Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Madrid, Catholic youth and some hard questions

I have seen a long procession of posts praising the events of World Youth Day this year. One of the most interesting was by Ben Akers in First Things who compared the gathering in Madrid with the riots in London. In the same way that the riots demonstrated the moral turpitude of many young people, so, Akers argues, Madrid can be taken as an emblematic event:

A very different kind of spirit was on display in Spain: the Holy Spirit of God, which offers an opposite vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope. Let us pray that this new generation of youth gathered in Madrid will stand up in faith against what Yeats would have called the “blood-dimmed tide” by witnessing to the liberating power of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Noble sentiments indeed. But what is this new generation really like?

I made the case yesterday that Liberal Catholicism does not reproduce itself, but reflecting on this issue I think it needs some nuance. As a rule of thumb, it is probably true, especially when it comes to matters such as vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That said, our ambient culture is so shot through with moral individualism and intellectual suspicion of doctrine that it would be no surprise to find beyond an inner circle of faithful Catholics a wider circle of those who mostly respect what the Church says (but not completely), and beyond them an outer circle which is either not sure what it thinks or positively rejects Church teaching.

Take in evidence of these nuances this vox pop video from World Youth Day made by Figaro International. It starts out in Spanish with French subtitles but most of the youth - who comes from various countries - speak in English.

Initially, they are asked what it is like being young and Catholic today. Generally, they answer that it is difficult because people don't understand (this is notably the case for the Spaniards; logically, because anticlericalism is stronger in Catholic countries), but it is not too bad. One even says it is very beautiful.

Then they are asked if they are excited about the visit of the pope to Madrid. Of course they are, with one exception who says she is curious!

Finally, we come to the big question: do you agree with the Church on moral issues that affect society. Here is the break down of views:


Of course there are things I don't agree with, notably condoms. The Church doesn't allow sex outside marriage but you have to accept that things have changed. We aren't 17 or 18 all our lives.

What surprises me is that the Church forbids abortion completely. For me, it depends on the context. You can abort if there has been a rape or if the pregnancy is not wanted.


We do not live in the same period as our parents. No, the Church shouldn't change its principles but it could sometimes be more flexible. But it's not good to be very flexible.


I agree with the Church on abortion and euthanasia. As for sexuality? I don't know.


I don't follow everything the Church says because I don't agree with everything. On the topic of condoms, for example, that's for everyone to decide for themselves. It's very important these days to use condoms. It's not about sex, it's about health.

We have to be very careful here. This is just a random sampling of views and we cannot be certain of how representative it is. That said, the picture of Catholicism coming from this sample is far from a healthy one.

One young person alone (from Serbia) sounds like she might be a 'Benedictine' Catholic, i.e. one who actually shares the same faith as the pope.

Another one (from Poland) is quite firm on some controversial issues, but isn't sure about sexuality. This is hardly surprising in the current climate, but this is not the Catholicism of Benedict XVI; it is most certainly not the sexual ethics which were central to John Paul II's teachings.

Finally our two young people from Brasil and Spain are fascinating. They profess to be Catholics and to be excited about the pope's visit. The Spaniards, however, have rather broad views about what they ought to be allowed to do. The girl doesn't want to obey the Church's teachings on sex, while her friend, logically, sounds like he would happily see her abort any unwanted pregnancy that came from her sexual activities. Good luck to them both. The two Brasilians are interesting not so much because they question the ban on condoms but because, as one of them says, one must be allowed to decide for oneself. Which makes me wonder how an individualist act of faith might go:

O my God, I believe in you and all I think I agree with. Because I have said it, and that is what counts.


Eh alors? Well, first, we have to pray for all young people, especially for those who have not been catechised well and those who are struggling with the many problems which our current state of ultramodernity throws at them. We have to ensure we are also setting the example. But I think above all we need a colder, more clinical, more realistic view of what these million or so young folk were doing in Madrid a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, we ought to be impressed by how Pope Benedict leads them in prayer. It's the first time some of them have ever learnt to listen in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. But is Akers right that in Madrid we have seen a 'vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope?' I think not.

Rather, in these few moments of vox pop, I think we are seeing something more realistic about the face of this mass Catholicism. It is very easy for people to get carried away with how wonderful Madrid WYD actually was. But how real was it in terms of Catholic belief? How real and solid is the faith that underpins it? How searching is the reform that young people feel called to? One Pole told me that the difference between a JPII WYD and a BXVI WYD (both of which she had attended) was that at the former the crowd went crazy about the pope but didn't really listen; at the latter, they went mad for the pope but they sat and actually listened to him. But is this true? Frankly, we might not be able to tell for many years yet to come.

I'm sorry to rain on this parade, but I do think some people have got carried away with it all and ought to be reminded of something. We are not Catholic by being excited about the pope or by declaring ourselves Catholic. Such a mentality is all too redolent of the views expressed in Mark Dowd's documentary which I wrote about here. We are Catholic by sharing in the faith of the Church, though the Sacraments and by submission to the successors of the apostles in union with Peter. That's the genuine article. Accept no substitutes, say I!

There has been talk of a New Evangelisation for the peoples of Europe and the West for quite some time. By this measure, they remain in desperate need of it.

