Believe it or not, there is one good thing about Sin City

Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City 2 has been a commercial and a critical flop. That, probably, is no bad thing. It brings Frank Miller’s noir-ish, ultra-violent graphic novels to the big screen for a second time. The first Sin City was a huge box-office hit; now, nine years on, we must  roll up our sleeves, snap on our suspender belts, and return to that titillating place of permanent midnight, where men are men and women are mostly prostitutes, said Kevin Maher in The (London) Times. For another critic, what kills it is its repetitive and unengaging plot. For a film that tries very hard to shock with its “cartoonish sex and violence”, Sin City 2 is remarkably “dull”, and endurance test, he said.

But at least it has one good thing going for it, even if it is only its lurid billboard advertising we see. It is a reminder to us of what we like to forget. Sin is behovely, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well – but only so long as we don’t forget that sin exists.

The world is divided by sin – not between sinners and non-sinners. We are all, each in our own way, sinners. The great divide now is between those who know that sin exists and those who deny its existence. Sin is behovely because the sense of sin is an essential part of our living the good life. It is nothing less than our sense of reality, part of our sense of the existence of God.

It is the modern age’s defining characteristic that it has lost the sense of sin – and it has lost this because it has lost its sense of reality, its sense of God. In little more than one generation – my generation – the rot began in earnest. It was there before, indeed the history of thought shows that it was always there, but in embryonic form. It has had a long gestation but with its birth we have been presented with a true monster.

I know parents of my generation, good people who firmly believe in God and who practice their religion devoutly and publicly. Their children, now adults, are also good people and a credit to their parents, their country. They have all the refinements – kindness, generosity, a sense of responsibility –  engendered in them by the civilization we have the privilege of being part of. But there is a difference between them and their parents. They do not believe.

Does it matter? Will they be any less good, kind, generous and responsible than their parents for all that? Possibly not. Indeed, by all accounts they may be more so. Their parents were good parents and gave them the milk on which they were nurtured, milk filled with the vitamins of their own faith and vision of man’s origin and destiny. But the one thing which many in this generation did not take from that nourishing milk was faith and a belief in God, their creator. The milk with which they nourished their own children in some way failed to be transmitted – on a scale not seen between any two generations in recorded history. If this is an exaggeration please cite chapter and verse to disprove it. Nor is it an exaggeration to predict some dire consequences of this failure.

No society that we know of in history has had the kind of flourishing which the societies marked by Christian civilization have had. It is in these societies and in this civilization that our ideas of the qualities of justice, equality, kindness, mercy and a sense of the unique value of a human life have evolved. They have evolved out of a living source, even when the reality of that source itself has been doubted. That source is the Judaeo-Christian religion.

The big question however, is how long can this flourshing last beyond the outright rejection of the source from which it springs. The result of the cultural chasm which has now opened up in the West is the unravelling of the entire fabric of societities founded on those values. What we call the “triumph of the West” is under threat. It is under threat  because its source and the ultimate vision which sustained it seems to have died in the minds hearts of those who have inherited it.

Has any civilization in history outlasted the force which gave it life? In the majority of cases those forces were undoubtedly physical and brutal. Walter Benjamin observed that there is “no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He is right in most cases but to lay this charge against Christian civilization is to ignore what is at the heart of this culture. Where brutality and barbarism accompanied the spread of Christian civilization it did so in contravention of its very essence. Invariably the barbarisms which afflicted Christian societies were eventually tamed by the beauty and power the Christian message, leaving us with the jewels we have in expressions of faith –  in art, music and literature –  and flowing out from those, the treasures of human expression in all those forms as well.

Will all this now survive the loss of faith, the loss of vision which was at their heart? The signs are not propitious. Art has become banal at best – think of those sickening banners we see hanging in churches – and at worst, nihilistic. Music, for the most part, has become incomprehensible and is a weak caricature of what it was. Literature, for the most part, speaks of little more than destruction, pessimism and death without redemption – when it is not wallowing in lust which it tries to pass off as love.

