Happy Friday friends,
I’m in Chicago this week for the funeral of my grandmother, whom I mentioned to you last week. She was raised to life eternal on Wednesday morning after receiving the sacraments and having spent days in the company of her children and grandchildren.
I am not sure any of us could hope for better at the end of our lives. I certainly know I don’t. Of your charity, I would appreciate your prayers for the repose of her soul.
The departure of Grandma, my last living grandparent, has been a moment of generational reflection for our family, as you would expect. It has been a great blessing to have had four generations of my family alive together for so long.
I am sure in time memories of their great-grandmother will age and fade for my daughter and nieces and nephews, as they have done for me with memories of my own. But it’s some comfort to think that the living memory of this much-loved woman will endure, perhaps for another 90 — longer even than she lived.
It’s a twin existential instinct, I think, to resist forgetting and being forgotten. While attending my grandmother’s funeral is a return home for me, this is the first time in Chicago for my wife and daughter and I’ve always wanted to show them around the neighborhoods where I was born and spent my first years.
My own childhood becomes no more or less real for my being able to make them tour the dive bar where I perched in a car seat as a baby, inhaling true culture along with the smell of Marlboros and fried onion loaf, or the park district beach which was the center of a decade of summers. But my memories feel more real for being able to share them, and I feel better known by my wife for her seeing these places.
Of course, the desire to exist and to be known (and the terror of the opposite) is deeply ingrained in us, and the root of our primeval fear of death. But the truth is that we existed and were known — and loved — before we were born and remain so after we die.
We are each of us, as Pope Benedict XVI famously said, “not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.”
“Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary,” Benedict reminded us. My grandmother is still willed and loved and necessary today, no more or less than my 1-year-old daughter.
And she is no less alive to God today than if she were on her couch reading this newsletter — Hi, Grandma.
That, St. Paul says, is the faith we profess, and the hope we have through the Resurrection of Christ: that death is swallowed up in victory. There is no truth more important.
That being said, let’s talk about the news.
We covered this week the strange story of an Omaha priest who pled guilty last month to charges of theft.
The case gets stranger from there: According to charging documents, Gutgsell gave the stolen money, along with hundreds of thousands from his own savings — totaling some $700,000 — to a local homeless man, whom he apparently believed would pay him back.
Gutgsell said he would give the man the money in cash, usually meeting in or near Gutgsell’s car parked in a downtown Omaha lot. According to charging documents, the homeless man is a fixture in casinos outside the city, and is usually seen in a suit and sunglasses.
If you’re wondering, Gutgsell told police repeatedly that he was not being blackmailed.
The details of the case actually get even weirder, but the overall point is to highlight what we’ve talked about a lot in the past few years: that financial misconduct is the next big scandal coming down the pike for the Church, and the sooner she equips herself to deal with it, the better.
The Omaha archdiocese told The Pillar it cannot yet comment on whether the priest will face canonical charges. But Gutgsell is presently prohibited from public ministry.
A sign placed next to two cardinals’ tombs criticizing their handling of abuse cases is stirring controversy in Germany.
“From today’s perspective, the archbishops buried here made serious mistakes in dealing with sexual abuse during their time in office. All too often they put the protection and reputation of the institution and the perpetrators above the suffering of the victims.”
The sign has provoked some fierce debate among German Catholics, some of whom see it as a necessary and just acknowledgment of the Church’s past failings.
Others, however, have said it shades the dead cardinals, who cannot speak for themselves or offer any account for their actions in response. And, as one put it, “it is ultimately nothing more than a sign of deep unbelief, that God is not just and will not hold the two cardinals accountable.”
The Vatican on Tuesday announced the appointment of four auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, including one with an unusual ecclesiastical backstory.
Bishop-elect Albert Bahhuth was baptized, confirmed, and received first Holy Communion in Lebanon, as a member of the Melkite Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with roughly 300,000 members in Lebanon, and 1.5 million members worldwide.
But before Bahhuth could become an LA priest, or the archdiocesan vicar general, or an auxiliary bishop, Bahhuth needed to become a Latin Catholic.
