Monday, 30 April 2012

Catholics in an independent Scotland

The 20 April edition of the Catholic Herald contained an article by Glen Reynolds supportive of a pro-independence stance in the referendum. As it didn't make it to the Catholic Herald's online content , I'll give a summary below.

Dr Reynolds begins by sketching his move from a Labour Party activist to an SNP supporter prompted by a growing sense of suffocation within the Scottiosh Labour party and a changing relationship between the SNP and Catholicism which 'is no longer referred to as Scottish No Pope  as Scotland has increasingly confronted and defeated its anti-Catholic sectarian past'. Noting Alex Salmond's strong Christian background, Reynolds describes him as 'someone Catholic can do business with'.

The basic message of the article is that independence would allow a Scottish understanding of social justice and moral issues to be determined within the nation 'without a leash being constantly reined in from Westminster'.

To give just one Catholic moral perspective by way of example, the protection of the rights of an unborn child arguably better placed in the context of a debate within a sovereign self-determined state, focused upon by the people of Scotland in a Scottish context, as opposed to inherent problems faced with engaging on this and other deeply held Catholic values within and under the control of a Westminster forum. Perhaps this long-distance approach appealed to Scottish Labour as it could argue anti-Catholic sentiments behind the protection of a secular Westminster facade.

Reynolds isn't precise about why we should expect better decisions from an independent Scottish Parliament than from a Westminster Parliament. A partial answer to this is given in his claims that:

Twenty per cent of SNP members are currently Catholic (not far off the national percentage) and rapidly increasing. Salmond is the leader of a national movement that's had Catholics integral to it from founding days. Indeed, the first elected nationalist, the writer Sir Compton MacKenzie, was a Catholic convert. On becoming national convener of the SNP in 1990, Salmond made building even stronger bridges with the Catholic community a top priority.

Much of the article seems directed at combating the idea that in principle nationalism and independence are incompatible with Catholicism. That much seems certain: it's very difficult to see why Catholicism in principle is at odds with Scottish independence given that mediaeval, Catholic Scotland was independent. It's much less clear on why nowadays Catholics might find independence a better option than the continuation of the union. Too much of the argument is focused on the sort of point noted above: in broad terms, that the SNP isn't as much of a Protestant, anti-Catholic party as it may have been in the past.

Personally, I don't need convincing of this. I've never thought of the SNP  as any more anti-Catholic than any of the major other Scottish parties and, before the same sex marriage debate, would even have probably thought it slightly more inclined to seek Catholic support. (Admittedly, such efforts were largely motivated by undermining Labour's expectation that west coast Catholics in particular would vote in anything on a Labour ticket -but, hey, what do you expect? This is politics after all.) If the SNP is worried that Catholics still regard the Labour party as their natural party, certainly for my part and I suspect for many Catholics, they needn't be too worried.

But that still leaves the positive case for independence to be made.There is in Catholic social thought a general presumption in favour of a measure of nationalism:

The Magisterium points out that international law 'rests upon the principle of equal respect for States, for each people's right to self-determination and for their free cooperation in view of the higher good of humanity'. Peace is founded not only on respect for human rights but also on respect for the rights of peoples, in particular the right to independence. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church para 157.)

Moreover, that general presumption can be seen to be based in a general sense of the importance of subsidiarity and of those natural bonds of affection for the local and concrete that is a commonplace of conservative Catholic thought to be found (eg) in both Chesterton and MacIntyre. I can't see much of this line of argument in the article, perhaps because it sets ill with Jetsons-like, modernizing strand of the SNP which seems dominant at the moment. That's a pity, because, in the long run, such a conservative package might be a stronger brand in a morally and financially bankrupt Europe than the pursuit of a rootless modernity.

The modern SNP has been extremely good at developing a nationalism that has kept a welcome distance between love of nation and the disfiguring racism that can too easily result. In doing so, however, it runs the risk of lurching to the other extreme: of denying the importance of tradition and specific historical cultures in human flourishing that might otherwise prove attractive to Catholic and other voters.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Iain MacWhirter and the closing of the Scottish mind

Combinations of things, even ones good in themselves, can often produce unfortunate effects. Many of us in our youth grow to appreciate the advice against mixing grape and grain through the hard lesson of the hangover on the morning after.

