Friday 25 December 2015

Merry Christmas

Happy Christmas!

On the Nativity of Christ (William Dunbar)

RORATE coeli desuper!
  Hevins, distil your balmy schouris!
For now is risen the bricht day-ster,
  Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris:
  The cleir Sone, quhom no cloud devouris,      
Surmounting Phebus in the Est,
  Is cumin of his hevinly touris:
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
  Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,
And all ye hevinly operationis,
  Ster, planeit, firmament, and spheir,
  Fire, erd, air, and water cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
  That come in to so meik maneir;
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Synnaris be glad, and penance do,
  And thank your Maker hairtfully;
For he that ye micht nocht come to
  To you is cumin full humbly
  Your soulis with his blood to buy
And loose you of the fiendis arrest—
  And only of his own mercy;
    Pro nobis Puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,
  And bow unto that bairn benyng,
And do your observance divyne
  To him that is of kingis King:
  Encense his altar, read and sing
In holy kirk, with mind degest,
  Him honouring attour all thing
    Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Celestial foulis in the air,
  Sing with your nottis upon hicht,
In firthis and in forrestis fair
  Be myrthful now at all your mycht;
  For passit is your dully nicht,
Aurora has the cloudis perst,
  The Sone is risen with glaidsum licht,
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Now spring up flouris fra the rute,
  Revert you upward naturaly,
In honour of the blissit frute
  That raiss up fro the rose Mary;
  Lay out your levis lustily,
Fro deid take life now at the lest
  In wirschip of that Prince worthy
    Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Sing, hevin imperial, most of hicht!
  Regions of air mak armony!
All fish in flud and fowl of flicht
  Be mirthful and mak melody!
  All Gloria in excelsis cry!
Heaven, erd, se, man, bird, and best,—
  He that is crownit abone the sky
    Pro nobis Puer natus est!

Monday 7 December 2015

Wars, politics and alienation

Although there's been quite a lot I've been tempted to write on recently, it's been very difficult for me to focus on anything else without first talking about Syria and bombing. And since I have had little sense of what I should say about that, I have been left in silence. Not a bad thing maybe...

I've been reading (amongst many other things) Robert Nisbet's 1953 The Quest for Community. And this morning I came across this passage:

The clear tendency of modern wars is to become ever more closely identified with broad, popular, moral aspirations: freedom, self-determination of peoples, democracy, rights, and justice. Because war, in the twentieth century, has become rooted to such an extent in the aspirations of peoples and in broad moral convictions, its intensity and range have vastly increased. When the goals and values of a war are popular, both in the sense of mass participation and spiritual devotion, the historic, institutional limits of war tend to recede further and further into the void. The enemy becomes not only a ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil against the forces of good may mobilize themselves into a militant community.

Now this isn't quite applicable to the present case in the UK: certainly, bombing Syria or even more generally the 'war' against ISIS is not popular in the sense of mass participation or even mass support. But one of the things that has paralysed me in expressing any views about the present situation is the 'spiritual devotion' of many public commentators on both sides: whether you are one of those calling Cameron a c*** or one of those sonorously advising the bombing of civilians, there is clearly more spiritual weight being placed on the issue than a difficult practical decision about how best to exercise force.

There's an awful lot that might be said about this, including a recognition that decisions of life and death ought to be taken with a good deal of fear and trembling (although of all the current reactions to the seriousness of the issue, that of fear and trembling in the face of God's Judgment seems least in evidence). But I want to focus on two which I take to be central to that issue of alienation and the desperation to escape from it which Nisbet identifies, among other modern ills, with an obsession with war.

First, there is the modern tendency to concentrate on act based ethics rather than agent based ones: in essence, a focus on the right action rather than being (or becoming) the right person. Catholic ethics (like most ancient ethics) is at its foundation agent based: it is focused on becoming a good person and the attainment of beatitudo (the Beatific Vision of God) rather than simply doing the right action. That's key because for the modern, particularly the progressive, there is a desperate search for and conviction that there is one right answer, and, moreover, that it is essential for each individual to get that answer right. (Part of the problem here is that, in replacing God with the individual's consciousness, the duty of Jove to see everything correctly devolves upon every participant in social media.) For the ancient (and Catholics are very ancient) I am neither God nor (unless I am David Cameron etc) under a particular duty to express a view on a decision I have little understanding of and little influence on. Democracy of course complicates that by turning us all into little legislators, but practical wisdom should remind us how marginal such a decision is to most of our lives and quite how foolish it is to pretend otherwise.

Secondly, there is the tendency to identify politics with salvation. The fundamental problem in regard to Syria is not so much whether the RAF should drop a few bombs on Syria, but how the Mediterranean world -particularly North Africa- can be once more a place where ordinary people can get on with the pursuit of beatitudo. Defeating ISIS (well, denying them territory) might help, but the recent history of Iraq shows how clearly destroying one tyranny doesn't solve the problem of what happens next. The overemphasis on politics amongst moderns shows itself in two ways. There is the tendency to look to politics and the expression of political views (on war and other matters) as the cure for personal dissatisfactions and the meaninglessness of modern life. (Evidence of this among Islamists, MPs and progressives.) Furthermore, there are the unrealistic expectations of what might be achieved in the foreseeable future in the Middle East. One might not go quite as far as Hobbes in suggesting that any stable government would be better than none, but one might take the Augustinian view that the main business of government is essentially to facilitate or at least to allow the really important business of salvation by establishing civic peace. Instead we have the sort of mentality that leads to seeing anything other than the establishment of Hampstead on the Nile as a failure.

There's much more that could be said but I'll leave it there with the critique of overemphasizing the right view of actions we have little part in making at the expense of cultivating our character, and the critique of overemphasizing what politics can achieve rather aiming primarily at the sort of stability that allows the really important permanent things of life to be achieved. A coda. While mulling over what to say here (and now mulling over whether such mulling over is itself a sign of lack of virtue), I receive news of a friend's having been attacked. Not by a terrorist, but a thug screaming at 'Pakis'. (The friend is horrifyingly white but the friend whom he was with I suppose might look like a 'Paki' to someone not too fussy about a victim.) Not unusual I suppose in cities late at night and, in this case, only some relatively minor physical damage done. Possibly nothing to do with current events although somehow I doubt they helped. I can't do much directly about the Middle East, but I can do a great deal about how I react to them. It would be good to grab back, for a start, the word 'dignity' from those who identify it with a hysterical desire to establish their autonomy by getting the state to kill them.

Friday 13 November 2015

Stoicism and Eudaimonistic ethics

                                                                 Where's Zeno...?

After reading a report from STOICON 2015 (ie a conference on Stoicism) (here) I tweeted the following question:

Reading report from STOICON wonder here about relative attractiveness of Stoicism vs Ancient Philosophy in general. Arguably all Ancient Philosophy is therapeutic, but what is it about Stoic therapy that appeals? (Why eg don't we take Platonic injunctions to mathematics or even theurgy as seriously?) For a modern 'therapeutic' Platonism see

(That provoked a very helpful exchange mostly with Cathy Barry (@Cathyby) with Jules Evans (@julesevans77) joining in at the end to which I'm grateful for prompting me to further thought.)

The original question wasn't (purely anyway) rhetorical: Stoicism does seem peculiarly attractive to many moderns and I'm not sure exactly why. In the report I linked to above, much of what is valued in Stoicism is common to much ancient philosophy. For example, most ancient ethics is therapeutic in the sense that it offers to improve your life: to make you eudaimon (flourishing). Moreover, it is focused primarily on internal goods (the virtues) rather than external goods (stuff, social status). To the extent that Stoicism tends (more than other schools) to be (at least) deistic, perfectionist, rationalist, suspicious of emotions and utterly dismissive of external goods (you can be as eudaimon on a rack as you can be watching TV with a good whisky), it might well be thought to have particular difficulties that make it less attractive to the modern mind than other ancient ethical approaches.

