Saturday, 22 October 2016

I think I shall miss the Year of Mercy when it ends ....

It can appear that, in inaugurating a Year of Mercy, Pope Francis was being radical and novel in the way in which he wished to encourage us to live the Christian life. Actually I believe that what he has done is draw attention to a dimension of the Christian life that is already present and multiform in Catholic life.

The year has given me a sensitivity, for example, to those occasions when the Church's Liturgy makes reference to the mercy of God. The Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, for example, is:
O God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.
And for Twenty Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time:
O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy, bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us and make those hastening to your promises heirs to the treasures of heaven.
Reading recently about Elizabeth of the Trinity, I came across a reference (which I can't at the moment trace) to St Catherine of Siena's praise of Divine Mercy in her Dialogue. This occurs in the section "A Treatise of Discretion" (text taken from EWTN website, and the same as that in the translation published by Baronius Press in 2006):
How this soul wondering at the mercy of God, relates many gifts and graces given to the human race.
Then this soul, as it were, like one intoxicated, could not contain herself, but standing before the face of God, exclaimed, "How great is the Eternal Mercy with which You cover the sins of Your creatures! I do not wonder that You say of those who abandon mortal sin and return to You, 'I do not remember that you have ever offended Me.' Oh, ineffable Mercy! I do not wonder that You say this to those who are converted, when You say of those who persecute You, 'I wish you to pray for such, in order that I may do them mercy.' Oh, Mercy, who proceeds from Your Eternal Father, the Divinity who governs with Your power the whole world, by You were we created, in You were we re-created in the Blood of Your Son. Your Mercy preserves us, Your Mercy caused Your Son to do battle for us, hanging by His arms on the wood of the Cross, life and death battling together; then life confounded the death of our sin, and the death of our sin destroyed the bodily life of the Immaculate Lamb. Which was finally conquered? Death! By what means? Mercy! Your Mercy gives light and life, by which Your clemency is known in all Your creatures, both the just and the unjust. In the height of Heaven Your Mercy shines, that is, in Your saints. If I turn to the earth, it abounds with Your Mercy. In the darkness of Hell Your Mercy shines, for the damned do not receive the pains they deserve; with Your Mercy You temper Justice. By Mercy You have washed us in the Blood, and by Mercy You wish to converse with Your creatures. Oh, Loving Madman! was it not enough for You to become Incarnate, that You must also die? Was not death enough, that You must also descend into Limbo, taking thence the holy fathers to fulfil Your Mercy and Your Truth in them? Because Your goodness promises a reward to them that serve You in truth, You descended to Limbo, to withdraw from their pain Your servants, and give them the fruit of their labours. Your Mercy constrains You to give even more to man, namely, to leave Yourself to him in food, so that we, weak ones, should have comfort, and the ignorant commemorating You, should not lose the memory of Your benefits. Wherefore every day You give Yourself to man, representing Yourself in the Sacrament of the Altar, in the body of Your Holy Church. What has done this? Your Mercy. Oh, Divine Mercy! My heart suffocates in thinking of you, for on every side to which I turn my thought, I find nothing but mercy. Oh, Eternal Father! Forgive my ignorance, that I presume thus to chatter to You, but the love of Your Mercy will be my excuse before the Face of Your loving-kindness."
"In the darkness of Hell Your Mercy shines ..." is the phrase which strikes me most as capturing something of the spirit of the Year of Mercy.

This is without considering the more recent development of devotion to the Divine Mercy prompted by the charism of St Faustina, and the establishing of the Liturgical celebration of that devotion at the beginning of the Easter season.

As I said above, rather than representing a radical innovation, the Year of Mercy draws our attention to a dimension of Christian life that is present already in the history and life of the Church and encourages us to live it with an ever greater richness.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Is there a right to offend?

There is a certain fashion for saying, in its negative expression, that we have no right to be protected from others giving offence to us; or, in the corresponding positive expression, there is a right of one person to act or speak in a manner that gives offence to another. I heard it again the other day, expressed by a BBC radio interviewer.

Now there is certainly a prudential judgement to be made as to whether or not the giving of offence should be proscribed by law, and thereby attract a criminal or civil sanction before the law. This arises because the law would find it difficult to distinguish between legitimate difference of opinion and an offence of giving offence, however the latter might be defined. So the law, at least in this country, does not proscribe offensive language used towards another and, instead, remains silent on the matter.

