Sunday, 30 August 2015

Havel's "Politics of Conscience" and Pope Francis' "Laudato si": surprising parallels

In the last week of the (not) long (enough) summer holiday that is a perk of the teaching profession, I have been reading Michael Zantovsky's Havel: A Life. It is a substantial biography of Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident (in the very specific meaning of that term during the 1970's and 1980's), advocate of human rights and, eventually, president of then Czechoslovakia after its "velvet revolution" of 1989. My progress has been slow as, when works by Havel that I already have on my bookshelves are referred to by Zantovsky, I have been abandoning the biography to read them. One of these works was Havel's essay "Politics and Conscience".

Havel's essay "Politics and Conscience" (link to English translation from here; I have a print copy in a book entitled Vaclav Havel: Living in Truth) was written in February 1984 as a speech to be delivered on receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail. Havel himself was prevented from travelling to Toulouse for the occasion as the Czech authorities had confiscated his passport; the text was first circulated in a samizdat publication(underground publishing) in Czechoslovakia. There are striking similarities between Havel's text and chapters three and four of Pope Francis' encyclical letter Laudato si. Compare, for example, the opening paragraph of Havel's essay (written, like the remainder of the essay, from an existentialist background):
As a boy, I lived for some time in the country and I clearly remember an experience from those days: I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens. I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it. Still that "soiling of the heavens" offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans are guilty of something, that they destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished. To be sure, my revulsion was largely aesthetic; I knew nothing then of the noxious emissions which would one day devastate our forests, exterminate game, and endanger the health of people.
and n.115 of Pope Francis' encyclical (the quotations are respectively from Romano Guardini and Pope John Paul II):
Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed”.
Both Havel and Pope Francis address the place of technology, and the dominance of what Pope Francis terms a "technological paradigm", not only in its impact on the natural world but also in its impact on how persons live in society, on economic and political life. Both argue against a "depersonalised" (Havel's word) exercise of political power, driven by technology, ideology, consumerism etc, and in favour of a resumption on the part of the individual person of their own responsibility towards the world around them and towards their neighbours. Both warn that solutions that are merely technological in nature will not suffice, and that solutions need to be sought that will reform the way in which people live. What Havel terms "anti-political politics" (cf the last paragraph of section IV, but you need to read the two preceding paragraphs to fully grasp this idea) has an affinity to what Pope Francis terms "the common good" (Laudato sinn.156-158).

Interestingly, in his essay Havel can refer to "science as displacing God and taking over his throne", though one should not thereby infer a religious belief on his part. Rather, if the essay is seen in its whole, Havel is recognising that there is something transcendent, and deserving of respect, in the world in which we live; and something in the human person that seeks to recognise and live in harmony with that transcendence. Pope Francis, of course, can situate this within an explicit teaching on the world as created by God.

Pope Francis, in Laudato si, sought to approach the question from the point of view of offering a teaching about mankind's relationship to the natural world in which we live.  Havel, though he opens his essay by considering the ecological question, primarily seeks to offer a warning to Western European nations about the depersonalized and dehumanizing exercise of power to which he was subject under a Communist regime but which he saw in their nations under the guise of technology, consumerism and a politics of system and bureaucracy. From different directions, they approach the same question, the question that, since the publication of Laudato si, might be termed the question of an "integral ecology"; though the different directions of approach and their different immediate contexts also explain the treatment of different specific questions, particularly in Laudato si
To fully appreciate the proximity of the thought expressed in Havel's essay to that in chapters three and four of Laudato si, I think you have to read the full texts themselves .....

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Assisted Dying - or living at the end of life? UPDATE

This link received in a comment to my earlier post on this subject. It is well worth reading the posts in this blog in the context of attempts to legalise assisted suicide/euthanasia. It provides both a personal testimony and a professionally qualified contribution.

End of life .... still a life worth living

Louis Bouyer on mutual enrichment?

I would suggest that the advocates of traditional Catholicism, in its post Summorum Pontificum version, are not really interested in the mutual enrichment between the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms sought by Pope Benedict XVI.

