Sunday, 12 April 2015

Effing the ineffable

I read a rather wonderful quotation from Mark Twain this evening:

If you do not read a newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read a newspaper, you are misinformed.

I hate quoting Twain but the fact is that the old sod was right about a number of things. He certainly said them more pithily than many can. Which is a nice way of saying that sometimes the devil has the best tunes.

The reason Twain's epigram me struck me so much was because I've been reflecting on how many dreadful stories cross our screens these days, how much righteous indignation we are called on to vent, and yet how much, in my own professional experience, the devil is in the detail. There's that devil again! I am not saying, for example, that there is any excuse for the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile, but what don't we know about the situation? That's the problem. The apparent put down of Chilean "theologian" Jorge Costadoat turns out not to have been quite what it was first portrayed as. Everyone is astir about the pope's alleged blocking of a gay nominee as French ambassador to the Vatican, but what don't we know yet? And don't get me started on Cardinal Daneels (don't read that link if easily shocked) for whom, however, there might yet be an explanation. Let us pray at least there can be mercy.


I've written about the Punch-and-Judy nature of internet debate before, especially in the Catholic world, and of how much it reminds me of the theatre of the absurd. But what I'm getting at in this post is that the steady flow of news in which we now live, like fish in a fast-flowing sewer, is only hypothetically reliable. I suppose the burden of reliability has always accompanied reporting. What makes it so tricky now is that news travels so far and so fast; give a lie 24 hours start and we'll never catch it.

The risks of this kind of information environment are all the greater when we are faced with crises the like of which are barely precedented. This is not just a challenge for people who report the news but also for people, like your servant, who try to interpret it. The certainties of epistemology in the Catholic tradition were forged in the context of the natural world naturally "intelliged". The cultural environment of the internet is another thing entirely, full of false pistes and misinformation, travelling faster and more dangerously than the space junk that orbits the earth at thousands of kilometres per hour. Not all matters are equally (un)certain; Aristotle's adage on that point still pertains. But those unknown unknowns are beginning to haunt my mind.

In a context where we are looking for certainty, the dangers are, therefore, all the greater. It is not that contemporary Church history cannot be understood. It is just that our methods are so partial, our velocity so great, and bizarrely, our memories are so short. That is of course what the legend of Thamus promised: those that write everything down - and what is the internet if not a very long text? - are condemned to forget it.


I make this point with another concern in mind - a concern which has been growing now for some time. The fact is that the powerful get nowhere without riding on the backs of the anxieties of you and me. I have never read Machiavelli's The Prince but I bet there is a chapter in there specifically about this very issue.

For example, I was more than happy last week to lend my name to the letter in support of priests who have called for the upholding of traditional disciplines concerning marriage and the Eucharist. So far, so good. But we are all so innocent. What, I ask myself, just what bricks will be forged, what leverages will be achieved, out of all our anxieties by the mongers of power?

We all get indignant. In our evil times, that is only natural. But there is another breed among us, quite common, who I want to call the enthusiasts of indignation. Need I explain? And what the enthusiasts of indignation - and how many they are! and how extremely boring they are! - do not understand is that the devil (him again) makes work for idle anxieties. We used to think that the biggest problem we faced was that, in the pre-internet age, the truth took decades to get out there. The naive corollary of this proposition is to think that if only the truth gets out there now, all will be well. Publish a book. Write a letter. Picket the nuncio!

Humanum errare est. This is not so. The truth, as far as we know it, is out there about Cardinal Daneels, and it makes no difference. The truth, as far as we know it, is out there about Bishop Barros, and it makes no difference. And the conclusion I am slowly working towards is that the conflict we are in is as much about leverage as it is about truth. It doesn't matter what you know, Danny boy, it matters what you can prove. Prove in the sense of impose.


I'm really concerned about our vulnerabilities. Vulnerable people - and concerned Catholics are showing all the psychological signs of deep vulnerability - are ripe for manipulation. The devil's of course. And that of the powermongers. But our vulnerabilities need the medicine of Christ, rather than the medicine of crisis.

