29 July 2022

Synods of the Willing, the Zanchetta Problem, and Necrobotics

JD Flynn is on vacation, so Ed. Condon brings us the news, ranging from Francis protecting an abusive Bishop to scary news in the world of science. 

From The Pillar

By Ed. Condon

Happy Friday friends,

JD, as you know, has been on holiday this week, or en vacances, as the French foppishly call it. I was, frankly, skeptical that he would actually do it.

In the years that I have worked with him, he has often threatened to go on vacation, but this usually means he works a scaled-back 50-hour week. On this occasion, I didn’t really hear from him, apart from a late-night text message about Bradley Cooper. Make of that what you will.

I’ll be very glad to have him back from Monday. We’ve been “nearly there” on our new website for a while now, and we are looking likely to go live in the next week or two, which I am very much looking forward to.

Apart from it being quite pretty, getting the new site live will make it easier to host and manage a slew of new offerings for you guys, including podcasts like Kate Olivera’s excellent In Depth, and a new newsletter option which I have been dying to announce for a month now. More on that soon.

I mention all of this because I want you to know that we are hard at it trying to make The Pillar all it can be, and as importantly, all it needs to be to persuade a few more of the tens of thousands of free readers of this newsletter to help us keep this project going and growing.
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Now for the news

On Sunday, members of the Society of Jesus will rededicate their order and their work to the Sacred Heart in a liturgy in Loyola, led by their superior general, to mark the end of the Ignatian Year marking 500 years since St. Ignatius’ conversion.

A lot of people visually associate the Jesuits with the devotion to the Sacred Heart, it’s a prominent image in icons of their saints, and around their churches. But how did the SJs become so bound up with spreading the “burning charity” of Christ’s heart?

Well, in an explainer this week, Luke Coppen looked at the history of the devotion to the Sacred Heart and the role the Jesuits have played in spreading it — and asks if this rededication is coming after it “skipped a generation” in the Church and is in danger of petering out in many places.

This is a great read for the weekend.

A new development this week in the “other” liturgy war: An archbishop at the center of a fight over whether priests in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church should continue being allowed to face the people throughout the liturgy has resigned at the Vatican’s request.

Archbishop Antony Kariyil handed in his resignation after a three-hour meeting Tuesday with Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the apostolic nuncio to India. We first reported the story on Wednesday, and it’s since been publicly confirmed.

Kariyil is the only Syro-Malabar leader to have issued a dispensation exempting priests from adopting a uniform mode of celebrating the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy, which requires priests to face east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The majority of clergy in Archbishop Kariyil’s Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese want to continue facing the people throughout the Eucharistic liturgy, a practice they have followed for the past 50 years.

Let me just bullet point that for you: the Vatican asked an archbishop to resign because he is NOT requiring his priests to celebrate ad orientem. It’s a big Church in a crazy world.

You can read about Kariyil’s resignation here, and catch up on the whole story of what is happening in the Syro-Malabar Church here.

The greatest synod in the world?

The diocesan phase of the worldwide synod on synodality has now pretty much drawn to a close. Bishops are expected to have submitted in a few weeks their summary reports of their local processes. The local conclusions have been somewhat controversial, at least in some places.

In Luxembourg, for example, participants called for a wholesale revisiting of Church teaching on homosexuality, clerical celibacy, and the creation of an independent lay body to oversee the governance and reform of the universal Church.

The Luxembourg report, which was compiled by a team of two, did acknowledge “a very small number of individuals” who, as they characterized it, “spoke out against the acceptance of the divorced and married, the valuing of women in the Church, the acceptance of homosexuality, and the abolition of mandatory priestly celibacy.”

Now, I haven’t seen the raw material the report is drawing from. But I am willing to speculate that maybe, just maybe, this “small number of individuals” didn’t so much argue against “accepting divorced people” or “valuing women,” as they spoke in favor of the Church’s teaching on ordination or the indissolubility of marriage.

If so, the report’s presentation is both radical in its proposals and tendentious in its characterization of some participants.

Luxembourg isn’t the only place likely to make proposals like these, I’m willing to bet at least a few other dioceses in Western countries might call for something similar in their reports, claim popular support, and dismiss dissenting voices as a handful of misogynistic cranks.

