Thursday, 28 July 2011

Catholic literature and secularisation

Readers may be interested in a new book just published:

Catholic literature and secularisation in France and England, 1880-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)

This book is the first comparative study of its kind to explore at length the French and English Catholic literary revivals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These parallel but mostly independent movements include writers such as Charles PĆ©guy, Paul Claudel, J.K. Huysmans, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G. K. Chesterton, and Lionel Johnson. Revising critical approaches which tend to treat Catholic writings as exotic marginalia, this book makes extensive use of secularisation theory to confront these Catholic writings with the preoccupations of secularism and modernity.

Orders through me will cost £30.

For more details of the book, follow the link here.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Oxford pro-life witness

Amanda Lewin asks me to advertise this event.

Saturday, 30th July - Oxford Pro-life witness

3pm- 4pm

Please join us to pray for all unborn babies and their families who have been affected by the evil of abortion.

We stand at the entrance to the John Radcliffe Hospital, just in front of the Church of St Anthony of Padua, Headley Way, Oxford.

Refreshments available afterwards.

Please keep the unborn in your prayers and please pass this on to anyone you know who may like to join us. Thank you!

Topsy-Turvy Talking

Fr Davide Pagliarini, the SSPX district superior of Italy, has given an interview, reported by Rorate Caeli, in which he says the following:

"I can only repeat that which has been clearly and always explained by my superiors: the canonical situation in which the Fraternity is currently places is a consequence of its resistance to the errors that infest the Church; consequently, the possibility for the Fraternity to reach a regular canonical situation does not depend on us, but on the acceptance by the hierarchy of the contribution that Tradition can give for the restoration of the Church.

I like Fr Pagliarini; we rubbed elbows in the kitchen sinks of Econe lo those many years ago. But at best this is topsy-turvy talk. I've upset everyone else this week from Westminster Archdiocese to the advocates of queering the Church, so I might as well offer an opinion on the SSPX too.

1. The current canonical situation of the SSPX is not simply the result of their resistance to the errors in the Church; it is the result of the way in which they think those errors must be fought. Fr Pagliarini's argument is a bit like saying that a man who gets a ticket for speeding has been punished for driving fast (whereas he has been punished for driving TOO fast).

2. 'The acceptance by the hierarchy of the contribution that Tradition can make to the restoration of the Church' - this is code for 'we'll be good if our theses are accepted'.

Really, it makes one wonder who exactly is going to bring the Church to the point of being ready to SSPXify itself. How exactly is the Church ever going to improve her internal life if good people hold themselves to one side under the illusion that self preservation can be assured in no other way? The SSPX holds to this logic with all the unshakeable confidence of the man on the roof in a flood who has prayed for divine assistance and refuses all human help that comes along.

In addition to the mark of unity, which is one of the signs of the Church's divine origins, there is also a habit of unity. The habit of unity is what makes it possible for us to know how to live under the same roof with others who are effectively our estranged brothers. It is a risky business, let nobody deny it. My blog posts of last week are a response precisely to one of the risks that it entails. But if one believes in the power of the Holy Ghost in the Church, and in our conformity to Christ through a VISIBLE institution - and that's what I mean by the Church; the Church is not a theory or a treatise of theology - , then there is no plausible alternative.

In other words, there is no other providentially assigned way for the Church to operate than through its divine constitution. That is why the Church has known periods of Borgias and periods of saints. It has never known a period in which the Holy See is rightly treated for all practical purposes as a defected bishopric.

It's hot in the kitchen, Davide, but it's where you have to be!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Now that is a surprise

Today I have had at least ten visits from, a nasty little site for nasty little people who like to hack into the websites of others. Now, just who do you think would want to hack my blogsite at the moment? Obviously someone who abstracts from decency in the blogosphere; probably, someone who is miffed at what I have been blogging about; clearly, not one of my friends.

Curious how the bonds of reason break, isn't it? If you don't like what I have written and are prepared to argue dispassionately, you will find me a very reasonable interlocutor.

Blogger is on the case by the way.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

A Quest too far: theological omerta in Westminster

I blogged this morning about the conference of Quest and about Quest's agenda. I likewise lamented the betrayal committed against those who suffer same-sex attraction by the Archdiocese of Westminster acting in such a way as to make Quest a dialogue partner in this field of pastoral care. By Friday evening the wait for a reponse from Westminster to my two questions on this issue came to an end. Neither question was answered. The message simply told me that Archbishop Nichols knew about Quest's conference at London Colney and that he has engaged members of Quest in dialogue. So what should we make of that?