I'm pretty sure that most of the answer lies in the peculiarities of Roman Stoicism, and in particular the philosophers Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Roughly, all of these tend to be much more interested in practical techniques rather than in the more foundational questions raised by the earlier Greek Stoics. Moreover, to the extent that Stoicism in general rejects external circumstances as an element in flourishing to a quite unusual degree (certainly when compared to the Peripatetics), it is peculiarly compatible with any modern lifestyle: why change your life when you can just change your mind?

Now, I have two related worries about this. First, technique without asking serious questions about what purposes those techniques serve isn't philosophy , certainly not in a sense that Socrates or a modern academic philosopher would recognize it. (Indeed, were I to be waspish, Plato might well find a combination of marketable techniques and the promise of success in the everyday world rather more characteristic of sophistry than philosophy.) And to the extent that philosophy, that personal, desperate grappling with truth, is part of the good life, then a focus on technique together with a distraction from the pursuit of truth is at least unfortunate and perhaps harmful. Secondly, to the extent I've reflected on the ethical claims of Stoicism, I'm pretty sure they're wrong. In ancient terms, I suppose I'd count as close to a Peripatetic (ie Aristotelian) with a consequent emphasis on the need for reforming the political space, a focus on good upbringing, the cultivation of appropriate emotions (including anger)  and contemplation of 'divine things' as the perfect life. Whether I'm right in that judgment isn't terribly important: what is important is that many of the specific claims of Stoicism are by no means clearly correct and if the techniques recommended actually do have an effect, they may well be producing vice rather than virtue.

I suppose at the end I'm left with wondering what would be lost or gained if we didn't have conferences like STOIKON or events like Stoic Week, and instead had VIRTUEETHICSCON or Eudaimonia week. What would be lost, I think, is the coherence of a brand: here is something with a fairly coherent message and with immediate, relatively easy instructions for getting involved at once. You don't have to think much: you just have to be attracted and act. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: we all have to start somewhere and most of us have stumbled onto the deeper things that inform our lives by some sort of combination of luck and immediate (erotic) attraction. I'm not sure that any other school of ancient philosophy can do that quite as easily as Stoicism (although Mark Anderson has a damn good go for Platonism) even if I'm pushed to be absolutely clear as to why that's the case. (Another suggestion that crosses my mind is that it is to do with the occasional, conversational style of Roman Stoicism (esp) Seneca, quite apart from the issue of content. Much more engaging than (say) the 'contents of an academic's wastebin' style of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But anyway...) But I think it would be terribly sad if you stopped there and didn't explore ancient ethics further and, in particular, when examining Stoic claims, ask: Is this true? Is this truly virtuous?

Why does any of this matter, except to those (undoubtedly a minority) who have an existing interest in ancient philosophy? There are a number of possible answers to this, many centring on the general role of classical studies in modern education. But let me give a more narrowly philosophical answer. There is a view (one I largely share), developing from Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre that there is something radically amiss with modern moral philosophy. (Anscombe's paper of that name is the locus classicus for this analysis.) In essence, both advise a return to eudaimonistic ethics, an ethics based on human flourishing and the virtues. If anything along those lines is right, then adopting the correct view of eudaimonia and its attainment is of central importance not only to each individual's life, but also to our wider society. Stoicism may well be an excellent introduction to that ressourcement and the general pattern of eudaimonistic ethcs, but it is one that we Aristotelian-Thomists at least would like to see subject to philosophical challenge and ultimate abandonment.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Synod on the Family

                                                 Catholic bloggers in traditional garb...

I've been trying to avoid getting swept up in the to-ing and fro-ing over the Synod on the Family. I've got a fairly uncertain temper and find it too easy to get dragged into pointless spats about a situation where information was uncertain and where I'd find it too easy to get worked up uselessly. Better for me at least to keep my mind on the permanent things... (Does that sound smug? Probably. But there is nothing I can do directly to influence the outcome of the Synod and I am aware of my character flaw of irritable excitability.)

But now it's over I think all Catholics do have a duty to reflect on the issues raised. So let's take the charge of Pharisaism or legalism which seems to bubble up against those who favour a simple reiteration of the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, with all its consequences for exclusion from Holy Communion for those who 'remarry' after a divorce. The debate seems mostly framed in terms of 'who is or isn't getting to receive Communion'. But that framing is itself, surely, precisely one aspect of Pharisaism.

Whenever I hear the word 'Pharisaism', I am reminded of (I think) Rabbi Hugo Gryn's remark that the Pharisees had got a bad press and, more generally, that the Pharisees who function as Christianity's bogeymen are also the ancestors of modern, rabbinical Judaism. The precise problem with the Pharisees in the New Testament is never really just the traditional Protestant accusation of the prioritising of works over faith (difficult to translate neatly into Catholic terms anyway) but rather a cluster of issues that need careful teasing out. But there are two aspects that strike me as central. First, there is the substitution of Law for Christ: the Pharisees do not recognize that God incarnate is walking among them. Instead of focusing on the Law, they need to pay attention to the source of the Law, Christ. Secondly, there is a failure to note the substance of the Law and to focus on that rather than on trivial detail: we get distracted by surface. Pharisees are not necessarily dreadful people: they are rather slightly distracted people.

Now applying these two observations to the Synod on the Family, it strikes me that focusing on who gets access to Holy Communion is to get distracted from the real question and the real centre of Catholicism, Christ. The point is not to get divorced couples to Holy Communion, but to get them to God (heaven). One of the central points of Catholicism is that God is much, much bigger than we can imagine. Unlike many Protestants who believe that they have the assurance of salvation (particularly liberals. Do people like Giles Fraser ever doubt for a second that they are on the right side* of God?) most faithful Catholics get the point that we will be judged perfectly: that no amount of external action or self-delusion can cover our hearts which will be perfectly known and weighed by God. Concretely, that means that there may be hidden in the life of the notorious sinner secret saintliness and in the live of the apparent saint the deepest corruption. (And hence those well known figures of Catholic literature: the whisky priest, Sebastian Flyte etc.) The sacramental system -and more generally, the thinginess of things- is needed to impart grace, but it would be a mistake to assume that there is a simple one to one mapping of receipt of sacraments and efficacity of grace. At its worst, there is a douce smugness about Protestantism and liberal Catholicism: we are gathered here to celebrate this morning that we are all OK. 'Turning up' and participation in the externalities of the sacramental system is the goal. Jesus loves us but he can't stand you...

But this is magical thinking. If I have divorced and 'remarried', there are any number of things that might be going through my head, from a simple disregard for any Church teaching whatsoever to a desperate (and holy) sense of my own inadequacy before a situation not of my making. There is no policy that will ever get the right external result here: inevitably, any sort of indvidual discernment or 'internal forum' will end up admitting the paradigmatically sinful to Communion and excluding the holy and wretched. Equally, there is no guarantee now in situations quite other than divorce that the right people get the right sort of admission to Communion. (Do I live too far from a Church? Will there be a priest available when I die?) If we tremble at the thought that some good Catholics are excluded from Communion, we should tremble equally at the thought that some bad Catholics are being invited to Communion to their own damnation.

Indeed, it's hardly plausible that the most common danger amongst modern Catholics is over scrupulousness and an overdeveloped fear of divine judgment. Much more common is a sense that morality and holiness is just about how you feel and what Lady Gaga has told you is right. Being excluded from Communion is suffering, but suffering ain't necessarily a bad thing. Ask Jesus...

