Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Reflections on New Year

                         Dante enters the Pit of Disease where falsifiers are tormented.

I suppose any Scottish blogger's reflections on 2014 and 2015 are likely to be dominated by thoughts about the referendum and the future of the Independence movement in Scotland although I'd quite like them not to be. But there you are: I lack the imagination to find something else...

I like my politics grim and detailed. I remember as a child watching fascinated as the live relay of the TUC conference rambled on with a liturgical language of 'brothers and sisters' (or 'comrades' for variation) structured wave after wave of composite this or composite that. I watched it day after day. I'm surprised my parents didn't take me to a psychiatrist. So the loose, carnivality of modern progressive Nationalism leaves me cold. I wanted to know as much as possible about the price of oil and the likely effects on the economy. I wanted -good Aristotelian that I am- to be afraid of the things the practically wise man is afraid of, and blasé about those he is blasé about. I don't care much about intersectionality, except insofar as it pertains to Lego.

But equally, the sheer disbelief of many unionist commentators that anyone (anyone) might not want to be part of the existing structure of the UK also left me cold. It's not surprising that a northern European nation of 5 millions might have a nationalist movement, rather more surprising if it didn't. It's not surprising that, at the end of a century in which the British imperium has been thoroughly critiqued, not least by the British governing class itself, that some might feel rather doubtful about a State soused in such symbols. It's not surprising that Western Europeans are hacked off with the current position and just want something different.

So we go into the New Year pretending. The 45 pretend that only the mentally ill and Quislings voted No. The attack dogs of Unionism pretend that Yes voters are all methadone crazed Neds. And beneath this obvious crust, further more local pretences. That marriage doesn't matter. (Except when changing its nature as some sort of Situationist prank.) That women and men are the same. That the second rate is the first rate and that Scottish media and artists are the latter. That education in Scotland gets better and better. That power dynamics and considerations of cost in the NHS will miraculously disappear when the State provides 'mercy' killing. And so on.

I think many sense this lie we live, the triumph of the Sophists and face. Truth in human affairs, perhaps above all in politics, is extremely difficult to attain, even to want to go on trying to attain:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from ihemselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. [Vaclav Havel: the Power of the Powerless here]

Havel's phrase the human order and the order of the universe has of course lost all meaning for us progressives, with its tones of essentialism and natural law. But it is only that, the sense that beneath the noise and the half truths and the jockeying for advantage, that there is an order to be discerned and followed in human affairs that will save us, as a society and as individuals.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Happy Christmas

                                                    Happy Christmas!

RORATE coeli desuper!
   Hevins, distil your balmy schouris!
For now is risen the bricht day-ster,
   Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris:
   The cleir Sone, quhom no cloud devouris,
Surmounting Phebus in the Est,
   Is cumin of his hevinly touris:
   Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
   Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,
And all ye hevinly operationis,
   Ster, planeit, firmament, and spheir,
   Fire, erd, air, and water cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
   That come in to so meik maneir;
   Et nobis Puer natus est.

Synnaris be glad, and penance do,
   And thank your Maker hairtfully;
For he that ye micht nocht come to
   To you is cumin full humbly
   Your soulis with his blood to buy
And loose you of the fiendis arrest--
   And only of his own mercy;
   Pro nobis Puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,
   And bow unto that bairn benyng,
And do your observance divyne
   To him that is of kingis King:
   Encense his altar, read and sing
In holy kirk, with mind degest,
   Him honouring attour all thing
   Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Celestial foulis in the air,
   Sing with your nottis upon hicht,
In firthis and in forrestis fair
   Be myrthful now at all your mycht;
   For passit is your dully nicht,
Aurora has the cloudis perst,
   The Sone is risen with glaidsum licht,
   Et nobis Puer natus est.

Now spring up flouris fra the rute,
   Revert you upward naturaly,
In honour of the blissit frute
   That raiss up fro the rose Mary;
   Lay out your levis lustily,
Fro deid take life now at the lest
   In wirschip of that Prince worthy
   Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Sing, hevin imperial, most of hicht!
   Regions of air mak armony!
All fish in flud and fowl of flicht
   Be mirthful and mak melody!
   All Gloria in excelsis cry!
Heaven, erd, se, man, bird, and best,--
   He that is crownit abone the sky
   Pro nobis Puer natus est!

William Dunbar.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Is the Catholic Church in Scotland too Nationalist?

The above is a map of how (based on recent opinion polls) Scottish constituencies are projected to vote in the next Westminster election. (To spell it out, bright yellow is the SNP.) I couldn't help thinking about the map when reading Damian Thompson's Spectator piece entitled Memo to the Scottish Catholic bishops: stop sucking up to the SNP. (Here.)

I rather like Thompson's journalism. Like most journalists in this post modern age, he is paid to bring a bit of personality into the debate which inevitably produces both fizz and splutter over the years. But on the whole, and certainly if you're a certain sort of fogeyish, socially conservative Catholic, you're probably going to find more fizz than splutter in his work. However, on Scotland, Thompson, like most of the big beasts of Catholic opinion formation, strikes me as generally just hopelessly wrong. I think I've mentioned this before, but one of the (sadder? more amusing? depended on what mood I was in...) aspects of the referendum campaign was reading the constant stream of sneering about the Yes side in the referendum from Catholic opinion makers who really should have known better.

In one way, there's really no surprise, I suppose. The sort of people who tend to dominate the Catholic commentariate (at least the ones I read) are from (let's say) a rather conservative, traditionalist background. Put that together with a Golden Triangle (Oxford-Cambridge-London) background, and it's extremely difficult to sympathise with whingeing jocks voting for a bunch of popularist leftists. On the other hand, both localism and nationalism are popular themes among this set (in many ways, my set), and certainly that discontent with the political process represented by UKIP has received a favourable hearing. So from that point of view, I am a bit surprised at the lack of sympathy for or at least understanding of an independence movement that in many ways is just another example of a popular response to well known problems in modern Western Europe.

There's probably no one answer as to why the modern West and particularly its political process is in trouble. In part, it's probably the tension inherent in a system that is built on two  incompatible narratives: on the one hand, equality and subjectivism; on the other hand, a cult of meritocracy and technical expertise. And if you add to that the end of the economic good times, a culture prizing licence and leisure over self discipline and work, and the deliberate alienation of people from their human nature in favour of technological fantasies of self-creation and infinite possibility, you have in essence the creation of a free floating neurosis, a feeling that the times are out of joint, and the desperate seeking for release through something.

And so the parade of lightning rods, some more convincing than others: UKIP, Russell Brand, Le Front National etc etc. And, I suppose, among them, the SNP. So, to that extent, I agree with these commentators who seem to regard the movement for Scottish Independence as some sort of mental illness, to be treated rather than encountered as a natural part of the political landscape. Except....

And the 'except' is that the SNP are viable in a way that Russell Brand and even UKIP just are not. As the above map shows, it is likely that, after the next general election, the SNP will dominate Scottish seats in Westminster in a similar way to their domination of Holyrood. Moreover, Scots have got used to competent Holyrood administrations run by the SNP: if Salmond is some sort of wild eyed Braveheart fantasist, he is a wild eyed Braveheart fantasist who can run the country and win elections. (And no one has suggested that Nicola Sturgeon -like her or loathe her- is anything if not effective.)