It's perhaps not a surprise that they should make much of the chapter in Louis Bouyer's Memoirs in which he gives a trenchant and critical account of his experience in working as a member of the post-Conciliar Consilium revising the Liturgy. There is perhaps a particular glee in noting Fr Bouyer's scathing observations about the modus operandi of the then Mgr Annibale Bugnini. The account of the writing, at least in part, of Eucharistic Prayer II in a Trastevere restaurant to meet a deadline the following morning also raises a chuckle.

But Fr Bouyer also notes the enrichment arising from the re-introduction to the Missal of " a good number of splendid prefaces taken over from ancient sacramentaries and thanks to the wider biblical readings (although, on this latter point, there was too much haste to produce anything satisfactory)". [English translation p.223]. He particularly praises the new Common Preface I; and has already referred to "three Eucharistic Prayers which, despite rather wordy intercessions, reclaimed pieces of great antiquity and unequalled theological and euchological richness" [p.220]. Can we perhaps see here something of the origins of Pope Benedict's suggestion that some of these new prefaces be introduced into the Missal of the Extraordinary Form, a proposal on which those attached to the Extraordinary Form show no sign of moving forward?

I would suggest that Fr Bouyer's summary of his account [English translation p.224] clearly recognises things of value in the Ordinary Form (my emphasis added):
After all of this, it's not much surprise if, because of its unbelievable weaknesses, the pathetic creature we produced was to provoke laughter or indignation - so much so that it makes one forget any number of excellent elements it nevertheless contains, and that it would be a shame not to salvage as so many scattered pearls in the revision that will inevitably be called for.
If Fr Bouyer's account is read as a whole, and not in a selective way, there appears to me an undeniable impetus in the direction of mutual enrichment.

The same chapter in the Memoirs includes an account of Fr Bouyer's participation in the International Theological Commission, from which he eventually resigned. In Fr Bouyer's account, he would usually be seated at meetings of the Commission between one Fr Joseph Ratzinger (traditionalist cheer?) and a certain Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar (traditionalist boo?). Now doesn't that make one's mouth water at the thought of the coffee break exchanges that might have taken place between these three!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Assisted Dying - or living at the end of life?

When I reach the time where the end of my life is foreseeable, I really do hope that none of those around me will speak or think in terms like "dying". I would much prefer them to think in terms of my living at the end of my life or, indeed, living the end of my life.  I also hope that, if I ever find myself accompanying someone else who is approaching the end of their life, we would speak and live using the same terms. It strikes me as being how the human person manifests and receives in an existential way, at this last stage of their life, the virtue of hope.

Even the term "assisted dying" articulates the denial of hope; and, if the patient is themselves at the origin of that denial, asks of their medical team to affirm them in that denial. (This seems particularly acute if it is a nurse who immediately provides the necessary drugs to the patient rather than the prescribing doctor.) If the medical team are the origin of that denial - which is a foreseeable consequence should proposed legislation before the Houses of Commons and Lords enter into law - the term expresses the projection from the medical team on to the patient of a denial of hope and inevitably provides a pressure in favour of it.

The Assisted Dying (no.2) Bill is due for Second Reading in the House of Commons on 11th September. In preparing my letter to my MP on this subject, I used the following sources:

Britain's law on assisted suicide is not 'broken' and does not need ‘fixing’

Eight Reasons not to legalize Physician Assisted Suicide

Since writing it, I have referred to:

Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: A Guide to the Evidence

According to the first source, the Commons private members bill is "almost identical" to the Bill introduced in the House of Lords, though a full text has yet to be published. One has only to look at the experience of legalized abortion to be able to foresee that legislation that does not in any way establish a right for a patient to be provided with assistance to commit suicide will in the event be interpreted in that way. Over time, doctors will sign off a patient's request precisely "on request", though that is not envisaged by the legislation. In particular - and I didn't include this in my letter - the second "independent doctor" is required by the proposed legislation to satisfy themselves of a range of factors, including the freedom of the patient from coercion. But I cannot see how a doctor can do this in genuine good faith without having a close knowledge of the patient's care, a knowledge that can only be achieved by having a significant presence in the patient's care.... and in that case a serious compromise of independence. Page 8 of the last source above indicates an aspect of this from experience in Oregon, where a small proportion of doctors sign off a majority of cases of assisted suicide.

