Sunday, 23 April 2017

Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday): sermon of Lancelot Andrewes

A brotherhood, we grant, was begun  then at Christmas by his birth, as upon that day, for 'lo then was he born'. But so was he now also at Easter; born then too, and after a better manner born.


There was then a new betting this day. And if a new begetting, a new paternity, and fraternity both. But the 'Today I have begotten thee' of Christmas, how soon was he born of the Virgin's womb he became our brother, sin except, subject to all our infirmities; so to mortality, and even to death itself. And by death that brotherhood had been dissolved, but for this day's rising. By the 'Today I have begotten thee' of Easter, as soon as he was born again of the womb of the grave, be begins a new brotherhood, founds a new fraternity straight; adopts us, we see, anew again by his 'my brethren' (John 20:17), and thereby he that was 'first-begotten from the dead' becomes 'the first-begotten' in this respect 'among many brethren' (Romans 8:20) Before he was ours, now we are his. That was by the mother's side; so, he ours. This is by 'your Father', the Father's side; -so, we his. But half-brothers before, never of the whole blood till now. Now by father and mother both, twin brothers, most fraternal brothers, we cannot be more.

To shut up all in a word, that of Christmas was the fraternity arising out of 'my God and your God'; so then brethren. This of Easter, adopting us to his Father, was the fraternity of 'my Father and your Father'; so brethren now.

[Excerpt from today's reading in the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham. 'A Sermon preached before the King's Majesty, at Whitehall, on the twenty-first of April A.D. MDCXXII, being Easter-Day'. (Many of Andrewes' sermons can be found online here. But not this one!)]

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday

O blessed day of the Resurrection, which of old time was called the Queen of Festivals, and raised among Christians an anxious, nay contentious diligence duly to honour it! Blessed day, once only passed in sorrow, when the Lord actually rose, and the disciples believed not; but ever since a day of joy to the faith and love of the Church! In ancient times, Christians all over the world began it with a morning salutation. Each man said to his neighbour, 'Christ is risen'; and his neighbour answered him, 'Christ is risen indeed, and hath appeared unto Simon'. Even to Simon, the coward disciple who denied him thrice, Christ is risen; even to us, who long ago vowed to obey him, and have yet so often denied him before men, so often taken part with sin, and followed the world, when Christ called us another way.

 'Christ is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon!': to Simon Peter the favoured Apostle, on whom the Church is built, Christ has appeared. He has appeared to his Holy Church first of all, and in the Church he dispenses blessings, such as the world knows not of. Blessed are they if they knew their blessedness, who are allowed, as we are, week after week, and Festival after Festival, to seek and find in that Holy Church the Saviour of their souls! Blessed are they beyond language or thought, to whom it is vouchsafed to receive those tokens of his love, which cannot otherwise be gained by man, the pledges and means of his special presence, in the Sacrament of his Supper; who are allowed to eat and drink the food of immortality, and receive life from the bleeding side of the Son of God!

[Extract from today's reading from the sermons of Blessed John Henry Newman in The Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham, p.319.]

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Sex (and Aristotle)

Mudblood Catholic (Gabriel Blanchard) is currently doing an excellent series of posts (first here) in response to Ed Feser's equally excellent natural law analysis of sex (best to start from this blogpost here accompanied by reading Feser's paper referred to in the article).

As Gabriel has not yet finished his series of posts and because I simply don't have the Lenten patience to give the topic a complete response, what follows is inevitably incomplete. Instead I'm going to focus on some key features of an Aristotelian reaction to what I've read so far, on the grounds that the Aristotelian background is sometimes assumed rather than stated by Aquinas' position (and thus sometimes overlooked by later Thomist thinkers) and, in any case, is of interest in itself. (It is of course anyway the privilege of an analytic Thomist not to be consistently Thomist and sometimes to try on the mantle of analytic Aristotelianism instead.) I'd stress that the following is simply a reflection on some points in the existing analyses: it claims neither completeness nor aspires directly to correct or refute either Feser or Blanchard.

