Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Bridges, gaps and whistling in the dark

Let me start this post by saying I have no idea for certain what will take place at the Synod in October with regard to the hot-button issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried. God alone knows that. But it is part of the public service role of this blog to squeak a warning at the top of its voice about, on one side, the total doom sayers and, on the other, the pollyanna party.

I have heard a lot of hard things said about the current pope and so many of them appear true. Need I rehearse the myriad stories of his vague and imprecise language, his wild phone calls, the strange favouritism given to Kasper, his falsely irenic engagement with other religions to the point - reportedly; everything dubious about this papacy seems to be reportedly so - of suggesting Tony Palmer not convert to Catholicism (as Ratzinger did for distinguished Lutheran Sigrid Spath)? Don't become a Catholic for the sake of building wide bridges to unity? It's enough to make all Francis apologists choke on their Cheerios!

But Francis's clear trajectory on all these points is not for me a sure and certain sign that the Synod will simply go the way he clearly wants it to. He is a man and that is enough for him to be a mystery. Add to this fact that he is also the Vicar of Christ, and I find myself unable to predict with any confidence what he might do later today, let alone in October (or in the Synod proper of 2015). The religion of Jesus is the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat. If things look bleak, they are looking up. Frankly, Francis seems to me like a drunk passenger who has somehow got control of the plane's cockpit, but the Holy Spirit is ultimately in charge of autopilot. The Church and, yes, even the pope, remain a mystery. God will have his way, of that we must remain unshakeably sure. I have no idea how exactly the story of the Synod will pan out. I know of various groups among the bishops who are working hard in preparation to block any outlandish Kasperite nonsense. I have no doubt there are counter operations being prepared by the looney liberals. All I am trying to say is that we must not lose hope that the Kasper solution can be defeated.

All that said, I am not - repeat: not! - advocating pollyannaism. In my post last week I mentioned William Oddie's bizarre reassurances that the pope will favour the Mueller solution over the Kasper solution when the crunch finally comes. These reassurances have since been republished by Crisis magazine, so they must be good, right? Yet as far as I can see, Oddie's sole evidence for his confidence is a sermon that Francis preached one morning, with the following words:

“Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed; fidelity to the doctrine, safeguarding this doctrine. Humility and fidelity. We receive the message of the Gospel as a gift and we need to transmit it as a gift, but not as a thing of ours: it is a gift that we received.”


Oddie's other argument in favour of his thesis is that if Pope Francis really supported the Kasper solution, he would have greeted it differently from the way in which he did (calling it 'serene theology'). In the cold light of day, this last claim looks close to silly. At best, it is much like special pleading.

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One of the problems we have with Pope Francis is that many of us simply do not recognise the gulf he appears to place between doctrine and practice. The Tony Palmer question is a good example. Being a full member of the Catholic Church is either a matter of salvation or it is not. With the sole exception of invincible ignorance - known ultimately to God alone - I know of no justifiable reason that excuses a man from remaining out of full communion with the Church.

So the question we must ask is not why Pope Francis would tell Tony Palmer to stay outside of full communion. The question is: "what are the implications for other teachings if it makes no difference to Tony Palmer's salvation whether he is a full member of the Church or not?" God knows the difficult obstacles that any soul faces on its journey towards the truth, but is it Pope Francis's view that lack of full membership of the Church is objectively speaking no obstacle at all to salvation (we know that subjective conditions can make a difference)? What exactly is the evidence that he thinks such a lack is indeed an obstacle? As far as I can see, Pope Francis's mission to the evangelicals seems to amount to this:



Given everything else Pope Francis is reported as saying, we really have to wonder what the meaning of “Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed" really is. What possible necessity can such fidelity have in the light of the Tony Palmer case? Come on, William Oddie and Crisis, parse this for me!

