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The signatories on a ‘Eucharistic coherence’ letter
We reported last month that 67 U.S. bishops had their names attached to a letter urging USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez to suspend all conference activity related to “Eucharistic coherence,” at least until the conference is next able to meet in person, presumably in November. That story prompted considerable reaction from some bishops, and from pundits and commentators on all sides of the issue.
So you might be asking yourself why this is important. Here are a few thoughts:
While it’s mostly framed by pundits and journalists as a debate about politics, the “Eucharistic coherence” debate in the conference is at its core a clash of theological worldviews, which touches on deep issues related to the mission, identity, and authority of the Catholic Church.
Anyone who pays attention to the Church knows that the U.S. bishops’ conference, like the Church more broadly, is impacted by a rift with deep theological roots — a rift in which one side emphasizes common liturgical and cultural experiences as a basis for Catholic unity and identity, while the other side emphasizes doctrinal and sacramental unity as the basis for Catholic culture and mission.
In short, can we have ecclesial communion without doctrinal unity?
Are we a Christian community because we pray with each other at Mass, regardless of divergent beliefs and ways of living, or are we unified both in the Mass and because we uphold and live a common set of doctrinal truths that forge us as a Church, in a kind of support loop?
Is it a disruption to Christian unity to prohibit from the sacraments Catholics who reject some aspects of Catholic doctrine, or is the disruption of Christian unity the rejection of doctrine itself?
There is not, as some bishops wrote recently, “consensus” on those critical questions.
Gomez in January was criticized for an alleged breach of USCCB rules or customs, a move one cardinal called “internal institutional failure” of the U.S. bishops’ conference, when he released a statement on Biden’s inauguration. The archbishop has now been asked to modify a conference meeting agenda which was already set through the policies established by USCCB rules.
At the very least, some bishops say there are inconsistencies between the criticism in January and May’s push to alter a meeting schedule. Both of those situations point to a far more overt and direct mode of disagreement between American bishops than is usually evident to practicing Catholics.
On this issue and others, groups of bishops seem to at loggerheads over who legitimately speaks for the Church in the U.S. to the Vatican, and who legitimately interprets the Vatican for the Church in the U.S.
Gomez, the elected president of the USCCB, represents the institutional official for both those roles, while Cardinal Blase Cupich seems to lead a small group of bishops who emphasize their personal relationships and influence in the Vatican when advocating for their positions.
The bishops have publicly disagreed for years over the degree to which Catholic doctrine on abortion should interfere in their attempts to engage with Democratic lawmakers. This fracas would seem to sharpen that disagreement.
‘The McCarrick Effect’ and diocesan annual appeals
A steady chorus of frustrated Catholics has, since the 2018 scandals of Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse, expressed their intention to withhold funding to diocesan bishops, mostly through non-participation in diocesan annual appeals.
Here at The Pillar, we’ve found ourselves wondering lately if there really has been a “McCarrick Effect” on diocesan fundraising, and if so, how much it has made an impact.
This is the kind of data-driven reporting we love to pursue and publish at The Pillar, so our stalwart data analyst Brendan Hodge got to work compiling numbers and crunching them.
The ‘Marxist’ manifesto
On Friday, we reported that Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Friesing, Germany, offered to resign from his office as diocesan bishop in response to Germany’s burgeoning clerical abuse scandal. On Monday, Ed broke down what that actually might mean for the Church in Germany.
Is NBC News blaming the victim?
NBC News on Friday ran a short report about a Tennessee priest who was sexually assaulted 30 years ago, long before he was ordained, by a now-dead priest who began making sexual overtures towards him when he was 17.
The priest, Fr. Brent* Shelton, is a pastor in the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, where I have done some reporting lately.
I was surprised and discouraged by the NBC News story about Fr. Shelton, whom I have never met. While I am glad that NBC News gave attention to the issues currently plaguing the Knoxville diocese, I was sorry to see that its report framed Fr. Shelton as complicit in a kind of cover-up in his own sexual assault.
The report focused on a letter Shelton wrote in 2020 and sent to a victim-surivor’s advocate, who published it on her blog in February.
Fr. Shelton’s letter has since been taken down, but it apparently included his account of being sexually assaulted at the age of 19, the impact that had on his life, and his regret, looking back over the years, that he hadn’t felt able to do more to speak out about his own abuser — a common sentiment among the victims of sexual coercion or abuse.
