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Pope Francis and the Zen of dialogue

The Friday Pillar Post

Pope Francis. Credit: Alamy.

Happy Friday friends,

And a happy feast of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, both of whom are remembered by the Church for their third-century defense of the faith, and witness to the Gospel in the face of imperial persecution.

Cyprian, a lawyer from Carthage, survived the persecution of the emperor Decius, but under Valerian found himself first exiled, then arrested.

Notably, his trial is remembered for its faultless procedure, and the calm and courtesy displayed by all sides as he was convicted and executed. A witness, if you will, to dialogue in the truest Christian sense.

Anyway, here’s the news.

The News

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, like some other U.S. dioceses, has been in bankruptcy court since 2020, seeking Chapter 11 protection while it restructures to deal with a wave of historical clerical abuse lawsuits filed in the wake of the scandals of 2018.

But the case has taken a few turns which make it different from other bankruptcy proceedings.

In New Orleans, a federal judge has issued orders preventing the diocese from paying priests their monthly stipends if they have been accused of abuse.

Instead, the priests have been told they need to get in line for payment behind the other archdiocesan creditors, including their alleged victims. This is - as JD and I wrote about this week - very odd, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, it is not at all clear where a judge in a federal bankruptcy court gets the authority to, in effect, decide which diocesan clergy can be paid and which not.

I am not an expert in American law, but I talked with a few people who are, and none of them could figure it out either.

Set aside the understandable emotional response we all have to the subject of accusations of abuse — it is not obvious how the judge has the power to single out clerics who have not been found guilty of any civil crime or canonical delict and say, in effect, that they are banned from being paid.

If nothing else, the matter raises real questions about due process and a person’s right to a legal defense.

And it gets more complicated.

Bishops are required by canon law to provide for the “decent support” of all their incardinated clerics, including accused priests — this isn’t an option, it’s an obligation Rome has insisted on. In the New Orleans case, the judge has basically told the archdiocese it may not conduct itself in accordance with Church law. This seems, to me at least, to raise some possible First Amendment issues.

The case also raises, or rather re-raises, questions about the nature and prudence of dioceses publishing lists of “credibly accused” clerics, which often encompass everything from instances where a priest has admitted to the abuse, to cases where the accusation is simply found to be plausible. It also raises the real problems with dioceses maintaining entire cadres of “unassignable” priests who have been accused but neither found guilty by a formal canonical process nor laicized.

The archdiocese told us it is “evaluating” the judge’s orders, and declined to comment further. It has a lot to evaluate — as do other dioceses in similar circumstances.

Read our whole analysis here.

The notion of “religious freedom” is changing in America, both culturally and legally. What were once — way back in the ancient times of the Clinton administration — seen as obvious matters of religious teaching are now claimed to be civil rights matters, especially when it comes to sex and gender.

This week, Charlie Camosy spoke with Helen Alvaré, Dean for Academic Affairs at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, about this, the subject of her book “Religious Freedom after the Sexual Revolution: a Catholic Guide.”

Alvaré argues that religious liberty advocates need a much more robust understanding of what it really means to be a religious institution to have a hope of defending their right not only in courts of law but in the court of public opinion, too.

So many of the lawsuits in the United States today that challenge religious institutions’ religious freedom involve demands that religious institutions comply with the state’s new sexual orthodoxy: the separation of sex from biology, and the separation of sex from marriage from children.
While some Catholic institutions are winning such lawsuits, often they are failing to proffer a robust argument for why they sought religious freedom. Why do they want to maintain their standards concerning sexual expression? Too often they simply assert that “we have a rule we must obey,” or “the bishop made me do it.”
As a result of such defenses, the public’s respect for religious freedom and for our sexual expression teachings declined together. We risked diminishing affection for both in courts of law and in courts of public opinion.
I want to help Catholic institutions do better: to express their natures as witnesses to the living Christ, to one another and to the world, and as communities providing a glimpse of the kingdom… I also want to expose Catholic institutions to the body of empirical evidence demonstrating how important religiously faithful employees are to the mission. Everyone knows “personnel is policy,” but somehow both Catholic institutions and courts of law were too often overlooking this crucial truth.

This is a very important conversation. Read the whole thing.


Pope Francis appointed a new bishop to the Puerto Rican Diocese of Arecibo this week. You may remember the unusual circumstances in which that diocese fell vacant six months ago.

Arecibo was previously led by Bishop Daniel Fernández, whom the pope summarily sacked in March, with no reason given to the bishop.

It is very unusual for the pope to depose a bishop — on the canonical scale, it’s the kind of action usually reserved for the gravest of crimes.

