Recent News

The Francis Effect, Ten Years On

Exactly ten years ago this morning to the very hour (given the time difference), I was working on an article about the 2013 conclave for this site in the lobby of the Atlante Star Hotel in Rome.  So, I remember the exact moment when the big flat-screen television there showed the white smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel – and the hotel staff began shouting, “É l’americano!” They were wrong. It wasn’t – as they expected – NY’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose large personality had been making a big impression in Italian media.

People began running to St. Peter’s Square. Me included. I wanted to see with my own eyes a rare event like that before going to the rooftop studio to do my duty as part of the EWTN “Conclave Crew” (precursor to the Papal Posse). St. Peter’s is one of the largest squares in Europe, but it filled up almost instantly. It was raining and noisy and almost impossible to see the loggia of the basilica through the forest of cell phones and iPads people held up as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, stepped out.

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The Ruinous Rhetoric of ‘Synodal Interpretation’

Long, long ago, on a planet far, far away, I organized a conference on religion and the public square in a city on the Potomac that I increasingly find hard to recognize. There were sessions on Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism. During the last, a rabbi who was also a lawyer working at the White House was challenged by a trio of Jewish feminists. The exchange was civil enough (almost unbelievably so by current standards). But my Jewish friend deftly handled the usual questions about gays, abortion, and women’s roles; “Show me where it’s in the [Jewish] Law and we can talk.”

A good and clarifying principle for Catholics as well. Jesus Himself often referred questioners to the Law and the Prophets.

Of course, it also has to be a sincere effort to understand and be fully faithful to God’s revelation. In The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and the Church, a series of lectures from 1985, lost but rediscovered and recently published by Ignatius Press, Joseph Ratzinger’s very first sentences read:

Our first concern in this opening lecture is to work out the standards that we will be using to interpret Scripture: How, indeed, can we properly understand a biblical text – not coming up with ideas of our own, but remaining honest with ourselves as interpreters of history – and yet, without doing violence to the text, inquire into its relevance for the present?

This strikes the ancient Catholic note, the desire to know what God has communicated, carefully distinguishing what we might like to be the case, for whatever reasons, from what is the case, and the further effort – beyond intellectualism – to discern how it should shape our lives.

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Having a Good/Bad Lent

There are many ways of being a pilgrim, only one of which is to go physically to some special – preferably tried and true and holy – destination. That’s my favorite way, since (at least in theory), it gets body, mind, and spirit all moving in the same direction.* In practice, of course, it’s more complicated than that because, in a fallen world, human life has become complicated. Even at the natural level, people we meet every day are often engaged in enormous struggles just to be normal. And at the spiritual level, the pathways get steep and rocky. Fast.

Lent should remind us – we’re often told – that all of us are on a spiritual pilgrimage, whether we know it or not. It’s good to be reminded of that, but it can make it seem that a “good” Lent will be orderly, peaceful, gently leading us to “see God” more clearly. That’s so, sometimes. But is a “good Lent” only one that meets our expectations? Strangely,  sometimes a “bad” Lent can be better.

Prayer is hard. If you try to pray better – at regular times and undistracted – and find you can’t do it for forty days, let alone a few minutes, the failure (the bad) can be good, not in itself of course, but because it shows reality: our distance from God and helplessness without Him – a truth we may have simply to endure until we receive the grace to change.

Fasting is (obviously) hard. Doubly so when done not for self-interested reasons like losing weight or “taking charge” of your life, but for the distant goal that the struggles in prayer make plain. None of us can fully “take charge” of our lives, as important as small improvements can be, because human life by nature is beyond complete human control, perhaps never more so than when we think it’s not.  Various episodes in the Bible of peoples striving to live without God or, in our times, the horrors produced by various forms of atheist totalitarianism are cautionary tales.

