Tuesday 31 July 2012

Sex and food

                                         More long pig, vicar?

I was rather struck a while back by hearing (on a TV documentary) an extract from a letter by Benjamin Britten explaining that he disliked women's bodies on the ground that they were 'bulbous'.

As it stands, this is a remark rather on the level of the recurring character 'Les' in Vic Reeves Big Night Out who suffered from a terrible fear of chives (or more accurately, the soil adhering to chives): it's hard to make any sense of it other than a) an example of some sort of neurosis; or b) an example of harmless attachment or repulsion along the lines of preferring beef to pork: there is, after all, no accounting for taste.

Much modern talk about sexual attraction treats it rather like fancying other people's sandwiches: sexual attractiveness is something accidentally possessed by other people and, if you can sweet talk them or possibly trick them, you can get a bite out of it. And of course, it's this sort of narrative that underlies the currently fashionable way of conceiving same sex desire as a fixed taste: I like beef, he likes chicken -so what? He likes boys, I like girls -so what? If Benjamin Britten disliked curves, this is of no more importance than my disliking chicken sandwiches.

                                                              More to your taste...?

The problem with this analogy is that it substitutes a very simple quality (the taste of a particular meat) for a very complex quality (human sexual desirability). When the normal taunt is issued to Catholics, 'What does it matter what you love so long as you love?' it's clear that this can't be taken literally: 'I love killing kittens, I love Hitler, I love sawing off my right leg' -no problem with any of those? But it's very hard to dig down to what precisely the taunt does mean. For example, it can't even be glossed as restricted to human sexual love: I wouldn't want my daughter to love Tony Soprano or even a hand me down Scottish bad boy version of James Dean. Whom you love does matter both because it embodies a lot of your own character (if I love Tony Soprano, my greed and relish for violent men is not accidental to that attraction) and because it leads, inevitably, to an opening up of some possibilities (life on the run and time on the inside) and closes down others (blameless suburban domesticity with a cup of nightly Horlicks).

Britten's dislike of the bulbous is not really an aversion to a type of geometry but is rather to be understood as a dislike of what bulbousness is in women: a complicated set of meanings centring on the shape of a curved pelvis structure effective for child bearing; the shape of breasts effective for feeding. Or, if it is not that, it's very hard to make sense of it: back to the incomprehensibility of a fear of soil on chives.

Our sexual likes and dislikes reveal and embody complex and meaningful aspects of our character. Liking or disliking the opposite sex is laden with that sort of meaningfulness: it is not simply like liking or disliking a particular foodstuff. One of the many casualties of a current narrative about sexual attraction that reduces it to a simple food-like-taste and to a desire that is non-negotiable is that it strips out meaning and agency from a central part of our lives.

The biggest difference between Catholicism and common-or-garden understandings of sexual attraction is that the former attributes deep and complex meanings to it and the latter doesn't. The precise meanings -theological and moral- that are attributed to sex by Catholicism are in some ways rather less important than the very fact that it does view sex in that way. Accept that sex and sexual attraction is a bearer of complex meanings and we can then get down, as individuals and a society, to discussing what those meanings are and should be. Treat sex as food and we reduce adults to bolshie children pushing vegetables to the side of the plate.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Was the Scottish Reformation a good thing?

                                Benefits of the Reformation number 1: nice ruins

Off on travels for a while to avoid CIA-World Government Peter Tatchell look alike killer robots -so apologies for any infrequent comment moderation and posting.

Anyway, although, as a carpet chewing Catholic nutter, I wouldn't be expected to approve of the Reformation, this post is intended as a genuine question rather than a foregone conclusion.