If you want a summary of the substance of my letter - text below - it is that the experience of the practice of legalized abortion indicates that, if the proposed legislation were to make its way into law, all the safeguards around assisted suicide contained in the legislation will turn out to be utterly illusory.
I do not believe that the provision for medical professionals to provide patients with the means to kill themselves is in accord with the proper duty of care due to those who suffer serious illness. It would be much more in accord with that duty for there to be sufficient provision for end of life care on the model of hospice care. It should be possible today in countries such as England and Wales, for example, to ensure that pain relief, symptom relief and appropriate spiritual care are available to fully support a patient as they come to the end of their lives without making provision for them to commit suicide.
Whilst the Commons Bill has yet to be published, the similar Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords gives a close indication of the provisions in the Commons Bill. It is my view that the protections contained in that Bill, and, as I understand it, which will also be present in the Commons Bill are largely illusory. If these provisions were to become law, one can readily foresee that, as a doctor communicates a terminal diagnosis to a patient they will be expected by regulation or code of practice to also communicate the option of assistance from a medical professional to help them kill themselves. As soon as this happens, all the safeguards in the proposed legislation are compromised, most particularly the voluntary nature of the patients request which has inevitably become the subject of external influence.
One can also foresee that, whilst the debate in favour of the proposed legislation might suggest a (single) narrative of a free choice by a terminally ill patient to avoid overbearing suffering, the reality of the practice of such legislation would involve a variety of narratives on the part of patients. The published experiences of women with regard to legalized abortion, including those from writers supportive of legalized abortion, show very clearly that there are a variety of narratives, only a proportion of which can be fully characterized as a free choice on the part of the woman. This experience is instructive, I think, for what would be the experience of implementing legislation allowing medical professionals to assist their patients in killing themselves.

An afterthought that has occurred to me since writing my letter is the possibility that regulations and codes of practice might even expect the clinical staff in hospice settings to offer the option of assisted suicide to their patients - something totally alien to the ethical and clinical principles of hospice care.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Visit to Berlin - an exercise in (n)ostalgia

It is impossible to visit Berlin without being prompted to reflect on how a city should remember its past (whilst at the same time allowing its citizens to live their present time); and also being prompted to reflect on the meaning of freedom. As you might aim to visit one particular location, you inevitably encounter others that are full of meaning. I am sure that Zero and I missed much of significance.

In the crypt of the Catholic Cathedral of St Hedwig, located in a square just off the Unter den Linden, there is a chapel with the tomb of Fr Bernhard Lichtenberg. The display case at the right hand side contains a dedication from the Yad Vashem memorial, recognising Fr Lichtenberg as a "righteous among the nations". His story can be found at their site here. Fr Lichtenberg was beatified by Pope John Paul II.


The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is very much on the tourist trail, being just a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate. The nature of the field of stelae, and its immediate position in a square surrounded by ordinary life, is such that people interact with it in widely different ways - climbing up, walking among the slabs, taking in the sun lying atop the lower slabs. Towards the outskirts of the city, but I suspect more moving to visit, is the "Gleiss 17" memorial at Grunewald S-Bahn station. This marks the railway platform from which the Jews of Berlin were deported to concentration camps. The edge of the platforms record the date of each transport.



We did come across the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on our way elsewhere, but it is well worth a visit. The remains of the old church, badly damaged during the Second World War, stand alongside a very modern new church; and the closeness of the location to the most prosperous streets of Berlin is thought provoking (Kurfurstendamm is just a couple of blocks away). There is a particular link between the Memorial Church and Coventry Cathedral (and see here), both new buildings being consecrated on the same day. The Memorial Church contains the original "Stalingrad Madonna", which is quite moving to visit in the visual atmosphere created by the stained glass of the modern church. The Church represents a striking symbol of reconciliation in the particular circumstances of the aftermath of the Second World War - but it also prompts a contemporary reflection as to whether, in comparable circumstances now, that attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation prevails over hatred and fear.




