Thursday 30 May 2013

Islam, Gerry Hassan, the Enlightenment and MacDiarmid

In which your blogger throws various ingredients into a pot, and stirs to no good purpose....

There was a letter from Gary McLelland (omnipresent Scottish secularist) in The Scotsman on Wednesday suggesting that we need a debate about Islam:

For once, I agree with Richard Lucas (Letters, 27 May) – whether the brutal murder of Lee Rigby was the result of a few radicalised fanatics, or, as a result of the 7th century barbarism promoted in the Koran is debatable. One thing is sure, however, the British people are overdue a serious debate about how to treat this ideology.

Islam has been allowed to develop an air of unquestioning respect. Many commentators have suggested that the UK government is trying to ramp up “them and us” rhetoric. There genuinely is a “them” and “us”, though I would not define it in racial or religious terms; we are now engaged in a war of ideas.(Full letter.)

The letter Gary refers to from Richard Lucas contains the following description of such a debate:

Those claiming that the Koran, Hadith and biographies of the Prophet Muhammad justify atrocities such as the Woolwich murder should be able to put their case publicly to more moderate Muslims who can, in turn, explain how they interpret the relevant passages and events differently.

Also, non-Muslims should feel free to challenge both sides of the debate by citing sections from the foundational documents of Islam.

Equally importantly, the veracity of Muhammad’s prophethood should be the subject of vigorous debate. (Full letter.)

I love this idea of a debate about Islam. I'm not sure whether it should take place in one big hall (probably Edinburgh as it's the capital) or would it be better to have lots of little meetings round the country and then 'snowball' the results until we get to a final national level decision.  It might be a little tricky to assess the result -although clearly as a democracy we're talking about a majority decision- and it might be even trickier to get Muslims to accept it (although of course we might hope that just being talked about would cow them sufficiently to encourage them to accept whatever result the majority came up with). Oh yes, and what precisely was the question....?

In fairness to the letter writers, I suspect that what they're really asking for is the ability to freely criticize Islam in the media without censorship. Certainly, in recent days, it's been quite evident that a number of websites for example have been carefully moderating comments to remove inflammatory anti-Islamic remarks. Personally, I think that's a good thing. I've spoken to a few Muslim colleagues recently who are terrified of a backlash against them, with some of them (in England) having experienced family members having to pick their way through streets full of English Defence League members. I'm not sure that now is the time for anything other than calming words: deeper public critiques, if needed, can wait for a while until emotions have calmed.

But let's assume that this calm has arrived. What sort of 'debate' should follow? Should it be the sort of ill-tempered mutual baiting that I frequently indulge in with Dawkinsians in the Catholic Herald comboxes? Or should it be the sort of TV programme where a secularized presenter explains where Islam went wrong? Given the vastly greater numbers of non-Muslims than Muslims, should the non-Muslim community be handicapped in some way to ensure fairness? And should it be a requirement that anyone entering the debate has even the slightest clue what they're talking about?

Calls for a 'debate' on Islam suffer from a similar problem to Gerry Hassan's call for a 'culture of self-determination' in Scottish politics: both sound like a good idea (thought? reflection? who can object?) but both model that debate on essentially party political practices: clear sides to an argument; clear processes of decision; clear questions; clear process of implementation; clear time limit. There is of course a 'debate' about Islam. It started in 632 AD (if not before) with the death of Muhammad, and has been going ever since. Such a 'debate' doesn't fit into the party political model (nor does it really fit into the 'war' metaphor that Gary uses either) although both set piece debates (and indeed real wars) do form parts, albeit relatively minor ones, of that continuing encounter.

There are a number of different ways of putting this point. A slightly simplistic one is to talk about the limits of an Enlightenment model of rationality. (Personally, I'm not sure that this 'Enlightenment' model of rationality is anything like as clearcut as might be supposed, but still...) Another way is to talk about how Aristotle locates politics and the exercise of practical wisdom against a background of sophia, the virtue of contemplating divine things. In short, not all problems of how to act and live can be solved or reflected on in practices modelled on (essentially) the court room or Parliament. In particular, the central mysteries of life dealt with in religion and the deepest philosophies are especially resistant to this sort of treatment. One of the crassnesses of modern life is that we have forgotten the existence of deeper questions and issues, and instead reduce them to the state of 'bairnly things' to be settled in businesslike ways:

Oh it's nonsense, nonsense, nonsense,
Nonsense at this time o' day
That breid-and-butter problems
S'ud be in ony man's way.

They s'ud be like the tails we tint
On leavin' the monkey stage;
A' maist folk fash aboot's alike
Primaeval to oor age.

We're grown-up folk that haena yet
Put bairnly things aside
-A' that's material and moral-
And oor new state descried.