Imagine for a moment you arrive at your friend's house and two of his teenage sons are sitting in the back garden smoking canabis with their friends and praising the virtues of free love and legalised drugs. Horrified, you go back inside and you say to your friend:

'Do you approve of your kids smoking pot in the back garden and praising free love and legalised drugs ?' And he answers:

'I know they're smoking pot in the back garden and praising free love and legalised drugs.'

Bewildered, you march into the kitchen where you find your friend's wife cooking up a storm and laying out bottles of beer and wine on the dining room table. 'Excuse me a minute,' she says, 'I'm just getting a special supper ready for the kids.'

'Your kids are out there smoking pot, praising free love and legalised drugs.'

'Yes,' she says, 'but we do talk to them about it.'


It seems to me that the answer from the Archbishop's private secretary - which is of course the mind of the Archbishop who appeared to have dictated the email - is a calculated albeit flimsy evasion. After all, if the diocese approves, what is the problem in admitting it? The problem arises only if the diocese approves something it should not in fact approve. Does Westminster know it should not approve this conference? The email's allusion to dialogue provides some semblance of distance between the diocese and Quest; after all, the vocabulary of 'dialogue' belongs to the language of external relations. The subtext is that 'we don't approve'.

But, the fact that the conference is happening on diocesan property is already a certain seal of approval de facto. The fact that there will be Sunday Mass at 2.30pm at the end of the conference - I have had this from two sources within Quest - is another indication that the diocese is effectively (not officially) sanctioning rather than merely tolerating this conference.

Let me make clear I am making no conclusions yet about the Archbishop's theology on these points. Some people are raising questions - there is a whole wesbite dedicated to his more suspect public comments - but I believe it is too early to tell. Rather, I return to my argument of this morning. Diocesan involvement in the Quest conference - and the diocese is involved, as sure as a parent who allows his children to smoke pot in the family back garden - is an affront to all Catholics who feel same-sex attraction and who want to live out the full Catholic teaching on human sexuality, cost what it may. The very fact that the Archbishop knew about the conference and did not prevent or stop it, or warn against it, or in any way voice his reservations concerning it, is ... well ... as irresponsible as a man who lets his kids smoke pot in the back garden because, well, "We know what they do and we have talked to them about it." The fact he might have other children going cold turkey up in their bedrooms isn't even mentioned.

Unless ...


... Unless, the argument that Trisagion made this week holds good: that the diocese is obliged under the Sexual Orientations Regulations not to turn down a booking at London Colney from this group. But in that case, what is the harm in admitting this? What is the harm in saying: 'Legally we were obliged and we did not think this was a battle we could win'? It might appear spineless but at least it would not appear to be an act of complicity with a group whose purpose - I repeat once again - is avowedly to deconstruct the Catholic teaching about homosexuality.


But why would the Archbishop not admit to that pressure from the law? For the same reason that he says he knows about Quest's conference but does not say whether he approves of Quest conference. I feel that in posing this question we begin to move into the modus operandi of the current Westminster diocesan administration. We cannot see inside their heads but we can look at what they do. And do they not show all the signs of being afraid of giving hostages to media fortune? Clearly, one should not give needless hostages to fortune, but don't we sometimes have to speak the truth, whatever the inconvenience? Arguably, this apparent policy, a kind of theological omerta if you will, is a sign that the Westminster curia, in particular the office of the Archbishop, does not want the media firestorm that a select but influential clique of the chattering classes could rain down on its head if Westminster provided them with the headline: 'Archbishop opposes gay conference'.

From the perspective of such a modus operandi, the fact that the Archbishop would probably be applauded by many people for a gentle but inexorable defence of Catholic moral teaching appears to be inconceivable. Yet if the pope's example of speaking the truth to power in Britain last year has not convinced the current hierarchy that they CAN raise their heads above the parapets, be villified and then a week later be feted like film stars, then when will they ever learn?

But there is another problem here too, and it is this: the Catholic Church in this country has long had a policy of saying nothing about the trickier areas of human sexuality. The same pragmatic silence which covers the area of homosexuality is deployed on the topic of contraception, IVF, cohabitation, etc. Most Catholics nowadays use contraception and would hardly know why the Church forbids it. Most Catholics have sexual partners long before they are married these days and would not know why the Church does not approve. The problem isn't sin; we will always sin. The problem is NEEDLESS IGNORANCE! As we know, this silence is so utterly poisonous and destructive - is anybody in a mitre listening, for crying out loud? - that it has left several generations of Catholics with few moral or intellectual resources to resist the ambient culture. Is it any wonder such groups as Quest exist? I would say that the desperation with which some Catholics welcome the Theology of the Body is a sign of the great thirst which exists for a plenary and authentic teaching on these issues.