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The Synodal Way’s Great Expectations

The bishops of Europe – together with dozens of clerical and lay participants – met in Prague last week as part of the “continental phase” of the Synod on Synodality. A final report is expected shortly (for some preliminary indications of tone and substance, click here). Synodality is a concept that many continue to find fuzzy – and worrying. Some Synodal leaders have – paradoxically – tried to reassure the worried that we’ll find out what Synodality means in the process of holding the Synod. About that, we shall see. But by then, understanding may come too late. Because the process, in some quarters, has aroused great expectations. And great expectations, if disappointed, have often led, historically, to great upheavals. Even revolutions. Even schisms.

I’m in Rome this week researching a new book about modern Christian persecution and martyrdom, but it’s difficult not to notice various voices – some quite unexpected – here in Europe itself, that are not convinced that the synodal game, as played thus far, is worth the candle.

One thing has always been clear: the Synod on Synodality comes with sharply contradictory expectations.

On one side, which seems to be Pope Francis’s (at least on the surface), the goal is to learn to “walk together,” humbly, in a new way, consistent with tradition, but adapted to the present time, in order better to preach the Good News. That’s been a dream in the Church since John XXIII announced Vatican II over sixty years ago, with – to say the least – rather mixed results.

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Missing: ‘Vatican Girl’ on Netflix

began watching Vatican Girl, the Netflix documentary about the 1983 disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, when it was released last year. I resisted the temptation to throw my laptop across the room. It’s that bad. And that’s too bad.

She was just fifteen when she vanished. Ever since then, her family has been dogged in looking for clues. As the daughter of a Vatican employee, who lived inside the Holy City, suspicion quickly fell upon the Vatican, which plenty of people inside and out consider unholy – and which is why Dan Brown (of The Da Vinci Code, etc.) has made millions.

One might paraphrase H.L. Mencken: Nobody ever went broke alleging nefarious shenanigans in the Vatican, although I don’t know if Vatican Girl’s writer-director Mark Lewis has made millions.

Vatican Girl spins more than a few theories about what happened to Emanuela. She was abducted by sex traffickers; she was taken by blackmailers; she was made hostage by the KGB. The man who was head of the police at the time says lots of kids disappeared back then, only to reappear. To be sure, Emanuela was not one of those.

And the Vatican should be a focus of inquiry since that’s where Emanuela lived and makes her disappearance different from that of any other girl in Rome.

But it doesn’t mean her kidnapping, if that’s what it was, is a Vatican crime committed by somebody or – bodies – within the Church, although Vatican Girl insists it does.

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Tolle, Lege

For a year and more, I’ve been trying to learn Biblical Hebrew. Studying Hebrew is not like learning French or Italian or German. It takes you back to when you first learned to read because you have to become fluent with strange letters you’re seeing for the very first time, and practice using them – reading backwards, from right to left, with vowels (such as they are) mostly running underneath the consonants, when they’re given at all. But if you do, you can rather quickly parse out, in the original, stupendously luminous phrases, such as וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר (vayomer elohim yehi or vayehi or): “And God said let there be light, and there was light.” What does all the effort matter compared with that?

Vast consequences can flow from reading. St. Augustine of Hippo was a keen reader, but for most of the early part of his life restless and unhappy. It was only after getting to know the great archbishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, and after numerous wandering steps that one day in Milan, in a garden, he heard a mysterious voice – he was never able to identify the source – saying: Tolle, lege, “Take up and read.” He picked up a Bible, opened it at random, and finally found some peace after coming upon this from St. Paul:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,  to gratify its desires. (Rom.13:13)

Augustine must have already been familiar with the basic idea. But spurred by that mysterious voice, he read it almost like a child whose eyes were opened to the written words for the very first time.

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Everything Begins in Mysticism

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of a great modern Catholic genius. Like many such geniuses, he and his legacy have been all but forgotten. But Charles Péguy will return – for some of us he never left – because his words and the witness of his life offer a vitally original perspective on the modern Church and the contemporary world: a perspective that, paradoxically, also becomes more and more relevant – and perhaps a way out of our accelerating crises – with each passing day.

