Thursday, 17 July 2014

Stratford Caldecott RIP

I reported a few weeks back that Stratford Caldecott was dying of cancer. I have just seen this news from the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture:

Stratford Caldecott, RIP

It is with deep sadness that we announce the untimely death of Stratford Caldecott, a long time friend of the Chesterton Institute; contributor and member of the Editorial Board of The Chesterton Review.
Stratford died in England today.

We extend our deepest and most sincere condolences to his wife Leonie and his family.

G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture


Please remember Stratford, his wife Leonie and his daughters in your prayers.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Anglicanorum crapibus

In this post, I might sound like I am speaking without love. I merely mean to speak with exasperation.

I come from diverse cultural lines but both have firm Catholic roots. My maternal great-grandmother was called Greenhalgh and her family were recusant Lancashire Catholics going back to the Reformation. One of our ancestors is Blessed Edward Osbaldeston, a priest who was hung, drawn and quartered in York in 1594. My father's side comes from Cheshire peasant farming stock and their name goes back centuries and centuries.

On the other hand, one of my grandmothers was a Burke and the other was a McCarthy. My parents grew up in one of those urban Irish Catholic communities which formed in Britain after the potato famine. Nowadays, while we might have lost the accent and the shamrocks, we have lost none of the pigheadedness.

It is this kind of background which simply makes me incapable of understanding Anglicanism. I am simply left agog at the brass balls it takes to sit in the General Synod and vote out of existence the tradition of the exclusively male episcopate. Yes, I know it all went wrong a long time ago; that since they have had women priests, it was only logical to have women bishops; that you can expect nothing more from a church founded for the convenience of a king riddled with syphilis. But I'm still left amazed by the perfect incoherence of it all; the tea-with-the-vicaress perversity of it; the invariable itching of ears under the cover of "sound" liturgy.

Yes, yes, yes, of course we would like the integration of the Anglican patrimony into the Catholic Church... those bits that can be salvaged and which belong more properly to the traditions of English Catholicism than any imported Irish pious tat. But the essence of the religion expressed by the General Synod is simply accommodationism of the very worst kind.

In the very same week the General Synod has voted to embrace women bishops (which makes as much sense to me as a chips and fizzy pop Eucharist), decisions will also be taken regarding the suppression of the devil from their baptismal rite and the deregulation of liturgical vestments.

All this tinkering is billed as an élan of relevance busting forth from the Anglican bosom. It looks to me more like a slide into self caricature. Look, frankly, God is not relevant any more to the Zeitgeist, so why not just replace His name with the word Love which means the same thing theologically? And now, let's have a pause for quiet recollection and a fondle of our prayer stones.

************

I sound like I am speaking without love. I merely mean to speak with exasperation. My wife was raised Anglican and her piety is something extraordinary. But that is not the point. The point is that the Church of England is doing everything it can to please the world - a dynamic derived from the manner of its foundation, I suppose, but one whose current expression would have shocked Anglicans only a few years ago. Pleasing the world: can there be a better realisation of losing one's grip on the call of Christ?

Of course some Catholics would say something like this:

“I’m not interested in converting [Anglicans] to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”

But how can one show the love of Jesus without being devoted to preaching a plenary version of that love? It doesn't make any sense.

************

My maternal grandmother was a supporter of the SSPX. One day after attending a Mass celebrated by Bishop Williamson, she was introduced to the prelate himself and kissed his ring. From her wheelchair, she looked up admiringly at a man she thought would understand her roots and said, 'You know, my Lord, we have a martyr in our family. Blessed Edward Osbaldeston.' He sneered down unkindly at her for a moment (if you know him, you will know that look) and replied, 'Yes, I'm sure many Lancashire Catholics have martyrs in their families.'

Well, you would think that if you confuse society and religion, Mr former-Anglican, now the self-proclaimed last Catholic bishop in England (all conclusions are contained potentially in the premises of the syllogism; don't try and avoid it).

