Thursday, 31 March 2011

Here, there and everywhere

Sorry, guys, I went off for last weekend to a conference, spent two days in a school doing observations, and finally returned to HQ on Tuesday night only to fall prey to an end-of-term bug. Just my luck. Hence the failure to blog this week.

Hopefully, I can write something tomorrow, as long as I can drag myself from my sickbed. I have spent today ploughing through a novel by Claire Daudin entitled Le Sourire. It won the Grand prix catholique de la littérature last year and the story concerns a child with Hunter's Syndrome who communicates with a world of scientific rationalists, who dismiss the value of his life, by simply smiling - le sourire. More of that tomorrow, and more of the promised Bernanos from last week. Today I was just too much 'here, there and everywhere' to write anything cogent really. Which reminds me ...

Friday, 25 March 2011

Marcel Lefebvre RIP

Another week of blogging failure, thick with work and short on free thinking time. There is more to come. Tomorrow I head up to Durham for a conference where I will give a paper the preparation of which has filled up this last week. Hey ho.

But I could not let the 25 March pass by without calling to your attention the twentieth anniversary of the death of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Here we must tread lightly for we tread upon graves. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

I wonder now what his reputation is within the wider Church. One hears him mentioned so little in point of fact. The SSPX seems much more readily associated these days with his successors and their accompanying baggage. Perhaps it is only a trick of the light.

In some ways of course they are faithful to his fight, a fight which his occasionally intemperate and inaccurate theological language has unintentionally skewed. In other ways, I wonder whether Archbishop Lefebvre, as an old diplomatic operator, would have known more readily when to cut his losses and sign an accord with Rome. There is such a thing as the habit of union; it is not just a mark of the Church.

In other words, just as we can ask whether, if he were alive, Saint Thomas would be a Thomist, we can also ask whether, if he were alive, Archbishop Lefebvre would be a Lefebvrist. Still, thereby we are questioning the hegemony of his succession and are likely to be chased off the territory with a broomstick!

One thing is certain: whatever his faults, I don't think he would have ever discouraged anyone from becoming a Roman Catholic. I'm not about to push Archbishop Mennini into the dock. It's not as if he has hijacked the Apostolic Succession after all. But if his idea of preventing the Orthodox from thinking he is an ecclesial gerrymanderer consists in discouraging young men from reconciling themselves with the Bishop of Rome, then I think - to use an now defunct canonical category - that it's simply a bloody disgrace. I pray we have misunderstood him.

There are many kind of sins, and we are all guilty of them, even Archbishops Lefebvre and Mennini. Archbishop Lefebvre's, however, were sins of enthusiasm and commitment (like those of the Sons of Thunder); not sins of timidity and ingratiation (like the those of the Rock). They both, on this anniversary, deserve our prayers.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Pray for Hilary White

I have just learnt the news that Hilary White, who writes for LifeSiteNews and has her own feisty blog called Orwell's Picnic, has been diagnosed with cancer. She writes about the diagnosis here.

I've long been a fan of her writing, her breadth, her child-of-a-hippy recovery story and her sheer joyful rudeness. I wish her well and invite all readers to pray for her. We need her back and well and on the front line again.

Exercises in commuting

More Bernanos later but this morning my mind is dwelling on commuting. I am aboard the 7.30 from Paddington, and must be in harness and enlightening the ignorant by 9.00am. If only the 'train manager' would shut up for two seconds(bless him, it's his job), I might be able to have my own train of thought.

I suppose I only noticed for the first time today that it is now totally morning when I leave Paddington. In deepest winter, it was like night. A month or so ago, it was what I believe the Spanish call by the evocative name of la Madrugada. But now it is that kind of clean, rosy, mystical brightness which makes one think more readily of a morning near the Alps.

Is it only my fancy that my fellow passengers are also looking, well, sunnier? Nobody is looking less absorbed by their eletronic umbilical device, least of all this morning your blogging servant. Still, the mood seems lighter, smiles come more easily, and one has the feeling that any minute now, alongside the sun, a rash of courtesy might break out, doors might be held, and bluff one-liners could form on the lips of the tolerant commuters, delayed once more.

I have just had the feeling that I might begin veering in a Betjemanesque direction here, so let me draw a line and wish you all a good day. Anyone would think it's spring or something...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Praying for life

Tim directs me to a post on Angela Messenger's blog which can be found here. It appears that her godfather lives in Holland and has beeen scheduled for euthanasia (don't ask me how). Prayers please for the poor man, and for his murderers.

