Thursday, 31 October 2013

Grangemouth and strikes



Although the Catholic Church is sometimes accused of obsessing about sex, its public ruminations in this area are really more often part of its general teaching on the nature of society than directly about what goes on behind the bedroom door. So opposition to abortion is based on the inadvisability of murder, opposition to same sex 'marriage' based on its view of the family 'as the first natural society, with derived rights that are proper to it, and place[d]... at the centre of social life'. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC) s. 211.) Of course, when it goes on about less titillating aspects of social teaching such as business ethics, no one's interested.

With the kerfuffle at Grangemouth and today's strike of the UCU, it's worth thinking rather more closely about Catholic social teaching. Being rather a child of Thatcher's Britain, I admit to screening out myself quite a lot of pronouncements in this area with a vague feeling that it's all the sort of naive Hampstead liberalism that you'd expect from well-intentioned people without much experience of the realities of a capitalist economy. In particular, there are fundamental reasons for thinking that Christianity might be hard wired to get capitalism wrong: its tendency to undervalue material goods; its emphasis on co-operation rather than competition; its insistence that we examine our motives and intentions rather than focusing on profit, and trusting to an 'invisible hand' to sort out the good consequences of such a focus.

Part of the problem here is that making a proper judgment in any specific circumstance is incredibly difficult. Essentially, when it comes to balancing the various considerations involved in a specific economic or commercial decision, you are engaged in an exercise of prudentia -practical wisdom- and, particularly in the absence of detailed information or technical expertise, any public pronouncements are liable either to be vague expressions of goodwill ('mind how you go') or displays of naivety in the face of the realities of commerce in a global economy.

And yet... Here, as in so much else, Catholicism has something genuinely different from the vagueries of other Christianities which tend to lurch from that Hampstead liberal de haut en bas sympathy for the worker, or an assumption that God is simply a tea party Republican. (Or Keith Joseph redivivus.) Perhaps its two main advantages are its systematicity (it places economic activity within an overall view of human flourishing) and balance (it tries to do justice to the competing aspects at play). Moreover, its very catholicity (ie universality) adds a reality lacking in some other places: its a teaching that has to be received in the shantytowns of Latin America as well as among the well heeled alumni of elite Catholic schools such as Ampleforth.

Anyway, go to the Compendium, thou sluggard, if you want more. You could kick off with the summary at s. 160:

The permanent principles of the Church's social doctrine constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching. These are the principles of: the dignity of the human person...which is the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church's social doctrine; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity. 

Or to the general reflections on the nature of work (s.272):

 Even if one cannot ignore the objective component of work with regard to its quality, this component must nonetheless be subordinated to the self-realization of the person, and therefore to the subjective dimension, thanks to which it is possible to affirm that work is for man and not man for work. “It is always man who is the purpose of work, whatever work it is that is done by man — even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest ‘service', as the most monotonous, even the most alienating work”.

Or the role of unions (s. 305):

The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions. Unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers — workers in general but especially the industrial workers — to protect their just rights vis-√†-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production”. Such organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.

Or the free market (s. 347):

A truly competitive market is an effective instrument for attaining important objectives of justice: moderating the excessive profits of individual businesses, responding to consumers' demands, bringing about a more efficient use and conservation of resources, rewarding entrepreneurship and innovation, making information available so that it is really possible to compare and purchase products in an atmosphere of healthy competition.

Will this sort everything out? Absolutely not: the tensions between globalization, the need for profit and broader conceptions of the good life won't disappear. Moreover, the Compendium itself suffers from a tendency towards continental word splurge which betrays much of its origins in the teachings of John Paul II. (If it gets a bit too much, comic relief -and some sense of perspective- can be gained by playing with the Pope John Paul II speech generator.)

That said, I'd quite like to be governed by people who had soaked themselves in it. Any chance, you think?

Monday, 28 October 2013

Lou Reed


                                               Lou Reed: 1942-2013

One of the oddities of the modern age is the way that, unlike Prufrock and his coffee spoons, we tend to measure out our lives with pop songs.

Lou Reed was I suppose one of those singers who was always buzzing around in the background of my life. I remember hearing 'Walk on the Wildside' for the first time, thinking it seemed longer than the usual record, had some overarching sense of a story unusual in pop, and then cottoning on (gradually) to what it was about... I remember a flatmate buying a (vinyl) copy of Metal Machine Music, playing its endless variations on white noise, and not noticing (until I tentatively suggested the possibility) that the needle had got stuck...

There are splits in Catholic thinking -the precise nature of which is much disputed- between our natural end and our supernatural end, between what can be discovered by reason and what has to be revealed to us by God. Analogous to this, perhaps even intertwined with this, there is the existential split between that common modern culture in which all of us swim, and the specific culture of Catholicism, and the complex meetings between the two.

