Tuesday 31 January 2012

Autonomy, killing and medicine

                                                I am the master of my fate:
                                               I am the captain of my soul.

Margo MacDonald’s attempt to reintroduce legislation in the Scottish Parliament for killing off the sick was not unexpected (I blogged previously about it here) but is still unwelcome.

Doubtless this one will rumble on and on, but reading blogger Caroline Farrow’s harrowing account  of her current problems reminded me of what autonomy is really like when exercised in a situation of illness and the imbalance of power that is built into a medical relationship. It also reminded me of a part of Stanley Hauerwas’ paper ‘Timeful friends: living with the handicapped’ (in the volume Sanctify Them in the Truth) which deals with what it’s like to exercise agency on behalf of the mentally handicapped:

…as every parent of the mentally handicapped knows, […] they are caught in what seems an irresolvable conundrum. In order for your child to receive appropriate care they must be labeled –retarded, handicapped, Down’s syndrome- but the labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies; or worse, the labels can legitimate the intervention of others into their children’s lives that often only benefits the agents of intervention. This becomes particularly troubling when the agent of intervention is an institution called the state.

The experience of trying to articulate needs in a vocabulary that is not yours and in a situation where all the power is held by another and you exist as a petitioner is not unusual. Moreover, there is a peculiar vulnerability where you are acting as advocate for another –a sick child or a sick, dependent relative- where there is a tendency on the part of authority to suspect a divergence between your interests as advocate and the real interests of the individual you claim to be acting for. Add to that a tendency to regard Christians as deluded and Catholics as particularly potty and you have the sort of experience described by Caroline:

So into the midwife’s room I trot with two children in full-on meltdown, eliciting lots of sighs and huffing and puffing. Can’t you get someone to look after them for you, she asked. I explain that they have been ill and so aren’t allowed in nursery. Don’t you have anyone else to help you she asks. No, I reply, I don’t. What about family? No – one set in Wales, the other in Oxfordshire and a sister with 4 children of her own in Northampton. I’m not from Brighton, I don’t have any close friends here, only having moved here a few years ago and then having to move house just having got to know a certain area.
Well you’re clearly struggling she said, life isn’t going to get any easier for you with another baby and three small children, are you sure that this is the wisest option? I don’t agree with abortion, I replied, so this isn’t a discussion that I want to have. Well, alright, fair enough, but I’m just very concerned for you. Thanks, I appreciate it, what I need is some help, do you think you might be able to arrange that for me? No, sorry, you’ll have to speak to the health visitor once the baby is born. […]

Tut, tut, tsk, tsk, tsk. All the while the children are in meltdown. There are no toddler toys in the consulting room because they constitute a risk of contamination. I am asked why I didn’t bring anything to entertain them. I explain that I was in a rush, it was a difficult morning and I was trying to rush out of the house as quickly as possible. Tsk, tsk tsk. Tut, tut, tut. Then – what are you going to do about contraception once the baby has been born. I explain that we are either going to abstain for as long as it takes or we are contacting the couple-to-couple league for a belt and braces method […] Tsk, tsk, tut, tut, tut. That is not good enough. Natural contraception just does not work. You cannot be in this situation again (as if I don’t know) what about sterilisation? I explain, briefly that contraception is out of the question for us as a couple. I don’t go into any detail, just explain that due to cultural beliefs we cannot use it. Well that’s ridiculous she says, you have to do something. I can’t, I tell her, it’s out of the question. Well in that case, I think I need to refer you to counselling. No, I don’t need counselling I tell her. Yes, you do she tells me, I have here in your notes that you suffer from ante-natal depression and there’s a huge risk of post-natal depression, unless you use contraception you are going to be very very ill and you need to understand that, as does your husband. Oh, he understands that alright, he understands that I am more than just a bit “sad” at the moment, but even IF I accepted what you are saying about contraception, which I don’t, if I get sterilised or use contraception behind my husband’s back, my marriage will be effectively over. We will never be intimate again and our marriage will be under huge strain. How will that help anyone, particularly the children? Well he needs counselling to make him understand. No, he doesn’t and nor do I, as a couple, contraception is OUR choice and OUR business, not for one person to hector another and given the situation, I hardly think we are going to take any future risks.