Iain MacWhirter's piece in the Sunday Herald admittedly would probably have annoyed me on its own. Directed at Muslim opposition to same sex marriage in Scotland, it's the usual claim that anyone opposing this legislation is homophobic and indulging in 'sexual apartheid'. But coupled with the usual rant are the oddities that a piece directed against Muslims describes their view as a 'gospel against gays' (my emphasis) and claims that 'The root of the problem is scripture and the fact that the Bible says people who commit sodomy should not be allowed to live' (again, my emphasis). I'd be delighted to think that interfaith relations between Muslims and Christians had advanced to such a degree that they were now turning towards the Bible for moral instruction, but I rather doubt it. It's quite obvious that MacWhirter hasn't managed to keep his mind for more than a few sentences on the task in hand of dealing with Islamic views on homosexuality and in a Pavlovian response to the word 'religion' has simply returned to a more familiar theme of bashing Christians.(Whilst of course still ignoring the differences between Catholicism's basis in natural law rather than Protestantism's sola scriptura.)

But what reduced me to a rather black despair over Sunday was the contrast between the vacuity of this article and richness of the central concerns of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind which was published twenty-five years ago. (H/T Ed Feser.) It was one of those books that I was dimly aware of, thought I'd probably sympathize with, but never quite got around to reading. Well, the twenty-fifth anniversary of publication seemed like a good opportunity to remedy this so, with the reckless simplicity of the Kindle, I found that I had downloaded it before I had time to reconsider.

Half way through it now. It is of course, like any narrative with a broad sweep, at times an irritating read: when he confidently asserts something about the content of this or that philosopher's thought, you find yourself thinking of a passage that doesn't quite fit the breezy picture portrayed. But its great strength is that it provokes and promotes debate: like Socrates in Plato's early dialogues, you may well find yourself thinking at times that you've been the victim of some intellectual sleight of hand, but feel confident that Socrates'/Bloom's greater purpose would still be served if you came back hard with an objection. Perhaps more final reactions on a later post, but for the moment, it is Bloom's specific thoughts on sex that provided such a depressing contrast to MacWhirter's whittering.

Bloom was actively homosexual and died of AIDS. Perhaps because of this, he writes most effectively about the role of eros in the good life, in learning and in male and female relationships. I don't know if I agree with much of what he says. As in the reading of classic literature, many of his ideas succeed not by convincing but by being entertained: depth is gained from contemplation of a possibility, not by a solution. But the contrast with the brisk dismissal by MacWhirter of the complexities of male/female relations, of the bringing up of children, of the place and negotiation of same sex desire is astounding and profoundly depressing: it is one thing to disagree on conclusions, but quite another when an interlocutor fails to even notice the problems. To take just one brief passage from Bloom as an example:

Very simply, the family is a sort of miniature body politic in which the husband's will is the will of the whole. The woman can influence her husband's will, and it is supposed to be informed by love of wife and children.

Now all this has simply disintegrated. It does not exist, nor is it considered good that it should. But nothing certain has taken its place. Neither men nor women have any idea what they are getting into anymore, or, rather, they have reason to fear the worst. There are two equal wills, and no mediating principle to link them and no tribunal of last resort. What is more, neither of the wills is certain of itself. This is where the 'ordering of priorities' comes in, particularly with women, who have not yet decided which comes first, career or children. People are no longer raised to think they ought to regard marriage as the primary goal and responsibility, and their uncertainty is mightily reinforced by the divorce statistics, which imply that putting all of one's psychological eggs in the marriage basket is a poor risk. The goals and wills of men and women have become like parallel lines, and it requires a Lobachevskyan imagination to hope they may meet.

The debate on same sex marriage in Scotland has been depressing both because almost all the chattering and political classes here are united in favour of it, and because the public reasoning behind it (entirely of the 'equal love' kind) just ignores the complexities and differences of male/female and same sex relationships. In this, the contrast with England and Ireland (let alone the US) is becoming striking. Even in the rather superficial world of blogging, there, Brendan O'Neill gets the problem about the assumptions of essentialism in sexual orientation.There, Quiet Riot Girl gets the problem with reconciling queer theory with fixed identities. There, Suzanne Moore gets the inherent conflict between the drive for same sex marriage and 'progressive' politics. And amongst others, Richard Waghorne understands that resistance to same sex marriage isn't homophobic.