Here's a narrative about the two that crops up quite often although in different, detailed forms. Once, there was a shared traditional view which had a sense of human agency, the existence of God, the nature of the virtues etc etc. (Such was the perennial philosophy or the philosophy of commonsense.) Although Catholicism wasn't this, it built on it:  commonsense created the natural foundations on which revealed truth erected its Holy City. And then some time (take your pick: 1600s? 1960s?) this common, natural foundation was undermined by various cultural movements which make it more difficult for Catholicism to engage with non-Catholics (and even to understand themselves).

If that sort of narrative has any truth, a plausible candidate for the prime destructive influence must be modern popular music. As I've noted, it permeates most of our lives in enormously powerful ways. The crassest elements of that are easy to spot (Mylie Cyrus and her twerking). But perhaps far more damaging are the serious musicians such as Lou Reed: you couldn't take Ms Cyrus seriously at a conscious level, whatever damage she may be doing underneath; but you certainly might take Lou Reed seriously as propounding a style of life.

OK. So what is that style? Well, having given all of a half an hour's thought to this, I think that one (just for me perhaps) attractions of Lou Reed was the combination of outrageous subject matter (drugs, gender bending) with a rather detached, stoned take on it: we observed the circus animals, but we didn't whoop and cheer and get involved. 'So it goes', as Vonnegut puts it. That disengagement, the lack of care, strikes me as one of the most pernicious aspects of modern popular culture, leading on the characteristic modern lurch from indifference ('it's his life') to manufactured outrage (take your pick): the replacement of an aesthetic judgment (what is striking or entertaining) for an ethical one (what is good).

Poor old Lou Reed. Not yet cold in his grave and already a minor scion of the traditionalist tendency is mulling over why he's a bad thing... Well, no, not exactly. From the audio clips I heard on radio this morning, Lou Reed was given to making fairly strong claims about the influence of rock and roll. Wikipedia has him saying:

My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. 

I'll grant him that, at least for the moment. And given that assumption, I'd like to think through how he's changed my life, why I find him and his music so attractive, and why I find so much other popular music so engaging. Because, so far as I can see, the values purveyed in them aren't terribly good ones, and yet I know that I am, as a matter of fact, soaked in this via moderna, and am having to live with the consequences.

He sold his soul to rock and roll, but he started off Jewish. So I hope some out there will be saying Kaddish for him:


May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen.
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.






Friday, 25 October 2013

No sex please, we're modern


                                     More ice water? (Apparently not necessary...)


Related to last night's documentary on the Japanese not having sex (i-Player, here, presumably for seven days), there's been a spate of articles on how (in particular) Japanese men have given up wanting sex.

Well, you'd have thought that, as a Catholic, I'd have been all in favour of that. (Down with that sort of thing, and all that.) But of course that's quite wrong: Catholics are all in favour of sex as part of our natural end (earthly happiness or flourishing). Only where it gets in the way of our supernatural end -heaven and the eternal contemplation of God- is there a reason for avoiding it.

The modern conceptualization of sexual desire is simply that: sexual desire. So I am gay or straight based on what I like, not what I do. And of course the satisfaction of that desire in a world of technology is often more effectively done through virtual girlfriends rather than real ones (who tend to be highly disruptive, having opinions of their own and all that). The Catholic (Aristotelian) conception is based on the telos (end or goal) of human beings as involving the creation of a household.

The difference between the two conceptions of success couldn't be greater. Flourishing in the modern conception is simply the satisfaction of sexual desire -and real people may not be very good at fulfilling someone else's desires. (So off to the iPad.) On the other hand, flourishing in the achievement of the natural end according to natural law is about the creation of an institution, not the creation of a feeling. Someone who has not developed the virtues required to create and maintain a household (ie having the character suitable for living with someone of the opposite sex and bringing up children) has failed: imagined girlfriends just don't count as success (and nor does just being able to tumble into bed with someone else).

That of course doesn't mean that someone who, through no fault of his or her own, can't have children has morally failed, any more than someone who gets struck by lightning on the way to Mass has morally failed. Accidents happen and they are that: accidents. How we deal with them says something about our character. That they happen says nothing. Nor does it mean that religious who become celibate have failed: they have merely sacrificed aspects of their natural end in order to concentrate on the more important supernatural end.

But the simple idea, at the heart of natural law, that success in living isn't just about satisfying feelings, but rather about fulfilling our nature, has become so strange to modern ears that a sexual taxonomy based on desire (heterosexual/homosexual) has crowded out and obscured a more profound categorization into those who can sustain a household and marriage (and I suppose one must add here -though God help us- 'with someone of the opposite sex') and those who can't. Virtual girlfriends are merely one of the odder symptoms of that.