But in this argument perhaps I am succumbing to the temptation of wanting to make sense of Pope Francis's views. I am assuming there is a bridge to be built between doctrine and practice. Yet, as I said above, arguably this is our problem: that we do not recognise the gulf that, for him, seems to exist between doctrine and practice. I am coming to think that it is quite possible for Francis to believe fully in the doctrine of the Eucharist, and in the doctrine that says adultery is a grave sin, but still, in practice, to be prepared to tolerate Communion for the divorced and remarried. Likewise, he may well believe in the necessity of full communion with the Church but, in practice, be happy to see people stay outside of it for the purposes of building bridges. That building bridges metaphor is so fraught with anthropocentrism, so thick with self reliance, I can barely bring myself to write it. It reminds me of another ecumenical metaphor about "leaving our baggage behind" which used to do the rounds. Well, you know what happens when you leave your baggage behind? These days you get arrested and questioned under Section 4 of the Terrorism Act!

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Readers who are ruthless logicians will be streets ahead of me by now setting out all the implications of the gap between doctrine and practice which Pope Francis's words and actions all strongly suggest. And, quite possibly, preparing accusations against the obvious implications. All things considered, however, I'm not sure this is the most fruitful path. On the other hand, trying to find comfort in the more traditional reassurances Pope Francis gives seems to me to be a dead end. It is simply whistling in the dark (not a wholly damnable pastime but not a wholly excusable one either).

In my opinion, all we can hope for is that when the Synod comes, Pope Francis will either be discouraged by the force of opposition to the Kasper proposals, or that even he will find it impossible to accommodate the Kasperite gap between doctrine and practice. Even the wise cannot see all ends. Oremus!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Franciscan hall of mirrors

In these days of mind-bending CGI simulation, it is easy to forget that only a few years ago we had to rely on sleight of hand and trickery to change the way things appeared. I say it was trickery but perhaps that is not so. The bending of light and its effect on our sight are well-established phenomena in nature, as you can see by simply sticking your hand in a stream and watching it 'bend'. We're surrounded by light almost all the time, and yet when it bends - a perfectly natural phenomenon - we are bemused or confused. We might imagine the laws of nature are changing or that our sight is failing. But nothing of the sort is true. We are just unused to the effect and the results amuse and confuse us. A more sinister turn of this phenomenon is referred to as smoke and mirrors. A magician might do it for our amusement. A fraudster would do it to rob us. Somewhere in the world, there may be civilisations where the bending of light is not merely a phenomenon for amusement or deceit but one which holds a more central place in their culture. Step forward any knowledgeable anthropologists who can fill in this blank for me.

I say all this - as usual - with an ulterior motive. Two matters have struck me this week and caused me some anxiety. I'll set them out here in my usual, pedestrian way. You may make of them what you will.

First, a blogger - to remain nameless - I know is close to separating himself from the Church. Pray for him, please. His problem, as I understand it, is that he is too honest a man to close his eyes to the appalling contradictions of this current papacy. His tragedy is that many intelligent and eloquent Catholics have attacked him for his always level-headed and even-handed criticisms of Pope Francis's words and actions. Our blogger, besieged on all sides by verbal diarrhoea, thus has come to the conclusion that if Francis's defenders represent Catholicism, he, the blogger, cannot be a Catholic. Something is profoundly wrong in a Church where people are so loyal to the pope that they will defend him even in his most egregious moments and question the Catholicity of others for finding fault.

The second matter that struck me this week is William Oddie's column in The Catholic Herald. Are you worried that the pope will change something dramatic at the Synod? Fear not, says Oddie, because however much he has praised Kasper to the skies, and (reportedly - everything dubious about this pope is 'reportedly' so) called at least one divorced and remarried woman to say she can receive the Eucharist, he has also in other moments said that we must all be faithful to Catholic doctrine. And so, Oddie concludes, the pope won't change anything at the Synod.

It was in the light of these two matters that the image of the hall of mirrors in the traditional fair funhouse sprang to mind this week. In the hall of mirrors some things loom entirely out of proportion and appear much bigger than they really are. Thus my blogging friend's persecutors. With every new and specious argument they produce defending the indefensible and lambasting the naysayers, they get puffed out of all proportion, their size apparently sanctioned by the implications of Pope Francis's words or deeds. As I have observed elsewhere: the strong can survive the attacks of their enemies but only the great can survive the defence provided by their friends. And Francis, it must be said, is not a great.