If these artefacts are the manifestations of contemporary civilization, what does it augur for the future human agents who will live, breathe and look for nourishment in that civilization?  What happens when those who look out from within a culture see nothing beyond the vision presented in these artefacts? Do we really think that the human spirit can flourish in this desert? Will each generation which follows the last not slide further and further into the abyss, as the residue of goodness which they have inherited becomes fainter and fainter?

If the vision of reality contained in these words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, written nearly 2000 years ago, shortly after the dawn of Christianity, is now not just ignored but vehemently denied and its adherents persecuted for believing it, the consequences cannot but be other than apocalyptic.

 It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor anyone else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things. For God did not stand in need of these beings, in order to the accomplishing of what he had himself determined with himself beforehand should be done, as if he did not possess his own hands!

 For with him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit by whom and in whom, freely, he made all things, to whom also he speaks, saying, Let us make man after our image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), he taking from himself the substance of the creatures, and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world.

Deny this vision, reject this truth, live life according to that denial and surely things will fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Without this vision all we are left with is the misery of Sin City – and without even knowing that we should call it what it is.

James Foley, may he rest in peace – as he surely does

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The Islamic State jihadists have executed freelance journalist James Foley and posted a video of his beheading. In doing so they have brought us back 1800 years to remind us of what it sometimes costs to be a Christian and of what any Christian might at any time be called on to do – to sacrifice his life for his faith.

Is Foley a martyr in the truest sense? Surely he is, and is now with God in Heaven. It may take time to verify but you and I can be absolutely sure that the jihadists of the Islamic State gave James Foley the option of saving his life by accepting their utterly false and evil vision of both man and God – just as the Romans tempted the Christian martyrs of their day.

He died brutally at their hands, not because he was an American but because the was a Christian first, who would not abandon his faith

Foley, just 40, became their prisoner two years ago while covering the conflict in Syria. Prior to that he had covered the conflict in Libya and also found himself captive there. In that captivity he revealed to us the depths of his faith in an account which he wrote for a magazine published by his old university, Marquette, in Wisconsin.

James Foley, may he rest in peace, is an example to all Christians and an example to all who would be Christian. He shows us that bearing the Cross of Christ is part of the deal – and that this, even in the age which we consider modern and enlightened, 1800 years after the early Christians were marched into the arenas, may call for the ultimate sacrifice.

Foley wrote this account of a moment in his earlier captivity in Libya, revealing to us the virtues of a true Christian, as well as the meaning and the of faith and prayer.

I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. 
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone. …

One night, 18 days into our captivity, some guards brought me out of the cell. … Upstairs in the warden’s office, a distinguished man in a suit stood and said, “We felt you might want to call your families.”

I said a final prayer and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone. “Mom, Mom, it’s me, Jim.”

“Jimmy, where are you?”

“I’m still in Libya, Mom. I’m sorry about this. So sorry.” …

“They’re having a prayer vigil for you at Marquette. Don’t you feel our prayers?” she asked.

“I do, Mom, I feel them,” and I thought about this for a second. Maybe it was others’ prayers strengthening me, keeping me afloat.

The official made a motion. I started to say goodbye. Mom started to cry. “Mom, I’m strong. I’m OK. I should be home by Katie’s graduation,” which was a month away.

“We love you, Jim!” she said. Then I hung up.

I replayed that call hundreds of times in my head — my mother’s voice, the names of my friends, her knowledge of our situation, her absolute belief in the power of prayer. She told me my friends had gathered to do anything they could to help. I knew I wasn’t alone.

My last night in Tripoli, I had my first Internet connection in 44 days and was able to listen to a speech Tom Durkin gave for me at the Marquette vigil. To a church full of friends, alums, priests, students and faculty, I watched the best speech a brother could give for another. It felt like a best man speech and a eulogy in one. It showed tremendous heart and was just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth. If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.

The ‘Catholic moment’ debate

There is a very interesting follow-up by Ross Douthat on his own NYT blog to his “Catholic Moment” column in the paper at the weekend. In it he concludes:

Again, I’m not denying that the Catholic faith will always be rowing against the currents of a late-modern mass democracy like ours. But boats can beat successfully against a current (and make room for more passengers on board), or they can just be carried backward toward the sea. A “Catholic moment” exists, in this sense, when the barque of Peter seems to be making some headway — and to the extent that such a moment has vanished in our own era, as much blame has to belong to the rowers who ignored obvious rocks, smashed their oars or kicked holes in the bottom as to the river of modernity itself.