So it’s all a barrel of laughs so far.

Well, so what, I hear you ask? Pretty unpleasant experience, unsympathetic medical practitioner –what’s new?

Well, remember that it was only in 1930 that the Lambeth Conference allowed the use of contraception to manage fertility. Up till then, the view that contraception was immoral was mainstream. Moreover, the view that contraception was a bit iffy –not quite nice- survived much longer, certainly into the sixties and beyond. But now you have the situation where Caroline struggles to articulate what was once a mainstream view in a way that the midwife can understand –quite apart from accepting. (Note the understandable attempt to frame it as a ‘cultural belief’: much easier for the secular world to deal with cultural minorities rather than moral disagreement). Moreover, the sort of help available is now reduced to persuasion under the title of counselling rather than anything practical which might actually make a difference.

But no harm done, perhaps. Caroline wasn’t forced to compromise her position. Only a few hurt feelings then…

Now imagine a similar case of ‘assisted suicide’ thirty years down the line if Margo MacDonald gets her way. Imagine the cold, hard gaze of secular sanity confronted by a rather sad, clearly deluded believer in sky fairies. Imagine trying to frame your reasons for not wanting to spare your parent/child/spouse an agonizing death, where there exists an easy, pain free alternative. Imagine being offered counselling to bring you round to a sane point of view and where no other palliative treatment exists. (Why would it? It’s expensive and it’s irrational.) Imagine that, in the case of euthanasia, how much easier it is for a doctor to kill you than it is for a doctor to force you to use contraception.

This is what a slippery slope looks like. What was a possibility in 1930 becomes the irresistibly sensible in 2012.

Friday 27 January 2012

Catholicism and the Refarmation

Having recently had a rather illuminating exchange on sola scriptura with  Cath prompted by Aelianus' post (follow up here), I thought I'd lower the tone by referring you to by far the best summary of the historical differences between Catholicism and Protestantism that I am aware of on the web (as well as a splendid example of the use of Scots (albeit of the Ulster Scots variety) in serious academic discussion) courtesy of Professor Billy McWilliams of 1690 an' all thon. (Be warned, the good professor, despite his elevated academic status as "Visitin' Lekturer at the Ulster Scots School o' Dancin', Ballymena" tends to the Rabelaisian in language -so read no further if this troubles you.)

Whit was the Refarmation?

As the word "refarmed" wud suggest, the Refarmation involved the farmin' o'er again o' somethin' that had already bin farmed afore, namely Presbyternianism. Frae ma lengthy studies oan the matter, includin' a short stint as Professor o' Religious Things at Annahilt Sunday School, Ah hiv larnt thit the o'er surt hid taken the pure Christian faith an' added stuff ontil it. Stuff like the Pope, purgatry, nat atin' mate o' a Friday, Blood Transfusions an' sayin' haitch instead o' aitch. They were clean gettin' away wi' it fur they made the Bible intil Latin an' kept the ordinary folk unnerinformed on matters, til a German Pastor called Martin Luther King Sr suddenly wised up an' decided fur til rectify matters. Thus in 1517 he writ a big thing an' started the whole Refarmation when he nailed his Testes to a church door in Wittenburg.

Whit the Pope did.

The Pope wasnae tae pleased about the Testes incident, an' summoned Luther King Sr til a big meetin' where he tried fur til make him eat Worms. He refused, an' thus invented pratestin'. Prior tae this naebody had ever pratested aboot anythin', mainly just gettin' a wee bit pished aff an' the like, an' sae we get the term Pratestant. Ah amnae tae sure whit happened next, fur it gets wile complicated, but it saims thit a wile lock o' important German folk agreed with Luther King. Afore he knew it, half the country was pratestin', he'd translated the Bible intil German, had accidentally gat married an' the Pope was rippin'. This in turn led til the Counter Refarmation, which Ah cannae even be arsed til think aboot whilst sober.

For the full dissertation, and much other good sense, see here.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Scottish Catholic Observer on Independence

                                      His Father, who was self-controlled,
                                      Bade all the children round attend
                                     To James's miserable end,
                                     And always keep a-hold of Nurse
                                     For fear of finding something worse. 

