Friday 28 September 2012

Tom Holland -part deux

                                                Lazarus' only favoured form of questioning...?

In which your blogger grows a little paranoid and starts obsessing...

My post about Tom Holland and Islam was picked up by Tom and tweeted. So I should really start off by thanking him for noticing the post and drawing it to other people's attention.

But rather like any nutjob who, having bent the ear of a public figure, quickly grows irritated that the VIP doesn't want to spend three hours discussing in detail suggestions for road traffic reform and the use of cowrie shells as a replacement for the dollar, I confess (once my initial pleasure had passed) in feeling slightly miffed at the substance of the tweet:

Interesting that a Protestant shld be more comfortable qu'ing [ie questioning] Muslim tradition than a Catholic: 

It may well be that I'm reading too much into this: after all, I can't expect Tom Holland to have read my points that carefully and, even if he had, the limited space of a tweet couldn't do justice to the magnificent richness of my nuanced arguments! But given all that, it's difficult to resist the impression that there is a linking here between Catholicism and unquestioning obedience to a religion, and Protestantism and a spirit of lively enquiry. And it's that association I want to tackle.

First, Andrew Brown ain't just any Protestant,, but a Unitarian Universalist minister:

I'm a liberal Free Christian minister with preference for post-modern and post-liberal theology. My personal theological/philosophical touch-stones include: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Bloch, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Paul Wienpahl, Leo Tolstoy, Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo. I also admit to a great and abiding love for Epicurus and Lucretius and also Benedict Spinoza.

(A full apologia is here:

Any view he comes up with certainly can't be ascribed to mainstream Protestantism, but to a post-modern, post-Christian philosophy. In particular, he comes at religion with a predisposition to underplay the importance of belief in specific historical claims:

The kind of faith that is encouraged in our liberal tradition can never, therefore, be one which opts for either slavish adherence to the supposedly historical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) nor a slavish adherence to some personal but ineffable philosophical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) but, instead, to find a delicate creative balance between these two poles through the conscious living of an unfolding form of life.

In my opinion, although this general balance must be struck, the overall weight leans ever so slightly towards the philosophical end of things...

So the 'interest' here lies less in the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, and much more in the differences between those Christians who take a core of concrete, historical claims as a key element in their beliefs (me, and other orthodox Catholics and Protestants) and those who don't (Andrew Brown).

Second, it's not right to claim that my post is reducible to a lack of comfort in questioning Muslim tradition. As I said in my previous post, I don't have a dog in this fight and am quite prepared to entertain Holland's claims about Islam. Moreover, I think it's entirely right (and certainly inevitable) that Islam comes under the sort of academic, historical scrutiny that Christianity and Judaism are currently subject to: Muslim academics like Seyyed Hossein Nasr can be safely left to fight their own corner. (As indeed can Catholic academics when the attention turns to our affairs.) Whatever might be said about the limitations of academia, in the end, constant worrying at an issue by smart, well-informed people is a good thing.

But the situation of academic popularizers such as Holland is different. In both the book and the film, Holland is presenting a narrative: a story of Islam as he sees it. Within the book, although there is some attempt to give a sense of alternative possibilities, there is certainly not enough in there for someone who reads the book to assess his arguments: essentially, we are being encouraged to trust his version of events. Now, as a non-Muslim, I'm probably happier to trust Holland than I am Seyyed Hossein Nasr: I don't, as a Catholic, believe that Mohammed had a supernatural revelation; as a westerner, I'm reasonably willing to trust western academics. In any case, it doesn't matter too much to me: I can entertain Holland's views without being committed to believe them. But the position of a Muslim without an academic specialism in early Islamic history is different: any temptation to trust Holland will be outweighed by the obvious methodological biases I mentioned before, particularly his need to say something new in order to sell.

Very few of those commenting on Holland's book in the blogosphere have the requisite academic skills and knowledge to get beyond that need for trust: I certainly don't. But that hasn't stopped many from criticizing Muslims for angrily rejecting his analysis. However, it's entirely rational for Muslims to reject his analysis: they have no reasons for giving him that trust that he requires.

So unquestioning Catholicism and questioning Protestantism? I don't see that. The main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the great explicitness of Catholicism about what authorities we are signed up to trusting: I know that, as a Catholic, I have accepted the need, ceteris paribus to trust the Pope and the Bishops. Sola scriptura Protestantism pretends that it relies solely on the Bible, but in fact, for the ordinary believer, is based on trusting authorities such as ministers: Catholicism is simply more self reflective about the nature of authority in belief.