But when religion finds itself simply aping society, it can only continue as a caricature of itself, an impostor, a Caliban, dressed in fine robes but mouthing its own slogan-driven vulgarity.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Lombardi, shaken not stirred

Dear Fr Lombardi,
Does it ever grieve you,
The more we hear from you,
The less we believe you?

(Apologies to Hilaire Belloc)

It will come as no surprise to readers that Pope Francis has given another interview to Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica. I do not think there is an English translation of it yet and I have not bothered to copy and paste the thing into Google Translate even to get the vague gist. No, what has struck me is that almost before the original interview has even been read by its Italian audience, Fr Lombardi SJ of the Vatican Press Office has sprung into damage-limitation action.

So what has Fr Lombardi said about this interview that hardly anybody has even heard of yet? Here, I give the account provided by Zenit:

"In the Sunday edition of “La Repubblica” an article by Eugenio Scalfari was prominently featured relating a recent conversation that took place with Pope Francis. [...]

However, as it happened in a previous, similar circumstance, it is important to notice that that words that Mr. Scalfari attributes to the Pope, “in quotations” come from the expert journalist Scalfari’s own memory of what the Pope said [...]

We should not or must not speak in any way, shape or form of an interview in the normal use of the word [...] the individual expressions that were used and the manner in which they have been reported, cannot be attributed to the Pope.

Let me state two particular examples. [...] The first is that among pedophiles are also “some cardinals”; and the second regarding celibacy: “I will find solutions.”


Now, of course, I am very curious to find out what on earth Scalfari has reported in his interview-that-is-not-an-interview. Perhaps if time allows in the next few days, I will have the chance to wade through the text itself.

But I confess I was beside myself to read Fr Lombardi's attempts at trying to distance the Holy Father from his words as reported in La Repubblica. No, Fr Lombardi, no, no, no! You could just about get away with that excuse the first time around when we will accept for the sake of argument that a "Scalfari interview" was an unknown quantity. But now? Are we to assume that the pope has forgiven Scalfari for the errors of the last interview-that-was-not-an-interview? Or are we to assume that the errors that gave the Vatican licence to disavow the interview-that was-not-an-interview were not in fact errors at all?

Or, are we to assume that this is just the way that Pope Francis wants his words to go out? In a format which gives his press office plausible deniability but in a way that fits entirely with his intentions?

Two things to note. First, Lombardi's dash to correct the interview's interpretation on its day of publication either suggests that the pope deliberately wants a little spat about the reporting of his words again, or that Lombardi is acting independently and trying to queer the pope's message. I lean to the latter interpretation.

Second, since the pope has gone back to Scalfari (for the second or the third time? I don't remember now), we can assure ourselves that whatever Scalfari reports is what the pope wants reported, even if it is not what the pope actually said.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Unintended consequences and contraception

I'm currently reading Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future: The Inventions that Will Transform Our Lives. It is the kind of prophetic book of which there was a rash around the beginning of the twentieth century. The key flaw of the genre - a foolhardy confidence in the forward march of technology - was satirised by G. K. Chesterton in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill in which, Chesterton claims, ordinary people love nothing more than the game of 'Cheat the Prophet'.

I don't quite share Chesterton's earnest confidence in ordinary people. Ordinary people can of course be quite extraordinary, even if they hide it really well. Yet I confess I think of ordinary people these days - and by ordinary I suppose I mean average or commonly found - through the figure of a student who once said to me (without a trace of irony), 'History? History is the past. You should just get over it.' As I'm sure she intended, that told me! But then it also told me that just when you think you have fathomed the depths, some other gulf opens beneath your feet. 'Those who forget history are bound to repeat it,' I replied and she sneered back, blinking her incomprehension in a kind of witless morse.

Of course few ordinary people put the case quite so brutally as that. Many do, however, subscribe to its corollary, at least implicitly, 'Now is the present, and that is all that counts.'