One of the main changes I've been aware of in English historiography is the growth of a widespread acknowledgement, both in academic and interested amateur circles, that there is more to be said about the English Reformation than gushing praise at how the domination of the Whore of Babylon was peacefully removed by good old bluff King Hal. I'm sure part of this is the result of (eg) the popular appreciation of St Thomas More brought about by the play/film, A Man for all Seasons and a general growing suspicion that King Henry VIII wasn't a jolly nice chap after all. More importantly, it is a result of the works of historians like Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars which paint the picture of a popular, vibrant Catholicism, overthrown by the actions of government rather than the people. Now, I think that revisionist picture has gone quite deep into the consciousness of English Catholic intellectuals and given them a confidence and an interest in the place of Catholicism in English history that, absent such an understanding of the Reformation as an imposition, would be hard to sustain. All in all, it makes it easier to be English, Catholic and a traditionalist.

And what of Scotland? It's been nagging at me for a while now that, despite all the reading of Duffy's works that I've done and my consequent understanding of (at least one interpretation of) English Reformation History, I've come across little that's similar in Scotland. I have absolutely no doubt that, if you asked reasonably well educated but nonexpert Scots about the Reformation, you'd get the familiar Whig story of how it was all an excellent part of the triumph of good sense and freedom against the wicked Roman Church.    So is that the dominant academic view and, perhaps more importantly, to the extent any revisionist views exist in academe, how far have these leaked out into the wider world, Catholic and non-Catholic?

Michael Lynch has produced an overview of the nature of the Scottish Reformation which concludes that it was imposed from above. But it says little about the state and popularity of the Church which was supplanted. Moreover, whatever the academic state of play, I'm pretty sure that no work of revision has penetrated Scottish Catholic consciousness to the same degree as those of Duffy.

Now there might be many reasons for this. Certainly one is the comparative smallness of Scottish cultural life: just because we are a smaller country, the (inevitably) fewer people who are interested in such things are less likely to be able to sustain revisionist, semi-popular historiography such as Duffy's. Moreover, to the extent that the non-Catholic population are interested in the Reformation, the Presbyterian mind set of the Kirk is much less likely to welcome revisionist history than the semi-Catholicized Anglicanism of the Church of England. Moreover, within the Catholic Church, there is probably still more of a lingering sense of our being (mainly Irish) outsiders than there is in England: is Scottish religious history really our religious history?

Anyway, not sure about much of the explanation of this. Perhaps the Scottish Reformation was, despite Lynch, really a bottom up popular revolt against Papal impositions. (If it were, it would still have been wrong: it wouldn't be the first time that a popular revolution was misguided.) But I suspect that an unfortunate side effect of this lack of a Catholic revisionist understanding of the Reformation is an increased difficulty within the Scottish Church in embracing traditionalism: finding/making oneself at home in a place or practice because one sees it as part of a historical continuity.

One of the ways in which life is enriched by religion is through the imaginative re-enchantment of the environment: this is the place where so-and-so died for her faith; this is the place where pilgrims for centuries came to venerate the St X. Of course, Scottish Catholics already do some of this -and one can think of writers such as George Mackay Brown who have done rather a lot of it- but my impression is that we do rather less of it than English and Irish and Welsh Catholics. And a major block on such an imaginative re-enchantment is the alienation produced by the sense of the Reformation as a decisive popular rejection of Rome. Duffy has done much to undermine a similar block in England. Any takers for a similar undertaking in Scotland?

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Delay on nu-marriage in Scotland

                                             Hold on a second....

The expected decision today of the Scottish Government to introduce same sex nu-marriage has been delayed until the end of the month, whilst Cardinal O'Brien's suggestion for a referendum has been clearly rejected:

A government spokesman, speaking after a cabinet meeting, said the issue was a matter of conscience, not constitution.

He said a decision on whether to bring forward a bill on same-sex marriage would be made before the end of July.

Members of the cabinet met in Edinburgh to discuss the issue.

After the meeting, the spokesman said: "This is an important issue and it is right that cabinet takes the time to get both the principle and the detail of the decision right.

"During the discussion, recent calls for a referendum on the subject were carefully considered. However, cabinet views this as an issue of conscience not constitution.

"Given that if a bill is brought forward it should in the view of the Scottish government be determined by a free vote, cabinet has concluded that a referendum would not be appropriate.

