Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Authorised Version

One of the finest and most consistently intelligent Catholic blogs The Thirsty Gargoyle comments unfavourably on Michael Gove’s apparent intention to send every school in England a copy of the King James Bible. Noting that Richard Dawkins is a fan of the KJV, The Thirsty Gargoyle continues:

It seems the Education Secretary is on the same page as Professor Dawkins on this matter. He may be an Anglican rather than an Atheist, but it can hardly be on confessional grounds that he proposes that Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and secular schools should have specifically Anglican versions of the Bible on their shelves. To him the King James Bible is a cultural resource around which all English people should be able to unite.

The problem, of course, is that despite what Mister Gove may think and what Professor Dawkins may claim, that’s not what the Bible’s for, and it should bother Christians to see any version of it being promoted as such. The King James Bible may well have supplied rhythms and metaphors for three centuries of English writers, but it was not created with such an end in mind, and it is profoundly disrespectful to the Bible to dragoon it into the service of a nostalgic nationalism or to reduce it to a mere piece of literature, no matter how beautiful…

If we care about the Bible, we should care about how it's taught. This is a bad idea.

There a few issues here that could do with being separated out. Firstly, there is the question of the effectiveness of sending one book to every school in England. Over the years, my own children have been subject to various dishings out of free books at school. I have a vague memory of at least one of them getting a book when a new born on the ground that it would encourage him to read. I’m not at all sure that such tokenistic schemes ever work, and, on that level, I’m not at all sure that sending a book to every school will lead to more than another random volume gathering dust somewhere in a school cupboard.

But putting aside the effectiveness of the suggestion, is it a good idea to promote study of the KJV within schools? If, say, schools were really encouraged to think carefully about how to bring the book into the school curriculum, would this be a good or bad thing? The Gargoyle is surely right in pointing out that some ways of teaching the Bible would be clearly wrong from a Catholic point of view. If, eg, a course was designed by the National Secular Society which studied the Bible simply to expose its internal contradictions and its childish world view, no Catholic would think this a good thing. But Gove’s suggestion doesn’t seem to be quite that:

It's a thing of beauty, and it's also an incredibly important historical artefact. It has helped shape and define the English language and is one of the keystones of our shared culture. And it is a work that has had international significance. Guardian

Now again, one could imagine using the KJV as a basis for a sort of extreme Christian British Nationalism, and, again, that would be something that no Catholic should accept. But Gove’s words don’t support this interpretation: instead he simply seems to be suggesting emphasizing a) its central place in English history; b) its literary beauty; c) its defining role in a shared (English? British?) culture. Of these, a) seem pretty unobjectionable: the Bible and in particular the KJV has been historically important. c) is clearly the most problematic, but to note that it is problematic is not to deny its truth. It has been a key element in promotion of a British, Protestant culture. To note that, and to think about that is not to endorse that. Gove presumably is going to be rather more favourably inclined to the idea of a Protestant, British culture than either I or the Gargoyle is going to be. So if the KJV is going to be used as a prop for the promotion of a rather dumb version of Protestant Unionism, it wouldn’t be a good thing. But that goes beyond anything that has been actually suggested. Gove will pen a couple of lines for an introduction. The Bibles will be sent out. Nothing appears to have been said about what schools should do with them and, whilst I would concur with the point that they shouldn’t use them to promote British, Protestant Nationalism, there are many other things that schools could do with them which are both serious and worthwhile.

So we are left with b): its literary beauty. Here, the Gargoyle seems to be worried about its being reduced to a mere piece of literature. Again, one can imagine ways in which this could be done badly: a course based on showing that it was just a well written piece of fiction, would be objectionable. However, what seems more likely is that any course of study would involve studying it (to use the religious studies jargon) as an outsider rather than as an insider who believed in its status as holy writ.

Undoubtedly, this can be corrupting of religious belief. Perhaps one of the key ways in which modernity eviscerates religious belief is by studying it. When I went round the Museum of Scotland with my children, I fumed (inwardly and out loud) about the sort of notice affixed to items of Christian worship which always managed to be expressed in the past tense: ‘Catholics used this in the Mass. They believed that…’etc. Little by little, we become that outsider, staring in at the bizarre and colourful antics of a long dead tribe. Charmed, perhaps, but only by the memory of a thing long gone. But such an attitude is so deeply involved in so much of the Western education system, both in schools and universities, that the addition of the KJV to the pile of primitive art to be scrutinized at an emotional and intellectual distance raises few new problems. On any assessment simply of historical or literary value, the KJV deserves a place in the curriculum, particular for any child destined to study the humanities beyond school. If the outsider attitude is the problem, then that is not solved by excluding the KJV, any more than it would be solved by excluding study of any British history.