I'm not sure when it happened, but some time since the re-foundation of the Scottish Parliament, my default setting for political interest has drifted from Westminster to Edinburgh. I don't regard either Salmond or Cameron as exactly 'my leader', but the political drama I look to first is that around Holyrood: indeed, it has started to become almost something of an afterthought to wonder what is happening at Westminster. I think it is that which is the biggest challenge to the Union: not so much the transfer of this or that power or even the precise result of this or that vote, but more the reframing of the electorate's interest in Scotland around Edinburgh rather than London. Now make of that what you will. It may be a fault to be regretted, a passing phase to be reversed. But I suspect -I'd in fact put it much more strongly than that- that I'm far from being alone in such a revisioning of the political settlement: in the minds of many Scots, Scotland is already a separate political landscape from that of Westminster and the rest of the UK.

And that is the context within which Archbishop Tartaglia's remarks should be taken. First, I'm not at all sure that, even in themselves they are that dreadful: Salmond has been a major figure in Scottish politics and his (sort of) passing deserves some sort of kind remark. (And Tartaglia's remarks on Sturgeon strike me as anodyne in the extreme.) Secondly, Tartaglia is but one bishop: you'd be hard put to find similar remarks from the much more careful Archbishop Cushley, let alone, say, Bishop Gilbert of Aberdeen. (And is it really a surprise that, within any Bishops' Conference, some will be closer to any particular party than others?) But thirdly, and most importantly, it is entirely reasonable that any bishop tries to find some modus vivendi with the government and leading political figures of the day. Inevitably, that balance is hard to get right: what is 'fawning' to some will appear merely formal politeness to others. That is what Thompson is missing: that Tartaglia is not sucking up to some relatively isolated charismatic popularist like Nigel Farage, but what has become almost the establishment in Scotland. (Would a similar jeremiad have been provoked if, say, a Catholic Bishop had spoken warmly of David Cameron after he resigned?)

I don't think the domination of Scotland by one party is healthy. I very much hope that Jim Murphy will restore the Labour Party to an effective opposition and a potential government. I also hope (though I see absolutely no realistic sign of this) that the Scottish Conservatives start providing a genuinely conservative alternative to a rampant progressivism, rather than trying to outdo the other parties in their endorsement of modish nonsense. But until all that happens, get used to the Catholic Church (and indeed other institutions such as universities and business) choosing their words carefully in the light of the reality of a Scotland where the SNP is the natural party of government. Scotland already is a separate and different political landscape, and until London commentators, Catholic or otherwise, get that, their pronouncements will continue to miss the mark.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cordoba revisited: political thought or campaigning politics

                                       Heretical tabernacle-Cathedral of Canterbury

My (immediately) previous post on the Mosque/Cathedral/Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba produced some helpful responses online (and off) which probably helped me see more clearly part of what I was driving at.

The problem with the article from The Guardian is that it gives the overwhelming impression that the Catholic Church was acting unreasonably. (That of course is an impression that the Guardian's readership would doubtless already incline towards before reading the article.) As such, it does very little to move the readership's understanding of religion/politics beyond where it already stands: instead of deepening understanding, it simply confirms an existing understanding by slanting the evidence.

That problem sits within a more general problem with reporting politics: a greater emphasis on politics as a day to day party struggle rather than a longer term and deeper question about how to run society. It's similar to the domination of much economic coverage by the day to day movements of the markets, and much less by the deeper underlying economic issues. That problem is particularly difficult in Scotland where a (comparative) absence of think tanks, journals and university involvement has led to the domination of campaigning politics with only the thinnest foundation of deeper but still applied political thought to back it up.

Perhaps the key difference between what I might term 'political thought' and 'campaigning politics' is that the former tries to understand while the latter tries simply to win. Of course, if you are an anti-clerical leftist, campaigning politics would encourage you to paint the Church as a bunch of unreasonable fools trying to wreck the tourist industry. Of course, if you are a 'No' campaigner, the SNP are a bunch of feckless (National) Socialists with a personality cult (but where the leader is embalmed in the Palace of Westminster rather than the Kremlin). The increasingly hysterical outbursts from the Scottish Secular Society are all based on the tactic of making the alternatives unthinkable: of course, secularism is the only way to run the state.

I suppose it's probably unreasonable to expect The Guardian to veer more towards the 'political thought' side of the disjunction particularly on the place of religion in society. But it's a pity. Of course, a site like the Cathedral of Cordoba is going to be contested. Of course Muslims and anti-clericalists and Catholics are going to have different interpretations of its history and of its current status. I don't know how you resolve those tensions, indeed, I'm sure you don't: you live with them. But I think there are at least two key possibilities that are important tools which help and which are often overlooked. First, there is doing nothing. I'd encourage everyone involved here to do nothing: clearly there has been some sort of modus vivendi achieved up till now and I'd encourage everyone at least to think about letting sleeping modi lie. Secondly, there is regret. It's easy to underestimate how much Catholics in the UK do regret that our churches were ripped out of our hands. It's easy to get whipped up about it. But rather than starting a campaign for Canterbury Cathedral to be renamed the 'Heretical Tabernacle-Cathedral Church of Canterbury' (thus doing justice to both its many-layered history and Catholic/Protestant viewpoint) far better to moan silently and make feeble jokes (like the one just made) and try instead to find ways of not letting a potential sore point stop Anglicans and Catholics living together in fruitful co-operation.

To do that, however, requires the desire to understand rather than win as at least a starting point. I know that Anglicans have a different view of history and a different understanding of the status of their Church. I think they're wrong, but then they think we're wrong. That's what politics is like: learning to live with disagreement. As I ended the previous post:

Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Cordoba: Mosque or Cathedral?

I confess that I don't know as much about Spain as I should. My Spanish is minimal (really just what sense I can make out based on French and Latin) and as a good Protestant agnostic, I was brought up believing that historical Spain was summed up by Francis Drake and the Spanish Inquisition, and with a sure and certain belief that modern Spain was populated simply by donkeys and workshy Mexican bandits. (My geography was as dodgy as my history.)

I've moved on enough to realize quite how idiotic that is, but one suspects that readers of The Guardian haven't. (Or at least Spain when coupled with the magic word 'Catholic' produces foaming at the mouth worthy of hydrophobic wolverines.) Hence an article [here] which explains how the awful Spanish Catholic Church is trying to be Islamophobic isn't probably going to be subject to much in the way of critical thought. Under the strapline:

Government of Andalusia says Diocese of Córdoba is ignoring site’s history as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians

the article continues

The site is now under the control of the diocese of Córdoba, which has begun referring to the site as the cathedral rather than the city council-approved name of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Andalusia’s minister for tourism Rafael Rodríguez told El País. “Hiding its past as a mosque is like calling the Alhambra the palace of Charles V – it’s absurd.”

Describing that attitude as fundamentalist, the United Left politician said the diocese appeared to be “prioritising religious beliefs over common sense and the natural history of the monument. It doesn’t seem either reasonable or acceptable to me.”

He said the regional authorities planned to raise their concerns with the diocese next week. “It’s an essential tourist site for Andalusia, the second most important after the Alhambra. It seems absurd that they are not exploiting all the possibilities for tourism due to religious reasons.”

[Link to article here]

Now I confess that I haven't done a lot of research to check this. So I'm very happy for those who have a greater knowledge of the affair to correct me in the combox below. But immediately, and based, as I said, on a fairly minimal knowledge of Spain, some 'issues' became obvious. For example, it strikes me as fairly implausible that since 1236 (when the 'mosque' was captured by Ferdinand III (yes, I can read Wikipedia), moving through (shall we say) some fairly fraught exchanges between the Catholic Church and Islam, not to mention the rather unecumenically minded Church under Franco in the twentieth century, that it was only now that the Church 'has begun' referring to the site as the Cathedral. And indeed, so far as I can make out from this El País article (here. Sp) it was in fact only ten years ago that Government of Andalusia dubbed it officially 'Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba'. Moreover, one might suspect, given the history of left wing anti-clericalism in Spain, that a United Left government is hardly likely to be free of its own anti-Catholic agenda.