The Scottish Catholic Observer contained an article this week on prominent Scottish Catholic commentators’ reactions to Independence. (Shortened form of the article here.)

The chief arguments in favour of independence seem to be:

1)      Scotland already has a strong cultural identity. Independence is the natural development of that.
2)      There is a sense of frustration within Scotland at being unable to exercise national autonomy over many political issues. Independence would satisfy that frustration.

The chief arguments against independence seem to be:

I)       It would be economically disastrous.
II)     Scottish independence would threaten Catholics in particular.

That strikes me as a fair representation of the sort of thoughts which must be buzzing around many Scottish Catholic minds just now, and I’ll doubtless be returning to them over the course of the next couple of years. But for the moment, I’m going to focus on II): that in some way, Independence would pose a particular threat to Catholics. (Teuchtar has already provided a response from a Nationalist point of view here.)

The first point to be stressed here is that we must be talking about risk and predicted consequences here. The modern SNP is clearly not advocating anything like an extirpation of Catholicism in Scotland, so any fears in this area are not about a clear and present danger, but about the always tricky assessment of remote consequences which would follow upon a declaration of Independence. We’re all guessing and bloggers in the privacy of their studies are guessing more than most.

But putting that aside, it strikes me that the reasoning displayed in the SCO article falls into two main kinds:

a)      The claim that post independence Scotland will be different and (certainly for a while) more fluid politically and thus there is a possibility of change in areas that affect Catholics.
b)      The claim that Nationalism, the SNP in particular, or Scotland as a whole has a tendency to anti-Catholicism and thus there is a likelihood of anti-Catholic effects.

Taking a) first, it’s certainly true that Independence will have ‘thrown all things about’ and that there is going to be increased unpredictability in Scotland’s politics. In terms of policies, that means that there is going to be increased unpredictability in areas such as the liberals’ attempt to undermine social institutions such as marriage, and in the provision of Catholic schools. So here the question is going to be: Do we have much reason to believe that the climate of politics in the UK as a whole would be any more favourable to Catholics on these issues than the climate of opinion in post-Independence Scotland? Mebbe aye, mebbe nae.

Four reasons for thinking UK politics might be more favourable than Scottish ones are, first, the greater number of Church of England schools in England: unlike Scotland, where the provision of Church schools is essentially a Catholic vs everyone else question (and hence particularly vulnerable to attack), in England, any attempt to dismantle religious education would have to take on the Established Church as well various minority religions. (How relevant this is to Scotland given the already devolved status of education is a moot point.) Second, the presence and rather greater prominence of the Church of England in political and cultural life in England than the Church of Scotland here suggest, at least for the moment, that Christianity is more clearly entrenched in the cultural institutions of the UK than it would be in an independent Scotland. Third, there is a greater political and intellectual self-confidence amongst English social conservatives than there is among Scottish ones. For example, on same sex ‘marriage’, there appears to be the very real possibility of a backbench revolt in the Conservative Party. (Any sign of something similar in Scotland after John Mason and Bill Walker were given a good kicking for merely suggesting the possibility of conscientious objection?) Finally, the existence of a greater ethnic diversity in the English population, with a corresponding need on the part of politicians to placate (eg) Muslim and Pentecostal voters perhaps offers a greater guarantee of the presence of social conservatism as a view in UK politics rather than Scottish politics. 

Turning to b) and the question of whether there is something particularly anti-Catholic in the DNA of Scottish politics or culture, it’s undeniable that there are anti-Catholic strands in Scottish society. So the only question is how important these are. In terms of good old fashioned anti-Catholic, sectarian hatred, I’m genuinely not sure. Enough of it exists so that it would be perfectly understandable if some Catholics, particularly around Glasgow, were wary of the emotions that the referendum itself, quite apart from its result, might churn up. I’m equally certain that very little of it exists in the current SNP leadership, whatever may have been the case in the past. Perhaps the more obvious risk is the sort of dumb secularism that has been much in evidence during the same sex ‘marriage’ debate so far, coupled with the emotional resonances left by traditional anti-Catholicism. If you come from a tradition that has been telling you for five hundred years that Catholics are moronic, child abusing, anti-Scottish bigots, the cultural patterns of such views will survive rather longer than the Presbyterianism that once supported them, particularly when combined with the adolescent male braggadocio of the New Atheists. 

