Wednesday 28 December 2016

Pierre Manent Mercredi (7): reconciling human experience with religion

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

Those works which successfully combine a faithfulness to human experience with a religious perspective are rare. Or, to be exact, in my opinion. there is only one work, only one text in which the two perspectives are strangely, paradoxically reconciled. Unsurprisingly it's the Bible, especially the Old Testament in which you get, at the same time, directly and immediately, human experience in its ignorance of God, and yet also, mysteriously, a presence of God which does not suppress or cover up the authenticity of that experience. The text of the Psalms especially is shocking because, in a chaotic and popular language, it maintains a balance that only the greatest spiritual masters of religion can maintain so perfectly: it is a text where human beings at the same time complain, scream, protest, want to kill their enemies, are afraid of death, are sick, and yet, also, mysteriously, there is an experience of of something which is radically different from any human experience but which does not prevent this human experience from being lived and described in all its truth, in all its nudity.


My commentary:

Manent emphasises here a characteristic position: a refusal of an easy reconciliation between different perspectives. (He talks elsewhere of living within a tension between religious, political and philosophical perspectives.) There is an echo here of twentieth century theological debates on natura pura: roughly, whether there is a sharp division between a (philosophical) perspective on nature uninformed by revelation and a theological perspective informed by revelation. (My sympathies are with the defenders of a concept of natura pura for what it's worth.)

Sunday 25 December 2016

Happy 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!

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Manent Mercredi (6): Leo Strauss and the freedom to believe

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)
[Leo] Strauss shows that at any rate some people can free themselves entirely from social pressure in order to conduct themselves freely, by being capable at the same time of understanding their own interests and the prejudices of society, and yet also conveying to the careful reader of the text their real meaning which is a long way from the prejudices of that society. In that sense, Strauss is indeed a great liberator.
Strauss thus helped me to...reconsider european history. The theories of secularisation appeared to me more and more like sociological fairy tales based...on the premise that there were ages of faith when people were necessarily religious...Theories of secularisation subject the human spirit to necessity -and it's also by necessity that the human spirit frees itself from the necessity of religion. Let me put this as simply as possible: if there were many atheists in the ages of faith, and if there remain some believers in the age of secularisation, then we need to reconsider all our theological and political history.
My commentary:
Put roughly, Strauss argues that philosophers concealed their atheistic tendencies in societies dominated by religion by writing texts which could, on the surface, be read in accordance with orthodox religion, but to careful readers would reveal their intended, esoteric meaning.
Manent uses this claim to emphasise the real possibility of free thought in societies such as ours where there is overwhelming social pressure to conform to an orthodoxy of secularity. The human spirit remains free to find and articulate philosophical and religious truth whatever social pressures are put on it. Instead of a view of history driven by sociological necessity and divided neatly into periods of faith and periods of secularisation, we should instead look for a far more complicated spiritual history where the freedom of spiritual search is concealed but nonetheless exists.
Two common themes, I think, from Manent here. First, the importance of human free agency (particularly in politics) in deciding how we live, as opposed to postulating deterministic sociological laws. Secondly, the dismissal of seeing our age as specially modern, rather than being simply subject to the same perennial human questions (here, of religious belief).

Wednesday 14 December 2016

More on Amoris Laetitia: the real world meaning of pastoral discernment

It's sometimes worth pausing to focus on a particular real life event, trivial in itself, but revelatory of a wider issue.

I argued in my last post that the consequence of Amoris Laetitia would be a weakening in the Church's teaching that marriage is indissoluble. Here's an immediate example of the harm being done. The Scottish Review (which frankly has little interest in the Catholic Church normally and no evidence of any special theological expertise) has as a Thought for the Day the following paragraph which it excerpted from The Tablet:

The acting head teacher of a Catholic school in Gosport, Hampshire, has been told he is disqualified from applying for the full headship  post simply by virtue of the 'irregular' status of his marriage. Because he is divorced and remarried he cannot be 'a practising Catholic'. Yet nobody reading the text of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on family life issued earlier this year, could honestly imagine that this is the sort of thing he had in mind. Except to condemn it.