Monday, 29 August 2011

It's grim in the trenches

Ttony over in The Muniment Room has been left 'winded, floundering, and ready to throw in the towel' by a series of recent events, not the least of which is his PP's resolution not to use the new translations before he has to, and the news that English seminarians are being hounded to find out whether they are secret biformists. I send my fellow Mancunian mucker my sympathies, but I do not agree that 'the game is up: they will win, they are winning: perhaps they have won, here and now'.

There are at least three reasons why I find in the contrary:

1. The wise-as-serpents argument. The lesson of recent ecclesiastical history is this: the more the screws get tightened from above, the more adept people become at learning how to duck and dive. The generation of theologians that brought us the meta-Council had as their official masters Reginald Garrigou Lagrange, Louis Billot and Adolphe Tanqueray. Nobody could have worked out what they would do without seeing the books those students were cradling on their knees beneath the desk. Nowadays, seminarians who wish to celebrate the EF know that they must be extremely cautious about this prior to ordination. It isn't fair; it isn't just; but it is hard, cold reality - with which men who are giving their lives to Christ ought to become closely acquainted.

2. The demographics argument. The abusers of power are living off the fat of their upbringing. Liberal Catholicism, however, is sterile because it has no intrinsic reason to reproduce. It is not just pro-contraception in practice; it suffers from the consequences of a spiritually contraceptive mentality in which we need not communicate life (because we're all going to heaven anyway). It is no wonder, therefore, that we have a vocations crisis. If instead of saving souls we are simply providing chicken soup for the soul, what's the point of giving one's life to Christ? Vocations in most cases tend to come from good families; look where the families are and you will know where the vocations are going to come from. Consequently, even if we have to wait, the demographics will win in the end.

3. The law of the unexpected. When I first came back from my dalliance with the SSPX, I felt at times about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. There are many places where that is still the case. But who in 2004 could have predicted Summorum Pontificum? Now, make no mistake about it, Christ remains master of his Church. In the midst of the spiritual poverty which anthropocentrism always produces, one comes across extraordinary oases of sanity and sense just lurking beneath a ledge, unobtrusive, unassuming, but doing the Catholic thing - that Catholic thing which is unmistakable in its profile and abundant in its fruits. None of it is perfect, but that is only because the Faith is a pilgrimage and not a fine art.

8-2 is the real scoreline, Ttony. Bad tackles are just the intimidation of the hopeless against the rise of more talented men who possess the future.

And if that doesn't cheer you up, may I remind you that all plans - especially those dreamt up by clever dicks who think they are in control of affairs - are in the end b+*&!!*@s!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Prayer request

Please say a prayer for a family I know who are being subjected to the most awful and destructive trial. No need for the details.

God and his saints alone stand between us and the malice of the world, the flesh and the devil.


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Piety, pain and the Immaculate Heart

As I write this afternoon, I have on in the background the habanera I appended to my last post. The habanera, which is actually Cuban in origin has to be one of the most romantic of slow dances. And while that might make a habanera seem an odd choice for a soundtrack to a film about Provence - the film in this case being La Gloire de Mon Père and its sequel Le Château de Ma Mère - it is something not a million miles away from the mood of these films and the books they are based on: the childhood memoirs of Marcel Pagnol.

As a pioneer of French cinema, Pagnol knew a thing or two about tugging at the heart strings. There is, however, undoubtedly something very Provençal about his memoirs and about their blend of sentimentality and tragedy. If we can forgive his sentimentalism, it is because it is founded on what feels like an almost Roman reverence for his forebears. La Gloire de Mon Père - my father's glory - marks the moment in which Pagnol discovers that his father is not actually superhuman, but finds himself thereby all the more able to celebrate his progenitor's achievements as a novice hunter. I suppose this is also the moment in which Pagnol's pietas passes from the naïveté of infancy into something more realistic, and thereby something more forgiving and tender. Pagnol was no Christian, but somehow there is an instinctive wariness of idolatry in his writings. And he is right. Reverence is not merely a question of its object but also of its tone and substance. Not all those who say 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Where I find Pagnol more difficult to walk with is in his conclusions about pain. The second of his memoirs Le Château de Ma Mère, is full of his mother's fears. This too is a kind of awakening, like his awakening to who his father really is, but it is one in which Pagnol can find no footing; it is like some kind of abyss into which he falls for fear of minimising the pain of his mother and the pain her eventual death causes to him and to his father.

Now, while there is nothing wrong with hurting, Pagnol's pain seems to go beyond pain by holding itself to be beyond final consolation. The book - and the film - memorably finishes with these lines (I give them in English):

Such is the life of men: a few joys quickly wiped away by unforgettable sorrows. But we do not have to tell the children.

But is our life such? Perhaps we should say instead: telle est la vie des hommes modernes. I used to think that defending or promoting the faith consisted in knowing how rationally to demonstate the reasonable nature of Christianity. I'm more persuaded these days that it might also be about understanding why some hearts like Pagnol's, the hearts of contemporary men, do not want to be consoled.

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas, said another Frenchman (Pascal): the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.