The narrowing of time and space this kind of attitude indicates is intriguing. Oddly enough, it runs parallel with a whole host of technological inventions that elide time and space in what are thought to be invariably happy ways. Admittedly, technology is associated with freedom and sophistication. So why is it that some of its users remind us of the selfish toddler who sits surrounded by its toys, oblivious of time and defining its world by its own reach? The internet troll, the sleepless online gambler, the febrile seeker of porn: all of them cut them same figure of human degradation in the moment of technological enhancement.

All complex technology seems to have the potential for inducing this kind of mistake: promising control but leading to constraint, promising freedom but delivering unhappiness. I'm not oblivious to the irony of writing these words on a screen which, with the click of a key, will see them disappear, only for them to reappear anywhere, everywhere and nowhere and possibly on the 11th July (even as I write them on the 10th). Yet I am trying to be cognisant of the limits of the self-proclaimed illimitable.

My point here is not to reject all technology for the sake of its unintended consequences. All technology has its accidents. Rather, my point is to say that if the examination of unintended consequences is not a feature of our reception of technology, then we cannot but blame ourselves when they come back to haunt us.

*****************

This observation underlines the witlessness - I come back to my word of the day! - of the argument advanced in favour of the contraceptive pill (or other contraceptive technologies) by those I am going to call 'pro-cons'. They must have been rubbing their hands with glee to see how openly the October Synod's Instrumentum Laboris provided evidence of the failure of teaching in this area. There is a breeze stirring among the liberal Catholic left who feel the time is ripe to emphasise the supremacy of conscience over anything the Church might have to say about lurv. And how they must have lurved the following passage:

The responses [to the pre-Synod questionnaire] also demonstrate the diversity in pastoral practice among the clergy in reference to this subject, including those who show understanding and support and others who are either very rigid or entirely permissive. The situation indicates the necessity to reconsider these aspects of pastoral care in the formation of clerics.


As far as I can see, cavalier approaches to conscience in the matter of Humanae Vitae are based on the assumption that the technology of contraception is of a neutral kind. I love St Thomas but I sometimes come close to hating the neo-scholasticism that would assure me of the moral neutrality of technology ... as if that were the end of the matter. As if essences just hung around in some disembodied world waiting for a medieval imitator to make a distinction and proclaim it safe, like some overly bold native kicking an unexploded bomb.

Your standard moral philosopher would probably tell you that the contraceptive pill is morally neutral like a gun (oh dear, is there a queue of moral philosophers now forming to tell me the contraceptive pill can only be justified by double effect? I hope not! Non-sexually active teenagers can take it for acne). Let's confine the following discussion to the pill, because this is a blog after all, not a moral treatise. What counts is the purposes to which the pill is put. Thus, a woman suffering the appalling disease of endometriosis can morally take the pill by way of helping to control her condition.

Isn't that neat? But in one swift stroke, such an argument allows a whole world of experience to shift into the shadows simple because of the distinction that has been made about the technology's moral neutrality. We know now actually that the effect of the pill is not confined to the individual's reproductive system. We know, for example, that the chemical pregnancy induced by the pill can have a deleterious effect on how the woman's spouse responds to her. It's all a matter of pheromones. We know too that mass use of the pill is responsible for extraordinary transformations in national fish stocks, such that male fish increasingly show female traits due to the environmental pollution of synthetic hormones in the water system. A parallel phenomenon suggests the terrible effect of synthetic hormones on British men among whom there has been a decline in fertility in recent years. The case is not water tight but it doesn't take a rocket scientist's assistant to put two and two together.

All of which only goes to show how out of touch the 'go with your conscience' argument really is. It is just a primitive response to what has become a much more complicated issue. Indeed, there are increasing numbers of irreligious women who are becoming interested in natural fertility management precisely for these reasons.

My case here is not that the unintended consequences of contraception amount to a moral case against it. Rather, my case is that conceptualising contraception merely as a neutral technology is a very clumsy way to go about considering it in the round.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

It's not you, it's me

I know it is fashionable to throw the insult "pelagian" around the place these days. Some people claim it as a badge of honour, which only goes to show how far the word has drifted from its original anchor point. Still, running against this fashionable current, I have been mulling over the pelagiannous - well, what else should I call it? - of one of the many tendencies that characterises contemporary ecclesial life: the tendency to blame ourselves when things go wrong.