I'm not sure that I'd find 'interesting' the difference between Catholic and (mainstream) Protestant reactions to Holland's book: I suspect that both would find much of interest in it but also analogies to some of the old methodological flaws of debunking academic studies of Christianity. But if there were a difference, I suspect it might be this. Catholics would be more sensitive and questioning about the way that methodologies of historical enquiry affect outcome: unlike (some) Protestants and (some) popular historians, Catholics would be suspicious of any claim to an engagement with history and texts that denied being parti pris and denied the need to trust what one cannot really think for oneself due to lack of expertise, and which instead imagined the possibility of an unproblematic and heroic struggle of the clear seeing truth teller with the forces of obscurantism and blind faith.

And if that is the difference, then Catholicism is in the right here.

Update: an extremely gracious tweet from Tom Holland:

ts Top / All

I am rightly put in my place for dealing in pat generalisations – sthg that I, of all people, shld know is infuriating 

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Redefining the family: Scotland leads the way

                                          Hi honeys, I'm home...

I have very little idea what to make of this story except perhaps to whine plaintively and to start scratching at the door...

A SHERIFF has allowed a former celebrity hairdresser to continue living with his 46 German shepherd dogs, because she says they constitute his family under human rights legislation...

Sheriff Susan Raeburn, in her judgment issued yesterday, 
rejected the council’s call for 
action against Mr Debidin and his dogs. She stated: “The respondent [Mr Debidin] is effectively the leader of the pack. At night Mr Debidin sleeps in one of the caravans within Woodhead compound with his entire pack of dogs other than two which ‘guard’ the compound.

“Mr Debidin has eschewed a ‘normal’ lifestyle for a lifestyle devoted to his dogs.”

Citing Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that everyone has “the right to respect for his private and family life”, Sheriff Raeburn continued: “I have absolutely no doubt that the respondent’s day-to-day routine at Woodhead compound is, as a matter of fact, his family life. It is an unusual family life...

Once again, Scotland is demonstrating its broad minded commitment to a generous interpretation of the nature of the family. As Alyn Smith MEP has said about same sex 'marriage':

It’s all part of building a new and distinctive Scotland – one which is tolerant, open and progressive and above all values the rights and liberties of the individual.

Catholics think that the function of the family is the procreation and raising of children. Once you abandon that central insight, anything really does go.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Outrage as Sunday Herald linked to Der Stürmer by blogger

                                     See? I can make sensationalist headlines as well...

Times must be tough down at the Sunday Herald. We've had two front pages recently where the main story (indeed the only story) was that some pro-life cause has mentioned Nazism in passing and their opponents have taken staged hissy fits as a result. As well as the shock and upset caused to fine upstanding characters such as British Pregnancy Advisory Service spokespeople, the Sunday Herald has also added editorials condemning 'inflammatory comparisons'.

I blogged about the first occasion where the headline was Outrage as lobby group links right-to-die campaigners with Nazis. This time we had Pro-choice activists outraged as bishop compares abortion clinics to Auschwitz. The previous headline resulted from the inclusion of a session about the historical lessons from the Nazi euthanasia programme for the UK; this current 'outrage' is because the Bishop of Motherwell said that, just as photographs of Auschwitz brought home that horror, so photographs of abortions brought home this horror of abortion. Note that he did not say abortion was like the Holocaust. Note that he used the comparison of the Burma Railway as well as Auschwitz (but of course that didn't figure in the Sunday Herald headline: less catchy of course).

"I have no doubt that the publication of the photographs of the victims of Auschwitz and the Burma Railway brought home the horrors of such evil catastrophes far more effectively than a million pleading words. Two hundred thousand abortions take place in Britain each year. Why is the pro-choice lobby so desperate to hide the truth about abortion from the public?"

His point was the simple one: display of images of immoral consequences are part of revealing the truth about those consequences. Both the treatment of British prisoners by the Japanese and the treatment of Jews by the Germans are iconic: unlike many other human tragedies, mention these and we immediately can tap into a range of familiar photographic and cinematic images revealing their nature. Now, I've blogged about the use of pictures of the unborn before in connection with using pictures of the healthy unborn as evidence of their status as human beings. The use of pictures showing the results of abortion does raise slightly different moral issues, but, in principle, the same point is at the heart of each: the feelings which result from such images are evidence of what is sometimes questioned -that the unborn are human beings with the moral status of human beings. If opponents of abortion don't like the fact that human beings are hard wired to care for babies, then they need to argue their case further, not pretend that such care doesn't exist.

