Of the real and the unreal

About four years ago, a then twenty-six year old Irish writer – now world famous, if reviews of your books in The New York Times and a host of other national and international media is enough to give you that reputation – made this remark in an interview: “So yeah, I don’t know. I like Christianity. I’m a fan of Jesus and his whole philosophy, but not the social teaching aspects of it, of course.” She has said more on the topic since, most of it in the same nonchalant vein, betraying the inherent but increasingly shallow links Irish people of her generation have with the Faith of their Fathers. It also betrays an abysmal ignorance of the essence of what that religion and its practice really are. 

Who this young writer is, or why she is famous, is irrelevant in the context of what follows. She is one of several million, indeed hundreds of millions, who have lost the plot of what it is to be Catholic and Christian. Modernity is a mixed blessing – which is a way of saying that it is a blessing and a curse. It’s malefaction is its destruction of the human race’s grasp of the essence of the real world, and our place in it, by its corruption of the religious sense.

The only way back from this confused state which has suffocated the faith of so many and particularly that of the generations since the 1960s, is an effective articulation of the truth about the catholic church, what it is in its essence, and what its mission is. Only then will intelligent young people be able to break away from the prejudices about Christ’s church with which everything from shallow practice down to heinous scandals has left them. Only then will a young person who can now talk about “the crushing power of the catholic church” – another young Irish writer – come out and separate the wheat from the weeds, defend and protect the institution founded by Christ for the salvation of mankind.

We cannot talk of this being a crisis. Crises are relatively short-lived. Just as epidemics become endemic, crises can turn into something more permanent that we have to live with, cope with and build our defences against. The phenomenon which produced the response we began with is older than the ’60s. In a book published one hundred years ago, Romano Guardini wrote of the sad consequences of the failures in understanding we are looking at here. Their origins do not lie in the early twentieth century, nor even in the liberalism of the nineteenth century. They go back to early modernity and the emergence of a new  consciousness of individuality. The failure to balance this consciousness with social and communal consciousness created a rift which we can follow as it developed down through the centuries to our own time.

He wrote of this in terms of the tension which he saw then, and we see now, between the church and the individual. He connected this with a broader tension between the community and the individual which also had its manifestation in relations between the church and the individual, thereby imperilling our understanding of the very essence of the church.

In the Middle Ages the objective reality of the church, like that of society in general, was directly experienced. The individual had been integrated into the social organism in which he or she freely developed a distinctive personality. At the Renaissance individuals attained a critical self-consciousness and asserted their own independence at the expense of the objective community. By doing so, however, they gradually lost sight of their profound dependence upon the entire social organism. 

Consequently, he argued, the modern person’s consciousness of his or her own personality, no longer closely bound up with the conscious life of the community, overshot a critical mark and detached itself from its living social context. In terms of their relationship with the church, individuals began to think of the church, with its claim to authority, as a power hostile to themselves. At the time in which Guardini was writing this, James Joyce was the literary world figure deeply affected by the malaise he was describing. 

The mission Guardini envisaged for the Christian then was to foment an understanding of the true relationship between the church and the individual. It must still be so, one hundred years later. It will always be so. 

To achieve this, he maintained, our conceptions of society and individual personality must once more be adequate. To get there to any degree, self-consciousness and the sense of life within community must again be brought into harmony, and in terms of religious faith the inherent interdependence of the church and the individual must again be accepted as a self-evident truth. 

For him, modern man needed to see how the church and the individual personality are mutually bound together, “how they live, the one by the other.” It was in this context and in this mutual relationship that we could only properly explain the justification of ecclesiastical authority. This could only be done if people freed themselves from “the partial philosophies of the age, such as individualism, state socialism, or communism.” In our age there is no shortage of partial philosophies competing to warp our understanding of reality. He put it this way:

Once more we must be wholeheartedly Catholic. Our thought and feeling must be determined by the essential nature of the Catholic position, must proceed from that direct insight into the center of reality which is the privilege of the genuine Catholic.  

We agonise today, we talk and write about the atomistic disintegration of our society, and the sad consequences of family break-up, loneliness and worse which it brings in its wake. One hundred years ago he talked and wrote about the individual personality “starving in frigid isolation” if it is cut off from the living community. Being cut off from the church was even worse. The richness of the life which union with the church gives to the individual is the only true fulfilment of life, a “precondition of their most individual and personal life”. The church must necessarily be intolerable to those who fail to see this in her, to those who view her only as a power which confronts them and which, far from having any share in their most intimate, vital purpose, actually threatens or represses it. This, sadly, is the view of many today, who have not heard or understood that she is something infinitely different from that.

A person’s living will cannot accept a church so conceived… But the individual whose eyes have been opened to the meaning of the church experiences a great and liberating joy, for such individuals see that it is the living presupposition of their personal existence, the essential path to their perfection. They are aware of profound solidarity between their personal being and the church, how the one lives by the other, and how the life of the one is the strength of the other.  