How do you do that? And why does it matter (and it really does)?
What I like about the new prefect of the DDF and cardinal-elect, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández,, is that he seems to be very willing to speak his mind, and speak to people, with a freedom none of his predecessors had.
Indeed, he’s been giving something like an interview a day since he was named by the pope three weeks ago.
One topic he has frequently addressed is the Catholic Church in Germany — hardly surprising since it has been the single biggest source of doctrinal and ecclesiological conflict for Rome for the last several years.
Indeed, Fernández’s new department has had to play a leading role in saying “nein” to the Germans in recent years, on everything from intercommunion for Lutherans, church blessings for same-sex unions, and attempts to set up a kind of lay-led “synodal” supervisory board to oversee the Church in Germany.
But what has Fernández said about the German Church in his rash of interviews? And do his comments signal a change in the Vatican’s line on the synodal way?
Speaking of the synod on synodality, I note this week that the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Irme Stetter-Karp, was not granted a papal invitation to participate in the October session.
She is, it seems, very annoyed about this. Her organization, which along with the German bishops’ conference bears responsibility for the German “synodal way,” have been clear on their annoyance.
And the German synodal group on women put out a statement calling her omission from the guest list “an affront,” and questioned how the synod could possibly proceed without her enlightened and courageous witness.
I’d note there are a few reasons why the Holy Father might have declined to extend her an invite.
It could be that he doesn’t think much of the German process, which Francis has repeatedly denounced, along with his curia, as no synod at all.
It might also have something to do with the fact that Stetter-Karp’s organization has used, some might say exploited, rightful outrage against clerical sexual abuse to advance its agenda for women’s ordination, ending clerical celibacy, and demanding the Church rewrite its entire theology of human sexuality — all of which they have sought to import into the synodal process.
Or it could simply be the pope didn’t think her company would be a net plus to the synodal assembly. Not knowing Francis’ mind, I couldn’t say.
But Frau Stetter-Karp is not the only person concerned that issues unrelated to the pope’s stated agenda for the synod be forcefully represented in the sessions.
Last week Kate McElwee, the director of the Women’s Ordination Conference (also not invited), lamented that while the synodal working documents were “refreshing,” there was no explicit endorsement for, or even mention of the ordination of women to the priesthood as a synodal priority.
Of course, it is tempting to dismiss Stetter-Karp’s carping as sour grapes that she didn’t get the nod while her deputy, the Biblical scholar Thomas Söding, did. And Mrs. McElwee hardly represents a groundswell of opinion within the Church — her most accomplished works, so far as I can tell, are organizing a demonstration by seven women posing around the Vatican with branded umbrellas, and publishing opinion pieces in the newspaper where her husband is an editor.
But the reality is, as McElwee herself noted, that even if they won’t be there, others who wish to make their case will be. Most notably Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego.
The cardinal issued this call despite the synod’s general rapporteur explicitly saying that the synod on synodality “is not meant to change doctrine, but attitudes,” to say nothing of the pope’s own repeated insistence that he does not want the synodal assembly degenerating into a kind of political chamber for debating competing agendas.
I cannot predict the future, but I would be surprised if upending the Church’s sacramental theology of the priesthood made it to the synodal floor for the kind of serene ecclesial reflection Francis has said he wants. I’d be more surprised still to find it in the synod’s final documents — indeed, I am confident we won’t.
But when women priests (and other doctrinal impossibilities) don’t materialize at the end of the synodal session, people like McElwee and Stetter-Karp will be sincerely disappointed and wholly justified in saying so. I fear they will also be left bitter by the disappointment, and end up further on the margins of the Church as a result, rather than brought closer in by the synodal process.
Hopes that the synod will become something it is not, and cannot be, have been stoked by people, like Cardinal McElroy, insisting that doctrine really is up for debate and the pope’s stated agenda of synodality is really, wink-wink, a giant hollow wooden gift horse.
When that proves not to be the case, the people left feeling disappointed, frustrated, and deceived by false promises will be owed an apology. They will also need the Church to offer an authentically synodal outreach to them.
