Recent News

A Week of Big Changes

By the end of this week, the Vatican will have carried out two large acts. This past Saturday, the Feast of St. Joseph and the ninth anniversary of the pope’s election, Rome finally released the long-awaited blueprint for reform of the Curia, Predicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”). Next Friday, the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis will consecrate Russia and Ukraine, in the midst of Russia’s brutal aggression, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It will be interesting to see what consequences may follow from the one and the other move.

Some of the pope’s most unwavering acolytes have claimed that he was elected to be “the great reformer.” Given the divisions, confusions, and worse of the past nine years and the ongoing problems with the Vatican’s finances and handling of abuse cases, history may see things differently.

But his “Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia and its Service to the Church in the World” (its full title) is ambitious. It’s clearly intended to streamline various Vatican offices (partly, it may be, because of fiscal deficits) and to point them in a more outward-facing direction. It replaces St. John Paul II’s 1983 Pastor Bonus, which also attempted curial reform but, as the past four decades show, did not resolve some major administrative problems.

The Catholic Thing will be bringing you pointed commentary on the many proposed changes in coming weeks and months, as we see where they lead. But it’s important in the short run to get a few of the larger points clear to help prevent some alleged “spirit of the reform” from blotting out everything else – as happened after Vatican II.

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The Beacons Are Lit: “Unraveling Gender”

John S. Grabowski is a professor of moral theology and ethics at Catholic University of America, and the epigram to the first chapter of his new book, Unraveling Gender: The Battle over Sexual Difference comes from Tolkien’s The Return of the King – Gandalf’s rallying cry (in part) to the people of Gondor to defend their way of life: “See! The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled.”

But Unraveling Gender is not a manifesto for conflict. In fact, it’s a compassionate appeal for Christian charity and clarity. “Our battle is against the powers of evil – sin and the devil – in ourselves, and in the world around us (see Eph 6:10–17). Other human beings are not the real enemy in this battle.” Perhaps. But it seems clear that those of us who reject the idea of gender fluidity are the enemy to those who endorse it – just ask them.

Grabowski takes pains to show the long (since St. Paul VI’s papacy) Catholic history of compassion in matters of sexuality. But he also sees the new gender ideology as aligned with what St. John Paul II so memorably called “the culture of death.”

Underlining this whole business is a simple question: Is sex (or gender) binary? The simple answer is yes, although there is such a thing as intersex, a very rare genetic anomaly (and like “gender” a word that’s been hijacked by contemporary enthusiasts). Grabowski refers to this as the Babel Effect: “Gender ideology rejects both the realist’s belief in a reality where things have common natures or essences and in the ability of language to correspond with that reality.”

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The Psalms in Times of War

reader asked the other day, how is it that with the millions of prayers offered daily for Ukraine (actually billions around the world) that God allows the ongoing death and destruction? It’s a good question. A hard one.

It’s been asked for thousands of years in times of war, as well as during plagues, floods, fires, earthquakes, drought, famine that – pace the environmentalists – are part of the natural history of the human race. Anyone who reads the psalms in the Bible or daily prays the Liturgy of the Hours, knows that it’s been a central lament even in Scripture. Lord, we trust in you, but are you really there for us when we need you most?

This existential question is even more troubling than the usual questions of war and diplomacy. In secular terms, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united Europe, America, and most of the world’s nations. Despite differences of opinion about earlier policies or the threat of Western decadence, even Poland and Hungary, which in the recent past leaned towards Putin on cultural questions and resisted the European Union’s “woke” cultural imperialism, have joined the rest of the civilized world in calling the invasion wrong.

If that can happen at the mundane human level, where is the divine solidarity we would expect in this just cause?

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The Pope, Violence, and Just War

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the very next day Pope Francis quoted his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti in a Tweet, “every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.” This papacy is not very careful in its public statements, but you can share the sentiment while seeing that this formulation is both right and wrong. Yes, every war is, in a sense, a failure. But no, not every resort to arms leaves the world worse off. If it did, the Church would have to preach absolute pacifism, which it does not and never has.

The pope clearly wants to condemn the conflict in Ukraine in general terms about “war” without having to name Russia as the aggressor. In this, anyway, Francis may be acting in a way more faithful to his office as Pontifex, the bridge builder. Instead of acting like a political operator, he’s remaining open to facilitating dialogue between the two sides – however unlikely that it will happen, or make much of a difference.

Still, you want him to just say the obvious truth. It’s not “war” in the abstract that’s evil. It’s Putin.

Francis came a bit closer to the truth yesterday in his Angelus address, tacitly contradicting Russian propaganda, “It is not merely a military operation [Putin’s lie – RR] but a war. . .” Francis clearly meant to reject unjust wars of aggression, and he called for stopping hostilities, permitting civilians to flee, etc. He even made a heartfelt plea along with the announcement that he’s sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine via two Cardinals: “The presence of the two Cardinals there is the presence not only of the Pope, but of all the Christian people who want to get closer and say: ‘War is madness! Stop, please! Look at this cruelty!’”