In contrast with the looming bloatedness of the Franciscan defenders come Oddie's bizarrely justified predictions about the Synod. Francis can be reduced to his most orthodox commentaries on the necessity of fidelity ... and we can just ignore the rest? This is the counter-error to our blogger's mistake, wherein matters get shrunk down to manageable size, regardless of the reality of things.

For Oddie, the pope's mistakes can be minimised because one day somewhere he said something precisely orthodox. For our blogger - God love him in his suffering - the defenders of Francis's mistakes seem to make such an overwhelming cacophony that they obscure for him the symphony of the faith which brought him to the Church in the first place.

Yes, here we have it: the Franciscan hall of mirrors. Bullshitters bestride the stage and sprinkle their papal dust on everything by way of justification, while good men cut themselves in incipient self-hatred for being so out of line, for refusing to accept the distortion of the hall of mirrors.

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We are surrounded, dear friends, by an accelerating chaos, at least in the minds of many who are engaged intellectually in the Franciscan papacy (the rest of the members of the Church will be spared the trouble through being too busy elsewhere, thank God). It is always a crisis when someone is contemplating walking away from the Church for such conscientious reasons. Pray, pray for my blogging buddy.

But is is also a crisis when otherwise good and sensible people try to minimise the dangers that surround us.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Stratford Caldecott RIP

I reported a few weeks back that Stratford Caldecott was dying of cancer. I have just seen this news from the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture:

Stratford Caldecott, RIP

It is with deep sadness that we announce the untimely death of Stratford Caldecott, a long time friend of the Chesterton Institute; contributor and member of the Editorial Board of The Chesterton Review.
Stratford died in England today.

We extend our deepest and most sincere condolences to his wife Leonie and his family.

G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture


Please remember Stratford, his wife Leonie and his daughters in your prayers.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Anglicanorum crapibus

In this post, I might sound like I am speaking without love. I merely mean to speak with exasperation.

I come from diverse cultural lines but both have firm Catholic roots. My maternal great-grandmother was called Greenhalgh and her family were recusant Lancashire Catholics going back to the Reformation. One of our ancestors is Blessed Edward Osbaldeston, a priest who was hung, drawn and quartered in York in 1594. My father's side comes from Cheshire peasant farming stock and their name goes back centuries and centuries.

On the other hand, one of my grandmothers was a Burke and the other was a McCarthy. My parents grew up in one of those urban Irish Catholic communities which formed in Britain after the potato famine. Nowadays, while we might have lost the accent and the shamrocks, we have lost none of the pigheadedness.

It is this kind of background which simply makes me incapable of understanding Anglicanism. I am simply left agog at the brass balls it takes to sit in the General Synod and vote out of existence the tradition of the exclusively male episcopate. Yes, I know it all went wrong a long time ago; that since they have had women priests, it was only logical to have women bishops; that you can expect nothing more from a church founded for the convenience of a king riddled with syphilis. But I'm still left amazed by the perfect incoherence of it all; the tea-with-the-vicaress perversity of it; the invariable itching of ears under the cover of "sound" liturgy.

Yes, yes, yes, of course we would like the integration of the Anglican patrimony into the Catholic Church... those bits that can be salvaged and which belong more properly to the traditions of English Catholicism than any imported Irish pious tat. But the essence of the religion expressed by the General Synod is simply accommodationism of the very worst kind.

In the very same week the General Synod has voted to embrace women bishops (which makes as much sense to me as a chips and fizzy pop Eucharist), decisions will also be taken regarding the suppression of the devil from their baptismal rite and the deregulation of liturgical vestments.

All this tinkering is billed as an élan of relevance busting forth from the Anglican bosom. It looks to me more like a slide into self caricature. Look, frankly, God is not relevant any more to the Zeitgeist, so why not just replace His name with the word Love which means the same thing theologically? And now, let's have a pause for quiet recollection and a fondle of our prayer stones.