I don't suppose one can do without either: rational defence and sensitive understanding. Come to me all you who labour and I will give you rest. But how does one give back hope without treading on that part of the sufferer which demands to be recognised? Only, I suppose, by walking with them somehow. Perhaps the sorrow of the saints is not only about joining in the reparation of Christ. Perhaps it is also a proof that their holiness does not break their solidarity with their brothers.

So where am I going with all this? Simply to this conclusion. There are some who believe devotion to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary is particularly for our times. If the pain of Pagnol typifies the pain of some modern men, then perhaps they are right.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

In which Ches rants and then cheers up

Apologies for the short interlude in posting. I cannot tell you how draining my summer is turning out to be, and yet I feel I ought to try. We're trying to move to another city, we have a baby due in two weeks and I'm still battling through random bits of work that ought to have been finished long since. Couple all that with subsidence repair works, the need to go flat hunting for temporary accommodation in our new city - made more difficult by estate agents who book you a viewing and fail to tell you the flat is already let - and the mountains of baby washing that have been moving glacier-like through our one-bedroom flat in the last ten days and you'll understand why I might need a holiday after this summer holiday.

But that's not the worst of it. I look out now through my gloomy lounge window onto a world of torrential rain. It's August the sodding 23rd and the sky looks like mid-November, the passers-by appear frozen in their soggy apparal and both pairs of my shoes have holes in them. To make it all the worse, my one major jolly of the holidays which was planned for last Saturday - and which involved hiking up a hill in Oxfordshire to read, chomp, sip wine and smoke cigars with the best of company - had to be called off because of ... rain. Nay, because of heavy rain. What had we pleasure seekers to do with wandering up hills in the rain and wind?

Well, I'm off on another flat hunting trip this morning. As I look out of my window, I have quivering anxieties about the intercity line being flooded and my afternoon made a mockery of. It wouldn't be the first demonic intervention of the week. Yesterday our doorbell, which normal rings the traditional "ding-dong", played the verse of Yankee Doodle Dandy out of the blue. Nobody was at the door leaning on the button. I kid you not! That was just spooky.

Ah, well. If the weather wants to rain on us, perhaps the only thing we can do is rain back on it. 'What if the pope said it was raining, but it really wasn't?' the priest instructing Max in Brideshead Revisited asks. 'Well,' the sub-pagan Max replies, 'it would be raining but sort of spiritually.' What if, he should have said, we say it is sunny when it really isn't? I mean, isn't that how Brits from time immemorial have got through that phoney of phoney seasons called the English summer?

So, ye London dwellers, look not through your windows this morning, trying to remember where you have stashed your inflatable raft. Think rather of some dusty Provençal road, lined with lavender and the occasional rank of poplars, and filled with the chirruping of cicadas from the fields. Stare into the pall of dark clouds and think of blue skies, swooping swallows and the distant call of a goatherd. Think it once and you'll not notice the rain. Think it twice and you're no longer in London. It's sunny spiritually speaking and all is right with the world.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Witnesses or counter-witnesses of the truth?

Have atheists got it wrong? asks Katherine Birbalsingh on her blog in The Telegraph. It is a fascinating post, especially since Miss Birbalsingh, a gadfly of liberal educationalists in the UK, argues that perhaps they have! How many public figures even hint at coming to that conclusion these days?

First she is impressed by a couple of ex-gang members who have reformed because they have 'found God'. Next, she is moved by the profession of faith of Tariq Jahan, the Muslim father of one of the three men murdered by a hit-and-run driver in Birmingham during the riots:

He explains that his religion gives him the strength to see through the death of his dearly loved boy and accept that this was his son’s fate. I look on in admiration because I exist without that sense of certainty, and I find his certainty mesmerising.

Last she is interviewed by a Russian journalist who, because Birbalsingh believes in objective morality, asks her whether she believes in God or the State. After all, if there is an objective morality, it must come from somewhere!

Then out of the blue, she receives an email from a friend who tells her that the rioters cannot even have heard of the ten commandments and quotes from the Gospel of Saint Matthew:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40

If you ask me, I think God is quitely stalking Miss Birbalsingh.


I can hear some people already bristling with hostility at that idea. After all, Birbalsingh is impressed first by any faith rather than by the true faith. But I think that would be to mistake the paths by which people are led towards the truth.

Wherever we are, we can only take the step that is in front of us. What is interesting for a believer in reading Birbalsingh is to note how even contact with a kind of faith-filled certainty is mesmerising. Mesmerising: the word is very strong. By faith here, I am speaking about what appears to be faith to an outside observer, rather than faith, the supernatural virtue given by God. Birbalsingh's use of the word mesmerising underlines the fact that often, in embracing propositions which we believe are revealed by God, we take for granted the psychological processes that belief implies and which appear thematic to someone who doesn't believe in anything. Faith for us is not a state of mind, and yet for an unbeliever in our culture, that is what it can first of all appear to be.

The awful corollary of this for those with faith - and I speak now of the supernatural virtue by which we believe what God has revealed through the Church - is that we are bound all the more to reflect faithfully what our faith proposes, for fear that we will appear as counter-witnesses to the truth. This is how people will know you are my disciples; by your love for one another. Preach always, said Saint Francis, and use words if necessary.