In short, the question at the heart of admitting the divorced and 'remarried' to Communion isn't the Pharisaical one of getting people back into the external actions of the Church, but of how to bring them closer to Christ. 'The signs of the times' are surely that we generally think too highly of ourselves particularly in the West and have a (Pharisaical) tendency to think the whole point of the sacramental system is simply 'joining in'. It isn't. I have absolutely no doubt that some who are currently excluded from Communion by the rules on divorce and remarriage are closer to God than I am precisely because of the suffering they endure. Equally, I'm sure that most people clamouring for an alteration of the rules are full of a damnable sense of their own entitlement and too little of a trembling before judgment.

It's simple really. Exclusion from Communion is not the same as exclusion from God. To assume it is is Pharisaism in focusing on externalities rather than Christ and Pharisaism in focusing on surface rather than substance.

[*On the right side of God because, obviously, God is so left wing that anyone even as perfect as Father Giles is going to be just a wee bit righter...]

Friday 9 October 2015

More thoughts on what Scottish conservatives can learn from the US...

Having had a chance to think a little more about my previous blog on the subject...

There are some presumptions in my treatment of this question that were not clear to me but (in part as a result of helpful combox challenges) have become clearer. In no particular order:

1) Something I've been banging on about for years: not everything that concerns the polis is political. This is true in at least two ways: a) the most important parts of our social existence (the family, the little platoons of civil society, the interiority of the self) are only the concern of politics to the extent that politics needs constantly to be reminded that the State needs to leave space for them; b) for everyday politics to thrive, it needs to rest on a level of reflection about human life that sits between the abstractions of much academic debate and the daily grind of party political life. Neither of these truths is clearly or regularly acknowledged in current Scottish political life. Both are (or at least have been) better dealt with in American thinkers such as Russell Kirk.

2) The exclusive concentration on a UK perspective among most Scottish conservatives while understandable (if you think the question of the Union is key, then the battle is going to be dominated by this issue for the next few years at least) is destructive. Unless that deeper level of conservative thought about 'the permanent things' of human life retains a place in Scottish public discussion, then more damage will be done to Scottish life in the long run than whatever happens with the Union. To put it slightly more crudely than it deserves, it is more important that someone starts talking about (say) the place of the traditional family and a humane education in modern Scotland than whether or not Scotland becomes independent. (This is particularly true if Scotland does become independent and, for a generation or more, there is no conservative presence in Scottish intellectual life because it has previously focused entirely on the Union.)

3) I think what I find most admirable about Buckley and the National Review is the way that it created a landscape for conservatism. If you think that conservatism is concerned with the value of a number key things (eg God, family, country, scepticism, little platoons etc) you would expect a kaleidoscope of prudential judgments about how these values are to be realized. (And so on the one side (well, strictly, just outside the borders) you have radical libertarians such as Rand, and on the other ur-traditionalists such as Bozell in his Carlist phase.) One of the problems with modern conservatism (especially but not just in Scotland) is the lack of internal squabbling at a sufficiently deep intellectual level. A landscape of conservatism has to be inhabited by marauding and mutually (slightly) suspicious tribes.

4) We need to do God more. Western civilization is bound up with Christian theism. There's room for the humane sceptic, the Muslim (perhaps even (in Scotland) the Catholic) within a broad understanding of that theistic focus, but to allow the centre ground to be dominated by the assumptions of a militant anti-Christian secularism is commit intellectual and social suicide.

5) A particular point for Scotland. The history of Scottish nationalism is one that had a place for conservative understandings of society. I would expect (see 3) there to be different views on the place of the Union/Independence among modern Scottish conservatives. That (certainly in UKIP and the Conservative Party) there appears to be unanimity in favour of the Union is a sign of intellectual weakness and lack of depth. (It didn't surprise me -although it seems to have surprised many others- that the deepest conservative in the UK at the moment, Roger Scruton, came out broadly in favour of Scottish independence.) Given a conservative focus on the local and the place of tradition, it would be odd if some conservatives were not nationalists. Equally, given the conservative emphasis on stability and scepticism about the State's ability to improve human life, it would be odd if some were not.

6) A particular point for Catholics. There is a temptation, especially given the fideistic turn of much twentieth century Catholic theology, to turn from politics and questions of society towards pietism. Whilst it is important for us to remember the limitations of the earthly life, equally, a simplistic focus on our supernatural end is not in keeping with Catholic teaching. (Think St Joan of Arc. Think of the social teaching of Leo XIII.) At the moment, the neuralgic issues of Catholic teaching (sex and the family) are neuralgic precisely because they are out of step with modern, secular beliefs, and the 'push' to change Catholic theology and for individuals to fall away from the Church comes from this. While there is clearly a place for a simply reassertion of authority ('This is straightforwardly what the Church teaches...') there is also a place for defending a broadly conservative view of society on the grounds of human nature (or natural law if you prefer). If socially conservative views establish a hearing in the marketplace of political ideas, this will reduce the tension felt by individuals between what is socially acceptable and what the Church teaches. (There will always be a faithful, saintly remnant who keep the teachings, no matter what. But I see absolutely no reason why we also shouldn't strive to create the most favourable social circumstances for a 'just about solid enough' crowd to accompany them.)

7) I'm not mad about the label 'conservative'. It suggests a link with the Conservative Party which is (almost) entirely imaginary. (I see very little sign of conservatism as I mean it in the modern Scottish or UK party.) There is absolutely no reason why the key elements of conservatism (let's try God, family, country, little platoons, scepticism, tradition) shouldn't be present in most of the modern Scottish political parties. Indeed, it is essential if 'conservatism' is to function as a major part of the political debate, that it is wider than local party loyalties -that it becomes a landscape (see 3) in the same way that 'progessivism' seems to dominate current parties. So find another label if you can ('social' conservatism is the best I can do). It's the substance that matters.

8) And finally. I think  my previous cry for a Scottish William Buckley Jnr was one of those lines that creates misunderstanding as much as it helps by being striking. I don't think we should (or indeed could) import some aspects of American cultural war conservatism into Scotland. (You can take your pick on what these rejected elements might be, but I suspect that they might include aspects on race and projecting national interests through force. Perhaps, in general, we need to drop that sense of war in culture wars?) But this is a deep political struggle about culture: how people see their lives and flourishing as social beings. By all means take some of the intransigence and heat out of the debate if you can. But the fact remains that Scottish discussion about how to live in societies is dominated by a very narrow (and wrong) set of 'progessive' assumptions. It is for that cultural struggle that we need a McBuckley (and Kirks, Bozells, Burnhams etc etc): popularizers who remain in touch with deeper issues and are willing to create a genuine, socially conservative landscape of debate as alternative to the monotonous progressive dogma of what passes for public intellectual life in modern Scotland.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Catholicism as a hospital

                                                  'Sorry, luv, I'm actually a lumberjack...'

A thought experiment...

Say, per impossibile, at some stage in the near future, the ordained Church just became a hospital for the spiritually sick, in much the way that liberal Anglicans seem to interpret this. So basically we spend our time making the sad feel better and encouraging people not to feel badly about themselves or their lives.

What are the laity meant to do? It's perhaps straightforward for those in the 'caring' professions such as medicine: they go on patching things up and perhaps just do it with more intensity. But what of the many other Catholics whose jobs don't (directly) fit this caring pattern? What about judges and politicans and novelists and accountants? How do they simply become spiritual nurses?