It’s all here.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Heretical thought…will ever be foreign, strange,….to the pious but uncontroversial mind; for what have good Christians to do, in the ordinary course of things, with the subtle hallucinations of the intellect?

So Newman tells us in The Grammar of Assent. He was adressing a particular problem relating the assent of ordinary Christians to articles of faith defended by the Church against the products of what we might call ‘controversial minds’. It was hard not to think of his words when reading the products of the mind of the former Irish President, Mary McAleese, widely disseminated throughout a range of media last week.

She clearly would have very little time for John Henry Newman’s kind of fidelity to the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church.

Why, Newman asks, should the refutations of heresy  – and Mrs McAleese’s utterings are full of that old-fashioned phenomenon – be our objects of faith? if no mind, theological or not, can believe what it cannot understand, in what sense can the Canons of Councils and other ecclesiastical determinations be included in those credenda (things to be believed) which the Church presents to every Catholic as if apprehensible, and to which every Catholic gives his firm interior assent? He was defending the genuineness of the faith of people who assented whole-heartedly to the doctrines of Christianity even though they did not or could not fully understand them in a rational way.

 There is clearly a great deal in the teaching of the Catholic Church and in its refutation of contrary teaching – on priestly celibacy, on the possibility of ordaining women, on the nature and meaning of other sacraments as well, on sexual morality – which Mary McAleese cannot understand and because she cannot understand it she proposes her own alternative teaching.

 Mrs. McAleese and many of her kind – for example her fellow-travellers in that not-so-merry band, the Association of Catholic Priests – has great difficulty giving assent to any principle of the Catholic faith and morals which is out of sync with modern liberal wisdom, particularly if it contravenes the rather mindless principles of equality which that wisdom currently embraces.

She and they have no time for a Church which has a duty, as Newman expresses it, to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,”  a Church manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions.

 Newman suggested considering a scenario in which certain Bishops and priests began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God. She would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith.

Now it is very unlikely that these sort of measures are going to be taken against Mrs. McAleese  – particularly in view of the hue and cry which has followed the mild requirements being made of certain priests who are teaching within the fold of the Church views quite at variance with accepted doctrine. But surely the implications of Newman’s writing should not be lost on her and others holding similar views. There is unlikely to be a de jure separation sought but is there not already a clear de facto separation in place? If it is not clear should it not be made so – as bishops in the US have requested from those politicians who have set their face against the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of issues?

Civil servants are expected to publicly support and implement the policies of their governments – and if they do no they are asked to leave their office. Why is the same standard not accepted for and by the “servants of the servants of God”? Mrs. McAleese holds no office in the Catholic Church – although there is a suspicion that she might like to – but she does profess to be in communion with it. In this profession there is a huge contradiction.

In the case of the masses of the faithful Catholic population faced with the choice of following the innovators of doctrine or following the Church as understood by Newman he was clear that in such a case, her masses of population would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics.

 A-la-carte or pick-and-choose Catholics now seem to resent being called such but in doing so they are just trying to have their cake and eat it. As Newman explained:

The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church.

In the end of the day that is what it comes down to and is it not about time that we began to shout it from the roof- tops so that it will be clear to everyone in this Year of Faith. Is it not time for those who wish to be authentic Catholics to make it very clear with Whom they stand and Whose standard they follow?

Were the barbarians any worse than this?

Many, many years ago the Mamas and the Papas sang, in one of the great songs of the ‘Sixties, “California Dreamin”. It didn’t mean much but it was a great song. These lines from it came back to me last week in the context of a rather unpleasant experience,

“…on such a winter’s day

Stopped into a church

I passed along the way

Well, I got down on my knees

And I pretend to pray”

Well, no, it was a beautiful summer day and I was actually trying to pray but I wasn’t given much of a chance.

It was, sadly, a Catholic church in Dublin. There were about ten or a dozen people in the church and they had been preparing for either a funeral or a wedding in the day or two that followed. It was probably a wedding because had it been a funeral there might have been a little more decorum.