Perhaps in these days, in the context of unbelief, we believers are preaching, whether we like it or not. Perhaps then we should pray that it is always for good and not for ill.

Friday, 12 August 2011

So why did it happen?

I've been mumbling on to myself for days, as I do here on The Sensible Bond, trying to prod and poke my way to understanding the riots of the last week in England. Perhaps you're bored with it and want to read about something else. Nobody is stopping you. Go forth with my blessing. The rest of us have to try to understand, however. We have to try to understand because, make no mistake about it, if the country were a physical body, these riots would be as significant as a sudden and complete loss of bowel control.

All the usual suspects have lined up for the identity parade. What was it then that we saw rioting through the streets of London? Was it family breakdown? Absent fathers? The failure of state education? Moral relativism? Sheer criminality? Opportunism? The vacuity of the political system? The structural deprivation in our council estates?

In my view it was all of these and more. Another interesting feature of the events of this past week is that those responsible come from a whole range of backgrounds. Yes, there are the gangs, the career criminals and those 'known to the police'. But there are also the educated, the professionals and the daughters of wealthy businessmen. Whatever ills we put in the dock, somehow we have to recognise that our problem crosses all class divides.

Diseases have a way of joining forces to create a symbiotic tsunami: obesity leads to a strain on the heart which leads to blood pressure which triggers, etc., etc. So I imagine it is with the riots. One crisis simply led to another, while the latter was ready to burst like a boil and provide a catalyst for the next crisis. Okay, enough of the biological imagery. You get my message.


Chesterton characterises modern life as the result of the dismantling of things which once lived in organic unity. The electric light bulb and the radiator are undoubtedly great boons to modern life, but no family ever pulled up its chairs and sang songs around a radiator; no poet could stand looking into the bulb long enough to feel inspired by the passionate glow of its filament. And, as the fire's organic unity of light and warmth were broken up into bulb and radiator - for eminently practical reasons - something was lost which had hitherto graced human life and shaped a million imaginations.

Every comparison limps of course but here is the point: there is a layer of complexity and integrity in the right order of things which cannot be reassembled simply by putting together all the component parts. Life is not a problem set by Ikea or a special kind of Lego.

Let me take just the example of education to explain what I mean. We have heard many laments about education. But the fact is that state education is always a function of the culture in which it is born. Children whose home-lives are characterised by TV dinners, late nights and general dissipation are not going to get what they need out of even the best educational syllabus. They will not be apt to take part in it. The late, great John Senior observed that the Great Books movement had failed not because of the weakness in those books but because students who had not been raised on the 1000 great fairy tales did not have the imaginative and moral capacity to extract the great ideas from the great books. The popular view of education - that it has something to do with what happens in the classroom - is naive at best and hopelessly wrong at worst. Of course, learning goes on in a classroom, but book learning is part of a wider project by which the human subject becomes capable of civilisation. Frankly, there are many paths to that point and they are not all contained in a book. Capable of civilisation: there are many walking around today with iPods, the latest fashions, degrees, doctorates, successful careers, fancy cars and holidays abroad who are in point of fact substandard in that regard.

Everything has been separated from everything else and everything has grown cold: such was Chesterton's conclusion, and he was writing a hundred years ago. These riots were not a new problem and neither can they be answered by all the panoply of the technocratic state swinging into action to express the instinct for revenge. The riots happened because we have not done our duty. We have not done our duty because our duties have long been kept in the deep freeze of pragmatism. And now we're frost bitten, we want to plunge our limbs into boiling water by a juridical backlash against the rioters. Let justice act, of course. But justice; not some substandard form of justice. I honestly doubt we're even capable of it.

So, what should we do now? I have but one answer and it involves our collective repentance and prayer. England needs to pray, it needs to turn off the TV and introduce itself to its neighbours, and it needs to remember what it has lost: principally Jesus Christ. Any priest or bishop who climbs into his pulpit this Sunday and speaks of anything except Christ as the ultimate answer to the problem has thereby declared himself to be part of the problem.

Because short of reconciling with Christ, we will simply continue sleep walking into our next embarrassing disaster, the disaster of a highly sophisticated and popular socialite who functions brilliantly until she goes home at night, makes a cup of tea and retires to her room to self harm. Eventually she'll do it in public.

Everything has been separated from everything else and everything has grown cold. And every evocation of technocratic solutions without the invocation of Christ will only compound our problems.

The nastiness of the long-distance mummer

I am not surprised to read that Fr Z is coming under attack from Phyllis Zagano, a fully qualified whinger for rights she has only just invented. Anyone who spends any time blogging finds their in-box filling from time to time either with openly aggressive, deliberately autistic bile masquerading as interaction, or with the more sinister forms of intimidation which the media age allows. I have had both.

Somehow, the distance which the internet creates also allows for the festering of some pretty hostile feelings which people do not normally allow themselves to indulge in. They then rant like tale-telling idiots behind a mask which deceives only them.

Only time will tell whether Zagano will abase herself to indulge in the nastiness of the long-distance mummer against Fr Z. We must hope she refrains. She will only look stupid in the end.