I have received at least two communications in the course of these posts from individuals who have met the same theological omerta in Westminster. My experience has been rather limited in comparison to theirs. I have few other conclusions to offer you, other than to invite you all to pray for Archbishop Nichols, for Westminster, for Quest and its members and for all those suffering with same-sex attraction.

Somewhere, somehow, the Church in this country has to find a voice which is not afraid to be the voice of prophetic witness.

Somehow, it has to find a modus operandi which is not bogged down in the complicity which arises from its own purblind pragmatism and which does not look to flimsy evasion and theological omerta for its defence. Somehow ...


A Quest too far: Reflections on another Westminster Waltz

We have come an interesting journey over the last few days on The Sensible Bond. For those of you who are not up to speed, by all means go and read the posts from Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

Finally, yesterday, I did indeed receive a reply from the private secretary of Archbishop Nichols. More of that further on. So, it is about time we gather our thoughts together and reflect a little on Quest and on the conduct of the Archdiocese of Westminster in relation to Quest's conference. I am not going to concern myself with the justification of the Catholic understanding of human sexuality. For anybody in doubt on this point, I refer you to Paragraph 2357 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am simply going to deal, first, with the problem that Quest's agenda poses, and then (in a second post later this afternoon) with the actions of the Archdiocese of Westminster in that light.


In one respect, Quest's very existence must be attributed to the failure of other Catholics to have the respect, compassion and sensitivity which the Catechism states we should show towards people with a same-sex attraction. Seriously, with some people, particularly of a conservative bent, the very mention of homosexuality induces furrowed brows and curled lips. If they thought about it for a minute, however, they would realise that that is exactly the way to drive those with same-sex attractions into each others' arms (no pun intended).

On another level, however, Quest is based on an entirely incoherent ambition of reconciling the full expression of the Catholic faith with the full expression of homosexual natures. I paraphrase Quest's first purpose. To savour the absurdity of this proposition, compare it for a minute with the possibility of a Catholic Polyamorous Society devoted to reconciling the full expression of the Catholic faith with the taking of multiple partners (because, after all, nobody is attracted only to one person). Or let us imagine the foundation of the Catholic Kleptomaniac Society, devoted to reconciling the full expression of the Catholic faith with the taking of other people's property (since the very notion of property is itself an imperialistic and outdated value). Quest's ambitions frankly are about as serious as that. We have just lost the sense of absurdity that such propositions ought to provoke.

In criticising the Archdiocese of Westminster for allowing Quest to hold their conference at London Colney, I am fully aware of the respect, compassion and sensitivity which must be shown to people with same-sex attractions. My contention, however, is that in allowing this conference to be hosted on diocesan property, the diocese has effectively acknowledged Quest as a serious partner in this important Catholic project. But Quest's purpose is so decidedly irreconcilable with the Catholic cause, that the actions of the Archdiocese cannot but harm pastoral ministry to people with same-sex attractions. THis is the right race but absolutely NOT the right horse.

I think of those Catholics who realise that their same-sex attraction can never be reconciled with the full expression of the Catholic faith. What an insult and offence to their painful, moral struggle the actions of the Archdiocese of Westminster have been in this matter. Why after all should they bother struggling? Why not simply embrace the squared circle and sleep with people of the same sex, especially if the diocese is prepared to extend its hospitality to them (excepting the Sexual Orientation Regulations question to which I will return)?


This is why I have pursued my little campaign in the last few days to get some answers from the Archdiocese of Westminster; specifically, I wanted to know whether the diocese approved the use of London Colney for the Quest conference, and whether the Archbishop backed the conference. Finally, after three unanswered e-mails and a further e-mail to the press and public affairs office, I received late yesterday afternoon an e-mail from the private secretary of Archbishop Nichols. Courtesy prevents me reproducing the entire text, but in the interests of fairness let me give you the substance of the reply:

1. The Archbishop was aware that Quest is holding their conference at All Saints, London Colney.

2. He has met with members of this organisation in order to engage them in dialogue.

I replied accordingly:

Dear Fr O'Leary,

Please assure his Grace of my sincere prayers and good will. He will no doubt appreciate, however, that your message does not begin remotely to answer either of my questions.

Very best wishes, etc.

Well, I asked my questions, and I eventually got the only answer that the Archbishop of Westminster was inclined to give me.

I'll tell you what I think of that later.

Friday, 22 July 2011

An answer from Westminster ...