And in comparison? In Scotland we get Iain MacWhirter: 'On these moral issues, what is needed is leadership – a clear and unequivocal declaration against discrimination.' No interest in or awareness of any of the complexities. Despite MacWhirter's bizarre suggestion, Muslims, Catholics and Evangelicals do not share a common moral foundation in the Bible. But they do share a history, a history of realism built up over the centuries in trying to negotiate the complexities of nature and culture. Scotland is just beginning to build a political culture in which decisions on the running of our nation are debated in that nation. But until that debate is supported by a wider intellectual culture which can do justice to the complexity, depth and conflict in human flourishing, our politicians and journalists will continue to look like five year olds posturing in the hand me downs of their olders and betters across the border.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Assisted suicide: Margo MacDonald tries again

A recent letter to The Scotsman alerted me to the fact that MSP Margo MacDonald's continued attempt to introduce medically sanctioned killing into Scotland has reached a new stage. Her proposed Member's Bill (analogous to a Private Member's Bill at Westminster) is currently out for consultation and the period for this ends on 30 April.

Whether this constant rumbling from MacDonald turns into a real legislative threat will doubtless depend on the legislative timetable for the current Scottish Parliament and whether MSPs have the stomach for returning so quickly to a matter that was so recently put before them and so thoroughly chewed over. But putting aside the immediacy of the threat, the proposal (found here) if anything represents a more damaging proposal than her previous effort.

There is only one restriction on killing which was not found in the previous Bill (which was roundly defeated when introduced in 2010): the disabled rather than the terminally ill will no longer be directly included (p13 of the Consultation). (This appears to be simply an attempt to buy off the disabled lobby who rightly objected previously to being encouraged to drop dead as soon as possible. As MacDonald seems to believe that the only people objecting to her previous Bill were faith based groups and the disabled ('Those with faith
based objections and some groups representing disabled people were deeply opposed
to any move towards legalisation of assisted suicide' (p6)) this presumably leaves just us Sky Fairy worshipping nutters against the advance of reasonableness and everything being all right. (Never mind that (eg) the British Medical Asssociation also opposed assisted dying.))

Apart from this further restriction, everything else in the current proposal (apart from some purely formal paperwork) amounts to a liberalization of the previously defeated Bill:

1) There will no longer be a need for psychiatric assessment of competence (p11).
2) Non medically qualified people will also be allowed to become 'facilitators' of death (p17).

All in all, this is nothing more than a repackaging of the old Bill. Those of us who objected to the previous one (eg) on the ground that it amounted to a creeping institutionalization of killing as a treatment option will object even more strongly to the current proposal. Those who believe that the ability to kill off inconvenient people represents an advance in civilization will support it as a stepping stone towards their Brave New World.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Ex gay, post gay and London buses

Those of us in North Britain seem to have been spared the incessant bus wars which rumble on down south. (Although we do have our exciting native sports of chucking bricks at them or watching them slalom around the tram works in Auld Reekie.) No arguments about bendy buses. No exchanges about the existence or non existence of God. Just ads urging us to see pandas or the latest holiday offering from Hollywood.

But the banning of the above bus ad by Boris Johnson raises interesting questions, not just about free speech, but about what precisely is being objected to here. I'll put aside the free speech issues here and just concentrate on the substance of the objections. Is the objection to a type of therapy or to the very idea that identities may change? Or is this, as I suspect, another one of those totemic issues, such as same sex marriage, where the nuances of the specific case are swept away in the rush to support one side or another?

The usual gloss is that this is an advert advocating the 'gay cure': psychological therapy to cure homosexuality. But it doesn't actually say that. So we're left with two possibilities: either the organizations which promote the advert are so identified with this therapy that the ad in promoting them promotes the therapy; or that the wording of the ad clearly implies the therapy.

Turning to the first possibility, as a Catholic, I've no particular brief in supporting either Core Issues (which comes very much from an evangelical Protestant background) or Anglican Mainstream (which represents a conservative strand of Anglicanism). Anglican Mainstream certainly isn't exclusively or even primarily concerned with 'reparative' therapy or even homosexuality: its remit is rather that general conservative/liberal struggle that is taking place in the Anglican Communion. Core Issues certainly does claim to work

with people who voluntarily seek to change from a “gay” lifestyle to a gender-affirming one. This is sometimes referred to as a “sexual re-orientation” process.

On the other hand

Homosexuality isn't a 'disease' so we're not looking for a 'cure'. (here)

Focusing on Core Issues, then, there seem to be two sorts of possible objections: a) that the idea of exploring identity particularly with a view to not identifying as gay is in principle wrong; and b) that whilst the exploration of identity is, in principle, not wrong, in practice, the methods used by Core Issues are objectionable. So far as I can see from a google search on the web and on my 'must go to' blog on such issues (Peter Ould), the main objection to Core Issues as an organization seem to be the one based on principle rather than specific practice. Indeed, the article at Wikipedia changes the Core Issues wording on its website in a significant way. Wikipedia has:

The group purports to offer educational 'therapeutic support' and counseling for homosexuals, with a view to changing their "homosexual behavior and feelings".