(The Scottish Review 'Thought' can be found (at least when this blogpost was written) in the right sidebar of this page here. The original Tablet editorial (the key bit is outwith the paywall) is here.)

The article on the local newspaper's website (here) says nothing about the background to the divorce and remarriage except that this is what he has done and, as a result, the Catholic archdiocese has applied normal Church policy:

A spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese has said that the decision is national policy within the Catholic church.He said to be appointed a permanent headteacher, an applicant must be able to sign the memorandum of understanding in which they would state that they are a practising Catholic of good standing.

Now, neither The Tablet, nor The News nor The Scottish Review has applied anything like a process of careful pastoral discernment to this case. Instead, the reasoning is simply, 'This man is divorced and remarried. The Church ought to accept this. Because Pope Francis.' Or as The News quotes a parent: ‘The school takes children from all faiths and they need to get into the 21st century.’

I've read Amoris Laetitia, and I honestly don't think that Pope Francis, whatever else he may have in mind, thinks that simply knowing that someone is divorced and remarried is enough to make them 'a practising Catholic of good standing'. But there it is. That's how the message about a careful process of pastoral accompaniment is heard in the modern West.

Monday 12 December 2016

The permanence of marriage: a sheep replies

                                                             A pastural response...

Unlike a great many other Catholic bloggers, I don't really have a problem with Austen Ivereigh. It's difficult being a public Catholic, and, on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him far more than I disagree. That said, Ivereigh's article in Crux I thought was pretty dreadful.

The one message I’ve had from other bishops and cardinals I have spoken to this year in preparation for a new book is that what AL calls for can only be grasped by a pastor.
Only one who understands the complexities of the workings of sin and grace in a person’s life grasps the paradox: that to insist on the universal, equal application of the law in all circumstances is to contradict God’s supreme law of mercy, which puts the individual before - not above, but before - the law.

One of the things that is pretty evident among those who have their worries about Amoris Laetitia is that many of us are parents. Anyone who is a father or mother of teenagers and young adults (or is peering into the  gloom of that approaching age) will be fully aware of current sexual and social mores: it would an understatement to say that they are not conducive to human flourishing. The Catholic Church is the one institution that has retained the utterly clear (and traditional) message on sex: there are only two choices -sex within a lifelong marriage or abstinence. Now most of the defenders of a loosening of pastoral acceptance of second 'marriages' do not explicitly claim that they want to overthrow traditional teaching as I've just stated it. But frankly, in my judgment, as a parent, a teacher, and just someone who engages with a lot of popular culture, that's what this sounds like. It's sending an incredibly misleading message that the Church now believes what everyone else believes: that marriage is really, to adapt Johnny Rotten's words, two minutes of squelching. (Perhaps accompanied with some pious wishes which we all know won't be fulfilled.) That's not, apparently, a pastoral response. But sheep have their expertise as well, particularly where it comes to pastoral efficacy. As Aristotle puts it (Politics III 11):

Moreover, there are some arts whose products are not judged of solely, or best, by the artists themselves, namely those arts whose products are recognized even by those who do not possess the art; for example, the knowledge of the house is not limited to the builder only; the user, or, in other words, the master, of the house will be even a better judge than the builder, just as the pilot will judge better of a rudder than the carpenter, and the guest will judge better of a feast than the cook.

Moving back to Ivereigh:

It says: Let’s hear this particular couple’s history and see where sin has created blockages and wounds, and where God’s grace is needed.
And in some, rare cases it might lead, yes, to being admitted to Communion where the lack of subjective culpability is beyond doubt, where, for example, an annulment is impossible, where the marriage is irrecoverable, where there are children by a new union, where a conversion has taken place in a person that creates a new state, and where the notion of ‘adultery’ simply fails to capture a reality.
One bishop in South America whom I recently interviewed, when I asked about Chapter Eight of Amoris in an interview, kindly but firmly cut me short. “I can’t talk about that,” he said. “Every case is different.”