Turning to the literary merit of the KJV, again, there are a number of issues to be separated out. There is much to be said for simply understanding and knowing the Bible: an acquaintance with its stories is at the very least useful in the appreciation of much Western art. To an extent, the archaic nature of the KJV both supports and undermines such an endeavour. It supports it by encouraging attention to its aesthetic rather than theological qualities. It undermines it by making comprehension more difficult. On the other hand, there is the aesthetic quality of the KJV edition itself. Parts of it are, straightforwardly, beautifully written. Parts of it have taken on a resonance by familiarity and being built into the foundations of the English language. As a document of modern English in a key formative stage, it is valuable simply as an exercise in historical linguistics.

The main suspicions about Gove’s use of the KJV rather than some more modern translation centre on the two issues of aestheticism and traditionalism in religion. Certainly, there are dangers in both. It is quite possible to become intent on cultural values at the expense of service to God. This is a danger that can be observed in modern Anglo-Catholicism (where a focus on form is sometimes achieved at the expense of any substantive tradition in ethics or theology) and in traditional Catholic circles where beautiful liturgy is sometimes purchased at the cost of embracing the attitude once referred to in Anglican circles as ‘spiky’. But to note that there are dangers in the aesthetic and the traditional is not to claim that they are essentially harmful. Any religion such as Catholicism which claims that God is manifest in the forms of the created world needs to think seriously about aesthetics. Any religion which is founded upon a deposit of faith given to the Apostles and to be handed on intact needs to think seriously about tradition. Abusus non tollit usum.

The establishment of the Ordinariate gives an opportunity for some of the fruits of the Protestant Reformation to be brought back into the mainstream of Catholic Christianity. The Protestant Reformations in the British Isles didn’t do much for the visual culture, and, arguably, not much for the musical culture either. But they did produce work of startling literary merit in the KJV and Cranmer’s Prayer Book with Coverdale’s Psalms. (And as a Scot, I would add to that the Metrical Psalms of the Kirk.) Bringing the literary merits of the KJV to a wider population would be no bad thing. I doubt that it will in fact happen through Gove’s modest proposal. But as someone who found God, in part, through the literary merit of writers such as Hopkins, I regard aesthetic value as a key way of seeing God, particularly in works such as the KJV where the beauty of the form is so closely intertwined with the content of the divine that it is hard to discern where one stops and the other begins.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Sunt lacrimae rerum...

I've always had a slight tendency to well up with tears on utterly inappropriate occasions. I have particular difficulty with samurai films and the film 'Zulu'. Indeed, when the latter was reshown recently on TV, I rediscovered with my youngest child a problem I'd had with the older ones: trying to explain the complexities of British Imperial policy in Africa whilst trying to disguise the fact that I was choking with emotion at the events at Rorke's Drift.

These are usually mere sniffles. But on two occasions within the last few years, I actually found myself sobbing quite violently and without much warning. Linen on the Hedgerow reminded me of one: the photographs of the martyrdom of Blessed Miguel Pro (whose feast is today). The collection that did it can be found here. In particular, the following photo:

I suppose some of the reasons are obvious: the poignancy of the exact moment of death; the helplessness of a young man in the prime of his life etc. Nothing unusual in many ways, but it still profoundly affects me.

The other occasion? Reading this for the first time:

Manning married Mrs. Sargent's granddaughter, Caroline, 7 November, 1833,in a ceremony performed by the bride's brother-in-law, Samuel Wilberforce,later Bishop of Oxford and Winchester. Manning's marriage did not last long: his young and beautiful wife came of a consumptive family, and died childless (24 July, 1837).

When Manning died so many years later 
[in 1892], for decades a celibate Roman Catholic clergyman, a locket containing his wife's picture was found on a chain around his neck.

Atheists reading this will doubtless find it confirmed that I'm nuts. I will go on thinking that anyone who doesn't find such things profoundly moving is simply not feeling the right emotions, at the right time and in the right way  as required by Aristotle and modern virtue ethics.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Make your views known NOW on same sex marriage

The Scottish government consultation on same sex marriage closes on 9 December. Please make your individual response NOW. A simplified form is available here. The full consultation form is available here.

