Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Archbishop elect Leo Cushley and humility

                                                     Sackcloth and ashes?

     Based on my absolute ignorance of any relevant details, the appointment of Monsignor   Cushley as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh sounds like a good choice: in particular, his status as a Scot who is sufficiently distant from the Old Spanish practices of the Scottish Church to view them with objectivity seems to strike the right balance between the local and the universal Church.

The secular media in Scotland seem keen to offer their helpful advice to the new Archbishop. The Scotsman's reaction was fairly typical:

The issue is primarily one of tone. But a more realistic appreciation of the role of the Church in contemporary Scottish society might also be worth considering.

Homosexuality is, perhaps, a useful example. The vituperative language used by senior clergy in the debate about gay marriage has shocked many lay members of the faith, and some clergy, too.

Of course, the Church has its doctrines. But the Church also has a duty of pastoral care to all Catholics, including gay Catholics who might understandably have felt under siege as this debate has developed.

There must, at best, be a question mark over whether that duty of pastoral care has been honoured in some of the highly inflammatory language used by senior clergy in this debate.

Many ordinary Catholics – perhaps more than the Church hierarchy would be willing to admit – are relaxed about the issue of gay marriage in secular Scottish society. And many are, frankly, dismayed at the apocalyptic tone struck by some senior clergy in discussing this proposed legislation.

Mgr Cushley might be wise to ask himself if a less hectoring tone might be in order. Perhaps, in public pronouncements, he will consider taking his lead from the tone set by the new Pope. In the short time he has been Bishop of Rome, the statements to date from Pope Francis have been characterised by a refreshing new sense of humility, both in terms of himself and his Church.

Let's focus on the 'gay marriage' debate. It's a perfectly reasonable question to ask whether the Church's strategy in that debate has been the right one simply on the grounds that we're not going to stop same sex 'marriage'. The strategy didn't work and we should learn whatever lessons can be learned from that.

But here's the rub. The Church thinks that it has the God given duty to proclaim moral truths to societies:

The Church, the "pillar and bulwark of the truth," "has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.". "To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls."


The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God. (paras 2032 and 2036 Catechism).

Unlike some strands of Protestantism which view themselves as a gathered people, separated from the pollution of those among whom they dwell and living in a special covenant with God, the Catholic Church believes that it is simply entrusted with the care of all humanity: it cannot let people go to hell in a handcart without doing its best to save them.

This of course makes Catholics troublesome neighbours, particularly in a society, such as Scotland, which has not been Catholic for around five hundred years, and which nowadays  is not really Christian either.

It's not easy to reconcile these high claims of authority and duty with getting a bunch of highly secularized political and media types to like you: there may be a 'tone' which will get through, but it's not obvious what that tone might be. I suspect that The Scotsman really means that Catholics should just shut up and be grateful that we're allowed to live in Scotland. Or perhaps that we should adopt the strategy of Father Ted and Father Dougal in simply going through the motions of a protest while letting everyone know that our hearts aren't really in it.

                                               We're only having a larf, after all...

Archbishop Elect Cushley will of course be eagerly awaiting Lazarus's advice on how to resolve this dilemma. Frankly, I haven't the foggiest except that we need to keep trying to get the full religious depth of Catholicism 'out there' so that it doesn't seem that the religion is simply cobbled together out of a few old inconsistent prejudices rather than being a coherent worldview, and that we don't rely on just one style or tone of presentation: we need to aim for an octopus like effect where different tentacles work to find different gaps in the non-Catholic world's receptivity. Perhaps the biggest danger is less too harsh a tone than a lack of clarity. It's right to talk about the need to fully accept homosexuals as fellow human beings, but that can't be at the expense of articulating truths about human nature and society. In the end, a lack of clarity breeds confusion and expectations that, like many Protestant churches, the doctrine will eventually be changed. The disappointment and hostility that follows such misplaced hopes is, in the end, much more damaging to the Church than the perception that we're a bit nasty.


Monday, 22 July 2013

Killing Scotland to build Scotland

                                    John Erskine -sky fairy aficionado (and homophobe)

In 1603, James VI inherited the English throne. The monarchy left Edinburgh for London for good. Parliament followed in 1707. Scottish national identity coalesced around the two remaining great institutions – the Law and the Church. (Here.)