But in Fernández’ case, even the bishop isn’t clear what led to his dismissal.

Puerto Rico’s Vatican representative told Fernández he’d been “disobedient” to the pope, but no one seems to know how — and the bishop’s repeated efforts to get a meeting asking the pope what he’s done wrong have been unsuccessful.

Tens of thousands of local Catholics signed a petition begging for their bishop back, or asking, at a minimum, that he be given something like due process, but to no response.

Arecibo’s new leader, Bishop Alberto Arturo Figueroa Morales, a former auxiliary of the Archdiocese of San Juan, has been welcomed by Fernández supporters, but they haven’t forgotten “Bishop Daniel” either.

His treatment, they said in a statement this week, “totally deviates from the synodal spirit to which Pope Francis has called us to live in the Church and, as a consequence, deep wounds remain between the clergy, the religious and the laity of the Diocese of Arecibo that must be healed.”

The new bishop will have a lot on his hands healing those wounds. And he won’t have the luxury of simply ignoring local Catholics’ questions.

Read all about it here.

By the numbers, French Catholicism is a much-diminished reality, but it remains a hugely powerful creative force. One example of this is the Lazarus Association, which is pioneering a new approach to homelessness, which has transformed the lives of hundreds, won papal approval, and is spreading across Europe.

As Luke Coppen reported this week, it all started when two Catholic men felt called to help the homeless in Paris. A parish lent them an apartment, and they moved in with four other men with precarious housing situations.

Their desire was to establish a genuine bond with those they wanted to serve, “on an equal footing,” and to live poverty with simplicity, and their new mission prayerfully. And it didn’t always go smoothly: They arrived home one day to find one of their housemates brandishing a gun.

They knew the man, Karim, and his history. As a youth, he witnessed his father strangle his two-year-old sister and then take his own life. He had grown up in shelters and struggled to express his feelings.

As they tried to talk Karim down, they discovered the gun wasn’t real, but his pain definitely was. “Who pays you to live with me?” he wanted to know.

As the story was told to Luke, “Karim didn’t know friendship, this free and loving relation with others, which was the source of his human reconstruction,” and that’s how things started.

Today, some 250 people are currently living in its shared apartments in 16 cities in France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and Mexico. Half the residents have been homeless or experienced socio-economic insecurity, and the other half are young working adults who volunteer with the organization.

Lazarus’ work looks like a radical witness to human dignity, and one that is working. Read all about it here.


Something a little offbeat for you over the weekend: Catholic communities around the world tend to develop their own strong relationships with particular saints and feasts. And the way they are celebrated becomes a crucial part of preserving and handing on not just the faith, but cultural identity, too.

Kathryn Anne Casey took a look at the distinctly Portuguese tradition of Assumption festivals, and one festival in particular, here in the U.S.

The custom is rooted in the devotions of a 12th-century queen, passed through a clutch of tiny islands in the middle of the Atlantic, and is lived out today in California.

It’s pretty interesting. Read all about it here.


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The passing of the UK’s crown remained the focus of much of the world news this week. Looking ahead to the reign of Charles III, many have wondered about how well the new king will embrace the distinctly Christian character of the throne he inherits.

But those who have been paying attention already know what King Charles thinks about the plight of suffering Christians.

In an analysis this week, Luke Coppen pointed out that Charles has been a lifelong champion of unfashionable causes, many of which subsequently went on to become global preoccupations. And one of his least fashionable efforts is his continued support for persecuted Christians around the world.

As Christians around the world, but especially in places like Nigeria and Iraq, continue to be the foremost victims of religious violence, they need all the support they can get — having it come from the throne would be no bad thing indeed.

Read Luke’s whole analysis here.


Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski has a unique office, as leader of the UK’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic community. And he came into the role at a very strange time: three days after he was installed as head of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Holy Family of London, a national COVID lockdown began — not long after that, the bishop found himself hospitalized.

Since then, he’s been marshaling support for another life-and-death struggle for his people, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. With 7 million Ukrainians displaced by the invasion, Nowakowski has established a refugee base in the U.K. and is, he says, focused on “planning for the maximum” while trying to arrange welcomes for many fleeing the war.

The bishop talked with Luke Coppen this week about his time in office, the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts around the Russian invasion, and the still shifting needs and expectations coming out of the war in Ukraine.

“I don’t know what God’s plan is,” he told Luke. But the bishop has some very definite ideas about what he’s supposed to be doing right now.

Read the whole conversation here.

Francis and the Zen of dialogue

If it is not a date in your diary, Monday of next week should be. On Sept. 19, Cardinal Joseph Zen will appear in court for the first day of his trial in Hong Kong.