But ahead of the final meeting in Rome next year, it’s worth asking how many people have actually participated in these local synods? And is it fair to call it a representative consultation?

As Luke reported this week, in Luxembourg, synodal participation amounts to about 1% of local Catholics — which the diocese claimed as “a considerable number.”

Well, Luke got curious and looked at reports from other dioceses around the world, and analyzed the results. What he found makes for very interesting reading indeed.

In the Diocese of Rome, Pope Francis set a kind of informal participation benchmark for a successful synod, telling his own clergy and lay people that they needed “to pass beyond the 3 or 4 percent that are closest to us, to broaden our range and to listen to others.”

“Wouldn’t it look bad if the pope’s own diocese was not committed to this?” Francis asked. “Yes, it would look bad, for the pope, but also for you!”

We don’t have figures for Rome yet, but according to Luke’s analysis, Luxembourg is actually something of a relative success with its 1% engagement rate among total local Catholics — more than a few diocese couldn’t manage to get that many, and the roaring successes he found were between 2-3%.

As one diocese concluded:

“When considering the process as a whole, the principal theme that occurred to the committee was that of apathy. Marked by the lack of participation in contrast to the marketing and communication efforts.”

The risk of the synodal process, it has always seemed to me, is that it would devolve into a talking shop for a coalition of the hypermotived and the specially invited, with proposals having little to do with the needs and ideas of ordinary Catholics and everything to do with the agendas of the small minority who showed up.

This doesn’t, of course, negate the entire process, or render it useless to the Holy Father as an exercise in listening.

But, when they claim that the synod has been an unqualified success in consulting the faithful worldwide, the synod’s more hyperbolic supporters increasingly sound like New Yorkers insisting theirs is “the greatest city in the world”; it obviously just isn’t true, and they are the only people who can’t seem to see that.

This is especially important to bear in mind when commentators claim that radical proposals against the magisterium, like those in the Luxembourg report, represent some kind of sensus fidelium of the global Church. Instead, it seems, they are the 1%.

Read Luke’s whole analysis of the numbers here.

The Zanchetta problem

Local Catholics in Oran, Argentina, were in the main city square this week collecting signatures for a letter of protest about the current living arrangements of their emeritus Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta.

Bishop Zanchetta was sentenced in March to four and a half years in prison by local judges for the aggravated sexual assault of two seminarians. Earlier this month, he was released from jail on medical grounds to serve the balance of his sentence under house arrest with an ankle tag.

The bishop is now living in a local monastery which serves as the retirement home for the retired priests of the diocese, which is the proximate cause of the protests this week.

Local Catholics are unhappy that, Zanchetta’s criminal conviction notwithstanding, the Vatican has still not released the results of the bishop’s canonical trial and he remains, in essence, the emeritus bishop in good standing.

Meanwhile, Zanchetta’s canonical defense lawyer has now been appointed by the pope to open an investigation into the diocesan clergy who testified against their former bishop.

It is the latest chapter in a long saga of what looks an awful lot like… special treatment being given to a friend of the pope, and it’s become a real blight on Francis’ reforming credentials.

Even after apparently receiving multiple complaints against Zanchetta, including from a rector concerned about his treatment of the seminarians and from senior diocesan clergy who found obscene images found on his phone, Francis created a special post for the bishop in the Vatican, and allowed him to live and work there even while prosecutors were trying to build their case against him back in Argentina.

All this was going on at the height of the McCarrick furore and as the entire bishops’ conference of Chile tendered their resignations in a series of global scandals around episcopal accountability.

And despite the accusations, and a formal canonical trial at the CDF, Zanchetta remained in his Vatican post, and living in the Domus Sanctae Marta, even as bishops from around the world gathered in Rome in 2019 for the global summit on the abuse crisis which led to the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi.

While the whole story looks bad in itself, it is what it seems to represent that is really disheartening.

Pope Francis has been a prolific legal reformer over the last 10 years, bringing in landmark new laws aimed at increasing transparency and episcopal accountability — exactly the two things that seem to be lacking in Zanchetta’s case.