One's tempted to add critically discuss to the above passage, but it's a thought that's been both commonplace and has a certain obvious truth to it: in the period following the Union of Parliaments in 1707 and up to the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the public face of Scotland -and a face with real clout and status- was seen in the separate Scottish legal system and the separate Scottish Presbyterian Church. Moreover, there has been at times a certain narrative floating around in Scottish life that Scottish public culture is characterized by a certain intellectual rigour, a tendency to argue from principles and to think systematically; and moreover that this tendency allows Scotland to be part of European intellectual culture in a way that our poor, deprived English neighbours, condemned to empiricism and ad hoc pragmatism cannot. Specifically, this general tendency in Scottish life is embodied in a Church that looks to Continental Geneva for a rigorous, systematic Calvinism rather than the messy political compromises of Anglicanism, and a legal system that looked to Roman Law and Leiden for a reasoning from first principles rather than the English Common Law practice of simply following previously decided cases.

Like most narratives, you could live out several academic careers picking it to pieces and building it up again. But it has enough truth for it not to be completely dismissed. Moreover, it has been a potent narrative, one that ran through a great deal of twentieth century Nationalism, and has had wider influence beyond the strict bounds of that movement.

Fast forward to 2013. In a recent article, Gerry Hassan rejoiced in the triumph of gay rights in Scotland:

Today Scotland is not a land of milk and honey, but in terms of gay rights we live in a different world. This needs to be widely recognised and understood because it tells us some important things about ourselves.

This is a land which gave power and status not so long ago to moral authoritarians and guardians who were our elect and elders, whether family, friends or church. It was a place where people were worried, anxious and felt diminished by authority, and perhaps even more insinuously, always felt they needed to look over their shoulder, worrying about the criticism or scorn of others.

Modern Scotland is a very different place: diverse, messy, pluralist and one in which authority is increasingly being more questioned and challenged.

This is Jetsonism is in full flight: the belief that the future will be shiny and full of rocket cars (but with the sad truth that really all you have produced is a second rate version of the Flintstones). There is a strain in modern Scottish politics and cultural life that erects Scotland on the grave of Scotland: only by killing off what characterizes Scotland can we be truly Scotland. And so Hassan talks about 'the dark place we have come from' as though it was all bad and that it will be all good. This juvenile optimism is the general problem. But specifically it attacks the two elements of the intellectual narrative I sketched above: the Kirk and Scots Law.

The case with the Kirk is clear enough. Instead of being an intellectual powerhouse which kept Scotland in the mainstream of European culture, it becomes merely an outpost of the Quivering Brethren. The case of Scots Law is more complex. Instead of a system which prides itself on principled reasoning based on sources within Roman Law and Natural Law, it becomes -what? A quaint set of customs, to be distinguished from Anglo-Saxon Common Law by some amusing details? A system based on Platonic reasoning which owes nothing to more concrete sources of jurisprudence? I don't think I've seen a single reference to either Roman Law or Natural Law in the pro-same sex 'marriage' side's arguments. Tactically, it's not surprising. Whilst the anti-SSM side has referred constantly to Natural Law, there's very little, either in Roman Law or the tradition of Natural Law, to provide comfort for the pro-SSM side:

The law of nature is that law which nature teaches to all animals. For this law does not belong exclusively to the human race, but belongs to all animals, whether of the air, the earth, or the sea. Hence comes that yoking together [conjugatio] of male and female, which we term matrimony; hence the procreation and bringing up of children.  (Justinian's Institutes. Lib. I, tit. II.)

If we turn to more directly authoritative sources of Scots Law such as Erskine's Institute, Jetsonists will have to hold their noses from the very beginning:

The word law is frequently made use of, both by divines and philosophers, in a large acceptation, to express the settled method of God's providence.

Having struggled past that, we find:

That there is such a law [ie Natural Law] cannot be denied without denying the essential attributes of the Deity.

Finally, we arrive at:

The relation between husband and wife is constituted by marriage; which may be defined, after the Roman Lawyers, the conjunction of man and woman in the strictest society of life until death shall separate them. (Book I, Title VI).

In other words, it's quite clear that, if you were going to take seriously Roman Law and Natural Law as sources, same sex 'marriage' would be extremely tricky to justify to put it mildly. But it's odd that this abandonment of the specificities of the Scottish legal and intellectual tradition has gone almost unnoticed.

You might have thought that, in the midst of possibly the greatest opportunity Scottish national pride has had to reassert itself politically, there would be a corresponding cultural revival. You might not expect everyone to be running around proclaiming a revival of interest in the Scottish intellectual tradition -Roman Law, Scholastic Calvinism etc- but you might expect some to be doing so. You might expect some glimmer of interest in how, say, the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers would have dealt with current issues of fundamental human concern such as marriage. But, of course, as soon as you actually go back and look at what they really say, unless you confine yourself to the atypical Hume, you bash into Natural Law and Roman Law and God. And we can't be having that now, can we?

But never mind. It was a 'dark place' after all.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Identifying as another species

                                                          Respect my rights....

Lazarus' no 1 rule of human existence is that, if you can imagine someone doing it, someone is doing it.