The first thing to note is that Catholicism allows and even requires philosophical thinking in morality. There is a widely held non-Catholic suspicion that philosophy dies with Catholic dogmatic religion: that answers, being laid out and decided, form a telephone directory of morality rather than, say, the desperate existential, but open-ended quest that seems to typify the earlier dialogues of Plato. This is simply false as both the Blanchard/Feser exchange shows as well as does even a passing familiarity with the internal disputes of mediaeval scholasticism. Quite why this is so is a different matter and one that would require a much more extended discussion than I can provide here. But in any case (an insight I think I owe to Leo Strauss) unlike the legalised reasoning of Islam and Judaism, Christianity to a great extent can embrace the fluidity of the philosophical life in a way that these other revealed religions cannot: roughly, the tension between Athens and Jerusalem is one internal to Christianity and external to Judaism and Islam. So the first point is that understanding sex and the morality of sex for Catholics involves hard philosophical thought: it is not something that can be simply read off the page of a dogmatic codex. (I should note in passing that this philosophical requirement is not necessarily one for each individual but for the Church as a whole. I however pass over the details of this for the present.)  To translate this into Aristotelian terms, the tentativeness about moral reasoning that is found throughout the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics is one that is not foreign to Catholicism. To translate this into Blanchard/Feser terms, the debate between them is entirely to be expected and welcomed. As Gabriel notes:

I started having problems with it immediately, which was delicious. People don’t usually realize how spacious Catholicism really is. Seeing it from the outside, they perceive the dogmas merely as boundaries—and they are in one sense, but they are much more like LEGOs: the defined structure is what lets you do all the fun stuff.

The second thing to note is that, coupled with this philosophical openness is indeed a dogmatic certainty. In the present case, for example, homosexual intercourse is clearly morally wrong: I won't attempt to defend that here except to note that, for 2000 years, that's been the clear teaching. Whatever the philosophical openness, there is also a dogmatic closure. This element of brute assertion is also typical of Aristotle:

That is why in order to be a competent student of the noble and the just, and in short of the topics of politics in general, the pupil is bound to have been well trained in his habits. For the starting point is the fact that a thing is so; if this be satisfactorily ascertained, there will be no need also to know the reason why it is so. (EN I 1095b)

The combination of these first two points is that moral philosophy will have to deal with some moral truths being clearly established and yet the precise reasoning for those truths being open to the sort of fluidity of debate typical of philosophical discussion.

Related to those points is a third point: that what is clear to the wise (moral) person (phronimos) will not be clear to those who are not.

Virtue then is the settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man [phronimos] would determine it. (EN II 1106b-1107a)

Consequently the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced and elderly people, or of the prudent [phronimoi], are as much deserving of attention as those which they support by proof; for experience has given them an eye for things, and so they see correctly. (EN VI 1143b)

To sum all this up, there will be limits in what philosophical reasoning can establish, both in terms of coming to clear conclusions and in terms of coming to conclusions which might overthrow the common sense of the wise person. (At this point, we might add as Catholics, the certainties of revealed teaching will help. But the space for certainties intruding into philosophical reasoning from external wisdom has already been made by Aristotle.)

More specifically, in relation to the Blanchard/Feser debate, at some points, what will be clear to the clear sightedness of the moral will not be clear to those of us who are not so gifted. We may remain unconvinced by their arguments. But that does not mean that we are right not to be so convinced: such a failure is a result of our lack, either because we are corrupt or because we are in some other way impaired. As the modern neo-Aristotelian Rosalind Hursthouse puts it:

Aristotle's view allows that his answer will not work for everyone. It fails for two different sorts of people. One is the sort of person who has been sufficiently corrupted by their upbringing not to be able to see anything amiss in the life of the person who is 'successfully' non-virtuous...The other sort of person for whom Aristotle's answer may not work would be an 'unnatural' human being... (Hurthouse in Warburton, 2005, pp182-183)

Given the Catholic understanding of the effects of original sin, particularly on concupiscence, all of us are likely to find ourselves constantly wondering how many of our own judgments are thus impaired.