He concluded optimistically that the possibility of loving and living in the church in this way is not something remote: we can love the church by virtue of a supreme grace which may be ours today, and it is the grace which we need most. But for Christians to help make this happen in our time, what he wrote back in 1922 applies even more to 2022. It must be taken into account that men and women of the present generation cannot love the church merely because they were born of Catholic parents. 

With equal force he warned that it would be folly to think that the love we are looking for could be produced by the intoxication of oratory and mass meetings. Neither would vague sentiments give us that love. He said that the young generation of his time was too honest for that. Honesty may well be a virtue more found in the young than in those of a certain age, something as true today as it was a hundred years ago.

To neutralise the atomistic process in which we still seem locked, Guardini wrote: One thing only can avail: a clear insight into the nature and significance of the church. We must realize that, as Christians, our personality is achieved in proportion as we are more closely incorporated into the church and as the church lives in us. When we address her, we say with deep understanding not “thou” but “I”. 

If I have really grasped these truths, I shall no longer regard the church as a spiritual police force, but blood of my own blood, the life of whose abundance I live. I shall see it as the all-embracing kingdom of my God, and his kingdom in my soul as its living counterpart. Then will the church be my mother and my queen, the bride of Christ. Then can I love her! And only then can I find peace! We shall not be at peace with the church till we have reached the point at which we can…love it. Not till then…” 

Faith in fiction and in fact

Oscar Wilde came to the sacraments of the Catholic Faith late in his tragic life. But he had, before his conversion, sensed their mystery and reflected on it in his portrayal of the goings-on in the troubled heart of his tragic hero, Dorian Gray. While on his deathbed he may have received only two from a Catholic priest – confessing his sins and receiving the last rites – his sense of their ineffable significance can be seen ten years earlier in that timeless moral masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The novel’s narrator, in taking us through the furtive meandering of Gray’s journey to destruction tells us that “It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolise.”

The narrator goes on to tell us that “he loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement, and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered vestment, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the panis cælestis, the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice, and smiting his breast for his sins.

Dorian, his narrator tells us, finishing his account of this encounter with the Holy, would, as he passed out of whatever church he was in the habit of visiting,  “look with wonder at the black confessionals, and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.”

 A childhood memory which might perhaps be shared by any number of those of us of a certain generation who grew up in Catholic families might be this: the quiet joy and happiness of our parents on hearing that a lapsed friend, neighbour, or even some well known figure – celebrities are a modern phenomenon – had “returned to the sacraments”.

As believing children the hidden depth of that joy was not something we would have fully appreciated, but it was something palpable and indeed infectious. It left us with some sense that in these mysterious seven literal and tangible elements there was something special on which joy and happiness depended.

Those childhood intimations of the awful reality which the sacraments represent, literary representations of that same power reflected on by Oscar Wilde and other writers, all bring home to us the dangers in the version of modernity which now seem to confront us. This version denies this reality, or has such a superficial awareness of it that it is virtually blind to it.

This crisis for our human race is calmly and wonderfully laid before us in all its terrible beauty by Oliver Treanor in a book which he wrote a handful of years ago called Maelstrom Of Love. Treanor is an Irish theologian. In introducing his theme – the Eucharist and its pivotal role as the centre around which all the sacraments of Christ revolve and by which the Church lives – he tells us that the gravest danger for the human person and for civilisation is to lose touch with reality. Any version of reality which denies the existence of God is for him, something not only incomprehensible but a terrifying prospect.

He reminds us that in the twentieth century we all saw what happens when pure fantasy replaces “the realism of the good”: two world wars, totalitarianism, political breakdown, social chaos, moral disintegration, exploitation of the helpless, disregard for human life at its beginning and its end. In sum, he says, it was the century of mass genocide, physical and spiritual, the beginning of civilization’s descent into suicide. 

It was everything which Dorian Gray personified in Wilde’s prophetic novel.

Our grasp of reality is what is at stake if we lose sight of God because God is man’s foundational and ultimate reality is what Treanor is telling us. “The twentieth century lost sight of God. The Eucharist and the sacraments put us in touch again with him who touches us through them, re-forming our minds and hearts, bringing them back to reality. Given this, the Church is no optional extra for the pious and reverent, not a footnote to social history, some inconsequential aside non-essential to the text. Rather it can be said that without the Church and sacraments, primarily the Eucharist, the world would cease to exist. For they embody the mercy of God which alone sustains the creation in Christ ‘through whom and for whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together’.”

Treanor masterfully explains the entire Christian economy based on the the foundation which the Catholic Church calls the sacramental system. For him it is, in a manner of speaking, “the cipher that breaks the enigma of the cosmos and decodes the meaning of life. In short, it gives God away.” It is, he says, so simple that even a child can see it, yet so profound the mature intelligence cannot fathom it.