Mrs L. consistently complains about my liking for the wilder corners of the Sky TV package. However, in her inability to appreciate such gems, she recently missed the showing of 'I think I'm an animal', [update 10/11/14: original link dead; try here] a documentary about Therians or Otherkin.

Otherkin (aka Fairth, Metahuman, and sometimes overlapping with Vampires and Furries) are those people who believe themselves to be spiritually and/or physically other than human. 

In the documentary, we met a number of Otherkin:

Ben and Kimberly are a young British married couple, and like many young married couples they are saving up to buy their own place, and enjoy socialising with their friends. But unlike most young married couples, Ben and Kimberly share their bodies with the spirit of a wolf. They are  Therianthropes a growing new sub-culture of humanity who believe they are in some way an animal. I Think I'm an Animal explores the world of human animals, and meets the people who inhabit an animal identity, revealing the truth behind this mysterious and bizarre community. 

Now, it's easy to mock, and neither I nor the documentary can be accused of exactly avoiding this pitfall. (I particularly enjoyed the caller to the Otherkin phone in show, who started off along the lines of, 'Hi, I'm Robin. I'm a red and brown German Shepherd, bisexual, and I'm having problems with my parents.') The less po-faced among you might have appreciated the additional layers of complexity added by three of the main people featured in the film who (as well as being a raccoon, a wolf and a leopard) were in a gay, polyamorous relationship (tad risky for the raccoon, perhaps?). But quite apart from not wanting to poke  with sharp sticks what generally appeared to be fairly harmless but confused individuals, the programme raised questions about identity and nature that our society is particularly ill-resourced to deal with.

For example, the identification as being Otherkin is often phrased in such a way as to avoid any obviously false factual claims. One possibility (embraced by Otherkin) is:

My psychology has developed in such a way that I have a powerful link with a certain totem animal. The link has become so strong that I effectively am that animal.

This is coupled with a typically modern pragmatic emphasis:

New otherkin shouldn't worry too much about figuring out why they're otherkin, since there are far more pressing matters - not the least of which is determining with reasonable certainty whether or not one is otherkin at all.

It's hard not to think that the Scottish Government has missed a trick here. Since we're trying to brand ourselves as a progressive, modren country, why haven't we recognized the important needs of this misunderstood community and taken steps to institute polyamorous, transpecies marriage? We'd be ahead of the curve on this one. More exactly, assuming that this phenomenon is an example of the 'queer' Q in LGBTQI, why should the entire focus of the current debate on same sex 'marriage' be focused just on the needs of the homosexual community, rather than on providing social support for queer identities such as transpeciesism? As I've argued before, if you've signed up to the LGBTQI agenda, the slippery slope isn't just a questionable factual claim, it's a moral imperative.

(By the way, posting and comment moderation will be slow over the next few weeks as I trot off to annoy other parts of the world. Please bear with me.)

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

We shall fight them in the combox....

                          Fifteenth century Dawkinsians reasoning with a receptive audience

I started this blog about eighteen months ago in part as a reaction to having spent far too many hours scrapping in comboxes with various opponents over topics such as Pope Benedict's visit to Scotland and assisted suicide. My thought was that it would be better to put much of my output into a more stable form on a blog, where I would also be able to put up pieces of a greater length which were not ad hoc reactions to current events. With the approach of same sex 'marriage' legislation and the Independence referendum I could see that the need for Catholic commentary would be increasing and I didn't really think that combox scraps were the best way of reacting to this need.

Well, I think broadly that was right, but I do still get stuck into the comboxes occasionally. The Catholic Herald tends to attract mobs of single minded Dawkinsians who descend on the website at odd intervals to explain, belligerently or with sad condescension, that Catholics are a bunch of deluded/moronic sheeple, and, if only we could be troubled to read chapter 4 of The God Delusion, we'd realize that everything we'd ever read in Aquinas or MacIntyre or Anscombe or Geach or Haldane or Finnis was well wrong and we'd be able to stop ruining the world and have better sex instead.

Now, there are a number of issues relating to such mobbing. Should it be ignored or responded to? If we should respond to it, should we respond nicely or should we respond aggressively or sarcastically? Many academic studies of cyberreligion emphasize nice post-mo things such as fluidity and interractivity. But there's also a place for looking at much cyberreligion as being characterized by rather more un-PC metaphors such as 'besieging', 'colonization', 'territory' and 'invasion'.