Monday, 21 October 2013

Stonewall, Tina Beattie and Foucault



One of the nice things about blogging is being able to articulate the serendipity of everyday encounters. So, here I am, currently working my way through a cover to cover reading of Foucault's History of Sexuality when I happen to notice one of those Stonewall bus ads (above) and then, fired up to write something about that, happen to read an excellent article by Tina Beattie on Femen and commodification of the body when I turn on the computer this morning. And I suppose you can add into that serendipitous soup, Pope Francis and his emphasis on the big picture.

OK. Bits laid out. Critically discuss.

I suspect that the 'commonsense' view of Catholicism's attitude to homosexuality is something like this. Throughout history, human beings have delighted in picking on minority groups and hurting them. Progress is a matter of getting rid of this oppression. We've done it/are doing it with racial minorities and women. Now we are doing it with gay people. The Catholics' reaction to this is simply the last gasp of an oppressive regime. It's the sort of thing that happens when an oppressive authority is challenged. Ordinary Catholics will wise up eventually even if those who have been exercising their authority in hurting gay people will probably go on lamenting their lost power for a while.

I don't expect to be able to remove such a worldview in a few lines: it is, after all, a diagnosis from an outsider point of view of a (putatively) sick institution/deluded members. You'd expect those deluded members to protest and I'm going to. But this is what -in broad terms anyway- it looks like from an alternative insider point of view. (And put roughly, it is that what and whom and how you desire matters.)

1) For a start, at least in Scotland, the Stonewall campaign is associating an opposition to same sex 'marriage' with homophobia. Again, I don't expect anyone to be convinced just by my saying it, but I'll say it nonetheless: opposition to a profound change in the procreative function of an institution that has been regularly held by the greatest minds of the West to be at the heart of society is not unreasonable and it is not homophobic.

2) But putting that aside, let's turn to the idea that we should just 'get over it'. One aspect of the 'commonsense' view of Catholicism is that it is about bashing other people: essentially, Catholic morality is about telling other people what to do. From the 'insider' point of view, however, Catholic morality rests on care: care for the welfare of self and care for the welfare of others. That this care for good is then translated into rules and orders is of secondary importance (and results from belief in a God who legislates). The key feature is care for what is good for us, both me and you.

So the idea that we should 'get over it' is odd: it depends on the idea that we should stop caring about others, or, indeed, that we should stop caring about exploring our own identities. (For example, if I am wondering whether or not I am gay, how helpful is it to be told, 'to get over it'? My care for myself entails a care for the question of what harms or benefits me. And concern for myself is not essentially different from care for others.)

3) But of course, it will be said that 'get over it' isn't a comment on the issue of care for self and others as a principle, but on the substance of what that care involves according to Catholicism. In short, 'get over it' simply means, 'stop imposing your stupid ideas about what is really good for people': it's a pragmatic suggestion to keep the terminally deluded (ie Catholics) from bothering others, not a principled comment that the sensible (ie Stonewall)  should also stop getting involved.

Catholic ideas on the good in sexuality in many ways have much more connection with pre-modern approaches than modern understandings. Foucault traces much of the modern understanding of sex to confession: the need to articulate a truth that has been repressed. (I'll ignore for now Foucault's claim that modern sexual understanding is as a consequence the child of mediaeval Catholicism and its development of auricular confession.) Such an approach can be seen in almost all the current 'commonsense' narrative on sex, homosexual or heterosexual: they (Church, parents etc) stopped us beings ourselves; now we can be truly what we are.

The Greek understanding was different. Unlike the modern schema which is about articulating the truth of our desire (ie what we really want), the Greeks

...believed that the same desire attached to anything that was desirable -boy or girl- subject to the condition that the appetite was nobler that inclined toward what was more beautiful and more honorable; but they also thought that this desire called for a particular mode of behaviour when it made a place for itself in a relationship between two male individuals. The Greeks could not imagine that a man might need a different nature -an 'other' nature- in order to love a man; but they were inclined to think that the pleasures one enjoyed in such a relationship ought to be given an ethical form different from the one that was required when it came to loving a woman. In this sort of relation, the pleasures did not reveal an alien nature in the person who experienced them; but their use demanded a special stylistics. (The Use of Pleasure, p192 (ch1, 'Erotics) part 4).)

So there are two levels here: what (whom) one loves; and what one does within that love. Most of the 'commonsense' view of Catholicism focuses on the second aspect: Catholics are obsessed with the mechanics of sex. Now, certainly, all the well known stuff about Catholic teaching in this area does indeed exist: no contraception, no genital activity between the unmarried etc. But it emerges from the first level: what and whom we love. And here, unlike the Greeks, it matters that we love women*.