Yes, of course we should write and sign letters. Of course we should write (and read) blogs. But we should not do it because telling the truth will sort out all our problems. When all is said and done, when all the errors are refuted, we will still be left in the swirl of power agendas and manipulative causes.

As I often say to Mrs Ches, it's never about what it's about. We have feared untruth. We ought perhaps to fear calculation just as much. Our indignations make us the dupes of the devil. And our reactions risk feeding fires we that will have no idea how to control.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Dawn

"It isn't a matter of reason; finally, it's a matter of love."

My wife took my daughter and sons to 'Children's Stations' on Friday morning. My daughter is only three years old and, like all three year olds, she is very cute and always potentially embarrassing. Thus, during one particular moment of quiet reflection, perhaps around the twelfth station, she turned to my wife, beamed her a grin, and said out loud, "Is it the weekend?"


I suspect I'm too old to say such a thing. Or at least, I've grown too old and am in desperate need of age reversal therapy. If I think about the weekend, it's purely in term that, as luck would have it, have been happily preserved in song. It's so long since we had some music on The Sensible Bond, but take it away, Mr Richard Thompson.

Wednesday just won't go; Thursday goes too slow. And I flee towards the weekend. I could blame the appalling working conditions that afflict all our contemporaries whose capacity for liquefaction is constantly tested. We are all liquid these days, poured into the nooks and crannies that the rhythms of accelerated modernity beat into our reddened nerves. My boss announces it with triumph when he has a day of back-to-back meetings with hardly a minute for the needs of nature, let alone the needs of being human. And thus, I flee, we flee.

Or possibly, that should be one of those irregular verbs:

I flee towards the weekend,

You are working too much

He's a workaholic.

But, as ever, I digress.


Easter Sunday is upon us. Many liturgical feasts declare their days to be Hodie - today. The day of eternity. We are taken from our time and whisked forward to the eternal weekend of God. I'm thinking about the Magnificat Antiphon of the feast of Christmas: Today, Christ is born. Today, the Saviour has appeared. Today, the just exult. Liturgy as time machine, taking us on a journey that we embrace, a ticket to an eternal resting place.

What is different about the Easter liturgy is that this process goes in reverse. Haec dies quam fecit Dominus . This is the day that the Lord has made. We do not go rushing forward in joy to eternity. We do not even go fleeing from the sorrows of this life or its appalling contemporary rhythms.

Rather, the eternal day comes to us. Haec dies … let us rejoice and be glad in it. Rejoice in the day. This day, our day, made eternal by the resurrection. God's divine action breaking into history and reversing the process of death.

The victory over death is not some strange land to which we travel. It is the transformation of our own sorrowful state by God. Two poetic voices come to mind as I write these lines. The first is that of the tragic poet John Berryman who wrote (I quote it, like Chesterton, from memory, and possibly inaccurately):

I believe in the resurrection appearances to Peter and Paul
As firmly as I believe I sit here in this blue chair.

The resurrection is not unearthly like some strange cult invented by a huckster. It is as mystical as our solid surroundings, and, why not, our blue furniture, fraught with the meaning not of our intentions but of God's. Some people doubt the miraculousness of the ordinary - or ascribe it to some kind of heresy - but unless our theology forces God to create, there must be a givenness even about the most quotidian of experiences and objects that, somehow, at its roots, is evocative of the grand 'fiat' of the Creator.

The second poetic voice is that of Malcolm Guite who captures something of this ordinariness, the dailiness, of the resurrection in his poem Easter Dawn. A happy Easter to all readers. I'll leave you with the words of Guite.

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves
And now he blesses hers who stood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs
A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.
She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,
Or recognise the Gardener standing there.
She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,
Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light
That brightens as she chokes out her reply
‘They took my love away, my day is night’
And then she hears her name, she hears Love say
The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

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

Guest post

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 or Andrew Plasom-Scott.