The Sunday Herald, as ever overloading on smug, says in its editorial:

If the church wants to try to persuade others that their view on abortion is the correct one, then it should try explaining its views in a reasoned manner as part of a civilized debate. Abortion is a complex, emotive and -at the end of the day- moral debate. Those who hold positions of power should behave morally when attempting to influence the opinions of others.


[The Catholic Church] not entitled to brand those who disagree as murderers and link it -however obliquely- to the killing of thousands in Nazi death camps.

Images are an important part of information on the nature of abortion. They show the fact of human solidarity between the dead and us as spectators and even agents of their death. For Catholics, killing lots of babies is ceteris paribus morally identical to killing lots of adults because in both cases we're killing lots of human beings. That's not the point the Bishop was making, but he could have.

In any case, this constant association of Nazism and pro-life causes by the Sunday Herald is getting slightly bizarre. On a day when there was a major march for Independence in Edinburgh, and when we might have been invaded by aliens, was the major, front page story really that some pro-abortionists got their noses out of joint because they realized the Catholic Church regards them as mass murderers? Even though, as I've said, this wasn't the Bishop's point, they should be used to this by now. As the Catechism (2273) says:

"The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."81

2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

It would be entirely unworthy, of course, to suggest that the Sunday Herald was indulging in sensationalist headlines about Nazism whilst posturing as civilized referee. But I suggest that they should move on to new ways of boosting circulation. Surely there must be some way of slagging off pro-lifers by using topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge?

 (Photo H/T Eccles and Bosco is Saved.)

Friday 21 September 2012

Advice to Catholic freshers?

                                                This is not a good idea...

Well, it's that time of year when thousands of fresh faced students are leaving home and entering the hallowed portals of academe. We're sending off Child 1, so I thought it timely to think about what Catholic parents should be saying to their progeny as they disappear out of the door.

In the UK, going to university almost invariably means entering a highly secularized environment. Most of your peers are not going to be Catholics; most of your teachers will not be Catholics. Moreover, it's highly likely that most will be hostile or at least mocking of Catholicism: You don't really believe that...?! Of course, that won't be entirely new: even if you went to a Catholic school, you won't be unaware that a majority of your fellow citizens regard you as some variety of freak (whether that is a dangerous freak or simply a deluded one). But at least you'll have had a family to retreat to where the religion is taken seriously and socially reinforced.

Well, that's no longer the case. If you are going to practise your religion -and remember that Catholicism is as much about doing stuff as believing stuff (so none of this Protestant nonsense that you can be a good Christian and not attend Mass)- it's down to you. Grit your teeth and just decide to do it: even in secular terms, there really is no pressing alternative use of Sunday mornings that is better than attending a celebration that has existed for 2000 years and is part of a continuous tradition of sacrifice that goes far further back. While your roommate nurses a hangover and watches Spongebob, you are sharing in the noblest aspect of mankind's culture. Attend Mass and be proud.

You are also responsible for developing a grown up religion. However good or bad your catechesis up till now, it will have been childish. From now on, seek ways to develop it. Get familiar with the Catechism. Get familiar with Aquinas. Get familiar with Catholic art. God is goodness, beauty and truth. Make sure you start -and it's a lifetime's commitment- to develop your appreciation of ethics, aesthetics and theology/philosophy.  If you're smart enough to get to university, make sure that your religion is smart enough to keep up. To put it at its least, remember that Catholicism is as sophisticated as anything else you'll come across at university. If it seems ridiculous then it's either not Catholicism or you haven't understood it properly.

You are incomplete and flawed. Again, as a Catholic, you have a responsibility to work on your sanctification -ie becoming a better and better human image of God. The Church offers disciplines of prayer and reflection: use some of them and think about using more. Make sure you pray everyday even if it's just a quick 'Glory Be'. Better something than nothing. (But then why not something more?)

Nobody gets through life without sin, big or small. The only thing that can cut you off from God is you. If you find yourself doubting or sinning in a big way, don't give up on God and the Church. Sometimes the best thing is just to remain in his presence without being able to do more than that. Remain open to God: do not close your heart in pride. He will find you in the end. (Crassly, attend Mass even if you don't take communion.)

On a slightly more mundane level, watch the level of drinking. Quite how our society has developed a culture where getting regularly out of your head is considered advisable for the young is beyond me. I suspect, from my own experience, a lot of it is about lowering inhibitions sufficiently so that we can all engage in that other modern de rigueur, bonking everything in sight. Avoid both. Alcohol is an excellent social lubricant in moderate doses but just remember that almost everything anyone tells you about booze and sex in the modern world is going to be wrong. (Especially if they're under 30. The declining urgency of hormones and a few years experience often brings a little wisdom in this area.)