"Cabinet has now asked a cabinet sub-committee, led by the deputy first minister, to further examine some particular issues of detail before a final decision is reached.

"We remain committed to publishing the consultation responses and our clear decision on the way forward before the end of this month." (BBC)

Can't say I'm surprised about the rejection of a referendum: although (as I've argued in my last post) it would be an appropriate way of dealing with such a profound alteration to the nature of society, it was always unlikely that the SNP would be willing to further confuse the independence referendum by running another highly charged campaign on nu-marriage.

The establishment of a sub-committee (apparently with Kenny MacAskill -Cabinet Secretary for Justice- and Mike Russell -Secretary for Education) suggests that the key issues of the legal effects of nu-marriage on the ability of the Church to carry on its mission particularly in  Catholic schools (the potential legal problems with which were recently highlighted by counsel's opinion) might at last be being taken seriously.

Well, we'll see. But given the rather simplistic nature of the public debate in Scotland up till now, any sign of some sensitivity (even if ephemeral) to the mess nu-marriage will cause is welcome.

Monday 16 July 2012

Cardinal O'Brien, referendums and the family

On the eve of the Scottish Government cabinet meeting (widely predicted to introduce legislation for same sex 'marriage') Cardinal O'Brien has been arguing for the use of a referendum to decide the question:

Cardinal O’Brien suggested that a referendum on same-sex marriage was as legitimate as the 2014 vote on Scottish independence, as he issued the statement pitched directly to ministers attending the meeting. He highlighted the fact that the same-sex marriage consultation received almost 80,000 responses – three times more than the SNP’s government’s consultation on the independence referendum.

He said: “There has been much debate in Scotland about the referendum on independence. The proposed referendum is crucially important.

“Clearly, if it is sensible to hold a referendum on independence, it is crucial that we have one on marriage. It is the only way the country can move forward on this issue.

Putting aside the substance of the issue of same sex 'marriage' (on which regular readers have probably had more than a bellyful of my views), I suspect that many non-Catholic (and perhaps Catholic) readers will have trouble regarding the demand for a referendum as anything more than a political tactic to reject or at least delay the introduction of a simple piece of reform. Perhaps. 

But beyond this is the political and philosophical tradition of Thomism that sees the family as one of the fundamental building blocks of the state. This goes back to Aristotle's analysis in The Politics:

He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved.

As Aquinas explains the centrality of family and state in his Commentary on the Politics:

Concerning the first point, it should be noted that there is a twofold society that is obvious to all, namely, the city and the household. The city is governed by a twofold rule, namely, the political and the kingly. There is kingly rule when he who is set over the city has full power, whereas there is political rule when he who is set over the city exercises a power restricted by certain laws of the city. Similarly, the household has a twofold rule, namely, the domestic and the despotic. Everyone who possesses slaves is called a despot, whereas the procurator or superintendent of a family is called the domestic head. (Lectio 1, 13.)

This philosophical tradition is carried through to the modern Church in, for example, the Compendium of Social  Doctrine (s.214):

The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed. The family in fact, at least in its procreative function, is the condition itself for their existence. With regard to other functions that benefit each of its members, it proceeds in importance and value the functions that society and the State are called to perform[471]. The family possesses inviolable rights and finds its legitimization in human nature and not in being recognized by the State. The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family. 

