Happy Friday friends,
And a special Happy Birthday to the pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who turns 94 today. History will remember the theologian formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger for many reasons, but for me he will always be the pope who came to my office one day and changed my life.
In 2010, I was working in the House of Commons and Pope Benedict was making a state visit to the UK. By chance or by grace, I was given two tickets in the seventh row for his address to the joint houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall.
“The fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge,” the pope said.
“If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”
Sound prophetic to you?
We will have a Benedict reading list up at The Pillar later today as a birthday primer on the pope emeritus, but it was that speech, in the building where I worked everyday, that never left me and set me on the road to canon law school.
OK, I want to share some exciting news. For months I have been trying to come up with a comprehensive way to lay out a who’s who of the Vatican financial scandal. Last night it came to us.
This is your definitive guide to who’s accused of what, and who is suing who where. I know you’re as giddy about this as I am. So who’s your top pick to make it all the way to the Big Show?
Otherwise, it has been a mixed week for American Catholics hoping to see signs of a new way of doing things following the McCarrick scandal.
As you probably remember, Tuesday kicked off with the breaking news that Bishop Michael Hoeppner had resigned as Bishop of Crookston, Minnesota, following a 20-month long investigation into his governance of the diocese. The accusations were serious, criminal, in fact. His resignation spoke a great deal about what the investigation found.
Binzer was forced to resign his roles as vicar general, head of priest personnel, and member of the USCCB committee for the protection of children last year, after he failed to flag grooming behavior by a priest to the archbishop and personnel board. That priest, Fr. Geoff Drew, is due to stand trial later this month on nine charges of rape of a minor, dating back to before his ordination as a priest.
Both Hoeppner and Binzer’s situations have provoked considerable criticism from Catholics, though their situations are not exactly the same. JD and I looked at some of the challenges with dealing with bishops who’ve had to resign under clouds of suspicion.
There are not easy answers, but, if the Vatican is serious about episcopal accountability, it is going to have to come up with some.
A real treat
For any of you who read the above and thought to yourself “There is no way that bishop is actually going to throw himself a farewell Mass,” well, he already did.
Hoeppner did acknowledge that his departure “comes as a result of the investigation into reports that I, at times, failed to observe applicable norms when presented with allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy of this diocese.”
“Reports,” mind you, he’s not admitting to anything.
The bishop did mention how much he likes administering the sacraments: “I enjoy the ordinations,” he said, presumably not including men like Ron Vasek, who was close to ordination as a deacon when Hoeppner allegedly coerced him into recanting an allegation that a Crookston priest had sexually abused him as a teenager. Hoeppner decided not to go ahead with Vasek’s ordination.
Hoeppner did manage to read out a brief, 15 word apology for “any failures that are mine as bishop.” Perhaps he was obliquely referring to the case of Fr. Joseph Richards, who was allowed to remain in ministry after admitting to diocesan authorities that he had sexually abused a child when he was a teenager, and that he had sexual fantasies involving minors while in ministry as a priest.
“Governing involves providing vision and direction,” Hoeppner said yesterday, paying tribute to himself. God is not mocked, the Bible tells us. But his people often are.
The bishop’s performance Thursday was, in the technical sense of the word, shameless. Hoeppner was clearly without any shame over the reasons for, or manner of his departure. What his obvious lack of embarrassment, even self-awareness, will be taken to say about the enduring state of mind among some American bishops is not good.
For sure, few bishops are in Hoeppner’s position and, I hope, fewer still would be quite so emotionally tone-deaf and lacking in personal responsibility if they were. But his example will cut through to lay Catholics far beyond Minnesota, and, once again, it will be for the rest of the bishops to decide if and how they choose to address the scandal caused by one of their brothers.
Canon law and order
On the podcast today, JD and I went back and forth on whether Hoeppner’s departure is a sign of progress in the post-McCarrick Church. M'colleague pointed out that, while the system is clearly not perfect yet, Vos estis has manifestly changed the game in holding bishops to account.