But does the absence of legal proscription thereby confer its opposite - that is, does it confer a right to carry out the action that it does not proscribe? Many would believe that it does. A reading of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights would, in my view, suggest otherwise.

Its preamble argues from the "recognition of the inherent dignity .... of all members of the human family", while Article 1 argues that all persons "should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Article 12 reads: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

Article 12 has a particular bearing on Articles 18 and 19, which propose the freedom of religious belief and the freedom of belief and expression. Neither of these freedoms can be effectively exercised if people are subject to abusive behaviour or language in their regard; that is, if through attacks on the honour and reputation of their religious or political community, people are subject to mediated attacks on their individual honour and reputation.

Now the content of one person's religion or belief might be such that it is offensive to the religion or belief of another (which is the difficulty that the law faces in proscribing offensive language and behaviour). The expression of difference of opinion in this respect might give rise to offence in a very qualified manner as regards the content of what is expressed. But the recognition of the dignity of the person in the other, and regard for his or her honour and reputation, certainly constrains the manner of the expression of difference. And in this sense, I think the UN Declaration should suggest to us that, no, there is not an unqualified right to be offensive towards others.

Whilst the proscription of the law might extend only to hate crime based on certain protected characteristics, and not to offensiveness itself, there remains the obligation, articulated in human rights instruments, for citizens to maintain the dignity of others, and to respect their honour and reputation. The lack of legal proscription makes the responsibility of the citizen in this regard all the more important.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Ordinary Form in the style of Fortescue?

Visiting a parish recently, I experienced what might be stereotyped as a celebration of the Ordinary Form according to the style of Fr Adrian Fortescue. That's not to say that the celebration was authentically derived from Fortescue - in some ways it was, but, I suspect, in other ways it wasn't.

Poor Father. He definitely appeared to be more concerned with the inches between his extended hands (I doubt that centimetres, that most heinous modern innovation, would have entered his mind), the burse stood upright on the altar when not in use, and several other like things, rather than anything else. One can be irrelevantly pedantic in suggesting that a priest should "celebrate" Mass rather than "say" Mass - but if ever I have encountered Mass being "said" rather than "celebrated" this was it. It was Liturgical form without any soul; it appeared to have only the smallest regard for the congregation present who could be forgiven for feeling that they were an inconvenience; and that included the homily which was read like a prescribed script (I can't comment on content because I very quickly stopped listening and reverted to Magnificat, my resort in circumstances that are usually different in nature). I suspect that even the most evenly balanced of MCs wouldn't have coped with it (there wasn't one, and no altar servers either, which perhaps wasn't surprising).

The funniest bit for me was the three strong tugs on the maniple to stop it sliding down over the wrist - I think towards the end of Eucharistic Prayer I, though my memory fails me a little here. Oh, and much as I might want to encourage other priests to give Eucharistic Prayer I its fair use, this unfeeling recitation left me cold. I can only remember the "Through Christ our Lord. Amen" recited without pause between the end of one paragraph and the start of the next.

I tell the story because, if the Trads have the idea that this kind of thing is a model of the mutual enrichment sought by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter to bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum, they couldn't be more wrong. To misquote Pope Francis, it is more like an ideological colonisation of the Ordinary Form. It won't have anything to say beyond their own enclaves. (Perhaps my recent experience was untypical, I don't know).

Likewise, the persistent reference to the "new Mass" or "novus ordo", and indiscriminating reference to the "Latin Mass" or the "Traditional Mass", don't help the cause of mutual enrichment either. One of the clear points to Pope Benedict's letter, and to Summorum Pontificum itself, is that the one form is just as "traditional", in the juridical sense, as the other. Playing them off against each other was not something that Pope Benedict envisaged at all.

As with the campaign against Amoris Laetitia (much that I read of this campaign, which gains the approbation of the Trad blogosphere, appears exactly like the kind of thing that would be written by others to denigrate the teaching of the Successor of Peter, and be excoriated by the same Trad blogosphere - perhaps the appeal to Canon 212 n.3 to justify their actions being an illustrative point), there seems to be a selection of those bits of the exercise of the Office of the Successor of Peter, be that Benedict or Francis, that suit and a disregard for those bits that don't. Once one begins to have a conversation in terms that distinguish between the present day exercise of the Office of Peter and that of his predecessors, with the intention of undermining the former, I fear there is shifting sand under one's feet rather than firm foundations.

But then perhaps the Traditionalist movement has always carried with it the risk of becoming a kind of magisterium of its own....