During the worst of the sexual abuse crisis in this country, when priests in some dioceses were moved from parish to parish and allowed to reoffend, despite their abuse being known, it wasn’t a lack of law or an absence of process that was the problem — it was the clerical culture which basically held that it was OK to ignore the law when it was “your guy.”

Francis’ legal reforms have been welcome contributions to enhancing accountability in the Church. But if it still looks an awful lot like it’s one rule for friends and another rule for everyone else, that isn’t justice, and can actually be worse than no law at all.

You can catch up with the whole story here.

Vatican diplomats are, normally, a very cautious breed when it comes to public statements. None more so than Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister. But something strange has happened with the archbishop in the last two weeks.

In a series of recent interviews, Gallagher has started giving some remarkably frank comments on some of the most sensitive issues on the Vatican’s radar, from relations with China, to the state of the Church in Germany, to Pope Francis’ “limited time left.”

It’s a level of candor you rarely expect to see from a curial official like Gallagher, and while once might be accidental, several such comments in a row seem likely to mean something, but what?

I tried to pick apart what might be going on in an analysis this week. Maybe Gallagher simply thinks he is about to get moved on to another job and is loosening up on his way out the door, though if he is it will be very interesting to see where he goes — his predecessor was made a cardinal and the head of the Vatican’s supreme court.

Another possibility is that Gallagher is deliberately telegraphing a harder line to China and Germany, and tipping the Holy See’s diplomatic hand just a touch in a bid to let them know they mean business as the Vatican-China deal comes up for renewal and the German synodal way keeps reaching for new excesses.

Either way, I think it bears watching. You can read the whole analysis here.

In the post-Roe v. Wade world, with different state laws coming in to limit or entrench abortion across the country, the pro-life movement is changing.

The new landscape doesn’t just mean pro-lifers need to come up with new legal strategies, they need to offer whole new arguments in an abortion debate that has been closed off behind a Supreme Court decision for decades. Winning over people new people means addressing not only abortion itself, but how it has hurt women, families, and society as a whole.

This week, Charlie Camosy talked to the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis about these issues, and how they want to change the abortion debate.

You can read the conversation here.

Nightmare fuel

I don’t know if you found yourself perusing the most recent research published in Advanced Science this week, but I did. One article in particular was forwarded to me by a friend. It focused on the latest developments in the emerging field of “necrobotics.”

Now, I am not much of a “science guy,” I grant you, and these things are normally out of my depth. But I can parse the word “necrobotics” and I… had some questions, so I kept reading. It seems this exciting new word is what we call it when “[dead] biotic materials are used as robotic components.”

It turns out that some researchers at Rice University have discovered a way to, and I don’t want to alarm anyone here, reanimate dead spiders. This wonder of engineering is apparently possible because spiders’ legs are controlled (in life) by an internal organic system of hydraulic pressure, instead of being manipulated by muscle pairs, as is the case in all non-terrifying living things. After the spider is dead, you can restore the little horrors to full working order using, basically, a complicated little bicycle pump.

OK, this isn’t exactly a cross between Re-Animator and Jurassic Park, yet. But the number of times the researchers insisted in their paper that this is absolutely no different than making shoes out of leather struck me as a little defensive and not terribly reassuring.

Now, to be clear, these undead arachnids are essentially puppets — they can’t move around on their own. Yet.

But as we survey our world and its discontents, I think we can all agree in asking: “Are zombie tarantulas really what we need right now?” The research offered no persuasive answer.

Apparently, reanimated spiders are very, very good at gripping irregular surfaces, like your face as you lay stricken in frozen terror, for example. And they can, with minimal degradation over as many as 700 uses, grip up to 130% of their own weight. But what, exactly, is the purpose here?

What weighs up to 30% more than a spider and is simply too hard to grab with a pair of barbecue tongs?

I’m none the wiser having read the article, but I dare say they intend this technology for something grander than a morbid new way of hanging awkward Christmas tree decorations.

We will find out eventually, I suppose, probably about the time they start talking about the miraculous potential of the gripping properties of a dead great white, especially when fitted with lasers or something. In the meanwhile, with thanks to the evil geniuses at Rice, I am sticking to fish hooks.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

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