Remember that you are a human being not an animal.  Remember St Francis. Remember Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. Remember St Thomas Aquinas. Remember Michelangelo. (And non-Catholics such as Plato, Milton, Tippett etc.) The modern secularized world reduces human possibilities: don't be fooled by it. It is only within the Church that the full richness of human life can be found. And that remains true even if your (temporary) local experience of the Church is unfortunate enough to be sitting in the Chaplaincy centre singing Kumbaya to a badly tuned guitar. Regard it as time off purgatory.

Anyway, to lighten matters, the 'we-are-but-meat-machines' view of the world from the Bloodhound Gang. (Slightly Rabelaisian -so be warned. But it does illustrate the point that this view of the world is funny. So why do so many take it seriously as a way of life?)

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Tom Holland, religion and trust

Tom Holland’s film, Islam: the Unknown Story, and book, In the Shadow of the Sword (Holland's website here; Guardian article here ) have provoked some outrage among Muslims, but have wider lessons for the relationship between scholarship, popularization and religions. (Although there are significant differences between book and film –for example, the latter focuses exclusively on Islam whilst the former also contains extended treatments of Judaism and Christianity- for the most part I’ll consider them together.)

Holland’s general thesis is a typically post modern one: Islam is constructed over a period of time and reflects the power interests of empire builders.  Instead of being a once and for all divine revelation delivered to Mohammed which then became the motive for Islamic empire building, it was rather the empire building which constructed Islam as a suitable ideological basis for exercising power. (Holland’s point is slightly more nuanced than this: particularly in the book, he emphasizes that the interpretations of Islamic scholars, often from a non-Arab and Jewish background, served to undermine the naked grasping for power of the Caliphate. But the main thrust remains that there is a process of construction to be revealed and that this process is essentially the human story of interests and power.)

Running behind this narrative is a meta-narrative: Tom Holland as the sceptical challenger of faith. Thus, in the film, we have a rather odd scene in which Holland seems to join in with Bedouin tribesmen in their prayers, and then, gradually, withdraws, defeated (at least this is how I’d interpret the scene which is delivered without commentary) by the unfamiliarity of the physical movements but even more by an inability to share their religious faith. Holland looks detached, uncomfortable: well intentioned, but definitely an outsider. Moreover, it’s very hard for a Western viewer not to identify with him and not with the very foreign Bedouin: we are the sceptical rationalists viewing something that, however sympathetic we may be to it, we cannot share.

What might I make of all this if I were a believing but educated Western Muslim? I think I should be suspicious of the way Holland conflates two issues. First, there is the methodological issue. Holland portrays himself as standing for Western, scientific rationality against Islamic fideism. Although he does make some gestures at acknowledging this (for example, by including a Muslim scholar as a critical voice in the film), the way it is done rather reinforces  the problem of methodology than problematizes it: if you are a Muslim, you’ll think this. But if you’re not, then you’ll think like Holland. (And of course, we’re like Holland.) But the problem of methodology is much deeper than the simple antagonism between fideism and historical science. Holland, for example, would never accept the possibility of a supernatural revelation: it is simply a given that, whatever else happened, Mohammed can’t have received divine guidance because there just ain’t such a thing. Moreover, there is the Prometheanism of modern university scholarship in the West and, even more so, that of popular scholarship. Nobody gets tenure or publications by agreeing that a prevailing consensus is just fine: much better to develop a striking and original take on a topic. And certainly, if you want a prime time TV programme, you’d better find something a bit edgy to put on it. Beyond these keys areas, there are more subtle methodological issues. For example, in the book, Holland’s tone frequently lurches into that land somewhere between the snide and the snark: for example, in talking of Palestinian Rabbis, Holland comments:

                …they were better able to incinerate those who displeased then with a single glare; and      they were more obsessively alert to the menace posed by menstruating women. Valuable though all of   these attributes undoubtedly were…

 Now, I’m quite open to a bit of snark myself –and I don’t see why Holland should be blamed for displaying the attitude of a sensible, Western sceptic against us loony religionists in general and particularly foreign ones- but if I were a Muslim, I would take all this together and conclude that this is as value a laden methodology as anything I could come up with.