(Hugh MacDiarmid, from Second Hymn to Lenin.)

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Islam and Woolwich

                                               Not really the ideal solution....

I felt a twinge of conscience when, in my last post on Lee Rigby, the only tag I could find that was immediately relevant from my available stock was 'Islam'. Clearly, when a young soldier is murdered by two men one of whom then proceeds to talk about Islam, then 'Islam' might well be one of the appropriate tags for the post. But I should have liked to add 'terrorism' or 'male violence' or almost anything beyond the bald, 'Islam'. Why? Because I don't think that label sums up the killing, and I don't think the killing sums up Islam. (I've now sprouted a 'terrorism' label to put this right.)

The press and internet are full of opinions and conclusions and nostrums. Some of the more belligerent are going on about the essentially violent nature of Islam and the need to do something about the threat within now. Immediately.

That's fine, but apart from anything else it lacks a certain realism. According to Wikipedia, 4.8% of the UK population are Muslim. (It's worth noting that, in 2001 -the breakdown in the article- compared to the (then) 3% living in England and Wales, only 0.84% were living in Scotland: whatever the issues are with Islam in the UK, Scotland and England are not in the same position.) If there were an essential threat from Muslims, what are you going to do with these Britons? They're not going to go away. They're not -except in the fantasies of the National Secular Society- going to stop being Muslims. If there were a sure fire recipe for changing people's religious views, I'd quite like the Catholic Church to start producing and using it now: in any case, it's clear that it's not as simple as government deciding to pump a few more pounds into community 'education'.

Given these facts, it's not a great idea to start telling Muslims that they are irredeemably outside the civilization of the West (because their religion and culture are rubbish or whatever). National identities are to a large extent matters of imagination and myth put to the service of a real social good: a cohesive and peaceful society. If we can't imagine a society where Muslims and others live together peacefully, then we will almost certainly get what we imagine.

My own solution? I don't have one. I don't think there is one solution but a constant series of struggles, all carried on against the background of love for the image of God that is in fellow human beings whilst respecting the truth that (eg) Islam and Catholicism are not the same religion.  For Catholics, it's good to remember the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Or as the Blessed John Paul II said:

As we make our way through life towards our heavenly destiny, Christians feel the company of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and Islam too pays tribute to Mary and hails her as "chosen above the women of the world" (Quran, III:42). The Virgin of Nazareth, the Lady of Saydnâya, has taught us that God protects the humble and "scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts" (Lk 1:51). May the hearts of Christians and Muslims turn to one another with feelings of brotherhood and friendship, so that the Almighty may bless us with the peace which heaven alone can give. To the One, Merciful God be praise and glory for ever. Amen.

In general, I see nothing that prevents Muslims and others living together peacefully in the UK. That doesn't mean that there aren't some Muslims who are going to behave as terrorists, and then the solution is simply that of police and military measures for self-defence: if there is anything that needs to be done at this level, then I agree with Dan Hannan that the last thing we should be doing is rushing into hasty decisions and bad lawmaking.

Those of us who lived through IRA terrorism -particularly those in Northern Ireland- will remember that Irish Catholics were often regarded with suspicion at the time. Even after the end of that period, I was told (upon my conversion to Catholicism) by a Protestant that they (ie me) had a 'different attitude to the law'. (And of course he was right: Catholic loyalty to the positive law is dependent on that law's fidelity to divine law. To that extent, we are indeed profoundly unreliable as citizens.) One of the problems with the integration of Muslims into UK society is a growing hostility to any religious expression in the public sphere. The Anglican blogger Archbishop Cranmer seems to suggest the re-imposition of some sort of  'act of conformity':

And that 'neutrality' has brought us to where we are. We are so obsessed with not offending minorities that we not only tolerate but advocate their alien cultural beliefs and practices. And if we do not, we are 'racist' and 'bigoted'. Mindful of minority ethnic voting communities, politicians have trodden very carefully along the via media between religious liberty and cultural prohibition. There has been no demand for assimilation. That is what must now change.

Sounds fine, but it's worth remembering that such an 'act of conformity' would not be that of Tudor Christianity, but of a modern secularism especially hostile to traditional morality. If the solution is going to be the test of a sort of normal  'Britishness' (a test so described will doubtless go down particularly well in Scotland), I expect serious Catholics as much as serious Muslims (or indeed Protestants) to fail it: none of us will find our 'alien cultural beliefs' easy to accommodate in a society whose main cultural expressions might appear to be falling down drunk on Friday nights and trying to think up ways of stimulating jaded sexual appetites amongst ten year olds.