It's perhaps not totally unexpected that an orthodox Catholic tends to see the world, even that very modern online one, in terms more appropriate to the Middle Ages than to postmodernism. But the behaviour of cyberatheism is very difficult to describe in any other ways. Perhaps because I was an atheist and perhaps because I've left my basement enough to encounter a few people, I don't think I've ever thought that the lines between religion and atheism neatly follow the lines of thick/smart, uneducated/educated. If I were ever tempted, as an atheist, to think that all Catholics were bead rattling old ladies, then my illusions didn't last much beyond the first few pages of wrestling with Anscombe. Or if now I delude myself that atheists are simply Dawkinsian blowhards, reading (say) Bernard Williams would quickly put me right. This strikes me as so obvious, that it's very tempting to dismiss the plagues of frankly pretty moronic comments that appear on the Catholic Herald site as simply the usual noise of the internet, and to ignore them.

So, on the one hand: the comments are silly, ignore them just as you ignore the drunk shouting on the top of the bus. But on the other....

I'm not sure that the internet can be described without using spatial metaphors. And given that, some parts of it seem like home. There are some sites which I think of as my own or as part of a close family relationship: when, for example, I visit the Catholic Herald site, I expect to meet like minded people looking at articles of interest to us both. If I visit the Dawkins' Foundation for Sniggering at Sky Fairies, it's a bit like walking into a pub in a strange, rather rough side of town: if I'm polite, quiet and drink my pint with reasonable haste and leave, I might escape without getting a kicking. (But probably won't.) And then there are other sites, like The Scotsman, which are public space and, even, space where a certain ritualized agon is expected.

As home territory, I don't really like it when hordes of ill mannered oafs barge in and start vomiting over the furniture. Sometimes, prudence may involve withdrawal, but, in principle, there doesn't seem anything wrong in screaming angrily at them. That of course doesn't mean it's always a good idea. In particular -and this is something that disgruntled atheists often refer to when they meet a less than friendly welcome- is it Christian? And perhaps -and this is something I worry about rather more- is it effective in 'getting the message out there'? (If you   ridicule someone, is it likely that you're going to convince them of the plausibility of your beliefs?)

On the point -is it 'Christian'?- I see nothing in either Catholic theology or the history of the Church to suggest that sharp replies are not sometimes in order. As far as effectiveness is concerned, Ed Feser is particularly good on this:

There are, first of all and most importantly, a lot of people both on the religious side and on the fence who are so impressed by the absurdly self-confident rhetoric and apparent prestige of the New Atheists that they suppose there must be something powerful in their arguments, and this supposition will remain even after one has patiently explained the defects in their books. Sometimes, “breaking the spell” of a powerful rhetorical illusion requires equal and opposite rhetorical force (if I can borrow Dennett’s phrase). When you treat an ignorant bully arguing in bad faith as if he were a serious thinker worthy to be engaged respectfully, you only reinforce his prestige and maintain the illusion that he might be onto something. You thereby make it easier for people to fall into the errors the bully is peddling....

I also think people overstate the extent to which atheist readers will be put off. Some atheist readers, sure. But there are also atheists whose confidence in atheism is largely sustained by the vigor and self-confidence of the people on their side coupled with the timidity, defensiveness, and halfway-apologetic responses of some people on the other, religious side. To see people from the religious side hitting back with equal force and exposing certain prominent atheists not merely as mistaken, but as ignorant and foolish, can shock some of these atheist readers out of their complacency.

In engaging with an increasingly secularized society with diminished numbers of Catholics, there is a temptation to turn to simplistic solutions: if we just do this or that, then everything will be all right. In reality, you have to do everything, engage in every way and in every place you can. Combox scraps, in one sense, are a relatively unimportant part of this engagement. But the alternatives to them are, I think, even worse. If the comboxes of a  Catholic newspaper either become so stuffed with unanswered Dawkinsian attacks that they become unusable for the exchange of Catholic views, or give the impression that such attacks are unanswerable except by the silence of dumb faith, then that is quite an important surrender. If they become so heavily moderated that no dissenting voice from Catholicism is allowed, then that too is, in effect, a suggestion that Catholicism survives only by exertion of brute power rather than by its attractiveness to the human search for truth, goodness and beauty.

In short, I don't see much alternative to the status quo: gruelling exchanges where millions of key strokes are sacrificed over small advances and small retreats. Where young men sacrifice the finest years of their lives to RSI, a diet based entirely on nachos and tepid Dr Pepper, and the resultant ravages of acne. In the Middle Ages, the protectors of Christendom were the Military Orders. Are Catholic keyboard warriors their proud modern successors?

                                                          Lazarus revealed....

Friday, 5 July 2013

Fourth of July, the education of the Founding Fathers and scholasticism

Oh, you must have done it... You're busy. Things happen. And then you come home to find a glowering spouse sulking because you've forgotten an anniversary.

This, of course, does not refer to Mrs L, who continues to bask in the finest attentive care that I can provide, but to the 4th of July which I forgot. Sorry to all of you in the US! Yesterday really was busy.