And that matters when we come onto the second issue: the details of how Islam was constructed. It is perfectly possible for someone not to believe that Mohammed had a divine revelation, and yet still accept a (demythologized) version of the traditional Muslim account. And this, pretty much, is what has been (according to Holland) the case up until now in Western scholarship. OK, perhaps it wasn’t a divine revelation, but it was a piece of spiritual creativity/altered mind state etc, and then everything else follows through: from this one central action, Islam is created and in turn creates Islamic civilization. But against this, Holland makes a number of revisionist claims: that Mecca is not the main location of Mohammed’s original actions; that the initial conquests of the Arabs were not done in the name of anything that is recognizably Islam etc.

Now, at this point, unless I am a highly trained academic with a specialism in the history of early Islam, I am going to have to operate on trust. I am going to have to trust Holland and trust those scholars behind him. But why should I? I know that his methodology is parti pris. Why should I stake my life –and to a good Muslim, as with a good Catholic, the history here matters in a day to day way- why should I stake that on his highly suspect enterprise?

As a Catholic, I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. I thought Holland’s book was highly interesting and, within his own lights, he tried to be fair: this is certainly not an ill intentioned book or film. But he is what he is: a popularizing Western historian with the prejudices and techniques of a religious sceptic. If religion isn’t a live issue for you, then you can just slot his work into the world of entertainment where ideas flow forwards and backwards without settling into a view. If you’re a scholar of Islamic history –well, you won’t be bothering with this, and will instead be arguing directly with Holland’s mentors such as Patricia Crone in that generational long academic struggle which sees intellectual fashions ebb and flow like barbarian invasions. But if Islam matters to you as a way of structuring your everyday life, while there is much here to stimulate thought, there is absolutely nothing to shake a belief in the basis of that commitment.

As so often, this is not a struggle between blind faith and Western science, but between types of critical reasoning both based on more fundamental commitments. And even from my outsider point of view, it’s not at all clear that Holland’s are the more trustworthy.

[Update: my reflections on Holland's twitter comment on this post can be found here.]

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Policing the queer

                                               Now then, what's all this about...?

One of the charges that's often made against opposition to same sex 'marriage' is that its claim that introducing same sex 'marriage' will lead to polygamy, marriages with animals etc is obviously absurd. There are two usual thoughts on the pro-natural marriage side: first, that -as a matter of fact- changes in marriage law will result in such cases; secondly, that -as a matter of logic- if you accept same sex 'marriage', as a matter of logical consistency, you ought to accept the institutionalization of these other relationships as well.

Putting these arguments aside, let's look at it from another perspective. The normal pro-same sex 'marriage' side case is based on two issues: fairness and social acceptance. The fairness argument is, roughly, that if you have a good such as marriage, it is unfair to restrict it to one group (heterosexuals) and deny it to another (homosexuals). The social acceptance argument is by giving a persecuted group (homosexuals) access to a high status institution such as marriage, the acceptance of that group will be increased with a corresponding decrease in negative attitudes to that group ('homophobia'.) Let's run with those two arguments a little.

Whilst in Scotland, most of the same sex position is articulated under a LGBT banner (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans), outwith Scotland, I've noticed a growing tendency to use LGBTQ (ie add queer). (See Wikipedia for an analysis of this alphabetical soup.) Within the LGBT label whilst arguably LG and T are served by the same sex 'marriage' agenda, it's not clear how bisexuals are. When you add 'queer', it suddenly becomes very odd indeed: how do you cater for a group that is, by definition, struggling against easy categorization?

For some queer-identified people, part of the point of the term "queer" is that it simultaneously builds up and tears down boundaries of identity. For instance, among genderqueer people, who do not solidly identify with one particular gender, once solid gender roles have been torn down, it becomes difficult to situate sexual identity. For some people, the non-specificity of the term is liberating. Queerness becomes a way to simultaneously make a political move against heteronormativity while simultaneously refusing to engage in traditional essentialist identity politics
(See Wikipedia.)

Returning to the two pro-same sex 'marriage' arguments -fairness and social acceptance- the introduction of same sex 'marriage' would clearly not remove the unfairness to at least two other groups in the LGBTQ agenda: homosexual and heterosexual couples would be fairly treated, but bisexuals and the queer wouldn't. (Indeed, by altering the nature of marriage from a child rearing institution to a simple celebration of love, the arbitrariness of the exclusion of the bisexual and the queer becomes sharper.) Moreover, on the social acceptance argument, discrimination against the bisexual and the queer would be increased: homo-normativity would be simply added to hetero-normativity as an adverse social pressure on the bisexual and queer:

The author Robyn Ochs writes about the 'double discrimination' bisexual people can face from both heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities. Many surveys have found that bisexual people suffer from higher rates of mental health problems than lesbians and gay men, who in turn have higher rates than the population as a whole. This is often linked to biphobia, bisexual invisibility, low levels of support and acceptance, and the 'double discrimination' experienced by bisexual people.