It is tempting to say that one cannot escape an encounter with the Berlin Wall during a visit to present day Berlin. I think that is true - but I think there is also a sense in which it is possible to visit Berlin and ignore the Wall. The double row of cobble stones that in many places marks where the wall once stood does not attract much attention. Traffic drives over it in the roads on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, and even at Checkpoint Charlie the precise line of the Wall is almost ignored by visitors to a location that has something of a theme park atmosphere to it. Alexanderplatz, now a busy transport and shopping hub in what used to be East Berlin, through which Zero and I passed regularly during our visit, was the scene just days before the Berlin Wall came down of a huge rally calling for political change in East Germany. The memorial to Peter Fechter, which is just two minutes walk along Zimmerstrasse from Checkpoint Charlie, is visited by very few of those who form a kind of procession from the Unter den Linden down Friedrichstrasse to the former crossing point itself. I left Zero in a nearby bar while I went off to find the memorial, with the aid of a search via my mobile phone. The present day memorial is not the original (see here). The double line of cobble stones marks the position of the Wall when Peter Fechter died in 1962, and the circular slab in the ground the point where he died. The memorial pillar is in what would in 1962 have been West Berlin; the image below is taken from what would have been the death strip on the East Berlin side of the Wall.


Whilst near the centre of Berlin, the Berlin Wall Memorial is not directly in the normal path of tourist visitors. I think it will be to visit on another occasion.

A visit to the Olympic Stadium had a personal interest as well as a historic interest. The stadium is still used by Hertha BSC football club; and, when Zero and I visited, the former Olympic swimming pool was being used by local families, with that unique sound of children playing in water reaching the visitors to the stadium proper. That this resource is still used by the local community rather than being discarded because of its associations with the Nazi regime, suggests a city that has not forgotten its past, but which does wish to live in its present. The stadium underwent a major renovation between 2000 and 2004.

The personal connection came, not from the stadium itself, but from one of the administrative buildings in the Olympic park. This now houses an exhibition relating to the history of German sport, administrative offices supporting German sport and the offices of Hertha BSC football club.  Today it looks like this:


In 1956/57, it looked like this:


Apart from its occupants, the only difference is the stone in front of the flag pole which commemorates the use of the building as the Headquarters of the British Military Government and of the British Garrison in Berlin between 1945 and 1994.


In 1956/57, my mother (far right, in the photo below) was serving as a clerk with the Allied Staff Berlin, whose offices were somewhere at the back of the building. I haven't been able to work out exactly which unit my father (sitting next to mother in the photo) belonged to at this time. 


Our last visit in Berlin was somewhat quirky. The Café Sybille on Karl Marx Allee. Karl Marx Allee really is very sleepy and quiet, though only two U-bahn stops from Alexanderplatz. Café Sybille is a decidedly retro venue, with a small exhibition of the history of the now Karl Marx Allee, AKA Stalin-Allee (before the latter's fall from grace - both the man himself and his statue on this street). There are sufficient English commentaries attached to the displays to make a visit worthwhile, but an ability to read the full German language displays would have been an advantage.


Again, Karl Marx Allee is one of those places in Berlin with a history that is easily missed during a tourist visit. It was the workers building along this street in 1953 who first began the protests that became the 17th June uprising in East Germany - the first uprising against the Communist powers in a satellite country after the Second World War. It was put down with the help of Soviet tanks, after the workers had marched from what is now Karl Marx Allee to the area of the Potsdamer Platz.

Which perhaps exemplifies my first thought in this post - that you cannot visit Berlin without reflecting on the ideas of memory and freedom.




Monday, 10 August 2015

Year for Consecrated Life (8): Comparing Secular Institutes and Consecrated Virginity

I think this post at Sponsa Christi offers an informative discussion of the vocation of Secular Institutes in relation to the vocation of consecrated virginity: Consecrated Virginity versus Secular Institutes (it isn't as argumentative as the title suggests!).

Friday, 7 August 2015

Catholic teaching on migration

When we read what the Catholic Church has had to say about migration - the messages for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees of Pope Francis and those of Pope Benedict, and the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants - there are a number of threads which emerge.

