Tuesday 31 March 2015

In support of our priests, our families, and our Church

You may have seen the recent letter from more than 450 priests in support of the Church’s teaching on marriage.

We would like to invite you to sign the letter below, to be sent to the press in support of them, and to encourage others to sign it.

To sign, please leave your name and your diocese in the comments box below, or if you prefer email them to me or to one of the coordinators:

Mark Lambert (mark@landbtechnical.com) or Andrew Plasom-Scott (andrewplasom_scott@me.com)

The Letter:

Dear Sir,

We, the undersigned, wish to endorse and support the letter signed by over 450 priests in the recent edition of the Catholic Herald, http://bit.ly/19kuBkl

As laity, we all know from our own family experiences, or those of our friends and neighbours, the harrowing trauma of divorce and separation, and we sympathise with all those in such situations.

It is precisely for that reason that we believe that the Church must continue to proclaim the truth about marriage, given us by Christ in the Gospels, with clarity and charity in a world that struggles to understand it.

For the sake of those in irregular unions, for the sake of those abandoned and living in accordance with the teachings of the Church, and above all for the sake of the next generation, it is essential that the Church continues to make it quite clear that sacramental marriage is indissoluble until death.

We pray, and expect, that our hierarchy will represent us, and the Church’s unwavering teaching, at the Synod this autumn.

Yours faithfully,

Monday 23 March 2015

Cardinal O'Brien: forgiveness and justice

                                                      Definitely still a cardinal...

I think it's still right to refer to Keith O'Brien as Cardinal (that seems to emerge from both Archbishop Cushley's use of the title and the discussion on Damian Thompson's blog). But anyway, that's marginal. More important is the question of how to react to the whole package of measures which seems to fall into two parts: a retiral of Cardinal O'Brien from the public life of the Church; and a plea to put the episode behind us with forgiveness.

For my own part, I would like to express sorrow and regret to those most distressed by the actions of my predecessor.  I hope now that all of us affected by this sad and regrettable episode will embrace a spirit of forgiveness, the only spirit that can heal any bitterness and hurt that still remains.  Forgiving the trespasses of others is surely the only way to regain our human and Christian serenity after such events.

(From Archbishop Cushley's statement.)

The trouble with all of this is that it just isn't clear to the ordinary Catholic (or indeed the ordinary non-Catholic) what we are being asked to forgive. It seems to me that there are three headings under which the 'distress' of his actions might be classified:

a) The damage to the Church's reputation.
b) The corruption of institutions (such as seminaries) under his care.
c) Direct harm to those he pursued sexually.

The only one which directly affects me is a). For what it's worth, he has my forgiveness for that: the Church is full of utterly dreadful people (including myself) many of whom will bring scandal onto the Church. I've no doubt that the affair has damaged the Church. I've equally no doubt that if you allow the misbehaviour of this-or-that Catholic to damage your view of the Church, then you won't have to wait too long before one comes along. (Basically, grow up theologically.)

I have no idea about b). Damian Thompson and others have been banging on about the 'old guard' in the Church, with internet rumour pumping occasional hints about homosexual rings promoted by O'Brien and corrupting the Church. I have no idea how much of this is true and how much of it is fevered speculation (doubtless put about by the NWO to cover up the real scandal of rule by alien lizards). Nor have I any idea about c). I don't really know what O'Brien is being accused of (consensual homosexual sex? importuning subordinates for sex by threats?) I don't really know whether these accusations are about 'distress' or genuine 'harm' (and there is a difference).

So although my main thought is that I'd quite like to put this behind us and move on -and I don't really care about the £200,000 house if that's the price of keeping a former senior member of the Church in retirement- I think the hierarchy does need to assure Catholics and non-Catholics that the direct victims either are just distressed rather than harmed, or that, in some way, their needs are being addressed. There have been enough cases in the past where genuine victims have been hung out to dry for lay Catholics to want to be sure that we have exercised our duty towards them.

Having gone back to my previous posts on the O'Brien affair, I see that a constant theme was my pressing for transparency (see eg here). In some ways, that's naive. The disciplining of O'Brien is not so much analogous to a legal procedure as to an internal disciplinary procedure. And anyone who has had experience of those knows about the difficulties of transparency and justice in such situations. Moreover, sexual abuse and the damaging of subordinates' careers are the sorts of things that can never be recompensed: they produce victims yearning for a life and a healing that (apart from grace) are lost to them. They are impossible to satisfy. But all that said, I know that Cardinal O'Brien has had a long period of reflection and a long chat with the Holy Father. I know absolutely nothing about whether there truly are direct victims of the Cardinal's actions and, if so, how they have been dealt with. And I don't think it's unreasonable for me to worry about that.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

                                      So old, it was actually written by Anglo-Saxons..