1) Despite the Church having sent many thousands of cards from individual Catholics protesting the introduction of same sex marriage, it has been decided that they will only count as one submission. This makes it imperative that as many Catholics as possible make their views known individually.[29/11: See update below.]

2) The simplified form (from the Christian Institute) states that only Scottish residents can take part. I can see no basis for this claim in any of the material I have read. Whilst I am open to correction on this, given the prominent interventions by many US pro-gay activists in the comboxes of the Scottish press, I see no reason why anyone who cares about this issue shouldn't submit a response. (Scotland's reputation worldwide is clearly relevant to this process.) If you use the simplified form, it will take only a few minutes of your time.[See update below.]

3) Full details of all this here from the Defend Marriage in Scotland website.

[Update 29 Nov: Postcard responses apparently will be counted. Non-Scottish residents are able to submit responses. See Defend Marriage site for details here and here.]

Friday 18 November 2011

Killing Care Bears and destroying rainbows

                              Nasty people hurt Care Bears and want to stop gay marriage

In the absence of many good arguments for same sex ‘marriage’, one tactic that’s becoming widespread is, for want of a better term, what I shall call the ‘clubbing Care Bears’ argument. In this argument, the opponent of same sex ‘marriage’ is portrayed as the sort of vile person who wants to destroy other people’s happiness and, if given the opportunity, would club Care Bears.

A good example of this was in Scotland on Sunday (13 November 2011) in a column written by Fiona Leith (not online). Having rabbited on to no good purpose for half the article, she hits her stride with:

Who sits on a church pew or stands at a lochside, as vows are spoken and song sung, questioning whether that pair up there will conform to society’s norms? A wedding day is about acceptance –theirs of each other, and ours of them.

Who indeed? What vile, heartless rogue would do such a thing? Well, step forward Bashir Maan, ‘the enlightened Maan’, according to Fiona Leith’s terminology.

Bashir Maan has been a prominent figure in both the Muslim community and Scottish life in general since the 1960s. He, unfortunately in Fiona Leith’s worldview, also happens to be a devout Muslim who takes his religion seriously on sexual ethics. For making the objection that marriage between partners of the same sex couldn’t perform the purpose of procreation, he is ridiculed by Leith:

How desperate, dour and damning an expression of faith and love is that? What in that recognises the humanity, soul, care and compassion that marriage can bring?...What is the certainty that can be sought from marriage other than love? And even that certainty doesn’t always last. Procreation is biology. Existence. We learn about it next to Bunsen burners and periodic tables. They didn’t teach love and marriage in the classroom last time I checked. For good reason.

It’s hard to make much sense of this, other than a sort of prolonged sob at how lovely the bride looks in her dress (or perhaps the groom in his). Certainly, if Bashir Maan made a habit of turning up at weddings and glowering at unsuitable matches, she might have a point. But the suggestion here appears to be that, just because such behaviour is unsuitable at a wedding, we can’t think seriously about marriage at all.

                     When not destroying couples’ happiness, religious believers also kill seal pups

That argument’s particularly tricky since Leith and other bien pensants are urging a protracted process of legislative change. I say, how dare she? How dare anyone ruin the happiest day of a couple’s life by squabbling over laws, and bills and parliamentary procedure? Between sobs, I manage to continue: what sort of dour, joy destroying creature could talk of law on such a day?

Because this is all nonsense. The hardest thing for anyone upholding traditional teaching on marriage is to know that, in doing this, we are talking about people’s deeply felt and most intimate lives. I would rather leave discussion of people’s love lives to that intimate space where advice can be given: friends, priests, counsellors etc. But the matter has been raised by the pro-same sex ‘marriage’ side: they have dragged their relationships into the public sphere and have demanded the right to that most public and institutionalized form of relationship, marriage.

Tell divorce lawyers and family court judges that they have no business intruding the law into love. Tell psychologists and economists researching into the positive effects of childrearing within marriage that they have no business thinking about something where the only proper response is a nice, big smile. Tell politicians, worried about family breakdown and the effect on the next generation not to dare thinking about such issues. It’s only about love, only about acceptance, only about having a larf.

The one thing you mustn’t do is to think. Just accept. Because as soon as you start thinking, you’ll find yourself wondering why a proposal such as same sex ‘marriage’ with so little going for it in terms of contribution to the common good has got so far.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

A natural law argument for same sex marriage...?

                         Natural law doesn’t require us to reach for the gunpowder every time government gets it wrong…(But that doesn’t make wrong right.)

