Monday 31 March 2014

An Independent Scotland day 1: loony feminism, woodwork and Scandinavia

If Scots wake up on 19 September with a 'yes' vote for independence, one of the things Catholics (and social conservatives in general) had better hit the ground running on is the Constitution:

Central to this will be a written constitution setting out and protecting the rights of the people of Scotland.[p351 of Scotland's Future. Lalland Peat Worrier's blogpost on the Constitution is here which sets out some of the relevant background.]

The Constitution will be drafted by some sort of constitutional convention which will have some sort of input from everyone. And there, of course, is the rub. This sort of thing is a recipe for the best organized and the least conflicted to triumph. And I don't think it unreasonable to remark that, in the present climate in Scotland, that doesn't sound much like any sort of conservative force, let alone the Catholic Church.

What precisely will be in the Constitution will therefore be up for grabs and there is no particular reason to assume, at the moment, that what will result will be a barebones, 'just make sure the basics of justice work' sort of model. Organizations such as Engender are already working to influence that future with (eg) their report on Gender Equality and Scotland's Constitutional Futures (PDF) released this month. It contains gems such as:

However, it is difficult to see how any approach short of gender mainstreaming
with a strong intersectional focus will adequately address these issues, which
require a sea change in public attitudes. There is a need for a holistic action plan
incorporating awareness-raising and public engagement, education, training of
early years professionals, public sector and healthcare workers, guidelines for
employers, and innovative incentives to encourage good practice in targeted
enclaves of the private sector.

One of the popular progressive prisms through which Scotland's post independence future is seen at the moment is Scandiphilia: dump England and become a modern, Scandinavian society.

Another snippet from Engender:

Unexamined social attitudes and assumptions underpin the modern face of
gender inequality. Gender roles and relations are not the natural order, but social
constructs that have evolved over time to deny women rights, citizenship and
power. However, gender inequality is so ingrained in the cultural psyche and social
institutions in the UK that it is rendered invisible.

Now this is the slight excuse for the photo of the Danish, Catholic journalist, Iben Thranholm above. (Viewers of EWTN may have come across her on those seasons of Catholic Lives where she conduct interviews in Scandinavia.) I can only think of two Scandinavian Catholics, and Iben is much more photogenic than St Magnus. (Oh, OK, there's Sigrid Undset as well.)

                                   St Magnus: not as attractive as Iben Thranholm

As I've suggested before, the Scottish chattering classes -overwhelmingly 'progressive' and secularist- don't really want to be disturbed by unpleasant thoughts about people disagreeing with them. All this means that, in the event of a vote for independence, socially conservative Scots had better have a vision and the organization in place (and please don't pretend that's going to be the Scottish Conservatives) to influence the future and respond to the loonier elements that are going to be coming out of the woodwork. And the first and perhaps least easily mended test of that is likely to be the writing of a new Constitution.

[Iben Thranholm's own conversion story can be found in an MP3 of her interview with Marcus Grodi here.]

Wednesday 26 March 2014

David Gelernter and why Catholic Educashun isn't working

I've just finished David Gelernter's America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (review here; bio of Gelernter here).

In essence, his argument is very simple. Due to the expansion of Higher Education and the change in its ethos, each new generation of Americans is being indoctrinated with a left wing progressivism. The intellectual leaders -the post-religious globalist intellectuals (PORGIs)- produce 'Airheads': those who have adopted progressivism as a worldview from indoctrination rather than conviction:

With each passing year, the proportion of Americans who were educated after the cultural revolution increases; and such people are abnormally likely to be left-liberals -not by reasoned conviction but by indoctrination.

To this problem, the solution is simple:

American education is in the hands of liberal Airheads. Take it away from them. 

You do this by making use of the resources of the internet:

True, it's far better to learn from a human being than from a machine: the character of the teacher is nearly always more important than the topic being taught. But a flawed solution is better than none. The internet will let parents guide their children's education, or at least choose a guide they trust. A new breed of education mentors will emerge: schools or churches, think tanks or professional organizations, or a new kind of entrepreneur.