But he then comes to the false turning taken by the  forces now dominant in modern culture. While he sees in that turning, a search for the very answers which a God-centered worldview offers, he lays bare the fatal flaw in the alternative path they offer to man in his search for truth, meaning and happiness:

“The worldview that underpins post-modernism’s resistance to religious conviction (or grants it grudging tolerance as a social convention) is actually in its own right a response — however inadequate — to those questions at the heart of human existence that find their answer in the Eucharist. Atheistic autonomy, scientific rationalism, false pluralism, so-called liberationism, all have this in common with orthodox faith: they begin with some concept of what meaningfulness is, even if they settle for finding it in no meaning at all other than mere activity. But because God is not their centre and the human person not their end, they lack what the sacraments offer, namely real human progress.” ( p 23)

They are sterile and hopeless because “the object of their search is incomplete even though the search itself emanates from the Completeness that beckons to us all. Hence they look for knowledge but not truth, for expedience but not justice, for productivity but not fellowship, for engagement but not commitment, for absence of ties but not freedom, and for control but not service.”  

Treanor takes his reader through the sacraments one by one and does so in a way which makes clearer than anything I have ever read, the unity of the whole, with the Eucharist at its centre. Writing about Matrimony, for example, he describes how (p133) this sacrament springs from the Eucharist and finds its meaning and strength in returning to the Eucharist as “the sacrament of the purification of Christ’s bride, generated from his crucified side and espoused by his rising to claim her as his own. Gradually, married life takes on the self-sacrificing character of him who is its inspiration and example and the means to attaining love’s highest possibilities. The grace matrimony provides is that of centring on the person of Christ, his passion and resurrection as the foundation of life’s realism and love’s maturity.”

But the true crisis of our time is the loss of the sense we used to have of the value and unfathomable depth of the treasure which faith is, and which the sacraments keep alive in us. This loss is reflected in the scenario recounted by Treanor when he enumerates features of the laxity prevailing today (p166). These include Catholics who rarely attend Mass but who will routinely receive the Eucharist at weddings and funerals for instance; others, divorced and re-married or co-habiting without matrimony who are Mass-goers, and who will automatically receive on each occasion; others still whose ethical life contravenes the Church’s teaching on abortion, the regulation of birth, fertility treatment, homosexuality, or euthanasia — to name the principal areas of concern — will expect to be given communion as a matter of course as by right.

All this is done oblivious of the fact that the mystery that here stands revealed is an eternal truth that lays bare the mind of God, the real nature of mankind, the meaning of history and the destiny of creation. They are oblivious of all that Christ’s mandate, ‘Take, eat, thls is my body…Do this…’ really intended. They are unaware that ‘Love one another as I have loved you…’ is only truly Christian when it means washing feet en Christo, forgiving enemies en Christo, laying down one’s life for friends en Christo, following ‘my example’, keeping ‘my word’. Treanor explains that “it means entering the maelstrom of love to be caught up in the centrifugal force of Christ’s charity towards the world in union with God and in service of men; and then to be constantly drawn back again by that same charity in the centripetal force by which God in Christ is taking the world, as he always intended, into his heart. (p172)

He explains that “what the Eucharist is substantially, the Church is mystically so that it has even been said that the Church is the Eucharist extended, while the Eucharist is the Church condensed.” Both can be called the universal sacrament of salvation and are so by dint of their interrelatedness, the Eucharist generating the Church, the Church making the Eucharist. (p 195)

Is not a denial of the teaching of the Church and a refusal to accept its admonitions and moral guidance about the way we live our lives not also a denial of the Eucharist?

Among all the things which Treanor’s rich and revealing exposition of the Church, the Eucharist and the sacraments make very clear, two things stand out. The first is the blind and terrible folly of those who denigrate this sacred and ineffable truth because they confuse the errors and misjudgment of its servants with the holy thing that it is in itself. The second is the need to reaffirm, teach and learn how to love again those things which our forebears appreciated and which are the only secure basis of a moral life and a truly just society. Had Dorian Gray not passed out of that church and had he accepted the grace of conversion which Wilde depicts him walking away from in his weakness, his picture would have been a very different one.

The Empire Strikes Back?

paul-edited

Even if one considered it as another magnificent literary artifact, one among many other great letters from the ancient world, surely the perennial prophetic ring of this would signal that it is different. Why does this letter lead us to ask some overwhelming questions, what is it all about, why was it written and how does it mean something to us today, making millions of people read it again and again?

It is St. Paul writing to the Roman Christians about “the remnant of Israel” whose companions they are. All those who have, down through the ages and in our own age, doggedly tried to remain true to the graces given to them are part of this same remnant.

“I ask, then,” St. Paul wrote, “has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”

He then talks about Elijah and how in his frustration this prophet pleaded with God to punish the faithless Israelites.  Elijah moaned to his God, “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”. But God was having none of it, telling him, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

“So too”, Paul then reminds the Romans, “at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace,” His words surely resonate with meaning for our own time when he says, “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,   ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.'”

Christians today, faced with the accumulation of pseudo-wisdom in which modernity and post-modernity prides itself, can be reminded and encouraged by these words that come from God’s revelation to mankind. They remind us that this “spirit of stupor” has been mankind’s constant affliction and an ever-present threat to happiness and well-being, earthly as well as eternal. But from both history and in the unfolding of this same revelation we know that this spirit of stupor has never prevailed – no more than the gates of hell have – and never will.