It’s not often that something I’ve found on the internet stops me completely in my tracks –or, more precisely, stops me in my tracks because I’m confronted with a way of looking at a familiar problem in a completely different and unexpected light. (Rather than being surprised by a video on Youtube of a man pushing a cucumber up his nostril or the like.)

However, such was the case with a posting on the wonderfully named It’s a Sic andNonderful Life. Here the author argues that natural law might support the legalization of same sex marriage. The grounds for arguing this are:

And so laws need also to be imposed on human beings according to their condition, since laws ought to be ‘possible regarding both nature and a country’s customs,’ as Isidore says.” Aquinas ST Ia-IIae, 96, 2 (here).

In brief, the argument is that, if a population has developed customs and habits which have blinded them to the wrongness of homosexual activity, it might be wrong to forbid same sex marriage and even (the post seems to suggest) it might be positively right to introduce it.

As this is going to be rather a long post (it’s my blog and I can be self-indulgent if I want to be!), here’s the summary of my conclusions:

a)      There is no reason to conclude that either Augustine or Aquinas would have supported the legalization of same sex marriage.
b)      In terms of the general principles of the natural law tradition, there is no reason to believe that same sex marriage legislation should be regarded as anything other than a foolish mistake.
c)      In terms of the natural law tradition, we do sometimes have to live with idiotic and even wicked ways of running the country in order to achieve a greater good of civil peace. But that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? (Abortion is a great evil. But Catholics do not sacrifice the good of civil peace in order to oppose it.)

(A general point to be made here is that I have deliberately avoided any appeal to the teaching authority of the Church in order to deal with the argument simply as a philosophical point within natural law. However, for a Catholic, due importance would have to be given to the authority of pastors in deciding how practically to deal with a manifest public wrong such as same sex marriage. In Scotland, we would expect guidance from our bishops on our response in the same way that Catholics in New York are being guided by their Archbishop.)

And now, the main course…

Now the first thing to say about this argument is that it’s based on an article in the Summa Theologiae which is addressed to the issue of repression of vice: as such, it only concludes that it is sometimes right to permit a morally wrong action. This would most obviously allow the absence of punitive legalization against homosexual activity in some types of society. But the issue of same sex marriage is different: it is not the toleration of an activity, but the legislative creation of a new institution or practice within society. This is relevant to ST Ia-IIae, 95, 2 where it is stated:

Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.

So it is one thing not to have a law, quite another to have a law which goes against the law of nature. Marriage, by the law of nature, is that between man and woman, the principal end of which is the rearing of children:

[I]n this way matrimony is natural, because natural reason inclines thereto in two ways. First, in relation to the principal end of matrimony, namely the good of the offspring. For nature intends not only the begetting of offspring, but also its education and development until it reach the perfect state of man as man, and that is the state of virtue. Hence, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 11,12), we derive three things from our parents, namely "existence," "nourishment," and "education." Now a child cannot be brought up and instructed unless it have certain and definite parents, and this would not be the case unless there were a tie between the man and a definite woman and it is in this that matrimony consists. (ST Suppl. IIIae, 41, 2).

Moreover, Aquinas argues that change in law is to be avoided:

Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some very great and every evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful. ST Ia-IIae, 97, 2 (here).

From this one can conclude that Aquinas a) would not recognize the identity of SS ‘marriage’ as marriage; and b) would not welcome the innovation involved in creating a new institution to include SS relationships.

At best, what we have here is an argument for civil partnerships alongside marriage, and even that is doubtful given the fact that what civil partnerships do is to create an new institution whose function is the promotion of vice rather than simply permitting vice.

But perhaps it might be objected that this is all rather petty fogging: that the question here is not what can be reasoned, in a quasi-legalistic way from Aquinas, but rather from the underlying principles involved. And that principle is (arguably) that positive law has to accept second best in a society which isn’t ready for the fullness of Catholic truth. In our society –or at least in some theoretical society- it may be right to legislate for same sex marriage.

Here, we have to go back to the understanding of politics in the Graeco-Roman tradition. The politician is essentially someone who is devoted to the flourishing of his people; and the aim of legislation is the promotion of that flourishing.