I now move on to a different aspect of the debate. One may be an Aristotelian either in believing that Aristotle has usefully set out a basic framework of approaching ethics, and/or in believing that how he applies that framework has produced useful results. So, for example, one might accept that the basic Aristotelian approach sketched above (and perhaps adding such matters as teleology) is a good approach to sexual ethics, while denying that the sort of traditional Aristotelian conclusions on such ethics are actually necessitated by such an approach. Aristotle's own treatment of sex, for example, is primarily set out in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics where it is seen as part of the overarching concept of philia (friendship) rather than through, say, the prism of Lewis' The Four Loves. It would be perfectly possible to argue that Aristotle is correct in his basic approach to ethics while suggesting that the treatment of sexual ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics is inadequate. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that sexual ethics is adequately treated by Aristotle because he says very little indeed about it. That said, I am going to argue that what Aristotle does say provides a rather more helpful starting point than (say) Lewis' divisions between the four various types of love (which form an important part of Blanchard's analysis).

Aristotle's analysis of friendship divides it into three main types: that of virtue, that of pleasure and that of usefulness. The friendship of husband and wife is, in terms of its function, one of pleasure (obvious), one of usefulness (both in procreation and other support) and also potentially of virtue 'if the partners be of high moral character' (EN VIII 1162a). A number of points emerge from this analysis.

First, a philosophical analysis can be useful for what it leaves out or passes over as well as for what it includes. I confess that Aristotle's rather brisk way with sexual feelings and romantic attraction attracts me. As he says elsewhere:

We must therefore be content if, in dealing with subjects and starting from premises thus uncertain, we succeed in presenting a broad outline of the truth...for it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits (EN I 1094b).

That many writers over the years have agonised over the nuances of romantic sensibility does not mean that every nuance so produced is worthwhile: in addition to the erratic nature of the sensibilities of fallen humanity, in general some oversensitivity to detail will tend to disguise the core of the matter. (I find for example the erotic hesitancies and wanderings of Iris Murdoch's characters often intensely irritating in this way and long for a brisk sensibility such as that of Flora Poste.)

Secondly, sex is analysed primarily through the household and the nucleus of that household, the man/woman couple. In essence, this is because the tele (ends) of the organism and parts of the organism make sense within an overall ordering of the cosmos: the species imitates eternity by its eternal existence while its members undergo a cycle of birth, procreation and death. The individual's life takes place within the social units of (eg) the state and the household, which themselves have goals and to which the individual's actions are subordinated and contribute. In other words, sexual activity and the proper use of the sexual organs forms part of an ordered structure of the universe and cannot be understood or even noticed apart from that structure.

Why does that matter? Well, take Blanchard's following observation:

Thirdly—and this is a lesser point, but it’s important, given the claims made by Neo-Scholasticism for what shows something to be natural—it must be pointed out, as a matter of historical record, that romantic love was not regarded as a dignified or spiritual phenomenon until the twelfth century, at least in Christendom and its Euro-Levantine predecessors—except, in Greece and later in Rome, for homosexual Eros. To revere romantic love, that fanatical, self-abasing, inconstant, reckless, and involuntary phenomenon, was as ridiculous to our Christian ancestors of the early Middle Ages as it was to their pagan ancestors of the classical era. Nor, until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was the romantic tradition linked to marriage even by Romantics; for the Troubadours who originated the tradition of courtly love, adultery was of its essence. The idea that Eros is shown by actual human habits to be naturally directed toward marriage is an artifact of a long and localized cultural development—or, more bluntly, pure moonshine.

Now I take an Aristotelian response here to be something along the following lines. People have all sorts of desire for pleasure. To the extent that romantic love is just a desire for pleasure, it hardly matters. (One might as well worry about the finer points of playing tiddly winks. Even if you are very keen on tiddly winks, it still doesn't matter that much.) It does matter to the extent that it is directed or can be directed towards one of the great ends of human nature. The most obviously relevant one here is that of creating the household (and thus ensuring the continuity of the species by procreation and education of the children). The erotic disorder of romantic love needs to be canalised to that end. (And despite the received wisdom that in long term marriages, such romantic intensity burns low after the initial turbulence, as a member of such a long term relationship, I think I'd have to say that, in many ways, though undoubtedly canalised towards sustaining a childbearing household, its intensity has grown to an extent I never would have dreamed of as being possible those many years ago.)