We need this encouragement – and may need it more if the fears of people like New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, are even partially realized. As readers of this column in Position Papers and the Garvan Hill blog will know, even to the point of trying the patience of some, I pay a good deal of attention to Mr. Douthat and generally find myself in agreement with him.

At the end of last year he delivered the Erasmus Lecture in New York, an event sponsored by the magazine, First Things. The lecture, entitled A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism, was published in the magazine last month.

Now there is no doubt but that there are people who are by their disposition conservative. Although it is a corruption of the true meaning of the word, by this it is generally meant that they have an aversion to change. As such this is an unhelpful term when we are looking at those whom Douthat was addressing in his lecture – essentially Catholics with a strong commitment to the defined teaching of the Catholic Church as it has developed over two millennia. Faithful Catholics are not averse to change as such. They first ask “what is changing?” and then decide their stance, for or against.

Leaving aside the baggage which this term brings with it, the lecture itself has provoked a lively debate among Catholics in America. Douthat himself has now begun to respond to some of those who have taken issue with his analysis of the situation of the Catholic Church in what is now called “the era of Pope Francis”.

Essentially he is saying – regardless of the actual teaching of Pope Francis – that the movement within the Church which in the past identified with what was called the “spirit of the Second Vatican Council”, and which some would say paid little attention to the actual teaching of that Council, has now got a new lease of life.  Not only that, but this movement is now threatening to destabilize the unity and orthodoxy established painstakingly in the Church during the past two pontificates. This for many was well illustrated by all the shenanigans – still going on – surrounding the two recent synods on the family.

Extrapolating from Douthat’s analysis, it is as though the opening of the windows of the Church which was attributed to St. John XXIII is now paralleled by Pope Francis’s commitment to an evangelization of the peripherary. One reading of history says that the post-conciliar moment was seized on by heterodox theologians to pursue an agenda not consistent with the actual teaching of the Council. A reading of the current moment is that the same is happening again in the open atmosphere of Pope Francis’ papacy. Heterodox elements are fighting hard to regain ground lost over the past thirty-five years.

One response to the Douthat’s lecture, in two installments, came from Professor John Martens in the Jesuit magazine, America. Martens is a professor in St. Thomas University in Minnesota. Although he was not among them, this institution was well represented among the signatories to an outrageous and arrogant letter sent to the New York Times questioning the paper’s editorial judgment and the columnist’s right to be commenting at length on Catholic theological issues.

Douthat, in his response to Martens, talks about the fears provoked in him by the implications he draws from the latter’s championing this newly revitalized heterodox movement. Having read what he describes as Professor Martens’ “learned, sincere, respectful response to my columns” he says

“We clearly have some religious common ground, but in other ways the professor and I just seem to occupy very different belief structures, very different places on the continuum of Christianity — and the distance is great enough that our differences can feel less like an intra-Catholic argument and more like a kind of inter-denominational dispute.

“Thus my sudden fears for the church’s unity, in the years of Francis and under papacies to come. Divisions there will always be, but these divisions are simply deeper than I had (fondly? naively?) imagined. And nothing in Catholic history suggests that the church is exempt from Jesus’s warning about a house divided or from the consequences when those divisions can no longer be denied.”

Those words about being on “very different places on the continuum of Christianity” are reminiscent of a passing remark made by Joseph Ratzinger – written while he was still just that – in his little autobiographical volume, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977. In it he was reflecting on those early years of the Second Vatican Council and the development of his own ideas, rubbing shoulders with other priest-theologians involved in the Council as advisors. Among these was Fr. Karl Rahner. Rahner was one of those who very definitely went with the flow of the “spirit of Vatican II”, indeed many would say was at the head of the flow. Ratzinger wrote in that book of his gradual realization that he and his colleague, Rahner, were theologically on different planets.

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Fr. Karl Rahner

In the era of St. John Paul II and his successor, now no longer Joseph Ratzinger but Pope Benedict XVI, one of those two planets seemed to have receded to an outer orbit of the Church. It would now seem, for better or worse, to be back in play in the history of Catholicism again.

Clearly and emphatically we have not reached the “End of History”, neither for Christianity nor for any other dimension of our lives. With the advance of the nones in the Christian world – those who in surveys about religious affiliation profess themselves as belonging to no denomination, – we may be looking at a coming struggle between two claimants to the title of “remnant of Israel”.

Drawing solace and strength from the words of St. Paul, while we do not know how the true remnant will win the day, we do know that the true remnant will be the victor. That remnant will be found in neither the Conservative camp nor in the Liberal camp – it will just be Christian, conservative and liberal as their Faith prescribes, and it will be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic .

A clear message to Kasper

Cardinal Robert Sarah has sent a clear message to Cardinal Walter Kasper and his followers who are generating what looks very much like a schismatic movement within the Catholic Church. Kasper and his group – mainly German – have been  “suggesting” that Holy Communion for divorced and remarried people should be condoned by the Church.

Cardinal Sarah is having none of it, stating that “the African Church will strongly oppose any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and the Magisterium.”