In the meanwhile, we send Fr Z our best wishes, pray for his ministry, and hope for better counsel for Zagano.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Forms of imitation

Many people have commented on the copycat dynamics of the violence and looting which has spread across England in the last week. When television viewers saw the looting and violence in Tottenham last Saturday, many saw the opportunity to jump on the consumerist bandwagon without troubling to cross the driver's palm with any money. And the measure of violence which was used in Hackney was soon reproduced imitatively in Peckham, Croydon, Ealing, Birmingham and my own home town of Manchester.

Humans tend to be quite adept at disguising their proclivity for imitation. And yet imitation is everywhere in culture; for a start, it is the very stuff of every representational form. But imitation is more deeply rooted in us than we are often aware. Anima quaedamodum omnia, said the Scholastics; the soul is in some way everything. Our capacity to understand depends on our ability to fit our intelligence to reality: truth is the adequation of mind to being.

But there is something more here, and it concerns the moral life. I do not agree with René Girard that all our desires are learned by imitation, but the fact is that many desires, especially in a consumerist culture, are learned. Desire and need are distinct realities. I need to wear something on my feet; for that purpose, I do not need Adidas trainers, but I might desire Adidas trainers, especially if I see others making a big deal of them. I need to be able to speak to my friends; for that purpose, I do not need BlackBerry messenger, but I might desire to have BlackBerry messenger, especially if I see others making a big deal of it.

I mentioned two days ago that one of the most striking aspects of all these riots was the lack of ideology underpinning them. It seemed that the rioters had no political motivation or targets. How, then, do we explain their behaviour? We must look to their desires, and noting their desires, we must wonder from whom they have learned them; we must wonder as a consequence whom they are imitating.


These riots have not been an unleashing of relativistic behaviour, as I have argued from day one. They are rather an unleashing of acquisitional behaviour. They are not about power in the political order, but rather about power through appropriation. This is what underpins the wave of violence, since in this week looting has been seen by the rioters as the best means of acquiring what it is that they want. Violence is contagious; violence itself is a kind of contagion. But let us ask ourselves again from whom the looters have learned their desires.

The very first answer to this is quite obvious: they learn what is desirable from those with whom they are in immediate contact. This is why mobile phones, fancy footwear, sharp clothes and jewellery have been amongst the looters' favourite swag. These are the emblems, the symbols, the badges of office, that mark the young, fashionable consumer, or that the man with an eye for the main chance knows that he can flog to the young, fashionable consumer.

But is it also not true that, in our information age, many desires, are learned in the space created by the media? This is the very logic of advertising which aims to teach us to desire what it is the manufacturers produce. But it is also the very logic behind celebrity culture which fosters a continual vicarious experience of desire without ever promising to pay those desires with anything real or substantial. Celebrity culture is to social contact as voyeurism is to sexuality. We have to wonder therefore what desires it teaches to those who immerse their minds in it.

Arguably, there is a third level of imitation which we can uncover in the desires of those who have looted and pillaged with so much abandon over the last few days. We have noted their political neutrality, but should we not also wonder to what extent their desires are a reflection of the desires modelled by those who have dominated our public life over the last few years? In the last three years, our newspapers has been full of story after story of politicians caught with their hand in the Westminster cookie jar, and of bankers who earn more in their annual bonus than a teacher could earn in thirty years of dedicated service. If these riots tell us at anything, they should tell us that when we reward wealth makers in ways that so disproportionately outstrip the way we reward virtue makers, we only have ourselves to blame if those at the bottom of the pile behave more like animals than like citizens.

These layers of imitative potential do not immediately explain the means which the first looters chose to pursue their desires. But the actions of subsequent looters seem precisely like a contagion of violence which spread like wildfire given the chance. Likewise imitation does not wholly explain the collapse of the normal restraints which prevent people looting or setting fire to shops as a normal part of their Saturday shopping routine. But it underpins the way in which all these hardbitten individualists opted out like a herd of lemmings from the unspoken accords which underpin our normal commercial relations.

I think we find here one of the fundamental reasons why the market cannot rule society. Because the market does not know what society needs. The market only knows how to respond to desire and the forces of acquisition. There is no system either political or economic which is sufficient in itself to secure order for us. Whatever system we choose to adopt, we too must be good.

And so we come back to the fundamental problem of imitation: from whom should we learn our desires? But who will be asking that today as Parliament reconvenes?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Archbishop Longley speaks

At last, someone in a mitre speaks.

“I ask the Catholic community to pray, especially for all those whose livelihood or property has been damaged.

“We also pray for a strengthening of family values and guidance, and for a change of heart among those involved.”

UPDATE: apparently, Archbishop Nichols spoke the day before to express his concerns over the riots.

Who does this kind of thing?

All the reasons that people are fumbling for across the media, to explain what has happened in London and now other British cities since the weekend, depend on understanding who exactly has been doing the rioting and looting. It seems to me, however, this question is rather complex in itself.