On a final anecdotal level, have a look at this video from CBN (December 2011) on the co-operation between Muslims and Catholics on the opposition to same sex 'marriage'. It features Bashir Maan who, after a long and distinguished career in public service in Scotland, was forced to resign  as President of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations in 2006 after deploring the teaching of gay sex education in schools. Given the behaviour of the senior Catholic member of the campaign, Muslims might be forgiven for finding an irony on being lectured on the need to preserve 'our' values.

Saturday 25 May 2013


I will almost certainly eventually say something more about the murder in Woolwich, but before I do, it seems important to get the priorities right and to pray for the soul of the young soldier, Lee Rigby, who was butchered in London, and for those who knew and loved him:

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Church of Scotland gets it wrong on homosexual ministers

                                    She marched them up to the top of the Mound....

From a Catholic point of view, it's difficult to know quite what to say about the Kirk's decision to allow actively gay ministers.

The nasty, unecumenical side of me wants simply to say, 'What do you expect? If you abandon Catholicism for some fantasy about sola scriptura, this is what you end up with.' The rather more charitable side of me wants to note, both that this seems to be a genuine attempt to hold the national church together in the face of probably irreconcilable tensions, and that a large minority of Presbyterians have retained a sold grasp of scriptural truth. Overall, it's just a shame. Scotland could do with a clear voice from Presbyterianism which can offer an authentic challenge to modern fashions: it's not been getting it for a while from the Kirk, and nothing about this week's decision will change that for the better. Perhaps the main hope will be that the inevitable exodus from the Church of Scotland will invigorate the Free Church of Scotland.

What Monday's decision does do, however, is to confirm a secular narrative that a) religion is just based on arbitrary beliefs; and b) those arbitrary beliefs can be changed by some sort of democratically appointed body. This leads to the expectation that it is only a matter of time before the Catholic Church starts listening to its members and then changes its views.

Dream on. Although I think it's probably fair to say that most serious Catholics and Evangelicals have more respect for each other today than used to be the case, scratch the surface and deep differences remain. Crudely, for Catholics, authority comes from Christ and passes down through the bishops gathered round the Vicar of Christ, the Pope. For Protestants, authority comes from an individual's encounter with Christ particularly in scripture. There's a secular belief that Popes just make up stuff: if the Pope says so, it is so. This leads to an expectation that, if you could just get some more democratic replacement for the Pope -a sort of Catholic General Assembly- the Catholic problem would be solved because, when he/they made up stuff in the future, it would be the sort of stuff that more accurately represented what we, the ordinary Catholics believed.

Well, as I said, authority comes from the Pope and bishops, not from ordinary Catholics: they have the Magisterium, the teaching authority from God; we don't. So nae chance of democratizing that. And the Magisterium doesn't just make up stuff:

2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the "deposit" of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.

2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are "authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice."76 The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for. (Catechism.)

Even if the starting point of Catholic moral theology were 'made up' (it isn't), it has been elaborated over the years into a system which makes sense as a whole, which can be developed, but not changed simply because we suddenly think we've discovered a mistake that previous generations missed. So don't expect the Church, as has the Kirk, suddenly to decide it's been getting it wrong for the last 2000 years.

Moreover, in the specific area of sexuality, the Church's understanding is almost Freudian in the way it attributes importance to sex. Unlike secular understandings -where whom or what you like sexually is about as important as what flavour of ice cream you enjoy- what and whom we find attractive is seen as having profound theological implications, a tendency which, through the theology of von Balthasar and John Paul II, has, if anything, deepened over recent years. Sex isn't just a minor suburb of theology to be redeveloped on a whim, but something that goes pretty near the heart of the religion.

In short? Don't let the actions of the Kirk mislead you. Catholicism has very different ideas of authority and theology which will prevent anything similar happening. For the secularist, we may all be swivel eyed loons, but Catholics and Presbyterians are different types of swivel-eyed loons and we Catholics are incurable. Don't forget it.

Monday 20 May 2013

George Galloway on Catholicism in an independent Scotland

                                                Yes, I know it's a cheap shot

George Galloway is not one of my favourite people. He strikes me as representative of that well known type of apparently strong, charismatic leader in left wing politics that talks a good game, but ends by screwing up other people's lives. (That of course is if they ever get any power. If not, they just do a lot of screwing: he's apparently on the fourth Mrs G just now.)

Anyway, Galloway has been warning that Catholics should be careful about voting for independence:

Speaking to the Sunday Herald, Galloway warned Scotland's Catholics to be "careful what they wish for" in the 2014 independence referendum, and claimed that as a Roman Catholic he would have concerns about living in a post- independence, SNP-led Scotland.

The Respect MP for Bradford West said "there's an historic crossover between Scottish nationalism and anti-Irish-Roman Catholicism" and warned Catholic schools would be threatened by independence.

Galloway said: "My own experience of growing up as a Roman Catholic in Scotland has led me to fear independence in Scotland.

