Sunday, 11 November 2012

Letter to my son who has just turned nine

How do you tell your nine-year-old boy that you might not come back from the war?

11 October 1916

My dear lad,

You have just turned nine, a great age which has also become now the most touching. Too young to take part in the war, you are old enough at least for it to shape your memories, and sufficiently aware to understand that you, all of you nine-year-old children, will later have to weigh up its consequences and learn its lessons.

What a happy life, both agreable and full, we will then have provided for you, if in fact you know how, and wish, to remember and understand! And so that you might remember, dear boy, I willingly accept the difficulties of the present, along with all the risks and the separation - which is most difficult of all - which has so disrupted our family home where we lived with your mother and where we doted on you.

So, just like when you were very small and I sat you on my knee to tell you stories or show you lovely picture books, with all of your tender attention listen carefully to the things which will seem at first rather serious, even to a big boy of nine years old, but which it will be a comfort to me to have told you, dear boy. It will reassure me to know that you will attach yourself to these words, having heard them from my mouth, and that you will understand them: yes, your daddy will thus be more at peace, should I after the war no longer be there to explain them to you.

Your nine years which make you so strong for your mother - for me and for France also - your nine years: I am so proud of them!

I do not believe myself guilty of weakness or sentimentalism. I admire this one general, whom I know, who does not wear mourning clothes for his sons and never speaks of them ('so as not to grieve my men and weaken their courage' he says) He had two sons, his pride and joy, who fell on the same day aged twenty and nineteen. I admire him, though I do not know whether I would have the strength to follow his example. I would have clasped you to my heart, and then, without crying or wailing like others do, I would have waited and done my part. But nobody can tell me not to be happy if now it is my turn and not yours; if I must go and you remain behind.

To my mind, it is one of the most poignant problems of a war, to choose in advance which of those born to defend a nation must be offered first for sacrifice by that nation. Let me tell you frankly: given all his responsibilities, the death of a thirty-five year old man destroys a home. But I cannot help wondering whether it it not still sadder if all the hopes of that home for the future die. Certainly I feel how deep will be my sorrow in leaving my beloved wife and child behind, but at least I would have had years of happiness and love with you, and the bitterness of my regrets will be swept away by all my sweet memories.

I will sorry about all the things I have not done, or that I will not have been able to do. But at the same time, I will think that you are there, you, my son, to continue my work, to bring about what I could only plan or dream of doing. The death of a child is crushing and futile, but the death of a father - a noble death like all deaths during this period - will on the contrary inspire and bear fruit.

Do you understand now, my dear little boy, all the hope we have placed in you, we your forebears, at this gravest of hours, all we expect of you, my nine-year-old son, and why I say that in leaving before you, we will have chosen the better part? For if God does not allow us to be together at the end of the war as we were before, instead of the dark despair into which your death would have plunged me, my last thoughts will have been a comfort and a consolation: the memories and the example that I have tried to leave you.

Albert-Jean Després.

Lieutenant Després was killed in action on 21 April 1918 during the Battle of the Lys (Flanders).

Monday, 5 November 2012

O my prophetic soul!

'Where there is no shepherd, the people will be scattered ...'


When I blogged about Bishop Williamson's explusion from the SSPX nearly two weeks ago, I wrote the following:

It is possible of course he could launch his own roving ministry, not aligned with any group in particular, but available to those groups he considers faithful to the Catholic cause, much as he did when, without permission, he recently visited the traditionalist Benedictines in Brazil to give confirmations. There could emerge in the near future a kind of Williamson Federation, loosely tied together, all mutually sympathetic, willing to have his ministry, but not especially willing to tie themselves to any fixed structure.