Red Ken Deadstone claimed that the unrest was the work of deprived youngsters reacting against the effects of government cuts. As many people have retorted, we wish we were deprived enough to communicate exclusively through BlackBerry Messenger. Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North, claimed it resulted from uncontrolled gang subcultures. There is probably something in that, especially when it is combined with what another commentator described as the postcode truce which has allowed rival gangs to unite in unleashing disorder across the capital.

What nobody expected was the profile of the looters which emerged from the first prosecutions yesterday. Many media outlets remarked on the fact that they included a graphic designer, a university graduate and someone who was just about the enter the army. Without knowing what the other looters listed as their professions, it is hard to decide whether theses are significant or not. What they do indicate is that no simplistic assumptions can be made about the shared alienation of looters and rioters from society. David Hughes in Wednesday's Torygraph writes:

The BBC is reporting that the first person up at Highbury Magistrates Court on looting charges was a 31-year old school teacher [a teaching assistant apparently] named Alexis Bailey. He pleaded guilty to being part of the looting of the Richer Sounds store in Croydon.

This then is a mixed public.

More signficant are the vox populi interviews which brave or foolhardy reporters have garnered from some of those involved. Last night in Manchester Nick Ravenscroft of the BBC interviewed a number of young lads who admitted that they could afford some of the things they were stealing (they're deprived, eh, Ken?) and they were not bothered about getting caught because, well, what would happen? An ASBO? Eh alors? But they explained further:

Why are you gonna miss the opportunity to get, like, free stuff that's worth loads o' money? [...] It's the government [...] Kids don't wanna go to college no more coz they don't get paid innit.

Yes, you heard that right. Pay me to go to college or I will sack the city.

I cannot have been the only person shocked by the incomparable vacuity of two female looters interviewed by Leana Hosea in Croydon on Tuesday morning who thought the chaos they had wrought was both 'mad' and 'good'. When Hosea remarked on the fact they were drinking at 9 in the morning, one answered:

It's the government's fault ... Conservatives.. It's not even a riot, it's showing the police we can do what we want [...] It's the rich people, and that's why all of this has happened, because of the rich people.'

If you suspect that of being a stream of demented drivel, then you're not far wide of the mark.

One trope to emerge from both of these interviews was the blaming of the government. Now, I am a political cynic at the best of times, but what is going on here is far more sophisticated than simple moral relativism. First, there is rather a process of moral vicarious transfer. I have done this but in fact it is somebody else's fault. Like health care, education and so many other services provided by the public purse, one's own moral responsibility can now apparently be passed upwards to the State so it can be blamed when looters loot. This looks like the fruit of the depersonalisation of authority in reaction to the disfunctioning of the family. One unintended consequence is that the nanny State itself has paradoxically become a scapegoat of the resulting disorder. These individuals labour not under the influence of wrong-headed ideology but under a kind of moral imbecility, the fruit of a cultural breakdown and the bureaucratic sticking-plaster response to it, which are now producing fruits that are sub-human.

On the other hand, these interviews are also marked by a trope of amoral individuality. The two female rioters were showing the police and the rich that they could do what they wanted to do. They were in no way beholden to an outside authority, and to prove it, they would daub their inner chaos on the streets of the capital with fire and theft.

Here, we have another paradox: a moment ago, we were witnessing the process of moral transfer as the looters blamed the government for their action, and now they assert that the chaos achieved is the result of their self expression. They deny their responsiblity and a moment later they affirm their agency.

Of course there is a huge dose of permissiveness in both of these themes since both basically facilitate whatever moral choice the individual is intent on making. But the reason I say this attitude is not relativism is that there is not a single one of these moral imbeciles who would approve of their own homes being ransacked and looted or their houses set on fire. If it happened, they would be outraged. In fact, those rioters who are members of gang subcultures operate under strict codes of conduct which reference the cohesion of the gang first and foremost.

I still haven't answered the question in the title: who are these people? I wonder if outraged Britain must face the possibility that these people, these looters and rioters, are in many ways a reflection of ourselves. We have been passing responsibilty up the chain of bureaucracy for so long now - not educating our children, not looking after our elderly, etc. - that it has made many of us become as dependent on the State as a drunk on the nearest lamppost. On the other hand, we have so approved self expression and self affirmation, we have been for so long the dupes of authenticity, that the chains of restraint on some hearts have rusted away to nothing.

But there is another problem here and it is this: we have to face up to the fact that society is suffering a compound fracture, the parts of which protrude through the flesh and openly declare their alienation. Those of us who remain within the national contract have one set of laws. Those who have broken away from it have another set of rules. And yet, they drift in and out of the contract that we others hold to, like the splinters of some broken limb searching painfully to be reset. Arguably, we are not merely talking about one kind of fracture, but many kinds of fracture, as is shown by the involvement of lower middle classses in the looting and rioting. For the underclasses, having sacked the post office one night, the chances are that they still want to turn up the next day to draw their benefits from the PO's ATM;l so thought one commentator yesterday. For the others, they return to their offices or books still tingling from the thrill of an adrenaline-pumped, violently-induced shopping bargain.

Who does this kind of thing? They are undoubtedly our brothers, our semblables, and yet they belong to a foreign and enemy country; indeed to foreign and enemy countries.