Anyway, in celebration of your anniversary I provide, first, the above photo of veterans of the Revolutionary War. The rather striking images are taken from daguerreotypes of survivors who were still around in the 1840s. Full article here.

Perhaps more importantly, it gives me an opportunity to bash on again about the benefits of scholasticism as a philosophical and educational system. I recently read Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic: Scholasticism in the Colonial Colleges by James J. Walsh, (Fordham University Press, 1935), free online version available here. Walsh's book is not, in itself, exactly a good read: it has one theme and it bangs on about it in relentless detail. However, that theme is a fascinating one:

Scholasticism, the philosophy of the Schoolmen and of the medieval universities, the group of subjects which occupied most of the attention of European university students for a thousand years or more, is usually thought to have gone out of vogue at the end of the Middle Ages or to have disappeared with the New Learning at the Reformation. That almost universal impression is entirely mistaken. The proof of the serious fallacy that has gained acceptance in this matter is to be found in the easily ascertainable fact that Scholasticism continued to be the philosophic teaching of European but also American universities and colleges down until well on in the nineteenth century. 

The evidence for this is abundant and convincing in the archives of our colonial colleges. A set of very precious official documents attest it. On Commencement day the candidates for the degree of B.A. were required in all the colleges of this country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to defend a series of propositions, about one hundred more or less, that were printed at the expense of the students and were distributed to such of the audience as cared to take part in the public disputation which was held, as Cotton Mather tells us, on Commencement morning. These propositions summarized the studies in philosophy which represented the principal occupation of the students during the last two years of their college course, and for a considerable portion of the preceding two years. 

This fact which is manifest at once and is quite indisputable when our American colonial college theses are studied especially in connection with the college regulations as regards the holding of disputations regularly every week, is the most surprising revelation that we have had in the history of American education for several generations. It seems quite impossible to the great majority of our educators that Scholasticism should have continued to maintain its foothold in European and American colleges down to the beginning of the nineteenth 
century. Scholasticism has always been looked upon as a thing of the distant past, but as a matter of fact the men who organized our government of the people, by the people and for the people in its present form, were most of them trained mentally in accordance with this medieval mode of thought and teaching. 

The Founding Fathers of our republic, then, were educated according to the academic traditions which had been formulated in the earlier Middle Ages by Boethius, sometimes hailed as the father of Scholasticism, developed under St. Anselm in the eleventh century, reaching their culmination in the mind of Aquinas and the group contemporary with him in 
the thirteenth century when there came the conciliation of Scholastic doctrines with Aristotle, thus welding together the whole course of philosophic thought. 

Walsh rather underplays the fact that he is dealing with a Protestant scholasticism, one that (to a Catholic eye at least) is less firmly rooted in Aristotle and philosophic reasoning about human nature and more based on a foundation of axiomatic truths derived from revelation. (The general history of Protestant scholasticism, particularly in ethics, and a positive re-evaluation of its worth can be found here.)  As a standard work on ethics of this kind (quoted in Walsh, p.198) had it:

As we are reasonable creatures and obliged as such to yield unto God, the author of our 
beings, a reasonable service, it may be of very good use for us as far as it will go, with an implicit submission to Him for the rest, to exercise our reason upon these great and important subjects...As our reason in these things is, at best, but very dark and weak it is of the greatest importance to us that we diligently study the holy oracles in which we have the sublimest and most advantageous instructions and incentives to practice with regard to these matters 
which are of the utmost importance to our true and everlasting happiness.

The book goes through the curricula of various of the early American colleges. At the end, it's quite clear that the Founding Fathers of the US were schooled in a rigorously structured and reasoned system of ethics, explicitly based on the assumption of the relevance of divine guidance and revelation in Christianity, and regularly applied to the burning issues of the day such as revolution against an unjust government (generally in favour) and the existence of slavery (generally against). That's probably not surprising to anyone who's familiar with (eg) the Scottish universities of the time, but it's worth repeating in an age where there is a myth of the Enlightenment as simply a revolt against religion rather than in many ways a movement within Christianity. And it's also a useful reminder in what we've lost by abandoning a system of Higher Education that was truly systematic, and which was oriented towards producing a thoughtful and reflective citizenry, aware of its duties towards God and fellow human beings:

My duty and happiness must in general consist in the union of my will with His; in sincerely choosing what He chooseth and delighting in whatsoever He delights in ; in submitting to whatever instructions He shall think fit to give or whatever laws He shall think fit to enjoin either by nature or revelation ; and in resigning to the whole system of constitution which He hath established both natural and moral; and consequently in patiently bearing whatever He is pleased to allot and in conducting toward every person and thing as being what it really is and what He hath made it as He Himself 'doth and in governing myself and my whole temper 
and behavior by all those rules which promote the general weal of the whole system as God doth Himself ; always avoiding what is wrong or hurtful as being contrary thereunto; and doing what is right or beneficial as being agreeable to it on all occasions as they offer.