It puts me in mind of one of the grand themes running through Georges Bernanos's Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune which I quoted from yesterday. The position of critics has long been that this text shows Bernanos going over in sympathy to the Left and embracing an Enlightened form of liberalism. My own theory is that this text shows rather his increasing preoccupation with the innocence of scapegoats, i.e. those who are persecuted for reasons of State. It is a halting preoccupation at times; it did not, for example, make him reform his views on Alfred Dreyfus, as far as I have read. Still, it is tangible throughout his later pamphlets and makes better sense of his change in position than some putative shift to the Left (which can be proven in no other way).

Again, the witness of Les Grands Cimetières is so eloquent I am tempted to let it stand for itself. It hardly needs commentary. And I plead sickness, having been off work today!

Until the last moment the right-wing Spanish parties claimed to be totally against violence. [...] The 19th July 1936, the Falange was still thought of as reprehensible. For example, a young Falangist aged seventeen, whose name was Barbara, had been killed almost in front of me on the morning of the coup d'Etat. Now, the person whom propriety obliges me to call his Lordship the bishop of Majorca, after hesitating at length as to whether to grant this bandit a religious funeral - he who lives by the sword will perish by it - contented himself with forbidding his priests to go to the ceremony in surplus. Six weeks later, having just gone on my motorbike to fetch my son from the forward positions, I was to find the dead boy's brother stretched out by the side of the Porto Cristo road, already cold and covered by a shroud of flies.

Two nights before, two hundred inhabitants of the small neighbouring town of Manacor, who were thought by the Italian mercenaries to be suspect, had been dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, taken in batches to the cemetery, killed with a bullet to the head, and their corpses set ablaze. The person whom propriety obliges me to call the bishop-archbishop had delegated there one of his priests who, his shoes covered with blood, gave out absolutions between the gunshots. [...]

I simply observe that this indefensible massacre of these misérables drew not a word of blame, nor was subject to even the least inoffensive reservation, from the ecclesiastical authorities who contented themselves with organising thanksgiving processions. [...] The second Barbara was given a solemn funeral, and since the town had decided to name one of their streets after the two brothers, the new street sign was inaugurated and blessed by the person whom propriety obliges me still to call his Lordship, the bishop-archbishop of Palma.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The best laid plans

No time to blog again, as the week swells with activities. So, I offer you a few lines in insantly vamped translation from Bernanos's Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune:

Down there in Majorca I saw passing by on la Rambla lorries full of men. They rolled along with a sound like thunder [...] They were grey with the dust of the road, and the men they carried were grey also, seated four by four, their grey caps on backwards, their hands outstretched on their rough trousers, like little boys. They were rounded up each evening from remote villages whenever they came back from the fields. Then they left for their final trip, their shirts stuck to their backs with sweat, their arms still heavy with the labours of the day, leaving their soup on the kitchen table. A wife would run to the end of the garden, out of breath, with their things bundled in a new towel: A Dios, recuerdos!

You're being sentimental, you tell me. God forbid. I simply repeat - I will never tire of repeating - that those people had neither killed nor harmed anyone. They were peasants, like those you know, or rather like those your fathers knew, and who had shaken hands with your fathers. For they were very much like those tough nuts you find in our French villages, trained in Gambettist propaganda, or like those wine makers of the Var to whom the old cynic Georges Clemenceau once took the message of Science and Human Progress.

"We don't doubt they were sound chaps," the Spanish bishops will no doubt reply, "because most of them converted in extremis. According to our brother bishop in Majorca, only ten percent of them refused the sacraments before being dispatched by our brave soldiers." That's quite a percentage, I admit, which does great honour to his Lordship. May God reward him for it. For the moment at least, I make no judgment about this form of the apostolate. But supposing we soon adopted it on this side of the border in France, you must admit I'm right to wonder what we French Catholics might expect from it. Let's suppose for example that on his return from Salamanca, where Mr Charles Maurras cannot fail one of these days to go in order to say hello to General Franco, the author of 'Athinea' undertook a preventative purgation of his native town, I doubt that the parish priest of Martigues could hope for such good results. They would probably have to be a lot tougher.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The burden of belief; the burden of experience I

Since blogging time has been strictly limited in the past ten days, it occurred to me that I could simply tell you a little about the material I have been researching, and about some of its wider applications which spring to mind. The topic has been Georges Bernanos, and the focus his three pamphlets published in the late 1930s before the Second World War: les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, Scandale de la vérité and Nous autres Français. The questions which articulate the wider significance of these pamphlets are there in the title of this post: what is the burden of belief and what is the burden of experience? I'll explain those in just a moment.