Now, you might think that blaming oneself is a rather good instinct, and of course it is in many ways. Humility, the foundation of the virtues and all that. Quite, quite.

But the tendency I'm talking about is not quite the same thing. What I have in mind is a kind of Occam's razor and seems to be at work especially in the Church's missionary or preaching activity. The burden of its meaning might be stated thus: If people continue to resist or reject the truth, the Church must be to blame.

I'm not making an argument for complacency here. I'm not saying that the first line of defence ought to be pointing the finger at the failure of sinners (or saints) to hear the truth. I'm merely saying that the bottom line should not always be the conclusion that the Church has failed to articulate its teachings sufficiently well.

This force is at work in the oft repeated claim that the Church needs a new pastoral approach (every five minutes or so). I'm all for the Church adapting how she says what she needs to say; Magister fidelium, she has been given a share in Christ's mission to teach, and teaching is not peroration.

But it is naive to think that only intellectual impediments stand in the way of truth. It is naive to think that if only things were worded differently, then missionary effectiveness would be restored. Charity always does things differently of course, but it is the charity of God that conquers, not our mere ingenuity alone.

Still, this tendency contains another problem yet more serious than naivety. In a way the conclusion that we must change what we are doing to make the Church effective runs with the assumption that bringing forth fruit is within our power alone; that the mission is a kind of technical challenge sprinkled with a bit of holy water. People put their faith in processes like dialogue in the same way people once put their faith in machines like the steam engine. There is in all this a kind a self sufficiency and, yes, you guessed it, a kind of pelagian reflex. By the way some people behave, you would think the soul of the apostolate is communications expertise. I suppose, by the same logic, there is a kind of technical assumption even in the thought that if only we went back to how we used to do it before the current crisis, then that would produce the desired results. Futurology and archaeologism are two versions of the same busted flush.

**************

I know they all talk about the Holy Spirit a lot more these days, spiritual ecumenism and all that jazz. But I argue that the test of supernatural realism, of a real faith in the God of Jesus Christ, lies in whether we are prepared to recognise the mysterium iniquitatis. All told, this is not in the least an argument against ingenuity in the mission field. It is an argument against ingenuousness in the supernatural order. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Every half decent Catholic clergyman or layperson believes this, but how many really preach it, let alone live by the truth that it contains?

There are many scandals - obstacles - that churchmen and laity are guilty of creating for the seekers of truth. And, yes, of course the Church can attract more flies with a spoon full of honey than a barrel full of vinegar, as St Francis de Sales said. But the Church cannot hawk honey at the expense of vinegar (which is such a useful substance). More to the point, it cannot pretend that those who reject vinegar are not in fact suffering from problems that only vinegar can solve. Hmmm, perhaps I've stretched that metaphor as much as it can happily go!

Pascal said it all when he declared that the heart has its reasons which reason does not know. Humans are a mystery. Evil is a mystery. And unless we recover these two truths, we are in continual danger of idolising ourselves as the wannabe technicians of the mission machine.

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Silence of the Blogs

The kindly Fr Ray Blake has written a post wondering where all the bloggers have gone. His observation is that not only he but other bloggers too have been blogging far more infrequently than during the reign of Benedict XVI. His argument ultimately is that Pope Benedict created an atmosphere which encouraged debate and discussion, but that we now live in far more uncertain times. Thus:

Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church, today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.

This reasoning will not appeal to those who confuse dissent with legitimate discussion, but it is an interesting commentary on the Benedictine years. For anyone who took the time to read Benedict carefully, there was no doubting that he had an uncanny knack of unlocking doors and of sharing his extraordinary mind and learning. That said, I'm not fully persuaded of the virtue of the Benedictine years. Even Benedict had taboos that needed breaking (like all that weird obscuring of the Petrine mission to the people of Israel).