It’s a Sic and Nonderful Life argues that, if the price of agreement in a diverse society, blinded to the principles of natural law, is agreement on the introduction of same sex marriage, then the state is right to do that:

 [Regarding a…] law allowing homosexuals to marry, [i]t is important to remember there is a difference between ecclesiastical marriage and civil marriage. In truth, I believe that in a liberal democracy the state in order to maintain earthly peace must understand marriage according to its citizenship; and thus it is possible that such a state would consider homosexual marriage valid according to universal rights. This cannot affect the Church; if the state attempted to force an ecclesiastical body or authority to recognize or perform such a marriage, it would be crossing the lines and interfering with its citizens' pursuit of the highest good. A Christian may and should vote his or her conscience regarding the issue, but the state's recognition of homosexual marriage should not spark civil disobedience.
In this third example, the compromise which is made by liberal democracy may be at odds with the beliefs of the Church, but it does not directly require the Church or its members to do something which is against their belief or forbid them from doing something which their beliefs require. In many ways, it shows the flexibility of liberal democracy to accommodate a diverse population in peace. http://sicetnonderful.blogspot.com/2011/09/rawls-augustine-and-liberal-democracy.html

In essence, this is true. A democratic government has to govern according to the lights of its people. So, for example, if a government found itself with a population that was committed to polyandry, it might well have to accept the existence of polyandry in positive law. If we now find ourselves with a population who are committed to same sex marriage, we may likewise find ourselves bound to accept its existence as a (positive) legal fact. But the difference between the pre-modern, Catholic view, and the modern, liberal view is that, in the case of the Catholic ruler (or member of a democratic nation), the attitude of the people is a constraint, a blockage on the achievement of the complete good that has to be reckoned with, sometimes has to be compromised with, but which is regretted. In the modern, liberal view, the government is substantially indifferent to human flourishing, and is only concerned with a procedure by which competing views of human flourishing can be practically reconciled and a peaceful result achieved. In the modern state, the government has no view on what actually constitutes flourishing, but simply negotiates a practical settlement between competing views.

The problem with It’s a Sic and Nonderful Life’s analysis is that it suggests the liberal analysis of the role of the ruler as an adjudicator without a view of what constitutes human flourishing. That liberal view is not identical to the point made by Augustine and quoted by the blog:

The earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men's wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life. Cityof God XIX, 17

Augustine is there arguing that men gather together to seek only natural goods (rather than supernatural ones) in the earthly city; but that view says nothing about those goods being purely subjective or any view of them being unchallengeable by other citizens. There are practices which are genuinely ‘helpful’ to the attainment of natural flourishing, and those which are not. And same sex marriage is a practice which is not, regardless of what anyone else may think.

The liberal, relativist view is behind the consternation I have met several times in combox debates: how dare you even suggest what a good life for me might involve? The alternative, Catholic, but still democratic view is of a ruler with substantive and objective view of human flourishing, but with, built into that view, a full respect for the conscientious views and autonomy of individuals as part of human flourishing, including a forswearing of violent compulsion in favour of reasoned debate. Faced with a foolish and recalcitrant population, the Catholic ruler may be obliged to give them their head. But that is done with regret, and in the full knowledge that what they will do is against their own natural, let alone supernatural, interests as human beings.

Friday 11 November 2011

Natural theology

                                                    Looking for the overall pattern

What the author of Wisdom and St. Paul and after them the Fathers and theologians had constantly taught, has been solemnly defined by the Vatican Council. In the first place, as against Agnosticism and Traditionalism, the council teaches (cap. ii, De revelat.)

that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)

and in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) it anathematizes anyone who would say

that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, beknown with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

Prompted at least in part by William L. Craig’s UK debating tour, there has been some discussion of proofs of existence of God in the blogosphere. The Bones speaks of the need some sort of personal trigger for belief; Godzdogz in a post on 3 November sets the challenge of taking arguments like Craig’s to a wider, non-Christian audience  ‘to show by the same rational argument and faithful witness, that Christianity is reasonable faith’. The Thirsty Gargoyle (here and here) comments on the unsatisfactoriness of staged, public debate as a vehicle for exploration of the truth as well as analysing some of the arguments in more detail.

Catholicism, unlike most Protestants, teaches that the existence of God is provable by human reason. Moreover, it teaches that moral truth can be arrived at by human reasoning. This strong rationalist streak in Catholicism ought to make us more effective contributors to the culture wars than we often are: we can talk a language of reason and rational persuasion that many Protestants (and indeed Muslims) have replaced by simple reliance on scripture and bearing witness rather than seeking rationally to persuade.

But what does such reasoning look like? The dogmatic teaching that we can know with certainty the existence of God by reasoning does not state which proofs perform this service. Equally, although we may know the natural law by reason, the precise nature of that reasoning is left open.