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Remembrance and Foreboding

It was a night of elegance – a benefit this past Thursday for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra held at New York’s Knickerbocker Club, among the most-exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in the world. Allowing the rest of us into the Club now and then for a little chamber music and dinner and champagne helps to pay the bills for a building just off 5thAvenue in Midtown – some very expensive real estate indeed.

A short concert featured Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Strings No. 2 in G Major, Op 77, and included two young musicians from the Orchestra’s Academy. One was an American violinist; the other a Hungarian cellist. The American, Lucas Stratmann, told me later he began studying the violin at age 3-1/2.

But this isn’t about music.

The food was remarkably good, especially the Sevruga caviar atop an egg flan, served in an eggshell and accompanied by a fine white Burgundy. This was followed by loin of lamb wrapped in a veal-and-watercress mousseline, served with a 2014 Pauillac. Dessert was a dark-chocolate tartufo and a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne.

But this isn’t about the food or the wine.

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Ukraine, the Political and the Personal

A woman I’ve known quite well for years, who was born abroad, is half-Ukrainian and half-Russian. We have breakfast together often, almost every morning, and regularly talk over public affairs. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has us both deeply agitated, which is only to be expected – I suppose – since we’re married, and our children have both Ukrainian and Russian blood in their veins. This isn’t just a distant geopolitical crisis for us. It’s also a family matter.

There’s been a lot of analysis of the situation that explores the large historical factors that have led to the present moment. We’ll be bringing you some reports on them in coming days and weeks. But people often exaggerate these days large impersonal social factors, as if individuals hardly matter. Our family background has forced me to think again about more personal, more human elements that are much overlooked and yet are very much in play. Would any other Russian leader, to take the central case before us, have perpetrated this atrocity besides Vladimir Vladirimovich Putin?

Our family has long been very much alive to both historic realities and human factors often out of sight. Veronica was raised mostly Ukrainian but, as a professional iconographer, she has wide contacts among iconographers, theologians, and artists in many countries, including Russia. A prominent Russian iconographer has just sent out this statement signed by hundreds of cultural and political leaders in Russia:

Russia’s war against Ukraine is a SHAME.

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Can Church Divisions Be Healed?

We worry – with good reason – about the deep divisions in public life today, because they more and more resemble a kind of Cold Civil War. When people who have to live alongside one another find that they cannot – and begin publicly “canceling” one another – the prospects aren’t good for the minimal peace and order necessary to human society.

And now we find that, besides public disorder – and intimately related to it – divisions are growing within the Church, a much more serious problem because the Church’s reason for being is to preach the Good News to the whole world, a fundamental and eternal unity beyond all differences under God.

When the body entrusted with that divine mission is itself riven by division, it’s bad enough. But the situation is doubly worrying because many steps that Church authorities have been taking – or not taking – to deal with it seem to be making matters worse.

Worries have risen, for instance, about the “decentralization” that Pope Francis has – as is his habit – loosely spoken about. We’re even hearing of giving individual bishops “true doctrinal authority.”

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Building a Table: “Stories of a Generation – with Pope Francis”

I’ve written enough promotional copy in my career to know it would be silly of me to laugh at the blurb for the new Netflix documentary Stories of a Generation, featuring Pope Francis, about folks like me: “In candid and heartwarming stories, inspiring women and men over 70 share poignant life lessons and pivotal choices from their remarkable journeys.”

Laugh, no; chuckle, maybe.

Begin with the fact that such a congeries of interviews is highly selective: both in who was interviewed and, of course, in their edited responses. Everybody is on his or her best behavior. By that I mean that some subjects, known to be cantankerous (e.g., Martin Scorsese), are here all smiles before the camera.

There is no depression and little anger: mostly sweetness and light, and phrases such as “So, if we could all just learn to love and to respect, the world would be a very different place.” Jane Goodall, the primatologist, says that, which is fine. She has no power over your life. But in one way or another it’s what Xi Jinping dictates: to the people of Hong Kong (and to China’s Christians and Muslims; well, not the Muslims – them he puts in concentration camps), and even Ms. Goodall, shown in Stories of a Generation leading an American crowd in a closed-fist chant of “Together we can! Together we will!,” is given to unpleasant stridency. Most activists are.

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Because It’s Hard

By a providential set of circumstances, I recently visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Take the kids to Disney World, if you will. But the Space Center has the right stuff.  Real stuff.

It features John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962 at Rice University, a year before he was killed, committing America to go to the moon (video here):

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

JFK was not an exemplary Catholic, man, or president. And the “best and the brightest,” the whiz kids who gathered around him and bungled Vietnam and much more, were not what they imagined themselves to be. But they probably helped with the moon speech, and Kennedy delivered it with a clarity and emotion unmatched by any president since – with the exception of Ronald Reagan.

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Our Darkling Plain

In his poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold famously describes the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith.” And it concludes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Many of us today believe that the ignorant armies began to clash by night only with the advent of the Internet and social media. And it’s true that these technology-enabled media allowed a vast expansion of our darkling plain. Who knew, for instance, that – even on television talk shows, where our expectations are rightly quite low – a celebrity like Whoopi Goldberg wouldn’t know that Nazism killed 6 million Jews on the basis of a racism rooted in then-current “science” of a sort?

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