OK. But the objection comes: of course men should love women, But that doesn't mean that we should love them physically, does it? And that brings us to Beattie's article.

4) I'm not going to pretend that the images of naked or near naked women that Beattie refers to in her article don't attract me in some sense: they do. But nor do they attract me in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. The images in the adverts also repel: Beattie talks about 'the commodified and eroticized' images of the ads, and that's roughly it. They're being used, I'm being used and I can see the attractions of flesh and money but I'm (rightly) not easy with those attractions. The key point here is that (in some sense) I am physically attracted to those images but in some sense I am physically repelled by them: what it is to be physically attracted is not a simple matter of mechanics, but a subtle interplay of meanings and representations of good and bad.

Beattie's article is, in many ways, a well trodden path: there is a lot of feminist writing on representations of women and their bodies and the male gaze. Equally, there is a lot of Catholic writing on loving women: I'm also chugging through Dante's Divine Comedy just now, and Beatrice is about to appear: the physical attraction of Courtly Love is not distinct from the quest for the divine. From one point of view, Catholicism projects theological concerns onto the physical; from another point of view, Catholicism just recognizes the way that the attractiveness of the divine permeates the attractiveness of creation (including women).

The main point is this: physical attraction -whether from a feminist point of view or a Catholic one- is not uncomplicated and is certainly not uncomplicatedly good. To see and desire appropriately is part of what it is to be a flourishing human being: that the Greeks too recognized. But, unlike the Greeks, Catholicism puts a heavy emphasis on the desirability of women, and, also, like feminism, on how that desire should work: on what is the good male gaze.

5) Where does that leave someone who doesn't find women physically attractive? Well, certainly dysfunctional in some way. But in what way? And then there follows a complicated, very difficult process of discernment -which is just as difficult (or more difficult or less difficult -who knows? how would you measure it?) as that of someone who is attracted to women- of how one is attracted and what one is attracted to. (Is it better to be gay than it is to be someone who is attracted to commodified images of women? Again, how could you measure this?) From the Catholic point of view, disorder in our pursuit of our natural end (roughly, earthly happiness) is only to be expected and perhaps the main thing is to worry about our supernatural end (again, roughly, heaven). And then the vocabulary of gay/straight is entirely unhelpful: a straight man staring at Beattie's images and thinking, 'Whoarr! What a pair on her!' is in one sort of trouble; a man staring at Michelangelo's David and thinking that he looks like a nice lad to settle down with is in another.

What feminism and Catholicism (and the Greeks) share is a concern for what we desire and how we desire other people. Catholicism certainly teaches that it matters whether or not we (men) desire women and how we desire them. Frankly, I can't see how some such purification of our gaze is avoidable: failing to think about such issues simply avoids important questions about (eg) the imagery of Femen that Beattie is surely right to consider. Regarding sexuality purely as about the liberation of our real desire is as poor a guide to life as regarding Femen as simply about liberating women from patriarchy. It really, really is all much more complicated than that.

*I hope readers will forgive my concentrating on the male 'we': it's simply that I'm male and it makes it rather easier to think about the topic from a male perspective. Similar things, mutatis mutandis, could be said from a female perspective.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Happy second blogoversary to me!



Well, that's two years blogging then.

Quite a lot happened last year, didn't it? I didn't expect Pope Benedict's resignation; I didn't expect the election of a Pope who would have caused so much of a stir in the Church. I didn't expect Cardinal O'Brien to depart having (sort of) confessed to some sort of long standing homosexual activity...

Oddly enough, I feel relatively unfazed by all this. Perhaps that's because I'm rather thick skinned: having been brought up by a mother who insisted that we should always imagine the worst as this would stop us getting disappointed, as a consequence, every year that we're not visited by Martians armed with death rays and a desire to turn humanity into slaves in the dilithium crystal mines counts as a pretty good one as far as I'm concerned. Moreover, as an adult convert, I entered the Church with my eyes completely open about the evils that Catholics can do: if you think the charism of infallibility rules out a considerable measure of dysfunctionality in the Church, think again.

And how stands Scotia? We'll doubtless get same sex 'marriage' this year and, although the sky won't fall in, another major obstacle will have been placed in the way of people leading a flourishing life. And we'll have the referendum on Independence which might result in an independent Scotland (in which case we'll be struggling over whether we produce some sort of nutty banana republic dominated by fantasies of being progressive and modern; or a modest small nation state which embodies the virtues of subsidiarity and the local) or in the status quo (in which case it may well be a question of whether the unionist parties have enough sense to put into effect 'devolution max' and achieve a constitutional settlement that really might work in the long term; or whether Westminster triumphalism will simply stoke up Scottish resentment and merely postpone a future crisis)...