Oddly enough, although Vatican II reemphasized that we are all Church, laity and ordained, the idea that the Church should become a hospital only makes sense if we understand 'Church' here as simply the ordained and members of religious orders, or if we understand the Church as only a tiny and marginal part of society. To be a hospital depends on there being an everyday life going on elsewhere, from which the sick emerge for treatment, and to which the restored return. That 'everyday' can either be the laity or the non-Catholic world.

Certainly, a lot of Protestant Churches do seem to think of the world like this: Church is a matter of patching up the evils of the world and hence not being part of that world. (The Erastian element of Anglicanism fits in very well with this picture: the State does the important stuff and the Church mops it up.) But the history and theology of Catholicism suggests otherwise: it has always been an important part of Catholicism (even if not always the (ordained) Church) to make our earthly life as good as possible: to the extent that the State is secular, it is a Catholic secularism which takes its Christian belief just as seriously as the Church.

If, as some seem to interpret it, making the Church a hospital for sinners means simply a day to day nursing, without judgment, without planning, then the only reasonable interpretation is that the laity have to do the necessary rest. So while 'the Church' patches things up, lay Catholics try to apply their Catholicsm to making the State, the family and businesses etc, as Catholic as possible. And just as it would be absurd to be a judge without judgment, a teacher without assessment or a police officer without a desire to enforce justice with violence if necessary, it would be absurd for a Catholic judge, teacher or police officer simply to 'care', at least in the manner of a nurse.

One of the strongest elements of Catholicism is its universality: it encompasses 'worlds and volumes of worlds'. So if, per impossibile, the 'Church' becomes simply a space for nurselike care, the Catholic laity, excluded from being the Church, will have to do the heavy lifting on the rest of the everyday life, making sure that as few as possible have to enter the hospital and as many as possible find a way to emerge from it. And it will have to do it without any help from bishops and priests because they will be entirely focused on 'caring' of a highly specialized sort...

So much for the thought experiment. I'm not suggesting that the Holy Father's remarks or general approach can't be understood in a perfectly orthodox way, primarily as a hyperbolic correction to a heartless understanding of Catholicism. But equally, I've come across enough people who think that, if we all acted like nursery school teachers, Catholicism would be better to suspect that the other side of the truth also needs to be stated. And that is that unless we think Catholicism is solely a religion for the ordained, religious orders and those who can closely imitate them, then we cannot all act like nurses. I suspect that what's often going on here is a sort of clericism (only priests and priestlike roles matter) or a sort of delegated secularity ('I don't believe in all that rubbish, but it's quite good for society that there are some people who do'). In neither case is this the Catholicism which embraces the full range of (good) human personality and roles.

Let's be concrete. If at any stage, the 'Church's' attitude to marriage was simply and immediately comforting those wounded by the idiocies of society's attitude to sex, then there would be a need for lay Catholics to do the judging and the compelling. Members of the family would have to tell straying husbands they are fools and to go crawling back to their wives. Friends would have to cut dead the adulterous betrayers of their other friends. Parents would have to bring up their children never, ever, to treat their spouses in the way they have seen others treat their spouses. Police would chase down those who refuse to pay for the abandoned children. Judges would have to allocate a just share of property. But the 'Church' would distance itself from all this messy highly judgmental stuff. Which rather seems to leave lay Catholics pursuing the good as 'outside' the Church.

I'm sure it all makes sense somehow.

Monday 28 September 2015

Social conservatism and defending the nation

I've been immersed in reading about the trials and tribulations of twentieth century American conservatism recently (William Buckley Jnr, L.Brent Bozell, Russell Kirk etc). Mere curiosity aside, such a focus can, I think be defended on two grounds. First, there is something broader about the American conservative landscape that has allowed a greater variety and depth of views to be developed and defended, certainly when compared to the UK, let alone Scotland. Secondly, as a result of globalization etc, the American political landscape is, especially for Anglophones, our political landscape. (As an added bonus for Catholics, many of the major figures were Catholic.)

George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 spends much of its time (in broad terms) considering the split between traditionalists and neo-cons (although he doesn't use those terms). A particularly dramatic moment which to an extent symbolizes the theoretical differences here is Willmoore Kendall's claim that a society has to be both closed to certain ideas and willing to defend itself against them by determined action:

Kendall acknowledged that 'liquidation [in this context, the deportation of Communists] of a minority' must be a very careful undertaking. But he insisted on two principles:

   ...a) that a democratic society that has a meaning to preserve, as I think that ours still does, must stand prepared to make such decisions, and b) that the surest way for it to lose its meaning is for it to tell itself, and its potential dissidents, that where dissidence is concerned, the sky's the limit.

(from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945)

Putting aside the rather chilling 'liquidation', the fundamental point that all societies are closed to certain values is undoubtedly true. (To what extent that exclusion is permanent and how it is to be enacted are further matters.) But what (for the UK) is the content of those defended values? And so we are back again to the question of British values and how they are to be realized particularly in the school system.

Sticking to a broadly Conservative party and similar (eg UKIP) position, we seem to be stuck in traditionalist/Kendallian majoritarian space. Kendall 'rejected as inherently undemocratic any effort to limit majorities by bills of rights' (ibid). In rough terms, whatever current British culture holds to be right are British values. And so we are delivered a rather unstable soup of defending the British Empire, supporting the post-Reformation settlement, the Monarchy, Unionism and welcoming the post 1960s sexual experiment. To articulate it is at once to risk revealing its inconsistency and even incoherence.

On the other hand, from a broadly neo-conservative position, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that what tradition has delivered to us in British politics is any good, and certainly, not entirely good. British history, the state we're in, like all other human endeavours, is shot through with human failings and the evils therefrom. What is right in the tradition (and a certain inherent scepticism should make any brand of conservative careful about rejecting too quickly what we have received) has to be tested, for example, by the principles of natural law and right. And we won't be suprised to find, at times, that this will show the tradition to be wanting.

And what then of the Catholic Scottish conservative? Firstly, for any Catholic in the West, I think conservative in broad terms has to be the right label. For roughly 1500 years, the culture has been at least in intention Christian. Even though much evil has been done under that description, the system of culture aimed at there is one that has to be conserved against a culture that is often avowedly anti-Christian. But it is a set of principles, a culture, which to an extent always exists on the intellectual and moral horizon: we have failed -and will fail- to live up to it. Secondly, for a British and certainly Scottish Catholic, the tradition we live in is avowedly not entirely ours. For 500 years, we have lived in State(s) that have been mostly anti-Catholic: whatever we might share with Protestantism, we have absolutely no reason to think that there is an unproblematic set of  traditional British values that, despite a conscious opposition to Catholicism, have oddly remained still entirely Catholic. Whether or not traditionalism in politics is ever a viable Catholic political position, it is certainly not one in Britain. To bring it back to Kendall, the natural position of a Catholic conservative in the UK is one where majoritarian rule is tempered by principle.

Although I've focused in on the Catholic social conservative, I think most social conservatives would find echoes here. The Islamic conservative would find an even greater distortion of an initial revealed set of principles. Most Christians would find the last 50 years or so at least a drift from their principles. And the 'non-aligned' social conservative is left perhaps with a dream of Bognor in the 1950s, but the reality of the holders of political power cavorting with dead porkers.