I have rather a lot of Teach Yourself books lying around my bookshelves, mostly languages. The differences between the older and newer versions are quite striking. Quite apart from the aesthetics of the covers (the old tending to be rather stark, the modern using attractive and colourful images) the contents move from the (old) rigidly grammatical to the (modern) chatty and real life dialogues.

The same transition can be seen in most textbooks: the old tend to be simply texts, often overladen with detail; the modern tend to be busy with 'Did you know?' boxes and illustrations breaking up the text. I suppose both have their disadvantages and their advantages. But they are different.

I raise this point simply as an example of the obvious truth that things have changed quite radically in Western culture. And this is a point that really needs to be understood in relation to changes in the Church. It is not that just the Church has changed dramatically since Vatican II (though it has) but society (at least in the UK) has also changed dramatically. Perhaps this is too obvious to need saying, but I suspect it isn't. For example, no discussion of the place of Latin in the Mass should by-pass a discussion of Latin in society: in 1915, everyone who was considered to be well-educated would have learnt (some or even quite a lot of) Latin. In 2015, that is no longer the case. In 1915, that Latin would have been learned from a traditional grammar such as Kennedy's; in 2015, whatever smattering of a foreign language that is taught would be much more experiential, much more conversational. In 1915, the pupil would have been taught to reverence the past; in 2015, he or she will be taught to argue and critique it.

I've mentioned before that I'm not particularly concerned about the EF versus OF debate (for non-Catholics, roughly the debate between the Latin Mass pre-Vatican II and the modern Mass in the vernacular). That's not because I think it unimportant, but I'm happy to leave the issue mostly to others while I focus (to the extent I focus on anything) to the changes in philosophy and theology over a similar period.  But both these issues within the Church sit within the background issue of the past within Western society. The issue of the abandonment of tradition with Western culture is something that can exercise the non-Catholic just as much as the Catholic. And whatever view the Catholic takes of debates on (say) the Latin Mass or neo-Thomist manuals will have to be located within a view of the wider changes in society.

There are in principle a number of possible permutations here. You might be a conservative tout court, lamenting the loss of tradition within both the Church and society. Or you might regard the issues as entirely separate, lamenting the loss of the transcendent in the modern Mass, but also welcoming the decline of imperialist, Protestant Britain. And so on. But what I think you can't do is to ignore the social changes: an ancient Teach Yourself book handed to a pupil reared on the whizz-bang of modern textbooks won't engage. Analogously, a neo-Thomist manual handed to a modern Catholic will (in general) not engage.

Now, the retort will doubtless come back that this simply isn't true: that modern youth is craving the rigour of a properly thought through text or a properly structured Mass. It's undoubtedly true that some are: personally, I love the old Teach Yourself books and would (aesthetically) much prefer a Latin Mass. But the reality is, I suspect, that I am too old to be typical and too atypical even when I was young (I judge from my children). Back to tradition would doubtless work as a stratagem for some, but we have no reason to believe that it would work for many. (A child formed in the barrage of modern music and ignorant of Latin is at least not coming to these things with the same sensibility as one reared in 1915.)

And so we have (at least) three possibilities. First, there is simply full steam ahead: we just keep on battering at modern culture until it sees the sense of what has been lost and returns to it. (That's been pretty much my position.) Secondly, there is the St Benedict option: we rescue those we can and create islands of holiness. Thirdly, there is the option of acculturation: we adapt in order to meet modernity 'where it is'. None of these strikes me as particularly hopeful. The first seems unlikely to succeed. The second will succeed but only for a few. The latter seems to abandon what is counter-cultural in Christianity.

So where does this leave us? Frankly, I have little idea. It does make me more sympathetic and even enthusiastic about Vatican II which might be regarded as both being realistic about the changes in modernity and trying to find a way to be true to Tradition while engaging with the changes. (That it was succeeded by all sorts of nuttiness is unfortunate but probably inevitable given the nature of the changes in the West since the 1960s.) I watch Pope Francis and I also see a man wrestling with how to encounter modernity. Is he doing it well? I'm genuinely not sure. My children tell me that there has been a radical change in the attitude of non (and even anti) Catholics to the Papacy since Francis replaced Benedict. That strikes me as a very good thing: I have little sympathy with the withdrawal to the monastery for the few. On the other hand, if it is at the expense of diluting the Catholic vision of the world, it needs to be rejected out of hand.