"The possibility of Scotland being a kind of Stormont [the Ulster parliament] is a real one. I wrote a book recently about Neil Lennon's year of living dangerously and in the course of it I had to revisit some of my own experiences.

"Of course, most Scottish people are not swivel-eyed, loyalist sectarians but there are a large number of them. A large six-figure number, and if I were living in Scotland as a Roman Catholic I would be worried about that.

"I really urge Scotland's Catholics to be careful what they wish for, because the SNP has, in its roots, a Tory, anti-Catholic mentality. William Wolfe, former leader – before Alex Salmond's time but still within my lifetime – called for the Pope to be banned from visiting the country."

(Full article here.)

It's quite true that William Wolfe did have some 'odd' views. For example:

He went on to describe the Roman Catholic church as the world’s “largest and most widespread political organisation” which had “centuries of experience, infinite patience and Machiavellian skill, using good or evil, wealth or poverty, left or right political parties, black men or white men, in fact any person, organisation or circumstance which is likely to serve the ultimate aim of the church”.

David Torrance covers the events here . But that sort of nationalist Protestant chippiness (familiar to readers of Archbishop Cranmer's blog) has all but disappeared from the modern SNP, in part because of a drive to win Catholic votes from Labour and, more importantly perhaps, because the younger generation of Nationalist politicos is as secularist as any sensible modern youth could be.

If there is a danger to Catholicism in an independent Scotland, it's from that secularizing tendency in a new political class. The National Secular Society and its ilk bombard the letters columns of Scotland's press with demands for the exclusion of religion from this or that sphere, and any replies in the comboxes are met with keyboard warriors rejoicing in the vision of a future Scotland where the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post. Militant secularism is certainly deeply embedded in 'progressive' politics up here and, in the absence of any sort of Burkean conservatism in Scotland, there isn't much of principled opposition to it.

So I agree with George Galloway that, should there be an independent Scotland, as members of the most obviously countercultural church, we'd need to be on our guard against (especially) a challenge to Catholic schools. But as education is already a devolved matter, that possibility exists already.

As it stands, it would be electoral suicide for the SNP or anyone else to aim to attack Catholic schools. I suspect that will change and I suspect the attacks will come at some stage, whether or not Scotland becomes independent. Certainly, the excitement generated by a newly independent nation might provoke a taste for nutty modernizing. (Whilst, if there is no independence, it's hard to imagine the future of Scottish politics other than a generation long sulk while the Tories use the opportunity to get UKIP supporters onside by bludgeoning 'rebellious Scots'.) Certainly, the wish to draw a clear line of separation between an outmoded British state with funny mediaeval habits and a nice new shiny Scotland with none of that sort of thing might again lead to increased attacks on religion in the public sphere.

But then, when you've got a United Kingdom Conservative Party forcing through same sex 'marriage', secularizing tendencies are hardly unknown elsewhere, are they?

My best guess is that an independent Scotland probably would see greater pressure particularly in the area of Catholic schools, but that, in everything else, the UK in substance is going to be as hostile to religion in the public sphere as could be wished. The rump of the UK would still have the form of an Established Church etc, whilst the last vestiges of the Church of Scotland as the National Church here will disappear. But otherwise, those of us who have not got 'with the programme' are going to find life distinctly chilly, whichever side of the border we end up.

Friday 17 May 2013

Lay Catholics in Scotland and knowing nothing

                                     Like mushrooms, the laity thrive in the dark....

I've been thinking a great deal recently about this business of gossip. Archbishop Nichols ruminated on it in response to Pope Francis' own thoughts (basically, gossip bad).

Although the Archbishop of Westminster got a lot of flak from Catholic bloggers on this, I think he has a point. It's easy to get into the habit of whingeing about things and it's not really something I set out to do when starting this blog.

So what is the virtuous response to the Cardinal O'Brien kerfuffle? As it stands, Cardinal O'Brien has admitted some sort of series of sexual impropriety, and

will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance. 

Now that leaves us (ie laity with no special sources of information) not knowing:

a) Precisely what he has done and, in particular, whether this is simply a case of someone just making some passes at consenting adults, or a long standing pattern of abuse of those (young adults and priests) in his care.

b) Whether he's simply popping off for a couple of months, and then coming back to live openly in Scotland or whether there is some further action to be taken.

Does that matter? At one level, I don't need to know any more in order to be a practising Catholic.  I don't expect priests (or bishops) to be perfect and that means that an extreme few are always going home from Mass to be beaten by their Brazilian male maid, whilst listening to CDs of Judy Garland. It would be naive to assume otherwise. So we just nod sadly, utter a few prayers, and go on without taking a gossipy interest in further details.