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I sound like I am speaking without love. I merely mean to speak with exasperation. My wife was raised Anglican and her piety is something extraordinary. But that is not the point. The point is that the Church of England is doing everything it can to please the world - a dynamic derived from the manner of its foundation, I suppose, but one whose current expression would have shocked Anglicans only a few years ago. Pleasing the world: can there be a better realisation of losing one's grip on the call of Christ?

Of course some Catholics would say something like this:

“I’m not interested in converting [Anglicans] to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”

But how can one show the love of Jesus without being devoted to preaching a plenary version of that love? It doesn't make any sense.

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My maternal grandmother was a supporter of the SSPX. One day after attending a Mass celebrated by Bishop Williamson, she was introduced to the prelate himself and kissed his ring. From her wheelchair, she looked up admiringly at a man she thought would understand her roots and said, 'You know, my Lord, we have a martyr in our family. Blessed Edward Osbaldeston.' He sneered down unkindly at her for a moment (if you know him, you will know that look) and replied, 'Yes, I'm sure many Lancashire Catholics have martyrs in their families.'

Well, you would think that if you confuse society and religion, Mr former-Anglican, now the self-proclaimed last Catholic bishop in England (all conclusions are contained potentially in the premises of the syllogism; don't try and avoid it).

But when religion finds itself simply aping society, it can only continue as a caricature of itself, an impostor, a Caliban, dressed in fine robes but mouthing its own slogan-driven vulgarity.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Lombardi, shaken not stirred

Dear Fr Lombardi,
Does it ever grieve you,
The more we hear from you,
The less we believe you?

(Apologies to Hilaire Belloc)

It will come as no surprise to readers that Pope Francis has given another interview to Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica. I do not think there is an English translation of it yet and I have not bothered to copy and paste the thing into Google Translate even to get the vague gist. No, what has struck me is that almost before the original interview has even been read by its Italian audience, Fr Lombardi SJ of the Vatican Press Office has sprung into damage-limitation action.

So what has Fr Lombardi said about this interview that hardly anybody has even heard of yet? Here, I give the account provided by Zenit:

"In the Sunday edition of “La Repubblica” an article by Eugenio Scalfari was prominently featured relating a recent conversation that took place with Pope Francis. [...]

However, as it happened in a previous, similar circumstance, it is important to notice that that words that Mr. Scalfari attributes to the Pope, “in quotations” come from the expert journalist Scalfari’s own memory of what the Pope said [...]

We should not or must not speak in any way, shape or form of an interview in the normal use of the word [...] the individual expressions that were used and the manner in which they have been reported, cannot be attributed to the Pope.

Let me state two particular examples. [...] The first is that among pedophiles are also “some cardinals”; and the second regarding celibacy: “I will find solutions.”


Now, of course, I am very curious to find out what on earth Scalfari has reported in his interview-that-is-not-an-interview. Perhaps if time allows in the next few days, I will have the chance to wade through the text itself.

But I confess I was beside myself to read Fr Lombardi's attempts at trying to distance the Holy Father from his words as reported in La Repubblica. No, Fr Lombardi, no, no, no! You could just about get away with that excuse the first time around when we will accept for the sake of argument that a "Scalfari interview" was an unknown quantity. But now? Are we to assume that the pope has forgiven Scalfari for the errors of the last interview-that-was-not-an-interview? Or are we to assume that the errors that gave the Vatican licence to disavow the interview-that was-not-an-interview were not in fact errors at all?

Or, are we to assume that this is just the way that Pope Francis wants his words to go out? In a format which gives his press office plausible deniability but in a way that fits entirely with his intentions?

Two things to note. First, Lombardi's dash to correct the interview's interpretation on its day of publication either suggests that the pope deliberately wants a little spat about the reporting of his words again, or that Lombardi is acting independently and trying to queer the pope's message. I lean to the latter interpretation.

Second, since the pope has gone back to Scalfari (for the second or the third time? I don't remember now), we can assure ourselves that whatever Scalfari reports is what the pope wants reported, even if it is not what the pope actually said.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Unintended consequences and contraception

I'm currently reading Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future: The Inventions that Will Transform Our Lives. It is the kind of prophetic book of which there was a rash around the beginning of the twentieth century. The key flaw of the genre - a foolhardy confidence in the forward march of technology - was satirised by G. K. Chesterton in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill in which, Chesterton claims, ordinary people love nothing more than the game of 'Cheat the Prophet'.