Moreover, more extensive research (ie thirty seconds googling) found the (Church) website for the Cathedral (here). Indeed, it is called simply 'la Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba'. But the first words of the 'descripción breve' (short description here) are

La mezquita original se construye sobre la basílica visigoda de San Vicente ('The original mosque is built on the Visigothic basilica of Saint Vincent...')

which is hardly 'hiding its past'.

So what does this teach us? Firstly, beware of journalism in general. I picked up this story from some tweets (by people who should have known better) retweeting this with shocked horror. A moment's thought should have encouraged the suspicion that there is more to this than meets the eye. Secondly, beware of journalism about the Catholic Church in particular. Of course Catholics are going to be sensitive about calling a Church a Mosque: quite apart from the particular history of Spain, a Church for Catholics is the site where Christ is present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the reserved Sacrament. By all means mock us for that belief, but given it, don't be surprised at our sensitivities.

In essence, the story of the Mosque-Cathedral seems to be one where an anti-Catholic secularist party has tried to rebrand a working Church as a Mosque, in part to drag in tourists, in part (no doubt) to stick it to the Church. It is also a story of a greater Muslim push to get use of the Church as a Mosque (here). Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Euthanasia and psychoanalysis

The Assisted Suicide Bill in Scotland continues to chug its merry way through the Parliamentary process. According to the Parliament's website, oral evidence will go on being taken until the end of 2014 by the Health and Sport Committee. (I know. I can't help feeling that having a Sport Committee mulling over whether to kill people has oddly unpleasant science fiction resonances from films such as The Running Man. But modern, public Scotland is an irony free zone. We are Progressive and thus very busy about the world.)

The Care Not Killing petition is open: please sign here.

I've probably rabbited on about this before, but the decline of psychoanalysis in the British intellectual world fascinates me. From a position where everyone ('just everyone, darling!') was being psychoanalysed to one where no one seems to worry about their inner, deeper life and just gets on with it (badly). And it's not clear to me whether psychoanalysis was simply the last gasp of a better, more reflective world; or the beginning of a modern, less reflective culture where the inward is hollowed out in favour of getting and spending. Probably both...

Anyway, the French still love their Freud, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I found a thought expressed in the Francosphere that I'd been struggling to express for a while:

The worst thing is perhaps that a number of doctors will find in this extended medical omnipotence a compensation for the feeling of frustration in the face of illness, he adds. Having failed to master the illness, they will have the supreme power of deciding death...They would lose their soul: a doctor cannot be at the same time the person who works to save you and the person with the power to kill you.

[My translation. From here.]

I don't think it's just doctors, but euthanasia as the emotional compensation of control over death for the lack of control over illness is certainly most dangerous in their hands. There's a fascinating piece on the BBC website where several medical supporters of euthanasia bemoan the way that attitudes to doctors and end of life care have been affected by Harold Shipman. Indeed. But rather than reflecting on the very complex emotions that those with power have with respect to those who do not (and, one might add, particularly in the area of life and death), they seem oblivious to the dangers of the Shipman within us all, and , particularly, within doctors precisely in this area of euthanasia. This complete lack of self-exploration, the desire to do rather than reflect, this insensitivity to the depths of our feelings about power and death, all are evidence of why doctors -and indeed the health system- cannot be at the same time the person who works to save you and the person with the power to kill you.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Richard Harries and secularism

                                        Lord Harries. Or a secularist. Thinking.

I confess I hadn't realized that the House of Lords were debating 'religion and belief' until it was all over (Hansard here). Anyway, I'm going to focus on the contribution made by Lord Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, and particularly to his discussion of secularism.

Now despite the continual claim by secularists that secularism is a clearly good thing and that it's very different from atheism, I've posted enough on this subject in the past to make my own position (and the reasons for it) clear: 'secularism' is an ill defined word and, so far as it is actually used in modern Britain, it usually means atheism applied to the political realm. (Perhaps the main posts on this have been here and here. If you're an atheist, do try and deal with the arguments before coming on here to tell me I'm an idiot.)

Bryce Gallie came up with the term 'essentially contested concepts' (here) for terms that served as openings to debate. The flipside of that is the existence of 'essentially uncontested' words which serve to structure debate by closing it down. In Scotland, it is essentially uncontested that we are progressive. More generally, it is essentially uncontested that religions are faiths and that good government is secular. Well, I contest all of those, but let's focus on the latter claim as channelled by Lord Harries (from Hansard here).

...we need to be very careful about the use of that word secular. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, draws a helpful distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis. Programmatic secularism, however, has been perceived as an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether, and this must be resisted, for the public square is quite rightly a crowded place where all voices need to be heard, including religious ones. As often as not, those religious voices will be translated into the shared assumptions of public reasoning, but this should not be mandatory.


Thirdly, public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation. There are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community.

Fourthly, in a society in which we all have multiple identities, our identity as UK citizens imposes a duty to the state. While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.

Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down. Clearly, one feature of where we are now is the existence of an established church, and here of course I have to declare an interest as someone who has had the privilege and fulfilment of being a bishop in that church, serving society for my lifetime.

Let's kick off with that distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. Let's agree that programmatic secularism ('an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether') is wrong. What of procedural secularism?

The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis.

Well, contrarian as I am, why must I accept this? Let's start by cavilling at the word 'secularism' here. If the claim was: 'we must support a set of procedures etc that enable rational debate to take place etc and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis', I might (for might see below) be inclined to accept it. But to describe that as secular is (given the normal use of the word) profoundly misleading. The problem of course is that what is rational and what is equal (or more exactly fair) is highly contested: to bracket out religion from what constitutes fairness and rationality is to concede far too much without discussion. (For a fuller development of this thought, think eg Alasdair MacIntyre.) So by all means let's look for those rational and fair procedures, but let's not assume that they can be described as secular without a great deal of explanation. (Indeed, just to be provocative, let's at least consider the possibility that they have to be religious, at least in the sense of requiring the social cohesion of a civil religion.)

Let's move on to the third point: public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation. 

There's a bit of a non sequitur from the Bishop here: the claim 1) public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation is linked (in the next sentence ) to 2) there are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community. The two claims are in principle distinct. I suspect that, to put forward a coherent point,  what he should be saying here is that, when privileging religions, one should be careful not to encourage oppressive practices. But what it sounds like (and again, I suspect this is deliberate or at least the culpable negligence of the bien pensant eager for social approval) is that the existence of some oppression within religion means that no subset of religions should be given privileges over other religions. The absurdity of the latter claim is clear: whilst we should clearly be careful about reinforcing (say) FGM in some religions or cultures, that carefulness has absolutely no implications for the privileged role of (say) the Church of England in national life. (I would also mention here the weaseliness of the word 'oppression': I have no doubt at all that Lord Harries regards the exclusion of women from (ordained) ministry as oppression and, hence, the exclusion of most traditional religions from 'privilege' in principle as entirely justifiable: highly convenient, no doubt, for the sort of liberal Protestantism he embodies.)

Moving on to point four: While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.