Where's all this going? I think towards an awareness of quite how barren a political landscape the social conservative of that ilk faces. Political traditionalism in the UK is saddled with 500 years of Protestantism and 50 years of Vile Bodies. Neo-conservatism faces the problem of the absence of a basket of principles that is likely to command sufficient loyalty for effective political action. If there is any hope, then (as in post war America) there has to be an intellectual revival of conservatism first, which then establishes the ground for an eventual political revival. And (to return to Scotland for the moment) I see little sign of that, certainly in the supporters of the Conservative party. There we see the adoption of a political allegiance to progessivism or to the principles of the unrestrained free market. The main policy on which they agree is Unionism which, as I've argued, can hardly be regarded as essential to a principled neo-conservative case. No one is arguing the case for government (and indeed commerce) limited for the purpose of allowing the natural unit of the family and the little platoons of civil society to flourish.

This is, of course, the natural feeding ground of Red Toryism or Blue Labour. But both have limited traction in Scotland, their very names being here rather political insults. (And given current political realities, we really need a sort of Blue/Red (purple?) Nationalism.) I think we probably need a Scottish William Buckley Jnr and a National Review, an intellectual force that is genuinely intellectual but immersed in political realities and punchily dynamic. Any volunteers?

Monday 21 September 2015

Something must be done: Adam Curtis and Bitter Lake

                                       Another Mass? Perhaps not such a bad idea after all...

I finally caught Adam Curtis' 2 hour + long documentary Bitter Lake on the BBC i-player yesterday. (Wikipedia article here. Iplayer here.) It's primarily a reflection on the US and UK involvement particularly in Afghanistan, with the message that Western governments began spinning a simplistic story of good versus evil to support their policies since Reagan, a strategy which has failed and led to foreign policy disasters and a remaining sense of confusion and hopelessness in politics.

It's well worth watching. Death, in particular, can rarely have been made more beautiful. My simple reaction (one that unfortunately others have got to before me: see the Wikepedia article) is that the attack on simplistic narratives is ironically in tension with the simplistic narrative of the film. It also teases. Practising argument by juxtaposition, it suggests that the banking crisis and ISIS are also areas in which this urge for simplistic solutions based on simplistic narratives have failed without doing much to back up these claims, however plausible they may be quite apart from the film.

Whatever else the film is, it is certainly an exercise is the politics of aesthetics. (One of the creepier moments is some well bred art historian lecturing a bunch of Afghans on the importance of conceptual art in nation building.) A well constructed piece can leave you with a sense that 'you've got it': that a convincing vision has been given you which has revealed the truth about a complex situation. Added to this is the vanity of the modern artist contra the bourgeoisie: I have seen through what others have not. Both are abiding sins of popularism and its political child, democracy. In two hours, I have seen what my preceding complete ignorance of Afghanistan might have been expected to be a poor preparation for; in two hours, I have seen through their knavish tricks. To the barricades!

Applying this to current British politics (and particularly 'progressive' Scotland) one might note the attractiveness of (simple) visions: it is like this, and those who disagree are simply fools or giant alien lizards. (That, by the way applies to many in both unionist and nationalist camps in Scotland. For every foam flecked cybernat, I could name a unionist commentator writing off the SNP as a cargo cult.) It also explains, I think, much of the gut reaction to attempts by various people such as Gerry Hassan and the National Collective to insist that creative dance and its ilk should play a key role in our political culture: aesthetics is an unreliable element in politics and perhaps the best thing is for politicans, as in Plato's Republic, to escort the artist to the borders of the State.

But in a wider way, it also a reminder that natural religion is part of rationality. As I've noted before, belief in God is something accessible to reason. To put it more strongly, if you don't believe in God, you're not (fully) rational. Now this is something that is profoundly unfashionable to claim, both within the Church and outwith it. (Note how both sides seem to chummily accept the label of 'faith' for religion.) This, of course, is not something touched on (well, except perhaps unwittingly through Curtis' use of Tarkovsky's Solaris) in Bitter Lake. But rational people in times past squared the circle between something must be done and not actually knowing what to do (or even knowing that there was nothing they could do) by praying. In the absence of a belief in prayer as action, the temptation to rush in and do something is increased. Prayer is however doing something, perhaps the most important something. That secularists are too irrational to see this and have to be left floundering around in a mad frenzy is of course unfortunate but there's little to be done when people close themselves off to a key aspect of reality...

Monday 7 September 2015

What are our duties to refugees?

Encountering a moral dilemma should make us reflect on our character. What aspects of the dilemma appear salient to us? What do others notice that we fail to notice? What actions would we take and what would we feel about it? How does all this compare to the standard of the practically wise person, the phronimos?

One aspect that ought to occur to such a deliberator is the luxury of thought: while I ponder, others die. On the other hand (and is that hesitancy itself vicious?) if we do not plan, we go blundering in and make matters (and often different matters) worse...

The efficacy of a photograph is that it can cut through to our natural response: to see a dead child is to be instantly reminded of that natural response to protect the weak. But to see a dying child and to be prompted to try to save it now is one thing. To see a photograph of a dead child and to vow to save others in the future is quite different. That latter involves planning and calculation.

Perhaps the one philosophical paper which has troubled me most over the years (as a person, not academically) is Peter Singer's 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' (here). In it (and elsewhere) Singer argues we are morally bound in the West radically to alter our lives to save those of others facing (eg) starvation. Essentially, Singer bases his argument on the commonsense principle that a small good should be sacrificed to avoid a great harm. If, by (slightly) constricting our luxurious Western lifestyles, we can save lives, we should do so. (We should probably do more than that. But we should at least do that.)

And it is this that has sat in the back of my mind since a conversation at a post-graduate conference some twenty years ago where both I and an interlocutor admitted we were convinced but... I remember the principle. I remember the conversation. And yet.

So when I see the photo of a dead child, I put on my ice cold utilitarian hat, and I see just one more, very concrete example of a problem that very few seem to worry about: that while I sit here with my extraordinarily materially comfortable lifestyle, all round the world, others live in desperate circumstances. I don't know whether letting in 1000 refugees to Scotland is a good thing or not. (Who are they? What are the alternatives? Are there better alternatives? Isn't the constant desire to rescue people from their own countries and bring them to the only place where life really exists properly (the West) itself deeply suspicious?) But I do know that whatever happens to the thousands who might enter Europe, the millions left struggling in the Middle East and elsewhere won't disappear, except from our jaded awareness.

All this reflection leaves me nauseated by myself and frankly nauseated by a lot of the virtue signalling or callousness of the public debate. As something of a valetudinarian, I'm not even going to pretend that I would invite another family to share my home on a long term basis. I've given more to charities, but it's almost nothing. As I've said, even to stop and think about the issue seems an unpardonable luxury.

While living with this uneasy conscience, two things. First, Aquinas. Singer as a utilitarian neglects a proper view of human flourishing. The strong utilitarian case (according to Singer -and I think he is right here for a consistent utilitarian) ought to be that we reduce our wealth to the point that marginal utility is equalised:

The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one.

But we are not and should not be utilitarians. So the deeper, correct view is going to take into account other considerations such as those sketched by Aquinas (STh IIaIIae q.117, a.1) here:

Reply to Objection 1: According to Ambrose (Serm. lxiv de Temp.) and Basil (Hom. in Luc. xii, 18) excess of riches is granted by God to some, in order that they may obtain the merit of a good stewardship. But it suffices for one man to have few things. Wherefore the liberal man commendably spends more on others than on himself. Nevertheless we are bound to be more provident for ourselves in spiritual goods, in which each one is able to look after himself in the first place. And yet it does not belong to the liberal man even in temporal things to attend so much to others as to lose sight of himself and those belonging to him. Wherefore Ambrose says (De Offic. i): "It is a commendable liberality not to neglect your relatives if you know them to be in want."