But decorum there wasn’t. It was like the harvest fair day in Glenties in there. All of them were gathered in a group at the back of the church without the slightest sign that they had any idea of the Presence in the place or the purpose of the place.  I looked at them – I hoped, disapprovingly – but I got no acknowledgement nor was there the slightest sign that they were aware that their raucus conversation was 100 miles out of place.  Like Mama Cass, I knelt down and pretended – it was all I could do – to pray. I thought that they might take a hint. Not a hope. I looked around again. Still no response.

Had I been braver – I felt there were too many for one person to take on – I would have taken the Lord’s cords and driven them out. But I wasn’t. I just resorted to a pointedly disgusted march to the door. I wish I had their email addresses. If I had I would send them this splendid little video from Leah, telling us how we should behave in a church on SheisCatholic.

Life, death or deadlock?

What has gone wrong? There can be no doubt but that something has gone very badly wrong when the very basis of mankind’s self-understanding has come to a pass where the vision of life and good living itself has been perverted beyond recognition. How did we get to the point where the termination of life, both by oneself and by another is considered a moral option? How did we reach a point where in the chaos and confusion emanating from the meltdown of our financial system, everyone talks about regulation and regulation agencies but no one talks about a moral sense of right or wrong or of the springs from which such a sense emanates. How did we come to lose our sense of the meaning of human love to the extent that it is now the pretext for the wholesale abuse of human sexuality?

Some years ago – not too many – in the aftermath of the emergence of Islamic rage against the West, the historian Bernard Lewis asked the same question about the collapse of Islamic civilization. He did so in a book which was simply titled, What Went Wrong?

I attended Mass one morning recently in a Dublin parish church. The parish priest concelebrated while a priest whom I had not seen before was the main celebrant and he preached a short homily. That homily gave me at least part of an answer to the question, what has gone wrong for us?

Bernard Lewis, 85 years of age, is professor emeritus at Princeton University and for many is thedoyen of Middle East studies in the West. How, his question asks, did the preeminence that the Islamic world once enjoyed and the civilization it had created collapse?

Lewis’s argument is that the success of Muhammad in establishing not merely the Muslim religion, but also an empire dominated by that faith, served to create a society that is totalitarian by its very nature, bound by rules and strictures that make it too static to adapt and compete with a West where Christianity, in contrast, does not demand control over the political and economic spheres.  The very foundations of these respective faiths for him hold the key to the histories of both civilizations – to date.

Could it be that the true crisis of the West today is that it may now be about to abandon the very reason for its triumph – its Judaeo-Christian heart, in favour of an amalgam of so-called “politically correct” principles founded on…nothing.

 Lewis argues as follows: The absence of a native secularism in Islam, and the widespread Muslim rejection of an imported secularism inspired by Christian example, may be attributed to certain profound differences of belief and experience in the two cultures.  The first, and in many ways the most profound difference, from which all others follow, can be seen in the contrasting  foundation myths–and I use this expression without intending any disrespect–of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. 

The children of Israel fled from bondage, and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land.  Their leader Moses had only a glimpse, and was not himself permitted to enter.  Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered persecution and martyrdom for centuries, before they were finally able to win over  the ruler, and to adapt the state, its language, and its institutions to their purpose. 

Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime.  He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace.  In a word, he     ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition.

On the contrary, Lewis goes on to explain, Judaism and Christianity had the concept of the secular state forced upon them by circumstance from their very beginnings. Where Christian theologians like St. Augustine developed complex theories to explain and justify the secular state, Muslim thinkers never even had to face the dilemma. 

Judaism and Christianity, in that view developed spiritually and lived spiritually in alien worlds before they came to terms with those worlds. They knew what true freedom was. They knew the place of law and regulation but also knew what their foundation was. On the other hand, lacking any sense of the secular and the eternal play between the City of God and the City of the World within which lives our sense and enjoyment of human freedom on a day-to-day basis, the Islamic world became crippled and dangerously resentful of its triumphant rival.

But if that rival now abandons the principles of the faith – and in particular if the ministers of that faith begin to abandon the authentic teachings which, in its Scriptures and traditions, have sustained it for millennia –  and which have given it its very essence, then the future is very uncertain indeed.