OK. Point received. Nonsense. My loyalty to Catholicism is not simply to obey everything coming out of the Vatican. But equally, I do have a loyalty to a 'foreign power structure'. (And analogous things can be said about Jews and Muslims etc etc.) Inconvenient for Erastians, I know, but get over it: that's what proper religions are like.

Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down. 

Now, this I agree with!! To adopt 'secularism' as a 'essentially uncontested' term is to assume a rupture of pietas and tradition: the existing state (State and situation) of the UK is not one where there is a neat separation between Church and State (let alone between Christianity and the State). If secularism is adopted as an unproblematic aim, then, on almost any interpretation of the word (and certainly on any of the usual meanings chucked around by the secularist clubs), we would need to change and abandon traditional ways of doing things. So, we need to ask, why? On what grounds (and on what evidence) do we assume that changing the (rather lazy vague Protestantism) of Scottish and English history in favour of some Spartist atheism is going to benefit anyone? I'm sure there's some tweaking to be done (in particular to allow, eg, theists from a non-Christian background such as Muslims to participate fully and bring up their children in their religion). But my bet would be that those sorts of accommodations would be more easily obtained in a culture and a State run by Christians (say) signed up to Dignitatis Humanae

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.

than by the sort of secularist whose view of religion is summed up in the following (here)

The Cambridge Secular Society was formed in 2009 to provide a forum for likeminded freethinkers concerned that religion, far from being in terminal decline, is making a comeback. With the establishment still in the thrall of religion the reasons are easy to see, for the politicians it is the grovelling pursuit of votes that motivates them along with the misguided idea that religion is good for us and our children, for others it is the cosy familiarity of Bishops smothering us all with pious words and incantations of God's love...

'Secularism' is not a clear desideratum. Lord Harries is wrong to accept procedural secularism as an aim. Instead, we should aim for a public space and debate that is rational and just, but also accepting that what this means is not easy and will involve conflicting views. How we live with that conflict is what matters, and that will be more easily done within the sort of broad theism (I might even be tempted to say deism) that existed within the institutionalized Protestantism of the existing State than within the shrill certainties of secularism.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

First Sunday in Advent

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Stoic week and God

We're currently in the middle of Stoic Week (details here). It's an excellent idea and I wish all those participating in it all the best!

When I first read about it, I confess to feeling a little suspicious. Some of the material, frankly, seemed dumbed down cracker barrel philosophy. My contacts with previous online Stoicism had sensitized me to the way that the philosophy could be rewritten to exclude theism (of which more anon). On the other hand, I'm a fairly shameless popularizer: given the general state of Western Europe, getting people to read (eg) comic strip versions of Shakespeare seems to me a quantum leap forward in education, however far it falls short of the ideal of actually grappling with the real thing. The essential thing in popularization seems to me to be the absence of closure: it's important to make clear to the 'consumer' that this isn't the complete story, that there is further to travel and deeper to go. (Even if they don't actually make this journey, at least they should avoid the sense that they know it all. A little learning, provided it is accompanied by humility is a fine achievement. Richard Dawkins and his horde are a terrible example of what happens when it goes wrong.)

Anyway, leafing through the free (only for this week!) Kindle version of the course reader (here), it's clear that the authors have recognized some of these issues before me. An example of this is the debate on the place of God in Stoicism (here). I think this debate shows two things. First, there is a genuine issue about the place of God in Stoicism: there's not a straightforward answer. Secondly, and taking that first point more generally, however much you try and distil philosophical (ie proper) thought into a recipe book, there remains that intellectual incompleteness that (classically at least) is realized in the early, Socratic dialogues of Plato: living well requires a deep pursuit of wisdom that remains, at least in this world, incomplete and unfinished. (I'd say, as an aside, that Catholicism captures this incompleteness centrally through the notion of mystery: the possibility of plunging ever further into a intellectual depth that never ends. But that for another day.)

So what of God and Stoicism? It's important to remember that, for Catholics, the existence of God is not part of revelation, but of reason. In a rough way, classical philosophy represents a real life experiment: how much can you know of God before revelation? And so, for Catholics, it shouldn't be at all surprising that God keeps popping up in Greek and Roman philosophy: why wouldn't he given he is understood (incompletely but still importantly) by natural reason? And (part of the story at least) that's why Stoic Week (and other engagements with ancient philosophy) are good: they allow access to reasoning that has not been distorted (as has so much of modern thought) by a deliberate desire to make God unthinkable. Roughly, the Stoics and other ancients were content to follow the evidence where it led; and for most of them, it led to God.

Tim LeBon argues (here):

Mark Vernon blurs the issue by referring to “God” rather than Zeus in his article. The ancient Stoics did not believe in the Judeo- Christian God. The Stoic god is wholly impersonal – it is just nature, doing its thing. You can’t pray to the Stoic god.

There's a lot that needs to be said here if this were to be dealt with in full. First, the ancient Stoics (key ones anyway) did believe in the God of natural theology: the problem here is that modern atheists misunderstand the nature of the God of Catholicism and the God of ancient philosophy: neither believe in a Giant Nobodaddy throwing hissy fits; the Catholic does not believe in the Jehovah of the Latter Day Church of Snake Juggling any more than Epictetus believed in the Zeus of the peasant down the via. (For a bit on this, see previous blogpost here.)

Secondly -and this is trickier- the God proved by natural reason is still capable of eliciting an emotional, indeed personal, response. The way that the difference between deism and theism is often (imperfectly) explained (ie the former a belief in a rational watchmaker who creates and goes away; the latter a belief in a personal, caring God) somewhat conceals this. This is particularly important, I think, in understanding the Enlightenment. One common (atheist) narrative is that all your favourite Enlightenment figures were deists. And that deist really means: 'I want to exclude God as much as possible from the universe, but, because I was born too early/ am frightened by the Inquisition, I have to sneak the word in somewhere. (But really I'm an atheist.).' Whatever the case for some individuals, I think a truer portrait of many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment figures would be more like this: 'I have no truck with all the superstitious accretions of popular (ie Catholic) Christianity. But peel these away, and you find at the heart of the universe a loving, caring and rational God. That's the God that I adore and worship.' And that too is the God of most of the Stoics.

Now, as I've said, one of the keys to understanding deep thought is that it doesn't stop there. There is more to be said. More to be argued. Little that can be taken as a conclusive ending. But let me end (temporarily!) with two things. First, let me quote Long on Epictetus:

Epictetus' theological language betokens a personal belief and experience as deep and wholehearted as that of any Jew or Christian or Muslim. (Here, p145.)

Secondly, let me present in full Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus:

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.


So, happy Stoic Week. Enjoy meeting some of the finest minds of the classical world. And afterwards, dig further into the God of natural theology, find that rational principle which rules the world. (And don't forget to come back to the Catholic Church to find out, in full, what we can know about that God through his self-revelation in Jesus and his body, the Church.)

Friday, 21 November 2014

Blooming buzzing confusion

I'm still not sure if there is a word 'parachronicity' (or even if that is the word I want whether it exists or not). (I had a quick google search which, on a quick scan, threw up one PhD thesis. I suspect that means that it is not exactly colloquial even if it exists.) Anyway, I want a word that suggests the opposite (well, almost the opposite) of synchronicity: the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related. So the occurrence of two or more events that don't appear to be meaningfully related (but do, in a way to be discussed, produce meaning).

I've been relatively silent on the blog recently. Mostly, this is simply having a lot of (proper) work to do. But I'd be disingenuous if I didn't admit that the confusion of the Synod on the Family, the aftermath of the Independence referendum, as well as some personal experiences, the month of the dead and the serious illness of a member of the family haven't been in there in the mix. So that's the blooming, buzzing confusion...

