Wednesday 25 January 2017

Manent Mercerdi (8): Contemporary Thinkers website

As part of my regular plug for the work of French Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent, I include this week an excerpt from an essay about him from the excellent website Contemporary Thinkers. (This website contains material on a wide range of modern political thinkers. Its companion, Great Thinkers, contains similarly helpful material on pre-twentieth century political thinkers.)

In Manent’s more recent works, Democracy without Nations? (2006, trans. 2007) and especially A World without Politics?: A Defense (2001, trans. 2006), he has explored the “political forms”—city, empire, church, and nation—through which human beings decide on matters of common importance. The most recent political form, the nation, has started to become questionable. One immoderate interpretation of the historical destiny of democracy argues against the rationality of national boundaries. “Pure democracy,” Manent writes of this view, “is democracy without a people—that is, democratic governance, which is very respectful of human rights but detached from any collective deliberation.”

But as a point of fact, the nation-state and not “democratic governance” has produced the framework within which Western peoples became modern. Only the modern state asserted sovereignty over all parts within it, yet retained the integrity of those parts through its representative character. What concerns Manent is the replacement of the sovereign state and representative government by a manner of governance “more and more functional-bureaucratic and less and less political.” In place of a sovereign people, a “procedural democracy” has appeared that allows a people to make a democratic choice only when that choice reflects a preexisting conclusion from universal human rights.


Today, Manent argues, the principles of democratic equality and scientific rule, when taken to their conclusions, threaten to do away with the political framework through which we have always decided matters of common importance. When decisions are made on the basis of global human rights or the prescriptions of technocratic science, the political form is lost. Yet, we have no political history outside the political forms that have shaped the West. To abandon them in favor “humanity” is a risk whose consequences we may not be prepared to fathom.

[From essays by Gladden Pappin on Manent here]

Saturday 21 January 2017

Amoris laetitia and the flight of the alone to the alone

                                                       Sancte Blimp, ora pro nobis

I enjoyed (both as substantive advice and paradoxical non-silence) Artur Rosman's blogpost 'Have you tried shutting up?' It sums up much of what I feel about the current state of affairs in many areas: too much chatter to too little purpose. But still. One cannot always be wise.

There has been a little flow of Catholic commentary along the lines of 'the current crisis over Amoris Laetitia shows how great Catholic traditionalism is and how conservative (non-traditionalist) Catholics now need to stop sitting on various fences and stop trying to square the circle of reconciling the modern Church with traditional, orthodox Catholicism'.

To even set up this question requires a firm distinction between conservative Catholicism and traditionalist Catholicism. The most obvious difference (and possibly in the end the only one) is the acceptance of the Ordinary Form of the Mass: I count as a conservative Catholic because I attend the Ordinary Form; another counts as a Traditionalist because she or he attends the Extraordinary Form, the Latin Mass. 

I'm not quite sure about this. It's hard to imagine a genuine conservative who would be hostile to the Latin Mass. I think I've made clear before that I don't think returning to the pre-Vatican II mass is the answer to Church decline, but I'm not at all hostile to the thought that it might help. And in any case, I'm perfectly happy for anyone who wishes to try this: it may well be part of an answer. My reasons for not regularly attending the Extraordinary Form of the Mass are more about loyalty to my existing parish, familiarity, not wishing to separate myself from the majority of Catholics and just being a little sceptical about anything which claims to be simply better. There is probably also a lingering sense, from my Anglican days and from my days as a literate Atheist, that religion can be done perfectly well in English and has been so far as literary quality is concerned. All these strike me as perfectly sensible and recognisable conservative reactions.

Added to that, there is a conservative horror at unrest and murmuring against hierarchy. Whatever else might be said about current reactions to Amoris Laetitia, I find it difficult to see how engendering an attitude of disloyalty to bishops and the papacy is going to help the Church in the long run. Conservatives ought to be well aware at the unavoidable frailties of human hierarchies whatever divine assistance they might receive. But the difference between the ancients and the moderns is that the ancients knew how to live with the necessary absurdities of hierarchies whilst the moderns do not. Moreover, whatever might be said about popes, bishops and priests is, in the end, mostly about a lack of effective action to save the laity from itself. Whatever wild and wacky ideas may be found in the teaching hierarchy of the Church, they are considerably fewer than the wild and wacky ideas found in the laity.

So when I see ill-tempered attacks on the papacy and hierarchy due to Amoris Laetitia and how various local bishops are interpreting it, my general reaction is that the ill-temper is harmful, that we need all to remember the difference between an attack and well-intentioned criticism, and that whatever the faults of Amoris Laetitia, they are mostly those of lacks which, if, as we travel down the pyramid of authority in the Church, were they not met by greater failings in those receiving the document, would have few if any ill effects.

Let's take the latest interpretation from the Maltese bishops for example:

In a new document, Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, the bishops say that if “a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are [sic] at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist”.