And this is where my epiphany in a Dublin parish church comes in again. After that Mass I went to talk of my concerns to the homilist – but the bird had flown. What had he said that was so worrying? It was more what he did not say that was the problem.

His homily referred to a film in the context of the gospel of the day (Matthew 9. 1-8). The film recounted the story of a young man who announced to his family and friends that he was gay. His mother was distraught and left the event at which this announcement took place, apparently rejecting her son in the process. The preacher made no further comment on this other than simply to pose the question to himself and his congregation: “How do I react when people tell me things I don’t particularly want to hear”.

It was no earth-shattering heterodoxy. But that phenomenon of late 20th century heterodoxy of which it is a symptom might ultimately put in the shadows the breach in Christendom effected by the 95 theses nailed on the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. The moral implication was clear to all. There was no moral issue whatsoever about the choice and actions of the gay son. The moral deviance was on the mother’s side, in failing to deal adequately with nothing more serious than something that she did not want to hear – like a choice of political party she might have disapproved of, a choice of a wife deemed unsuitable, or ever a rejection of her very good dinner. There was no recognition that what the mother might have been dealing with was the realisation that her son had made a choice which she knew to be immoral according to the norms of natural law, the teaching of the authentic Judaeo-Christian faiths and the law of God.

If our secular world continues on its rudderless way, guided only by groundless and flawed politically correct principles, and if the ministers of the Judaeo-Christian religions abandon their duty to hold up before their faithful followers the authentic shared principles of those religions, then the freedom we have enjoyed coming from the very heart of those religions will perish and we will end up with totalitarian systems fighting it out among themselves – to the death or deadlock.

“The most abused Faith on earth”

One of Irish television leading public square venues, The Frontline, recently took up the question of whether or not Irish faith communities were under attack from an aggressive secularism. It was, to say the least, a somewhat inconclusive debate. It might have been much better had it been asked to confront Michael Coren, whose latest book, Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity has just been published.  

Coren, English born Canadian journalist and broadcaster, of Jewish antecedents, convert to Catholicism (twice), has just been interviewed by Charles Lewis in the National Post and spells out his view very clearly. In the West generally, he believes, Christians are now

“marginalized, they’re mocked, they’re told their views don’t belong, they’re told to keep their views out of the public square and keep their religion at home. And where it can be quite sinister is at universities where Christian students are told that their ideas are stupid. I’ve even seen it with my children who are in university. Somehow Christianity is not a valid area of thought any longer. You can bring your socialism, your feminism, your homosexuality, your anti-Zionism into the class but if you bring your Christianity that’s not to be taken seriously.”

No Christian carrying a banner for their Faith in the cultural mainstream of the West today would have any difficulty producing evidence to uphold every one of these assertions.  Any Catholic in Ireland today, seriously faithful to the teaching authority of that Church knows full well that they are on the frontline of a battle with a very militant force opposing them on all and more of the issues listed by Coren.

Coren calls Christianity the most abused faith on Earth. “I believe the evidence is overwhelming,” he writes.

 “I believe… that Christianity is the main, central, most common, and most thoroughly and purposefully marginalized, obscured, and publicly and privately mis-represented belief system in the final decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first century.” He rails that the same intellectual class that so quickly condemns anything Christian will do cartwheels to explain away Islamic terrorism.

Lewis put it to Coren in his interview that there is a lot about Christianity that can seem unreal: the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus. Is it any surprise that people sometimes have trouble taking it seriously? To this Coren replies that these are really side-shows in the mocking game and that what they are really mocked for are the moral consequences of their beliefs: that life begins at conception and ends at natural death, that abortion is wrong, that promiscuity is wrong. “We live in a culture where no one wants to hear the word ‘no’” he says.

He lays bare the culture of intolerance facing orthodox Christianity:

“Intelligent people will give other ideologies and other religions a great deal of room to try to understand. When it comes to Christianity they seem to assume that any sense of fairness or sympathy should be thrown out the window. They will say things that are blatantly stupid.

“The idea that because a tiny number of Catholic priests acted in an appalling manner should jaundice everything said by the Roman Catholic Church is also so illogical. You might as well say that no comment by a Canadian should ever be taken seriously because there are some serial killers in Canada.”