Bernanos might be known to some readers for his fiction: Journal d'un curé de campagne or Sous le Soleil de Satan. Indeed he is a most striking and adventurous novelist, who helped drag secular realism towards what he calls Catholic realism, i.e. a way of depicting reality which does not eliminate the supernatural domain. He was at the same time one of those French intellectuals whom we class as engagé or committed, i.e. he was not some remote artist, doodling on his writing pad or fiddling while Rome burned. He was a keen observer of affairs in France and elsewhere, especially in the period between 1925 and 1948 (the year of his death). He had been in his youth a monarchist and member of the League of Action Française whose neo-royalist tripartite doctrine of Monarchism-Catholicism-Classicism sustained many a French Catholic under the onslaught of French secularism, or at least gave all the appearances of doing so.

What prompts the three pamphlets I have mentioned above, however, was his experience of the Spanish Civil War. He was living on Majorca in 1936 when the pronunciamento was declared, and while his eldest son went off to join the Falanje, Bernanos - his legs broken and crippled by an earlier motorbike accident - cheered the Nationalists from the sidelines. Until he saw how they were prosecuting the war on Majorca. I will mention a few of the most shocking stories over the next few posts throughout this week. But in essence he was totally stunned by what he saw, not only because it was barbaric and violent in the extreme, but also because the local Church was complicit in the atrocities which unfolded over the following months. These concerns are unpacked mainly in Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, but their consequences are also central to the two later pamphlets written before the outbreak of the World War.

And so to the two questions. The burden of belief is one way of labelling the strain which he felt on his faith in the face of the complicity of churchmen with the atrocities on the island. How can this be the Church? How can representatives of Christ behave like this?

The burden of experience is the twin of the burden of belief. How can one deny what is before one's eyes? How can one give an account of it without destroying all hope? How can one so much as hide the least truth from exposure?

With such questions will the next few posts this week be concerned. For now the burden of experience tells me I need to run for my train!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Blogging scandal

Sorry not to have been putting in the hours here this week. I'm off to a conference this morning to give a paper and that has had the priority in the last few days.

The paper addresses two late pamphlets of Georges Bernanos Scandale de la vérité and Nous autres Français. More about them next week when I'm back, although I will have another conference to prepare for as well. Typical really. I speak at no conferences for about eighteen months and then two come along together ;-)

I note that Bishop Williamson's Dinoscopus letter this week made an attempt to answer objections to the SSPX 'sbeing in the driving seat of the Church 'for all practical purposes'. His argument is that it is not a matter of truth claimants but of truth tellers. I've no time here to go into this very much but this is something of a smokescreen. If one advances a thesis which the Church not only does not propose but is positively averse to, you are surely a 'claimant' of a kind until your position is judged. Unless the SSPX is saying that their position on the New Mass is definitive: is it definitive? And if not, what is it?

Anyway, it's a scandal to blog à la hâte like this. My hearty apologies. Call it a wave through the window!

Back soon.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

RIP Nessa

There has not been much blogging time this week due to two imminent conferences (with papers not ready!) and the mountain of marking I have to do before the end of term.

Still, there is time enough to report the sad news of the death of Nessa O'Byrne Healy. Those who recall Nessa will remember a feisty, warm-hearted, perpetually handsome Irish lady of Republican persuasion. She was one of 'the ladies' who worked on the SSPX's summer camps in Highclere lo those many years ago. My fondest memory of her was the time she leapt to her feet to snatch from my hand a piece of burnt toast I was about to consume on the grounds that it could give me cancer!

She was bossy and lovely in equal measure but perfectly tolerant of we lesser mortals who call ourselves English. I'm very sorry to hear the news and commend her and her family to your prayers.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Haiku in disaster

I came across two extraordinary stories from Japan today as it struggles to cope with the effects of the massive earthquake which hit it last week and the even more destructive tsunami that followed. The first story was that of a man who had gone back to his seaside house with his wife before evacuating in the wake of the earthquake. While they were still in the house, the tsunami hit, sweeping his wife away (very probably to her death) and then taking the man in his house out to sea. By this time the house was not much more than a few wooden slats providing a kind of extempore raft. For two days - two, count 'em! - he drifted at sea and was missed by passing helicopters and boats. He was finally spotted yesterday from a Japanese destroyer and rescued - alive to everyone's surprise!

The second story is not so much a story as an observation. Why is there no looting in Japan or at least none reported?