But into the space of information steps the media. STV had an interview with Stephen McGinty and Catherine Deveney in which the latter -who broke the story- basically said that the information given and action taken were an insufficient response to the allegations of abuse of power over priests and seminarians and there wasn't much sign of further action being taken. (Video available here for 5 days.)

Then we have Tom Gallagher managing to say a couple of sensible sounding things

No doubt naively, when this crisis broke, I had hoped that it might re-energise the church and ultimately lead to a time of renewal. But unless Rome sees the need for a radical departure in choosing O’Brien’s successor in Edinburgh, there are growing signs that a defensive clerical establishment will seek to ride out the crisis with minimum change.

but then going on to somehow blame it all on the SNP and advertise his forthcoming book. (I believe it's called, How Alex Salmond stole Christmas and is responsible for Climate Change.)

Moreover, in the combox of the SSPX-ish Catholic Truth Scotland, much sharing of detail on some of the other 'issues' around the O'Brien affair.

So, here's the question: is my desire to find out a bit more about the events and to achieve some certainty both on what happened and what will happen anything more than a vicious delight in human failure and sexual mishaps, or is it the perfectly reasonable desire of someone who needs to come to a judgment on these issues and wants to be fully informed before doing so?

Frankly, I'm still not sure. But I suspect that it's not unreasonable to want to get a sense of the state of the Church in Scotland. Is it simply just a bit complacent and unimaginative, but otherwise, apart from the occasional transgressor, going about its business in a reasonably competent way? Or is it actually dominated by a range of homosexual cliques, drunks and the feeble minded?

The next Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in a relaxed pose

If I had to guess now, I'd probably go for the former. But apart from the gossip on blogs, my biggest reason for thinking there is rather more to all this than one errant Cardinal is John Haldane's article for The Tablet on 2 March 2013 (behind paywall):

How, today, in scandal-scarred Scotland, might it pursue that vocation? By four measures: first, abandon the vanity of the current dioceses which were intended to recover the form of the medieval, pre-Reformation Church, and settle for two or at most four apostolic territories. Secondly, engage directly with the clergy, proposing a clear option: remain in holy orders subject to signing a private but strict renewed solemn vow of celibacy; or failing willingness to do that, be restored to the lay state (the debate about married clergy is not over, but one for another time). Thirdly, appoint two new bishops from the small but large enough body of serious and committed priests who are neither liberal malcontents nor liturgical fetishists; and fourthly, appoint a body of lay advisers, four to six at most, to assist in this radical transformation.

Now, I trust Professor Haldane. I don't think he's always been right in his suggestions but he is orthodox and sensible in a way that some of the other commentators in this area are not. Moreover, unlike those who simply assert their insider knowledge, as a Papal Consultor, he's likely to have a true sense of the reality of the broader Scottish Church. So if he proposes some quite drastic and far reaching action in the Church, my worry is that it's needed, whatever the merits of his precise suggestions.

My interim conclusion? I think it reasonable for a lay Catholic to want to know precisely what's happened in the Cardinal O'Brien case. We don't need salacious details. We do need simple acknowledgments of facts and some sense of the implications for the wider Church. Justice needs to be done publicly both to the Cardinal and his accusers. Stephen McGinty in his STV interview pretty much asserted that he expected nothing more would be done. If that happens, I guess we'll have to live with it. But it'd be a pity and a lost opportunity for the Church.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Islam and the Otranto martyrs

I am by inclination profoundly Islamophilic. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of the Muslims I've met on a personal or professional level have been rather decent human beings. I admire young Muslims' attachment to their religion. I'd like to have had the Arabic to trace back some of the development of Scholasticism to Jews and Muslims writing in the language. The Ottoman Empire strikes me as one of the more interesting historical periods. I am grateful to the Scottish Muslim community for standing firm with Catholics and Evangelical Protestants against same sex 'marriage'. We worship the same God. And so on....

In the West, the great threat to Catholicism is not, at least in the foreseeable future, from Islam, but from secularism/atheism in its drive to extirpate religion. Muslims and Catholics share much, a sharing evidenced in Scotland by the numbers of Muslim parents who send their children to Catholic schools.

So why upset a rather smooth running apple cart with the canonization of 800 Italians martyred by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century? NBC has a simple answer:

Ever since his election, Pope Francis has called for greater dialogue between Christianity and other religions, in particular Islam. And so far, he has acted on that promise. He washed the feet of a young Muslim woman jailed in a juvenile prison on Holy Thursday, and reached out to the many “Muslim brothers and sisters” during his first Good Friday procession.
So why risk creating yet another inter-faith row with a celebration which some in the Muslim world may be seen as a provocation?
The answer is that it wasn’t Pope Francis’ choice in the first place. The decision to canonize the hundreds of Otranto martyrs was rubber-stamped by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, on Feb. 11 - the same day he announced his resignation.