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

National Poetry Day 2016

At school, colleagues have been encouraged to share a favourite poem with their classes to mark National Poetry Day tomorrow. The poems are also being displayed in the school library.

My choice is Gerard Manley Hopkins The Windhover.

To Christ our Lord

To Christ our Lord I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-     dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Faith and reason in a letter of Robert Bellarmine

To mark his feast day on 17th September, Thinking Faith have published an article about St Robert Bellarmine by Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, who works at the Vatican Observatory: Bellarmine in Perspective.

In part, the article gives an account of a letter written by Robert Bellarmine in connection with the Galileo affair. Br Consolmagno observes in connection with the letter:
We now recognise that the way science understands the universe is not subject to the kinds of proof that one would demand in mathematics. Rather, science argues from probability to probability, always recognising that no description is perfect or final. 
I suspect that this reading of a letter from the 17th century in the framework of a later time skews Br Consolmagno's way of reading it. I am not sure, for example, that practicing cosmologists do really consider the heliocentric view of our solar system as a "probability". My own reading of Bellarmine's letter, from the days of my youth some 20 years ago when Cardinal Ratzinger was still Cardinal Ratzinger and not Pope Benedict XVI, is offered below. What struck me then, and still strikes me now, about the letter is its profound trust in both human reason and in religious faith as giving access to knowledge. (My translation is, so far as I recall, taken from Part V of Arthur Koestler's book The Sleepwalkers.)
In April 1615, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote a letter to the author of a book which had defended the Copernican view of the universe, clearly addressing the letter to Galileo as well.  St. Robert Bellarmine fulfilled a role in the Church of his time similar to that of Cardinal Ratzinger in our own time.  He was a man of great intellect and profound devotion.  He was well informed about the state of contemporary scientific endeavour and seems to have had quite cordial communications with Galileo.  His letter is strikingly modern, and very concisely presents an answer to the debate as it had come to be presented. 
“..It seems to me that your Reverence and Signor Galileo act prudently when you content yourselves with speaking hypothetically and not absolutely, as I have always understood Copernicus spoke..”

This is a reference to the fact that the Copernican view was an interpretation of astronomical observations.  At least one other successful interpretation was possible, and it is in this sense that the Copernican view represented a “hypothetical” rather than an “absolute” claim.  To accept it as a “hypothesis” in this sense was quite a different thing than accepting it as being the way things really were.
“..If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe ... and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining the passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true..”
This is the critical passage in the letter.  Underlying it is the conviction that the results of scientific study and the content of Christian faith are in harmony with each other.  When science can offer convincing proof, then it is necessary to look again at the way in which Scripture is understood.
“But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me.....I believe that the first demonstration (i.e. that the Copernican view is a workable hypothesis) may exist, but I have grave doubts about the second (i.e. the existence of proof that the Copernican view is the way things really are); and in the case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the holy Fathers..”
This is an important balancing of the previously expressed willingness to look again at the way in which Scripture is understood.  In the seventeenth century there really was not any absolute evidence of the earth’s movement through space.  In the twentieth century there is, and, if he were alive today, St. Robert Bellarmine would accept that proof and be willing to understand Scripture differently as a consequence.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Keith Vaz: the nature of "scandal"

While Jeremy Corbyn is reported as saying that "he has not committed any crime that I know of, as far I'm aware it is a private matter", Theresa May indicated that it was for Keith Vaz to make his decisions about his future course of action. But Theresa May did preface her remark by saying that it was important that people feel they are able to have confidence in their politicians. In other quarters, it is the apparent conflict of interest between Keith Vaz's chairmanship of the Home Office select committee, which has included drugs and prostitution in its recent considerations, that presents the main problem.

The reporting of the scandal is at the BBC news site (here and here)..... and with rather more lurid detail on the website of today's Daily Mirror. Since Keith Vaz's own statements have been very limited, there is only the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror reporting to go on as far as the circumstances of the meeting with the male prostitutes is concerned; and this leaves some uncertainty as to the exact circumstances (was it, for example, a "sting" by the newspaper?)

The comment on Radio 4 yesterday morning came from Peter Tatchell. He was clear that the scandal did not represent a resigning matter, that there was no inconsistency between Keith Vaz's public view in favour of gay rights, legalisation of sex work (Peter Tatchell's phrase) and against the criminalisation of party poppers. Since Keith Vaz had not broken the law in any way, and had not hurt anyone (Keith's own apology, quoted in the Sunday Mirror, for  the hurt particularly to his family would seem to gainsay this), it was an entirely private matter and there was no need for him to resign.