Certainly, as I blogged previously, wandering through the Scottish media and blogosphere during the same sex ‘marriage’ consultation was a peculiarly depressing experience. It left me with the feeling that I certainly wouldn’t like to be left in a darkened room with some of these people, and I’m not sure that I’d like to be left in a small country of only five million or so either. (Particularly in the absence of the obviously socially conservative allies I’d find in England –see above.)

To sum up then, on this one argument –the risk to Catholics in an independent Scotland- I’m inclined at the moment to agree that there is a real challenge here for the Nationalist case. That challenge isn’t unanswerable and may in any case be outweighed by the other, pro-Independence arguments. As I’ve blogged before, will Catholics have a seat in the new Scotland? Personally, I’ll be looking at how the Scottish government and indeed the wider society handles the results of the same sex ‘marriage’ consultation quite closely and I suspect many other Catholics will be too. Judging by the signs up till now, I’m not that hopeful.

Monday 23 January 2012

Radio programme on same sex marriage

Just caught most of the Beyond Belief Radio 4 programme on same sex 'marriage' with John Haldane, Bashir Maan and John Bell.

Enjoyable to hear Haldane's effortless intellectual superiority being exercised on the usual liberal fluff...

(Available in due course on iplayer here.)

Friday 20 January 2012

F is for Fake (and Feminine)

I discovered the existence of Andrej Pejic through Quiet Riot Girl (who occasionally comments on Caroline Farrow’s blog and has her own website devoted to gender issues here). The Vortex's videos on masculinity/femininity (H/T Arundel & Brighton Latin Mass Society) prompted some further reflections.

Andrej Pejic (rather improbably pronounced ‘Page’ according to Wikipedia) is a model who has been featured in a number of campaigns including one for push up bras. There’s a picture above. Rather fetching picture too…

But Andrej is a man.

When I first realized this, there is that first initial shock of discovering that you’ve found a man attractive. And of course that’s part of the narrative here. Buttoned up homophobes like myself (and all the 1 billion other Catholics –excepting only the illumined readers of The Tablet) are forced to confront the fluidity of gender and the fluidity of their own desire. Initial shock. Change of view. Change of heart. Dancing and the end of history and biology in one long happy, polymorphously perverse embrace.

Well, let’s pick this apart a little. Pejic –in the photo above- looks like a woman. Now before the queer theorists out there jump around and start asking what a woman looks like and accusing me of essentialism and the rest (a charge to which I’d happily plead guilty), I’d argue that the whole effect of the picture is lost unless a) it looks like a woman and b) it isn’t. Moreover, it uses the ‘signifiers’ of being a woman (dress, hairstyle) to represent a woman.

To see this, contrast the image above with some other androgynous images:

 (from the Channel 4 website for the programme My Transsexual Summer


(the musician, Marilyn Manson).

Both these images represent –in a way that Pejic’s one above doesn’t- a blurring of the feminine and the masculine. If Pejic’s image is troubling, it is not troubling in the same way that these two images are troubling: Pejic looks like a woman; the other two images don’t.

Essentially the same point was made by Caroline Farrow in one of her comments on QRG’s posting: ‘…were there any manifest signs of masculinity would he have been selected?’ QRG’s response is that, ‘If you look at a selection of photos of Pejic he doesn’t always look ‘feminine’ he is genuinely versatile with his gender presentation.’

And that’s quite true. If you look at this image, for example (H/T Lela London) it is genuinely androgynous in the way the first image isn’t. And here 

he is clearly ‘a dude’ in the left hand photo.

So what does all this tell us? Queer theory would have us believe that it shows gender and sex is constructed and fluid. What’s a Catholic position?

The first image of Pejic shows that images are constructed and can fool us. That’s not surprising. Quite apart from airbrushing and more invasive techniques, there is always the question of culturally constructed items such as dress and hairstyle: I can’t think of any Catholic, even the most traditionalist, who thinks women were born with long hair and dresses. The fact that images exist which can fool us into thinking something is something else is not, in itself, terribly surprising. We can be tricked. Big deal.