I am also increasingly hostile to the papalcentricity of such an argument, but I confess that feeling has only swept over me in the last twelve months. I have not blogged as regularly during the Franciscan papacy. To a large extent it is because I am now the father of three small children, and frankly, blogs just don't count. By the time I have done my duty to children, wife, God and employer, I don't have much left in the tank for readers. That is a personal matter, not an ecclesiastical one, although I cannot tell what influence a papacy might have on me if they elected someone like Raymond Burke.

But I would be lying if I said that my increasingly infrequent posts have nothing to do with Pope Francis. I welcomed his papacy with mostly open arms, thinking mistakenly that he could be an effective if off-beat successor to Benedict. I spent a lot of last year thinking through his increasingly worrying interventions in the media, here, here and here.

But this last post I have just linked to was a breaking point. I never completed my series on aggiornamento for the simple reason that I realised none of it mattered any more. I was simply - as I often say to my wife when she gently advances the fifth proof of why I'm mistaken (a Thomist she is at heart) - pushing at an open door. It seemed rather obvious what was happening in Rome, and the drift towards approval for remarried Communicants was like the litmus test of that very process.

If I rarely blog about Francis now, it is because charity forbids it. I have speculated enough about his public pronouncements. I have always found the bad interwoven with much good. But when priests are labelled as crazy for defending the Church's teaching (not withstanding the arguably unguarded way in which this priest left his explanation open to misinterpretation) - and labelled thus by a cardinal entrusted with steering the Synod in October - what further proof does one need for the nature of the period in which we are living? I keep my feelings and thoughts for myself and my intimate circle.

Meanwhile, whistling in the dark is not a futile exercise. Others I know are hoping to illumine our period with their own incandescence. Personally speaking, I enjoy the glow, but I fear they might only burn themselves and others. Catholics should not fundamentally be enragés or outragés. The challenge for those of us who deplore what we find around us is to find the mysterious joy of Jesus in the midst of his sufferings.

I am fond of quoting Bernanos in this blog and he comes again here to my aid: La colère des imbéciles remplit le monde, he says again and again in his tract on the Spanish Civil War: The anger of idiots fills the world. Anger is the vice of the counterrevolution and its danger is that it is just as anthropocentric - just as man-honouring - as revolution, since it places man's agency at the centre of its own action.

Holy anger? That's for the saints, and unless you are certain of your sanctity, you should keep it in your wallet as much as you can. We can, as a famous Canadian poet says, 'hit and miss like pride.'

Oh, I'm sure I will get back to blogging on Francis one of these days, especially with the Synod approaching. But here is another reflection. Most of Christendom was built with only a dim and distant awareness of the man in Rome and his affairs. Perhaps those of us who fear we are but stumbling over what remains of that once great civilisation should be happy to hear of the pope but seldom.

In te Domino confitemur.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Okay by me in America

It is deeply unfashionable to respect or admire the United States of America for anything at all on this side of the Herring Pond. This anti-American hostility is, however, rather complex. It does not prevent Europeans consuming many things America has to offer, not least their Macs and other assorted technological whizz-gigs. It does not prevent us flooding to the cinema to gawp at the latest Hollywood buster of blocks.

And yet it compels many to deprecate American ambition overseas, America's combination of cultural naivety and political savvy, and its deep romance with fabricated foodstuffs that wreck the pancreatic system. Recent American adventures have not really helped America's cause. Labelled as cheese-eating surrender monkeys - as if there were something wrong with eating cheese! - the French have been arguably proven right in their assessment of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of a conflict in Iraq where the latest explosion of post-Saddam craziness is now sweeping away the last remaining vestiges of some of the oldest Christian communities in existence. For that alone, if not for the hundreds of thousands of other Iraqi deaths, we cannot but cast a jaundiced eye on all that gung-hoing of a decade ago. Some Americans possible feel the willing victims of envy: "Of course, many people hate us. It's because we are so great." It might be wiser to consider that sometimes people hate you because your country has screwed up. It's a kind of resignation Brits have just had to get used to.