But in addition to that creation of the household, Aristotle would also have pointed to the greatest end of human beings as being relevant here: that of the contemplation of divine things (EN X 1177a). That contemplation is easier with a few co-workers (1177b) but in general requires minimal external help.

But the friendship of the good is good and grows with their interaction. And they seem actually to become better by putting their friendship into practice, and because they correct each other's faults, for each takes the impress from the other of those traits in him that give him pleasure -whence the saying:

             Noble deeds from noble men.

(EN IX 1172a)

The telos of contemplation is aided by having a few friends. That is possible within a good marriage (although it is certainly not either exclusive to marriage or indeed necessary to marriage). The household by its other directedness of procreation and education of children disciplines romantic love towards the second best life of active moral virtue (EN X 1178a). In the best scenario, it can also discipline romantic love towards the end of contemplation. Both those ends matter because they fit into the wider pattern of the cosmos (through the imitation of eternity in procreation and death, and in the imitation of god by contemplation of the divine). To the extent that romantic love can be turned towards those great ends, it matters. But to the extent it cannot, it is only a constellation of bodily pleasures, the precise nature of which hardly matters at all. (So to take up Blanchard's point, that romantic love is only a comparative late comer to our cultural imaginary and to our understanding of marriage is really neither here nor there: only to the extent that it fits in with the understanding of human teleology sketched above should it be be attended to. However marriage as the possible site of important and virtuous friendship is there in Aristotle, and. I'd suggest, it is this rather than the focus on romantic love which provides a sounder base for the analysis of marriage's (and hence sex's) importance.)

Let me try to sum up the main points of this post:

1) An Aristotelian analysis of love (and of other things) will not always be obvious to all people (or indeed in parts to anyone!) It requires hard philosophical thought and debate. (And may need to be resolved by the assertion of the wise or revelation.)

2) Aristotle's own analysis of romantic love is quite coarse grained and leaves out a lot of detail that later thinkers might introduce. This may well be an advantage.

3) For any human activity, it is always necessary to ask towards what goal it is directed. That direction in turn will fit into a wider, teleological understanding of the universe as a whole. Without that understanding of the whole, it is likely that the telos (and thus nature) of the part will be misunderstood.

4) Sexual attraction is to be analysed primarily in the context of the procreating household and the establishment of the male/female pair. Other cases are of marginal importance.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Plutarch on post truth


And why should any one be astonished that men of wanton life lose no occasion for offering up sacrifices, as it were, of contumelious abuse of their superiors, to the evil deity of popular envy...?      To such degree, it seems, is truth hedged about with difficulty and hard to capture by research, since those who come after the events in question find that lapse of time is an obstacle to their proper perception of them; while the research of their contemporaries into men's deeds and lives, partly through envious hatred and partly through fawning flattery, defiles and distorts the truth.

Plutarch, Pericles, 13 (here) (Greek text: here)

Quanquam quid attinet admirari homines instituto vitae satyricos, quique obtrectationes potentium invidiae vulgi, tanquam alcui malo genio, consecrare solerent...? Adeo difficilis investigatu res est historia vera, cum posterioribus praeteritum tempus, cognitionem rerum praeripiat, qui vero aequales sunt ejus, cujus vitam aut actum describunt, ii partim invidia odioque, partim gratificandi studio et adulatione corrupti, veritati officiant.

(Latin translation p192 here)

Notable for the tendency relatively absent in modern discussions to attribute the difficulty in finding truth largely to personal vices. Again, there is an emphasis on the general bad character (rather than occasional loss of control) of those standing in the way of truth, as well as a hint of idolatrous worship of the δαίμονι κακῷ/malo genio ('evil deity'). Moreover the role of 'fawning flattery' is raised: I suspect the role of this desire to please others is an often overlooked part of online dogpiles. (The phrase 'virtue signalling' for example emphasises our expressiveness rather than trying to please the person(s) signalled to.) And, of course, no modern discussion would countenance the idea that much of this is directed against those above us in an objectively existing hierarchy: the Greek uses the word 'blasphemy' (τὰς κατὰ τῶν κρειττόνων βλασφημίας).

