said that the measures restricting his travel and ministry were “modified and reinforced” in November 2021 and that Belo had accepted them in both instances.

No mention has been made of any kind of formal canonical investigation or penal process against the bishop in 2002, 2019, 2020, 2021, or now.

As bad as McCarrick, or worse?

There are several aspects of the Belo case to consider and, I am afraid, the whole thing gets worse as you unpack it.

First, there is the heartbreaking nature of the allegations made by his alleged victims, who told the Dutch magazine that the bishop forced himself on them through obscene and unnatural acts – raping them, as children.

Then there is the allegation that he gave the boys money, money their impoverished families desperately needed - to keep quiet, and — worse — to come back to be raped again.

All this, concerning a bishop who was being feted as a selfless champion of his people on the international stage while he compared himself to St. Oscar Romero.

If all this isn’t nightmarish enough, at this point we come to a fork in the road of “how bad is this” as the allegations reach the Vatican.

There are two accounts, and two possibilities here, which JD turned over in an analysis yesterday.

It's an analysis I strongly urge you to read.

The short version, as I see it, is this:

If, as they sort of claim, Vatican officials only heard of the allegations in 2019, and acted the following year to restrict Belo’s ministry and travel, then it has to be understood exactly how bad that looks.

At that time, the Church was still in the throes of the McCarrick scandal — he had been stripped of the cardinal’s hat in 2018, just weeks after the first public accusation, and he was laicized in February of 2019, just before Pope Francis opened a summit of the world’s bishops in Rome to discuss the sexual abuse crisis and episcopal accountability.

Vos estis lux mundi, meant to provide new legal mechanisms for handling accusations of abuse against bishops, was issued just a few weeks later.

Shortly thereafter, according to the Vatican’s own narrative, it was decided to restrict Belo’s travel and ministry as a result of the allegations, but apparently not to open a canonical investigation or penal process — exactly the same decision-making which was applied to McCarrick after his retirement as Archbishop of Washington.

And the Vatican seems to have done this while completely ignoring their own global summit to address the gross failures in the McCarrick case, and their own new law, issued to ensure no case would ever be handled that way again.

That is, believe it or not, the “least bad” of the two options.

The other possibility is that De Groene Amsterdammer is right, and the Vatican knew about the allegations against Belo in 2002, accepted his resignation on a pretense, and “restricted” his travel and ministry at that time, while hushing it up and then allowing him to travel to Africa to work primarily with young people and children.

I’m not currently in a position to question the accuracy of either De Groene Amsterdammer’s reporting or the Vatican’s official narrative.

And, as JD points out, it is possible that the Vatican’s statement yesterday was very narrowly and very specifically worded to allow for some version of both to be true at once.

But when you get right down to it, there is no “good” explanation for the Belo situation.

The simple reality is that, four years on from McCarrick, Catholics are right back where they started: wondering how many more bishops have been quietly “restricted” by the Vatican, despite all the promises of a new era of transparency and accountability, and asking when, if ever, they can expect some straight answers from their shepherds.

Read JD’s whole analysis here.


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Since the abuse crisis seems to be very much still with us, now is a very good time to consider how the laity can wrestle with what it means for our faith and relationship with the Church.

This week, Charlie Camosy talked with Sarah Larson, who asked herself just these questions four years ago, at the height of the scandals that broke then. Larson, then working in parish ministry, found herself rethinking the way in which she could best serve the Church she loved.

Larson invited local Catholics into her home for small group discussions about the abuse crisis. Those gatherings eventually grew to become Awake Milwaukee, a nonprofit group that promotes listening, education, healing, and change in the local Church through community gatherings, discussion groups, and advocacy work.

The relationships she’s formed with abuse survivors have profoundly changed her. Se told Charlie about where she finds both hope and frustration in her work for healing and reform.

This is a very timely conversation. Read the whole thing here.

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This weekend, the “Catholic Identity Conference” is being held at a Pittsburgh hotel for its fourth year. It is something of a controversial gathering.

This year’s slate of speakers, which includes the reclusive former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano and media personality Abby Johnson, are addressing a slate of topics like ‘Francis’s Missionary Genocide,’ ‘Is the Pope Pro-Life?’ and ‘Pope of Surprises: Chaplain to the New World Order.’

The conference is also hosting a press conference at which speakers will, as they put it, “present articles of resistance against the Vatican and to the pontificate of Pope Francis.”

Now, I am not sure what this is meant to mean, or will actually involve, but speaking purely as a canon lawyer, this description seems to come close to promising some kind of act of schism.

Given the talk titles and the promised press conference, we asked the Diocese of Pittsburgh for comment, and if Bishop David Zubik was offering any guidance for local Catholics on the event.

The diocese told us that it “is in no way affiliated with this event” and “does not support, endorse, or encourage people to attend,” but offered no comment from the bishop on the substance of the program.

Zubik’s apparent reluctance to respond to the promised “resistance” to the pope at a Catholic event in his backyard is not unique. Few U.S. bishops in recent years have chosen to address directly a growing network of conferences and rallies which take as their theme the rhetoric of “resisting” Pope Francis on a range of issues, even when the events take place in their territory.

It seems to me like a missed opportunity for the bishop.

There is no rule in the Church that says Catholics have to love every statement or opinion of the pope. And even when a religious submission of intellect and will is called for, there is space for Catholics to voice concerns when they have them. Helping them to express and channel those concerns in a constructive and authentically Catholic way would seem to me to fall well within the bishops’ remit — as would calling them out when necessary.

But, and this is just my speculation, it seems like bishops might be unwilling to engage with conferences like this because they simply don’t want to put themselves in the crosshairs of an angry group of people.