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.

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.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

What happened when the bishop's letter fell in the fire?

… It became an ex-communication …


My career in stand-up never did get going.

But seriously, folks, some correspondents have asked my view on the excommunication of Bishop Williamson who illicitly consecrated a bishop in Brazil last Thursday. Regular readers will know my fondness for the old fellow, as well as my aversion. I'm afraid this might seem like some rather fine-grained Church politics to others. He's an excommunicated rebel to some. He's an anti-Semite nutter to many.


I think the first thing to be said is that this ripple of Church life represented by Williamson has a hundred if not a thousand precedents in Church history. The doctrinal root of his split from the SSPX is nugatory. It is all about strategy, tactics and a breakdown in human trust. That is what happens of course when you go off beating your own path: every twist and turn gets magnified into a paradigm shift. It's a theological and a human hall of mirrors.

He claims to have a mandate from the Roman Church. The fact is he had no more mandate than my grandmother (and I don't say that because he once memorably snubbed her recusant ancestry - ah, the irony!). It's all perfectly logical of course. It just has the utter dottiness of a man putting his underpants on his head and announcing his elevation to the judge's bench. I admire the anarchy. But when all is said and done, it still reminds me of one of my favourite lines from Chesterton, "The mad man is not the one who has lost his reason. He's the one who has lost everything except his reason."


The SSPX has sought in its official communique to distance itself again from Williamson and, above all, to differentiate between the 1988 consecrations and the 2015 consecration. My first reaction to this was to guffaw. No, you either accept both consecrations or you reject both. Don't come it with some fine distinction between the two, based on their publicity or the size of the crowds (both of which factors are cited in the communique).

But reading the communique took me back to the mandate cited above (and I will paste it below just in case someone fiddles with the link). I called it dotty. But the more I read it, the more hubristic it seems. Two things leap out from the page and give me pause for thought:

1). What use would it be to ask [the Roman] authorities for a Mandate to consecrate a bishop who is going to be profoundly opposed to their most grave error?

Well - to answer this ridiculously loaded question - if nothing else, it ensures for yourself, and it shows to others, that you are not simply taking the law into your own hands. Exceptions test the law. Enduring exceptions become law. The maker of exceptions becomes the law maker. If anyone doubts that this act is schismatic, examine this rhetorical flourish carefully.

Fundamentally, of course, the logic is still Lefebvrian, but its is now shed of any of the Archbishop's fundamental respect for the Church's canonical order. How indeed could Williamson have acquired the habit of a correct respect for the canonical order since he has always lived in a state of exception?

He's not the only one testing that order of course. There are lots of transgressors against it, and it might even be argued that his transgression is minor in comparison with some. May it be so in the eyes of God.

So, while I sympathise with any exasperation with Rome as it currently is, we either believe the Roman See remains or we don't. We cannot plausibly claim allegiance to it and act with this kind of disregard.

2). From where then could these faithful Catholics obtain the bishops essential to the survival of their true faith? In a world making political war day by day more on God and on His Church, the danger for the Faith seems such that its survival can no longer be left to depend on a single fully anti-modernist bishop.

After a while, the Williamson assumptions rack up so quickly that they become invisible, even to a practised reader. "So," said my wife on hearing me read this out, "he's the last Catholic bishop on earth, is he?" Well, yes, I suppose that's what he is really saying. Don't tell me a 'not fully anti-modernist bishop', or, to translate that into good English, 'a semi-modernist bishop', is actually Catholic. Put that to him and he would undoubtedly start making noises about Tissier de Mallerais, and possibly about a range of other 'official' bishops. But - the fact would remain - in Williamson's world, these men are useless as anti-modernists. Indeed, they are so useless that he, Williamson, the last of the anti-modernist line, must ensure there are other anti-modernist bishops around.