And so the Synod on the Family. How does one engage with a society which seems to think that it's a matter of indifference whether a child is brought up by its biological parents? Which thinks that to suggest there is anything wrong with homosexual activity is narrow minded and bigoted. Which regards an all male priesthood as part of patriarchal misogyny. Which regards science as the only measure of rationality whilst at the same time believing there is something else (even if it is only some hot vampire who wants you to be his girlfriend). Frankly, I don't know. Until I do know, I'm going to keep on throwing lumps of the past at people in the hope that I can chuck enough illud tempus to take down a few zombies before I'm finally consumed. But it would be quite nice to have a back up strategy which isn't analogous to giving modern teenagers a 1940s Teach Yourself book and expecting them to return in six months fluent in Swahili. (Or just giving them a big hug instead and telling them that they'll pick it up somehow and that anyway it doesn't really matter.)

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Traitors and sympathy

                                                 'This is how we punish traitors.'

One of the things I've rabbited on about fairly continually over the lifetime of this blog is the need for a layer of politics that takes a longer, less ad hoc approach to how we live in the polis. Instead of politics being simply the hurly burly knockabout of Ed's failure to eat bacon sandwiches properly, or Nigel's discovery that another one of his candidates is a former member of a Waffen SS re-enactment group, there needs to be a continual effort to create institutions and to act individually in ways that promote longer term, more rational reflection as well as the inevitable day to day scraps. (I'm not a naive purist about politics: they've always had more of a touch of the dirty and irrational and always will. And that's not totally a bad thing. But the current balance is wrong. Which I'm happy to admit often includes my current balance as well.)

As I mentioned a while back, I prepared for the Scottish referendum by reading my way through Sir Walter Scott. I am still reading my way through Sir Walter Scott (67% through per Kindle). Anyway, apart from the growing horror that modern Scotland simply isn't recognizing the genius of the man with anything like sufficient fervour (perhaps regular feasting on oxen, celebratory riots in the Grassmarket, the occasional sack of a minor English Border town?), Scott's work is a continual reminder of just how much British society (and even conservative British society) has changed. I was brought up short by the following passage from Tales of a Grandfather (Scott's history of Scotland for children) on the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion:

Treason upon political accounts, though one of the highest crimes that can be committed against a state, does not necessarily infer anything like the detestation which attends offences of much less general guilt and danger. He who engages in conspiracy or rebellion is very often, as an individual, not only free from reproach, but highly estimable in his private character...The sense of such men's purity of principles and intention, though not to be admitted in defence, ought, both morally and politically, to have limited the proceedings against them within the narrowest bounds consistent with the ends of public justice, and the purpose of intimidating others from such desperate courses.

There is a typically Scott move here: a practical determination uninfluenced by anything other than realism (the need to punish to intimidate others) coupled with an understanding of and even sympathy with the individuals and their motivations. (I won't pursue this just now, but it's in part a linguistic richness we seem to have lost. Instead of morally 'thick' concepts such as 'treason' (or as I read in Burke recently, a lack of 'chivalry' as a criticism of the failure of the French to defend the woman Marie Antoinette), we're simply reduced to the yah! boo! of the modern tabloid or commentator.) The contrast struck me during the referendum campaign. It's currently striking me in the way that much of the media is treating ISIS and Muslims. Any attempt to understand let alone sympathize with the motivations of those who might support ISIS or commit acts of terror is branded as defending them. To suggest the need for understanding and explanation is, it's claimed, to introduce a 'but' into the condemnation and thus to forsake any moral standing.

And so, when CAGE tried to claim that 'Jihadi John' has been, at least in part, driven into the hands of ISIS by British security services, those of us who remember the effects of the sus laws or the effects of internment in Northern Ireland might suspect there probably is an issue here. (The issue might simply be that any effective security measures have occasional unfortunate consequences, but if so, that needs to be acknowledged.) In Scott's terms, understanding is 'not to be admitted in defence', but is still necessary, if for no other reason than to produce an effective counter-terrorism strategy. Moreover, to understand why young men and women might be attracted to a clear apocalyptic vision of the world, to fighting, to the creation of a utopia based on violence is surely not that difficult for anyone who has studied twentieth century history, let alone earlier centuries.