Now if we were dealing with a traditionally formed laity, that might be interpreted something like this:

If you can twist your own conscience into deluding yourself you can take communion in an adulterous relationship, then there's very little in practice we can do to stop you. But do remember the following:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 KJV

Let me make it absolutely clear: I regret the lack of clarity which allows Amoris Laetitia to be interpreted as allowing communion to those who have been civilly 'divorced' and 'remarried'. But that lack of clarity is only really dangerous because existing lay and clerical Catholic life is as lax as it is and has been for a while. The past few popes have been seen as bulwarks against the waves of infidelity which have been crashing on decks for a while. If that particular defence is less effective at the moment than it might have been, the main problem is the waves, not the defences (which, whatever the intentions, have not been very effective in their results in the past anyway).

Here's another aspect of the conservative as opposed to Traditionalist approach. Vatican II might be seen as the acceptance of the subjective turn into mainstream Catholic life. It might also be seen as advocating a greater role for the laity. Both of those might be regarded as part of a conservative mood which values individualism and is sceptical of the effectiveness of centralised power. If 'Traditional' Catholicism suffered from externally imposed rules, 'conservative' Catholicism fully accepts that strand of conservative thinking that endorses Plotinus' view of life as the flight of the Alone to the Alone, the individual soul to God. If marriage is to be saved, and adultery to be avoided, in the end, it is only the well formed conscience of the laity that can do that.

And this leads me, finally, to some well intentioned criticism of my own about Amoris Laetitia and its 'progressive' interpreters. In the end, what matters most is sin, not admission to communion. Teaching on marriage and divorce should not be primarily about creating a pastoral process where a priest leads a parishioner to retake to sacraments, but to a sinner's exploration of conscience sometimes, but not usually with a priest. (Really, how likely is this in depth 'pastoral process' going to be in the realities of modern parish life? Unless the laity are equipped to take it seriously for themselves, sprinkling on a few minutes with a priest every couple of weeks is not going to turn thjs into deep reflection.) And here, clarity of reasoning does matter, because that is an important part of how the sinner is going to reflect.

In that light, the important questions are going to start with: Am I still married? Amoris Laetitia seems to rather fudge this. If I am still married to X, but am now in a (sort of conjugal) relationship with Y, being admitted to communion is the least of my problems. If I am still married, then I have responsibilities to X and am in a less than ideal situation (to put it at its least) with Y. Taking communion will not relieve me of these realities. Say, for example, that after ten years of receiving the 'mercy' of communion, I see a way of breaking up with Y. Should I take it? (Do we need another pastoral process to discern this?) If, having lived apart from X, I meet Y for the first time, should I resist my attraction to him? (Whether or not I might be able to receive communion eventually is surely a secondary question to whether or not pressing forward with that attraction is going to lead to some sort of sinful result.)

Does the matter of my reflection in these circumstances still rest on two principles: that marriage can not be dissolved and that sex outside marriage is wrong? If it doesn't, what should I be reflecting on instead? Proper responsible discernment requires this sort of precise, philosophical self-questioning. Instead of encouraging that and a responsible, reflective and (taken properly) autonomous laity, we seem to have a sort of slot machine clericalism where the primary issue is no longer right or wrong action and a proper understanding of marriage, but rather getting the sacraments and getting the priest to tell you it's fine (although you might be quite hard put to explain precisely why it is fine, except that it 'feels right' and Father Fred agrees).

Sunday 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

 The Year of the Whale
The old go, one by one, like guttered flames.
    This past winter
        Tammag the bee-man has taken his cold blank mask
             To the honeycomb under the hill,
   Corston who ploughed out the moor 
        Unyoked and gone; and I ask,
    Is Heddle lame, that in youth could dance and saunter 
        A way to the chastest bed?
The kirkyard is full of their names
              Chiselled in stone. Only myself and Yule
                  In the ale-house now, speak of the great whale year. 

This one and that provoked the taurine waves
    With an arrogant pass,
        Or probing deep through the snow-burdened hill
           Resurrected his flock,
                Or passed from fiddles to ditch
        By way of the quart and the gill,
    All night lay tranced with corn, but stirred to face
                     The brutal stations of bread;
While those who tended their lives
        Like sacred lamps, chary of oil and wick,
            Died in the fury of one careless match.

Off Scabra Head the lookout sighted a school 
    At the first light.
        A meagre year it was, limpets and crows
            And brief mottled grain.
               Everything that could float 
        Circled the school. Ploughs
    Wounded those wallowing lumps of thunder and night.
                The women crouched and prayed.
Then whale by whale 
        Blundering on the rock with its red stain
           Crammed our winter cupboards with oil and meat. 

George Mackay Brown
from The Year of the Whale (Chatto & Windus, 1965), and included in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2005)
[from the Scottish Poetry Library here]

Joseph Pearce provides apposite commentary:
Rejecting the illusion of progress, which he believed would be “choked at last in its own too much”, George Mackay Brown wrote works of rare beauty in which the rootedness of place is seen as the wellspring of true culture. A native of the Orkney Islands who seldom left their shores, Brown drew on their rich history and ruggedly isolated terrain for much of his work.
In Brown’s poetry and prose, the soil and the soul are in mystical communion, the bread and the breath, shining forth the enduring glory of God in the midst of all that is mortal and mutable.


There is much that I'd like to say at the beginning of this New Year and will no doubt say some of it as the year goes on. But for the moment, I'll leave it at this reminder of permanent things, together with a plea that as Catholics and Scots (or whatever) we do not lose sight of them in the unavoidable yet dangerous seduction of chatter.