I don't quite share Chesterton's earnest confidence in ordinary people. Ordinary people can of course be quite extraordinary, even if they hide it really well. Yet I confess I think of ordinary people these days - and by ordinary I suppose I mean average or commonly found - through the figure of a student who once said to me (without a trace of irony), 'History? History is the past. You should just get over it.' As I'm sure she intended, that told me! But then it also told me that just when you think you have fathomed the depths, some other gulf opens beneath your feet. 'Those who forget history are bound to repeat it,' I replied and she sneered back, blinking her incomprehension in a kind of witless morse.

Of course few ordinary people put the case quite so brutally as that. Many do, however, subscribe to its corollary, at least implicitly, 'Now is the present, and that is all that counts.'

The narrowing of time and space this kind of attitude indicates is intriguing. Oddly enough, it runs parallel with a whole host of technological inventions that elide time and space in what are thought to be invariably happy ways. Admittedly, technology is associated with freedom and sophistication. So why is it that some of its users remind us of the selfish toddler who sits surrounded by its toys, oblivious of time and defining its world by its own reach? The internet troll, the sleepless online gambler, the febrile seeker of porn: all of them cut them same figure of human degradation in the moment of technological enhancement.

All complex technology seems to have the potential for inducing this kind of mistake: promising control but leading to constraint, promising freedom but delivering unhappiness. I'm not oblivious to the irony of writing these words on a screen which, with the click of a key, will see them disappear, only for them to reappear anywhere, everywhere and nowhere and possibly on the 11th July (even as I write them on the 10th). Yet I am trying to be cognisant of the limits of the self-proclaimed illimitable.

My point here is not to reject all technology for the sake of its unintended consequences. All technology has its accidents. Rather, my point is to say that if the examination of unintended consequences is not a feature of our reception of technology, then we cannot but blame ourselves when they come back to haunt us.

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This observation underlines the witlessness - I come back to my word of the day! - of the argument advanced in favour of the contraceptive pill (or other contraceptive technologies) by those I am going to call 'pro-cons'. They must have been rubbing their hands with glee to see how openly the October Synod's Instrumentum Laboris provided evidence of the failure of teaching in this area. There is a breeze stirring among the liberal Catholic left who feel the time is ripe to emphasise the supremacy of conscience over anything the Church might have to say about lurv. And how they must have lurved the following passage:

The responses [to the pre-Synod questionnaire] also demonstrate the diversity in pastoral practice among the clergy in reference to this subject, including those who show understanding and support and others who are either very rigid or entirely permissive. The situation indicates the necessity to reconsider these aspects of pastoral care in the formation of clerics.


As far as I can see, cavalier approaches to conscience in the matter of Humanae Vitae are based on the assumption that the technology of contraception is of a neutral kind. I love St Thomas but I sometimes come close to hating the neo-scholasticism that would assure me of the moral neutrality of technology ... as if that were the end of the matter. As if essences just hung around in some disembodied world waiting for a medieval imitator to make a distinction and proclaim it safe, like some overly bold native kicking an unexploded bomb.

Your standard moral philosopher would probably tell you that the contraceptive pill is morally neutral like a gun (oh dear, is there a queue of moral philosophers now forming to tell me the contraceptive pill can only be justified by double effect? I hope not! Non-sexually active teenagers can take it for acne). Let's confine the following discussion to the pill, because this is a blog after all, not a moral treatise. What counts is the purposes to which the pill is put. Thus, a woman suffering the appalling disease of endometriosis can morally take the pill by way of helping to control her condition.

Isn't that neat? But in one swift stroke, such an argument allows a whole world of experience to shift into the shadows simple because of the distinction that has been made about the technology's moral neutrality. We know now actually that the effect of the pill is not confined to the individual's reproductive system. We know, for example, that the chemical pregnancy induced by the pill can have a deleterious effect on how the woman's spouse responds to her. It's all a matter of pheromones. We know too that mass use of the pill is responsible for extraordinary transformations in national fish stocks, such that male fish increasingly show female traits due to the environmental pollution of synthetic hormones in the water system. A parallel phenomenon suggests the terrible effect of synthetic hormones on British men among whom there has been a decline in fertility in recent years. The case is not water tight but it doesn't take a rocket scientist's assistant to put two and two together.