Long before the term “political correctness” became a media shibboleth, for instance, Péguy noted how certain attitudes were becoming obligatory at political demonstrations: “If you don’t take that line you don’t look sufficiently progressive. . .and it will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking insufficiently progressive.”

Coming from a young socialist – until he experienced being “canceled” (avant la lettre)  by the party’s nomenklatura – this reflects the unwavering honesty and decency of a man who refused to lie just because it reflected badly on his own party. He paid the price: poverty (a heavy burden for someone with a wife and four children) and marginalization by former friends.

This all occurred over the closing of Catholic schools and monasteries by the anti-Catholic French President Émile Combes, in theory because of the Church’s role in the Dreyfus Affair. Péguy was not a Catholic at the time, but it was simply clear to him that the injustice against Dreyfus (a false charge of treason) didn’t justify another injustice – against Catholics.

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Life, By the Numbers, Revisited

As a thought experiment, let’s assume something I would never accuse TCT readers of being: that you are materialist and utilitarian. You believe that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” in tangible, physical measures, is the pre-eminent moral principle. What might you have to consider today, when hundreds of thousands of Americans will be marching to protect life in the womb? (And people in various countries conduct their own pro-life marches?)

Well, to begin with, though all such numbers are a bit uncertain, roughly 55 million people die, globally, every year. And numerous public health organizations intensely scrutinize the slightest increase or decrease in mortality, in a laudable effort to identify what factors may be harming or helping the health of diverse peoples around the world.

That number does not include the number of babies killed by elective abortions, however, which at one time would have been thought a rare, emergency measure. The Guttmacher Institute, an advocate for abortion, estimates that there are roughly 56 million abortions around the world every year. So allowing for the statistical uncertainties, we can say in broad terms that as many innocents are slaughtered every year in the womb as there are deaths from all other causes in the entire world.

That’s the kind of mayhem you associate with murderous ideologies like Nazism and Communism, not “reproductive health.”

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Dead Men Do Tell Tales

dway through the first volume (2019) of his Prison Journal, Australian Cardinal George Pell records that: “Every type of Catholic should realise that there is an exclusion zone around the Eucharist, where adults without faith and without basic good practice should not enter. Years ago, a prominent criminal who was in jail was known to be Catholic. ‘Does he come to the jail Masses?’ the chaplain was asked. ‘Yes’ was the reply. ‘Does he receive Communion?’ The chaplain explained, ‘No, he doesn’t because he has faith.’”

Pell had much more to say about the Mass and Holy Eucharist in other contexts, as did Pope Benedict (see especially his masterpiece The Spirit of the Liturgy). Indeed, they both sensed that recovering a deep reverence for the Sacrament, “the source and summit” of the Christian life (Vatican II), would also resolve many vexed questions in the Church. And no small number in the contemporary world.

It’s in that deeper context that we need to appreciate texts that recently surfaced by or about these two great churchmen, who just died ten days apart, rather than in the adolescent media frenzy over what are always rather sordid – and now rather tiresome – Vatican politics.

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What Child Is This?

s not the season for arguments, but rather for warmth, generosity, family, fellowship, even a little indulgence of what at times can be dangerous – sentimentality. And Christmas is not only December 25 – in the traditional Christian dispensation – but an Octave (8 days, ending January 1). Prior to Vatican II, observances could last as long as 20 or 40 days (and still do for the Traditional Latin Mass, until the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple).

As was – and is – only fitting, since it’s not every day that the God who made Heaven and earth, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the long-awaited Messiah, becomes man and dwells among us.

But other days come, eventually. And in our current culture, the question in the title above arises, inevitably, for a growing number, even during Christmas. That question is, of course, related to another – later in the story: Who do men say that I am?

Not for us simply, as for Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:68–69) For many people today, even many who “identify” as Christian, the default answer now is, at bottom, “I don’t really know.”

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