I cannot resolve such geo-political conundrums myself. I only know that I do not hate America for its mistakes but love it for its many virtues. I spent three deeply formative years in the Midwest and regret more often than I care to admit that I am rarely back Stateside these days (parentalité oblige). The Midwest? my American readers gasp. That is like pining for Coventry. Well, yes and no. Who knows what it is when we encounter another culture: the national culture that we envisaged, or the local subcultures that we never expected? For a nation that worked so hard at unity, America has a dazzling degree of regional variation. But then, is America one anyway? Does its plurality lie in the States or should its plurality be expressed as 'Americas'? I am guilty these days of committing the appalling sin of scepticism about nations - I mean in their pompous, post-revolutionary incarnations, summed up - God help us - in all those ridiculous Rossini-like national anthems played at the World Cup (no offence to Rossini). For me nations are not the arrogant stickmen we see bestriding the global stage and manipulating world events with big finance and double dealing. Nations are simply, as the word suggests, the places that we are born and grow. That polished stool of a prime minister David Cameron changes nothing to my sense of Britishness or of Englishness (which are distinct). My nationality is structured around a certain geographical sensibility, shared stories half remembered and reinvented, a sense of how to treat others (or, out of a sense of British politeness, not to notice them), and other such vagaries. Nations are not their pimped-up elites. They are their workaday peoples.

And that is another reason why I refuse the fashionable anti-American knee jerk. I have known many Americans over the years but few that I really disliked. I'm constantly amazed by their pretence of being 'dumb Americans'; a pretence which is so often undercut by a human richness I don't often see among my fellow countrymen. I am always being told that Americans are pragmatic and anti-ideas, but I see a nation that spends way more private money on the arts than my own - not all for reasons of vanity, I am sure.

Another reason I find to admire America is that in spite of it being the site of some of the craziest postconciliar lunacy, it is also the scene of some extraordinary revivals. I cannot tell you how anaemic and wasted the Church in the UK is. We are clinging on by the tips of our fingers. It is not just the half-filled churches on a Sunday that strike one. It is the low profile kept by any group that takes its Catholicism seriously. Excellent small religious communities struggle to get any vocations. Tiny flashes of life can be spotted here and there. But the overall picture is pitiful. The English Church generally is heading towards financial and infrastructural disaster in the next couple of decades as congregations age and there is no longer the money to support its previous vast expansion. That was another thing that amazed me in certain parts of America: many Catholics tithe. They dig in their pockets and damn well pay.

And that is perhaps one of the key differences left between American Catholicism and European Catholicism. European Catholicism seems capable of dreaming only of its own demise - succumbing with a death wish to the ambient culture around us. I don't know what it is. Maybe we're too fond of being popular or of wanting to be integrated. There are few European hierarchs now willing or capable of speaking truth to power, unless it is through a slightly religious version of the Labour party manifesto. Those that are capable are woefully isolated and most certainly do not form a representative seam.

But, whatever America's faults - and they are many undoubtedly - American Catholicism still dreams. There are extraordinary pro life subcultures, impressive engagements in religious life, startling initiatives in favour of individual and family holiness. There are bad Catholic universities but there are very good ones too. One can be a Catholic academic in the United States which is next to impossible in the UK; in the UK, a Catholic academic is forced at best to be a Catholic apologist, because one's work can rarely if ever be rooted in assumptions that derive ultimately from Revelation ... which is as good as saying that there can be no Divine Wisdom unless it is behind the walls of the Catholic ghetto.

*************

Tomorrow is Independence Day for the United States of America. Was it a revolt against legitimate authority? From one perspective, I suppose so. From another, as the great G. K Chesterton said, 'There are some things a man must do for himself: blow his own noses, write his own love letters, and vote for those he wants to rule over him.' I could bang on for another few paragraphs about how the USA does more honour to old GKC than we do in his home country. But let me say what I came here to say.

In short, I send my love to America this 4th July (or July 4th if you prefer). I wish I could see you more often. I hope it won't be too long until I cross the Atlantic again. Meanwhile, God bless and God speed. Europe is to America like Africa was to Europe in the early centuries of the Church: a land whose fertility is slowly being choked and which perhaps must look to havens over the water for survival.