Whilst the Elite Universities will survive as asylums of the PORGI-ate, cultural conservatism, by focusing on internet education, will be able to generate a countervailing cultural force.


fail to see that faith in God is the keystone of two crossed arches, those two soaring arches at right angles that shelter Western civilization beneath the great span of a dramatic roof.


The nation's most serious problems are not economic or political. They are social, cultural, educational and (above all) spiritual. Conservative thinkers and leaders tend to ignore such problems. But our cultural oxygen is being displaced by a steady seep of poison.


There's much to dislike about the book. Gelernter (as is obvious from the above summary) is one of those cultural warriors who is engaged in fighting talk as much as dispassionate analysis. Some of his diagnoses are too simplistic. His internet solution avoids detailed questions about how (eg) MOOCs generated by PORGIs will not simply reproduce existing biases (but with a lower level of quality and without the conservative/realist pull that face to face interaction with other human beings and their frailties can bring). It's also an American analysis and doesn't quite engage with UK phenomena such as the transformation of the classical curriculum of the public schools into the Nietzschean chutzpah factories of an economic elite.

That said, I think the main run of his analysis -that Higher Education is engaged in the indoctrination of progressivism into successive generations- is broadly correct. Whilst this has implications for the nation, I want to focus on the implications for the Catholic Church. Within the UK, the position of Catholic schools is reasonably clear: many, if not most, have not succeeded in explaining, let alone convincing their pupils of the truth of, Catholic teaching. At the Higher Education level, the almost complete absence of any Catholic Higher Education, let alone orthodox Catholic Higher Education, makes the UK case even more acute than that of the US where Catholic institutions do exist, even if sometimes only in name.

Gelernter's internet solution has its limitations. But for the average, intelligent, university educated Catholic who wants to get a Catholic philosophical and theological education commensurate with their academic achievements in other subjects, serious thought about how the Church can guide them through the wealth of learning on the internet might provide the best hope of that sort of serious formation that those who are the children of the children of the cultural revolution need to escape progressivism. The aim should not be so much to set up expensive validated degree courses, but to establish that informal guidance that will allow self-directed learning: curricula, guides to MOOCs, generation of new material if necessary, self help groups (perhaps along the line of the University of the Third Age).

My biggest worry? Well, apart from the practicalities, it's precisely that problem of PORGI capture that I mentioned above. If now you asked leading Catholic educators in this country to generate, say, a curriculum for a basic three year full time equivalent theology course for graduates in other subjects, what would they come up with? And the answer to that, of course, would be that it would depend heavily on whom you asked...

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Protect the Pope and Catholic media

You'll have noticed that I have placed the above image in my sidebar as a gesture of support for Deacon Nick. (The image was created by The Bones who is encouraging other bloggers to use it.)

I don't want to spend too much time directly addressing Deacon Nick's position. I make absolutely no criticism of Bishop Campbell: I do not know the details of the situation and I think it entirely proper that a bishop takes a pastoral interest in the blogging activities of his clergy. I simply want to express my support for a blogger who has worked extremely hard over the years to create a lively news source for orthodox Catholics, and to express my hope that he will return in the near future to his blog.

I do want to make a wider point about Catholic blogging and general engagement with the media. One of the features of modernity (or post-modernity if you feel happier with that) is the omnipresence of chatter. This applies not only to the commanding heights of media such as the BBC, but also to online media. One religious impulse is simply to regard this as distraction to be solved by withdrawal. And, of course, there is something in this: much time is wasted in simple linguistic noise. A related impulse -characteristic of much official Catholic engagement with the media- is to intervene only in controlled, putatively dignified ways: the extraordinarily bland officialese of press releases etc. Again, whilst perfectly understandable, this does leave the Church sounding rather like a confection of the Queen, your senile Uncle in the corner rambling on about his adventures during the last War, and a Party Political Broadcast.