... details coming soon.

Still no answers ...

At least according to the publicity, London Colney All Saints Pastoral Centre 22-24 July will be the venue for the Quest conference this weekend. In brief, Quest states that its first purpose is to 'associate lay men and women who are seeking ways of reconciling the full practice of their Catholic faith with the full expression of their homosexual natures in loving Christian relationships.' I wrote about this matter on Sunday and Wednesday. Someone in the comments below suggested that whatever happens, they will not stop the conference. But that was never my target. Targets have to be credibly achievable! My target has simply been to get information from the diocese about whether this event is approved. More precisely, I wanted to know, indeed I still want to know, if the Archdiocese of Westminster is happy for this event to take place in a pastoral centre which it owns, and whether Archbishop Nichols gives his backing to the conference.

As I stated on Wednesday, I wrote twice very courteously to the administrator of London Colney, Alan Johnstone, and the Archbishop's office, seeking this information. I didn't ask them to cancel it, I didn't state my own opinion, other than to call myself a concerned Catholic. I simply asked them - am I sounding repetitive? It's my Jeremy Paxman impersonation - if this event was diocese approved and whether it had the backing of Archbishop Nichols. I wrote for a third time on Thursday, this time copying in the CDF (a blank email address, for all I know, but why not widen the loop a bit?):

Dear sirs,

This is now the third time I have emailed you (previous emails copied below) to inquire about the Quest conference to be held this weekend 22-24 July at London Colney Pastoral Centre.

I will be very happy if you will just confirm two things for me:

1) Does the diocese approve of Quest being allowed to hold their conference in a centre which it owns?

2) Does Archbishop Nichols lend his support to this conference?

If you do not reply, then I will conclude that the answer to these questions is in the affirmative.

Yours faithfully, etc.

And answer came there none. A simple yes or no would have sufficed, but neither was given. Need I explain to this readership: qui tacit videtur consentire? He who is silent is seen to give consent.

So, I'm now making the diocesan press office aware of my campaign to get some answers. Let us hope in the course of the day that they manage to provide them.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A soothing interlude

I notice the OCD clickers are back, desperate to click on something to signify their disgust at the furrow which we plough on this blog. So, as a soothing interlude before tomorrow's business, I post John Taverner's setting of the Magnificat. Goodness, I first heard this in 1989 sung by the chamber choir of Chetham's School of Music. And it still sends tingles down my spine.

Please also pray for the wife of a friend and reader of this blog who is currently in hospital.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A curious silence in Westminster

On Sunday night I blogged about the fact that Quest are due to hold their annual conference at London Colney All Saints Pastoral Centre which is owned by the Westminster diocese. I said then the following:

But I'm curious whether Archbishop Nichols knows about this meeting. I'm curious whether he is happy that the pastoral centre of his diocese is hosting a conference for an organisation whose aims are to defy and undermine a Catholic moral teaching repeated again and again in recent years.

There is no doubt in my mind that Quest openly opposes the Magisterium on the issue of the compatibility of the full expression of homosexuality with the full expression of the Catholic faith. Indeed, they say these things are quite compatible.


So, rather than sitting here doing nothing, I wrote to the Westminster Diocesan Office for Pastoral Affairs on Monday morning. Undoubtedly, it must be a busy office but I was sent a prompt reply stating that it had no responsibility for London Colney.

Next, I sent an email to London Colney and to the office of Archbishop Nichols directly which read as follows:

Dear sirs,

I understand that Quest are to hold a conference at London Colney Pastoral Centre on 22-24 July. As a concerned Catholic, I would like to ask whether the diocese approves of Quest being allowed to hold their conference in a centre which it owns, and also whether Archbishop Nichols lends his support to this conference.

Yours faithfully, etc.

I did not expect an immediate answer, but perhaps at least a holding response acknowledging my email. Unlike the Pastoral Office, however, neither London Colney nor the office of Archbishop Nichols replied.

By Tuesday evening when there was still no reply, I thought that perhaps they needed a little reminder of my correspondence. While this might seem a bit hurried, the conference is due to start this coming Friday and I thought it best to clear these matters up. So, I wrote for a second time:

Dear sirs,

Given the proximity of the Quest conference, I would appreciate it very much if you could answer my two questions which I submitted to you yesterday. I will be quite content with yes or no answers:

1) Does the diocese approve of Quest being allowed to hold their conference in a centre which it owns?

2) Does Archbishop Nichols lend his support to this conference?

Yours faithfully, etc.

Today there has been once again no reply from either party: not from Alan Johnstone, the administrator of London Colney, and not from the office of the Archbishop.