The point of quoting this...? Well, the general suspicion that viewing the present through the prism of antiquity can provide a healthy corrective to our own smallmindedness. (And providing a Latin translation...? It's incredibly unlikely that we're ever going to recover the level of familiarity with Greek that previously existed amongst educated people. But a certain familiarity with Latin and a willingness to get more I suspect is achievable, certainly among Catholics. So here's a stone in that particular cairn.)

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Modern politics as entertainment: just for the lolz



Although the general claim that  modern politics is becoming part of the entertainment continuum has often been made, I don't think I've come across the specific claim that I'm going to make here: that much of the alt-right phenomenon is at least analogous to (and perhaps even caused by) that broad laddish stream of comic flyting and insult found in comedy rap artists such as Eminem and (the Welsh) Goldie Lookin Chain. (I appreciate there's a difference between the two in that comedy is merely part of Eminem's modus operandi while it pretty much exhausts GLC's. It's a difference I'm not going to address.)

I confess that, although I find much of the performance of the alt-right etc at best trivial and at worst downright dangerous, I don't generally find it shocking. (Well, sometimes. The anti-Semitism often strikes home as unusually crude.) Part of the reason for this, I'm beginning to suspect, is the fact that I rather enjoy -and I'm slightly ashamed to say this- artists such as Eminem and GLC.

For example, if you examine Eminem's lyrics for * My Name is... (1998) or * Just Lose it (2004) you'll find a sort of comic, overdeveloped male bravado that would leave most progressives gasping. GLC's * Your Mother's Got a P***s (2004) is again simply a mickey taking of transexuality that probably doesn't go down well these days outside Newport. Now certainly, you can argue about the details of this (not all features of the alt-right exist in these artists, and there are other 'laddish' peformances (like the now defunct Loaded) that would also have to be mentioned in a comprehensive argument. But whatever the differences, there is a certain tone of bravado and mickey taking that links these performances with alt-right politics as performed by Milo Yianopoulos and even Donald Trump. (I'm not going to overpush the argument by suggesting that the relatively high UKIP and Brexit vote in Wales is linked to GLC however tempting that might be.)

Why's this important? Well, I'm not completely sure -which is why I'm putting the idea out there for further exploration. But here's a first stab. The self image of the age is that progressive values have triumphed and that only tweed clad homophobes of a certain age entertain nostalgia for the past glories of Alf Garnett etc. In particular, the world of the arts and culture in general is supposedly dominated by progessive values and sensibilities. One explanation of the above might be that that was (roughly) the early 2000s and things have moved on. Possibly. But that note of male mockery (and even female: the gross out comedy of Drifters is an example) still goes on, hidden in plain sight. It's not exactly conservative: there's an enjoyment of crudity and subversion that is profoundly unconservative. (But then, is Trump a conservative?) But what there is is a chaotic subversion of everything, of every pomposity, standard and even (especially) of taking oneself too seriously that doesn't sit well with the bien pensants of (say) Radio 4 comedy.

There was much talk a while back of South Park Republicans: I have seen at least one article since then which identifies them as a precursor of the alt-right.The usual description of them is as libertarians, but this mistakes what I take to be a consequence of their views as a foundation for them. If the correct analysis is of a movement based on a tone or attitude (basically being wind up merchants of conventional pieties) then that attitude is certainly going to push you towards demanding liberty of speech (and to a lesser extent action), but the tone comes first.  If South Park Republicans are a precursor of the alt-right, then they are that less because they are Republicans and more because they are part of a grand tradition of wind up and sneering that goes through Beavis and Butt-Head and exploitation movies and ultimately to the old desire of épater la bourgeoisie.

If you think the culture war is between Shakespeare and Elvis, then Elvis has won. If, on the other hand, you think the culture war is between the modern pieties of progressivism and lewd anarchism, then I'm not so sure there has yet been a victory. But if Trump etc truly has emerged from that background, then it is a background that has not so much been hiding among the critter eatin' backwoodsmen of Swamp Town America, but in the light of day of the catalogues of multi-national entertainment giants.

And given that this attitude has been hiding in plain sight, why are we so surprised when it has obvious political effects?