If neither of these solutions is adopted, then what would full engagement with the media look like? Much modern media prizes spontaneity and authenticity. One of the reasons for Pope Francis' attractiveness is that he does seem to embody these qualities. As far as the commanding heights of the media are concerned, often the Church needs spokespeople who manage to combine orthodoxy with looking and sounding like a 'normal' person. In online media such as blogs, as well as personality, we need numbers: unless there are lots of Catholics out there, talking about themselves and their beliefs in a way that expresses their own character, Catholicism will simply be crowded out and invisible.

All of this suggests to me that there is a real tension in media engagement between control (and the assurance of orthodoxy) and the sort of numbers and type of interaction needed for success which make control very difficult. The tempting solution is withdrawal: if it's difficult to get it right, then better to say nothing at all. But that way lies yet a further stage in a long journey into silence and invisibility.

If that's right, then Catholics -lay and ordained- better get used to a very messy public witness. There will be disagreements and there will be divergent voices. To ensure that orthodoxy emerges from those rather troubled waters is less a matter of silencing or coming down hard on the (inevitable) odd failure of tone or even content in this or that commentator, but ensuring that reliable (official) sources are available where the interested can get absolutely reliable information. In essence, the publication of the Catechism and the abolition of the Index symbolize this twofold solution: an abandonment of the attempt to control and ban, but the making available of a reliable standard.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Scotland and independence revisited

                            Sheep in despair at their future in a progressive Scotland.

I suppose I can't really avoid blogging again about Scottish Independence at some stage before the vote.

It's not that I don't find myself engaged in the debate (I do). It is partly that I don't want to divide Scottish (and other) Catholics on an issue where, clearly, different views can be conscientiously held. It is also partly that I still, really, really, really, don't know how I'll be voting and I'd rather keep my ill-thought through and partly informed musings to myself.

But come now, what blogger can blog by keeping ill-thought through and partly informed musings to himself? It is the very essence of the trade to utter forth without thought...

From a Catholic perspective, the principle of subsidiarity ought to weigh quite heavily on the independence side. If Chesterton can contemplate independence for Notting Hill, there is absolutely no reason why independence for Scotland is absurd. (Apparently both Gandhi and Michael Collins were inspired in their national struggles by Chesterton. No doubt our own First Minister is avidly pawing a copy of the Collected Works as we speak.)

Moreover, it is hard for Catholics -how to put this delicately?- not to feel just a little suspicious of that Protestant enterprise that is the Union and the Empire. Immersed in Scott just now, it is all too easy to see how the idea of a United Britain under a Protestant monarch is something that did not exist by nature, but had to be constructed as a solution to tensions, religious and national, that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To note its archaeology is to note its possible redundancy: are there many in the UK who think that its current governance is entirely satisfactory? Is it surprising that minds turn to alternatives? And what other really effective alternatives are there on offer? (I of course put aside the continual Lib Dem offers of giving cats votes or having elected street cleaners as their profound solutions to a constitutional crisis.)

On the other hand, it is naive to assume that breaking up an existing entity won't have costs. We can probably assume a certain period of governmental paralysis while the breakup is organized. We can probably assume a rather longer paralysis as the Scottish political landscape (politicians, reporters, civil servants, think tanks) stop acting like Stonybridge Town Council and grow into a national role. And that's not even to start thinking about the EU and the pound... Moreover, the idea of a UK state that, as a microcosm, embodies some of the ideas about international relations that are seen in the EU and the UN, and yet does it rather more effectively is not a vision to be sneezed at.

Putting all this aside, the Compendium of Social Doctrine  brings in an entity which really doesn't figure explicitly much in the current debate in Scotland. (I ignore the debate among certain London based figures who, having woken up to the fact that there is an Independence debate going on, seem to think it is merely an extension of the Krankies' Summer Tour, to be deal with by jokes about Tartan and What Scots Wear under the Kilt. Or perhaps a prolonged Caledonian sulk out of which we can be coaxed by an arm round the shoulder and a nice cup of tea.) That entity is the (or perhaps more exactly a) people. For example:

385. The political community finds its authentic dimension in its reference to people: “it is and should in practice be the organic and organizing unity of a real people”.