I'm not sure why public discourse has generally become so dumb. Perhaps it's simply that the moronic, through the availability and influence of social media, has simply become more visible. I suspect, however, it's more than that. I'd suggest three things in particular. First, there is the absence of historical understanding. In a world where a scientific paradigm has become increasingly the sole measure of knowledge, the breadth of human sympathy that arises simply from an acquaintance with a range of humanity over different times and different cultures is replaced by a shrill certainty that what passes for truth in twenty-first century Western European elites is blindingly obviously true. Secondly, there is emotivism in morality. If you think that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, then the temptation is to replace calm, patient reflection by agonistic displays of emotion, which work, not just to win the contest, but also to provide a surrogate for personal integrity: the more strongly I feel, the better a person I am. Thirdly, there is the decline in religion. Scott viewed people as souls on a journey towards God, not just lumps of flesh to be steered by whips and carrots onto the right path. That there are times for such physical means, for the hangman and the soldier (or the blackmail to turn an enemy) is a matter of cold realism. But it is also a matter of regret that, instead of always seeing and treating all people as images of God, the needs of public safety and good government do occasionally require force alongside understanding and even sympathy.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Kant vs the Qur'an

                                         Kant vs the Qur'an: you decide

I've always been slightly worried in agreeing with Brendan O'Neill. He is (for example) one of the few commentators to note how appallingly bad same sex 'marriage' arguments are without coming from a Christian point of view. And on a number of issues, I and fellow Catholics have often found ourselves cheering the lad on: 'Go on, Brendan! You tell them!' I've always been slightly uneasy though, not being quite sure whether he is just a genuinely free thinker content to follow the arguments where they go, a clickbait merchant relying on contrarian views to generate, well, views, or some sort of cunning Commie who wants to suck the desperate sad loons like myself in, where, upon waking up, we'll find ourselves living in a caravan and selling copies of the Trotsky Newsletter round social housing ghettos.

Anyway, bit of a relief then to find him talking the sort of rubbish I can disagree with. Much more the natural order of things. In an article entitled, 'Why won’t we tell students that Kant is better than the Koran?' (here) he calls out university teachers for not simply telling students, well, what it says in the title...

Given that their universities won’t stand up for Kant or Mill or the superiority of rationalism over superstition, and considering their identities have been ringfenced from ridicule by a whole host of censorious slurs, is it any wonder some students flirt with non-academic, non-Western ideas? The academy implicitly invites them to, by sending the message that its own values aren’t that great, and it unwittingly encourages them to hold on to their non-academic ideas by safe-spacing them from robust critique.


We should let everyone speak, including the haters, and we should simultaneously challenge the cult of relativism on campus and strip away every slur that is now used to silence those who criticise superstition or stupidity and who uphold Enlightenment values. We should tell students that, with his call on humanity to grow up, to dare to know, and to use moral reasoning to impact on the world, Kant is worthy of close and serious study. Kant is better than the Koran. And if they cry Islamophobia? Do that thing with your fingers to signify the playing of the world’s smallest violin just for them.

Good fighting talk. Go on, Brendan! You tell them!! But...

First, let's put aside the University of Westminster from where the article which prompted O'Neill's spleen emerged. It's perfectly possible that it's a rubbish university with rubbish teachers. I don't know. But in a wider academic context, I recognize the conversation referred to:

I recall a seminar discussion about Immanuel Kant’s “democratic peace theory,” in which a student wearing a niqab opposed the idea on the grounds that “as a Muslim, I don’t believe in democracy.” Our instructor seemed astonished but did not question the basis of her argument; he simply moved on. I was perplexed, though. Why attend university if you have such a strict belief system that you are unwilling to consider new ideas? And why hadn’t the instructor challenged her? 

So. I've taught Kant. (Not admittedly Kant's Perpetual Peace which I assume is being referred to here.) I've also had students preface their remarks by, 'As a Muslim....' (though not as many as have prefaced their remarks by 'As a Christian...' or 'As a feminist...' or 'As an atheist...' or 'As a gay man..') and then gone on to explain why this or that philosophical position is unacceptable. I think I'm probably good enough at deadpan not show my astonishment (although I have been astonished over the years). I've also sometimes moved on rather than tackle the remark. So I reckon I've probably had more relevant experience in this area that O'Neill, whose response to an outburst of anti-semiticism was to use the hoary old Enlightenment tactic of calling the man a sh*t.