(Samuel Johnson, Elementa Philosophica 1752, quoted in Walsh, p.200).

Readers on both sides of the Atlantic may pause and weep at what we have lost.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Catholic blogs on homosexuality

After a welcome lull in the 'excitement' about same sex 'marriage' in Scotland, the publication of the  Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill has livened up the debate here again. The fruits of that have been seen in some of my recent posts and in the letters columns of newspapers. Frankly, given the near unanimity of the political classes here in favour of its introduction, it's going to happen and the only question is how the debate is conducted (anything too bloody or too much of the triumphalist 'let's slap the homophobic bigots down' and it's certainly going to impact on the independence referendum) and whether there'll be anything like a serious attempt to provide protection for dissenters (see eg  A Grain of Sand's comment on the Faculty of Advocates worries in this area (the full response by the Faculty can be found here as a PDF)). Anyway, no doubt more of this in due course....

In trawling round the internet for inspiration in angustiis, I've come across a number of blogs by orthodox Catholics who identify as homosexual. These aren't blogs by the 'queering the Church' crowd who think that in some way they're going to change 2000 years of Catholic theology and philosophy, but blogs by people who are both serious about their religion yet honest about their struggles to live and think it out. There are others, but the following US blogs at least deserve a wider audience this side of the pond. There are doubtless some posts in them I wouldn't endorse: there are even some posts on this blog that I wouldn't endorse. But I found them compelling reading.

Mudblood Catholic: In his own words:

I am a gay Catholic nerd. I have trad tastes (going to an Anglican Use Catholic parish) and I love music and literature, ancient, medieval and modern. I have a degree in Classics, and get paid to snark across an espresso bar.

Beatus Homo: Again, in his own words:

I am a gay, celibate Catholic man who is seeking to provide a comprehensive analysis of natural law as it applies to sexual morality, especially homosexuality. I hope that my personal experience with this issue can help readers better understand the underlying philosophical issues at hand and the significant difficulties homosexuals face. 

(Some of the combox discussions on this blog are particularly good.)

Sexual authenticity: Melinda Selmys has been quite a public face in the US Catholic world for a while now (I first came across her on EWTN where she struck me as both particularly smart and pleasingly acerbic.). In short? Atheist lesbian becomes Catholic mother. But that doesn't do justice to her. Perhaps this description of her struggles with her first book provide a better introduction:

We worked quite a bit to get the back-of-the-book text into a form that would suggest that this wasn't the standard sappy-clappy ex-gay conversion testimonial. For some reason, though, this standard keeps cropping up in various places.
For example, the first time that I did a radio interview to promote the book, I was strangely disappointed at the end of it. It took a couple of minutes thinking to figure out why; then I realized that I had been somehow or other guided into giving that standard testimonial. The "I felt God calling to my heart, and then He made me straight. Ain't Jesus wonderful!" story. Blech.
I'm not sure why, but for some reason Catholic publishers, radio hosts, etc. seem to be under the impression that modern Catholics want to hear this kind of rubbish. There's a sense that the streamlined, perfect, all-to-easy, glowing reparative therapy tale is going to be "edifying" to any poor sodomites who happen to tune in.
The reality, of course, is quite different.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Emotions, politics and same sex 'marriage'

I've recently been engaging in the sort of knockabout combox scraps on the Catholic Herald (atheism) and the Scotsman (same sex 'marriage') that can either be seen as part of the necessary grind of 'getting the message out there' or else as indulging the Old Adam's tendency to like a good fight.

It's therefore rather a relief to turn to what has been (and I hope remains) a rather more mature exchange on a controversial topic. Lallands Peat Worrier is my favourite Scottish blog and one of my favourites tout court. He and I disagree on a lot of things -particularly same sex 'marriage'- but I hope that disagreement remains within a spirit of mutual respect: I certainly respect him.

Anyway, LPW put up a rather moving post about SSM recently, the gist of which was his profound surprise at being so moved by a recent wedding, and the consequent awareness of a feeling of outrage that other (gay) friends might be denied such a similar occasion:

I'm not suggesting that marriage is for everyone. I've no idea whether it is even for me.  What I do feel, however, more keenly than ever, is that arresting thumb again at my chest, sounding a warm, arresting note. The idea that only some of my friends, only those with the fortune to find themselves emotionally entangled with someone of the opposite gender, should be able to stand in that convocation of their friends, together, in that transporting moment, that day, pleasure etched on faces, unbidden tears gladly stinging the eye.  That thought's now an outrage, even a cruelty. 