Now, call me old fashioned, but I am not drawing any conclusions from the current radio silence (or whatever the email equivalent is). I'm sure these offices are very busy and have a mountain of work to get through. But surely enquiries about current events could receive punctual replies, even of the briefest kind. Indeed, I have attempted to make their job easier for them by simply asking for 'yes' or 'no' answers. They could satisfactorily have answered my emails something like this:

Dear thingy,

1. Yes (or no, as the case may be)

2. Yes (or no, as the case may be)

Yours, etc.

So, there we have it. I thought I would let readers know that I have been trying to get some clarity from Westminster Diocese on this question. It does OWN London Colney after all. And Quest is clearly a group which both professes to be Catholic and at the same time defies the Magisterium (which includes the teaching authority of the bishops in communion with the Holy See) on a key area of human sexuality. I suppose what I'm getting at is that this is quite a grave question really. I don't want to overstate the matter but there it is.

So, does the diocese approve of Quest holding this conference at London Colney, and does Archbishop Nichols lend his support to Quest's conference?

I will of course write again tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A tale of two conferences: PEEP and Quest

I think there is a fairly widespread consensus that when the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (PEEP) conference was cancelled last month, the organisation had effectively shot itself in the foot, not once but twice. First, having secured Cardinal Burke's agreement to speak, they then advertised the conference in such an openly contentious way with regard to the English and Welsh Bishops that His Eminence could only withdraw from the event. Second, PEEP then cast around for emergency substitute speakers and found two, er, let us call them mavericks, Fr Paul Kramer and Robert Sungenis, who were so controversial that Westminster Methodist Central Hall pulled the plug on the event. If only they had taken a leaf out of Quest's book...

Quest, unless you are unaware, is ... well, let me say it in their own words on their homepage:

Quest is a group for lesbian, gay and bisexual Catholics. Its purpose is to proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ so as to sustain and increase Christian belief among homosexual men and women. Membership is open to all who share Quest’s aims, regardless of sexual orientation or religious affiliation. Transgendered persons should feel themselves especially welcome.

And what is the purpose of Quest? Well, let me quote what they state is their first aim:

The purpose of Quest is to proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ so as to sustain and increase Christian belief among homosexual men and women by:

1. associating lay men and women who are seeking ways of reconciling the full practice of their Catholic faith with the full expression of their homosexual natures in loving Christian relationships, and providing opportunities for them to meet together for worship, discussion and study.

Now, by all means have a look around Quest's website. John Smeaton, to whom we must be grateful for drawing our attention to this matter, quotes from several articles published on Quest's website which seem, on a cursory inspection, to be in keeping with Quest's general ethos. But I'm sure you might already know as much as you want to know about Quest after reading their primary aim, as quoted above: 'reconciling the full practice of their Catholic faith with the full expression of their homosexual natures.' It was certainly enough for Cardinal Hume who, according to somebody I spoke to yesterday, had Quest removed from the diocesan directory.

So, given the character and aims of Quest, why on earth am I saying that PEEP ought to have taken a leaf out of Quest's book? Well, because Quest will next weekend hold their annual conference at London Colney All Saints Pastoral Centre which is owned by the Archdiocese of Westminster. Indeed, their website says that they are 'Part of the Diocese of Westminster'. Somewhere, somehow, PEEP missed a trick.


I say PEEP could have taken a leaf out of Quest's book. After all, if you had some kind of Catholic group and you were holding your meeting at a diocesan pastoral centre, people would surely assume that your group met with the approval of the said diocese. And it seems that PEEP could do with a bit of diocesan kudos.

On the other hand, said someone to me yesterday, London Colney will rent out their conference facilities to anyone, builders, plumbers, etc., anyone... Yes, I answered, but the Catholic religion has no objection to plumbing and building, or at least none that I am aware of (please feel free to correct me in the comments). I am myself due to go to a wedding reception in a few weeks time at London Colney Pastoral Centre and now find myself scratching my head at the contradiction before us. On one weekend London Colney, the pastoral centre of the Westminster diocese, will host a conference for a group whose main aim is entirely contrary to Catholic teaching on human sexuality. A few weeks later, London Colney, the pastoral centre of the Westminster diocese, will host a reception for a Catholic wedding which will be, I'm sure, entirely in keeping with Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Is it just me? Or is the only thing that Quest and our wedding reception have in common the colour of their money?


I'm not one of those people who thinks that everything that happens in a diocese happens with the full knowledge and consent of the local bishop. But neither am I one of those people who thinks that everything the local bishop sees fit to approve is in fact fine and we should all learn to just hold our tongues. Did I just say 'learn to hold our tongues'? I cannot think where that expression came from.