For Catholicism, the structure of the family is a constitutional issue, indeed, the most fundamental constitutional issue. Although it's hard to imagine in the present political climate, it should be treated with the seriousness of a constitutional question rather than with all the seriousness of a minor adjustment to licensing hours. And Scottish readers at least will need little reminder that, despite claims by the pro-same sex 'marriage' side that a referendum would be 'unScottish', the use of referendums to decide fundamental constitutional issues is hardly an unknown device.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Catholic philosopher warns of threat to Catholic schools from same sex 'marriage'

The Scottish Catholic philosopher John Haldane recently warned of the risks to Catholic schools if same sex 'marriage' goes ahead:

Once the immediate issue of gay ‘marriage’ is resolved and especially if it is done in a way that is seem to represent a defeat for the Church it will not be long before the issue of schooling is returned to,” he warned. “Now with the additional complaint that given Catholic teachings on sex and marriage, Catholic schools are at best an obstacle and at worst a real and present threat to the establishment and civility. (Scottish Catholic Observer)

There seems little doubt that what can be said and not said about homosexuality and same sex 'marriage' within schools will be one of the key issues that would emerge in the aftermath the introduction of nu-marriage.

Meanwhile, we wait with bated breath for the results of the consultation on same sex 'marriage' in Scotland. The Herald tells us it's all been sewn up and despite an overwhelming response against its introduction to the consultation process, the Scottish Cabinet meeting on 17 July will go ahead and introduce it anyway. Anyway, the ever excellent Cardinal O'Brien, has 'been accused of declaring war' on nu-marriage:

The bishops of Scotland are so concerned by threats to marriage that 26 August has been set aside as Support Marriage Sunday.

Quite why the normally astute SNP leadership would want to stir up this particular hornets' nest is beyond me. As noted by Eddie Barnes:

Pressing ahead with the plans would leave Mr Salmond’s careful wooing of the Catholic Church over the last two decades in tatters, and motivate thousands of opponents in the run-up to the referendum.

But there we have it. The prospect of a long and bitter struggle against this piece of cultural vandalism confusing and colouring the debate over independence. 

Friday 6 July 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre and surviving barbarism

One of the key events in my academic development was discovering the works of Alasdair MacIntyre as an undergraduate. I suppose I took two main things from him at the time: the central interest of Aristotelianism particularly in ethics; the possibility of a fundamental incoherence in contemporary non-Aristotelian thought. Although the effect wasn't immediate, the ultimate consequence of this was my conversion to Catholicism.

After Virtue ends thus:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. When they set themselves to achieve instead -often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -doubtless very different- St Benedict.

MacIntyre's point is that, in the face of a general incoherence in the intellectual and social practices of modern, western societies, the need is to establish citadels of civilization apart from those societies, analogous to the monasteries of the Dark Ages, where the good life can still be lived. I'm rather less pessimistic than MacIntyre about the state of modern society, but in the wake of a current attacks on marriage and the family as well as Catholic education, Catholics do have to begin thinking much more seriously than we have previously about how to create that sort of space. For example, if same sex 'marriage' is introduced, how do we ensure that Catholic marriage and those entering into it are sharply distinguished from  the new institution? In part, this is a matter of education, telling people that they are different. But is that enough? Unless the rituals and customs surrounding Catholic marriage reinforce the teaching that marriage is different from nu-marriage, this message will be lost.

And what of Catholic students? Should we as parents go on sending them to institutions where their beliefs will be, in MacIntyre's terms, undermined by an incoherent liberalism? Or should we be sending them to (say) those US Catholic institutions such as Steubenville or Ave Maria which take seriously the task of forming the young in a coherent Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition? 

These are clearly only a couple of issues that need to be thought about if accept anything like MacIntyre's analysis. In essence, we would need to start thinking like previous generations of recusants and Eastern European dissidents: how do we survive within an actively hostile society which is doing its best to extirpate our beliefs? Such an approach would require a much more thoroughgoing effort at separation than anything most Catholics currently envisage: not just monitoring TV but the sort of deliberate community building that we see among ultra-Orthodox Jews.

I hope that such a future is rather a dystopian fantasy than a realistic possibility. In particular, I would not advocate the abandonment of the struggle to re-convert mainstream society or at least to convince it of the benefits of allowing Catholics to live out and pass on their lives and beliefs with integrity. But I am equally convinced that we need to be much more thoughtful about emphasizing and institutionalizing our separate Catholic form of life than we currently are. What precisely that involves, I am less sure. It certainly won't be comfortable.