All of which only goes to show how out of touch the 'go with your conscience' argument really is. It is just a primitive response to what has become a much more complicated issue. Indeed, there are increasing numbers of irreligious women who are becoming interested in natural fertility management precisely for these reasons.

My case here is not that the unintended consequences of contraception amount to a moral case against it. Rather, my case is that conceptualising contraception merely as a neutral technology is a very clumsy way to go about considering it in the round.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

It's not you, it's me

I know it is fashionable to throw the insult "pelagian" around the place these days. Some people claim it as a badge of honour, which only goes to show how far the word has drifted from its original anchor point. Still, running against this fashionable current, I have been mulling over the pelagiannous - well, what else should I call it? - of one of the many tendencies that characterises contemporary ecclesial life: the tendency to blame ourselves when things go wrong.

Now, you might think that blaming oneself is a rather good instinct, and of course it is in many ways. Humility, the foundation of the virtues and all that. Quite, quite.

But the tendency I'm talking about is not quite the same thing. What I have in mind is a kind of Occam's razor and seems to be at work especially in the Church's missionary or preaching activity. The burden of its meaning might be stated thus: If people continue to resist or reject the truth, the Church must be to blame.

I'm not making an argument for complacency here. I'm not saying that the first line of defence ought to be pointing the finger at the failure of sinners (or saints) to hear the truth. I'm merely saying that the bottom line should not always be the conclusion that the Church has failed to articulate its teachings sufficiently well.

This force is at work in the oft repeated claim that the Church needs a new pastoral approach (every five minutes or so). I'm all for the Church adapting how she says what she needs to say; Magister fidelium, she has been given a share in Christ's mission to teach, and teaching is not peroration.

But it is naive to think that only intellectual impediments stand in the way of truth. It is naive to think that if only things were worded differently, then missionary effectiveness would be restored. Charity always does things differently of course, but it is the charity of God that conquers, not our mere ingenuity alone.

Still, this tendency contains another problem yet more serious than naivety. In a way the conclusion that we must change what we are doing to make the Church effective runs with the assumption that bringing forth fruit is within our power alone; that the mission is a kind of technical challenge sprinkled with a bit of holy water. People put their faith in processes like dialogue in the same way people once put their faith in machines like the steam engine. There is in all this a kind a self sufficiency and, yes, you guessed it, a kind of pelagian reflex. By the way some people behave, you would think the soul of the apostolate is communications expertise. I suppose, by the same logic, there is a kind of technical assumption even in the thought that if only we went back to how we used to do it before the current crisis, then that would produce the desired results. Futurology and archaeologism are two versions of the same busted flush.

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I know they all talk about the Holy Spirit a lot more these days, spiritual ecumenism and all that jazz. But I argue that the test of supernatural realism, of a real faith in the God of Jesus Christ, lies in whether we are prepared to recognise the mysterium iniquitatis. All told, this is not in the least an argument against ingenuity in the mission field. It is an argument against ingenuousness in the supernatural order. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Every half decent Catholic clergyman or layperson believes this, but how many really preach it, let alone live by the truth that it contains?

There are many scandals - obstacles - that churchmen and laity are guilty of creating for the seekers of truth. And, yes, of course the Church can attract more flies with a spoon full of honey than a barrel full of vinegar, as St Francis de Sales said. But the Church cannot hawk honey at the expense of vinegar (which is such a useful substance). More to the point, it cannot pretend that those who reject vinegar are not in fact suffering from problems that only vinegar can solve. Hmmm, perhaps I've stretched that metaphor as much as it can happily go!

Pascal said it all when he declared that the heart has its reasons which reason does not know. Humans are a mystery. Evil is a mystery. And unless we recover these two truths, we are in continual danger of idolising ourselves as the wannabe technicians of the mission machine.