The tendency to just sort of ignore them and hope they move along doesn’t seem a million miles away from, for example, the way many Republican politicians try to look past the fringe elements of the MAGA movement in the hopes of not making themselves the target of their ire.

Indeed, given their vocal support for the “stop the steal” campaign after the last election, the CIC crowd and the MAGA fringe at least share common figures in Vigano and Johnson, and, presumably, at least some common pools of supporters behind them.

Leaving aside questions of the moral responsibility of a bishop to have a care about what is done under the name “Catholic” in his diocese, ignoring a problem is not usually an effective means of dealing with it.

More to the point, declining to dialogue is not exactly the Pope Francis way — and engagement, even asking simple questions, can often bear surprising fruit.

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The Meloni baloney

I have received this week a surprising number of emails asking me for my thoughts on both the recent election in Italy and on the new government to be headed by Giorgia Meloni.

Strangely, none of the emails were from Italians.

As it happens, I have no strong feelings about the event, or Ms. Meloni, and even fewer informed opinions. As such, I find it very hard to get too worked up about the election, one way or another.

For a start, I simply do not understand how Italian elections work.

I’m not a stupid person, I don’t think. I have some background in professional politics. And over the years, I have made several good-faith efforts to understand the mechanics of Italy’s blend of first-past-the-post constituency elections, regional and national proportional representation, and overseas voter delegates. But I’ve just about given up on understanding how it all works, structurally.

It’s also the case that Italian governments, on average, last about 18 months, so the balance of probabilities is against Meloni still being in power much past next Christmas, whatever you might feel about her.

While I suspect I am not alone in thinking all this, it hasn’t stopped people from getting very excited indeed about Meloni.

For a start, a lot - a lot - of people have told me that Meloni sometimes quotes JRR Tolkien in her speeches.

Now, I like Tolkien, but I have to confess, even if she could recite “The Hobbit” from memory like a hafiz, it wouldn’t tell me anything about her as a person — I know  people who adore the Harry Potter books, and many of them can be smart, thoughtful people, despite loving that insipid, badly-written pablum.

More than her taste in children’s fantasy literature, I find myself weighing her government’s coalition partners.

Her “victory” comes tethered to the support of Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who must now be her essential partners in government, and neither of whom I hold in much esteem.

During his own tenure as prime minister, Berlusconi was so novel in his pursuit of moral corruption that new words were coined to describe it (you can google ‘bunga bunga’ for yourself if you need to). As interior minister, Salvini famously ordered the country’s ports closed to refugees, and developed a habit of flashing his rosary at political rallies in a way I find indistinguishable from Joe Biden’s.

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But more than anything else, I think my antipathy to the mania over Meloni (for and against her) has the same root as my indifference to Italian elections in general: I know I just don’t really understand the subject matter.

She does, like any populist, appear to offer something for everyone to champion or rage against: She was a member of the Italian Social Movement as a young woman, but she is anti-Russia and pro-Ukraine; she seems to like NATO, but is also something of a Eurosceptic; she talks a great deal about the “traditional family,” but she isn’t married herself; she talks up “Christian values,” but has promised not to undermine laws protecting abortion rights or same-sex partnerships.

But on top of all of this is a deep layer of visceral loving and loathing I cannot dig beneath: I have been assured variously that she is either a far-right, fascist demagogue, or a passionate defender of the family, Christian culture, and common sense objections to militant woke culture. (For a special few, those descriptors are all relative synonyms anyway, so she’s all of them at once.)

Whatever she attempts or achieves during her term of office, however long it lasts, it seems unlikely I will be able to find an honest account of it — and I doubt very much any of the people talking about her loudest in the U.S. media will have one, either.

In this sense, Meloni strikes me as not so much a political Rorschach test as a cultural mood board, with people pinning to her whatever words and images help them better crystalize their own worldview.

And here’s the thing: I hate mood boards. I think they’re infantile and vague. They are all about  “vibes” rather than ideas. They are a basic tool for childish thinking.

Now, maybe Meloni will turn into something else. Perhaps she will end up leaving a deep mark on Italian and European politics and public life. If and when she does, I’ll assess her on the merits.

Until then, I’ll take a pass on all the moods and vibes.

After last week’s newsletter, a few of you reached out with some feedback, the thrust of which was that you thought it was a little dark.

“Depressing” was a word a few of you used.

Well, I cannot control the news, but I would like to put a smile on your face this Friday if I can. So while we’re talking about Italy and vibes, I thought I would tell you about “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” which is my favorite piece of modern Italian culture.

It’s a song “written,” if you want to use that word, by Adriano Celentano.

Celentano was (he’s still alive) something of an Italian Elvis back in the day — his dancing earned him the nickname il Molleggiato, which I think translates as “the slinky one.”

“Prisencolinensinainciusol” is a song written to sound like an American rock and roll track, but instead of words, it is total gibberish. He says “alright” every now and then, but otherwise, it’s just babbling nonsense.

But here’s the cool thing about it — it’s carefully thought out gibberish, meant to give the perfect impression of how American music sounds to non-English speakers. I’m reliably told by Italian friends old enough to remember, when the song was released in 1972, it was not an uncommon assumption that it was actually an English-language song.

The link is below. It will make you laugh, of course. It’s a music video from the ‘70s. But I defy you to listen to this and not strain to understand what he’s saying, and even half convince yourself you can just about make it out.

This morning, after I sent it to JD, he reported back that as he listened, he found himself - a more or less native speaker of English - absolutely hearing recognizable and comprehensible words and phrases. But he wasn't.

Maybe there's a lesson there about our observance of Italian politics, too.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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