But this might be thought to be missing the point. Even if that first image of Pejic isn’t a representation of androgyny, the portfolio of images is. OK. But what does that demonstrate? That a man can look like a woman? Yes. That a man can look a bit like a woman? Yes. That a man can look a bit like someone who isn’t clearly a woman or a man? Yes. All these things are true, but so what? The assumption here is that to look like something is to be something. And that’s clearly false. (‘He looked like a friendly dog until he bit me.’)

Borrowing a Scholastic distinction between actus (actualization) and potentia (potential) (here), being a woman or a man is more than being an image, it is more than just (to borrow the jargon) ‘performativity’ (all  examples of actus); it is instead potentia –the possibility and potential for future actualizations. I may be fooled by a current image or even by current actions, but what I am being fooled about is future potential: someone who is not a woman will not always act like (have the actus of) a woman.

The deeper question here is: could the performativity of being a woman go ‘all the way down’? Could someone always have all the actus of a woman without being one? If the circumstances are restricted enough, the answer is clearly yes. If the only actus you are concerned with are fashion images, there are no particular reasons why Pejic or anyone else with the right bone structure and preparation couldn’t go on looking like a woman. (If, say, the effects of aging hardened the jaw line, then you would simply stop taking the images: you would walk off the stage and stop performing.) But if we are not talking about a stage but about the whole of life, then the answer is no. There are two ways of developing this point. First, there is the materialist way. Pejic doesn’t have a woman’s body. Whatever he may look like, the potentia of that body is male. (It will age like a male. It will produce hormones like a male. It will sicken like a male.) Second, there is the metaphysical and theological way. For Balthasar, for example, the natures of man and woman as separate sexes are an imago Trinitatis: the differences go all the way down to the very origin of the world in creation.

In sum, the fact that one image or a collection of images is misleading shows nothing but that a very small subset of actualizations can be misleading about the potential for actualization of that person. It is the potentia of man and woman that dictates whether there is a real difference between the two, not a small selection of actus. And there are good reasons –both on materialistic and metaphysical grounds- for thinking that there are significant differences between men and women, even if those differences are not, on a particular occasion or in a particular image, actualized and revealed.

Misleading images are exactly that. Simply misleading. Simply images. They reveal more about the intention of those constructing them than about the nature of reality.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

On elephants in the room and being really confused about Scottish Independence

                                               An elephant which is not in the room

When I started this bog back in October last year, I was prompted by a desire to be part of building up a specifically Catholic response to modernity and its ills in Scotland. At the time, the Scottish media were displaying its usual tendency to be both superficial and monotone in backing almost unanimously same sex 'marriage'. Whatever the SNP victory meant in the last Holyrood election, it was clear that Scotland was developing its own political and media institutions and culture and that, at the moment, Catholicism and, more generally, social conservatism had little voice in that development.

I had vaguely thought to handle the specific question of Scottish Independence by ignoring it. My general intention was to display a lofty indifference to the dirty, everyday questions of politics and instead to concentrate on some of the longer term issues of principle. On the particular question of Independence, I wanted to avoid tackling it directly, first, because it is an issue that I believe people of good will -and specifically Catholics- can disagree about and I have no wish to take sides in a debate that will, inevitably, split Catholics in Scotland; and, second, because it's an issue on which I, personally, just haven't made up my mind and, when I do, I will certainly do so without ' the curst conceit o' bein' richt'.

But that intention has begun to look silly. Probably the biggest constitutional issue in the UK since the Reform Bill and I'm going to preserve a lofty silence for the next two years...? Doesn't this suggest that 'Catholic wisdom' (which this blog is supposed to promote) has nothing to say on issues of major political importance? Moreover, the guns of the Scottish Catholic blogosphere have already started to rumble, with Seraphic making a unionist case and Teuchtar a Nationalist one. Given all this, I've changed my mind and I will start discussing the Independence referendum, but in the following context:

a) I will not advocate a particular position or conclusion.
b) This is an issue which requires the exercise of practical wisdom, the conclusion of which will be unclear and on which reasonable Catholics will differ.
c) I shall focus on the philosophical and theological issues involved rather than on the political campaign.