Two gripes here. First, I'm sure there's a rigorous pastoral process that could be imagined -but how often will it actually turn out that way? (Declining numbers of clergy; bolshier laity with a strong sense of their own worth. How often, for example, does the process of the RCIA (which sounds awfully rigorous and pastoral) turn out that way?) Secondly, the weakening of the Church's discipline is public. The (imagined) rigour of the process is private: the world will only see the abolition of an important symbolic line.

So, too, will the lay elite intellectuals and journalists who continue to scream that the entire edifice of Catholic teaching on indissolubility will unravel as a result, and construct elaborate arguments that AL cannot possibly say what it says.
It is not easy for young converts fleeing the Anglican doctrinal muddle in search of rock-like objectivity, and who saw the synod through that prism.

I'm not constructing an elaborate argument here. I'm simply noting that almost no one thinks of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive commitment for the purpose of procreation anymore, and that the secret pastoral process which seems to be envisaged by AL will only worsen that situation. As a not so young convert (and who are these 'young' converts of whom he speaks? Young Father Hunwicke?) from Anglicanism, it wasn't just the doctrinal muddle I fled but the pastoral muddle, where every (divorced/gay/louche) Rector made stuff up on the spot under the guise of pastoral expertise. Sound familiar?

Here's one thing I do agree with Ivereigh on. Some of the attacks on the Holy Father I've seen online are terribly wrong. He is owed respect and -moreover- he is right in much of what he says and effective in how he says it. Equally, however, when leading Churchmen and philosophers question the wisdom of some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, even if that questioning is uncomfortable and unwelcome for those impatient to get with the programme, that is not dissent but reasonable debate. And if you want a 'messy Church', debate is what you're going to get. Just let's make sure we do it without slagging off other Catholics, even if they are 'four mostly retired cardinals'.

[My overall view of Amoris Laetitia remains roughly as here.]

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Manent Mercredi #5: contra René Girard

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

If I might put it this way, Girard brings with him the apocalypse of social science, 'apocalypse' meaning, as you know, 'revelation'.

I'm not going to lay out, this isn't the place, the thought of Girard, but just some of his principles in order to explain my attitude to him. For Girard, human civilisation rests on the mechanism of the scapegoat: human beings, naturally prone to violence, to random violence, become reconciled by putting to death the scapegoat...Such is the violent origin, the violent root of every human civilisation, according to Girard.

Now, Christianity puts an end to this violent ritual of civilisation. for, according to Girard, it reveals the secret of the human world, the secret of human civilisation, the secret which all civilisations and religions before Christianity have failed to recognise: the victim is innocent....

I have always found this doctrine powerful, impressive, and at the same time, it has always seemed to me untenable and even dangerous. For naturally, one of its consequences, or one of the presuppositions of this doctrine, is that the human order has no substance or legitimacy of its own; in any case, the political order loses any substance and legitimacy because, if the basis of the truth of civilisation, of human society, is random violence and we are all the same, then there is no reason to distinguish between political societies, between political regimes, to recognise that any particular regime is nevertheless better than another, or that some cause is more just, even if only a little more just than another cause...

You are therefore led, in a situation where you make an equivalence between the enemy and us, to give preference to the enemy. It is this which I describe as the perverse tendency of a certain sort of Christianity with respect to politics. It transforms in an overly quick and unwise way the Christian claim that we are in a sense all sinners into a political claim destructive of any political morality: ultimately, between human causes, there is no difference in justice or in honour.



Manent's dislike of Girard lies in the way that Girard depoliticises politics. Rather than the difficult but important art of politics in exploring how to govern as well as possible in difficult and confusing circumstances, Girard substitutes a religious desire to cure politics.

As well as displaying Manent's usual suspicion of the drive to replace the political attitude by morality or spirituality, this also hints at the important role played in political thinking by respecting the existence of genuine and unresolvable tensions. There are better and worse uses of violence and better and worse objects of hostility: to wish these away is indulge in fantasy rather than to accept a lived tension between the demands of Christian revelation and human political reason, between politics and religion.

See also From “René Girard’s Lesson of Shadows” by Pierre Manent here.