A rather predictable narrative: nasty German conservative Pope saddles nice liberal Francis with an unwelcome task.

Quite apart from the fact that it's now obvious that Francis, although clearly a very different personality from Benedict, is as committed to Catholic orthodoxy as you'd expect any Pope to be, my take on canonization is relatively simple: if someone is obviously a saint, he should be canonized, regardless of 'political' considerations. The Church deals in facts, not in conveniences, and if the martyrdom of 800 Italians is inconvenient, that's probably not a bad thing anyway. (Similarly with Oscar Romero: it doesn't matter whether he is the poster boy for Tabletistas or not, all that matters is whether or not he is a saint.)

In some ways, of course, the canonization is entirely convenient. Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere are being martyred by Muslims. In Western Europe, even if no one is threatening to decapitate us, Christians need to be reminded that, in the face of secularist pressure, in some circumstances we are called on to sacrifice everything rather than abandon Christ.

Islam and Catholicism are in some ways allies in the West and in some ways rivals. As new generations experience the emptiness of atheism, they will seek religious answers, and Islam will offer those if Catholicism has given up its hunger for saving souls. (I've just downloaded to my Kindle, Kristiane Backer's From MTV to Mecca, which is the autobiography of just such a convert from Western secularism to Islam.) That 800 very ordinary Italians were willing to die rather than convert ought to shame the Laodiceans among us. On the other hand, an obsession with Islam in Western Europe is an obsession with a possible future threat rather than the immediate one of atheism. But in either case, the answer is the same: a reinvigoration of Catholicism. That is the message of Otranto, and it is one we should pay attention to, regardless of whether the threat is more from the Qur'an or from Nuts Magazine.

Friday 10 May 2013

Derrida on same sex 'marriage' and the slippery slope

The admission by Lesbian activist, Masha Gessen, that the aim of same sex 'marriage' isn't so much about the access of homosexuals to marriage as the destruction of the institution did the rounds of the unenlightened-sky-fairy-worshipping-bigot-blogs recently.

It's worth reinforcing the point that this isn't simply the ramblings of one atypical activist, but a core view in the pro-SSM movement. Here's Suzanne Moore:

...any progressive would not waste time arguing the case for gay marriage. Quite the opposite. Instead, the right to civil partnerships should be extended to everyone, whichever bits of our bodies we chose to stick in other people's bodies.

Here's Peter Tatchell:

Given its patriarchal history, I am no fan of wedlock....There are powerful arguments in favour of a broader, non-discriminatory, comprehensive, flexible system of partnership recognition and rights, covering gay and straight partners, and applying to all mutually caring relationships...Within our society we see a huge variety of relationships and lifestyles. There are people who live together, and those who live apart. Some share their finances; others maintain financial independence. The law should reflect and support these diverse relationship choices and realities. The one-size-fits-all model of relationship recognition - exemplified by marriage - is no longer appropriate.

In one way, there's not much point reiterating this again. It's one of those things that everyone knows to be true, but -except for the opposition to SSM side- no -one is willing to admit: as sure as civil partnerships led to same sex 'marriage', same sex 'marriage' will lead to the sacralizing of all 'diverse relationship choices and realities'. Still, the truth should be reiterated even if no one is listening.

All this was prompted by the purchase of the (relatively) newly translated biography of Derrida by Benoit Peeters. Haven't had a chance to read it yet, so can't comment on its quality (but it has lots of pretty pictures which of course is the main test of any biography of an intellectual) but I did find the following (pp531-2):

And when the journalist Élisabeth Lévy asked him, not without a hint of aggression, whether it was 'the same Derrida who had signed On Grammatology and the petition for gay marriage', he was not the least thrown off his stride, explaining that he had supported wholeheartedly the initiative of Noël Mamère but that, on a deeper level, he would like the word 'marriage' to disappear from the Civil Code, since the notion was in his view too tied to the religious sphere.

It goes on:

In his interview with Jean Birnbaum, Derrida went into more detail on this question: 'If I were a legislator, I would propose simply getting rid of the word and concept of 'marriage' in our civil and secular code. 'Marriage,' as a religious, sacred, heterosexual value -with a vow to procreate, to be eternally faithful, and so on-, is  concession made by the secular state to the Christian church, and particularly with regard to monogamy...By getting rid of the word and concept of 'marriage,' and thus this ambiguity or this hypocrisy with regard to the religious and the sacred -things which have no place in a secular constitution-one could put in their place a contractual 'civil union,' a sort of generalized pacs, one that has been improved, refined, and would remain flexible and adaptable to parties whose sex and number would not be prescribed.