And you can add into that the usual fizz of whatever I happen to have come across intellectually in the meantime. Let's pick something I came across this morning:

So where does the opposition to introducing philosophy into the curriculum at GCSE level come from? The people who are afraid of the open discussion of ideas are primarily those who are nervous whether their own faiths and dogmas will not survive scrutiny, and do not want the discomfort of finding that out. But such people are not really interested in one kind of education rather than another. They are the unimaginative forces of reaction and complacency – the enemies of education.

[Simon Blackburn -here]

Now, I don't have immensely strong views on whether there should be a GCSE (or the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence equivalent) in schools. But to the extent I had to give an answer, I'd probably be against it. I'm not against the open discussion of ideas, but (having children of that sort of age myself) I'm aware of the limitations of 'open' discussion at schools. You have the immense difference in power relationship between teacher and student. You have a a social climate which is very open to discussing some 'faiths and dogmas' and very closed to discussing others. You have the difficulty in finding teachers who are sufficiently wise to replace Socrates. You have the ignorance (inevitable) of the young. You have the limited sense of what 'philosophy' involves. (I'd be delighted to think that GCSE philosophy would involve disruptive interventions such as practicals in Iamblichean theurgy or studies of Heidegger's Nazism, but I suspect not...) It's all difficult enough in the context of a full time university degree in philosophy. But squeezed within schools?

I suspect what you'd get (in a phrase I've only just come across but which I intend using a lot) 'philosophes de service': philosophy put at the service of a certain complacent and 'modern'  worldview rather than a true, Socratic search for wisdom. It all reminds me of that ghastly sense which you sometimes (rather too often) get in the Catholic Church that every theologian you meet is a heretic. I wouldn't mind so much if these were intellectuals who sometimes, at least in the dark of the night, wondered if they might, just possibly be wrong. But too often it's some ghastly blend of magisterial phenomenology (compare its near relation, Oxbridge analyticism), a battering of words from which the student emerges dazed and able to be pointed in whatever direction the psychopomp has decided on. Much better, on the whole, I think, to let reality in and let the dearest freshness deep down things speak for itself: Shakespeare, Homer even science can provide a more reliable escape from Plato's Cave for the young...

A moan, then. But the odd thing from all this (and this is the parachronicity) is that I find myself quite unable not to be a Catholic. It's all ghastly, and yet, it's ghastly within that Catholic space. I find myself emotionally confused, and I pray. I find myself intellectually thrown around, and I read Aquinas. I fear death, and I picture myself dying holding onto a crucifix and the image of Our Blessed Mother. These are not so much remedies (in many ways they don't comfort but structure) as bedrock. One discovers, unexpectedly, that, at least for oneself, Charles Taylor is wrong:

Taylor might say: “I am uncertain and sometimes even uneasy about my own religious ‘construal.’ My doubts are only compounded when I realize how easily I could see the world differently. I do have a sense of God’s reality—it seems a compelling explanation of my personal experiences—but I’m not absolutely sure I’m right, especially when I consider the ‘construals’ of non-Christians, some of which are reasonable and which I could adopt without dramatically altering my life.”

[Matthew Rose on Charles Taylor: here]

We enter the world in medias res. We leave it the same way. However well we master a deep intellectual discipline -however well we master philosophy let's say- there is (or ought to be) an incompleteness. So where do we live out that incompleteness? Oh guess...

So 'parachronicity': that clash of events that makes life appear meaningless, and yet, oddly, highlights the meaningful space within which that meaninglessness takes place.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Love craft: homosexuality, misogyny and being locked in with pigs and cows.

This is going to be a bit icky...

Quite the most revolting thing I've read in a long time was this article by Patrick Strudwick in the Guardian on misogyny amongst gay males. Alongside the admission of a tendency among gay men to describe women's bodies in breathtakingly vile ways, it also does that very typical, nauseating male progressive thing of explaining why they're better feminists than everyone else...

Well, I'm not a progressive, not a feminist, and I'm not even going to bother pretending to be writing this blogpost as a white knight to protect women, something, certainly in this case, women can do better for themselves. (Strudwick's article really ought to be entitled: 'Shut up, Rose McGowan: as a gay man, I know more about women than you do.') This is purely going to be about men and their need for purification.

Although it's very common these days to be advised to 'check your privilege' (a task which numerous, privately schooled, Oxbridge educated successful media types have managed to do with the surprising result they've discovered they're actually more oppressed than plantation slaves), very few people these days bother to check their motivations. That's something that Catholics need to do before confession, and something that really ought to be built into our daily lives. (I've rather got out of the formal habit, but the practice of a daily examen is highly advisable.) On a more secular level, the abandonment of Freudian or Jungian psychotherapy as a major cultural influence in the West has also led to the forgetting that our motivations and indeed character of our actions (and indeed ourselves) is not something that lies on the surface but something that requires careful, constant exploration. Instead, we focus on the externals: the political structure of privilege. Do I have power? Am I part of an elite group? Even setting aside the omnipresence of delusion in answering these questions as illustrated by Strudwick's article, it leaves out the individual and the subjective: what am I doing? Why do I feel so strongly about this? What lies deep in my unconscious that I am denying? These are not easy questions and indeed they are probably not completable in our lifetimes. That, from a Catholic perspective is fine: it is the process of sanctification, probably completed only after our deaths and only by God's grace. But even putting aside the theology, it ought to be perfectly comprehensible to the most secular mindset that the rooting out of delusions, spotting, and then struggling to articulate ourselves are tasks that are essential and yet exist on the cusp of impossibility.

The relationship between women and men and, more particularly for present purposes, how men see women is probably one of the trickiest aspects of this tricky area of self-exploration.  (I would emphasize that in my experience women are just as prone to difficulties here as men, but I'll leave that for them to sort out.) It was perhaps unfortunate that reading Strudwick's article occurred for me at the time I have been in a bit of a Lovecraftian binge, but the combination of Strudwick's piscine fetish with Lovecraft's obsession with hidden horror and marine creatures has made for troubling insights. (Is Lovecraft all really just about fear of women and their cavities?) Male adolescents really don't quite know what to do with/about women (although they spend all their time trying to pretend to themselves and others they do). Frankly, I'm not willing -even under a veneer of anonymity- to go into all the details of my own inadequacies -past and present- in this area. But one that is both true and relatively funny is that I remember that while it seemed quite clear from the (massive) amount of biologically oriented sex education we had received that some sort of penetration was involved in intercourse, such a manoeuvre was clearly so utterly absurd that I concluded I had simply misunderstood and settled on the view that, whatever the precise physical details, the process was clearly more akin to target shooting from a distance.

This sort of physical unease is never entirely separable from a sort of moral queasiness. Old jokes about mother-in-law or wives as 'her indoors', 'the ball and chain' and so on, testify to a widespread male fear of loss of autonomy in domesticity. (And its recovery in the midlife crisis of new cars and running off with a woman marked as less threatening to autonomy economically and by her youth.) Perhaps this all comes together symbolically at least in the vagina dentata: a physical and a moral threat from the space within.