Personally, I can think of very few knock down philosophical arguments, especially in the areas of morality and metaphysics. And yet, it wouldn’t be true to say that philosophical arguments haven’t led to my present views in all sorts of areas: it’s just that I wouldn’t describe my acceptance of any of those arguments individually as unconditional. One way of thinking about the process of being convinced in natural reason is as gradually building up a (more) coherent view of the world. I may not be completely convinced by the argument from design. But by entertaining the argument from design, I begin to see nature as God’s will and thus –in some way- to be respected. And by seeing it this way, the argument from design itself becomes firmer in my mind. And so on until an interlocking, mutually supportive web of reasoning forms, linking various aspects of the world into a coherent, aesthetic vision, this vision in turn supporting the various arguments in, eg, the proof of God.

There are various ways into this coherent vision. For some, it may be being struck by the glorious vision of an institution, the Church, which has produced some of the finest art and thought in a continuous 2000 year history. For some it may be through seeing the moral coherence of the life of a saintly individual, and tracing through that internal coherence, the lines of belief which run from that individual out into the Church and the world. For others, it may be the stark intellectual beauty of Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence. But once we have entered that vision, we need to keep pursuing its threads, intellectual, moral and aesthetic, until its organic unity is appreciated and in some sense made our own. (A process only to be completed in the BeatificVision.)

If that picture of belief is anything like correct, what are the conclusions for engaging with a non-Catholic public? Here are some suggestions:

1)      The same thing won’t work with everyone. You need a variety of different types of personality presenting different paths into the whole vision.
2)      As a whole Church, we need to work at two levels. We need to try to present the sense of the organic whole; at the same time, we need to work on a piecemeal basis to find a successful path into that vision.
3)      Success on a piecemeal level is rarely total. For example, success in the area of natural theology does not necessarily mean that someone is utterly convinced of the force of any particular argument for the existence of God. But it might mean that she can at least see that the argument has something going for it.
4)      There is a strong aesthetic element to this: getting someone to see something in a certain way. And reason giving in aesthetics is not a matter of arguing to a conviction, but often of pointing things out. (‘Have you noticed how Poussin uses blue to draw the eye in?’ ‘Have you noticed how the skull placed here reminds us of death?’)
6)      Noticing beauty –moral, intellectual and artistic- is an essential part of seeing the world aright. 

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Guess who won’t be coming to dinner...

                                  Should Catholicism expect a seat in the new Scotland?

Gerry Hassan had an interesting piece in The Scotsman on Saturday (here) bemoaning the vitriolic nature of political debate in Scotland.

One of the reasons I started this blog was a desire to a) take part in the construction of a level of political debate in Scotland that was not so much focused on the ephemera of immediate party politics but on longer term reflections about Scottish (and Western) society; and b) make sure that Catholicism had a role in that debate.

To the extent that Hassan is arguing for a deeper, more reflective Scottish politics, who can disagree? Both in Scotland and the UK in general, a lot of what passes for politics is daily jockeying for position between the parties, mainly done with an eye for immediate success in the opinion polls. There is nothing wrong with that per se, indeed it’s an essential part of parliamentary democracy, but if it’s the only game going on, then there is a difficulty.

In Scotland, there is the additional problem that we are only gradually developing a functional political culture after many years when power and reflection on power has been centred in London. Now that some powers are invested in the Edinburgh parliament and more are likely to arrive in the near future –whether by way of increased devolution or independence- we are only gradually developing that sort of deeper, surrounding political debate and the institutions for such a debate.

So quite right on the need for deep, reflective politics. But one aspect of the article deserves more careful scrutiny.

While we believe we are a friendly, warm, welcoming people, the other side of our society is a shaming record of violence, crime and alcohol abuse which is off the record compared to others.
Some of this echoes Carol Craig’s analysis in The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence, just reprinted in a revised second edition. She argues that it is commonplace for people to be labelled and judged worthless and traces this back to Scotland’s religious past and the division into the saved and the damned.
I don’t think it is an accident that the Rangers versus Celtic divide originated around religion, and that the Labour versus SNP fissure often feels like a throwback to Scotland’s embattled religious sects.

According to Hassan, religion is the historical cause of Scotland’s impaired and violent political discourse, and the ‘feel’ of the nastier side of modern Scottish politics is that of odium theologicum. The implausibility of the historical case –do the modern successors to Calvinist Holland or Geneva suffer from a similarly inept politics or damaged psyches?- is rather less important than the fact that Hassan, a leading Scottish political commentator, sees the issues in this way. For him, a narrative of having to break away from its religious past is the central element of what forming a modern Scotland is about.