Perhaps the Beastie Boys' Sabotage is the only appropriate way to comment on this. All together now:

I Can't Stand It I Know You Planned It
But I'm Gonna Set It Straight, This Watergate
I Can't Stand Rocking When I'm In Here
Because Your Crystal Ball Ain't So Crystal Clear
So While You Sit Backand Wonder Why
I Got This F****** Thorn In My Side
Oh My, It's A Mirage
I'm Tellin' Y'all It's a Sabotage

Monday 6 May 2013

We need to talk about Keith...

                                            They seek him here, they seek him there...

Here's how you should handle a crisis where there is a media interest. You stop those involved from talking to the media on their own and keep them out of sight. You take firm action to find out the truth and pass that report on to the media. You take firm action to punish or discipline anyone who needs it, and then you draw a line under the incident and move on.

Of course, it's all a lot more difficult than that in practice, particularly with an organization such as the Catholic Church where, despite the form of hierarchy, there are really many competing levels of authority which can get in each other's way when there is a need for strong action. And the Catholic Church doesn't really do media, partly from the bad reason that it's not really got much competence in that area, and partly from the good reason that it doesn't think keeping the chattering classes (or even the Jeremy Kyle classes) up to date and happy is an important part of its mission.

So what is one to say about Cardinal O'Brien? First, I feel sorry for him and don't want to be vindictive. Sex makes fools out of many of us, and the pressures of public and priestly life can compound that. The Church has a responsibility to him for his welfare in this life and his salvation in the next. He shouldn't simply be hung out to dry to satisfy a crude need for scapegoating.

On the other hand, he has admitted there is some truth in accusations that include the wrecking of one man's priestly vocation and the abuse of power in positions of authority. How much truth, we don't know. But we do know that there are men out there who, with apparently good reason, feel ill used by the Cardinal. It's easy to feel sorry and supportive for the Cardinal because he's a well kent face. It's rather more difficult, but still absolutely essential, to feel at least a duty of justice to men who may well deserve the title of victims.

In some ways, ordinary Catholics don't need to have any view on this. Perhaps the Church should deal with the matter through its own disciplinary procedures and it's pretty irrelevant whether I (or other ordinary Catholics) know what's happened. The Church has no need to feed my prurient interest in gossip. But part of the vocation of the laity, made clear since Vatican II, is to take part in the mission of the Church. As the Catechism states:

The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church:

Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church. (s 888).

I think it's pretty much within my responsibilities as a lay person to worry about the reputation of the Church both among Catholics and others. I am an expert on media, having assiduously watched day time TV during periods of unemployment and illness. So, although I think there is something to be said for the view that an overinterest in this sort of Church shenanigans is the result of that prurient interest in gossip that I mentioned, on balance, I think lay Catholics have a duty to be involved in suggesting to the Church, and to the Cardinal, how this matter and related matters should be treated.

On Cardinal O'Brien in particular, I think it's right that, at least in the short term, he should remove himself from Scotland and keep an extremely low profile. I would like the Vatican to pursue a quick enquiry and to make its results known. I would ask the Cardinal to be open and honest with that enquiry in order to speed the process. I hope that both his welfare and those of his accusers remains a major consideration in that process.

More generally, I think the Church (particularly in Scotland) needs to think about truth and truth telling in an age of lay involvement and the internet. I've been eavesdropping on (and reading along with) the Foucault discussion group's lecture by lecture investigation of Foucault's analysis of parrhesia  (or as he insists on spelling it, parresia). (H/T Quiet Riot Girl.) Pope Francis also used the word recently in a sermon. Straightforwardly, parrhesia is boldness in speech, but after it's been through the Foucauldian mill, it stands rather for that practice of truth telling in a public space by which one both constitutes oneself as a virtuous individual, and ensures the correct running of public affairs. (Well, that's what I've picked up roughly from Foucault! Disgruntled postmodernists can deconstruct me in the combox...) At the moment, the laity has a duty to contribute to the mission of the Church, but the conditions which would allow that parrhesia do not exist. Instead we have gossip. There are many blogs in the Catholic blogosphere which are basically powered by assertions of hidden knowledge and information which, by its very nature, cannot be verified. Trust me, I know, they say. But how do I know that you know....?

So the thought for today is rather less, 'What should we do about Keith?' but much more, 'What is required for the laity to engage in the practice of truth-telling in Catholic Scotland?' And that doesn't mean allowing whinge fests where theologically half literate former hippies go on about the need to have women priests and Tuc biscuits at Mass, or crazed Lefebvrists agonize about Masonic influence and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but much more about straightforwardness in acknowledging where things have gone wrong or out of control, and reflection on both what the laity need in terms of knowledge to exercise their vocation, and where that vocation slides over into the enjoyment of gossip and delusions of a prophetic office.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Secularism and atheist doublethink

                                         What atheists pretend secularism means...