As today's delightfully serendipitous, lovely wee video from the Scottish Equality Network makes plain, it's time.  Oftentimes, doing the just thing is difficult and costly.  This isn't one of those times.

Let's get this done.

I've commented already on LPW's combox, but, as I said there, there's such a lot that could be  said that I'd probably return to it on my blog. So here we are...

(Note: I've recently discovered (via Child 1) the meaning of tl;dr. Readers thus far will be forgiven by me for applying the description to what follows and acting accordingly.)

First, there is a general issue here about the role of emotions in politics. Second, there is the specific case of emotions in the SSM debate.

Taking the first issue, as I've already commented to LPW, there is at least sometimes a cognitive aspect to emotions. In essence, if I am moved by something, that is equivalent to a judgment that something is good or bad. As a judgment, it then goes into that process of reflective equilibrium where judgments about the rightness or wrongness of something specific are balanced against more general, theoretical considerations. In addition, emotions are somewhat detached from our other cognitive states. This is most commonly seen in standard cases of weakness of the will or akrasia where (roughly) our understanding that something is wrong is overpowered by feelings. But it (more relevantly here) also features in reverse akrasia where (again roughly) the heart knows more than the understanding. In the present case, that might take the form of someone who thinks that same sex 'marriage' is wrong finding herself unable to act on that thought when faced with a friend's happiness: the 'judgment' of the emotion outweighs the understanding (akrasia) but, in this case, it is right to do so (reverse akrasia).

So, in principle our emotions could tell us something we hadn't already recognized: here, that same sex 'marriage' is right when we thought it was wrong.

But having noted that general possibility, we're left with how an emotional judgment should be incorporated into our general reflective thinking, and, more importantly, into our general political thinking. LPW quotes the feminist saw that the personal is the political. As with most claims of identity, much depends on from which direction you read it. Certainly, there is a claim of the importance of engagement here: doing politics shouldn't be something done merely superficially, as a duty, but should be done with feeling. I'm happy, in broad terms, to accept that claim: politics matter and we should care about them deeply. From the other direction however, it is a claim about the political importance of what you feel, and, in the context of the time, whom you love and how. Thus political lesbianism argued that feminism shouldn't stop at the bedroom door: feminists should love, and have sex with, women, not men. Now, putting aside the specifics of political lesbianism, that too is a claim I would endorse: what you feel -in general and specifically in erotic situations- should not be immune to interrogation from your understanding of the good and, in particular, the good of the city or other social grouping. The thought that one has to adjust one's affections to one's understanding of the good is behind the very idea of akrasia (someone who lets her emotions overpower her intellect is displaying a flaw) as well as behind the Christian practice of ascesis: the disciplining of the self and, in particular, the affections.

Moreover, there is a particular unreliability inherent in the emotions: they lead us astray and are often not very nuanced in their judgments. As I commented to LPW:

The example that came to my mind was the film Zulu: I always find myself fighting back the tears during it, but I don't really think there is anything very glorious about marching into someone else's country and then massacring them with superior technology when they fight back.

I could have added that, when I am moved by the film -and I am- it isn't immediately clear to me why I am moved. Is it simply bravery in the face of enormous odds? Or is it something else in the complicated struggle of Rorke's Drift? (For example, I'm not at all sure that one of the things I am moved by isn't the idea of Empire and the heroic struggle of the soldier to overcome enemies. Are those things, at a deeper, moral level, I really should be approving of?)

So, to conclude the general question of emotions in politics:

1) Emotions can express or constitute judgments about political goods that need to be taken seriously and reflected upon.
2) The evidence of such judgments needs to be interrogated by reflective thought.
3) Emotions are particularly liable to mislead us.
4) We should be emotionally committed in politics (but not stupidly so).

Let's move on to the second question: the role of emotions in the issue of same sex 'marriage'.  I've been a bit rude about this area in the past, referring to the 'clubbing care bears' argument. I meant by this the sort of argument that any questioning of same sex 'marriage' is out of order because it stamps all over gay couples' (and their friends') feelings. I suppose there's a bit of this in LPW's post, but it would be unfair to reduce it to that. Certainly, there's an aspect of politicians discussing people's intimate lives that is vile. But I'd much rather that the discussion of same sex 'marriage' hadn't arisen in the first place precisely because it does represent an intrusion of the state into an intimate space: this intrusion is not of the anti-SSM side's making. But once the intrusion is made, then I see little way of avoiding discussing it properly.