On the issue of orthodox Christians’ position on homosexual acts he says they are being told our view on homosexuality is somehow wrong and called homophobic. “They’re going to be called homophobic whatever they do. I think the Catholic Church has spent too much time worrying about the reaction it might get rather than reacting itself.

“If someone calls me a homophobe because I believe marriage is between one man and one woman, then I would rejoice in that. But frankly, with gay friends, I try to avoid the subject. They know I am opposed to gay marriage and they also know I’m fond of them as people and would defend them against personal attack. But let me be clear, anyone who hates gay people is a moral criminal.”

 In the book Coren defends, but also contextualizes, the fact that the abortion question has such a high profile for Christians in the culture wars. In the first place it is because they feel intensely that they’re part of an institution given by God. This institution upholds the sacredness of all human life. Because of that “they feel it more when the most vulnerable are destroyed. And they feel it more intensely than other people. I guess we are obsessed because it is such a tragedy. And if we dare to mention it, the world tells us to be quiet.”

In his book Coren takes on Dan Brown’s ludicrous but astonishingly popular The Da Vinci Code. Why, his interviewer asks, given that by now Brown’s pot-boiler has become somewhat passé?

“Well,” he says, “it has influenced millions of people. They’ve been led by the book to read other books that oppose Christianity. Brown quotes real people and he makes a lot of it seem like non-fiction. I thought it was worth taking on again.” Above all he wanted to make sure that what is in The Da Vinci Code is shown again to be false.

So, the next time Radio Telefis Eireann, the BBC or any other broadcaster, takes up the issue of whether or not militant secularism is a reality, perhaps they should get an airline ticket for Michael Coren and bring him on to give us his formidable point of view.

Let this unseemly vendetta end now

Let this unseemly vendetta end now. Not our sense of justice, but perhaps our sense of prudence – and certainly our utter frustration – inclines one to say that Cardinal Brady should resign and let the shame for forcing that act on a good and just man fall on the heads of his relentless persecutors.

He should not resign because he is guilty of any serious dereliction of duty but because the ravaging wolves pursuing him have tasted his blood and will not stop until they have torn him to pieces and with him much of what he loves.

He did what he thought was his best at the time. Objectively it wasn’t good enough but there is no evidence that his intentions were anything but good. At worst they were the faltering efforts of a young priest who had made a heroic decision to give his life to the service of God, God’s Church and souls.

Every day this man stands at the foot of the altar and confesses his and – on our behalf – our sins, saying “through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grevious fault”. We have absolutely no reason to doubt his sincerity in uttering those words. What more do they want?

The heroism implicit in his vocation and the sincerity of his intentions, of course, cuts no ice with the motley gang pursuing him, any number of whom have been implicated in far more compromising activities than the Cardinal – 3000 murders in Northern Ireland, hobnobbing with one of the 20th century’s most monstrous regimes scrounging for funds for their own socialist political agenda, and who knows what else. It is enough to make one sick.

St. Peter’s weakness was of a much more devastating kind than any shown by Fr. Brady in and around 1975. Yet Christ did not ask for Peter’s resignation from the office he had given him.

If Cardinal Brady chooses to go now there will be no shame in that for him but history will judge otherwise on those who have pursued him to this end.

Their ulterior motives, their not very hidden agenda of the denigration of the Catholic Church, is clear to many now and will be clearer when history is written. It is not very far removed from the futile agenda of Diocletian et al in the 4th century. What hope is there of a Constantine emerging in our political world today to put an end to this different, but in truth no less brutal persecution? Not much just now.

A truly draconian law in the offing

Montgomery Clift in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film on the inviolable seal of Confession, “I Confess”.

At the very heart of freedom is freedom of religion – and at the very heart of religious freedom is freedom of conscience.

The Irish Government has just published a piece of draft legislation which places a time bomb in this very heart, and if the legislation is enacted it will blow a people’s freedom to smithereens.