And so back to Strudwick and misogyny. His is a well worn tale: 99% of violence against women is by heterosexuals so they're the problem and we (the good gay men) are part of the solution. But here's the other way of putting it. What do you (me) really think about women? Why do you (and this time it is you) find them sexually unattractive? (And what is it to find someone sexually unattractive: some deep combination of the physical and the moral in my experience...) Why as a culture do we (majority heterosexuals) privilege that sort of camp male aggressiveness against women? What is really going on when we pretend (say) that Conchita Wurst is unproblematically a good, funny thing? (No question at all that he might be, oh, I don't know, taking the p*** out of women? Really? Sure? And the Freudian thing with the name?) Fishiness isn't simply a bizarre manifestation of a gay subculture: that mix of physical and moral queasiness towards women is typical of maleness in general, of which gay maleness is merely an aspect -and one peculiarly isolated from corrective female critical engagement.

                                                       Miss Sausage....

I don't pretend to know what individual gay men would find on pursuing this sort of internal questioning. I say that because, as I've said, what all men will find isn't exactly clear. (But if you've defined yourself as someone who -in some major, life structuring way- doesn't like women, I'd expect some interesting observations over a lifetime, wouldn't you?) But as far as a culture which celebrates precisely the sort of bitchy queenness that produces the vile physical attitudes he remarks on, why do we give it a free pass rather than seeing it as a typical part of a male difficulty in dealing virtuously with women? (And to which the major (albeit not only) solution is the lifetime commitment of matrimony -which is, of course, yet another victim of our culture's unreflective celebration of homosexuality and, unconsciously, the locking into the trench warfare of gender against gender.)

'O what was I doing when the procession passed?
Where was I looking? Young women and men
And I might have joined them.
Who bent the coin of my destiny
That it stuck in the slot?
I remember a night we walked
Through the moon of Donaghmoyne,
Four of us seeking adventure,
It was midsummer forty years ago.
Now I know
The moment that gave the turn to my life.
O Christ! I am locked in a stable with pigs and cows for ever.

[Kavanagh: The Great Hunger.]

Friday, 31 October 2014

Halloween and is spooky good?

I think I've confessed before to a weakness for a 'good' (ie utterly dreadful) horror film. One of the major causes of rows in our house is my insistence on checking out the 'Horror Channel' first in any assessment of a possible evening's viewing...

I'm not entirely sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing or a harmless eccentricity or what. I was reared (parents were entirely 'hands off' liberals in terms of TV and reading matter) on a diet in which Denis Wheatley figured quite heavily both in his novels and in the various film versions on TV. In my more reflective moments, I do wonder whether (or perhaps in what way) this early exposure to supernatural trash literature (and, I'm afraid, my abiding low taste in this area) links up to my conversion to Catholicism. (One can imagine Dawkins shaking his head sadly at yet another young life blighted by an indoctrination in the supernatural. He may have a point in this case.)

Our society is in the odd position of saturating the young in ghosts and vampires, and yet pleading a sort of ironic detachment from that obsession. For a culture which is ostensibly 'secular', the parade of werewolves and the like that rampage across (particularly) young adult entertainment is quite remarkable. Of course, we don't really believe it (do we?) but in many ways, an obsession that we don't really believe is more remarkable than one we do. The current popularity of Zombies (frankly, my least favourite form of the genre) perhaps represent naturalism hitting back. Unlike the supernatural world of ghosts and vampires (presenting difficulties for naturalism in survival after death, curses and odd powers  of physical transformation), Zombies are scary but simply the result of some sort of microbe.

Anyway, I'm basically torn between the thought that the survival of an interest in the supernatural is a reassuring sign of (albeit imperfect) resistance to secularity, and the thought that it's merely another aspect of the abandonment of Christianity, this time in favour of the demonic. Certainly, the sort of 'supernatural' that is the commonplace of this sort of culture isn't one that is subject to the overarching control of God (rather than gods or powers). The universe is not the Christian one where the ultimate reality is rationally consistent and moral, but rather the pagan one where competing very, but not absolutely, powerful entities compete for success. Paganism perhaps even has the advantage over the modern age of taking such entities seriously: if you think that the furniture of the world really contains demons and ghouls, you are, essentially, back in the position of the naturalist who has to explain why contingent things exist, and thus back into the proofs of natural theology. (Thor in metaphysical terms is no more surprising than an extremely fierce tiger.) Modern-paganism-for-entertainment postpones that sort of serious thinking by ironic handwaving: one lives as if one believes in these things but one doesn't need to think about them seriously as, really, one doesn't.

And the final complicating factor for Catholics is that here one is dealing with real malevolent entities and not just ideas. You may think an interest in the occult is just playing with ideas; the demons you address are under no such illusions. (I'll just give a few seconds for secularist readers to withdraw quietly now they recognize that I actually am sufficiently nuts to think that demons etc exist.) I frankly don't know what to say about that: if one looks back at Catholic culture at its mediaeval highpoint, there is clearly a relish and enjoyment in the portrayal of the demonic. Is it better to avoid any mention at all? Or is it better to mention but with the risk of fascination?

A mulling without any real conclusion. I go on reading horror stories and watching horror films, but sometimes with a slightly uneasy conscience. On balance, I'm rather in favour of Halloween and its popular celebrations provided that it's balanced by the proper celebration of All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, and the remembrance of the dead in November. Spooky and a fascination for spiritual danger is probably as natural as a fascination with physical danger. It's the danger of a lack of a correcting balance from the theism of organized religion that leads to the problems.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Welcoming gay orientation?

I was going to put aside any direct and general consideration of the Synod at least for the moment: as the Blessed Leonard Cohen said, 'It did some good/It did some harm.'

But the contrarian in me still wants to tackle one specific issue summed up in paragraph 50 of the relatio:

 Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing [...] them [...] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

I'll also couple that with the question of welcoming people who identify themselves under the description of 'gay'. Indeed, let's go for broke: I'm going to argue that we can and should 'accept and value' a gay orientation.

Before I get stuck into that, some ground clearing. 99.9% of the time you hear someone arguing that the Catholic Church should 'accept and value a gay orientation' it means something along the lines of that pushed by Martin Pendergast: the Catholic Church should simply accept active homosexuality as another valid expression of sexuality alongside heterosexuality. One reason many orthodox Catholics are hostile to a claim worded in the way I have ('we can and should accept and value a gay orientation') is that activists like Pendergast send up a cloud of words and theology which covers up a fundamental change in morality under a lot of fluff about valuing and welcoming. (Reading his latest article, you wouldn't/needn't find anything that insisted he be free to have sex with another man, but that is simply what he really means.)

So let's rule that out immediately: I'm not arguing that. I straightforwardly accept that any sexual action between the same sex or indeed outside marriage is sinful. And, as a result, 99.9% of the time, when claims such as 'we can and should accept and value a gay orientation' are made, in terms of the substance of the argument, I disagree. But although it would certainly be simpler -and perhaps often less misleading to stick with this rough and ready rejection- I think it's worth pushing a little deeper, in part to do justice to the 0.1% of times when you hear people who are genuinely not trying to undermine Catholic teaching by making the claim, and, perhaps more importantly, to extract the nugget of truth that is expressed on those occasions.

The Catechism (para 2358) says:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.

(It's also worth noting (just to get the ducks up in a line) that para 2359 refers to 'homosexual persons'. That's worth stressing because it's sometimes argued that describing yourself as having a homosexual identity is, in itself, wrong, rather than (say) describing yourself as having (or even 'suffering from') same sex attraction.)

Two aspects then:

1) Is the substitution of the word 'gay' for 'homosexual' a change to be avoided?
2) Is it right to accept and value a gay/homosexual orientation?