The reply here might well be that it is the existence of anti-homosexual marriage laws which have given rise to the problem: that was the initial intrusion and SSM is simply an attempt to redress a wrong. But here we're back into the question of the social purpose of marriage: on a natural law point of view, the reason that the state gets involved is not to support or assess the quality of intimate relationships tout court, but only insofar as they contribute to the interest of the state in ensuring the next generation: marriage is within the purview of the state only because of its procreative and educative aspect, not because of its status as an intimate, sexual union.

In sum, I think it better that marriage should have been left out of the political process. But since that seems too much to hope for, I see no alternative to a (sometimes painful) public discussion of private matters.

Having accepted (however reluctantly) the propriety of a political discussion of SSM, we come back first to the general points made about: feelings matter politically, but are neither the only thing that matters nor a particularly reliable guide to what matters.

But in the case of SSM, I think there is another aspect that needs to be considered. Love is itself an affection and therefore it might be thought particularly important to bring in emotions into this question. As LPW notes:

What I did not expect, however, was how moving the ceremony would be. An absolutely sincere, soft-voiced, avowal of devotion and love. Not for me, and I suppose for many there, in the eyes of some all-seeing, all-judging creator deity, but before the eyes of friends and family, of folk who meant something to each other.

One interpretation of this would be that love is not just the (emotional) bond between the couple, but that marriage is the occasion of an emotional bond between the friends and family of the couple: that a wedding creates a community by dint of creating a profound emotional bond among the people gathered around, and focused on, the couple. So emotions matter not simply as evidence of this or that judgment as to the existence of a good, but here as the mechanism by which a community or fellowship is created. By denigrating that emotion (or even simply ignoring or preventing it) you are undermining a social bond centred on a gay couple. In short, you are excluding gay couples from being integrated into wider society in ways that different sex couples can be. This sort of line of thought is, I take it, behind David Cameron's oft mocked remark that he supports gay marriage because of  (and not despite) being a conservative: by extending the occasions of social bonding by emotion beyond different sex couples, society is strengthened by the existence of new bonds.

I'd reply as follows. First, I concede that, in a society without same sex 'marriage', there isn't the possibility of creating that exact experience of emotional bonding based on a same sex couple that exists in a society that does have same sex 'marriage'. But then that is true of the absence of many types of celebration in our society: for example, the absence of a legal instituted circumcision ceremony is an absence in our society; or potlatch or whatever. Think of something that is ritually embedded in some part of the world or in some time and the absence of that ritual in modern Scotland, analytically, prevents the existence of the formation of a community created by the emotional sharing of that occasion. So the question really is: not so much whether such an absence exists (it does) but how much it matters.

A (traditional) marriage isn't really an unmixed emotional high. It raises complex emotions about loss and parting as well as expectations of a happy future. It represents a coming together of different families and sexes, marked by their biological history of past comings together of different sexes and families, and thrown into the future of an expectation of succeeding generations: it is that freeze frame of birth, life and death in Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men.  The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Parents mourn the loss of a child to another life. Men fear being possessed by the alien world of femininity; women correspondingly fear being dragged into a masculine world.  Both fear being drowned by a current of biology and history that makes them rather than is made by them. Traditional marriage is as much catharsis as celebration: a laying of angry spirits as much as enjoyable party.

Here, we need to be more careful in distinguishing between marriage as an institution and marriage as the ceremony that makes the public creation of that institution. (For convenience, I shall term the latter ceremony a 'wedding' as distinct from a 'marriage'.) A marriage is what Aristotle termed a household: an institution that is the scene of raising children. A wedding is the ritualized ceremony that opens that institution: it encourages and dramatizes the emotions associated with the institution, but it does not simply create them.

In short, the institution of a same sex union is a very different thing from the institution that is a marriage: it involves different goods and different harms and (frankly) is simply not as central to the human story as the process of bringing together men and women to procreate and raise children. A wedding represents those emotions and forms a community around them; but a wedding marking the inception of one sort of union (SSM) is not the same as the wedding marking the beginning of another (traditional marriage). And the emotions and community that should be generated by traditional marriage are of quite a different order and importance from those generated by a same sex union.

I've gone on too long. To sum up:

1) Emotions do present information about what we should value, but need to be subject to reflective critique.
2) In the case of same sex 'marriage', the emotional community created by the celebration of that union is of inferior importance to that created by traditional marriage. The emotions generated by a union for procreation and education of the next generation are (and should be) more profound and complex than those created by same sex unions. If same sex weddings do not exist, we have lost the opportunity of a good party focused on a couple's love. If traditional weddings do not exist, we have lost the opportunity of contemplating central truths of the human condition and encouraging those involved in their struggle to perform the human story of birth, life and death. Whatever similarities may exist between the forms of the wedding, the underlying institutions and the appropriate emotions towards them will remain profoundly dissimilar.