More than that, Williamson is essentially claiming that he has just saved the Church's note of indefectibility. If he were to die without consecrating another bishop - and the lack of publicity around the consecration is a measure of his paranoia that he will be bumped off one of these days - then that would be the end of all things. It makes you wonder why a man so keen on seeing the Apocalypse come bothers to get out of bed in the morning. Why didn't he just go back to bed and unleash those four horsemen?


I'm truly sorry this has happened. I don't mean to mock the small number of people who are investing their lives and their faith in this reckless adventure.

But however bad the mainstream becomes, how can one possibly hitch one's wagon to this train? In an image that has become a favourite of mine over the years, these groups are increasingly like the dwarves in Lewis's The Last Battle, utterly convinced of their own logic, cut off from most others and rather disdainful of them.

The excommunication is much to be regretted and I hope that Williamson one day sees sense. But the looniness of it all, the sheer silliness of it, merits a small chapter in the book of human folly.



We have a Mandate to consecrate from the Roman Church which in its fidelity to Sacred Tradition received from the Apostles commands us to hand down faithfully that Sacred Tradition – namely the Deposit of the Faith – to all men by reason of their duty to save their souls.

For indeed, on the one hand, the authorities of the Church of Rome from the Second Vatican Council down to today are driven by a spirit of modernism which undermines in depth Sacred Tradition to the point of twisting its very notion: There shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine, turning away their hearing from the truth, turning unto fables, as St Paul says to Timothy in his second Epistle (IV, 3,5). What use would it be to ask su ch authorities for a Mandate to consecrate a bishop who is going to be profoundly opposed to their most grave error?

And, on the other hand, to obtain such a bishop the few Catholics who understand his importance might have hoped, even after Vatican II, that he could come from the Society of St Pius X founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, like the four consecrated for them in 1988 by a previous emergency Mandate. Alas, when the authorities of that Society showed by their constant turning towards the Roman authorities that they were taking the same modernist road, that hope proved to be vain.

From where then could these faithful Catholics obtain the bishops essential to the survival of their true faith? In a world making political war day by day more on God and on His Church, the danger for the Faith seems such that its survival can no longer be left to depend on a single fully anti-modernist bishop. The Church herself asks him to appoint an associate, who will be Father Jean-Michel Faure.

By this handing down of the episcopal power of Orders, no episcopal power of jurisdiction is assumed or granted, and as soon as God intervenes to save His Church, which has no more human hope of rescue, the effects of this consecration and of its emergency Mandate will be without delay put back in the hands of a Pope once more wholly Catholic.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Two years on

I know exactly where I was two years ago when Pope Francis was elected. I was gathered with my wife and parents - all of us post-stomach bug - wrapped up in cushions and blankets around the infernal goggle box, watching the feverish crowds in Rome and listening to the stilted, ignorant blather of the BBC's journalists. I feasted on pizza, I believe, that night; and we booed Regina Caeli for their virulent anti-Francis post. We could deal with all that tomorrow, we thought. Just for two minutes, could we not rejoice in the enjoyment of a common father again?

Two year's down the line, I feel somewhat different in a number of ways. First, I applaud Rorate Caeli for their prescience. Their negativity was of the Puddleglum kind. Unwelcome, ungracious, perhaps even unjust: I mean, what kind of condemnation does 'demotic language' really entail? But they were searingly right in the essentials. Francis has been a disaster, and don't let any glad-handing liberal or brown-nosed chattering serf tell you any different.

Another feeling that is somehow different since those days is the now deeply embedded conviction that in human terms you and I are a total irrelevance. I used to think this blog did some good somehow beyond the scope of its usual readership. I knew it had been read in Rome. I used to think I had something to tell them.

I no longer make that error. We're whistling in the dark mostly. I'm just here to keep you company - and I'm not even particularly good at that.