 Reply to Objection 2: It does not belong to a liberal man so to give away his riches that nothing is left for his own support, nor the wherewithal to perform those acts of virtue whereby happiness is acquired. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 1) that "the liberal man does not neglect his own, wishing thus to be of help to certain people"; and Ambrose says (De Offic. i) that "Our Lord does not wish a man to pour out his riches all at once, but to dispense them: unless he do as Eliseus did, who slew his oxen and fed the poor, that he might not be bound by any household cares." For this belongs to the state of perfection, of which we shall speak farther on (Question [184], Question [186], Article [3]).

In essence, we are not required always to adopt Singer's utilitarian principle of sacrificing lesser goods to greater ones if we have a particular relationship to those benefited by those lesser goods (eg ourselves or our families).

Secondly, and apparently (but I think not really) in tension with that, there has to be a change of heart. Father Zossima's injunction in the Brothers Karamazov that we see ourselves as responsible for everything and everyone is not an algorithm: it could be applied to motivate the sort of neo-con interventionism that has probably done much to bring us to where we are now, But equally, unless we cultivate on a regular basis the understanding that all humanity is in this together whether or not we have recently seen a photo of some disaster or not, any chance of a genuine long term improvement in others' lives is minimal:

There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things. But throwing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God. [Here.]

Donations to the SCIAF Syrian appeal can be made here.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Monsignor Michael Regan 1955-2015 RIP

Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh's photo.
REST IN PEACE: Archbishop Leo Cushley has paid tribute to Monsignor Michael Regan, the former Administrator of St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, who died yesterday aged 59-years-old. He had been ill for some time.

“Monsignor Regan was a man of great prayer who had a great devotion to the sacraments, something I was privileged to witness at his hospital bedside in recent days and weeks while administering those very sacraments to him,” said Archbishop Leo Cushley, 28 August.

“All those around about him – family, friends and staff -- were struck by the devoted way he would compose himself to receive the Sacrament of the Sick and Holy Communion.”

Monsignor Michael Regan grew up in London and came to Scotland to study at the University of Stirling where he graduated in 1977 with a Batchelor of Arts degree followed by an M.Litt in Modern French Literature. It was also there he discerned a calling to the priesthood.

He attended seminary at St Andrew’s College at Drygrange in the Scottish Borders before being ordained for the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh on 23 April 1982. During his 33 years of active ministry he served in Livingston, Dunfermline, Cowie and numerous parishes in Edinburgh including, until this year, seven years as Administrator of St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

“Monsignor Regan was someone who had a great sense of duty and who, when asked to do something, would always do it to the best of his ability, cheerfully and willingly,” said the Archbishop.

“Indeed, he was one of those people who had never learned to say “no” and so gave all his energy to the service of the many parishes he worked in especially within the city of Edinburgh. That’s why there will be many people in this city -- not just Catholics – who today will be regretting and mourning his passing.”

Academic studies were also an important part of Monsignor Regan’s life. Between 1985 and 1988 he attended the University of Paris and the Institut Catholique in the same city where he gained a Masters in Theology. He then joined the seminary staff at Scotus College in Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire, in 1993 spending eight years teaching there.

“I actually first got to know Monsignor Regan through our common interest in liturgy,” Archbishop Cushley recalled.

“We trained at about the same time in liturgy and from the first time I can remember meeting him, we always had wonderful, friendly discussions on the subject”.

The two men also worked together in the preparations for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Scotland in 2010 when Monsignor Regan helped co-ordinate events in Edinburgh.

“Monsignor Regan was a larger than life character and could be great fun as I found out on that day of the Papal Visit to Edinburgh,” said the Archbishop who, as a Vatican diplomat, was part of the Papal entourage.

“The Holy Father had just made his way through crowds of over 125,000 in Edinburgh and we paused for lunch at the Archbishop’s residence where I spent a very enjoyable, very happy few hours in the company of Monsignor Regan who was in a celebratory mood following the success of that first morning of the Papal Visit to Scotland.”

They then combined efforts again when Archbishop Cushley was appointed to the See of St Andrews & Edinburgh in 2013.

“Monsignor Regan was both Administrator of St Mary’s Cathedral and Archdiocesan Master of Ceremonies, posts where he did excellent work for many years and continued to do so in spite of the gathering clouds of his last illness. May he rest in peace.”

The Very Reverend Monsignor Michael Brian Regan 1955-2015. Parishes served;

St Andrew’s, Livingston, 1982-82
St Margaret’s, Dunfermline, 1982-85
St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh, 1988-91
Sacred Heart, Cowie, 1991-93
Scotus College, Bearsden, 1993-2001
St Andrew’s, Edinburgh, 2001-08
St John the Baptist, Edinburgh, 2001-08
Our Lady, Mother of the Church/St Joseph’s, Currie/Balerno, 2004-08
St Kentigern’s, Edinburgh, 2006-08
St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh, 2008-15

[From Diocesan Facebook Page]

Thursday 27 August 2015

Final thoughts on McLennan and safeguarding...

Having posted twice in quick succession on the McLennan report, I think I will now give it a rest and give us all some time to think over precisely what this all means for the Church in Scotland.

As a set of final remarks, let me throw in the following:

a) Too much of the commentary about 'safeguarding' in the Catholic Church is grandstanding. The aim must be to deal precisely with the problems in each specific area. For example, the conditions in Scotland are simply not the same as the conditions in Ireland. Only by looking specifically at what went wrong in Scotland do we have a chance of getting it right.

b) All of us need to be careful about hijacking fairly straightforward cases of human wickedness and suffering for the sake of an agenda. A particularly poor example of this is here. Stopping someone from promoting non-Catholic positions under the banner of Catholicism is one thing; protecting criminals is another.

c) There has been much talk in Catholic circles of the Benedict option. To the extent that this means the Church separating itself from wider society, this would seem to make responses to safeguarding children such as the McLennan report less possible. I have made clear in the past that I'm highly suspicious of the Benedict option as a global solution. The issue of the protection of the vulnerable is something of a test case. Despite what I've posted critically about the report, on the whole I welcome it and the element of outside scrutiny it brings. Part of the reason for this is precisely what opponents of the Church would deny: child abuse and abuse of power is not simply a Catholic matter and all of us can therefore learn from each other on what has gone wrong and what to do about it. But to do that properly means Catholics being both willing to listen to outside and internal criticism and also to engage with it critically. There is a difficult path to tread between defensive rejection of all criticism and credulous acceptance of all criticism: both extremes are examples of failing to exercise due care and attention to the genuine problems at stake.

The difficulty with (eg) criticisms such as Catherine Deveney's is that at times she is right. I don't think the case of Cardinal O'Brien has been dealt with well: more transparency would have been good here as I've previously argued. I suspect that Archbishop Scicluna should probably have spoken to her. But there is no future in which an international body of 1 billion people will be able to guarantee that every phone call from every journalist will be answered or every employment dispute resolved to the satisfaction of every party. The inability of UK politics -a comparatively straightforward world in comparison- to deal satisfactorily with similar but simpler circumstances has been evidenced by Harvey Proctor's case.