But I'm curious whether Archbishop Nichols knows about this meeting. I'm curious whether he is happy that the pastoral centre of his diocese is hosting a conference for an organisation whose aims are to defy and undermine a Catholic moral teaching repeated again and again in recent years. And, frankly, I'm curious whether London Colney would open its doors to any other organisation which defies and undermines Catholic teaching, for example, Planned Parenthood or even the BNP? Okay, so perhaps those organisations don't qualify as spiritual groups. What if there were a Catholic Polyamorous Society (the CPS!)? There isn't one - the very idea is repugnant - but just supposing there was one, dedicated to the full expression of polyamory, just as others might be dedicated to to the full expression of their homosexual natures. "Yes," their webpage might say, "we want to help the Church achieve a more progressive understanding of exclusivity in marriage; after all, exclusivity contradicts the strong and frequent attractions that many people have towards multiple partners and leaves them with a terrible dilemma of conscience. Don't we have to think exclusivity through?"

So, do you think polyamorous Catholics would be able to book their conference at London Colney? Me neither. And why would organisations who sin against the exclusive character of the nuptial relationship be more disadvantaged than one which intends to deconstruct the intersexual nature of the nuptial relationship? Come to think of it, would PEEP be able to hold their conference at London Colney? Something tells me they would not.


I've spoken to a priest of the Westminster Diocese and he is going to write to somebody in the know to inquire into this event.

Reasonable and charitable comments only, please. Ranters, ravers and self-appointed lynch mobs will be deleted.

Thursday, 14 July 2011


I stood for a little while in Westminster Hall last night as a dear friend reflected on the building. Just imagine, he observed, that when St Thomas More, St Edmund Campion and the proto-martrys of the Henrician revolution stood condemned in this very building, they probably looked up and saw the same immense angels carved in wood and the same expansive medieval ceiling. Breathing the same air, their eyes raised to the same glorious architecture, they were then led away to their deaths.

As he was speaking a gaggle of parliamentary guests came streaming across the hall and bustled passed us, so many...

I had not thought death had undone so many ...

Well, that's a little bit harsh perhaps! But their obliviousness was suddenly fixed in my mind as a symbol of the obliviousness of us all as we totter around on a daily basis, treading on the graves of deep, Christian history and saintly fact.

A couple of years ago I was asked to organise a little trip around Wessex for some visiting American students. I did so happily and we have just done it again barely two weeks ago. What struck me the first time, and once more on this occasion, was again the depth and richness of our past and the extent to which it goes mostly ignored. Who in the Thames Valley enthusiastically celebrates it as the scene of the mission of Saint Birinus, sent by Pope Honorius, or the location of Alfred the Great's many battles against the Danish pagans? Not many, that's for sure, although such events are rather more crucial to its deepest identity than the presence of Microsoft or Huntley and Palmer's biscuits.

One of the main arguments in a recent paper I gave on the Ballad of the White Horse was that the ballad reflects very powerfully on the problem of remembering and forgetting, not as pure cognitive processes or failures, but as essential signs of our moral life. What we remember and what we forget are indicative of who we are and of the direction in which our moral compass points. Generally speaking, remembering is associated with continuity, gratitude, stability or perseverance; forgetting with an inward-turning fracture in our identity. The only two kinds of forgetfulness which are in fact allowed are humility (forgetfulness of self) and acceptance of forgiveness (forgetfulness of our offences).

But remembering and forgetting are no simple processes. As I write France is gearing up for a day of celebrations to mark the liberation of the Bastille Prison during the French Revolution. This seems to be an example of what one historian has called 'invented tradition' in which a community commemorates some past event and attributes to it some meaning which it did not possess. The Bastille Prison after all contained few prisoners.

If one sin against memory is the sin of forgetting, another sin against memory is the sin of false recal. On the social level, we can call this invented tradition; on the individual level, I suppose it can be associated with nostalgia. But nostalgia is not so much invented as blurred; nostalgia, in other words, involves a heavy dose of analgesia. I need hardly say that this is one of the great dangers of the conservative moment which is pressing itself upon the Church currently. We are passing successfully out of the period of great forgetfulness (and, yes, frank denial) which marks the years since Vatican II. We must not now counter its profound ills by turning instead to an equally false recall of the past.