Now, in his first post-expulsion move, a webpage appears with the following message taken from his latest Eleison Comments:

It seems that, today, God wants a loose network of independent pockets of Catholic Resistance, gathered around the Mass, freely contacting one another, but with no structure of false obedience, which served to sink the mainstream Church in the 1960’s and is now sinking the Society of St. Pius X. If you agree, make contributions to the St. Marcel Initiative; they will certainly come in useful. For myself, once my situation stabilizes, I am ready to put my bishop’s powers at the disposal of whoever can make wise use of them.

I say these comments are taken from his latest Eleison Comments; they are not quite the same. His letter on Saturday actually read:

For myself, as soon as my situation stabilizes in England, I am ready to put my bishop’s powers at the disposal of whoever can make wise use of them.

Interesting that. I note the website and the Saint Marcel Initiative appear to be based in the USA. The funding buttons you can click on at the bottom clearly favour US-based donations. My friend Dom Hugh has given this all the once over here.

Still, returning to the proposition which Bishop Williamson makes above, I am struck by a number of things. We can pass over his parsing of 'what God wants'; I'm more interested in what comes next. He is evoking the possibility of a loose federation of traditionalist groups who are united in the faith, united in the sacraments, but - so much for St Robert Bellarmine's definition of the Church! - not exactly united under a hierarchy. The benefit of this kind of organisation, he argues, is that it suffers from 'no structure of false obedience'.

I have been reflecting for some time on how the SSPX's own cause suffers unwittingly from the implications of living in a state of exception, which implications can be briefly stated thus: those who decide on the exceptions constitute thereby an authority. If I break one law for the sake of a higher law, I must subsequently agree for my exception to be sanctioned by the authority under which I live. If I refuse to accept its judgment about the exception I have made, I become a law (an authority) unto myself. Bishop Williamson's position is that since there is no higher law than the Faith, then whatever order is contrary to that Faith can be rejected in favour of the higher law. I say is contrary; I should probably say I consider contrary. Because the implication always contained in this argument seems to be that if I consider something contrary to the Faith, then it must be so.

The organisational consequence of this position, however, is now becoming clear. It is better not to have a '(false) structure of obedience' in place so as to avoid any dilemma. The problem for Bishop Williamson is then the 'structure' in which my faith risks coming under hierarchical command. It's a simple calculation: avoid the structure and you avoid the dilemma. Job's a good'un, as they say in the north of England.

But there is a problem here. God gifted the Church with the note of infallibility. But there is no corresponding note of impeccability in governance. Working out of a Thomist logic, Bishop Williamson essentially holds that all laws not for the common good do not have the force of law. But his error is to believe that from the point of view of jurisprudence, every man's mind is apt to judge what is and what is not in favour of the common good. This is a similar error in the field of law to that made by the SSPX in the field of theology: that in matters of the faith, every man's mind is apt to judge what is and what is not compatible with the faith.

I am accused of holding a sceptical position on this issue; nothing is further from the truth. It is one thing to say the human mind can attain truth. It is quite another proposition to say that the human mind infallibly arrives at the truth because it can cite an infallible premiss in its reasoning. But the very fact that in the contemporary Church we have disagrement about what exactly is compatible with the faith - or what is in fact for the common good - urges not that we abandon or temporarily suspend the providential structure of the Church, but that we back it up! False structure of poppycock, say I! It was ever thus!

Bishop Williamson will defend all this by saying that it is in defence of the Faith and, therefore, justified. Surely he should reflect on the fact that all those traditionalist groups out there - those with whom he mostly disagrees on whether there is even a pope now - justify their own position as a defence of the Faith!

So, to whom shall we go, my masters? Which one is actually defending the faith for real? Is it Bishop Williamson or is it Bishop Williamson's old colleague Bishop Sanborn? Is it Pope Pius XIII? And if not, why not? They all defend their position on the grounds of holding to the Faith! Is my old seminary colleague Bishop Robert Neville actually defending the faith? Crikey, could it even be Pope Michael in Kansas who is the real deal? And if not, why not? He's only defending the Faith!

Please, please stop this silliness now, my Lord, before you break something irreparable!