But that is all fine. Like I said in my last post, we should take consolation from our irrelevance. God knows what we do, and its importance is not measured in human terms but in those of divine love. We can sing, dance, do penance and what you will, in the full knowledge that the value of our actions is beyond calculation, as long as they belong to Christ. Most of what we say will be a dead footnote in history. It is our child raising and prayer muttering that threaten to make a difference, if not on this earth, then at least in Purgatory or Heaven.


So, what do I think we will see in the next couple of years? Well, more of the same undoubtedly. Nothing that was said or done by the defenders of the faith at the Synod has made much of a difference to the agendas being pursued by the current management. So, here is what I expect (for what it's worth):

2015: the letter of the law over Communion for the divorced and remarried will be maintained but this will be surrounded by enough pastoral shilly-shallying that those who already admit the practice will be able to pursue their current course uninterrupted, and those who would want to block change will not have sufficient grounds to question the authority of the decision. The orthodox are desperate for a clear clash of positions. We will be offered instead a morass of accommodations and special pleading.

2016: Pope Francis will 'do something' about priestly celibacy which he regards as an archaic rule, contrary to God's plan for most of us. He won't make some blanket change. He will devolve the decision to lower bodies who he knows will take control of the situation. And once that horse has bolted, it won't be coming back. Simple as.

2017: Pope Francis will probably resign. Leaving room for a successor of who knows what calibre; I dread to think.


I'm a cheery soul, n'est-ce pas? Dear readers, here's the bottom line. Find your consolations other than in the "human health" of the Church. We are not wrong to be so scandalised by the current management. We just have to take the pain. It's our cross. We have to bear it.

Our love is love unknown. And there is nothing particularly new in that.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The consolations of irrelevance

I have just come back from a few days in Beverley. Beverley, you say? Where on earth is that? Well, quite.

Beverley is one of those interesting towns that was quite important in its medieval heyday. Even now, as you approach it coming downhill through what is called the Westwood, the tree tops and roofs of the town spread out like a cloak around the shoulders of the wonderful minster. Two minutes later - by car at least - you are rattling around medieval streets, dodging pedestrians and gawping up at what is as fine a piece of gothic architecture as any I can think of on the east coast of Britain.

Here, the typical spats of medieval England were played out in the stones and carvings of the choir stalls. The Augustinian canons who were so annoyed by the success of the recently arrived Dominican friars in the town, had them carved as foxes into the minister's misericords. That's one way to sit on your enemy!

King Henry V attributed his victory at Agincourt to the intercession of St John of Beverley, a first millennium bishop of the area, since the battle was fought on the feast associated with the translation of his relics. I understand a solemn Te Deum was sung in the minster to mark the king's triumph! For more information, there is a rather interesting entry here on the blog Once I was a clever boy

But what does all this matter now? Beverley is another obscure little outpost of civilisation, figuratively a million miles away from the nation's power centres. Oddly enough, however, it is this that attracts me to it. Beverley is no longer important, nor is it likely to become so again. It stands now surrounded on all sides by the massive wind turbines that pock the landscape like some giant's discarded lolly sticks. The scenery is wild and yet somehow bland. The area is flat like Lincolnshire or Cambridgeshire but somehow less welcoming. To put it baldly, it's all rather bleak.

But again, I say, this is its strange attraction. Beverley with its surrounding countryside is pregnant with a promise that it refuses to disclose to the shallow observer. It is not fashionable. It refuses to be powerful. Its glories are faded and the moneymen and developers are too close for comfort for some of its inhabitants.

I don't know if the people of Beverley are busy doing their duty. Chances are that they are stuck in front of their TVs most evenings gulping in the propaganda of the consumerist cattle farm - never mind the udder suckers, here comes the alfalfa - that is now UK PLC.

And yet, if it is true that anything really worth doing tends to take a long time, then Beverley might be the sort of place you would choose to do it. One can imagine doing slow things beneath Beverley's leaden sky. There is nothing about its haphazard bus services that urges the commuter on. Its markets - for it is still really a market town - are unlikely to have a 'ten items or less' stall for the expediting of customers in a rush. Beverley is slow, inconvenient and utterly characterful. Beverley - I hate to admit it as a Lancastrian, but admit it I must - is grimly, doggedly, awkwardly Yorkshire at its bloody-minded, flat-capped, sod-the-lot-of-you best.