“If some countries are doing this already (giving the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried) they are insulting Christ, it is a desecration of his Body and they are guilty because they are doing it knowingly.”

This is being proposed in the name of Christ’s mercifulness. Sarah comments:The fact is that we are not precise in using the Christian word ‘mercy’.  And without explaining [what this word means] we deceive people. Mercy [makes us] close the eyes not to see sin… The Lord is ready to forgive, but (only) if we come back, and if we are sorry for our sins,” he said. “Christ was merciful but he affirmed that to breach marriage is adultery. We cannot interpret these words differently – it is a sin [to do so] and the sinner without repentance cannot receive the Body of Christ.”

The Cardinal, who is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments,  was speaking on May 20 at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome.

“The challenge for the Church”, he added, “is to fight against the current, with courage and hope without being afraid to raise her voice to denounce the deception, manipulation and false prophets. Over 2,000 years the Church has confronted many headwinds but with the help of the Holy Spirit, her voice was always heard.”

Referring to the Christian’s obligation to go to the periphery, as Pope Francis exhorts, he spoke of the persecuted Christians on those peripheries. “It is easy to go to the outskirts… But who are we going with?  If we don’t bring Christ, we bring nothing!  I think that the most courageous thing to do is to remain as a Christian, as many Christians are doing right now – they are dying in Pakistan, the Middle East, and Africa.”

Speaking of the secular goliaths of today attacking Christian families at every level, he said,  “I am not saying that we shouldn’t go out to bring the Gospel, but the courage we need to bring is that of going against the current because the world no longer tolerates the Gospel.”

The secular goliaths of today are attacking Christian families at every level. “The ongoing debate is drugged” he said,  “because oftentimes even the journalists place the Pope against the Curia, which is not true… But people think we are against each other and think that the Pope said he is in favor of giving Communion to the divorced [people] … this is only an interpretation of his words.

“As Ratzinger said, a right that is not based on morality becomes injustice. For this reason it is necessary to keep in mind the context of secularization in which we live… The distancing of whole parts of modern society away from Christianity goes hand in hand with ignorance and the rejection of doctrine and cultural identity.”

“To say that human sexuality does not depend on the identity of man and woman, but a sexual orientation, such as homosexuality, is a dreamlike totalitarianism.”

Echoing what Pope Francis himself has already said, Cardinal Sarah declared that, “Today one of the most dangerous ideologies is that of gender, according to which there are no ontological differences between man and woman, and the male and female identity would not be written in nature. … is a real ideology which negates the reality of things. … I don’t see a future in such deceit.”

“One thing”, he said, “is to respect the homosexual person, who have a right to genuine respect, another thing is to promote homosexuality.  Also the divorced-remarried people have a right to genuine respect but the Church cannot promote a new concept of the family. The homosexual people are the first victims of this drift. … The Church’s job is to announce the Christian doctrine and the truth of conjugal love bringing man to full realization.”

The Catholic Church is blue in the face reminding us of this

Anguish. But why?

How painful this must be for Anglican Christians who believe themselves to be members of a Church founded by Jesus Christ? Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury sets his doctrinal compass by judging who or who will not continue to follow his example rather than by the moral compass set by Jesus Christ himself.

In a  Daily Telegraph article we are told: Although indicating that he was sympathetic to calls for the Church to publicly honour gay relationships, the Archbishop says that it is “impossible” for some followers in Africa to support homosexuality. In the interview, the leader of the Anglican Church, which has 77 million followers globally, speaks movingly of the persecution faced by Christians in parts of the world. He indicates that the Church must not take a step that would cut off these groups, most of them in the third world, however much this angers parts of society in Britain.

Following that way of thinking Christ might have said to those faithful disciples who remained with him after others walked away when he promised the Eucharist: I cannot give you this great gift of my body because these others who would like to follow me find it “impossible” to accept it.

Archbishop Welby’s followers surely expect him to decide on what he should teach and legislate for in these matters on the basis of what is right or wrong, what is sinful, and not on how many people here or there find something possible or impossible.

Welby acknowledges that in the past people experiencing same-sex attraction have suffered at the hands of others, Christians and non Christians. That this should have happened was never, and never will be, part of authentic Christian teaching. The principle which governs a Christian’s attitude to all this derives from Christ’s own example when he said to the woman taken in adultery: Go and sin no more.

The sexual attraction which led that woman to the act of adultery was not sinful. Its indulgence, her response to that attraction in an adulterous act – whether in mind or in body – was what was sinful.  Christ did not fudge that.

Homosexual attraction is not in itself sinful. The Catholic Church is blue in the face reminding us of this. The indulgence of that attraction in acts – again in mind or in body – is sinful. No amount of head-counting, opinion polling, counting who does or does not find something “impossible”, will change that.

Christians in Africa have their own deeply rooted customs and social practices to cope with which are alien to Christianity. At some future date we might have a sub-Saharan occupant in the See of St. Augustine in Canterbury. If there were pressure from his flocks in Africa asking the Christian Church to bend its moral laws and come to terms with polygamy, it would be a very weak and flawed response on his part to offer as a reason for not doing so that people of another culture would find that “impossible” to accept.

