‘Normal’ hatred, synodal ‘secrecy’, and ‘original language’ — By: The Pillar

Happy Friday friends,

As JD said on Tuesday, this is a very good week not to have a “take” on what is going on in the world.

Like everyone else, I have been watching the horror of what is happening in Israel. And like some, I can be upfront about my lack of any worthwhile opinion on what, if anything, can be done to effect peace in a region, and between peoples, who have known nothing but violence for so long.

I can also admit to a total lack of objectivity here. 

Some years ago, I lived in Israel for a brief time. I ate in the homes of Arab Christians, and I danced with Jewish men at the Western Wall on the Sabbath. I spent hours in lines at roadblocks and checkpoints with hundreds of people trying to get between home and work, and I sat in cafes where young women in t-shirts and shorts drank lattes with their national service rifles across their laps.

When a riot broke out on the Temple Mount, I was there, caught in the crowds. I remember the roiling smells of fear and anger as they spread over the city like an aerosol of violence.

This morning, the building where I lived in Israel, a seminary and retreat house, has tanks in the parking lot. 

I can’t credibly claim “friends on both sides” like a cable news talking head, but I do have people I know and love living in Israel, traumatized by what has happened and reasonably fearing even worse to come. 

I also lived, for many years, in a largely Jewish neighborhood of London. Our last apartment overlooked a Jewish school, necessarily patrolled by security at all times — consider what that says about standards of “normal life” — the school gate is now reinforced by police at pick up time. In the last week, kosher restaurants there have had their windows smashed in, and the local railway bridge was daubed with celebratory slogans following the violence in Israel.

My view is undoubtedly colored by all of this, but there are still some things I think can be seen clearly enough. 

You can have your own opinions on the proportionality and even morality of Israeli policies and actions in Gaza over the decades. 

And you can pray, like me, that somehow the Israeli government and military might be dissuaded, even now, from visiting total and indiscriminate revenge on the people of Gaza. 

But no one celebrates the deaths of civilians in Gaza. When a bomb claims the life of a Palestinian mother or child, crowds do not gather in the streets of Paris and Vienna to revel in their deaths. After the attacks last weekend, in which murder and rape and carnage were livestreamed on social media, no one demanded a worldwide “day of rage” to legitimize and support Israeli violence.

They do gather and celebrate and seek to legitimize it all, though, when Jews are killed. Not Israelis, Jews.

People who celebrate such things are not motivated by grievance, or a frustrated sense of justice, but by hatred — hatred not of a system, or a circumstance, or a government, or even a nation. It is hatred of a people. 

It is a hatred so deep and fierce and bitter that it moves them to shout victory slogans at the violent desecration of women and the literal slaughter of actual infants.

And yet this goes largely excused among us – however much we might bluster about some things being supposedly “unacceptable.”

In the UK, where freedom of speech is so heavily policed that for the crime of giving offense, you can be arrested for silently praying within two football fields of an abortion clinic, thousands gathered to chant and jeer and celebrate the killing of women and children on the doorstep of the Israeli embassy.

Outside the Sydney Opera House, a crowd gathered and chanted “Gas the Jews.” 

Let that sink in.

 “Gas the Jews.”

Such scenes should provoke, would justly merit, all the fury and contempt any society worthy of the name could muster, but they do not. 

All of this is at once normal, and though still unique.

When Nigerian Christians are slaughtered in their homes by Islamic militants, people do not throw bricks through the windows of Nigerian restaurants in London, nor do crowds form on American college campuses chanting “Glory to the murders!”

But for the Jewish people, this is standard. 

There is a special malignancy to antisemitism, and a special malice towards the Jewish people which is ever ready to erupt, given the chance. And, perhaps worst of all, a special kind of equivocation about it in our society, with excuses being made in the media for attacks on Jews which would never, for an instant, be tolerated with any other kind of racism, and a willingness to elide details of atrocities carried out when the victims carry Israeli passports.

I have long believed that antisemitism is a kind of canary in the coalmine of Western society. When it rises, and when its rise is tolerated and excused and “what-about’d,” epochal change is usually in tow.

On the podcast last week, JD and I talked a bit about what we called “last chapter syndrome” and the tendency of every generation to believe it is living through the end of history. 

I don’t think we’re living the last chapter right now. But I do think we are in a time of historical trauma, of hatred, and that we are only reading its prologue. 

The only answer to hate I know is love. Not cloying sentimentality or ephemeral romance, but the bloodied, gasping, searing love of the Cross. A love that is an act of the whole will and whole person. The love of the Lord, who loves us thus, and of our neighbor — even and especially when they are consumed by hate.

