Monday 27 February 2012

Arguing against same sex 'marriage'

Good post from Joseph Shaw (a philosophy tutor at Oxford) setting out the brief case against same sex 'marriage' together with some observations on the difficulties in making a common rational case against it with those such as evangelicals who reject natural law:

Traditional marriage, the lifelong commitment of a man and a woman ordered to procreation, is the indispensible condition for the family, and grows directly out of human nature. It is not the product of human convention or law; it is historically and logically prior to the state. Since it is the fundamental institution of human society, the state has an interest in recognising and protecting it, particularly as it provides the natural, normal, and by far the best environment for the raising of children. The proposal to extend the legal category of 'marriage' it to same-sex couples is a proposal to cease to recognise the natural institution as such; those getting married will be accorded the same status as those engaged in something completely different. This is motivated by a social-engineering project in favour of sexual libertinism which is directly hostile to stable family life, and it is a move away from the state's engagement with human realities, towards a dystopian fantasy.

Full post here.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Beginning of Lent

                                          Poussin's Sacrament of Penance

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of preparation for Easter on Sunday, 8 April 2012.

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou
hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are
penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our
wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(The Ash Wednesday Collect from the Book of Divine Worship.)

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Natural law and the archaeology of blogging

                                       The Time Team spots a sherd of Catholic truth…

On another day when I find myself wondering whether the siren call of the internet really has added much to human welfare, the fairly random clicking back and forth across the net turned up a stratum of blogging I hadn’t previously been aware of.

One of the bloggers I regularly turn to is Ches at The Sensible Bond. Whilst randomly flitting between websites I discovered a previous stratum of Ches’ activities. It makes (on the subject of one of the Christian conscience vs Equality Legislation cases) a point that is all too relevant to much of the Church’s campaigning in the public sphere and which deserves to be dug up, brushed off, and preserved in this virtual display case:

…the fostering of a 'faith' ticket has been a great facilitator of ecumenical friendliness, especially now we are surrounded by a secular society, but it seems to have been achieved at the expense of a cogent, persuasive and well-argued Christian rationality. Seeking out a richer scriptural basis for doctrinal understanding is all very well as an ecclesial exercise ad intra, or as a way of convincing Bible Christians that the Church is no stranger to Scripture, but if you want to win an argument in the public square, you have to base your position on principles recognized in the public square. Claiming a special status for Christian sensibilities is just not going to work in the current climate.

[…] The most worrying thing is that in [the] ruling, and its ilk, a hardening secular reason marches on almost without any opposition, and the religions intervening in the debate are sounding increasingly shrill by looking for a special 'faith' status.

Defend this ground on the basis of natural law, or you'll not have a shred of religion left in this country which can function in the public domain. The paradox is in this regard that we have to be faithless in order to be faithful.

One of the problems with the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ has been a blurring between the distinctive Catholic approach to Christianity and morality and those of Protestant churches. By relying solely on scriptural or dogmatic arguments against immorality –as there is a tendency to do with sola fide Protestants- at best our views will be tolerated by a modern cultural relativism as a picturesque survival of an ancient cult; by basing them on the Graeco-Roman philosophical heritage embodied in natural law, we have a chance to engage rationally with the secular world. 

By the way, I don’t underestimate the difficulties of a debate focused on human nature. But that’s simply because I don’t underestimate the difficulties of any rational debate. In particular, a blindness to nuances of rational argument and a refusal to consider any philosophical position that can’t be expressed within a combox are rapidly becoming the anti-rational characteristics of a secularism which ironically prides itself on its rationality.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Evil English Tories diss our Cardinal

That's not quite how the media have put it, but pretty close...

From the Scotsman:

THE Catholic Church in Scotland has issued a stinging rebuke to the UK government after Cardinal Keith O’Brien was left out of an official delegation to the Vatican this week, despite the the head of the church in England and Wales being invited....

Cardinal O’Brien, who is in Rome on other business, is understood to be “angered” by the omission. Last night, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: “The fact that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and Britain’s senior Catholic, was not included in the UK government delegation which visited the Holy See is a most unfortunate oversight.”

Full article here. 

Difficult to add much. Of course, these things do happen, but, equally, it is the sort of thing that regularly tends to happen when London Ministers and Civil Servants forget the existence of North Britain. It's also the sort of thing that irritates most Scots and provides an emotional case for Nationalism. 

On the other hand, given the clarity of Cardinal O'Brien's resistance to social liberalism, perhaps it's Archbishop Nichols who really does need the face time with His Holiness...?

Tuesday 14 February 2012

SNP membership oppose Catholic schools

                                        Sorry, girls, not much to celebrate in this survey...