One of the Church’s most senior figures, and certainly the most senior in his home country, Zen was arrested in May on charges related to his role as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which provided financial and legal aid to Hong Kongers arrested during the 2019 civil rights demonstrations.

Cardinal Joseph Zen at West Kowloon Courts. Credit: REUTERS/Alamy

Zen — a prominent defender of civil liberties and democracy in Hong Kong — was originally arrested on national security charges and has become the global face of Communist suppression of free speech in Hong Kong.

Given that a cardinal is about to head into court, you would expect the pope to want to express his deep concern for his brother bishop, his solidarity with him, and his prayers for him, even if choosing his words carefully so as not to express an opinion on the legal substance of the case.

You would especially expect the pope to show his support if he’d just given a speech to a global assembly of religious leades which touted democratic reforms as a safeguard against extremism.

But you’d be wrong.

Instead, when asked during the inflight press conference on his way back from Kazakhstan if Zen’s trial was a violation of religious freedom, Francis said this:

“Qualifying China as undemocratic, I do not identify with that, because it's such a complex country ... yes, it is true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true. Cardinal Zen is going to trial these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there. More than qualifying, because it is difficult, and I do wish to qualify, they are impressions, and I try to support the path of dialogue.”

That is the official Vatican translation of the pope’s words, and while you and I might struggle to follow the exact syntax, Francis’ meaning seems clear enough: Zen’s going on trial and he more-or-less should have expected that, since his outspoken defense of human rights, democracy, and religious freedom in the face of the government crackdown is illegal there.

The pope, meanwhile, emphasized that he prefers “the path of dialogue” on Beijing. Though, it’s worth noting, when Zen last came to Rome seeking a meeting with Francis to discuss the Vatican-China deal, he was unable to get a hearing.

Speaking about China more widely, Francis said yesterday that negotiations were going well, ahead of the renewal of that Vatican-China deal, which expected to be announced in the next three weeks. He added that talks with the Chinese “have an eternity to go forward: they are a people of endless patience.”

“It is not easy to understand the Chinese mentality, but it should be respected, I always respect this,” Francis said. “In the dialogue you clarify many things and not only about the Church,” the pope continued. “But you do not have to lose patience, it takes a lot, but we have to go with dialogue.”

Also on the flight home yesterday, Francis repeated his insistence on patience and respectful dialogue when talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “I think it is always difficult to understand the dialogue with the states that started a war,” he said.

“I don't exclude dialogue with any power, whether it's at war, whether it's the aggressor... sometimes dialogue has to be done in this manner, but it has to be done; it ‘stinks’, but it has to be done,” Francis said.

“Sometimes some do not accept dialogue: too bad! But dialogue must always be done, at least offered, and this is good for those who offer it; it helps them to breathe.”

In the abstract, Francis’ seemingly endless and zen-like patience is admirable.

Were the conflicts with China and Russia simply battles of ideas and ethos, the pope’s commitment to dialogue would seem like obvious wisdom.

But for all the pope’s patience and presumption of good faith, the situation is different for many, many people on the ground. For them, the situation is not abstract, and the matter is screamingly urgent.

For a cardinal facing a judge in Hong Kong, presuming the court’s good faith is simply not plausible. And endless patience is not a luxury available to the families in occupied towns and cities being subjected to war crimes in eastern Ukraine. Nor to the million-plus Uighurs in concentration camps being sterilized, tortured, and brutalized out of existence.

Patience, for those people, comes at a cost measured in thousands of lives. Set against their suffering, Francis’ approach has been criticized in Ukraine and elsewhere as indifference, and his openness to “dialogue with the aggressor” is discouraging to those in the direct path of the aggression itself.

To families facing inhumanity in Ukraine, or genocide in Xinjiang, of being carted off to Russia’s far east or camps in western China, the slow path of dialogue feel inevitably like dealing with the devil- a practice Pope Francis warned against just a few years ago.

For them, it’s hard to understand where the pope draws the line.

It is surely not the case that Francis is blind to the suffering of the innocent in Ukraine and China. And it is, of course, not that he is setting out to marginalize the victims of war crimes and genocide in favor of longer-term strategic diplomacy.

But it does seem increasingly clear that the pope simply does not share the same sense of burning urgency as those on the ground. And whatever Francis’ commitment to dialogue as a statesman, as the chief herald of the Gospel, the people of Mariupol and Xinjiang have a reasonable claim to a witness to their suffering from the pope — a preferential option for their poverty.

Instead, what they will have heard loudest from the pope on Thursday were two words: “too bad!”

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
Editor
The Pillar

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