[NB: Update: I've had this as a draft post for quite a while. If I were to rewrite it, I'd probably make it less based on rap and more on wider cultural performances including Grindhouse movies. But the central point remains: that there has been hiding in plain sight for a number of years a cultural movement whose rebellious, anarchic tone is not progressive and which may well be a key factor in current politics.]

For the strong (see above warnings about language etc):

Friday, 3 February 2017

The protester as hero

The recent 'troubles' both worldwide as a result of Donald Trump's election and within the Catholic Church as a result of Pope Francis' actions made me think quite how powerful the archetype of The Protester (and of his cousin, The Rebel) has become within modern culture.

That's rather odder than might appear. Disagreement is an inevitable part of human societies. But it's hard to think of many other cultures which privilege 'protest' as the appropriate reaction to such disagreement. The quadricentenary of Bishop Sancroft's birth recently reminded me of the non-juring attachment to passive obedience. I confess to a long standing irritation with the fame of the suffragettes as opposed to the relative neglect of the suffragists:

The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully with posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings.


Since the 1960s, there has been a gradual increase in the sense that protest, particularly violent, highly emotional protest, is the proper way to settle disagreement. I can quite understand that many people object to Donald Trump as US President. But that disagreement was subjected to a democratic test and Trump won. Whatever path the losers of such a test now follow ought surely to take account both of the democratic result and the need to preserve the order of the American republic: in short, if everytime you dislike your leader you 'protest' and 'resist', it's hard to see how a republic can survive.

Protest, particularly mass public protest suffers from two main defects. It is disruptive of order, and civic peace is perhaps the main desideratum of public life. Moreover it tends to be blunt: I'm not at all sure what the Women's March recently was objecting to precisely (besides losing the election), still less what it proposed to put in its place.

I suppose (though I'm not completely convinced) that there is a place for The Protester. But I'm sure it's not so great a place as is currently given. If we are to have a pantheon of political role models, let's emphasize a bit more those who conform for the sake of peace, those who bite their tongues and those who compromise.  That goes for both 'sides': if a boorish, expressive individualism characterises much of the reaction to Trump, it also characterises much of the Trump phenomenon as well.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Manent Mercerdi (8): Contemporary Thinkers website

As part of my regular plug for the work of French Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent, I include this week an excerpt from an essay about him from the excellent website Contemporary Thinkers. (This website contains material on a wide range of modern political thinkers. Its companion, Great Thinkers, contains similarly helpful material on pre-twentieth century political thinkers.)

In Manent’s more recent works, Democracy without Nations? (2006, trans. 2007) and especially A World without Politics?: A Defense (2001, trans. 2006), he has explored the “political forms”—city, empire, church, and nation—through which human beings decide on matters of common importance. The most recent political form, the nation, has started to become questionable. One immoderate interpretation of the historical destiny of democracy argues against the rationality of national boundaries. “Pure democracy,” Manent writes of this view, “is democracy without a people—that is, democratic governance, which is very respectful of human rights but detached from any collective deliberation.”

But as a point of fact, the nation-state and not “democratic governance” has produced the framework within which Western peoples became modern. Only the modern state asserted sovereignty over all parts within it, yet retained the integrity of those parts through its representative character. What concerns Manent is the replacement of the sovereign state and representative government by a manner of governance “more and more functional-bureaucratic and less and less political.” In place of a sovereign people, a “procedural democracy” has appeared that allows a people to make a democratic choice only when that choice reflects a preexisting conclusion from universal human rights.


Today, Manent argues, the principles of democratic equality and scientific rule, when taken to their conclusions, threaten to do away with the political framework through which we have always decided matters of common importance. When decisions are made on the basis of global human rights or the prescriptions of technocratic science, the political form is lost. Yet, we have no political history outside the political forms that have shaped the West. To abandon them in favor “humanity” is a risk whose consequences we may not be prepared to fathom.

[From essays by Gladden Pappin on Manent here]

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Amoris laetitia and the flight of the alone to the alone

                                                       Sancte Blimp, ora pro nobis

I enjoyed (both as substantive advice and paradoxical non-silence) Artur Rosman's blogpost 'Have you tried shutting up?' It sums up much of what I feel about the current state of affairs in many areas: too much chatter to too little purpose. But still. One cannot always be wise.

