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.