This is not relativism. We are living rather in a xenocracy - the looters feel no duty to those who rule them while the looted feel their persecutors do not even live in the same moral universe.

How, as Theoden says, did we come to this?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London in chaos

I'm sure many readers share my own sense of bewilderment, disbelief and anxiety over the violence, looting and disorder which has swept across London in the last seventy-two hours. We are currently staying in Hertfordshire not far from Enfield where violence broke out again last night. Reports from where we live in East Dulwich say that rioters from Peckham, just a mile away, rolled up Lordship Lane last night, smashing windows as they went. In the light of what has happened in Ealing overnight, it looks like ED has gotten away with it very lightly. Who knows what tonight holds, however? The violence seems to be confined to shopping areas where looting and mass muggings can be carried out easily, but who knows what comes next?

Many people are pitching in to try to clear up the mess left by the rioters. The sense of grievance against the trouble makers in the communities where they come from is strong. One video from Hackney showed a black lady with a stick yelling obscenities at the looters who, she said, could have been fighting for a cause, but who prefer instead to attack Footlocker and Ladbrookes looking for shoes and money.

The old left-right divide of social commentary is drawing its lines predictably. The toothless Tory-Lib Dem government is talking about criminality and lawlessness, and promising robust policing in response. Some left-wingers are claiming that the riots are the reaction of a class of socially deprived young men without job prospects. Curiously, the Guardian blogging platform is unusually silent about the events of last night. Some right-wing commentators have seen in these riots the consequences of a weak and liberal education system that has looked on, powerless to control the violent gang culture which exists beneath the surface of many inner-city communities. Others have raised the possiblities of people fleeing the capital or of setting up their own vigilante groups if the police remain overwhelmed by the violence. Strategically, the police have been intermittently effective, but in many places they have been totally outnumbered and thus unable to deal with the crowds of looters. Fr Finigan cannot be the only person who feels that these are the desserts of a morally relativistic culture. A lot of people will be sat at home this morning, scratching their heads and wondering how this could have happened, and what can be done about it.

There are a lot of things one could say about all this, but let me just mention what I see as the most striking aspect of this unrest until now: the almost total absence of ideological justification. I know that the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by the police was the spark for the unrest, but the events have entirely outstripped Duggan's death. The rioters are not even pretending that they are unhappy about that. They are simply dismantling civil order, robbing shops in which some, perhaps many, of them were customers last weekend, and setting fire to property, homes and cars, with reckless disregard for the life and safety of others.

What we are looking at here is not 'anarchy' in its strict sense. I'm sure it is not even moral relativism, although undoubtedly moral relativism has helped create the atmosphere in which these events have occurred. Neither is it a total breakdown of the social contract, resembling a Hobbesian landscape in which all wage war against all; after all, many people are helping to clear up this morning in what appears to be a resurgence of community feeling across the capital.

So what is going on exactly? The explanations will be necessarily complex - social, cultural and criminal; the consequences will be far reaching, and the fallout is likely to affect London for years to come. More later.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Extraordinary Form Mass at Douai in September

Damian Barker of the Young Catholic Adults asks me to advertise the following events:

Sung Mass at Douai Abbey in September

On Saturday 10th September 2011 at 11am there will be a Sung Mass in the main abbey church at Douai (Berkshire) followed by a Marian Procession around the extensive grounds of the abbey (starting from the main abbey church).

The Sung Mass will include Victoria’s Quam Pulchri Sunt (1572), in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the composer's death, and the motet O Sacrum Convivium, sung by Ensemble 1685, please see here.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Please don't tell her

We've not had any cool music on The Sensible Bond for a bit, so here comes a slice of it right now.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Coercion and liberty: reframing the debate

A new post has been issued on Rorate Caeli on the topic of religious liberty. It presents links to a new essay by Professor Thomas Pink of King's College London on a problem which has exercised the minds of philosophers and theologians on both wings of the Church.

The controversial passage in Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II's declaration on religious freedom, is usually taken to be the following:

1. [...] Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.

2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

Interpretations of what this declaration really means are varied, but three clear trends emerge from them.

Liberal interpretation - this was a revolutionary reform since by approving freedom of conscience the Church thereby corrected one of its previous mistakes.

Conservative interpretation
- this was a surface reform of political policy but the deeper obligations of society to God remain the same.

Traditionalist interpretation
- this was a revolutionary reform that overturned two centuries of near-certainly infallible teaching, and represents the Council's commitment to bring the 1789 Revolution into the Church.

The significance of Pink's new essay is that it reframes the problem completely. For the liberal, conservative and traditionalist interpreters, the idea that Dignitatis Humanae is the rupture point in a long line of teaching on this issue goes largely undisputed. For Pink, however, a specialist in Early Modern thought, this understanding evinces near complete ignorance of Church teaching on these issues between Trent and the nineteenth century.

Pink thereby drops several bombshells on the various sides of this debate but let me highlight here just two:

1. Dignitatis Humanae, which is thought to be a denial of the permissibility of coercion of belief, significantly omits to say anything about the Church's power to coerce its own members (i.e., those who are baptised, even schismatics and heretics). This coercive power is in fact a matter of Catholic faith as taught by the Council of Trent in its treatise on baptism.