Now in the rest of the UK and the West, you’ll find similar views. Turn to Dawkins’ site or the Guardian and you’ll find loads of commentators assuming that to be religious is to be out of date. Secularization is progress and religion is against progress. So Catholic contributions to politics in Scotland have to fight the normal prejudice of the chattering classes, particularly on the Left, against religious belief. But Scotland (like Northern Ireland) has an additional problem in that, undoubtedly, religion is a problem in modern Scotland. Even a passing familiarity with political discussion here reveals that the problems of sectarianism –Catholic vs Protestant- are a major factor in Scottish political debate, quite apart from whatever daily sectarian realities in ordinary people’s lives actually exist. A simplistic conclusion from the fact that religion is a problem in Scotland is the thought that religion needs to be done away with (or tamed or excluded). Whilst Catholics would regard such a solution as being as helpful as the suggestion that, because an asthmatic is struggling for breath, he should simply stop breathing, it is obvious how easily such a conclusion comes to those who, sharing the normal mindset of the secular intelligentsia, are predisposed to regard religion as in general outmoded.

New political realities are forming in Scotland as a result of existing devolution and the push of the SNP for independence. I take absolutely no view on this blog as to the rights and wrongs of independence vs devolution vs straightforward unionism: all I am advocating is a thoughtful Scottish culture and a Catholic contribution to that culture, and that should be an aim welcomed by Catholics (and I'd hope others) regardless of party politics. But we need to be aware how widespread the assumption of a need to exclude religion from the public space is amongst opinion formers, and how, in Scotland, the particular history of religion and sectarianism here is being used –consciously or not- to bolster the argument that modern Scotland has no place for religion. Issues such as gay ‘marriage’ thus take on for their proponents a symbolic function quite in excess of any supposed direct contribution to the common good, marking the building of a modern Scotland over the grave of old religion.

Hassan’s article can be seen as broadly sympathetic to many of the Scottish Church’s concerns over sectarianism. Even more striking therefore that, at its base, is a view of religion as something to be left behind.

Friday 4 November 2011

Just say non…

                                     Cheese eating surrender monkeys done good…

One of the little secrets that modern up to date people like to keep from us dwellers in the Dark Ages is that the march of same sex ‘marriage’ isn’t inevitable. A key tactic in modern liberalism is that of creating the vision of the inevitability of ‘progress’ (as well as the identification of all fashionable change as ‘progress’). We need to keep reminding ourselves that such talk is nothing more than the mesmerism of the Ancient Mariner:

He holds him with his glittering eye -
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.
Whilst the depressing (but still quite short) litany of countries which have adopted same sex ‘marriage’ is regular trotted out in Scotland to encourage a sense of inevitability about the whole thing, the fact that France’s Assemblée nationale rejected it on 14 June (here (French); here (English)) this year wasn’t widely publicized.

Opposition to same sex ‘marriage’ in America seems to be very much a popular revolt against the preoccupations of secularized, liberal elites, and, as such, is easily portrayed by our media as the rantings of loony religious crazies who live in swamps and eat critters.

                     Christian protesters in the US on their way to oppose everything sensible…

The French case doesn’t easily fit into this caricature. If anything, judging by the fact that opinion polls show a popular majority in favour of same sex ‘marriage’ in France, it might more plausibly be seen as a demonstration of the French political élite’s disdain for anything that smacks of popularism.

My understanding of modern French politics is too limited to suggest any detailed reasons for this rejection. Doubtless, there will be debunking explanations couched in terms of the jockeying for position between the parties, or the history of struggle between Catholicism and anti-clericalism in France. Anyway, for the moment, I tell myself it’s down to a lingering French respect for clarity of thought and a suspicion of Anglophone sexual enthusiasms. In any case, the following remark by the UMP deputy, Christian Vanneste, is striking as a rare instance of a politician hitting the nail on the head about same sex 'marriage' (here in French):

It’s a private matter which doesn’t concern the future of society. It’s a matter of  sexual pleasure, of entertainment, of affection. What concern has society with that? Society is interested in marriage only to the extent that it is linked in the majority of cases to procreation.

There are all sorts of relationship that exist between people. Society ignores most of them. It recognizes and supports marriage because it has an interest in the heterosexual couple as the prime creator of the next generation and not because it has some purely sentimental idea of celebrating love and lifelong commitment.