386. The primary characteristic of a people is the sharing of life and values, which is the source of communion on the spiritual and moral level. “Human society must primarily be considered something pertaining to the spiritual. Through it, in the bright light of truth men should share their knowledge, be able to exercise their rights and fulfil their obligations, be inspired to seek spiritual values, mutually derive genuine pleasure from beauty of whatever order it be, always be readily disposed to pass on to others the best of their own cultural heritage and eagerly strive to make their own the spiritual achievements of others. 

387. For every people there is in general a corresponding nation...

[From the Compendium].

Now -at least as far as I can see- nowhere does the Compendium define a people. Which leaves open the question: 'Is Scotland (or 'Are the Scots..') a people?' Being a people must be something to do with 'cultural heritage': that sense of a distinct, self reflective culture which is both different from neighbouring cultures and is also aware of, even proud of, those differences. Moreover, the Compendium emphasizes those parts of the heritage pertaining to the spiritual (so probably not tablet or Irn Bru then).

Does Scotland have a distinct spiritual culture anymore? A hundred years ago, I've no doubt you could talk about Calvinism, psalms, the Kirk etc. These days I suspect that if you could get past the initial problem of the meaning of 'spiritual', you'd be entering into the Scandiphile realm of the progressives:

Consider the policies which we’ve heard from the SNP/YesScotland/Radical Independence (delete as appropriate). We’ve been told that, in an independent Scotland, we’ll retire at 65 even if we’re only working half our lengthening lives.  We’ll continue to give automatic pay rises to public sector workers, who will keep their unaffordable pensions. We’ll renationalise Royal Mail.  We’ll drum out the nasty capitalist supermarkets and replace them with real, little, proper shops down the road.  We won’t reform public services, at all.  We won’t cut any spending, anywhere (but we’ll still manage to build a massive oil fund).  We’ll buy airports when they lose out to better competitors. `The rocks will melt with the sun’ before Scottish students contribute towards their university education.

Next we’ll be told there’s going to be a free unicorn for all children and a guaranteed rainbow every day.

It’s a great strategy for winning the referendum, and that’s what I admire about the campaign.  But it is, in the final analysis, a fundamentally anti-democratic strategy.  Anti-democratic, because it is becoming increasingly obvious that mainstream Yes support seeks power not on the basis of principle but only on the basis that it will be used to build a left-wing country.

[Andy McIver: Scottishness and Socialism here.]

Any politics worth a damn in the end has to say something about the supernatural end of human beings rather than just the natural end. The high noon of British Imperialism was structured by ideas of what it was worth killing and dying for, of civilized values and the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness, however much those values were distorted. The strongly Communist undertow in earlier Scottish nationalist politics also spoke, paradoxically for a materialism, of values that transcended the mundane. Crudely, nationalism and unionism were about spiritual matters: about what makes life meaningful and what national identity we identify with, what sort of people we are.

If being a people (ie being Scottish) simply amounts to a preference for (broadly) traditional big state polices rather than the (slightly) less big state polices down South, I'm not sure that's really enough. (In a hundred years time, will such an identity make sense?) Part of the discontent with politics in the modern world is, I suspect, precisely a lack of such big, spiritual  questions in the public sphere. It's distinctly odd that, at a time when a really important decision about Scotland is being made, such issues have fallen even further into the background in favour of questions about where our banks will have their headquarters. (It's even odder, it might be thought, that the conservative right, the natural home of such bigger, religious questions, is almost completely silent in this area.)

There is another, alternative way of looking at this. The progressive element of the Nationalist camp do perhaps have a vision of spiritual values. On Day Zero, we will have a wholesale undermining of the remaining English elements of conservatism: abortion on demand, removal of the institution of marriage, enforced rearing of children by the state, abolition of the Monarchy etc etc. They are excited and, should there be independence, it will be their enthusiasm and commitment to a greater vision that will dominate an independent Scotland for the next generation while the rest of us get our act into shape. It is this sense that, when George Osbourne erects his custom posts at Berwick, we will be left on our own in a room with a bunch of Pat Kanes, that perhaps provides even the mildest conservative with the strongest reason to reject independence.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of preparation for Easter on Sunday, 20 April 2014.