                                                    A gorilla which is in the room

Anyway, no rush to settle all this: we've almost two years to chew things over. But two thoughts to start off with:

1) Modernity is committed to the idea of the buffered individual, the autonomous individual who, neither is in fact, nor should be morally, open to outside influence. As such, any political campaign such as that on the referendum will tend to focus on addressing what people want, rather than critically engaging with them at a deep level to change what they want. As Catholics, we should be focused not just on facilitating the popular will, but making sure that popular will is informed by the virtue of prudentia -practical reason.

2) The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a good resource for any Catholic reflection in this area. Here's one relevant bit for starters:

Moreover, minorities have the right to maintain their culture, including their language... In the legitimate quest to have their rights respected, minorities may be driven to seek greater autonomy or even independence; in such delicate circumstances, dialogue and negotiation are the path for attaining peace (para. 387).

So certainly the possibility of separation, but a reminder that such a situation is delicate and requires the self discipline of dialogue and negotiation, we might add in the present case, both within Scotland itself, and between Scotland and the other parts of the UK.

Friday 13 January 2012

Blog recommendation

I’ve mentioned Peter Ould’s blog An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy in passing before, but a recent post of his reminded me what a good thing it is and how much benefit Catholics could draw from engaging with it.

Peter is a Church of England minister who describes himself as a New Calvinist and post-gay. Of the latter, I think a fair summary would be that he is someone who once described himself as gay and had an active gay lifestyle, but who is now married (to a woman) and yet is comfortable about admitting that he still has same sex attraction. That biography in itself should remind us not to take the modern binary model of straight and gay which lies behind much of the current debate on same sex marriage too seriously: identity is far more complex and fluid than that.

The current post that drew my attention is here. The proximate cause of that post is an apparent shift in focus of the Exodus International organization from trying to change people’s homosexual orientation (roughly, how much they fancy people of the same sex) to changing their identity (how they think of themselves given that orientation). That particular issue may be of less interest to Catholics than it is to evangelicals: as one of the commenters says (approvingly) in the ensuing combox debate, my impression is that Catholic activity in this area is much more focused on helping those with same sex attraction to live celibate lives rather than to change their orientation. But what I think is extremely helpful is the reminder of Peter Ould’s own position in his comments on the alteration of focus, particularly his linking to previous posts here,  here  and here. In essence, he argues that the first thing is to orient yourself towards God and his moral demands. What follows from that call to duty may be a change in feelings and desires, but that is of secondary importance.

There is much here that, from a Catholic point of view, needs to be revisited and explored and perhaps corrected. (I’m not sure, for example, how well some of what he says fits in with Catholic ideas of sanctification within the context of Aristotelian moral psychology where –at least as I would interpret the relevant texts- desire and emotions are not simply atomic givens. I suspect that there may be a shadow of the ‘total depravity’ element of traditional Calvinism hiding behind this.) But the clear and extremely helpful message here is Peter’s own hard won insight from personal experience and his acceptance of traditional Christian teaching, coupled with a constant challenge to lazy secular thinking in this area. On his site, you will find serious people, dealing with serious issues in a thoughtful and faithful manner. It is a refreshing change from the poles of ‘down with poofs’ and ‘they’re so lovely’ simplicities which damage so much Christian and secular debate in the blogosphere.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Common misconceptions: ‘The State and religion are separate…’

             A confused atheist wondering why religion ought to be excluded from the public sphere…

Occasionally I’ll pick up some ideas that are regularly trotted out against Catholics as obvious truths which are nothing of the sort.

One you’ll often hear is that, ‘The State and religion are separate.’ This is then used to justify ignoring Catholic bishops or just anyone religious on the ground of violating this obvious constitutional principle. Part of the background to this is half remembered truth that the US Constitution guarantees in the Bill of Rights that, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Quite apart from the fact that the interpretation of this clause has been subject to huge and ongoing debate, with many important issues only settled in the twentieth century by the Supreme Court and many still outstanding, that’s all very nice for the Americans but of absolutely no relevance to Europeans. For both of these reasons, separation of church/religion and state in Scotland and the UK cannot be taken to be a self-evident good.