Cardinal Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace. I will fast, and I will continue to pray.

I will pray especially for love, because when I contemplate those who celebrate the murder of babies and chant for genocide, I confess I have no heart for it.


The News

Poland heads to the polls this weekend to decide a closely fought election. Ahead of that, the country’s bishops issued a pastoral letter which was read out in churches across the nation.

The 1,400-word letter, approved by the Polish bishops in June but read from pulpits Oct. 8, did not refer directly to the looming contest in which abortion has become a key issue, but instead focused on building a “civilization of life.”

Citing St. John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae, the bishops called the encyclical “an unequivocal answer to the questions raised in the public debate concerning, among other things, the right of parents, especially the mother, to decide on the life of the child she carries in her womb.” 

The bishops all explained the need to “oppose attempts to force the legislature to enact a right to free access to abortion and to order healthcare workers to provide it.”

Poland has one of Europe’s strongest pro-life laws. In 2020, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal declared that a 1993 law permitting abortion for a severe and irreversible disability or a life-threatening incurable disease was unconstitutional. 

That judgment sparked mass protests, including acts of sabotage against churches and has become a central campaign issue in the election. This is a story to watch.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández gave another eye-catching interview this week, dedicated to one of the most controversial aspects of his work as the new head of the DDF — the handling of clerical sex abuse cases.

The interview follows a protest in Rome in which victims called for his removal as doctrinal chief because of his record on handling abuse cases in his native Argentina. 

As Luke Coppen wrote this week, the cardinal is simultaneously at pains to say he’s up to his new job and explain he’s not interfering in his own department’s disciplinary section. It’s a difficult balancing act. 

And, as Luke notes, the cardinal’s marked openness to discuss thorny matters of doctrine has raised expectations for him to be as forthcoming about his new department’s work on abuse cases — like those of Cardinal Richard and Marko Rupnik. 

So how will Cardinal Tucho measure up against his own new standards of transparency? Read the whole thing.

The U.S. bishops’ conference has announced the candidates for the leadership of six standing committees, and for the officer position of secretary, to be voted upon at their November plenary meeting.

The slate of candidates is interesting, as JD noted in an analysis this week, because, after several election cycles offering obvious candidates from both wings of the conference membership, one side seems to have stopped running for office.

While that could be evidence of a new stability and consensus among the U.S. bishops, as JD says, it might more likely point to one side picking up their ball and going home — or at least moving the game to a different field.

This is an analysis that is worth your time.

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Hard as it is to believe, the Vatican financial trial is almost over. Lawyers for the defense are up right now, making their cases for their various clients, and the judges are set to retire to consider their verdicts in early December.

But now that the prosecution has rested, and the other side is taking their turn, the most notable change in the trial isn’t, I would say, the way the evidence is being argued. Rather, at least judging from the strategy Cece Marogna’s lawyers have deployed, they are attacking the prosecution’s ability to stitch the evidence into a compelling whole.

And, as I wrote this week, they may have a point.

Right from the beginning of this trial, when his Office of the Promoter of Justice filed its 500 page indictment of ten defendants alleging a sprawling and supposedly interconnected web of conspiracies, Alessadro Diddi has been desperately insisting that it’s all connected, man

As I’ve written repeatedly along the way, I’ve never been sold on that premise. 

What the evidence seems to show is a culture of corruption in the world of Vatican finances, a total disregard for laws and regulations, and a lot of naked self interest and double dealing along the way. But one grand conspiracy taking in Cardinal Becciu’s “private spy,” fake highways in the Carolinas, London buildings, and a whole bunch in between? I doubt it.

The problem for Diddi is, it seems to me, he’s spent the last two years playing for headlines and trying to live up to the media hype that he is prosecuting the “trial of the century” instead of picking off half a dozen obvious medium-large cases of corruption. 

The former mafia lawyer may be a poacher turned gamekeeper now, but he’s not lost his flair for the dramatic or his preference for making a scene rather than really proving a specific charge. That could come back to haunt him yet in the coming weeks. A lot will depend on whether the judges choose to assess the evidence on offer for themselves, or simply ask if Diddi has used it to make a compelling case.

Read my whole analysis here.

Father Raimo Goyarrola was named the new Bishop of Helsinki last month, after a four year sede vacante for the diocese. 