So on the grounds of fairness and social acceptance, the introduction of same sex 'marriage' would be, at best, an incomplete reform and at worst a positive increase of discrimination against minorities.

Now I know that same sex 'marriage' proponents reading this are simply going to regard this post as an act of bad faith on the part of a loony Catholic: I am using arguments simply to justify my own homophobic attitude to same sex 'marriage'. Two responses:

1) My own view is that the essentialist treatment of homosexuality as a 'third sex' is utterly mistaken, whether you are starting  from a Catholic or an entirely secular viewpoint. From a Catholic point of view, I think we should be essentialist about biological sex (ie we are essentially men and women) and broadly non-essentialist about how we perform those sexes (ie what we do as men and women is a matter of free, responsible, moral agency). From a secular viewpoint, I think you should either agree in principle with that Catholic viewpoint I've sketched (whatever detailed conclusions you then draw from it), or go the whole queer theory hog and just be non-essentialist about biological sex as well. Of course, that's much more to be said here, but my simple point for the moment is this: that from whatever perspective I come at the same sex 'marriage' argument, secular or Catholic, I fail to see it as anything other than a misguided attempt to police human sexuality in an entirely foolish way. (Of course I may be wrong about that, but I am at least wrong in good faith.)

2) Regardless of my own reasons for adducing them, the arguments are sound. I would conclude from them that same sex 'marriage' should not be introduced. Proponents of same sex 'marriage' logically should find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Either they should agree with me that same sex 'marriage' should not be introduced (hoorah!); or they should regard further reform of marriage legislation as essential (in which case they should admit the force of the pro-natural marriage side claims to a slippery slope).

Friday 7 September 2012

Are proponents of euthanasia Nazis?

Translation of (Nazi) poster above: This cogenital invalid costs the community 60,000 Reichsmarks in his lifetime. Comrade, that's your money as well!

Paper on medical ethics discussed previously on this blog: While we feel the best interests of the child in question are paramount, the interests of society—including the other children who might have used this valuable resource—cannot be ignored

Official abstract of paper on infanticide published in Journal of Medical Ethics: the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

Mary Warnock:  The veteran Government adviser said pensioners in mental decline are "wasting people's lives" because of the care they require and should be allowed to opt for euthanasia even if they are not in pain. She insisted there was "nothing wrong" with people being helped to die for the sake of their loved ones or society.


So, are supporters of euthanasia Nazis? No. Do they have lessons to learn from the history of euthanasia in Nazi Germany? Yes.

The front page of the Sunday Herald on 2 September contained as its single item the bold headline:

Outrage as lobby group links right-to-die campaigners with Nazis. 

(Hard to do the graphic presentation of this justice without an image. It was big. It left you in no doubt this was the main business of the day.)

The reader was referred to an inside 'exclusive report' (online version here) about the Care Not Killing conference in Edinburgh which did indeed discuss 'The lessons from Nazism'.

The article is full of outraged pro-euthanasia supporters:

Jane Nicklinson said of Care Not Killing's agenda: "I think it is totally ridiculous and total nonsense. How you can compare [the right to die campaign] to a Nazi death camp I will never know.

"It is scaremongering, pure and simple – half the things they say are nonsense. They will say something like that and then people who don't know much about it will think, 'We can't have that'. It is irresponsible – they are not giving people the true facts."


Yesterday Independent MSP MacDonald accused Care Not Killing of "cheapening" the issue: "This is improper behaviour on their part," she said. "If they want to have a conference on Nazism and particular aspects of that creed, then I suggest to them that they separate it from a conference about assisted dying, because the two have nothing in common. They have cheapened their campaign."

My favourite was:

Raymond Tallis, former professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester and chairman of the group Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, turned angrily on Care Not Killing for making comparisons with Nazism.

"The idea that lining up thousands of people to shoot them is the same thing as acceding to someone's settled wish to die when they are terminally ill and mentally competent indicates how morally blunting it can be when you have religious beliefs."

The Sunday Herald followed up with an editorial which, in the gloriously smug way of such things, said:

...any debate on the question of legislation for assisted deaths needs to be conducted in an enlightened, intelligent and civilised fashion. There is no room for bullhorn rhetoric or arguments based only on sentiment or passion... Another opportunity presents itself this week with a conference in Edinburgh organised by Care Not Killing (CNK), an alliance of healthcare professionals and faith bodies. It is opposed to euthanasia and claims to base its arguments on reason alone, "by avoiding any appeals to extremism". However, it has also claimed that euthanasia can never be acceptable as "we need to learn the lessons from Nazism".