Why shouldn’t we celebrate and support the good of poignant and short lived relationships? Of the pleasures of long term but superficial commitment? Why aren’t the good and the great demanding the sort of institutional recognition of short term relationships which exists (eg) in Shia Islam if we’re really going to be a go ahead progressive, non-judgmental Scotland?

The only reason for the State to support –rather than just tolerate- a particular type of relationship is that it contributes to the common good. And the Church has an answer as to why marriage is special in terms of the common good: the good of marriage is procreation and its characteristics –eg fidelity and life long commitment- are oriented to that good. Society has a reason –its own survival- to support the good of procreation, the proper raising of children and thus marriage. It does not have a similar reason to support other sorts of good embodied in other relationships. They are, as Vanneste notes, merely a ‘divertissement’. (Which leaves aside, for another day, whether they are good or bad divertissements.)

Tuesday 1 November 2011

On being open to the Church’s teaching…

                              There is no need to listen to the Church when the truth is inside you…

A rather interesting interview here with the psychologist William Coulson on the way in which therapy corrupted Catholicism (particularly religious orders) in the 1960s and 1970s. (Shorter version here.)  The gist of it is that, by encouraging nuns etc to focus on their own deepest desires rather than external authority, a whirlwind of disobedience and sexual misconduct was released.

I’ll leave it to others to decide how historically important such influence was post Vatican II. But in terms of the principles at stake here, we have a contrast between a world view that tells you to look outside for authority and a worldview that tells you to look inside, a contrast in part expressed in Charles Taylor’s distinction between the (pre-modern, Catholic) porous self and the (modern) buffered self.

(A brief posting by Taylor himself will have to do for the moment. I shall doubtless return to Taylor again. To be honest, I’m not always at all sure what I make of him. His breadth is striking; his intellectual Catholicism a reminder of what I love about the Church. But quite apart from any obscurity inherent in his ideas, he needs an editor.)

The broad conclusion is clear. You can’t rely on yourself to get things right, particularly in the area of sex. (As I get older, the linking of original sin and concupiscence in Catholicism seems to me an instance of the Church’s divine wisdom precisely in the area at which, as a younger atheistic fool, I’d have been most inclined to sneer.) To live well, we have to open ourselves to something greater than ourselves. For a Catholic, that greater thing is God, but a God mediated through an institution and a tradition: looking for a direct line to God all too often results in a direct line to the id. (If you’re an atheist, my advice would be to start with the tradition and see where it takes you.) In terms of the natural law focus of this blog, we should expect to find our proclivities and our desires constantly challenged by the teaching of the Church. That’s uncomfortable and often we won’t be able fully to live up to that challenge. But simply to ignore it and assert the unchallengeability of the buffered self is a recipe for personal and social disaster. The buffered self –particularly the teenage buffered self- will look inside and find precious little except (under various disguises) a raging libido. It needs to open itself up to influences that will lead it on to a fulfilling life. Catholicism has an answer to what that influence should be: the Church and through the Church, God. A socially conservative atheist has a (less complete but still viable) answer: the wisdom of previous generations sifted over time.

I’m not at all sure that modern liberals have any sort of answer at all. In most matters, you can’t even say ‘open yourself to the greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers’ because you’re convinced that most of these greatest thinkers are homophobic, patriarchal racists who got the answers wrong. Moreover, because their world view was so dominated by their acceptance of some version or other of bronze age religion, their mistakes are not just in their conclusions, but in the very foundations of their thought.

One symptom of this is the fury of the self righteous, displayed in incidents such as the quite shameful treatment of Gordon Wilson, the former leader of the SNP, who has been forced off the board (here) of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau because of his public opposition to same sex ‘marriage’. One of the most fascinating aspects of the same sex ‘marriage’ debate is the way that the comparatively weak arguments in favour of its introduction are regularly trumpeted as completely irresistible by its proponents. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this blind self confidence, but two in particular are relevant here. Firstly, there is companionship: it is a very lonely business being a buffered individual and here is an opportunity to enjoy the brief self-righteous community of the mob signed up to a fashionable cause. Secondly, there is the confusion of strong reasons with strong desire. If no authority can challenge what you have inside your buffered self, the strength of your case is not dependent on how well your case is supported by public reasoning, but by how strongly you believe in it: the more furious you become at the challenges to your views, the stronger your case is proved to be.

(Reflections prompted by Catholicism Pure and Simple’s post here.)