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.