The actual Core Issues wording referenced in those quotes has:

Another thing people say is that in seeking, or offering help to those seeking to change homosexual behaviour and feelings we 'pathologise' such individuals. It might infact be that we are in danger of pathologising society when we claim that individuals unappy with homosexuality have somehow absorbed negative societal values.(Here, my emphasis.)

There is a significant difference between an organization which seeks to change behaviour and feelings, and one which seeks to help individuals who want to change behaviour and feelings.

So while I don't have enough specific knowledge of either organization to rule out the possibility that we are dealing here with bodies whose response to homosexuality is some modern analogy of witch pricking and the rack, I can't see any evidence that this is really the case. Given that, what is the objection, in principle, to a counselling process which offers a) individuals a chance to explore their sexual identity; and b) support for a desired change in that identity?

Whatever your final views in this area, there's a lot to be said for the three tiered distinction suggested by Mark Yarhouse between sexual attraction, orientation and identity. (And even this may be insufficiently complex: are all attractions transparent and self identifying? What is the precise phenomenological difference between liking someone of the same sex and finding them sexually attractive? In short, where does the sexual end and a broader erotic begin? Quiet Riot Girl seems to be mulling over this in the comboxes here.) One may have (occasional) homosexual desire, or may have (predominantly) homosexual desires and thus an orientation, or one may have a homosexual identity. I think the key jump here is between orientation and identity: just because I have predominant or exclusive homosexual desires, does it follow that I have a gay identity? (An interesting piece on the way one person changed identities here.) 

Given these distinctions, it seems to be the wording 'ex gay' and 'post gay' that are the root of the objections here. 'Ex gay' does, as a term, seem to be closely identified with reparative therapy. (Although it's hard to see why it has to be.) But 'post gay' doesn't. It either refers to active homosexuals who reject gay identity on the queer theory grounds of the general fluidity of identity, or to those such as Peter Ould who reject such an identity on the grounds that their (non fluid, God given) identity does not depend on their orientation. More to the point here, why should anyone object to the idea that identities (as opposed to orientations) do change?

I don't much like public sloganizing and I certainly don't like the idea that there is a medical cure for homosexual attraction. But we are existing in a period when a blind commitment to essentialism in sexual identity is becoming the unthinking norm and where even such a mild challenge to that norm as embodied in the bus ads has become 'unacceptable'. Sartre's term 'bad faith' describes the dehumanizing effect of embracing such rigid identities well:

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the cafe plays with his condition in order to realize it. This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, which is no longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (the sight "fixed at ten paces"). There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.

(Being and Nothingness.)

Friday, 13 April 2012

The pornography of confusion

Well, I spent some of my free time over Easter reading Christ the Stranger: the Theology of Rowan Williams (ISBN-13: 978-0567599711) (H/T Peter Ould).

I've always thought of Rowan Williams as being a fine example of what happens to a good man in a bad culture: unless individuals, however talented and well intentioned are supported by good institutions and culture, they are incapable of complete flourishing. By being placed in an ecclesial community such as Anglicanism which largely seems to have abandoned any attempt at following Catholic intellectual or spiritual authority, there are limits to what any individual can achieve.

The book itself is quite thin: intellectually and (metaphorically on a Kindle but literally in paper) in size. A serious failing is the lack of any deep engagement with the sources of his theology. My own suspicion is that the key element in Williams' thought is a principled resistance to clarity of reasoning (or superficial ratiocination if you prefer) derived from tendencies in Russian thought (I found Lesley Chamberlain helpful here) and from Gillian Rose's reading of Hegel as a refusal of easy reconciliation of tensions in society and thought (a bit like MacDiarmid's 'anti-syzygy') rather than the traditional view of the upbeat proclaimer of the end of history in the nineteenth century Prussian state (see especially sections 2.2 and 2.3 here).

Avoiding any attempt at being totally fair to Williams -if I knew enough to do that, I wouldn't have been reading an introductory work on him- the sort of picture which emerges from Christ the Stranger at any rate is a relishing of not being clear. And that sort of line is one you can't help but encounter quite regularly in modern religion: at best a refusal of easy certainties; at worst, a self-indulgence in intellectual obfuscation on the one hand, and the sort of rambling on about 'wounded healers' that leads to the privileging of immoral behaviour as a path to holiness on the other.