There is a third category of sin against memory for which I fail to find a name. It is the kind of memory which asserts itself over authority in the supernatural order. Because I remember it THIS way, that is the way it was and is. In other words, individual memory can be privately canonised, just as much as individual judgment can, and, I would argue, with similarly disastrous consequences. In the natural order, this is a much more vexed question. We have already commented on false recall on the public level, and individual memory might well assert itself against official invented traditions. On the other hand, individuals themselves are quite capable of false recall or indeed of inventing the past in their own interests; this is often the case with war criminals who try to deconstruct the past actions of which they stand accused. In all cases, memory stands in need of purification, just as much as our judgments do.


My theme is memory, as Charles Ryder says. Last night I went out onto the terrace of the Houses of Parliament and recognised a lady whom my friend and I had known many years ago and whose daughter is now an MP. We approached her and greeted her enthusiastically, asking her how she was.

'Do I know you, young man?' she said to me somewhat coldly.

'You do,' I replied, as I gave her my name.

'Ahhhh,' she cried, dropping her walking stick and flinging her arms around me in a genuine, rib-cracking Scouser bear hug (for she is from Liverpool).

And that is another thing memory can do for you.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Petition concerning the Cardinal Vaughan School

Hot foot it right now over to Go Petition and sign the petition of the Vaughan Parents' Action Group.
Go on. You know it's the right thing to do. Here in brief are the petition's points:

Now that the government is about to consult on a change to the law, we, the undersigned, respectfully ask Archbishop Vincent Nichols two things:

• that you now nominate two current parents as Foundation Governors of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and

• that you advise your other nominees on the Governing Body to conduct the selection process of a new Head so as to bring about an appointment that will command the support not just of your nominees but also of other sections across the unhappily divided Governing Body and that will ensure that the School’s parents no longer feel ignored.

Come on then. Spread the word.

Hat tip to Linen on the Hedgerow

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Blessed J H Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman has been sitting quietly on the periphery of my vision for quite some time now. It hasn't been easy to attract my attention. I remember trying to read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua nearly twenty years ago and feeling defeated - I was then a callow youth of barely twenty - by the concept of a long, written self defence and by Newman's aversion to the full stop. God forgive me but Newman struck me at the time as one of those whinging, sallow Victorians who probably wrote poetry about the death of roses and who clearly ought to have got out in the fresh air more. Michael Davies, I knew, had compiled a volume of Newman's sermons against the liberals, but that imposing tome sat on my father's bookshelf undisturbed. And then just a few weeks ago in St Paul's Bookshop at Westminster I chanced upon an anthology of Newman's writings, or more strictly, an abridgment of an anthology of Newman's writings, made by Fr Erich Przywara SJ many decades ago. I confess now to being hooked.

It's not just Newman's aversion to the full stop which I have now managed to see through, nor does my new enthusiasm derive from the fact that I'm readier now to understand a man's pain (and the journey that has brought him to where he is) than I was as a twenty-something. I think what has struck me most in beginning to read through these excerpts is that Newman feels both like a contemporary and like a master. He feels like a contemporary because his psychological terrain is vast and complex; he seems to understand motives in all their ambiguity and confusion, much better than some spiritual analysts. He also seems to grasp like a true master the range of phenomena that stir us into action. For a Victorian the underpinnings of moral worthiness in his writings - the ethical sledge hammer against the will - are less emphatic than they are in many writings dating from that hugely moralistic age.

All this points to the conclusion that Newman had an instinctive feeling for the importance assumed by individual interiority in the modern period - the way in which emotion, sentient life and experience colour our judgments and resolutions, as much as will power. The Catholicism of his age rightly denounced individualism in various guises without realising how very individualistic its own spirituality had become, partly in order to deal with the challenge of individualism. O unhappy irony!

At the same time, however, the few Newman writings I have so far read communicate also a deep appreciation of the immensity of God, both in His love and in His majesty. Far from Newman's intensified interiority leading to a sterile, humanistic dead end, it seems to make him even more aware of God in His greatness and in His intimacy.

I've already every reason to feel grateful to Blessed JHN to whose intercession I attribute my new job. But I now have the whimsical but reassuring sense that I'll be learning from him more than I thought I had bargained for.

Perhaps the problem all those year ago was not the length of his sentences so much as the shortness of my attention span.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Victoria Mildew

Long-time readers of the blog will remember Victoria Mildew who used to comment here quite regularly and for whom I requested prayers earlier this year. The news is not good for Victoria, I'm afraid. Here is what she writes:

I am due to have a hysterectomy with removal of tumour (or as much as they can) on 19th July 2011.

Prognosis - perhaps 12-18months of life or longer if the operation is successful.

My health has not been brilliant and my confidence is rock bottom.