Language of that kind is never helpful and in this case it is inflammatory.

So what to think?

Arguments ad Nazism are pretty common. Sometimes they amount to little more than vulgar abuse; sometimes they make a logical point by taking an extreme case ('If you think moral relativism is correct, does that mean Nazism was morally right?'). In both cases, the reference to Nazism is inessential and often does amount to rhetoric, good or bad.

But sometimes reference to Nazism is simply part of the need to reflect historically on how one of Europe's most civilized and modern countries ended up doing what it did, and how to avoid it happening again. There is absolutely no doubt that Nazism did introduce euthanasia for the disabled and ill: this is separate from the 'Final Solution' that Raymond Tallis seems to be thinking about when he talks of 'lining up thousands of people to shoot them'.

The key historical interest here is how Germany went from a general view that some lives were not worth living to the use of enforced euthanasia. The details of that process are outlined in an excellent article here by Mark Mostert. A particularly interesting aspect is the way that particular, emotionally charged cases were used to effect a change in public opinion:

The Knauer child was a frail child with several severe disabilities. While the case has become quite mythologized, it seems that she was blind, without one leg and part of an arm, severely mentally retarded, and suffered from chronic convulsions (Friedlander, 1995; Lifton, 1986; Proctor, 1988). Her father petitioned the Nazi authorities to grant her a "merciful death" but received no official response. Subsequent to this request, in the winter of 1938-1939, the Knauer child was admitted to the University of Leipzig's pediatric clinic after attending physicians discussed her plight with her persistent father. Aside from the child's obvious physical and intellectual disabilities, the father asserted that the child, by remaining at home, was causing his wife significant psychological and emotional stress. He requested that the physicians proceed by "putting it to sleep." Initially, the doctors refused, reminding the father that such action was against the law. Undaunted, the father, encouraged by the child's grandmother, petitioned Hitler directly to sanction the child's death (Gallagher, 1990). Arguably, the persistence of this one man became the catalyst for official genocide.

The Sunday Herald article is clearly part of a softening up campaign in favour of euthanasia that is the precursor to Margo MacDonald's attempt to reintroduce a bill into the Scottish Parliament in this area. Putting aside whether it's right to keep banging away at legislation in this area when it was only recently overwhelmingly rejected by the Parliament, all of us, on whatever side of the argument, need to be familiar with the history of euthanasia, particularly in Europe. A key aspect (but not the only aspect) of the pro-life case is the claim that there is a slippery slope between assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia and involuntary or non-voluntary euthanasia. Examining the history of how such slippery slopes actually occurred in the past is an important part of the debate. To dismiss such historical studies out of hand is itself a sign of irrationality.

Monday 3 September 2012

Cardinal Martini and what's wrong with the Church

Cardinal Martini is dead. So before anything else:

Requiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.

And that normally would be that. I don't like getting into the liberal/traditionalist inter-Catholic spats and I don't like criticizing the hierarchy or the recently dead.

However, Cardinal Martini left an interview which has now been released: Italian here. English here. As in most of these sorts of things, there's a charitable way of reading it and an uncharitable one. For me, it's notable rather in what it doesn't say or perhaps in its tone, rather than in what it does say. But let's pick two things out of it:

1) The Church has been left behind for 200 years. 

Well, the charitable way of reading that is that, since the onset of modernity, there's been creeping secularization and the Church hasn't successfully dealt with that. I'd like to say quite a lot more about that 'secularization theory' -and almost certainly will do at some stage- but it's not an entirely foolish thought and certainly one that would bear reflection: the Church is not thriving in Western Europe and a perfectly reasonable thought about that is that there is a tension between modernity (as a social condition) and Catholicism. Even given that as a correct diagnosis -and I'm not sure I would accept it- that still leaves the cure. And it's perfectly possible that the cure would involve rejection of modernity rather than its embrace. Anyway, charitably, such a reading is a reasonable request for thought rather than a prescription.