Anyway, the five most read posts last year:




23 Sep 2013


1 Apr 2013



Let's have a Te Deum (Haydn) to celebrate:





We praise thee, O God :
    we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :
    the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud :
    the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim :
    continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy :
    Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty :
    of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world :
    doth acknowledge thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man :
    thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
    thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
    whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.




Monday, 14 October 2013

Support the Catholic Novel!



As a married man, I'm not really allowed to read the blog Seraphic Singles. However, if I ever did, I would be able to report that the blogger has a novel out. Since she quite reasonably made the point that 'eavesdroppers' such as myself could restore something of our moral integrity by purchasing her novel, I have obliged! (Amazon assure me it's on the way.)

It looks like a great read. More importantly, when I was younger, constantly hearing about (and from) Catholic writers such as Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess kept alive in my tiny atheist mind that Catholicism was a serious intellectual and artistic force. I very much hope that Seraphic's new work is the first of many by her, and, more generally, the herald of a new spring in Catholic literature.

Buy early. Buy often.

ISBN: 978-1586177317





Friday, 11 October 2013

Basic Catholic philosophical reading list



                                                      I have been thinking...

This is going to be one of those posts where I mull to no good purpose whilst sticking up some points so that I don't lose sight of them in the future. You have been warned....

I've previously mentioned my conviction that the most serious problem facing the Church is a lack of basic religious education. Let's split that into theological education and philosophical education. The absence of theological education can -to some extent- be remedied by using the Catechism. Either read it (and keep on reading it) yourself or do one of the numerous courses available on it. It's not  perfect solution, but at least it should stop most of the daftnesses of the 'It doesn't matter whether you go to Mass or not' and 'Vatican II abolished that' sort. (If you want a more straightforward summary without any concessions to modernity, keep a copy of either the Penny Catechism or the Baltimore Catechism as a back up.)

That leaves philosophical education. Well, OK, first question: why do we need philosophical education as Catholics? (And here I'm talking primarily about reasonably intelligent laity, not priests or religious.) Why aren't the above Catechisms enough? Roughly, this is because the theology of the Catechisms stands on philosophy: without that background, it is often reduced to simple fideistic statements. The Catechisms mostly sort out the what we believe; but they usually do not sort out the why, particularly that part of the why which is based on natural reason rather than revelation.

Catholic philosophy's status as the 'ancilla theologiae' (the handmaid of theology) is particularly important when we're dealing with a society that is post-Christian and post dead white males. The average (fairly intellectual) Victorian convert would have been a Christian of some sort with a background in Greek and Latin literature: to someone who is worrying about whether to be a Catholic or an Anglican or even a Platonist the sort of material in the Catechism is probably going to be most important. The average (fairly intellectual) modern convert probably thinks that Xena Warrior Princess is genuine history (or at least a genuine post modern jouissance) and that Galileo disproved Aristotle by dropping him off the Tower of Pisa. Nothing in the Catechism is (directly) going to touch  that sort of worldview. (And note that this isn't just a matter of apologetics: what is played out in a public space between individuals has its analogue inside the mind when individuals wonder if Catholic teaching makes sense to them: not only will converts fail to be made, but practising Catholics will start to believe that individual doctrines -or even the whole system- fails to make sense.)

Without a background in that sort of shared classical philosophical Ideenraum which characterizes all Catholic theology, key elements of Catholic teaching are going to look increasingly bizarre. For example, in the recent debate over same sex 'marriage', failure of even many Catholics to understand (in Aristotelian terms which have their analogues in Platonism) the concepts of a nature, embodied in a form, or of potentiality which is actualized, makes it very difficult to explain arguments against same sex 'marriage' which embody claims about the true purpose of marriage. (And those metaphysical points are in addition to the problems which arise from a failure to make clear the classical philosophical assumption that politics is about the promotion of flourishing rather than simply the creation of negative liberty.)

So we need a way of Catholics and others to grapple with the philosophical worldview on which revealed theology stands. (And that way has to be cheaper than (eg) the courses at Maryvale.) There is (to my knowledge) no one single book that even fully explains such a worldview, let alone tries to justify it. (And that of course is in part because philosophy can't as neatly be separated out into the what and the why: to philosophize is to engage critically with the views, not just to know what they are.) What books would I therefore recommend? My answer here is very much a work in progress: what I'm going to say is not right, but it's my best stab at the moment. (So any further suggestions gratefully received.)