I'm sure Sensible Bond readers will respond with their usual vigour. Please keep Victoria and her husband in your prayers.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Chesterton on a Saturday

The Seton Hall Chesterton gathering last Friday at St Benet's, Oxford was followed on Saturday at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Oxford University by the conference of the Chesterton Society in the UK. This was a more populist gathering, at least on this occasion; the papers of the last conference on the holiness of GKC were published in book form. This time around, two of the speakers, Lynette Burrows and Dale Alquist, addressed the theme of Chesterton as Prophet, while the third, Fr Ian Ker, looked at Chesterton's treatment of the person of Jesus Christ.

I suppose the main concern one must have after such a meeting is how the diffusion and influence of Chesterton's thought will continue in the future. William Oddie and Ian Ker have both published biographies of Chesterton in the last two years. Ker's is soon going into its second edition with Oxford University Press. Dale Alquist has done a fine job in the USA of making Chesterton available again for the general public. I suppose one can only hope that Ker and Oddie's work is indicative of a deeper, wider and more rounded respect for Chesterton than we suspect.

Which reminds me of a Chesterton anecdote. During the First World War one woman berated Chesterton for the fact that he was not away fighting in France.

'Young man,' she said, 'why aren't you out at the Front?' To which he replied, 'If you will come around to my side, Madam, you will see that I am.'

Chesterton is jolly. In our dark world, there's a lot to be said for that just in and of itself. But of course there is a lot more to be said for Chesterton, unless, that is, you are an Oxford don ...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Chestertonian points of view

I've been meaning all week to write something about the Chesterton conferences in Oxford last weekend. The best laid plans, eh?

But it was a very interesting weekend all told. The fun began on Friday evening with a gathering at St Benet's Hall where Seton Hall University were holding their summer school and had organised a conference to celebrate the centenary of The Ballad of the White Horse. A small but select crowd gathered, therefore, to listen to papers from John Coates on Redemption and Recovery in the Ballad of the White Horse, Sheridan Gilley on whether the Ballad of the White Horse is the English epic, Julia Stapleton on the genesis of the Ballad, and then some dishevelled, rambling academic whose name escapes me talked for what seemed like an eternity about history, memory and forgetting in the Ballad of the White Horse. One Catholic Oxford don of St Benet's has recently written that the failure of GKC readers to spot GKC's essentially heretical mindset says a lot about the state of Catholic education in the 20th Century. So, of course, one is free to regard the conference as the work of ignoramuses and poltroons.

Those that bothered to attend - and our Oxford don naturally did not - might be forgiven for thinking that GKC emerged rather well from the evening's deliberations. In the hands of the four speakers the Ballad appeared in all its polysemic brilliance, its vigour matching that of Chesterton's Lepanto, its religious and political scope matching that of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. My own paper considered how Chesterton plays with time in the poem, casting the events of King Alfred's struggle against the Danes in the context of the end of the world, and against the timeframe of 'the night'. It also considered how the processes of remembering and forgetting shape the moral destinies of Alfred and his foes.

For me, Chesterton's preoccupations in the poem cannot be treated reductively. The poem dances between political, religious, cultural and social concerns, evokes grand moral decisions and stirs up the blood with the kind of thunderous versification which make me want to march around my living room looking for a sofa or a bureau to conquer. Here's a taster from Alfred's address to his soldiers on the brink of the battle of Ethandun:

"Up on the old white road, brothers,
Up on the Roman walls!
For this is the night of the drawing of swords,
And the tainted tower of the heathen hordes
Leans to our hammers, fires and cords,
Leans a little and falls.

"Follow the star that lives and leaps,
Follow the sword that sings,
For we go gathering heathen men,
A terrible harvest, ten by ten,
As the wrath of the last red autumn--then
When Christ reaps down the kings.

"Follow a light that leaps and spins,
Follow the fire unfurled!
For riseth up against realm and rod,
A thing forgotten, a thing downtrod,
The last lost giant, even God,
Is risen against the world."

Roaring they went o'er the Roman wall,
And roaring up the lane,
Their torches tossed a ladder of fire,
Higher their hymn was heard and higher,
More sweet for hate and for heart's desire,
And up in the northern scrub and brier,
They fell upon the Dane.

The rhythms seem to grow ever more martial as the verse rushes towards the conclusion - they fell upon the Dane. You wouldn't want to be Danish at that point.

And then there was the conference of Saturday ... More later.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Coming up ...

... a report on the G. K. Chesterton conferences last weekend, but first, a bit of Elliott Smith (poor lad, RIP).