And against this, we have Catholic Scholasticism with its emphasis on clarity of reasoning and system, and Catholic moral theology with its attempt to express the complexities of ethics again in clear rules and system. It's here that faithful Catholicism is at its most counter cultural: modern popular and academic culture (certainly within the humanities) does not value system and clarity; modern, magisterial Protestantism again tends not to value these aspects of traditional Catholic thought. Moreover, even within Catholicism itself, there are countervailing tendencies. Traditionalists oppose the anti-rationalism of inherited, past forms to the struggle for clarity; those possessed by the spirit of Vatican II oppose felt and inarticulate experience to the articulated conclusions of canon law and casuistry.

Now there is clearly the possibility of the life in spirit and in intellect being killed by a legalistic system building. If Catholicism thought God and life were exhausted by articulated systems, then some of these criticisms would be fair -and indeed, I have no doubt that, in some specific cases, they were and are fair. But in principle, the attempt to articulate and be clear about human life and God is essential: the drive to clarity and the comprehensiveness of system, if done in the awareness of the ultimate distance between the desired and the achieved outcome, better expresses humility than any immediate embracing and relishing of obscurity.

As Flaubert puts it in Madame Bovary,

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

But an acknowledgment of inadequacy does not entail the abandonment of the attempt: better dancing bears than nothing at all.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter Sunday

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, 
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with old leaven,
neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, 
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; 
death hath no more dominion over him.
For in that he died, he died unto sin once; 
but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, 
but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ is risen from the dead, 
and become the first fruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, 
by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, 
even so in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.

(Book of Divine Worship)

A Happy Easter to you all! 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre and argument by sneer

                                      Annual conference of the National Secular Society...?

Having just been engaging in a now familiar ping pong match of barely concealed mutual irritation with a swarm of New Atheists in the Catholic Herald's comboxes, my thoughts turned to the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his analysis of the modern dilemma.

In essence, MacIntyre argues three points:

1) That all ethical reasoning takes place within a tradition.
2) That the modern liberal tradition has become an incoherent patchwork of words left over from the demise of previously coherent but now abandoned traditions.
3) That the Aristotelian/Thomist tradition is best able to provide a coherent worldview.

Now although MacIntyre is focusing on ethics, his points are applicable to the sort of debates on metaphysics that have been taking place on the Catholic Herald site: in particular, questions about the nature of explanation and causality (which are at the heart of natural law arguments for the existence of God) sometimes display the sort of clash of traditions that are more clearly on show in the case of ethics. Moreover, philosophers like Ed Feser in his The Last Superstition make a parallel case for philosophy beyond ethics: that the only hope for a recovery of a coherent worldview is the restoration of a Aristotelian/Thomist metaphysics.

This sort of line of argument has its analogues elsewhere in modern scholarship: broadly, the idea that, somewhere in early modern intellectual history, a wrong turning was taken. (And you can take your pick at the culprit: Ockham, Descartes, or whoever. I don't think anyone has quite bettered Heidegger who seems to have regarded everything since the pre-Socratics as a falling away.)

Anyway, putting aside all the details and nuances here, the idea that in modern ethics (and perhaps metaphysics) we have a sort of Mad Max, post apocalyptic scenario where most people cobble together pretty rubbishy theories and then, in the absence of any possibility of intellectual agreement, rely on a battery of rhetorical and political tricks to make their point, does seem a fair enough assessment of how debates are actually conducted on issues like same sex 'marriage' and abortion. As MacIntyre (quoting Keynes) describes debates in Bloomsbury:

'In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility' and [he] goes on to describe the effectiveness of Moore's gasps of incredulity and head-shaking, of Strachey's grim silences and of Lowes Dickinson's shrugs (After Virtue, 2nd ed., p17).

One aspect of many modern debates is that Catholics (naive fools that we are) really do believe that reason is capable of delivering ethical and political truths whilst many of our opponents are committed to worldviews that in principle deny to ethics a rational basis (basing it instead on choices or emotions or gender or class interest etc). The Nelsonian refusal to acknowledge the presence of arguments (noted previously) is part of this toolkit of shrugs and head shaking. Part of the response to this must, I suppose, be a similar deployment of sighing and shrugging simply to gain attention in the public sphere; but under it all, for Catholics, there must be the constant reference back to the idea of a rationally comprehensible nature of human beings that is the basis for natural law.