There has been a little flow of Catholic commentary along the lines of 'the current crisis over Amoris Laetitia shows how great Catholic traditionalism is and how conservative (non-traditionalist) Catholics now need to stop sitting on various fences and stop trying to square the circle of reconciling the modern Church with traditional, orthodox Catholicism'.

To even set up this question requires a firm distinction between conservative Catholicism and traditionalist Catholicism. The most obvious difference (and possibly in the end the only one) is the acceptance of the Ordinary Form of the Mass: I count as a conservative Catholic because I attend the Ordinary Form; another counts as a Traditionalist because she or he attends the Extraordinary Form, the Latin Mass. 

I'm not quite sure about this. It's hard to imagine a genuine conservative who would be hostile to the Latin Mass. I think I've made clear before that I don't think returning to the pre-Vatican II mass is the answer to Church decline, but I'm not at all hostile to the thought that it might help. And in any case, I'm perfectly happy for anyone who wishes to try this: it may well be part of an answer. My reasons for not regularly attending the Extraordinary Form of the Mass are more about loyalty to my existing parish, familiarity, not wishing to separate myself from the majority of Catholics and just being a little sceptical about anything which claims to be simply better. There is probably also a lingering sense, from my Anglican days and from my days as a literate Atheist, that religion can be done perfectly well in English and has been so far as literary quality is concerned. All these strike me as perfectly sensible and recognisable conservative reactions.

Added to that, there is a conservative horror at unrest and murmuring against hierarchy. Whatever else might be said about current reactions to Amoris Laetitia, I find it difficult to see how engendering an attitude of disloyalty to bishops and the papacy is going to help the Church in the long run. Conservatives ought to be well aware at the unavoidable frailties of human hierarchies whatever divine assistance they might receive. But the difference between the ancients and the moderns is that the ancients knew how to live with the necessary absurdities of hierarchies whilst the moderns do not. Moreover, whatever might be said about popes, bishops and priests is, in the end, mostly about a lack of effective action to save the laity from itself. Whatever wild and wacky ideas may be found in the teaching hierarchy of the Church, they are considerably fewer than the wild and wacky ideas found in the laity.

So when I see ill-tempered attacks on the papacy and hierarchy due to Amoris Laetitia and how various local bishops are interpreting it, my general reaction is that the ill-temper is harmful, that we need all to remember the difference between an attack and well-intentioned criticism, and that whatever the faults of Amoris Laetitia, they are mostly those of lacks which, if, as we travel down the pyramid of authority in the Church, were they not met by greater failings in those receiving the document, would have few if any ill effects.

Let's take the latest interpretation from the Maltese bishops for example:

In a new document, Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, the bishops say that if “a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are [sic] at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist”.

Now if we were dealing with a traditionally formed laity, that might be interpreted something like this:

If you can twist your own conscience into deluding yourself you can take communion in an adulterous relationship, then there's very little in practice we can do to stop you. But do remember the following:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 KJV

Let me make it absolutely clear: I regret the lack of clarity which allows Amoris Laetitia to be interpreted as allowing communion to those who have been civilly 'divorced' and 'remarried'. But that lack of clarity is only really dangerous because existing lay and clerical Catholic life is as lax as it is and has been for a while. The past few popes have been seen as bulwarks against the waves of infidelity which have been crashing on decks for a while. If that particular defence is less effective at the moment than it might have been, the main problem is the waves, not the defences (which, whatever the intentions, have not been very effective in their results in the past anyway).

Here's another aspect of the conservative as opposed to Traditionalist approach. Vatican II might be seen as the acceptance of the subjective turn into mainstream Catholic life. It might also be seen as advocating a greater role for the laity. Both of those might be regarded as part of a conservative mood which values individualism and is sceptical of the effectiveness of centralised power. If 'Traditional' Catholicism suffered from externally imposed rules, 'conservative' Catholicism fully accepts that strand of conservative thinking that endorses Plotinus' view of life as the flight of the Alone to the Alone, the individual soul to God. If marriage is to be saved, and adultery to be avoided, in the end, it is only the well formed conscience of the laity that can do that.