There is a rich tradition of finding sexual scandal in the Catholic Church. Some of it is simply false. Some of it is true. The people who really have a stake in this are those parents whose children might be affected in the future. When I converted to Catholicism and brought my children into the Church, I did so with the whispers of those relatives who viewed the Church as a paedophile ring buzzing in my ears. Nor to be frank did I dismiss those worries: I didn't have much of a sense of how to negotiate the institution and I'm fairly cynical about human behaviour. But having thought about it as carefully as I could, I didn't draw a line between Catholic 'occasions' and secular ones, precisely because I thought it was dangerous to do so. (Most of the situations in which I suspected my children would be at risk from secret abuse by adults had nothing to do with priests or religious and it would have been imprudent to give them a false sense of security in non-Catholic occasions.) Others must make their own judgments. But if you think (for example) that your children would be safer in a non-Catholic boarding school rather than a Catholic one, I think you're a fool. And I think you'd also be foolish to think that the danger of a cover up would be any less in a non-Catholic institution than a Catholic one.  That doesn't exculpate those Catholics who have either committed the abuse or covered it up. But it is precisely because it is a widespread problem across society that the Church needs to open itself up to engage critically with those who might have something to teach it.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

More on McLennan and safeguarding

                                                             The culture of secrecy

Ttony of The Muniment Room asked a really good question in the combox of my previous post which has kept me reflecting over the past few days:

I was struck by the Japanese PM last weekend saying that Japan is reaching the point at which it should stop having to say sorry for WWII. Leaving that question aside, what point would our Church have reached for us to be able to say that it could stop apologising? Obviously there's no answer, but charting the course that gets us from here to there at least involves facing up to the enormity of what this means for us all. 

As he notes, it's a good question which obviously has no answer. And yet, why does it not have an answer?

In turning this over again and again in my mind, I was reminded of a bit in Sean O'Casey's Autobiographies where he basically tells a survivor of Stalin's gulags that he doesn't believe his story of suffering because of his loyalty to Communism. (So my memory tells me. But I've flipped through the indexless volumes and can't find it. It was many, many years ago since I last read them. Did I dream it? Anyway...) When I read that as a teenager, it struck me as utterly appalling. And it is that danger that Catholics must avoid. I love the Church. I will die a Catholic. And yet none of that, indeed because of that, nothing must stand in the way of hearing and recognising the truth.

Yet. Yet. One reads Catherine Deveney's piece in the Guardian. The apology 'rings hollow to me' she says. I sympathise. I'm not a great fan of institutional apologies: I'm not quite sure what they are, what language game they're part of. Normally, one expects agency and a resolve to change. I did something. I will not do it again. In the case of Japan, the narrative goes something like this. My nation deliberately inflicted harm on others as a result of a militaristic culture. We are sorry for having done this and we have changed. We are resolved never to do it again.

Does this pattern fit the Catholic Church? Deveney clearly thinks so. For her, the Catholic Church is a baroque, Protestant nightmare, full of flickering shadows and whispered corruptions:

They process slowly to the altar, Scotland’s Catholic bishops, their elaborate robes and red zucchettos symbols of their power and status. Around them, the light, honey-coloured stone arches of St Andrew’s cathedral in Glasgow soar, Italian-style embellishment spiralling up the slender columns in Madonna-blue paint and gold leaf...I am struck – not for the first time since the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien two years ago – by the way opulence sits cheek by jowl with ugliness inside the Catholic church.
The Catholic church had shaped my childhood. Flickering candles and the heavy scent of incense. Shadowy statues in dimly lit churches, the crucified Christ crowned with thorns and stained with blood. For me, those candles now flickered precariously and the bleeding figure of Christ took on the shape of abused children.

Deveney's Church is one that needs as much of a complete change of culture as did militaristic Japan. (One imagines that the flickering candles and talk of mysteries would have to go just as certainly as did Emperor worship and subuku.) It is frankly an impossible change. All one can do is to walk away from the shadows into the light (as one assumes Deveney has done).

Apologies are made for something to someone. If the 'someone' here is Deveney or Gerry Hassan with his glib talk of 'systemic' cover up, then the something is really beyond repair: it must simply be done away with. And that I guess for the majority of Protestant or secularised Scotland is straightforwardly the case. If we sweep away the candles, and the priests, and the doctrine, then and only then might we be in the position of the New Japan. In this narrative, a Japan-like apology does make sense and, even if at some distant point in the future, the need for apology might stop when we are completely new, a completely different Church.

But for Catholics -us- that sort of apology is impossible. The candles will not go. The whispered shame of the confessional will not go. The oddity of priestcraft (and indeed, it is odd) will not go. And we are left in the uncomfortable position of not being able blithely to damn the lot, but of sifting, with care. What (precisely) went wrong? What (precisely) can be done to prevent it in the future? What (precisely) can be done to repair the wrongs done? And here there are, I suspect, absolutely no solutions, but only ameliorations.

Deveney says:

For too long the Catholic church had been allowed to be lawmaker, judge, jury and hangman in its own world. 

Which world is this? In Ireland, much of the evil done was a result of the interpenetration of state and Church. But Scotland? There is a police force. There are courts. There are industrial tribunals. None of these are controlled by the Church. Any organisation, academic, industrial, governmental, professional, tends to the protection of its own, to its secrecies. Certainly there must be a willingness on the part of citizens to co-operate with law, but it is in the nature of criminal law that it must push against the reluctance of criminals and those around them  to be discovered. And as far as concrete evidence is concerned, the McLennan report states:

2.41 A senior social worker told the Commission that the Catholic Church was no worse than other big institutions in its reluctance to engage with the authorities. 

This has been a rambling post simply because I do not have a solution. To try to answer Ttony's question, there is no point at which we could stop apologising. Personally, I dislike institutional apologies: I'd much rather see concrete work done on the three questions.

What (precisely) went wrong?
What (precisely) can be done to prevent it in the future?
What (precisely) can be done to repair the wrongs done?

Perhaps real advance here would make the apology sound less hollow. But an apology made to those who think the Church should simply disappear will never suffice. Fair enough. In the end, I care less about what people think about the Church than that it does the right thing.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Safeguarding in Scotland: McLellan Commission Report

My knee jerk reaction to the McLellan report (Full report PDF here; summary from Law and Religion UK blog here) is that it's far too important a topic to have a knee jerk reaction on. Judging from the highly negative story in The National, it's likely to have a rocky reception from at least some abuse victims.

Although I have read the full report, it's too long to have engaged with it fully yet, and moreover it's the sort of thing that needs to be lived with for a while and reflected on to do it justice. That said, as contribution to the discussion which must ensue, the following are my initial thoughts. I make no claim as to their finality: one must simply start somewhere.

If it's possible to step back from the Somme like battles of Catholics and 'Others', the sheer disgust at the abuse within the Church and (perhaps more importantly) the appalling treatment of cases of abuse by the hierarchy shouldn't be underestimated. I haven't abused a child. I haven't covered up the abuse of a child. I wouldn't want to do those things or support anyone who does. I would welcome the full force of the Scottish criminal law being applied to those who have done so. And those attitudes are going to hold for most Catholics in Scotland. I see (particularly) the sexual abuse of children as something that society as a whole has not been able to deal with well. I see the Catholic Church's cases of abuse as part of a wider pattern. the Church having particular circumstances (widespread contact with children; dispersed patterns of authority; various national cultures; simply massive numbers of members of the Church etc etc) which alter the details, but do not change that fundamental pattern. To see the existence of abuse as just or even especially  a Catholic problem is dangerous because it underrates the persistence and universality of the issue. On the other hand, the Church is my patch and I would like to see as much done within it as possible. (I confess I find it odd to read the report with its emphasis solely on the Catholic Church when in the UK, we seem to be going through a period where it seems (likely? possible?) the systematic abuse of children and perversion of justice within the political class has been widespread. That of course doesn't mean that a report on what the Catholic Church can do isn't needed. But the corruption within the Church is not separate from that of wider society and any solutions equally cannot be completely separated.)