A moral teaching which seeks to operate on this kind of criteria will soon wither away.

Tanks approaching from the Tiber

From Tienanmen Square to the Via della Conciliazione?

Brendan O’Connor, writer with the Dublin paper, the Sunday Independent went on the rampage against the Catholic Church – again – last weekend  A little in the mold of  The Skibereen Eagle, he is threatening to send  tanks into the Vatican on behalf of the United Nations.

On a more serious level, he is one of growing band of virulently anti-Catholic journalists infecting western media in this new century whose tirades match anything that the anti-Catholic writers of 19th century have left on record. They bring to mind something from the last century which we might have thought was the swan-song of that breed: the contributions to religious debate and ecumenism in the 1960s which used to appear regularly in the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph – things like a series entitled “Love Affairs of the Vatican”. Nice bedfellow for Mr O’Connor.

Of course O’Connor had an axe to grind, having been hauled over the coals by the Irish broadcaster, RTE, for landing them in an €80,000+  bowl of soup for defamation. The naivety of the man was astounding, inviting the campest of camp transvestites to name and defame on live television a number of Irish pro-marriage writers and campaigners as being “homophobic”.

In the aftermath of that debacle O’Connor decided to launch into a defence of the United Nation’s latest own goal – its outrageous, arrogant and ignorant rebuke of the Catholic Church which effectively called on it to reformulate the Ten Commandments in the name of the UN’s brand of justice and equality.

Truth is and always has been the first casualty of war and the culture wars are not exception to that particular law of human frailty. Of course the injuries which mark this casualty are more often than not inflicted by way of half-truths and gross exaggerations than by the downright lie. The partial truth missile launched at a target is harder to deflect than the easily refuted barefaced untruth.

Of course there were wretched and renegade clerics at large among the Catholic faithful in the decades following the much vaunted sexual revolution who preyed on vulnerable children as readily as Jimmy Saville and other pop artists and celebrities preyed on the underage groupies who followed in their train; of course there were clerics in authority whose response to the discovery of these aberrations was grossly inadequate – just as were the responses of police and social service personnel; of course the approach of another age to finding solutions to the needs of children thought to be at risk may have failed both children and their parents in terms of principles of justice and charity which are much clearer in our age.

As Caroline Farrow said when she appeared on BBC television to discuss the issue on BBC1′s The Big Questions programme, No right-thinking Catholic wishes to deny or downplay the terrible harm that was caused to victims, a harm that was compounded by the attitude of those within authority who in many cases ignored or disbelieved their claims and some even went so far as to attempt to smear and discredit victims. All of this was contemptible and inexcusable – childhood abuse destroys lives and sets people up with a lifetime of mental health issues.

But truth, she went on to say, is the bedfellow of justice and without it, justice cannot be served. This report lets down the victims by serving a false narrative of orchestrated abuse and a centralised deliberate policy of cover-up, whereas the truth is that the Catholic church is massively decentralised, individual Catholic bishops have a lot more direct canonical power than their Anglican counterparts. Where there were failings this was due to the ineptness at a local level, and if we want to prevent any sort of recurrence then we have to be able to look at what happened and analyse matters objectively. Blaming the Vatican directly is far too glib and simplistic, as well as being erroneous and it lets too many people off the hook, including those members of the laity who colluded with the abuse.

O’Connor begins his diatribe by saying that there wasn’t much new in the UN report. That bit was true. But then he goes on to give his own utterly outrageous take on the whole thing:

The church has a history of trafficking babies, of discriminating against children based on their sexuality or that of their parents, and of allowing children to be abused, of protecting their abusers from the law, of moving abusers around – allowing them to abuse again, and when it came to abuse, of “consistently placing the preservation of the church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests”. The church has even protected priests from their own children, denying children the right to know the identity of their fathers and “only agreeing payments from the church until the child is financially independent only if they [the mothers] sign a confidentiality agreement not to disclose any information”.

Then he goes on to show not only his own ignorance but swallows wholesale the ignorant utterances of the United Nations Committee which produced this piece of shameless vitriol which with barefaced arrogance called for a response to it from the Holy See.

The UN report is important, he says, because it treats the church as what it is – a de facto state, geographically dispersed throughout the world certainly, but a metaphysical and legal entity, and therefore, “a sovereign subject of international law having an original non derived legal personality independent of any territorial authority of jurisdiction.”

Make no mistake, if the Holy See was an actual country, we would be at the least boycotting its fruit and at the most sending in the tanks. Here is a state that has institutionalised homophobia, discrimination against women and children, that has systematically overseen the protection of the abusers of tens of thousands of children, protecting abusers from the laws of their host countries. Here is a state that has overseen mass scale trafficking of babies, a state that opposes modern health and sexual education for young women, a state that forces secrecy on children, even those who are victims of sexual abuse.

These guys are up there with China or the worst of Africa in terms of their human rights record. And when you look at it coldly and clearly like that, your blood runs cold. Because instead of shunning this rogue state, we have invited it into the very heart of all our countries, and into the heart of our families.