Is that first assertion too much? No. Every freedom which has been won for mankind, by mankind, over millennia of our history shows that where freedom was truly won it was won essentially in the context of a freedom of religion and the right to freedom and integrity of personal conscience. Freedoms won by forces hostile to religion – the freedoms won by the French Revolution, the freedoms won by the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution – have invariably ended in tyranny and have never succeeded in establishing authentic freedom until they have recognised the need for freedom of religion and conscience.

In contrast with the tyrannies which emanated from those struggles for freedom you have the greatest freedom of all, that won by Christians through centuries of persecution by the slave-owning and humanly deluded powers of the ancient world. In more modern times you have the great freedom won by the enslaved races of the 18th and 19th centuries, a struggle driven above all by a Christian consciousness of injustice. Accepted, history is more nuanced than this, but nevertheless the core truth is undeniable. Without recognition of the inviolability of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, the pursuit of freedom will be fatally flawed and will promise only tyranny.

The Irish government, seeking to deal with the problem of protecting children from abuse by adults, has now gone down this very path. In its proposed legislation it not only ignores freedom of religion and conscience but directly denies it head-on. It is promising to penalise and imprison any Catholic priest who does not report to the relevant secular authorities a sinful act for which a penitent sinner seeks the forgiveness of God as promised to him, as he believes, by the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is not stated explicitly in the draft but will be the inevitable outcome if the legislation is enacted.

Ominously the Irish Times reports today, “The Department of Justice was unable to confirm last night whether priests will be legally obliged to report serious offences against children to gardaí (police) that are disclosed during Confession.” That is a lame and disingenuous kicking to touch. This issue has been in focus for several months now and a number of government ministers have gone on record saying that the so-called sacred seal of confession no longer stands as a legal entity. Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the mandatory reporting requirement would apply to priests hearing confession. Some priests have already proclaimed their defiance in defence of the freedom of conscience of those who come to them as penitents.

In this proposed legislation the State has effectively invaded a sacred realm of the religion of Christians and has countermanded that power which Christian believers understand to have been given by Christ when he said, “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”  What the State does not recognise in this whole matter is that while the same act may be both a sin and a crime, these two things have to be resolved in separate ways and in separate fora. A Catholic person accused, convicted and condemned to death for murder, innocent or not, may go to Confession before his execution. The priest who hears that confession might, by revealing all he had been told by the penitent, redeem that person’s reputation. Even to achieve that justice, he may not do so. The two realms are absolutely separate and the priest’s silence about what was confessed must also be absolute.

By invading this realm of conscience in this way the Irish State has now taken away the freedom of a sinner to get the absolution promised by God because it has radically changed the terms and conditions for that absolution – that is, the secrecy given to the act of confession by the wisdom and teaching of the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as that sinner’s religious faith leads him to believe.

Let there be no doubt about it. This is a draconian law, posturing as a necessary law under the shadow of the crimes of child abuse with which Irish society, among others, has been plagued for over 40 or 50 years. It is also a bad law, penally hostile to the practice of the religious faith of the majority of the citizens of Ireland. The fact that a draconian executive is not running the country – although some might dispute that – is irrelevant. For nearly 300 years the Roman Empire had penal laws against Christians in place. For most of that time Christians were free to practice their religion but periodically the executive power of the time deemed that they were bad citizens by practising their faith and moved murderously against them. The pattern has been repeated many times throughout history whenever and wherever laws of this type came into being. Ireland beware.

The poverty of a life lived under an illusion

Christopher Hitchens

Atheism is in decline, according to George Weigel. Really? Well, he reported last month from the Ethics and Public Policy Centre at which he is a Senior Fellow, that their global number is now 137 million , showing a steady drop over the past decade. His figures came from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and seemed fairly reliable. However, I still found myself a little sceptical until I read and reflected on an interview in the Daily Telegraph last week. This was both poignant and terrifying. Mick Brown, one of the Telegraph’s veteran interviewers had gone to Washington to meet the one of the arch-priests of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens.

As most people who know of Hitchens are already sadly aware, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hitchens put it rather starkly to Brown, telling him that the cancer is now at stage four. ‘And the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.’ He has been told that of 1,000 men of his age and in his condition, half could expect to be dead within a year.

What was poignant about all this is fairly obvious: a man in love with life, and man surrounded by admiring friends who enjoy his wit, intelligence and superb powers of expression, now considers that he has made his last journey – to a place he calls “Tumourville”.