As far as the very concrete proposals of the report go (eg strengthening the role and powers of safeguarding co-ordinators), so far as I can tell, they seem thoroughly sensible. Where I found myself feeling less sure was in respect to the 'softer' suggestions about a change in culture and attitude. Here, what may be an admirably cut and dried approach with regard to structural changes can very easily slide into the banality of the quick fix. For example,

5.12 A Church cannot be controlled by fear. A Church must be controlled by love. That is not an optional extra it is of the essence of the Church’s being. If the Catholic Church in Scotland is to fulfil the promise of Bishop Toal “that the priority principle must be assistance to the victims of abuse”, it will need to discover the perfect love which casts out fear.

So far as I can make sense of this, it seems to be in the context of a) not fearing the anger of survivors when engaging with them; and b) not fearing the financial consequences of lawsuits. I'm not sure a) is exactly 'fear' although I suppose individuals might well fear the unpleasantness of sitting down with someone who, as a result of abuse, hates you and the institution you stand for. (But here, there has to be a realistic assessment of how great a role such individual encounters can play. One of the awful things about wrongs is that they are not always able to be put right by well intentioned individuals. Such a 'fear' does not strike me as completely misplaced.) b) strikes me as completely rational. Any organisation (eg the NHS) which has to exist to deliver a service cannot but fear legal measures which frustrate that purpose. I suspect many survivors would (understandably) not object to shutting down the Church completely. But for those of us who do want the Church to go on functioning, a certain fear about practical consequences seems entirely appropriate.

To take this further:

3.87 A Catholic, scriptural, Scottish, fresh theological understanding of safeguarding might bear fruit. It is likely that the new, clear insights it will bring will make their way into the prayer and worship life of the Church. A Safeguarding Prayer appears on the website of the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service: 

Lord Jesus we praise you for calling us to the service of others.
We pray for a generosity of spirit to ensure the vulnerable are protected.
We pray for a compassionate heart so that we will reach out to those who are wounded by abuse.
We pray for courage and determination as we seek the safety of everyone in our parish communities. We dedicate ourselves to this work of service and pray that you will help us to do your will at all times and in all places.

3.88 No doubt many of those involved in safeguarding use this prayer. This prayer could be the beginning of a new treasury of prayer as new theological insights illuminate and encourage the Church. Prayers for survivors and their families, prayers for Advisers and Coordinators, prayers for priests and bishops and congregational leaders, prayers of repentance, prayers for hope, prayers for understanding, prayers for the Church. To set safeguarding in the context of the whole worship of the Church is, in itself, a real and necessary theological insight.

[My emphasis.]

My gut reaction to this is that it's typical of a sort of woolly minded liberal Protestant theologising that the Church would do well to avoid. Most of the egregious abuse within the Church does not require any theology to recognise. Raping children and passing the perpetrators onto to fresh parishes to rape again is clearly and simply morally wrong. Concealing crimes from the police in a well run jurisdiction like Scotland is also morally wrong. There is absolutely nothing subtle about the wrongs here and many of the measures to prevent them in the future are also not terribly sophisticated. Where things do get more problematic is in the essentialising of the practice of 'Safeguarding' and its placing unproblematically at the heart of the Church's actions. Whatever merits or demerits this sort of attitude may have can only be chewed over. And that involves debate and the possibility of criticism and rejection. (Compare, for example, the claim that 'Safeguarding' should be placed at the heart of education. How is this related to the common-or-garden 'keeping children safe'? (It's not at all obvious that the professionalised practice of 'Safeguarding' is identical to keeping children safe.) And even if they are identical, should 'keeping children safe' be at the heart of education?)

An essentially bureaucratic report does, as far as I can see, its bureaucratic task well in coming up with immediate concrete suggestions. But when it steps into areas of theology and wider implications, it needs to be criticised and reflected on. Yet the rhetoric of the report is that, should the Church be unwise enough even to pause in its welcome of it in toto, abuse is being perpetuated.

Relatedly, there is the discussion of a 'culture of secrecy' in the report. This phrase has been fairly current in the discussion of the Church in recent years. The journalist, Catherine Deveney, for example, was on Scotland 2015 on the BBC last night talking about it again with respect to whistleblowers. (I think she was implicitly referring to this case which I have discussed before.) This is a phrase which is suffering from mission creep. Certainly, if it means the tendency of (eg) bishops to cover up cases of child abuse, it's fairly straightforwardly wrong. But the idea that any organisation, particularly one with the task of the Church, can become totally transparent is chimerical. For example, let's take the case of Cardinal O'Brien mentioned in the report:

2.37 Some priests in the diocese where Cardinal O’Brien had been Archbishop told the Commission that they had been “left in the dark”. In particular it was argued by them that the whole affair raised two issues for the Commission. One comment was specifically about the commitment of the Catholic Church to safeguarding, in a situation in which power may have been used in an abusive way: “Has the Vatican taken seriously policies about safeguarding in the way it has dealt with Cardinal O’Brien? A priest would have been dealt with differently”. 

2.38 The other issue was of a continuing culture of secrecy: “Our Church is in a state of denial. At no point has there been a narrative given by the Church to tell what has happened”. 

2.39 Having said that, the Bishops maintain that it was not a culture of secrecy that hampered them from making a more open response in this case. The Commission recognises that at that time the Bishops were not in possession of the full facts of the case. Regarding any information that they did possess, they were bound to respect confidentiality, both that of the accusers and that demanded by civil and canonical requirements. Subsequently, they were further hampered by the unique position of a Cardinal in the Catholic Church: a Cardinal can only be judged by the Pope and the investigation into the Cardinal’s behavior was undertaken by Bishop Charles Scicluna, at the behest of Pope Francis.

[My emphasis.]

The bishops' response here is odd. To suggest that institutional structures are per se not part of a culture is bizarre. The obvious reply to their response is that it is precisely those structures which are the culture of secrecy. (And their inability to recognise this is part of the problem.) I actually would agree with the criticism that the Church (as a whole, not just or even especially in Scotland) has not deal with the O'Brien case as transparently as it should (and have blogged in this vein before). But the idea that any organisation let alone a Church dealing with often very intimate matters does not need some culture of secrecy is Pollyanna-ish. If the report is going to be judged (as Deveney seemed to be suggesting) on whether it maintains any secrets, it will certainly fail. Apart from the straightforward cases, there will always be difficult cases where some tension will exist between the need for transparency and the need for secrecy. Pretending otherwise simply sets the Church a task which it will inevitably fail.

I think it was David Walls (who was abused at the prep school for Fort Augustus) whom I heard on Radio Scotland around 5pm last night describing himself as a 'student of history' and asserting that the Catholic Church has a 2000 year history of abuse. Frankly, I'm not surprised he feels like that given what he underwent. But someone with such views is not bothered whether the Church survives or not. For those of us who do care about its survival, there has to be a change in attitude to one (as McLellan puts it) where 'the only credible policy for a church was “no abuse and no cover-up” '. I suspect (as I said) that the very specific concrete proposals put forward in the report should simply be accepted and implemented. I also suspect that most cases of abuse simply require the application of basic morality and integrity. But the change of heart and mind to deal with the recognition that (especially) sexual abuse of children is endemic in human society and the day to day implications of that are not straightforward. To this extent, where the report is right to ask for theological reflection, then that theological reflection and application of practical wisdom is inevitably going to involve debate and messiness. If the Church is going to be judged on how it deals with this end of things, it will inevitably fail. If the 'the public credibility of the Catholic Church' is going to be judged by a public traditionally schooled for the most part in the belief that it is a 'pestilent synagogue' founded by Satan, or, in its modern version, a bunch of gay bashing sky fairy worshippers, again it will fail. That shouldn't stop us from trying to tackle abuse. But to the extent that anyone sees the possibility of a solution, rather than constant uncomfortable vigilance and self-questioning, the Church will inevitably fail to achieve it.