One of the interesting statistics on the views of SNP members which appeared in the print edition of Scotalnd on Sunday but didn't make it to the web version is that on the attitude to Catholic schools. In response to the statement, 'Separate Catholic schools should be phased out', 36% strongly agreed and 28.4% agreed. (As some comparison, the last survey (2003) of the general Scottish population that I could find from a quick google showed only 48% against.)

I'll leave it to others to draw any conclusions they want to on implications for Independence and, in the interests of balance, point out that Alex Salmond has previously been explicit in his support for Catholic schools whilst other parties, including the Tories have previous form on this issue. But in any case it does emphasize that the retention of Catholic education is something that is likely to remain under attack and there is not exactly a reservoir of support for it in what, independence or no, is likely to be the party of government for a good while yet.

A good defence of Catholic education by Tina Beattie is here. (I know that Professor Beattie has had her run ins with the Catholic blogosphere previously and I certainly wouldn't agree with her on her understanding of (eg) authority in the Church -but credit where credit is due, she did a good job on this one.) The key issue remains our understanding of rationality and how the virtue of practical wisdom is passed on to the next generation. Secularists tend to assume that there is just one rationality, uninformed by culture and tradition. Catholics will assume that any education worth its salt will involve induction into a specific tradition of thought and rationality.

Philosophers and theologians who, roughly, can be described as 'post modern' (and I'd put Professor Beattie into this category) will tend to agree with the claim that any rationality is bound to a certain specific pattern or history. As such they will tend to agree that the idea of commitment-less universal rationality taught in non-sectarian schools is a chimera. Where they will go wrong in principle is in downplaying the Catholic claim that the intellectual tradition of Catholicism is not just one among many traditions, but the tradition which, by dint of divine guidance, is objectively the best. In practice, though, when engaging with the wider, secular society, it would be unreasonable (and certainly impractical) to expect an argument based on the objective superiority of the Catholic intellectual tradition to win much support. However, it should be possible to argue the goodness of the tradition: not that it trumps all other forms of education, but that it has a distinctive and helpful contribution to make to Scottish society. In that practical aim, the sort of post modern analysis contributed by Professor Beattie has its part to play in the process of political persuasion, even if it does not embody the fullness of the Catholic claim.

Sunday 12 February 2012

In Memoriam: John Hick, philosopher of religion (1922-2012)

John Hick, one of the most eminent philosophers of religion in the anglophone philosophical world, died on 9 February.

Although his trajectory from evangelicalism to liberal Christianity (he died as a Quaker) is one with which I have little intellectual sympathy, anyone who has studied philosophy of religion in a British philosophy or theology department will have almost certainly have been introduced to the subject at least in part via his work.

Ed Feser manages to strike a good balance between appreciation and criticism here. The Internet Encyclopedia article provides an overview of his life and intellectual interests here.

For me, he was one of those authors that first awoke me from my atheist dogmatic slumber and suggested that religion was to be taken seriously. On the other hand, he was also one of those liberal thinkers who seriously underestimated the intellectual resources of orthodox Christianity and thus rather undermined the distinctiveness and importance of a specific and traditional Christian (and certainly, Catholic) understanding of God and the world.

He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1948.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday 10 February 2012

Christian opposition to independence

Well, that's the headline in last Friday's Scottish Catholic Observer anyway....

THE Scottish Government’s campaign for independence was dealt a blow this week with the announcement that the new Christian democratic political party coming to Scotland opposes it.

Michael Elmer, leader of the Centre Democrats in England and Wales, was in Scotland last weekend to meet with leading Scottish Catholics and Christians—including internationally renowned composer James MacMillan—to discuss working to launch the Scottish Centre Democrats in the autumn.

“There needs to be a party for those who embrace Christian values and are willing to claim the centre ground: In economic terms those who reject both planned economies and naked capitalism,” Mr Elmer told the SCO. “I think Scottish voters will be interested in a party that is pro-life in the broadest sense—against poverty and the death penalty as well as abortion—and against independence.”

In the end, I think there are two stories here. First, there is the attempt to create a centre right, socially conservative party in Scotland. James MacMillan has blogged about his desire for such a party before, back in September, when Murdo Fraser was suggesting a reinvention of the Scottish Conservatives:

It is not just traditional Tories who have abandoned the Conservatives in the search for a viable centre-Right opposition (and ended up voting ruefully and frustratedly for the SNP and their Leftist project) but a lot of traditional Labour supporters have been cast aside contemptuously by the new middle-class Leftist urban elites who have taken over Labour with their foreign dogmas of lifestyle libertarianism/libertinism/liberalism. Huge swathes of Scottish ex-Labourites are now desperate for a political voice for their social and moral conservatism. I feel, therefore, that you have to prove your pro-family, pro-marriage and pro-life credentials. If you do this successfully, a lot of people who would never have dared vote Tory could be attracted by a radical alternative to the "culture of death" merchants and moral relativists who infest the other parties.