The Spanish doctor and priest of Opus Dei has been the vicar general in Finland since 2011, and he’s another example of how the particular realities of a Scandinavian country have produced a deeply interesting perspective of how the Church can engage with a secularized world.

In an interview with Edgar Beltran this week, Fr. Goyarrola talked about lay evangelization, developing vocations, and the unique place of the Church in a very unique country.

This is your weekend read, if you want an interesting conversation with an interesting person.

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So much for secrecy

As most of you know, yesterday we reported that the Permanent Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops has been storing all its documents, images, and videos on an unsecured, open cloud server.

What this means is that if you had the web address, which someone close to the synodal process provided to us, you can see everything — the summary reports from the small working groups, the list of which participants were in each group, the instructions to delegates, speeches to the assembly, everything.

In previous synods, this would have been no big deal — all of it was made publicly available. Individual participants were free, encouraged even, to speak about who was saying what to whom about everything. But this time it is different. Or it was supposed to be, anyway.

Synodal organizers have insisted on tight confidentiality around the process. Participants are not allowed to give interviews unless expressly authorized by the organizing team, and all the press are to be told is what the official synodal communications team choose to relate in the official press conferences. And the rules for the assembly make it explicit that attendees cannot discuss what was said or by whom, even after the synod ends.

Pope Francis has personally called for confidentiality in the synodal hall, and even mulled applying the pontifical secret to proceedings last month, though he eventually shied away from taking that step.

The drive to keep the synod under a cone of silence, when they had previously been open affairs, has met with a lot of criticism. 

While the pope has said he wants secrecy to encourage delegates to feel free to speak their minds and hearts without worrying about media scrutiny, others took issue with the implication that the Holy Spirit, supposedly the driving force in the synodal process, requires a media blackout to make itself heard. 

Many were already worried that the whole affair was being carefully stage-managed by organizers to arrive at predetermined proposals across a slate of controversial issues, regardless of whether there was consensus for them or not among the participants. Keeping the synodal deliberations away from public scrutiny, they claimed, was just an unsubtle way of ensuring no one could naysay the official account of proceedings when it emerged.

Whether those fears were founded or not, the synodal secretariat was willing to live with the suspicions and criticisms in exchange for keeping what’s been going on in the hall under wraps. That now seems to have been a wasted effort.

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It’s as yet unclear how many people have been able to access the cloud server, which was finally taken down this morning. And there’s been no response yet from the Vatican press office or synodal comms team about the whole affair.

It’s easy to make caustic observations about the synodal secretariat’s tough talk about confidentiality versus its apparent indifference to putting even basic passwords on files marked “CONFIDENTIAL – RAPPORTI GRUPPI DI LAVORO.” 

And indeed, the “confidential” synodal team reports have been handled with fewer security measures than the answers to your average pub quiz.

The question now is, will the synod change tack and decide to embrace the accidental openness, or will organizers double down on trying to keep the process behind closed doors? 

If they go with the latter, it is hard to see things not becoming acrimonious with the press, with the official synodal press panels finding their every statement being aggressively checked against source material from inside the hall.

Whichever option they choose, it seems clear that they have now lost control of the flow of information. In fact, what we learned yesterday was that they never really had control in the first place.

As we noted in our coverage yesterday, Pope Francis has called for “a certain restraint” by media covering the synod. 

Now, to be clear, the pope hasn’t ordered Catholic journalists not to do their job under some kind of religious obedience, and I don’t think he legitimately could give an order like that. 

But I do think the pope has asked reporters to exercise a little prudential judgment and restraint during the synodal process, and I think that request deserves to be met in at least good faith.

It would have been easy, for example, for us to flip through the first few working group reports we saw, cherry pick the most inflammatory or punchy quotes we could find, and punch out some fast and dirty tabloid-style coverage. It would certainly have been good for business.

I don’t know who else has had access to this server while it was up, so I can’t speak to how they might handle it, but that’s not how we want to operate. 

We’re going to apply the same standards to this story as we would to any source material we come by honestly. So we’re going to be putting in some long hours to sift through (and translate) it all, and see what it says in its totality. 

When we’ve done that, we can make an informed and, I hope, responsible judgment about what reporting is merited in the public interest.

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‘Original language’

As a first time parent of a daughter barely two, I am now an obsessive student of early childhood development. 

I’m told that the sheer number of words a kid is exposed to during the first years is important, and I police myself constantly to make sure I’m using a broad enough vocabulary as I narrate everything the kid and I do together.

She does not yet talk, though, in any meaningful way. She does, though, parrot phrases or entire sentences she has heard repeatedly. 