The first thing to remember is that reports of classroom discussions (particularly free flowing ones) are incredibly unreliable: I have been genuinely astonished at what students have thought has been said in such discussions as opposed to my own recollection. But assuming the facts are as stated, there might be any number of reasons why the instructor moved on rather than challenging the view. (Imagine you've got an hour to discuss Kant. How much time do you want to spend refuting Islam for the benefit of one student?) But perhaps more to the point, the challenging of the sort of 'I am an X' remark is pretty commonplace in my experience. You're usually better not calling students 'sh*ts' but trying to get them to set their own beliefs in this or that ideology aside for the moment and try to argue rationally. It's as much about distraction as anything else: 'Well, look, you appreciate that not everyone accepts the Bible/Qur'an/Stonewall as you do, so what might they say without relying on that source?'

I suspect that O'Neill here might retort that this is the sort of lily-livered cowardice that fails to tackle the rot directly: rather than convincing the student that Kant is more important that the Qur'an, the yellow academic sidesteps the issue and allows the student to remain in the position that Kant (at best) is just one more view alongside the Qur'an (and more realistically, just a piffling thought experiment rather than the correct way to see the world). The trouble with this is a) it's impossible; and b) it's a fine example of saloon bar chatter but not really a rigorously academic position.

Let's take a). I don't know how, in an academic debate, you show that 'Kant is better than the Koran'. It's the sort of blithe confidence in the power of reasoning that once made me sure that I could show Christianity is rubbish. Debates do have a role to play in changing people's minds, but perhaps more effective is the institutional sneer: 'You don't really believe in that, surely?' Not exactly quite what we take Enlightenment values to be, but nonetheless, perhaps a realistic example of what they are in practice. Having lots of free speech on a campus won't make any difference: the nuttiest views then just become one more voice in the clamour. (And the institutional sneer doesn't always work either, or at least plenty of Catholics have been through (or even emerged from) the secular Protestant, 'You don't really believe that, do you?' Drink and sex probably are more likely ways of luring people away from a religious background. Now that would be an interesting Prevent strategy...)

Turning to b), the lack of academic rigour in the claim that 'Kant is better than the Koran' really ought to be apparent. Putting aside the tempting alliteration (which I guess this is really what it's about), I suppose this is little more than the claim that the Enlightenment is better than Islam. How is one supposed to assess that sort of claim? Is the university supposed to be turned into some four year balloon debate, in which only one ejectee (an entire culture?) is possible?

I don't always agree with Peter Hitchens but I think his Christian faith does make him seek the truth rather than celebrity. His recent piece is, I think, much closer to the truth:

 As we saw in an interesting poll, these Muslim fellow citizens don’t want to chop our heads off or murder us. They are reasonable, peaceful people who make better neighbours than many indigenous Britons.

But they think differently from us about the world. And they believe in something, which most of us do not. That’s the chief difference between us. And bit by bit, as they become more numerous and find their way into our institutions, helped by their competence, self-possession and sobriety, they will change society into one that suits them.

I don’t see how this process can be stopped now. I sympathise with a lot of their concerns, though I greatly dislike their attitude towards women. Like them, I find our way of life tawdry, immoral and often debauched. I just wish we had found our own British, Christian solution to these problems.

But we turned our back on patriotism and the church long ago. And round about the same time, we opened our borders, so wide that I do not think we will ever be able to close them again.

This thing has happened. We are going to have to try to learn to live with it as best and as kindly as we can, for the alternative is horrible. 

I'm less hostile to immigration and its effects than he is. (The biggest destruction in modern Britain is self-inflected by secularising liberalism.) But putting that aside, the idea that you can just wish away the religion and culture of students by calling them sh*ts or grandly informing them that Kant is better than the Koran is nonsense. I don't quite know what the solution is (although I suspect that MacIntyre's vision of competing institutions teaching from within a deep understanding of a particular tradition coupled with Hitchens' living with this 'as best and kindly as we can' is a far more realistic alternative). But far too much of the response to the perceived 'Muslim problem' is about posturing and fantasies rather than a serious attempt to discuss how people of very different views can live together peacefully.