As I've discussed before, here and here , the current rush towards lifestyle liberalism  as the plat du jour of every major political party in Scotland leaves orthodox theists and particularly Catholics with little place in current politics. Although my suspicion is that this is more likely to lead to apathy and an alienation from politics and the independence project, Catholics less Eeyore-ish and less given to duvet decades than myself might well instead respond with the sort of frenetic activity required for a new political movement. I wish them well.

But the obvious space for such a party or movement in modern Scotland doesn't mean that it is necessarily an 'opposition to independence' as claimed by the SCO. James MacMillan makes this clear in a comment on the SCO website:

I hate to say it, but the title of this article is misleading. The new party will not be keen to “major” on the constitutional issue. Although it is a UK party it will want to operate in any given constitutional context and would want to attract interest from previously SNP-inclined voters as well as others. Political life will get back to normal after the referendum which most objective commentators believe the SNP will lose anyway. Meanwhile life, and politics has to go on, and Scotland would benefit from a new perspective borne out of the Christian Democrat experience common in many countries around the world. The Centre Democrats are not interested in causing yet another fruitless row about separation.

Putting aside the prediction of the referendum result, this makes more sense. Whatever happens in the referendum, but particularly if it goes in favour of independence, there will be a shake up in the Scottish political scene. In particular, the unionist parties -and perhaps above all the Conservatives- will have to reinvent themselves. Moreover, unless we are to assume a Scottish political scene frozen into parties defined by an increasingly remote historical question, the internal tensions within the nationalist project between liberals and conservatives might also suggest a realignment within the SNP. So in post-independence (or even devo-max) Scotland, such a new party might well find a place, putting aside detailed questions about the viability of this particular, Centre Democrat, project.

But this leads on to the second story: why is the SCO running such a story under such a headline? I have absolutely no idea in detail what has been going on behind the scenes, but I'm quite sure that, in particular, the consultation on same sex 'marriage' and the clear intention of the current political class to drive it through willy-nilly has caused consternation among serious Catholics and among the Scottish hierarchy. As I have said, one possible response is an alienation from political life in Scotland and, as a consequence, a disenchantment with the potential of the independence project and a resigned support for the unionist status quo. That appears to be behind the 'spin' of the SCO headline. On the other hand, there is a more 'activist' response, and the attempt to reclaim Scottish politics from lifestyle liberalism. That, in itself a project compatible with any possible results of the referendum, is (rather ironically given MacMillan's own clear unionism) perhaps in practice rather more compatible with the fluidity which would be consequent on a vote for independence rather than the status quo.

Expect even more anguish as it becomes obvious that the consultation on same sex marriage needs scare quotes around not just 'marriage' but also 'consultation':

Labour’s Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens’ Patrick Harvie all signed a declaration saying that they would ‘campaign to beat the ban on same sex marriage’ on Tuesday night despite unprecedented opposition to any change in the law, led by the Catholic Church.

John Deighan, parliamentary officer for the Scottish bishops, said Scotland deserved more from its political leaders.

“It is disappointing that party leaders have been so cavalier in joining the bandwagon for redefining marriage,” he said. “We deserve a more reflective approach from those in a position of political leadership.”

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Borgen, marriage and deontology

Saturday night domi Lazarorum is (or rather was given that it ended this week) Borgen night. I'm not sure that this Danish TV series about the travails of a fictional woman Prime Minister is actually any better than the best British TV, but it does have that undeniable glamour of just being foreign. Anyway, me and the missus like it.

The tenth episode and series conclusion had Phillip, the Prime Minister's husband, storming off, having an affair and demanding a divorce. Judging from what I can glean from google translations of Danish descriptions of series 2 (not yet screened in the UK), all does not end well even if hope of a resolution to their personal problems is not entirely ruled out (eg here).

Much of the interest of the series is in the juggling of personal life and political career that many of the central characters  attempt. In the case of Birgitte (the PM) and Phillip, despite the obvious strains of being a PM and trying to be a wife and mother, they appeared to have being doing a reasonable job of it.

But then Phillip gets a bit sick of being in second place, gets a high powered job as a CEO, and then is forced to resign by his wife because there is a clash of interests with her duties as PM. He tears off, bonks the headhunter who found him a job, and then decides he wants a divorce after muttering some fluff about wanting to preserve the memory of the better times they had.

In all the discussions leading up to this announcement, I can't remember a single mention of duty and sacrifice and keeping promises made at their marriage. I can't remember a single occasion when letting his wife down (he leaves her with no clue as to where he is while she attempts to run the country and find clean clothes for the kids) or letting his children down is articulated as a big issue. Certainly Birgitte was not terribly tactful in telling him to resign, but come on, the poor woman was knackered and under extreme political and personal pressure!

And yet no one seems to notice this. Phillip doesn't notice it. Birgitte doesn't notice it. The Radio Times doesn't notice it in enthusing about how great Phillip is. And this presumably means that the Danes in general, audience and writers, don't notice it. I'd guess many Scots didn't notice it.