Wisdom after the event is a dangerous potion. The rash and unjust judgements now being meted out, a la O’Connor and company, to the entire Catholic Church and to the entire spectrum of religious organisations which sought to and did serve the Church and society for centuries, is now perpetrating further injustice.

History will, hopefully, look at this era and see this travesty for what it is, a hate-filled campaign – not for justice for the wronged individual children and adults who suffered in the past. This is a campaign whose objective (foolish and as sure to fail as was the campaign of the pagan Roman Empire against Christianity two thousand years ago) is the destruction of the Christian religion and its removal from the face of the earth.

Not even the Soviet Union tried this

Catholic Voices tells us that the UN watchdog on children’s rights which recently hauled the Vatican over the coals for its handling of sex abuse has today released its recommendations. What is the United Nations up to? Just imagine if this organisation had power to match its arrogance and ignorance. Prepare for Diocletian Mark II.

With breathtaking arrogance, Catholic Voices’ Austen Ivereigh writes, the UN Report tries to change church teaching to bring it line with gender ideologies. In (25) and (26) it peddles the secularist myth that the Church’s teaching that sex is ordained by God for the possibility of procreation within marriage encourages homophobia, and patronisingly suggests that the Holy See condemn all forms of discrimination against gay people — which it does and has done for decades.

The Committee then criticizes contemporary Catholic teaching on sexuality, regretting how “the Holy See continues to place emphasis on the promotion of complementarity and equality in dignity, two concepts which differ from equality in law and practice provided for in Article 2 of the Convention.” In other words, where the Catechism of the Catholic Church fails to comply with the ideology of gender, it must be amended.

Amazingly, the Report also calls (36.) on the Holy See to provide — to whom, it does not say; perhaps via a helpline manned by monsignors? — what it calls “family planning, reproductive health and adequate counselling” to prevent “unplanned pregnancies.” Where this is going becomes clear in (55.), where the Holy See is told to change its teaching on abortion and even to amend canon law “with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.”

Lastly, the Report even lectures the Holy See on how it should interpret Scripture. In (39d) the Holy See is told to “ensure that an interpretation of Scripture as not condoning corporal punishment is reflected in Church teaching”.

Have we reasons to fear this organisation? In a word, on this evidence, “Yes”.

So where does the Catholic Church stand?

Irish television’s current affairs flagship, Prime Time, is turning its attention this week (Tuesday 10th of December) to ‘The Current State of The Catholic Church’ and its future. It is posing the question as to whether the Church is “heading to a more purist congregation or is the leadership of Pope Francis opening up its doors to a more diverse range of beliefs?”

While the awkward phrasing of that question in itself betrays a degree of confusion about the nature of the phenomenon being looked at it, the very posing of the question once again underlines the shock and awe aroused in the secular media – and it doesn’t get much more secular than Irish television these days – by the new man on the Chair of Peter.

What the question betrays is the simple ignorance of the fact that constant development is part of the DNA of the Catholic Church. The past 30 years have seen an incredible development and clarification of its teaching under the guidance of two incredible popes. We now have what looks like another extraordinary man setting out an explicitly missionary stall, defining the very nature of the church in those terms but also very explicitly building that mission on all the sacramental and moral principles which have been taught, developed and clarified by his predecessors over two millennia.

The church’s business is and always has been helping us find our way from this world, through this world, to the next. That is sometimes a messy business. It can be messy for internal and external reasons. It was internally messy for weak-kneed Peter, doubting Thomas, Augustine, overchaqrged with testosterone, and countless others. It was externally messy for its Founder and countless others of his followers down to even an hour ago. People are put to death every day for pursuing this business. For a lot more life is made very awkward because the take it all so seriously. But it has nothing to do with being rigid or purist – it is about the pursuit of the Good Life in the true meaning of both those words.

This is the stall now being set out by Pope Francis. I’d say, ‘just watch this space’.

We now enjoy far greater freedom from rigid social constraints than we did 50 years ago – although the new cultural phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ has put a number of new ones in the place of the so-called “taboos” we have got rid of. But freedom, while a very good thing, does not guarantee good judgment. At the heart of the Catholic Church is a teaching mission and the ultimate aim of that teaching is to guide us to right judgment. ‘How will they know if they are not taught’?

Many of the judgments we have made about ourselves and our condition which have now become enshrined in the modernist and post-modernist political and social consensus are totally at variance with the teaching of the Catholic Church. What the Church is now doing is finding the way to counter this alien consensus, as it has done for centuries – first, in the Roman Empire, later in the paganism of the barbarians, later still, in the many false,  although often well-intentioned, cues of the protestant reformers, then in Marxist materialism and now in hedonistic materialism.