2. The personalist argument, which traditionalists say Dignitatis Humanae used to dissolve the Church's 19th century Magisterium, is in fact a lot older than they recognise, not in explicit terms (which were not developed until the 20th century) but in its fundamental assumptions about autonomy. The idea that the subject cannot be coerced interiorly in matters of religion appears to be a keystone of theological thinking in this area in nineteenth-century Catholic writers such as Cardinal Manning or Bishop Kettler. But, as Pink shows, this idea would have been very strange to the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who understood the problem in the light of Trent.

It seems, therefore, that the great forgotten link in this chain of argument is this: the Church has only dogmatically asserted its power of coercion over the baptised, and any State which acts as the civil arm to help the Church in this matter does so by delegation of the Church and NOT by its own power.

Consequently - and this is Ches-reading-Pink now - it is logical that as we move into a period where the Church is no longer in a position to delegate in that way, the need to remind the State of its true powers is ever clearer. It does not de jure have the power to coerce conscience. The Church never taught that it did. It only ever held it as a delegated power accorded it by the Church for the sake of the baptised (see Leo XIII, Immortale Dei). It might have overstepped this boundary at times, but that is another matter.

So why the change in this problematic? I can only suggest a couple of reasons myself. Perhaps coercion is more thematic in the treatment of the issue of religious liberty by the theologians of the earlier period because they instinctively assume that most people are Catholic or baptised. When the theologians of the nineteenth century begin arguing in favour of interior freedom, it seems they are working on a new assumption that Catholicism is now a minority religion in hostile and secular conditions. Both positions depend ultimately not on a shift in doctrine but in contextual circumstances.


That at least is how I understand the consequences of Pink's essay. As I say, for me this essay not only reframes the problem; it is a game-changing intervention.

In its light, no longer can the liberals pretend that coercion has been done away with by Vatican II.

In its light, no longer can the 'personalist' reading of Dignitatis Humanae be used by traditionalists as a stick to beat the Council.

I commend its reading to you all most heartily.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Tightening of the belts

Well, the fallout continues from my series of posts on Quest's conference at London Colney. I have now had several visits from GNAA, a nice group of internet trolls who attack blogspots. Hello, boys!

Who knows where these attacks have originated from? Quest? Westminster? Well, somebody knows of course. Odd really. One tries to maintain at all times a reasonable, dialogical line; no system can work without self regulation. One wonders at the means deployed to answer my arguments. There is nothing permissive or liberal about them.

Ah, well, in media vitae... old chums!

Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae Caelestis,
satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute in infernum detrude.

50 years wed

Just when The Sensible Bond is up and running again, I have to disappear for a week on various errands. Typical!

I rather like that word 'errand'. It is the sort of language my grandmother used to use if we asked where my mother had disappeared to: 'She's gone an errand', she would say, as if that explained anything. Well, dear readers, I had to go an errand! Well, several in fact.

But most importantly, to the celebration of my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was a momentous and joyous occasion. The in-laws and the outlaws rolled in from far and wide, and the party, which was scheduled to last from 1-5pm, rolled on well into the summer evening. Fifty years of marriage are quite an achievement, and my father celebrated the fact in his short thank-you speech by acclaiming his family stock and referring (quite meretriciously!) to their part in the Norman Conquest and Agincourt! For the duration of the the party - and, I have it on good authority, ever since - my mother out-grinned the Cheshire Cat, and one was left with admiration and wonder for the deep peace a life of commitment, wounds not withstanding, can deliver. An impromtu concert broke out in the mid-afternoon and its strains floated over the Berkshire countryside until we could barely see each other for the gathering gloam (or do I mean, since the end was near, the looming gloom? No matter).

My wife and I were left wondering if we would ever see our fiftieth anniversary - not that she has had enough of me yet, although nobody could blame her if she had! My father and mother were early starters by today's standards, having married at the practically toddler ages of 25 and 23 respectively. It was a different moment, a different time. Britain was gearing up for the massively regressive sexual revolution which has left its suppurating open wounds all over the national psyche. Fast-forward fifty years and we met a woman this week who is buying a house with larger rooms so that her girls can 'bring boys home with them'. She could not have shocked me more if she had explained the size of her oven by reason of the need to roast small children whole. 'Do you like children?' is the socially acceptable question. 'Yes, but I couldn't eat one on my own,' is the reply I like to give. But why are people more shocked at that than at the prospect of their teenagers bringing home sundry objects of either sex - I use the word 'objects' advisedly - for the purposes of mutual abuse?

Yes, fifty years is a long time in the saddle to see the world change so much. And yet there it is like a fact, a rock, a mountain range of experience and solidity against the erosion of our better instincts, the corrosion of our mores, and promising the eclosion of all that is good in human society. 'Come under the shadow of this red rock', as Eliot says - not that anyone knows exactly what his 'red rock' is, but why should it not be life-long, nuptial, fruitful faithfulness?

There are many scales on which our lives are weighed out, but why should they not be weighed out on this scale? Happy anniversary, Mum and Dad. Humble and enduring faithfulness makes mightier worlds than all our tin-pot, gone-tomorrow lusts can muster.