Duty -and the deontological approach to ethics from which it derives- is an essential part of communal life. In the political aspects of Borgen, this is recognized: Birgitte often has to do certain things because she has to as PM, not because she wants to. But within the family, this seems to have been forgotten. I don't know how, in the fictional world of Borgen, Phillip and Birgitte should have resolved their problems. I don't know how, in the real world, men and women should juggle the terrible tensions of work and family, particularly in the crucible that is politics. But I do know that any conversation in these areas that forgets the concepts of sacrifice and duty is an impoverished one and one where divorce is an almost inevitable consequence.

Turning this back to the current same sex 'marriage' consultation, if you think of marriage as Borgen does, as a relationship which you stay in only as long as you personally are enjoying it, then all this -same sex 'marriage', men going off if they get a bit hacked off or see a younger, less threatening prospect- makes sense. But that view simply doesn't work: marriages based simply on feeling good won't work, anymore than a PM who did what she felt like in running the country wouldn't work. Only if marriage is seen as an institution which has a function to perform -the proper bringing up of the next generation and the mutual support of the parents who have made the sacrifices necessary to do this- and, as a consequence, requires the acknowledgement of certain pledges and duties, does it make sense and will therefore survive.

Sensible parents bring up their children to abide by those moral practices which are essential to working life: keeping promises, being reliable, not expecting to always feel particularly happy about what you're doing from day to day. They do this because that is the price paid for entering  the social practice of work which is an essential part of human flourishing. Sensible parents used to bring up their children to abide by similar moral practices which are essential to family life, similarly, because, in the absence of a religious vocation, that is the price paid for entering  the task of raising a family which is an essential part of human flourishing. If they no longer do so, and that would seem to be the conclusion which arises from Borgen, it's not surprising that marriage is no longer taken seriously, frequently no longer works, and leaves wider society picking up the pieces.

Borgen episodes are (currently) available on BBC  iplayer here.

Friday 3 February 2012

Same sex 'marriage', strategic essentialism and hypocrisy

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” “So! indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”

The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

(From The Analects of Confucius, Book 13, Verse 3.)

Strategic essentialism’ is the adoption of an identity for political purposes:

The concept of strategic essentialism is a “strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” ( Fuss 1994 : 99). It utilizes the idea of essence with a recognition of and critique of the essentialist nature of the essence itself. It is a means of using group identity as a basis of struggle while also debating issues related to group identity within the group. (Here.)

Within the current debate about same sex marriage, the adoption of a gay identity as a third sex makes for an easy political narrative of fairness: men can get married, women can get married. Why can’t gays get married? To deny gays marriage rights is as unfair as denying equal rights to men because they are men, or women because they are women. End of story. (An alternative but analogous strategy is the 'two group' one: straights can get married, why can't gays?.)

But of course, that’s the public story, the political story that’s being told in the public sphere to achieve political ends. Within the group of activists, the narrative is much more complex. Broadly, there are two sides. First, there is gay essentialism, the view that, indeed, there is an essential gay identity which has existed across times and places and has, certainly within Western culture, been suppressed and oppressed. Such a narrative is at one with the public narrative: no hypocrisy there. Second, there is the social constructivist/queer theory/postmo view which is that gay identity is constructed by a society/person –and usually, that this identity, as constructed by the exercise of repressive power, should be deconstructed and resisted. (For both these views and the development of a third, intermediate view, see ‘A Unified Theory on Homosexual Identity’ by E. M. Reccio, downloadable here. I disagree with much of Reccio's critical analysis but the very existence of the paper is evidence of the fluidity of debate in this area of gay identity.)

On the latter view, the public narrative of the oppressed third sex cannot be sustained: instead, the correct narrative should be about repressed desire. But such a narrative is neither as clear nor as evidently defensible as the third sex narrative: we don’t expect governments to institutionalize all desires; many desires, particularly sexual, are not endorsed let alone facilitated by society.

The current debate about same sex ‘marriage’ in Scotland is in part an exercise in strategic essentialism, or, to rectify our language, hypocrisy. Fundamental debates about the nature of sexual identity exist among activists in this area which are being covered up by a political campaign which mostly endorses only one narrative, that of the third sex, in order to bring along ‘useful idiots’ in its wake. We need to bring that debate into the open, to rectify our language and thus our thought on identity, before same sex ‘marriage’ should even be considered.

Of course, I fully expect that to happen as a result of the Scottish Government consultation…

The leaders of the Labour Party, Conservatives, Liberals and Greens in Scotland keeping their minds open on the same sex ‘marriage’ consultation whilst signing a pledge to introduce it at a reception held on Tuesday in the Scottish Parliament. (Article here.) 

[H/T to Quiet Riot Girl who got me thinking about this.]