Peter Kreeft's reading list won't do (however excellent it is): it's too long and wouldn't serve my main purpose (which is, roughly, to provide an introduction to the philosophical background of Catholic theology which explains primarily the what but enough of the why so that the what retains a plausibility which can be built on if you wish to pursue more detailed studies). There is, for example, not much point in grappling with the intricacies of Descartes and Mill when the absolutely key thing to know about them is that they are wrong and why.

Here's a tentative short leet:

Peter Kreeft: Socratic Logic. One to live with rather than to read through in one sitting.

Edward Feser: The Last Superstition. Polemical, but does make clear why the claim that Plato and Aristotle are still relevant isn't just an antiquarian fancy.

John Vella: Aristotle: A Guide for the Perplexed. Makes Aristotle sound like a neo-Thomist (which is fine for present purposes even if I think Vella oversystematizes the actual Aristotle). I have no idea why I can only find this on Italian Google books! The text is in English (and is still in print).

Leo Strauss: Natural Right and History.  I know Leo Strauss is supposed to be the Neo-Con devil incarnate whose followers eat babies and started the Iraq war. I'm not a Straussian, but this simply strikes me as a good, quick introduction to an approach in politics which is recognizably in keeping with classical models.

John A .Oesterle: Ethics: the introduction to Moral Science. Out of print -so I'm not totally happy about recommending this. But does give a short but clear account of moral philosophy from a Catholic perspective.


I've tried to cover analogues to a three volume traditional cursus philosophiae: typically, logic, metaphysics and ethics. For trying to bash sense into a hostile atheist, I'd try John Haldane's Atheism and Theism, just because Smart and Haldane model what a reasonable encounter between theism and atheism should look like. (If you just want to have fun and don't mind irritating your atheist, give them Feser's work above!)

Perhaps MOOCs will provide an alternative strategy?

------------------------------

Putting all that aside and coming at it from a completely different direction, I came across some discussions on Continuing Anglican websites about what a reading list in orthodox Anglican theology might look like. Both because there are some analogies between our purposes -ie how do individuals with limited resources get a basic grasp on orthodox religion- and because it begins to touch on a question that the Ordinariate will have to wrestle with (ie what is the Anglican intellectual patrimony that can be brought across the Tiber), I include some links below:

The New Contining Anglican: The advantage of a short reading list for study.
                                               Building an Anglican library. (Probably the most useful.)
                                               Anglican Theological Education I
                                               Anglican Theological Education II

Anglican Continuum: See combox on this post for a debate about reading material.

I'd stress that these links aren't to Catholic sites: I'm only including them as a convenient list for some analogous thoughts on what an 'unofficial' education in orthodoxy might look like and how it might be achieved. (And for any Anglicans dropping by!)






Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Untrustworthy atheists



                                                      Would I lie to you...?

As part of what sometimes seems to be a tsunami of secularist (ie atheist) nonsense (get rid of assemblies; discourage religious observance in schools etc), we now apparently have pressure to get rid of religious oaths in favour of a secular pledge.

Under Mr Abrahams’ proposal,  the holy books would be removed and the oath would read: ‘I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I understand that if I fail to do so I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison. [Mail on Sunday]

In Catholic terms, an oath is simply 'an invocation to God to witness the truth of a statement' (Catholic Encyclopedia). Now, a sensible thought on the subject of oaths and testimony in law courts is that it is in the interest of the state to get the witness to make the greatest commitment possible to uttering the truth. (The technical term for this, I believe, is commitment 'to the max'.) For Christians of most denominations (and many other theists) that means asking God to witness the truth of a testimony. I suspect that, for many others who do not exactly sign up to formal religion, asking God to witness the truth of a statement also adds something to the seriousness of the commitment. The neo-pagan druid, Arthur Pendragon, took his oath on (former film prop) Excalibur. Many Mafiosi, judging from several episodes of The Sopranos, would hesitate to break an oath on their mother's grave.

All this would suggest that we should leave things as they are: those who believe in God will swear by God. Those who don't will make some affirmation. But, in an article on the National Secular Society blog in 2012, the Scottish Advocate, Sean Templeton, made the following point (H/T: Law and Religion UK):

The problem with affirmation is that it sets a witness out and it instantly draws a great deal of attention to the fact that the person will not swear to God. It is a statement relating to a person's personality and belief that no other witness is required to make, unless it is a facet of the particular case. It is impossible to be certain that such an aspect of the witnesses' personality will not affect the views of some jurors as to the quality of their evidence. Those holding extremely strong (potentially bigoted) religious views may dismiss everything the witness says in light of their affirmation. Even if the juror is not that strongly affected, but still affected to a degree, then there is potential for an unfair verdict that need not exist in a modern legal system.