On 1), I'm beginning to think that insisting on 'homosexual' rather than 'gay' in every context is beginning to be distracting. The Catechism -as noted- mandates the use of the phrase 'homosexual persons'. Now that perhaps is where the objections should be made: I'm not at all convinced that talking about 'homosexual persons' (or indeed heterosexual persons) doesn't essentialize an identity which is purely accidental. But, from the Catechism, that boat has already sailed. And if it's a toss up between 'homosexual persons' or 'gay people', I think that in many situations (not all), insisting on using 'homosexual persons' is beginning to make you sound flaky: rather like insisting on calling women 'the ladies' (or that use of 'homosexualists' that certain loons used to go in for about a decade ago). (Indeed, the ill motivated might well point out that, judging from my children's peer group, since the ordinary meaning of 'gay' is 'a bit rubbish', it's rather their look out if homosexuals insist on using the term...)

Anyway, putting that question aside, can a 'gay/homosexual orientation' be rightly accepted and valued? And there I think we have a truly difficult issue. IF (and let's stick with 'gay'), IF 'a gay disposition' just means a disposition to commit sinful acts with a member of the opposite sex, then it clearly can't be valued/welcomed in itself. (But even there, it might bring you into situations where, as an accidental consequence, good came of it: you might fall in love with a man who ran a Catholic charity for example, and thus end up getting involved in its good works.)

But does it just mean that? I rather dislike the use of 'heterosexual orientation', but, if one accepts it as a legitimate usage, it surely means more than just wanting to have sex with women. It involves finding women attractive,and that means valuing certain aspects of female physiology and psychology. Equally, finding the same sex attractive involves more than just an inclination to copulation. Moreover, if we do stick with 'gay', it has got aspects that are even wider than homosexual/heterosexual. What precisely these are is difficult to pin down (we shouldn't assume that there is a neat definition for every English word). But it certainly has connotations which go beyond 'wanting to have sex'. In fine, to gave a 'gay orientation' is more than just wanting to have sex with your own gender; and to that extent, it is possible to value and welcome that orientation. (And, a fortiori, it is of course clearly right to welcome gay people: that simply isn't in question. The only question is whether that welcome directly extends to their orientation.)

The above is really all quite theoretical and, to orthodox Catholics, probably looks like a silly attempt to wriggle into a less countercultural position, while, to non-Catholics, probably looks like a scholastic analysis of beating puppies to death. So let's get concrete. When I look at Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, it strikes me as clearly as anything can that a) their relationship made them both the artists they were; and b) Britten's homosexuality, in particular, deeply affected his work. Now I suppose one can imagine a *Pears-Britten couple which is identical to the real Pears-Britten couple, except that they make the changes to meet Catholic teaching. (So they could live together, but in a chaste friendship etc.) I think I can imagine that (indeed, one might actually wonder quite how important the sex act was in the partnership certainly as they grew older). But still one would want to say, would one not, that their love for each other and the orientation that made it possible were valuable precisely because they weren't and wouldn't be just about the desire to have sex with that other person?

[Having thought about this after drafting, I'd add that the one question the modern mind fails to ask -or rather just assumes the answer is going to be copulation- is what are friendships objectively for?  (Within the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, you have the general choices of bonum simpliciter, delectabile and  utile (Aquinas' Commentary on the Ethics -ad 1538): ie the good simpliciter, the pleasurable and the useful.) The Pears-Britten friendship is for the sake of art; the (Catholic) heterosexual marriage is for the sake of procreation. Both aims take the participants towards the transcendent good. God help either heterosexuals or homosexuals who answer 'sexual pleasure'. And that is to say, God help most of us trapped in the secular mindset.]

I think this sort of line of thought is what the Synod was (or at least should be) striving for. But it is dependent on a corresponding clarity: an orientation towards love for one's own sex isn't a bad thing, indeed can be a good thing, precisely so long as it contains elements that go beyond the sex act. An orientation towards love for the other sex isn't a bad thing, precisely so long as it contains elements that go beyond the sex act, although here, provided it is open to procreation, this too can be redeemed. It's that clarity which is lacking and, given past performance particularly from many Western churches, is unlikely to reappear even, indeed, especially, if a pastoral approach is developed which allows the above valuing of a gay orientation. The modern Western Church just doesn't do fine distinctions any more, certainly not in the parishes. From that point of view, it might just be better to stick with an unsubtle rejection of the orientation rather than offer an unsubtle welcome holus-bolus...?

In the end, this all goes back to the idea that 'finding someone sexually attractive' is self interpreting. Well, it hasn't been for me. (I can think of lots of occasions in my youth where I hadn't been sure what I felt about a woman: not (just) because of a lack of self-awareness, but also because the distinctions between different types of interest in another just really aren't clear (ontologically as well as phenomenologically one might say).) In particular, sexual attraction doesn't come in a neat compartment separate from attraction tout court. If someone has a tendency to find their own sex attractive, that isn't reducible to simply sexual attraction. And even sexual attraction isn't simply reducible to wanting sex. That bundle of confusions is at least a big a problem in our society as anything to do simply with homosexuality.

[And a final post drafting thought. When did bishops and priests become just pastors? The Church has always been a teacher -a Rabbi- as well as a prophet: both require clear effective speech in the public sphere. Protestant Churches -particularly the national ones- often have built into their DNA the Erastian idea that they're there merely to comfort citizens after the State has done all the really important cultural stuff like legislation, education etc. When did Catholics buy into that nonsense?]

Friday, 17 October 2014

Odd sins and synods

                              Flock of Cardinals. (Seems to contain a few wrong 'uns.)

Oh, I've really got little idea what to say about the Synod. Over the week, I've found myself going backwards and forwards: wanting to think it's all right (and so retweeting soothing tweets from soothing others); and then getting worked up a little (so retweeting apocalyptic announcements based on 6th century Irish sources); and then.... Well, you get the point.

As an individual Catholic, I've long come to the conclusion that's there's no point in getting worked up by the daily news cycle: the frenetic need for novelty and emotion is simply bad. Nothing worthwhile is achieved. Perhaps the greatest (and worst) change since my childhood is the abandonment of Sunday closing and the tendency to shut shops for a half day on Wednesdays. We need (regularly) to do nothing. Bring back the Sabbath.

But as a key Catholic commentator with a worldwide audience sometimes reaching into double figures, I realize that this is shirking my responsibilities. And so...

There are a couple of different aspects that struck me. First, there is the politicization of the process. Something that's striking me more and more is the absolute mystery of the individual's journey to God (or just truth). You can't (eg) institutionalize Socrates: the whole point of his prodding and maieutics was to get people to live out that journey themselves. Now this is of course the substance of (especially) the Eastern Orthodox attacks on Catholicism: that it tends to turn the mystery of faith into a bureaucratic process. (Think Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.) Turning to the Synod, the process of lobbying, preparation of papers etc, just seems to be making a category mistake: whatever will bring people to God, it won't be this sort of committee meeting and position papers.

Now, I'm completely unconvinced by the general attack on Catholicism from this direction. (You need the ability to be clear and even bureaucratic to exist effectively in the world.) On the other hand, in this case, I do wonder what on earth is expected from this Synod: is there some magic formula that will reverse the decline in religious practice when serious Catholics such as Louise Mensch in irregular relationships have already found a way through under the present system? This isn't a bureaucratic problem to be solved by committee but a problem of attitude. The problem is existing in societies which are no longer Christian and even positively anti-Christian: of course that makes living out Christian teachings more difficult, but no tinkering with admission/exclusion from Communion will alter that fundamental fact. (There was a similar sort of pretence about the possibilities of bureacratic process with the vox pop surveys that preceded the Synod (my previous post). We pretended they mattered but really they were the sort of dismal process that bureaucracies indulge in, and which require that everyone pretends to think them important whilst knowing they are useless. Think setting out transferable skills for academic courses.)