Let’s hope that the October session can make real strides in that direction — it’s what the synod on synodality is actually all about, after all.
For the record
This week marks the beginning of the end for the Vatican financial trial, with prosecutors getting six sessions to make their closing case for convicting the ten defendants.
I am not going to make any of you sit through a long assessment of the prosecution’s case and where I think they could or should have done things better, or differently — I’m not that cruel. But there is one point I would like to make about this week’s proceedings, and I hope you will bear with me.
The Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Alessandro Diddi, made a key concession in court this week, admitting that his team had originally alleged — and media near-universally reported — that the hundreds of millions of euros used to stake the original Vatican investment which led to the London property deal had come from Peter’s Pence. It didn’t, Diddi acknowledged.
That was a big concession. The allegation that Peter’s Pence money was used to invest with the financier and Pillar reader Raffaele Mincione didn’t just form part of the prosecution case, it is the basis for several lawsuits Mincione has launched against the Holy See and several banks around Europe.
But here’s the thing — JD and I have reported from the beginning that Peter’s Pence wasn’t used. We covered the prosecutors’ allegation, of course, but we’ve said right along the way, since before the indictment was even filed, that it didn’t happen that way.
In fact, we’ve been reporting since 2019 that the money came from loans by Swiss banks, loans taken out against Church deposits at the banks, and obscured from Vatican financial oversight by Secretariat of State officials (like Pillar reader Cardinal Angelo Becciu) using accounting methods banned by Pope Francis.
Nobody else reported that. And Cardinal Becciu basically called me a liar and a fabulist on Twitter when we did it. But now that’s what the prosecution accepts really went down and, near as I can tell from his statements, Becciu basically maintains if he did it, it was all legal anyway.
(The cardinal made a lengthy “spontaneous” statement in court yesterday, which Luke covered. I have some thoughts on it, and some questions, but I just rolled in from a 700-mile road trip so they will have to wait. But I’ll get to it, I promise.)
Anyway, this is one example of how a story we broke matters in how this case is playing out.
Another would be the one about how the former chief financial watchdog at the Vatican had a secret side deal (and obvious conflict of interest) with the Secretariat of State as an investment adviser on the very deal his department refused to investigate.
I could go on. But the point I want to make is not that we did good work here or there. The point is that it was necessary work that no one else was willing to do — putting the man hours and resources into doing original research and investigating the fine details, poring over corporate filings and digging up original sources, not just repeating what a PR guy for this or that defendant told us.
That is what The Pillar is all about. That kind of reporting, on exactly this story, is what I’m in this for.
It matters that when the chief prosecutor admits he had to change his case that there’s independent reporting, dating back years, saying it was always this way — otherwise people could rightly wonder if the whole case is bogus.
I have no idea how or when this trial will actually finish, or who will get convicted of what — if anyone, of anything.
But I know a lot of people, smart people, trained lawyers and canonists, who tell me flat out that the whole case is hopelessly convoluted and no one could possibly follow what’s gone on, who did what when, or what the law even says.
The facts are there if we want to follow them. And even if we can’t know everything, we can know enough for reasonable people to make reasonable judgments — and even disagree about them, reasonably. That’s what I hope The Pillar is bringing to this story: old-fashioned public record journalism.
Not everybody has to read it, and not everyone has to even care about the story, still less follow every detail or come to a common conclusion. But when people look back on this trial and ask if it all made sense, or if the eventual verdict held water, I want there to be some independent and original coverage to help them answer those questions.
In the meantime, I want to thank you — each and every one of our paying subscribers — for helping us make that happen. The Pillar exists because a small handful of our readers buy into what we are trying to do, and see that it makes a difference. Thank you for that.
Some of you have actually been good enough to ask how you can increase your subscription, which is about the most profound compliment we could get — so thank you doubly if that’s you. You can do it here:
And if you are new around here, or even if you have been reading along for a while, believe me when I say we need all the help we can get to keep going.
Now would be a really cool time to decide to help pay for the journalism you’re reading.
See you next week, we’ve got work to do.
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