I sing the praise of irrelevance. Nobody cares about Beverley except for a few ... this happy few. It's rather like the Old Mass in fact. While some like to admire the hordes attracted to the Mass in France or elsewhere, here in Britain Traditionalists are as plentiful as an amputee's toes. A friend of ours hot-footed it up to York recently to catch the Sunday 12pm Extraordinary Form Mass at St Wildred's close to the Minster, and later reported a congregation of a mere dozen. It must be the only Old Mass for miles, possibly the only one in the entire county. Readers Gregory the Eremite and Yorkmum (see the comments below) contest the figures and put them nearer to between 60 and 100 depending on the week. What can I say? Our friend is French and her 'dozen' might have been an expression of Gallic scorn rather than genuine guestimation.

But in a way, none of this really matters. We do not have control of the wheels of history. All we can do is plough the furrows and fulfil the canons of fruitfulness. If no tangible fruitfulness results, our efforts are not wasted; they will merely bear seed in some way unknown to us.

That is a hard lesson to learn. It is not easy to swallow the dread sentence of our own utter, apparent irrelevance. But perhaps, in the shadow of Beverley, with its rich past and its apparently bleak future, it is a lesson more easily embraced.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Et in absentia ego

I had a lovely email from a reader the other day wondering if I was okay and telling me to cheer up! The message was very welcome and I duly thanked the correspondent. This depersonalised beast called the Internet occasionally throws up flotsam of the genuine kind on a sea of digital phoniness.

I have - as so often in recent years - been forced away from the blogging coalface by duties professional and familial. I need not rehearse the un-rehearsable or perhaps I should say the over-rehearsed! But my correspondent was right to tell me to cheer up. It's not that I have been glum or discouraged as such in recent weeks. It is just that I have saved my peace of soul by studiously ignoring most things beyond my front door.

I can definitely recommend the tactic. Nothing bad happens. The world does not go to hell in a handcart for want of reading one's dubious bloggalia. A couple of readers feel a bit deprived, but most just move on to something else. The blogging world is as ephemeral as the passing floats of a thousand May Day parades.

It is a tragic dilemma for a blogger to find not that he has nothing to say, but that he would rather say nothing - if tragic and blogger can be used in the same sentence (paragraph?). But something inside me says our current situation has become literally unspeakable. That does not prevent many people from still saying a lot about it. Since I too am a child of the ephemeral Internet, I might change my mind tomorrow and decide I do have something to say about it.

In short, I suppose I'm feeling a bit Wittgensteinian when faced with the passing parade of folly that we behold. I have said all I need to say in the past. Why let fall another blow upon a bruise?


But that isn't very cheering, is it? So let me tell you a little joke which has come my way. We can doing nothing about the imminent arrival of Lent in less that 45 minutes by my watch. But we can go laughing into that good night. For the full effect, you must read the bits in italics below in a strong Scots accent.

Now, go anoint your faces and smile a bit.


"Prince Charles is visiting an Edinburgh hospital. He enters a ward full of patients with no obvious sign of injury or illness and greets one.

The patient replies:
"Fair fa your honest sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin race,
Aboon them a ye take yer place,
Painch, tripe or thairm,
As langs my airm."

His Royal Highness is confused, but he just smiles and moves on to the next patient.
When greeted, however, the patient responds:

"Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat an we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit."

Even more confused, the Prince moves on to the next patient, who immediately begins to chant:

"Wee sleekit, cowerin, timrous beasty,
O the panic in thy breasty,
Thou needna start awa sae hastie,
Wi bickering brattle."

Now seriously troubled, Charles turns to the accompanying doctor and asks, "Is this a psychiatric ward?"

"No," replies the doctor. "This is the serious Burns unit."