NBC News characterized his expression of regret by saying that Shelton “admits he failed to forcefully sound the alarm about this ‘troublesome person,’” and that he “confesses he kept silent.”
Shelton had written in his letter that he told his spiritual director and the abusive priest’s diocese several times about the abuse. Friends in Knoxville tell me that he began sharing the story of his assault with his parishioners several years ago.
But even while he was the victim of assault, while only a 19-year-old seminarian, the NBC News story portrayed Shelton as part of a cover-up. The story didn’t present falsehoods, but it presented truths without context, most especially the context that victim-survivors of abuse frequently blame themselves or believe they haven’t done enough to stop their abuser from hurting others. Thoughtful self-assessment, especially over traumatic experiences, is not the same as an admission of negligence.
I don’t know the priest, but I do know how important it is that those of us who write or talk about abuse allegations learn enough to do it with responsibility to the victim — and especially with sensitivity to the difficulty that comes with processing, understanding, and naming an act of assault, abuse, or coercion.
I’m not sure why NBC News presented this priest’s story in this way. And while, again, I’m glad for stories that bring more attention to the ongoing and serious issues in the Knoxville diocese, this one missed the mark in a way that, I suspect, was unsettling and upsetting to a victim — not an enabler — of clerical sexual abuse.
Some other things you want to know
— First, here are some things in the works at The Pillar, which you can expect in the days and weeks to come: A look at how healing and reconciliation programs that respond to the tragedy of Canada’s indigenous residential schools actually work, and what they’re achieving; Everything you’ve ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about some unusual phrases in Catholic prayers; An in-depth look at the ICEL breviary translation project, and when it might come to an end; A look at how the USCCB gets its money, and how it’s spent; And, because we’re eagerly anticipating the federal government’s intelligence report on UFOs, more talk with a theologian about aliens and the Imago Dei — You had questions, and we’re getting you answers.
— Ever bowl a 300? Ever bowl a 100? Or even just see “The Big Lebowski?” This profile is for you. This is the most interesting story about a bowling ball designer you’ll ever read. Trust me, you want to read this.
— This is pretty cool:
So is this:
— I am scheduled tomorrow to give a talk to a conference of diocesan and Catholic institutional fundraisers about “What the Church needs after the pandemic.” I have my own ideas about what to say, but I haven’t actually written the talk yet, so if you’d like, feel free to offer your thoughts on the topic in the comments.
— Yesterday, the Church celebrated the Memorial Feast of Blessed Michał Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzałkowski. Never heard of them? You will now.
They were Conventual Franciscan missionary friars from Poland. In the late 1980s, they went to Peru as missionaries, committed to teaching the faith and serving the poor. In 1991, they helped open a friary in the Diocese of Chimbote, Peru. The diocese was poor and rural, high in the Andean mountains. Many villages in the diocese were accessible only by mule or horseback.
The priest-friars worked to form small Christian communities, to offer the sacraments, and to help with construction and community improvement projects aimed at empowering the poor families of the region. But in the early 1990s there was an uprising in Peru of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, who clashed frequently with the Peruvian Army.
The Shining Path opposed the Catholic Church’s stance on social justice, and the group announced in August 1991 that it would kill a priest a week in the Chimbote diocese as form of social demonstration.
Fr. Strzałkowski and Fr. Tomaszek didn’t leave the diocese amid the violence. They kept to their work.
And on August 9, 1991, Fr. Strzałkowski and Fr. Tomaszek were taken from a village church at the end of an evening Mass, given a mock trial by the guerrillas, and then executed outside an Andean village. They were both in their early 30s.
They were beatified in 2015, along with an Italian priest killed by the Shining Path weeks after they were.
Blessed Zbigniew Strzałkowski and Blessed Michał Tomaszek, pray for us!
And as always, please be assured of our prayers for you, and please pray for us.
Be careful out there — and hey, don’t forget to thank your pastor. Or if you are one, your parishioners.
Yours in Christ,
*correction: The Tuesday Pillar Post originally referred to Fr. Brent Shelton as “Fr. Blake Shelton.” While Brent Shelton is a Tennessee priest, Blake Shelton is the Oklahoma country music star engaged to Gwen Stefani. The Pillar has written previously about Mr. Shelton. We apologize to Fr. Shelton, and to you, our readers, for the error.