And this leads me, finally, to some well intentioned criticism of my own about Amoris Laetitia and its 'progressive' interpreters. In the end, what matters most is sin, not admission to communion. Teaching on marriage and divorce should not be primarily about creating a pastoral process where a priest leads a parishioner to retake to sacraments, but to a sinner's exploration of conscience sometimes, but not usually with a priest. (Really, how likely is this in depth 'pastoral process' going to be in the realities of modern parish life? Unless the laity are equipped to take it seriously for themselves, sprinkling on a few minutes with a priest every couple of weeks is not going to turn thjs into deep reflection.) And here, clarity of reasoning does matter, because that is an important part of how the sinner is going to reflect.

In that light, the important questions are going to start with: Am I still married? Amoris Laetitia seems to rather fudge this. If I am still married to X, but am now in a (sort of conjugal) relationship with Y, being admitted to communion is the least of my problems. If I am still married, then I have responsibilities to X and am in a less than ideal situation (to put it at its least) with Y. Taking communion will not relieve me of these realities. Say, for example, that after ten years of receiving the 'mercy' of communion, I see a way of breaking up with Y. Should I take it? (Do we need another pastoral process to discern this?) If, having lived apart from X, I meet Y for the first time, should I resist my attraction to him? (Whether or not I might be able to receive communion eventually is surely a secondary question to whether or not pressing forward with that attraction is going to lead to some sort of sinful result.)

Does the matter of my reflection in these circumstances still rest on two principles: that marriage can not be dissolved and that sex outside marriage is wrong? If it doesn't, what should I be reflecting on instead? Proper responsible discernment requires this sort of precise, philosophical self-questioning. Instead of encouraging that and a responsible, reflective and (taken properly) autonomous laity, we seem to have a sort of slot machine clericalism where the primary issue is no longer right or wrong action and a proper understanding of marriage, but rather getting the sacraments and getting the priest to tell you it's fine (although you might be quite hard put to explain precisely why it is fine, except that it 'feels right' and Father Fred agrees).

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

 The Year of the Whale
The old go, one by one, like guttered flames.
    This past winter
        Tammag the bee-man has taken his cold blank mask
             To the honeycomb under the hill,
   Corston who ploughed out the moor 
        Unyoked and gone; and I ask,
    Is Heddle lame, that in youth could dance and saunter 
        A way to the chastest bed?
The kirkyard is full of their names
              Chiselled in stone. Only myself and Yule
                  In the ale-house now, speak of the great whale year. 

This one and that provoked the taurine waves
    With an arrogant pass,
        Or probing deep through the snow-burdened hill
           Resurrected his flock,
                Or passed from fiddles to ditch
        By way of the quart and the gill,
    All night lay tranced with corn, but stirred to face
                     The brutal stations of bread;
While those who tended their lives
        Like sacred lamps, chary of oil and wick,
            Died in the fury of one careless match.

Off Scabra Head the lookout sighted a school 
    At the first light.
        A meagre year it was, limpets and crows
            And brief mottled grain.
               Everything that could float 
        Circled the school. Ploughs
    Wounded those wallowing lumps of thunder and night.
                The women crouched and prayed.
Then whale by whale 
        Blundering on the rock with its red stain
           Crammed our winter cupboards with oil and meat. 

George Mackay Brown
from The Year of the Whale (Chatto & Windus, 1965), and included in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2005)
[from the Scottish Poetry Library here]

Joseph Pearce provides apposite commentary:
Rejecting the illusion of progress, which he believed would be “choked at last in its own too much”, George Mackay Brown wrote works of rare beauty in which the rootedness of place is seen as the wellspring of true culture. A native of the Orkney Islands who seldom left their shores, Brown drew on their rich history and ruggedly isolated terrain for much of his work.
In Brown’s poetry and prose, the soil and the soul are in mystical communion, the bread and the breath, shining forth the enduring glory of God in the midst of all that is mortal and mutable.


There is much that I'd like to say at the beginning of this New Year and will no doubt say some of it as the year goes on. But for the moment, I'll leave it at this reminder of permanent things, together with a plea that as Catholics and Scots (or whatever) we do not lose sight of them in the unavoidable yet dangerous seduction of chatter.