I suppose that someone holding 'bigoted' religious views might immediately distrust anything affirmed rather than sworn. Equally, someone of 'bigoted' atheist views might, like Dawkins,  dismiss Catholics as inherently untrustworthy child abusers: there are, indeed, many odd people in this world. But beyond these bigoted reactions, there does lie a truth that an atheist does not possess one motivation for truth telling that a theist does: fear and shame of lying in front of God. John Locke, that key figure of the Enlightenment, went as far as to exclude atheists from religious toleration on the ground of their consequent untrustworthiness:

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. [A Letter Concerning Toleration]

I wouldn't follow Locke in this, tempting though it is. I see no reason why an atheist can't promise. But certainly, he can't swear an oath ('an invocation to God...'). That's a pity and may provoke all sorts of thoughts among jurors and others about atheists, their characters and their attachment to morality with or without an oath. But the existence of such speculations are not sufficient to remove the state's interest in pursuing a public commitment of truth 'to the max'.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Thomistic manuals and Pope Francis




Of all the comments on Pope Francis' interview -well, OK, excluding Eccles' typically brilliant comic turn- Lee Faber's, in response to the Pope's talk about 'decadent textbooks', had me chuckling most:


Ouch! Even I, Scotist though I be, have spent many happy hours poring over Thomist manuals. I can only dream of such an education. [From The Smithy.]

Too right, bro'. I could probably claim a reasonable competence in both theology and philosophy in general, but I'm only a hobbyist when it comes to scholasticism. The thought of having had access to a thorough grounding in the discipline at a young age makes me go all tingly and regretful...


Anyway, as I mentioned in my own post, this remark of the Pope's sent me a pondering:

The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

Let's dig a little deeper. I'm currently reading Phillips' Modern Thomistic Philosophy (internet archive version of vol. 1, here). It's perhaps not typical of other manuals, particularly those that the future Father Jorge would have studied, but neither is it so far off that it's unusable as a concrete example. Its atypicality is that it is written in English rather than Latin and, unlike many earlier manuals, isn't laid out in an almost geometrical structure (for comparison, see Jouin's Compendium logicae et metaphysicae). It's therefore slightly more like a modern textbook than earlier manuals and, moreover, received the accolade of being included in the Thoemmes reprints of Modern Writings on Thomism in English, edited by John Haldane -so it's unlikely to be a complete duffer philosophically. (It was originally published in 1934.)

OK, that said, what's wrong with it? Well, looking at a schismatic ultra-Catholic seminary programme (which I take to be similar to a pre-Vatican II programme), the prospective Father Jorge would have been flung immediately into the intricacies of philosophy in the form of logic and cosmology. The Phillips' manual (unlike Jouin's) doesn't include logic, but it does start with cosmology. Now I'm coming at this with a fair philosophical background, but it still doesn't make it an easy read. It suffers from two main problems. Firstly, difficult issues are not explained at sufficient length for them to be fully comprehensible. Secondly, it is very rarely made clear why the various points that are being raised are important. For example, in a discussion of infinity, I could imagine that students might ultimately find it useful both in dealing with some aspects of arguments for the existence of God, or for dealing with modern science. But there is absolutely no hint of this: instead the student is left ploughing through dense material without much of a clue about where they'll end up and why.

Now I can imagine at least two possible replies here. Firstly, there is the 'Platonic' reply. By learning to apply themselves to the abstract and theoretical without the cheap allure of immediate usefulness, the student's mind is prepared for contemplation of divine things. (A bit of this still goes on in academic philosophy. I harbour a (doubtless unworthy) suspicion that, during my time as an undergraduate, the rather large first year class in philosophy was subjected to a deliberately dry curriculum as a pons asinorum: survive it, and you were allowed to enjoy the subject.) Secondly, there is the observation that these are texts which are taught: what is lacking in them is lacking because it was to be provided by the teaching of the lecturer.

Both of these points doubtless have some force. Students do have to learn to knuckle under to a discipline. But for those students for the priesthood who were not particularly attracted by hard abstract theological thought but simply wanted (eg) to serve their fellow man, it does seem an unnecessarily hard apprenticeship. Moreover, even if lecturers supplemented the texts, it seems reasonably clear from recollections such as the Pope's that this wasn't always done well; and that, moreover, that there is only so much such a supplement can do: cosmology is still cosmology.