A first thought is that it is quite wrong that Keith Vaz should be vilified for his behaviour in the print and electronic media. Whatever he has done, he still has a right to his good name, and to be treated in a manner that respects him as a person like any other. Likewise, he should not be subject to bullying with regard to his future decisions.

A second thought, though, and it is the one that Theresa May's remark touches on, is a question about how far citizens and fellow MPs can now have confidence in Keith Vaz as an elected representative. Given the fallibility of his private life that has now become public knowledge, is it possible to trust Keith Vaz in his public/political activity? Can we really live with a complete separation of the principles of integrity and probity in public life from those same principles in private life? Or should we be able to expect from those who hold public office, and perhaps to a degree determined by the level of public office that they hold, more by way of a unity of these principles across both the private and the public realms than we would insist on from others?

A third thought is prompted by the phrase "moral relativism" as a reaction to Peter Tatchell and Jeremy Corbyn's comments. Has Keith Vaz actually done anything wrong? I suspect that our society still retains an implicit sense of there being something wrong with using prostitutes (despite the cultural re-wording to "sex worker") and something wrong with cheating on your wife and family, though at the same time there is an unwillingness to articulate that uneasiness in terms of moral right and wrong. From a Catholic point of view, he has certainly done something that is morally wrong,  and perhaps we should not be hesitant in saying that. And, particularly because his behaviour sets an adverse example for others with regard to the institution of marriage, that moral wrong has an impact for the common good of society as a whole. Whilst a personal persecution would be quite wrong, I think it is unfortunate that the question of whether Keith Vaz's behaviour is morally right or wrong does not form part of the public conversation.

And the final thought arises from this third thought. Keith Vaz's behaviour is a "scandal", in the sense that it has caused a political and media furore. It should be recognised as a "scandal" in a second sense, too. When someone in public office does something wrong, it sends a message to society as a whole, and the idea of "scandal" communicates that there was something untoward about it.

One might end with some words of Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Westminster Hall in 2010:
If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Church: "catholic" or "inclusive"?

At the time of posting, gay activists within the Church of England are calling for "a way forward to greater inclusion" that will allow those parishes that wish to do so to celebrate same sex marriages in Church. It follows the reporting of Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain's long term and committed gay relationship, a relationship that is celibate; and the response of Gafcon that his appointment was a "major error".

There is a first difficulty in the use of the word "inclusive" here. The word can have two distinct senses, and, typically for the debate about LGBT issues, the word is used in the letter to the Times in a way that does not distinguish between the two senses. The outcome of this failure to distinguish is an unjustified presumption that "inclusion", poorly defined, should become a characteristic of the life and practice of the Church.

If the object of the term "inclusive" is persons, then one can quite rightly say that the Church should have an openness to everyone, as persons, regardless of their origins or lifestyles. Pope Francis' use of the term "accompaniment" expresses something of this idea.

If the object of the term "inclusive" is the teaching of the Church on matters of marriage and sexuality, then it is quite another matter. And the meaning is quite different. It is the assimilation of this second sense to the first sense in the common sensibility of both Christians and others that is the unfortunate, and, I suspect, intended consequence of failure to distinguish between the two senses on the part of pro-gay advocates.

A first reflection, from the point of view of Christian life, arises from the moment of Baptism, the Sacrament by which a person becomes a member of the Church. The Baptismal profession of faith expresses a turning away from sin and a turning towards the person of Christ, a conversion of life. That call to a conversion of life asks those who enter the Church to live a changed life, not just at the temporal moment of Baptism but existentially in the subsequent living of the Christian life. Each individual might face that call in a different specific manner, and so the specificity of that call experienced by a person who identifies as LGBT will differ from the specificity of the call for a person who has, say, pursued a life of crime.

A second reflection arises from considering whether or not the Church should use the term "inclusive" to describe its nature. According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.166:
The Church is catholic, that is universal, insofar as Christ is present in her: "Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church " (Saint Ignatius of Antioch). The Church proclaims the fullness and the totality of the faith; she bears and administers the fullness of the means of salvation; she is sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.
This is more fully developed in the corresponding paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 830-831:
Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race:
All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God's will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one.... the character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit.
It is clear, I think, that the Church describes herself as "catholic" or "universal", and does not use the term "inclusive" to describe her own nature.  I would suggest that, in responding to the misguided claim in favour of an "inclusive" Church, we should instead respond with an account of the catholic, or universal, nature of the Church.