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

(The Ash Wednesday Collect from the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham)

Monday 3 March 2014

The Catholic Church destroyed civilization

               An early version of door to door evangelization: hang on to your test tubes!

The Renaissance Mathematicus's take on the New Atheist nonsense about religion's -and specifically Catholicism's- destroying science in the mediaeval period reminded me of something I'd been toying with blogging about for a while.

The various atheist conventicles in Scotland (and elsewhere) spend much of their time whingeing about (ie publicizing) cases where some hapless atheist infant has come into contact with some loopy Christian who's told the little darling that she's going to hell or that T-Rex had big teeth so it could eat gourds in the Garden of Eden. Now, I'd probably be as unhappy as any member of Secular Scotland if my children were being taught that God created the world in six twenty four hour time periods in 4004 BC, but I often wondered what I would actually do if it happened. I suspected that -unless this was the regular message of biology lessons, in which case I'd probably be up in arms- I'd let it go as just another piece of the white noise that children have got to learnt to navigate as part of growing up. Anyway, it hasn't happened yet because most Christians aren't idiots and follow the evidence where it leads. (And it doesn't lead to T-Rex chowing down on water melons.)

But I'd forgotten a far more common piece of irrational, evidence blind nonsense: the extended version of the Black Legend which has the Catholic Church as the destroyer of Western civilization. Child N came back from (high) school recently saying that one of the teachers had claimed:

Under Christianity in the middle ages, you were only allowed one book, the Bible, and you could only read this with a priest. The Christians burned all the other books and it was only the Muslims who tried to save these books.

Now, the teacher wasn't talking about their subject and wasn't (I'm fairly sure) a Muslim. Apparently when on their own subject, they're a good teacher.

When Child N had peeled me off the ceiling, we had a pretty good conversation about the transmission of learning in Byzantium and the West. (Fairly chuffed that my previous rants about the Church had payed off to the extent that they'd smelled a rat and had wanted to talk to me about it.) I then spent a rather self indulgent evening wondering which volume of mediaeval uncarbonized literature on my shelves would best prove my case if I flung it at the teacher concerned. (I ruled out the Summa on the grounds that a) although it might not strictly fit the story, the teacher might regard the survival of theological work sufficiently within the spirit of the narrative for a moral victory; and b) it's (or rather they are) heavy enough to kill. I dismissed the collected works of Chaucer (also potentially lethal) and the Battle of Maldon (far too light: would probably flutter off harmlessly). On balance, I think my German hard back of the Nibelungenlied has about the right balance of non-lethal heft, whilst making the moral point that not all mediaeval literature is religious.)

I didn't march up the school and complain: I do think, on balance, I'd rather have an education system where teachers feel fairly comfortable about chatting to their students. Put more shortly, I think teachers have the right to say idiotic things so long as they are normally competent. But, of course, the problem here isn't really that one teacher but rather a climate of historical ignorance that makes such a view plausible. A lot of New Atheists don't give a damn about the humanities including history, and they certainly don't give a damn about weighing up the truth about the Catholic Church (which basically means not giving a damn about Western history). People are (rightly) concerned when they hear that this or that school is teaching that evolution is simply false and the earth is only 6000 years old. But the everyday consequences of such views may be fairly limited. The consequences of a complete misunderstanding of comparative recent history -and of the modern institutions which resulted from it- may be much more serious and, certainly, appear to be much more widespread.

[Update: 16/814: Interesting that David Robertson has a similar story of atheist bigotry in his daughter's school:

My daughter was asked by her biology teacher about the 'genocide' in the Old Testament. I still haven't worked out what that had to do with biology! Thankfully she has parents who are able to set things in the context of the whole Bible. But what chance do most children have when they are faced with that kind of accusation (because let's not pretend it was a question)? Any attempt to answer that question within school will immediately bring down cries of 'evangelism, proselytism, religious bigotry'. Its not that we can't answer such questions. It's more that we are not allowed to answer.]