I'm still mulling all this over. I have no doubt at all that the abandonment of an attempt to articulate Catholic philosophy and theology in a systematic way at least as a foundation for the life of a priest, religious and of an informed laity is the most serious lack in the modern Church, far, far more serious than any problems with the liturgy. Although the Catechism goes a long way to help here, it remains an essentially fideistic document: it does not give an explicit account of the philosophical, reasonable foundations of Catholicism as an ancilla theologiae. The obvious answer here is a return to something like these manuals, but that solution comes up against a continual insistence by many who encountered them as students of the deadening effects of their use, quite apart from the manifest failings I've mentioned above. (And it's hard to imagine present generations, even less well prepared for a systematic slog by modern education, finding the experience much better.) There's also the (not unrelated) problem of apologetics: if you are schooled in a system that has very little contact with the intellectual life of the culture around you, you may be able to salami slice their errors with complete accuracy, but have absolutely no chance of explaining these errors in a way that will get a hearing. In the end, I think this all boils down to my having a diagnosis (a poor standard of (religious) education among Catholics) but not much sense of what a practicable solution looks like. What, for example, should a Catholic, intelligent and well educated in secular terms, regard as a bare minimum of Catholic learning, and how should he or she go about getting it?

And as a final thought....

The Pope talks about the big picture and unconditional love, and I pick up on the need for nineteenth century neo-Scholastic manuals. Might it be suggested I'm rather missing the point? Well, in part, I'd plead guilty to that. I'm much happier fighting an intellectual culture war than actually loving people. That's why, whatever anyone else might say about the Pope, I'm happy he's there: I need him to remind me and challenge me in my own characteristic weaknesses. But beyond that, you can't take what is essentially a sermon and turn it into a rule book. Genuinely caring for people involves nasty technical things like building sewers and getting speed limits right. Equally, it involves getting education right as well as training for future leaders, lay and clerical. Working out what love requires of us involves a change of heart, but also hard, difficult thought and self-discipline. Making sure that you keep a broken and contrite heart does not mean keeping a sloppy mind. But it does mean going back to check regularly that the sharpness of your wits isn't shredding souls as well as errors.

Friday, 4 October 2013

From Neo-Nazi to Catholic: Joseph Pearce



Joseph Pearce is reasonably well known in Catholic circles: certainly he regularly crops up on EWTN and has written a good number of books over the years.

Although he'd mentioned a little of his background before in the National Front, it wasn't until reading his autobiography that I realized quite how  deep his involvement had been: two prison terms for inciting racial hatred; best friends with Nick Griffin; founder of the Front's youth paper, Bulldog etc, etc.

Anyway, the biography Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love is a terrific book: well written and managing to get the tone exactly right when talking about some of the vile things he got up to in his youth -neither glorifying in them nor trying to completely distance himself from them. He's undoubtedly very different from the neo-Nazi he was, but he doesn't pretend that he was an entirely different man.

There much that's fascinating about the detailed life of right wing activism in the 1970s and 1980s. (The obsession of the Front's 'Intellectuals' with Dawkins' The Selfish Gene makes for an odd interlude, as does Pearce's foray into the music business with Rock Against Communism.) But what really makes it is, of course, the story of how Pearce converted to Catholicism.

I can hear the sniggers from the liberal back at the suggestion that a conversion from Neo-Nazism to Catholicism amounts to a conversion rather than a mere switching of armbands. Well, read it and see what you think afterwards. What Pearce identifies as the key element in his conversion is being on the receiving end of other people's kindnesses: the policeman who lends him money for a football ticket; the Jewish lawyer who takes up, simply on principle, the case of Front members' violated civil rights. It is those contacts with loving individuals which brings him out of his ideology of hatred far more than anything else.

I can't recommend the book too highly on its own merits. But reading it did make me think of Pope Francis' emphasis on conversion through personal, non-judgmental encounter:

The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood. All are brothers and all children of God. Abba, as he called the Father. I will show you the way, he said. Follow me and you will find the Father and you will all be his children and he will take delight in you. Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.

It's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as hippy-dippy tripe -and of course it's not enough on its own: Pearce backed up these encounters with agape by reading deeply, particularly in Chesterton. But nonetheless, it was these encounters which broke through the carapace of hatred that he had found himself wrapped in. I think Chalcedon 451 is broadly right:

This is why, for all the doubts some have about him, I think Pope Francis is on the right lines. Anyone who thinks that the Catholic Church has been sending out the right message about its priorities to the world has been spending too much time away from the Gospels. Francis knows this. He knows, too, that unless we create a willingness to listen to what we have to say, the Church will continue to be ignored. He is willing to take the risk that liberals within the Church will interpret his words as being in line with their wishes, and that traditionalists will be dismayed. So be it, they are in the Church and can get on with it, his message is to the lost sheep, to the Prodigal Sons and Daughters, and the elder brothers and daughters ought, as Christians, to know this and get on with helping spread the world – not gossiping and back-biting.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Relic of St Faustina to be received in Edinburgh


A relic of St Faustina will be received into St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh this Saturday.

For full details of the programme, see here.

For further information  about St Faustina and the Divine Mercy Devotion, see here.