Most of it is uncomprehending repetition. She’s word-perfect on at least one song from The Sound of Music, though there’s no question of her understanding what a female deer is. While she might have begun to grasp the word “drink,” jam and bread are definitely reach concepts for her, at best.

And I have to assume that her random exclamations of “Infidels!” are just tonal repetitions from her favorite scene in Aladdin, rather than indented maledictions against her stuffed bear.

Sometimes, though, the context of her parroting is heartachingly on the nose. When upset or afraid, she recites “I know, it’s OK, I know” like a mantra, and when caught trying to get under the kitchen sink or down the basement stairs she has started saying “such a good girl” in tones of acrimonious objection.   

According to her Montessori teacher, my daughter as yet lacks the use of “original language,” meaning the halting but correct application of single words while she builds up her vocabulary. This tracks. She stubbornly refuses to use “Mummy,” “Dada,” “water,” or “up,” despite clearly understanding all of them.

Instead, it seems, she’s learning language “backwards” by memorizing whole sentences and phrases and applying them emotively, when the situation “feels” right, even if she means the exact opposite or something else entirely. Later, she’ll start isolating words and “drawing them down” from her stock phrases and, hopefully, learn to construct whole new sentences, piecing together grammar and vocab all at once.

This is actually a recognized method for adults to learn a second language by immersion, so I’m told by the person with a degree in linguistics to whom I am married. 

The lack of “original language” and the parrot-phrase method came to my mind also this week when thinking about the synod.

The stock phrase approach to synodal communications has become something of a punchline for many watching the process. 

“Walking together,” “discerning the sensus fidei,” “listening to the Holy Spirit,” “creating a welcoming Church,” and similar phrases used by synodal organizers have become the stuff of press room bingo cards. 

The problem isn’t that any of these things mean something bad, or wrong, or even inappropriate for a synod, necessarily. But they seem to be deployed to answer any question or make any point, even when it doesn’t make any sense.

An especially pointed critique of this practice came this week from Metropolitan Job (Getcha) of Pisidia, Co-President of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, who was invited to address the synodal body on Monday.

While listening to some commentators, you could be forgiven for forming the impression that synodality was essentially forgotten in the Church from the Apostolic period until very recently, and it is only now that its significance and meaning are being discovered, explained, and unpacked.

But synodality actually has a rich, unbroken history in the Eastern Churches and a precise canonical form, as Metropolitan Job reminded the assembly while he graciously thanked organizers for his invitation. While he was full of kind and encouraging words for what he had witnessed in the Paul VI Hall, he also made it clear that the synod on synodality wasn’t synodal by any definition he could recognize.

There are, for sure, differences between synods as they are lived and defined in the Latin Church over recent centuries versus the Eastern Church institutions of the same name.

But the confusion caused by much of the synodal rhetoric being deployed by organizers and boosters of the current process, rhetoric which borrows much of the imagery, language, and history of Eastern synodality while discussing what is a very modern Western consultative process dating back only to the Second Vatican Council. 

And the current session of the Synod of Bishops in Rome is itself, as figures like Cardinal Joseph Zen have noted, borrowing language and institutions to present something wholly new. 

A mixed group of bishops, priests, religious and lay people can be an important consultative body at the disposal of the pope, for sure. But it is substantially different from a purely episcopal assembly, and it cannot be said to be a representation or proxy of the worldwide College of Bishops.

Similarly, an invitation-only body convened by the pope can certainly offer him fruitful advice, but the conclusions of a private papal focus group do not amount to a revelation of the Holy Spirit or the expression of the sensus fidei — any more than my daughter is being “such a good girl” when she tries to chew on a bottle of bleach.

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The more ardent critics of the synodal process see this borrowing of language as a deliberate act of dissimulation, and an attempt to clothe the synodal process and its eventual conclusions in an improper authority. 

Without the power to make windows into men’s souls, this is, to a degree, an unfalsifiable accusation. But it is equally possible that this synodal process is something genuinely new and immature and, like my daughter, simply lacks the “original language” with which to describe itself or form its thoughts. 

One has to hope that it will use the year-long recess between the back to back October sessions to grow into itself in a hurry. The sooner synodal spokesmen can start using the Church’s vocabulary and grammar with some kind of accuracy and coherence, the sooner the process can be presented and assessed honestly by the whole Church.

Until then, the repetitive deflection of legitimate concerns will be no more convincing or reassuring than a two-year old chanting “I know, it’s OK.”

See you next week.

Ed. Condon
The Pillar   

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