The claim, ‘The State and religion are separate’ is very confused, and to the extent that it’s not confused, it’s false. It’s often trotted out as a variant on, ‘The Church and State are separate’. The first thing to note here are that the claims are very different. As separate institutions, with separate chains of authority and separate responsibilities, the (Catholic) Church and the State are always, to some extent, separate: the Vatican is never going to be running the Strathclyde Police; the Police (one hopes) are never going to be running Masses. And this holds even for the most Catholic, most mediaeval State. Now precisely what the relationship is to be between these two separate institutions is a much more complex matter, and one that has taken up some of the finest minds in Christian history. But, on any analysis, whilst the institutions are separate, it does not follow that they necessarily have no connections: even the local bowling club may have connections with the state, say, through tax breaks or being consulted with in planning health campaigns. So to note that the State and the Church are separate is not to admit that they are not connected; and the precise nature of that connection is up for debate, not something to be assumed as, in principle, non-existent.

Putting aside the special (legally recognized) position of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national Church, even from a non-Catholic point of view, as far as the Catholic Church in Scotland is concerned, there is no reason why the State shouldn’t listen to the Church: the Church is perfectly free to make whatever representations it wants, and the State is perfectly free to make of them what it wants. It cannot be assumed that the Catholic Church should be excluded from public deliberation, even if it does not have the legally guaranteed status given to the Church of Scotland.

So much for the claim that the Church and State are separate. What then of the claim that religion and the State are separate?

It’s hard to know quite what to make of such a muddled claim. What some atheists would like it to mean is that anything to do with religion is excluded from the public sphere. If you thought that ‘religious’ was equivalent to ‘obviously barking mad nonsense’ (as many atheists seem to), this would be a fair request. But of course, it isn’t clear (even to non-Catholics) that everything which is in any sense religious is ‘barking mad nonsense’. Remember that a majority of Scots in the 2001 census described themselves as belonging to a religion: whatever looseness of connection that description may cover, it certainly means that some reference to religious beliefs will be accepted as persuasive in public discourse.

Moreover, the term ‘religious’ is itself notoriously difficult to define. If it meant ‘anything coming from a person who is religious’ then effectively the majority of the population would be disenfranchised. If it meant ‘relying on specifically religious terms such as God’ then Catholic moral teaching, based on natural law, would not be excluded. Atheists who advocate the exclusion of religion from the public sphere need to be pressed on what they mean by such a claim. (When pressed, in my experience, they simply mean that ‘anything I think is rubbish’ should be excluded. Unfortunately, they rarely seem sensitive to the problems of such a test.)  In any case, whilst atheists might like religious beliefs in some (rather unclear) sense to be excluded, that is a case that they have to make rather than assume.

What does all this mean?

  • There is no reason in principle why the Scottish or UK government shouldn’t listen to religious views or spokesmen.
  • There is no reason in principle why those views shouldn’t rely on clearly religious language in making their point.
  • It is, however, a matter for prudential judgment how the Catholic Church makes its point as persuasively as possible: the State (and its citizens) may listen, but (from a non-Catholic point of view) it is under no obligation to listen. This might suggest that, prudentially, the Church –at least on some occasions- should express itself as far as possible in Scotland in terms that a (largely secularized, largely post-Protestant and religiously poorly informed) public will accept.
    Probably a matter again for another day, but the Italian Crucifix case in the European Court of Human Rights which came out in March (here) is well worth paying attention to. The broad point decided on here was that whilst European states had an obligation to allow individuals religious freedom, there was no obligation on a State to do this on the basis of excluding all religions from the public sphere (the idea of hard secularism) rather than (say) having a State religion which allowed individuals to opt out.

 The video is well worth watching. Joseph Weiler (the Jewish professor of law) who argued this case successfully and extremely movingly reminds us (and this is too easily forgotten) that toleration and religious co-existence in Western Europe have not historically been achieved by the exclusion of religion (or indeed the Church) from the public sphere, but by how Church and State have behaved in exercising that relationship. The point that the US separation of church and state or the French model of laicit√© are not the only or indeed typical European ways of resolving the need for religious toleration is particularly worth stressing.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Falconer's brave new world and the Stoics

           A modern medical practitioner on a house call as envisaged by Lord Falconer

Lord Falconer's Commission on Assisted Dying has finally produced its report. It apparently (and unsurprisingly) has concluded that allowing doctors to provide patients with the means of killing themselves is a good thing.