It is an extraordinary nation, there is no doubt about it: driven but cohesive, orderly if brutal. One can only wonder at the loss of life and the destruction of so many east-coast towns and communities. And at these little instances of goodness in the midst of it all.

God help them all.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Prayers again please

More prayers are needed for a very special request.

Much obliged to you all.

PS I have been working most of the weekend on a paper for an upcoming conference but hope to blog tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Prayer request

Dear readers,

Those who have followed this blog for a while might remember an occasional commenter who went by the moniker of Victoria Mildew. I am sorry to report that she has just received a diagnosis of cancer involving two primaries: breast and peritoneal. It's rather rare and clearly she faces considerable obstacles in getting better.

With your Lenten heads on, therefore, please remember her, her husband and her family in your prayers.


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Man blunders again

I cannot believe I missed International Women's Day again this year. Did you have it marked down in your diary? How organised of you! I'm afraid it slipped my notice for what must be nearly the fortieth time in my life. It is just some kind of blind spot.

Don't get me wrong! As Sir Humphrey Appleby says somewhere, 'Some of my best friends are women.' It's just that an international day of phoney celebration, releasing balloons or doves and joining in candle-lit vigils, is beyond even my powers of endurance, whatever the cause or the agenda. But then why do people get so excited about it? I've heard of 'any port in a storm', but 'any bandwagon in a crowd'?


I assisted at a Mass this evening at which the Missa Santi Joannae Dei (sp?) was sung. The music was lovely, at least taken in the abstract. In his sermon the priest observed that Haydn, who had written it, was a devout Catholic who used to get inspiration from praying the Rosary. But then if he was so devout - and I'm not doubting it, honest! - why did he write a Benedictus which held up the consecration for what felt like five minutes? It's no good telling me that St Pius X banned all that stuff: it still gets performed. I wonder if my lack of sympathy for it is like my lack of sympathy for International Women's Day - a feeling of resistant to the implausible elaboration of what should naturally bring us into a state of veneration. Why the fuss and bother?

Along such fault lines do classical and baroque minds part company.

Go to 3 minutes in for another view.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

SSPX methodology: a question for Bishop Williamson

My post on The endgame of the SSPX last week attracted a lot of attention, mostly because of links provided by William Oddie and Fr Z. William Oddie then went on to give an unfortunately clumsy account of what the SSPX say about the New Mass. More of that perhaps another time.

But practically nobody dialogued with the logic of the obstacles, which makes me want to come back to restate them. John L. made an attempt in the comments below the original post, but then his list of documents missed the point about the distinction of expertise and pastoral authority. I note, furthermore, that in Bishop Williamson's latest Dinoscopus letter, he makes the argument that Rome can only survive by returning to the Truth - a Truth to which the SSPX has been faithful.

My view is that what Bishop Williamson and the SSPX confuse are the teachings of the Catholic Church and their own theological arguments (which deploy those teachings). Let's take the example of the Mass since William Oddie referenced it in his article a few days ago. When it is said that the New Mass 'expresses a new Faith, a Faith which is not ours, a Faith which is not the Catholic Faith' (Bishop Fellay's letter - citing Archbishop Lefebvre - to Pope John Paul II in The Problem of the Liturgical Reform , p. i), it is somehow thought that this position can be suitably justified through a theological analysis of the New Mass given by the SSPX's experts. Since, for example, they (following Oddi's and Bacci's earlier judgment) judge there to be no consistency between the Twenty-Second Session of the Council of Trent and the theology of the reformed missal, they believe this to be a sufficient proof (backed up by the decline in Catholicism in the West) of the latter's lack of Catholicity, regardless of what anyone else, inclding Rome, says. Indeed, the results of their analysis and the dogmatic premisses on which they are constructed are what Bishop Williamson calls 'Catholic Truth'. When he says that Rome must recognise Catholic Truth and be faithful to it, what he clearly implies is that since there is no questioning of the dogmatic premisses on which the SSPX build their criticism of the New Mass, the edifice of their analysis is itself absolutely sound.