One other aspect that struck me is that I was totally unsurprised by some of the liberal posturings that came out of the Synod. It really can't be a surprise that we have a Church where (some? many?) Bishops sound like liberal Protestants. Anyone who's lived in the Catholic Church in the West knows this is the state we're in. It is, moreover, something that exists in all parts of the hierarchy. (The conclusion I draw from Father Lucie-Smith's reflection that the Synod only repeats what he was taught by theologians at the Gregorian is that the rot existed there as well. But again, really, are we surprised at that?)

What we have here is a crisis of one type of authority in the Church: that of the hierarchy. The Synod exists because lay Catholics won't listen to the teachings of the Church with docility if they clash with their secularized consciences. The Synod has got into trouble because an increasingly more theologically aware body of practising Catholics won't accept the sort of back of an envelope theology that Anglicans have specialized in since the sixties. At one level, that might suggest that the Catholic Church is caught in a terminal bind: since its main 'attraction' for such refugees from secularity as me is precisely its claims to supernatural authority, the loss of trust in the representatives of that authority surely means an end to its USP? Perhaps. But let's try a different view. Docility towards the hierarchy has always been one element in the Church's package of authority. It has operated, for example, in conjunction with the development and articulation of doctrine, and the examples and teachings of Doctors and Saints. We have never simply obeyed Bishops; we have always to some degree looked to the other elements of authority. To take Vatican II at its word (and to take St John Paul II's emphasis on that personal element in theology) modernity has seen a rebalancing of that complex interaction of authority away from the persons of the hierarchy towards a reliance on other sources (of which, perhaps, the Catechism is symbolic). If that is the case, Bishops etc need to recognize that they are becoming less important than they once were. (Which is not to say that they are unimportant.) Instead of trying to sort it out via a Synod, why not point away from themselves, towards an encouragement of the laity to engage with St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis, St John Paul etc etc? (Or even pray a little more??) )

So, in modernity, we have to do it for ourselves. But that doesn't give us carte blanche to find authority wherever we like. Every time a progressive Catholic stands up, Bishop or laity, ask them where they think more authority lies: in the Summa, or in feminism? In the whining of secularized Westerners, or in the lamentations of the psalmist? I'm not a great fan of ressourcement as a twentieth century concrete phenomenon. But the essential idea is fine. Whom do you trust for your authority? Saints or sinners? Yourself, or the holy men and women who have gone before you?

Monday, 13 October 2014

In memory of Richard Collins


Having once been at a funeral where the distraught wife had to spend much of her time comforting a complete stranger who'd managed to get swept up in the feelings of the occasion, I'm conscious of not wanting to pretend to anything other than a marginal connection with Richard. My main purpose here is simply to offer my prayers for the repose of his soul and for the comfort of those who were close to him.

However, I have always felt an odd link to Richard and his blog, Linen on the Hedgerow. His was one of the first Catholic blogs I read and I have gone on reading it regularly. He was one of my earliest followers and we have exchanged friendly comments over the years. It sounds like little -and indeed, in the wider scheme of things, it is. But a few friendly words and attention from a more established figure can mean a lot when you're starting to expose yourself to the public, and I've remained grateful for that support.

There were two aspects to his blog that always struck me. (Well, actually three: I always thought it was a terrific title for a blog!) First was that sense of anger (or perhaps sadness?) for those years after Vatican II when good, ordinary Catholics found the traditions of the faith ripped out of their hands. Perhaps I wouldn't put it exactly like that, but I think Richard would or near enough. And his perspective reminded me of all those people I have talked to over the years who have stories to tell of Church furnishings sitting in skips waiting to be taken away, or priests who have wrecked parishes by wilful eccentricity (a euphemism). It's easy for a convert like me to ignore those wounds, but they're there and they're real.

Secondly, we seemed to share a devotion to Blessed Miguel Pro (see here for some of his posts on this). Quite apart from the personal qualities of this martyr, the photographs of his death are, for me, some of the most moving images of sanctity I have ever come across. I'm extremely disorganised in my devotions as in  much else. But I could rely on Richard's annual posts to remind me of his feast day.

My prayers for and best wishes to his family and friends.

Beate Michael Pro, ora pro eo.
Requiescat in pace.

[The image of Richard Collins has been downloaded from the blog, Ora Pro Nobis.]

[Update: Mary O'Regan's appreciation of Richard is really lovely: here]

Friday, 10 October 2014

Spinning straw into gold (or gold into straw)

                                       Definitely not a bishop on a pastoral visit

About this time in the year, I find myself heartily sick of my own voice (and thoughts): I pity those who have to listen to me without the (slight) comfort of actually being me.

Aquinas is supposed to have compared his work to straw after a mystical experience. I suppose the usual way of understanding this remark is that everything looks rough in comparison with a glimpse of heaven. But it might be taken as simply sober reality: 99% of our time is spent with straw, and there is nothing much to be done or complained of about that. So I comfort myself with the thought that my strawiness is simply the human condition rather than some particular failing of my own, and that even straw has its place in the world.

Countercultural Father's (as usual excellent) take on Bishop Conry reminded me of the mood which settled on me after the Cardinal O'Brien affair. It's less the one off failing of this or that particular priest which is so dismaying, but the suspicion that it is in some sense typical: that the failing of a particular bishop is part of a wider and general failing in the Church. And when you add to that worries about (shall we say?) the moral fibre of the papacy or the Synod on the Family, it is very easy to start seeing the modern Church as rather more strawlike than it should be.

Being a nasty, petty minded Anglo-Saxon empiricist, I tend to avoid the longue durée. But I think there's at least something to be said for seeing the Middle Ages as being a constant struggle by the Church to hold out for the true, the beautiful and the good against a bunch of murderous Germanic warlords. If seen from the point of view of a handful of missionaries plonked in the middle of societies that regarded rape and pillage as the height of workaday fun, the Middle Ages seem less a period of sad decline and stagnation between the Glory of Rome and the Renaissance, and a really quite remarkable triumph of patient, Godly persistence in the face of a world of brutality.

And fast forward to the twenty-first century. For all the (correct) cavilling about whether or not we live in a Christian society, in substance, it's clear we don't. Catholicism is a handful of missionaries in a society of Hottentots. (I apologize to Hottentots.) That its successes are few, that many of the 'converts' are lukewarm and sneak off to their ancestral spirits, that many of the missionaries give up and take on the colour of the society about them: this is all to be expected and can be mirrored by similar histories of similar missionary endeavours. Just as the mediaeval Church took on many of the bad habits of the warlords, so the modern Church has taken on the bad habits of the lotus eaters we live among (and indeed are). That isn't an argument for complacency in the face of backsliding and inadequacy, but it is an argument for resolute persistence. All flesh is straw: God makes it into gold. (And we do our best to turn that gold back into straw.)

The only really remarkable thing is that, if you look, you do still find gold. The Catholic intellectual who succeeds in retaining his integrity in a secularized academy. The Catholic musician who succeeds in bringing the transcendent to an audience drugged on love ditties. The Catholic mother who fights to keep holiness in her family. And -not as uncommon as it should be really if we were going by earthly probabilities- the priest who, day after day, really does incarnate Christ for his flock.

Most of us are straw, most of the time. But not everyone, not always. And that's the surprise.