What was terrifying was less obvious and lurked in the shadows at the back of the mind for days until gradually it overwhelmed the poignancy with the full force of Mr. Kurtz’s dying words in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror”. This is surely one of the reasons for the decline in atheism. There is no suggestion here that Christopher Hitchens has on his conscience the catalogue of crimes against humanity which Mr. Kurtz – or Col. Kurtz, if you are working to the text provided by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now – had. What exactly it was that Kurtz saw in those dying moments which drove those terrible words from his heart and soul is open to interpretation, but it is hard not to have that same sense of horror at the prospect of someone departing on his final journey while thinking that he is coming to a full stop – while in fact he is not.

The poverty of a life lived under the illusion induced by a fallacy of reason – that just because you cannot prove something according to the rules of what we call science, then it is not true – is a dreadful condition. The bleakness of that life makes the prospect of atheism for the vast majority of ordinary mortals too much to bear. T.S. Eliot reminded us that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality he was referring to was, we know, a limited reality. Eliot knew the full picture and knew that this was where the heart of peace was. But it is this limited reality which Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al. are proposing to us as the be-all and the end-all of our existence. Humankind is clearly not buying it.

Brown tells us that Hitchens has faced his illness with great courage.  He has, and it is admirable. But as far as death is concerned courage does not enter into it. There is nothing for him to be afraid of beyond a full stop. But mankind from time immemorial, and by the looks of it from the statistics Weigel puts before us, for all time to come, as long as common sense prevails, knows in his heart of hearts that there is no full stop. How, one wonders, does the evidence of history and nature not make the atheists ponder their judgements on all this? Does every natural phenomenon we find in the world around us, and in every species of being in that world, not point to some purpose related to the destiny of that being? How then could this one universal phenomenon of belief in a first mover and an afterlife – which all of human history records in one form or another, and modern man still exhibits in overwhelming numbers, – be so meaningless? It makes no sense.

Brown tells us that talking with Hitchens about this, “you sense not only an anger with the institutions, teaching and practices of religion, but also an exasperation and bemusement with the very fact of belief. Put simply, he just doesn’t get it.”

“’With religion, try as I may, I can’t think myself into the viewpoint of the faithful. I can’t think what it would be like to believe that somebody had died for my sins, for example. I don’t get it at all.’ So it is that people’s experiences of faith will always be ‘delusions’; the consolations they may derive from it always ‘false’ ones.” But one feels that part of the problem is that what might be a consolation for others would be nothing of the kind to Hitchens. Boredom, he admits is his great enemy.

Brown and he discuss another notable – and late – atheist and his fear of death, the poet Philip Larkin. “‘What Larkin was saying was, you bloody fools; that’s exactly what I’m afraid of – annihilation.’ He pauses. ‘It is a disagreeable thought.’

“’However, put the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a good time – the boss says so.’ He gives a slight shudder. ‘Anything eternal is probably intolerable.’”

Brown asked him if he thought he had been a good person? ‘No, not particularly. Not as the world counts these things, because the world expects, for that definition to apply, a good deal of selflessness. And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most. I don’t do much living for others, I really don’t.’

That is, perhaps, the real crunch. The prospect of eternity in that state of mind or soul is intolerable. And that is where “the horror, the horror” really bites.

While the medical prognosis for Christopher Hitchens is grim, there is one glimmer of hope and one that has no small suggestion of irony in it. Shortly after his diagnosis he was asked if he would be willing to take part in an experiment looking for a cure for cancer through genome sequencing. It is complicated but early this year he got news that there is a genetic mutation expressed by the tumour for which there already exists a drug. Chemotherapy is now underway making use of this information.

The ironic part of this is that one of the doctors taking an active interest in Hitchens’s treatment is Francis Collins, a pioneer of the Human Genome Research Institute. Collins is an evangelical Christian, the author of a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. ‘It is a rather wonderful relationship,’ Hitchens told Brown. ‘I won’t say he doesn’t pray for me, because I think he probably does; but he doesn’t discuss it with me.’ Perhaps all this will prove to be something beyond irony.