I indulged in a slight flurry of online commenting in response to a letter in The Scotsman from Neil Barber, a leading light of the Edinburgh Secular Society: Neil claimed:

We have neither the wish nor the right to judge the metaphysics of our fellows....

An atheist might well debate the rationality of those beliefs, but a secularist wishes only for religion to be disentangled from the mechanics of the state.

I'm not sure whether Neil really thinks this or whether he is just pretending. As I pointed out in my comments on the letter, if you go to the Edinburgh Secular Society website, you soon find all sorts of helpful anti-religious links and campaigning materials. I commented:

...there is an intimate relationship between ESS and campaigning atheism. For example, although there are many links to humanist organizations on that links page, there are none to theistic organizations....

As another example, all the blogs to which you link are run by campaigning atheists, [For example, the last entry on your chair's blog shows him] speaking in favour of the motion, ''Belief in God is a delusion'.

I have no doubt that secularism (in some senses) can be a position which, in principle, is not an attack on religion. However, in fact, certainly as represented in the ESS and NSS it is simply an arm of militant atheism.

Let me draw a distinction. In principle, I accept that secularism might not be an anti-religious position. (I'll come back to this in a moment.) But in fact, there is ample evidence that secularist movements in the UK are dominated by an anti-religious agenda. A lovely example of this is the website of the Cambridge Secular Society, where, in obvious contrast to the pictorial claim at the head of this posting, you'll find this as their logo:

What secularists think  'secular'  means 

On that site, you'll also find, on the Home page, not buried away in some forgotten corner:

Religion flourishes where ignorance abounds and remains the cause of conflict and terrorism, in Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, India and elsewhere. It is implicated in many scandals and atrocities including the sexual abuse of children and the execution of apostates yet still we are urged to accept its moral authority.

Secularists had either better clean their act up or simply come clean that they are really just atheists who are trying to attack religion in a rather less obviously threatening way.

So much for the facts of the secularist movement. What about in principle? Here, as I've noted before, it does all depend on what you mean by secularism. It might mean separation of Church and State. But then -see previous link- even mediaeval Catholicism accepted that: the State and the Church are not the same. It can't mean -unless religious organizations are booted out of the country- that there is no interaction at all between religions and the State. So we are left with the debate about precisely what relationship there should be between them. Now that's a long and detailed argument and I can see many arguable positions about that relationship. But overwhelmingly, modern secularists are motivated by the thought that religion is harmful and that it why it needs to be kept out of the public space as much as possible. For example, Neil Barber stated in public on the accession of Pope Francis:

"There's been lots of talk about how the Catholic Church has to change, but the problem is that, for a lot of Catholics, change is the very last thing that they want.

"I wish them well, but my concern is that attitudes that are so woefully out of touch shouldn't have the sort of power that they have in public life."

Note the reasoning: Catholic beliefs are out of touch and that is why they should be kept out of public life. 

Now there isn't any necessity for such a conclusion unless secularism is simply atheism with a bit of slap on. If the 'secular' State were not intrinsically anti-religious, it might well encourage religions and their communities to be part of the public sphere, without giving preference to any one. As noted by Bhikhu Parekh:

The standard liberal doctrine of the division of spheres according to which unity is required in the public realm and diversity confined to the private or civil realm does not work even in a monocultural society, and causes much positive damage in a multicultural society. Since cultural differences run deep and permeate all areas of life including the political, there is no transcultural public realm in which unity can be located. Furthermore the attempt to combine a monocultural public realm with a multicultural private realm tends to subvert the latter. In every society the public realm enjoys considerable dignity and prestige, which generally far outweigh those of the private realm. When one culture is not only publicly recognised but also embodied in political institutions and practices, it comes to be seen as the official culture of the community, an expression of its collective identity, and commands considerable state patronage, power and access to public resources. By contrast the excluded cultures come to be seen as marginal, peripheral, even deviant and inferior, only worth practising outside the public gaze of society and in the privacy of the family and communal associations.

In modern societies with many religions and Weltanschauungen, clearly the old idea of cujus regio, ejus religio won't work. But there are many positions between the poles of the confessional state and a state completely free of religion. (There is, for example, much to be said for the current position in Scotland of a mild Protestantism occupying the position of the 'National Church', much more than there is for the religion free aspirations of the ESS et al.) Where you are situated on that spectrum will depend on your view of the social benefits of religion. And since the various secularist clubs are uniformly constituted of members who believe (to quote the ESS chair) that 'religion is a delusion' they will seek to extirpate its influence as much as possible. 

In sum, secularism in the UK is, in fact, a wing of militant atheism. Its campaigning for the exclusion of religions from the public sphere rests, in principle, on the judgment that they are intrinsically harmful. The claims of secularists to be neutral on religion are thus, both in fact and in principle, baloney.