Although the 'Commission' itself is a joke -it is a commission only in the sense that my asking a few Catholic mates at the pub what they think of euthanasia is a 'Commission' (for the record, having seriously deliberated for thirty seconds, we can report that we are all against it)- it doubtless marks the beginning of a new round of the attempt to turn doctors into versions of the executioners dressed as Charon who dispatched the fallen in gladiatorial games (see photo above).

More to say on all this in the future no doubt. But for the moment, it reminds me of a point that keeps coming back to me in this area. The Stoics are often (rightly) pointed to as an ancient philosophical school which favoured suicide in some circumstances. Moreover, modern proponents of euthanasia often base their arguments on the value of autonomy which -with some caveats- is also rightly to be seen as the basis for the Stoic position.

But the modern supporters of euthanasia miss the point that assisted suicide or having a doctor kill you is a very poor illustration of autonomy. The Stoic suicide is a dramatic enactment of the sage's indifference to death or pain. Indeed, the Stoics emphasized how easy it was to die once you'd made your mind up to do so:

Cleanthes for example killed himself thus:

And he died in the following manner. His gums swelled very much; and, at the command of his physicians, he abstained from food for two days. And he got so well that his physicians allowed him to return to all his former habits; but he refused, and saying that he had now already gone part of the way, he abstained from food for the future, and so died; being, as some report, eighty years old, and having been a pupil of Zeno nineteen years.

Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) was even more self-controlled:

The manner of his death was as follows. As he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking a toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line ...:

'I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?'

and died on the spot through holding his breath.

Instead of these actions which dramatically embody the Stoic virtues of courage, self-control and indifference to the views of those who are not wise, we have commissions, 'eligibility criteria' and 'comprehensive sets of safeguards' (see here for all this). 

I am not a Stoic. As a Catholic, I believe that, whilst the value autonomy has its place in ethics, that place is strictly limited by the overarching context of our dependence on God (and, moreover, I would argue that a natural human dependency and the values consequent on that should be evident to non-Catholics, even atheists). But one of the constant threads of this blog is that serious consideration of the Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition -which provides a model of  natural reason uninfluenced by direct revelation- is a way of engaging modern culture without the sort of obviously religious premises that modern secularists reject. Within that general methodology, the Stoic position provides an interesting critique of modern euthanasia and indeed much of modern liberalism. Instead of the rather rugged autonomy of the ancient world, we have a cod autonomy, the sham of autonomy which is produced by state and medical control. (A similar transformation of autonomy takes place with same sex 'marriage' debate: instead of homosexuals having the freedom of just getting on with their lives, the debate has become about state creation of an institution, and state crushing of dissent.)

I don't think people should commit suicide. If you are reading this and you are thinking of doing so, please rethink your position: human flourishing is generally better displayed by enduring natural harms than by avoiding them. But if you are (wrongly) obsessed with autonomy like the Stoics, then exercise that autonomy. Don't run around trying to get others to give you social approval. Get on with your own lives and your own deaths. 

I don't pretend that autonomy is the only argument used in favour of suicide: relief of suffering is clearly another major reason offered -and the above reflections have little directly to say on that. But as far as autonomy is concerned, the Stoics should remind modern secularists quite how thin many of their ethical approaches are, and how dependent on a view of human beings as simply creatures of the state, whose moral actions have to be endorsed and even acclaimed by others.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Death of Professor Sir Michael Dummett

                                            27 June 1925 – 27 December 2011 RIP

A not unusual, but still unfortunate aspect of holiday periods is that one finds out, on return to the real world, that whilst the merrymaking was in full flight, someone has quietly passed from this world into the next.

The death of Sir Michael Dummett, whilst, given his age, hardly tragic, is the passing of a major English philosopher and a major Catholic intellectual. Obituary from the Scotsman here and an appreciation -and reflections inspired by Dummett's life on the general thinness of modern culture-  by John Haldane here.

He was a convert to Catholicism and was instructed and received into the Church by the Dominicans in Edinburgh.