Here's the uncharitable way. 'Two hundred years ago, the Enlightenment showed that the mediaeval and ancient patterns of thought on which Catholicism is based are rubbish. Hence, Catholicism needs to jettison its outdated philosophy and theology and move with the times.' Quite apart from the 'odd' ecclesiology this might entail ('the Church can get things wrong for two thousand years until shown the right way by Lady Gaga'), as a practical piece of advice, it is totally impractical. Uttered in the 1950s, we'd have been dressing up in black polo necks and becoming existentialists. Uttered in the 1960s, we'd have been Maoists. Uttered now -well, what? The raunch culture? The sort of fluffy opinion pieces beloved of the Scottish press which flit from endorsing bistros one Sunday to endorsing same sex 'marriage' the next? Slavoj Zizek or Niall Ferguson? What is the intellectual heritage of the enlightenment which will survive into the next decade, let alone the next century?

I suspect that the only way of making much sense out of such a thought -apart from the straightforward (and I suspect accurate) gloss that it simply means 'let me think and do what I want without having to think too much'- is that it is the claim that, since the Enlightenment (or, probably more accurately, the early modern period) nature is no longer seen as possessing meaning in itself: it has meaning imposed on it by the activities of human beings. Since Catholic moral theology is based on the Natural Law (roughly, the discernment of what is morally required by our nature as human beings) and its understanding of God on Natural Theology (again, roughly, the idea that the state of the universe demonstrates both the existence and key attributes of God), such an abandonment of the traditional understanding of nature throws us back on fideism -blind faith in (usually) scripture- or to atheism (which is what happens when fideists lose heart in the struggle to believe 1001 odd things before breakfast). If that is the change referred to and endorsed here, then of course Catholicism needs to be quite radically revised. But there is absolutely, absolutely no reason to believe that such a view of nature is true. (And if you want more on this, go to Ed Feser's blog: it's the sort of thing he's been tackling day by day for ages: try this for starters.)

2) Neither the clergy nor the Church law can replace the interiority of man. All the external rules, laws, dogmas are data given to clarify the inner voice and the discernment of spirits.

Well, again, a charitable and an uncharitable way of reading this. The charitable way is that Christianity is ultimately the achievement of the Beatific Vision: the face to face contemplation of God by the individual soul.  And, as realized in this world, that sense (as Plotinus put it) of the 'flight of the alone to the alone': the individual, solitary journey through life to God. Or as Thomas Traherne puts its:

Such endless depths live in the Divinity, and in the wisdom of God, that as He maketh one, so He maketh every one the end of the World: and the supernumerary, persons being enrichers of his inheritance. Adam and the World are both mine. And the posterity of Adam enrich it infinitely. Souls are God’s jewels, every one of which is worth many worlds. They are His riches because His image, and mine for that reason. So that I alone am the end of the World: Angels and men being all mine. And if others are so, they are made to enjoy it for my further advancement. God only being the Giver and I the Receiver. So that Seneca  philosophized rightly when he said “Deus me dedit solum toti Mundo, et totem Mundum mihi soli”: God gave me alone to all the World, and all the World to me alone.

Centuries of Meditations: First Century, 15.(Here.)

But the uncharitable way is this: 'Doctrine doesn't matter. Rules don't matter. Just be quiet and listen to God speaking to you in the inner space of your soul.'

And that's clearly utterly useless as the sole approach. From the life of Christ onwards, the Church has taught and articulated. Moreover, in that greater, more important ecumenism with the whole of humanity rather than just with pietist, sola scriptura Protestants, all the great civilizations of the world have thought and talked and argued. Religion, when it becomes a sort of Primary 1 finger painting class doesn't bring us closer to our fellow human beings: it cuts us off from that intellectual and artistic aspect of human culture which is one key place where God is to be found.

Modern Catholics need to be terrifyingly smart and terrifyingly cultured. Not every single one of us, but, in that organism which is the Church, some are called to philosophize, some are called to paint great paintings and write great novels, and some are called to bathe the wounds of the injured and dying. (And some of course are called to that pinnacle of human achievement which is the keyboard warrior.) The danger is that, with each of these vocations -and all the others and combinations of vocations there are- we as human beings tend to forget our incompleteness. The philosopher forgets love in the self-assertion of intellectual debate; the nurse forgets clarity of thought in the shriek of human suffering. (And, perhaps one might add, the biblical scholar forgets the two thousand year history and theologizing of Catholicism. And the keyboard warrior forgets to have breakfast.) Only in a Church which brings all these things together is the fullness of human and divine life present.

So here's one thing that's missing in Cardinal Martini's interview:

Fourth, there are the heights of human culture, as represented, say, in Giotto, Hopkins, Aquinas and Tallis. Any Church which fails to engage with those peaks of human endeavour, particularly as achieved by Catholics, and rejects them from a one sided emphasis on the good of simplicity of heart cuts itself off from the Divine Light.  

                                     Not a good idea to diss Giotto...