But this position is both logically and methodologically unstable.

i) Logically, the authorities on which I base an argument are only part of my final analysis. All the minor premisses of my argument must also be sound: my observations, my interpretations of data, the way in which I categorise and conceptualise the problems I am trying to study, etc. In addition, my handling of the major premisses must be sound. By way of comparison, Protestant criticism of the Church cannot be justified simply by being based on Sacred Scripture, however Sacred it is. Likewise, the traditionalists can arrive in various ways at a theological view of the New Mass, or of other issues - indeed, one must arrive at the conclusions contained potentially in one's premisses - but they are wrong to treat that view as definitive, however theologically weighty their major premisses are. No Council has found the New Mass to be unCatholic; that view is the result of a theological argument. In other words, the fact I bang a big bass drum doesn't mean there is a brass band following behind me!

ii) Methodologically, this position is also weak because the theologians who have generated it, and their elders who promote it, appear ultimately unwilling to be moderated either by the criticism of their peers (in spite of some contacts in France, are any of the SSPX's theses being published and discussed in theological journals?) or by the judgment of the Church's authorities. In the recent doctrinal discussions, there was no sense in which the SSPX took their position to Rome for it to be assessed. They took it to Rome to convince Rome that it was already fundamentally sound, so fundamentally sound in fact that, for the SSPX, it has become the measuring stick for Rome's orthodoxy (or has put the SSPX in the driving seat, as Bishop Williamson says). Such a conclusion is only possible because the SSPX's methodology has become, as it were, invisible to the minds of its experts.

We have a crisis in the Church and lots of grave problems. Not everyone agrees with this view, but a lot of sensible people do. The problem is, then: whose reading of the problems should be our guiding light? And which experts can we trust? In the end there is no escaping the conclusion that every expert who is not willing to have his position moderated by Rome is not in fact serving any truth but his own; in the end, it is ironic that making the pastoral Magisterium of the Hierarchy {especially that of the chief pastor} subject to the Magisterium of the Experts involves exactly the kind of modernist assumption that the SSPX has declared itself opposed to. If Bishop Williamson cares about the Truth, as indeed I believe he does deeply, he must ultimately admit that there is a real distinction in re between the teachings of the Church and the results of the analyses by SSPX theologians. Sadly I see no sign of this distinction starting to dawn on him or on any of his colleagues. Let me hereby challenge him respectfully to address the argument.

Unlike a lot of people, I happen to think there is a place for Bishop Williamson and the SSPX in the mainstream, banging their big bass drums for all they are worth. They just have to realise that the percussion section cannot be a law unto itself, and that moving from a march to a waltz does not constitute the abandonment of rhythm.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Accept no substitutes

I've had only one eye on the crisis in Libya in the last few weeks. As usual, a greater tangle of events, narratives, confusion and cruelty is hard to imagine, until the next one comes along. But, at the same time, one cannot help having a certain scepticism that the proposed solution of democracy is what the Libyan rebels desire.

This is not just the scepticism one has to show to all press accounts of whatever happens in the world these days. If we believed the press, then where would the reputation of Pope Benedict XVI be right now? But what I'm getting at goes deeper. This scepticism comes not just from fear of the accuracy of the media, but also from the fear that its representation of events creates a kind of imposture of what is really happening.

How many Libyan rebels are there in fact? Thousands? Millions? Hundreds, as Gaddafi himself would like everyone to believe? And what is it they actually want? In the depiction of these events, how many layers of real Libyan experience and desire are being painted over by the whitewash of liberal expectation elsewhere?

The drunken Marxist theorist Guy Debord gave us the term 'société du spectacle' for such social illusions, created by the turning of experience into a commidity. It would be radical scepticism to suppose that that was all the media were interested in. But then there is no doubt that the spectacle of Libyan revolt is feeding the self-referential assumptions of liberalism elsewhere.

Meanwhile, we have to wonder what other factors underpin the unfolding of this crisis. Local tribal histories? Exterior strategic interest in Libyan resources? Or the simple refusal to tolerate any longer a man who is a thug of a ruler by anyone's standards?

And in all this, we mustn't throw out the baby with the bath water. The social illusions created by the media do not mean that all journalism is bad or that everything is a pantomime. The media remains in many ways a poor answer to that perennial question: quis custodit custodes? Who will oversee those who oversee us?

So, must we retreat into subjectivism on all these questions? By no means. I think, however, a healthy profession of agnosticism about the explanation of complex events is a perfectly acceptable position with regard to history, even if it is not so with regard to doctrine.

Indeed, a certain scepticism about explanations of events is always a useful method when approaching any historical account which underpins some prevailing power; historical truth and justice are not matters of revelation after all.

Be as wise as serpents, our Lord tells us. Would that we always were.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Sensible Bond goes mobile

Testing, testing, testing. Equiped with my free Blackberry upgrade from Vodaphone, I am now able to blog on the move! Ho hum, you observe. Better find something worthwhile to say then!

I am actually killing time as my Thameslink train to Saint Pancras is being delayed by ... Signalling problems! The paradoxes of technology eh!