The accusations against Hoeppner were the subject of a 2,000 hours investigation, 38 people were interviewed, and more than 1,500 pages of reports were submitted to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The whole process was carried out, as Vos estis envisages, by the local metropolitan archbishop, who also happens to be one of the most well respected canon lawyers in the country.
That is, I willingly admit, not nothing. But what was it all for?
Hoeppner now intends to retire “somewhere warmer.” He joins the ranks of other bishops who have been “resigned” under a cloud of scandal in years prior to Vos estis, and indeed their manner of leaving office and their status in retirement is the same: on their own terms, free from formal censure or punishment. This is not progress.
In 2016, Pope Francis issued a law, Come una madre amorevole. Article 1, paragraph 1 reads:
“The diocesan Bishop... can be legitimately removed from this office if he has through negligence committed or through omission facilitated acts that have caused grave harm to others, either to physical persons or to the community as a whole. The harm may be physical, moral, or spiritual.”
Read that and think of Ron Vasek. Think of Fr. Joseph Richards. Now think of Bishop Hoeppner’s farewell Mass.
In recent years, progress has been made in creating new legal mechanisms for subjecting bishops to a penal legal process for acts of negligence and misconduct and for punishing them by formally deposing them.
But instead of using this process, Rome continues to prefer the time-honored tradition of allowing bishops found to have committed grave offenses to take the gentleman’s way out, letting them do the decent thing and spare everyone the awkwardness.
In no other public institution that I know of are those in governance found to have committed serious crimes allowed to retire to four extra years of golf and call it justice. Nixon resigned and still needed at least the formality of a pardon to avoid prosecution.
Now, as JD reminded me on the podcast, at least there was a real, credible investigation. But imagine a police procedural where, finally, the lead cops are given the green light to dig into big-time corruption, only to watch their hard work shoved in a drawer and the culprit make a farewell speech about what a treat his time in office has been.
Tell me how that scene ends except with them shaking their heads and concluding “If this is justice, I guess nothing really changed.”
Speaking of cops, as I write I am watching the reports on the death of Adam Toledo, the thirteen-year old shot by police in Chicago. The video is hard to watch.
I’ve seen a lot of hard-to-watch videos of police in different parts of the country recently, as have many of us.
I lived overseas for some twenty years, and I got used to defending America, American policing, and American society. But having moved back to this country as an adult, I never feel more foreign than when watching these horrible events play out.
I find it baffling that a policeman can appear so physically hyper aggressive to a uniformed army officer clearly posing no threat.
I find it baffling that a person can be deemed fit to carry a gun and yet be so panicked by an unarmed man that she can’t tell what the gun is when it’s in her hand.
I find it baffling that a kid can be shot with his hands apparently in the air.
I know more than a few cops. They are my neighbors, and in my extended family. They are, to a man, decent, serious, generous people whom I would willingly trust with my safety.
But I find it baffling that anyone doesn’t find this all insane. Maybe I was just away too long.
Many of you have suggested that you would enjoy a whiskey or an IPA with JD and me, to talk over what we're covering, what we're talking about on The Pillar Podcast, and to walk us through your perspectives on our various deficiencies.
Well, I really like this job, and I am deeply grateful to those of you who are helping us take a stab at making this project a success. So we're pleased to announce Friday Night Drinks with The Pillar.
To facilitate actual conversation, slots are limited, so for the time being, these events are limited to paying subscribers. If you're not a paying customer, you can still register for drinks with us now, as long as you become a paying customer by April 23. And, of course, if you have no interest in a boozy Zoom call with JD and me, you can still sign up as a paying subscriber with no obligation to talk to us, ever.
These first two sessions are experimental. We want to see what works and what doesn't work, and then we'll announce more dates. We also plan to launch a few similar events that include conversation with interesting or unusual people, of which we know a few. So if you don't get into the first two, a lot more will be coming.
See you next week, and stay thirsty, my friends.