1. A right to emigrate and, in a mirror to this, the possibility of a right to immigrate. A right of migration is rooted in a right that individuals have to contribute effectively according to their abilities to the economic, social and cultural development of their communities. Where the present location of a person means that this is not possible, then a right of movement to a new place where there is a reasonably founded hope of realising it is part of the Church's teaching with regard to migration. Gaudium et Spes n.65, in passing, asserts this right of migration at the same time that it suggests that those who deprive their community of the material and spiritual aid that it needs endanger the common good. This right of migration might be exercised by a person who moves from one part of a country to another part of the same country in order to find work; it might have a greater social significance if it forms part of a general move of population from the countryside to towns and cities; and it might also be represented by emigration from one country to seek immigration into another. It is in this last instance that, if a right to migration is to be exercised, there can be suggested a corresponding right to immigration into a potential host country.

There are two interesting points about this. Firstly, the right to migration arises from a dimension of the dignity of the human person, that is, the right (and duty) to an opportunity to contribute creatively to the life of the community in which a person lives. It is not, fundamentally, a right that is political, economic or sociological in nature, though it is a right that has implications in all of these spheres. Secondly, it represents part of what in public debate is characterised by the terms "economic migration" or "economic migrant". Catholic teaching at this point challenges an assumption that those seeking entry to a new country as "economic migrants" should, just by virtue of being economic migrants rather than refugees who meet the UNHCR definition or the requirement for humanitarian protection, be refused entry.

2. A right of countries to adopt immigration policies that control the entry of people from other countries, in the interests of the common good. Gaudium et Spes n.26 defines the idea of the common good as follows (with my italics added to focus on the definition of the common good as such, but the perception of the universal dimension is very relevant to the contemporary situation):
..... the common good, that is, the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment, today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.
In respecting the needs of the common good, a country's immigration policy needs to consider not only the good of its own population but also the good of the potential immigrants to that country. There is a need for nations to collaborate with each other - nations that receive migrants need to collaborate among themselves, and nations that receive migrants need to collaborate with the nations from which those migrants originate. It is unlikely that the common good will be served by an immigration policy that is focussed on securing borders; and neither will it be served by a policy whose origins lie in a reaction to a domestic political exigency.  Nor is the common good going to be served by a policy that places such high barriers to immigration that it has an effect, foreseeable to a greater or lesser extent, of encouraging migrants to gain illegal entry into potential host countries.

It should not be forgotten that, sitting behind the notion of the common good, is the principle of the dignity of the human person. This requires that, at the point of encounter between the migrant and the authorities of a potential host country, there should be a respect for a person who has the rights that accrue to any person by virtue of their being a person.

3. Migration is an international phenomenon that requires the co-operation of states in response to both the situations that cause people to become migrants and the response of receiving nations. This co-operation is only going to occur when there is an authentic community of nations; it is not served by an international politics determined by a competition of national interests.

4. The Catholic Church also offers a teaching to its own pastors and faithful. This urges them to offer a welcome to migrants who arrive in their territories, both in material and spiritual terms. In referring to the pastoral care of migrants, the Church explicitly includes a care for their religious life as well as for their material well being, recognising that many migrants bring with them their religious belief and culture. The Church also sees, in the encounter between the life and culture that migrants bring with them on their journey and the life and culture of a host nation, an opportunity for evangelisation (though it should be clear that this opportunity is seen in the dialogue between the cultures rather than in any proselytising intent towards the conversion of migrants). Another strand in Catholic teaching is represented by a spiritual reflection on the situation of migrants who are uprooted from one home and make a journey, full of hardship, towards a foreign land. This journey is in places compared to the journey of salvation, to the journey of the Chosen People from Egypt to the promised land, to the journey of the Holy Family as they went into exile in Egypt to escape King Herod.

The UNHCR website for the UK identifies the numbers seeking asylum in the UK between January and March 2015 as follows (largest ten countries of origin only):
Eritrea (3,239), Pakistan (2,711), Syria (2,081), Iran (2,011), Albania (1,576), Sudan (1,449), Sri Lanka (1,282), Afghanistan (1,136), Nigeria (875), India (689)
One can readily identify in this list countries that are seriously affected by conflict, and conflict that shows no prospect of coming to an end in the near future. It also reflects the news reporting of the origins of those migrants who are currently crossing the Mediterranean or trying to enter the UK from Calais. I would suggest that, if the background and stories of many of these migrants were considered against the qualified right of migration suggested above, then decisions about their entry into the countries of Europe would be very different.

See also: How should Catholics respond to the tragic scenes at Calais?

See also: UNHCR calls for comprehensive response to the Calais situation