Pope Francis is now addressing the entire Catholic world in a letter   (“Evangelii Gaudium”, Apostolic Exhortation, 24-XI-2013.) which is much more than a letter. It is a programme for missionary action, profoundly cognizant of human nature and profoundly supernatural, rooted in the essentials of Christian faith and morality. Here he is talking to the Church dispersed in particular churches throughout the world:

Each particular Church, as a portion of the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishop, is…called to missionary conversion. It is the primary subject of evangelization, since it is the concrete manifestation of the one Church in one specific place, and in it “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative”. It is the Church incarnate in a certain place, equipped with all the means of salvation bestowed by Christ, but with local features. Its joy in communicating Jesus Christ is expressed both by a concern to preach him to areas in greater need and in constantly going forth to the outskirts of its own territory or towards new socio-cultural settings. Wherever the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest, it will want to be there. To make this missionary impulse ever more focused, generous and fruitful, I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.”

Later he says:

If we attempt to put all things in a missionary key, this will also affect the way we communicate the message. In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.

As Rome Reports summed up this letter: “Pope to Christians: Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”

The children of wrath?

What is it about the anti-God brigade that makes them so hate-filled and, well, just downright unpleasant. They truly seem to be the children of wrath. The genuine children of light – as opposed to the faux variety – do at times let themselves down and indulge in rants which border on or cross the line of human decency. But by and large they are restrained by that essential ingredient of their cultural heritage – the charity of Christ.

Take a random comment thread from any faith story on the internet and what are you likely to find? You find yourself wading into a quagmire of irrational contempt, animosity and downright hatred towards anyone professing faith. You don’t even have to go anywhere near the more extreme end of this spectrum, the Dawkins Quarter, to get this. Scroll through any of these stories and you will find yourself not a little depressed by the experience. If you don’t encounter mockery then it will be sterile cynicism or worse.  But you will hardly ever encounter an attempt at a real engagement of minds. It is seriously sad.

Over the past few years the secularist/religion debate was frequently pitched in terms of one motion: The Catholic Church is (is not) a force for good in the world. Sometimes it was broader and put in terms of “Religion is (is not) a force for good in the world”, a Christopher Hitchens-style generalisation. Hitchens’ book, God is not Great, underlined the problem of debating the question in those terms. Its subtitle, “How religion poisons everything”, said it all. Hitchens’ “religion”,  by his definition, is really no religion. The opponent of any and every faith has the faithful at his mercy on this platform. Hitchens’ generalisation of faith allows him to bundle together, for the purposes of confusion, every kind of lunacy which men have for millennia described as religion.

The only meaningful debate on this topic will be one where religion is defended and professed on the basis of the specific doctrines it teaches and the way of life it proposes for its followers – regardless even of how faithfully its followers succeed in living up to those teachings and that way of life.

In many of those debates over the past few years the defenders of the mainstream Christian Churches – and for the most part it was the Catholic Church which was put in the dock – were on the losing side. This was primarily because they failed to demand that the teaching of their church, and not the motley collection of red herrings thrown at them, be made the focus of debate. If that were done, and if the cumulative effect of the effort of millions of Christians across the world to live according to the authentic Christian principles of their church, taking account of the development of its teaching down through the ages – and its influence on our civilization as it did so – then there would be no contest.

Leave aside the red herrings of issues generated by the inherent weakness, folly and sinfulness of mankind and you will find in the teaching of the Catholic Church, enshrined in its moral and social doctrines, a guide second to none for mankind’s flourishing. Examine all of these as closely as you like and you will not fail to find in them an understanding of our human condition which if acted on universally would be the greatest imaginable force for good in the world, bar none. Just do it, and see.

The argument against religion on the basis of the ignorance, weakness or malice of those who profess to follow Christ’s teaching while in fact following some aberrant concoction of their own, is no argument against the truth and value of this teaching. We might use an analogy. Great art is not diminished in its value to mankind, nor in its power to move our race, when confronted by the ignorant, even when they collect it and hoard it as a marketable commodity.  The sense of loss felt after the recent burning of some priceless works of art by some crazed woman underlines our appreciation of the value and power to do good of the world’s great literature, music and art.

Ignorance is ever a threat to beauty. Ignorance, culpable or otherwise, has also always been a threat to goodness an truth. That the truth of the Christian religion has historically and contemporaneously been held hostage by the misguided, the ignorant, and even evil people (like vicious slavers in the New World), is inadmissible as evidence against it.

A gem of moral wisdom encountered recently in a book of moral questions and answers compiled in the last century – with resonances very pertinent for our own times – might illustrate how much of the misery we inflict on each other globally might be alleviated if we were more attentive to the teaching of Christ’s Church.

The question, from a person with an eye on Irish history, was asked:

 Suppose a person is in possession of land by ancestral right –  land confiscated in the time of Cromwell, and given to one of his ancestors. Legally, he owns the land. Is it the teaching of the Cathoiic Church that he morally owns it or does the land rightly belong to the descendants of the original owner?

 The answer, from a renowned moral theologian of his day[i], was this:

 The confiscation was unjust, and the newcomer held the land on a title that no moral law could sanction. But time heals many wounds. Some of his successors were better than himself; they became bona fide holders of the proceeds of his robbery. The best moral instructors of mankind – and among them the Catholic Church takes the prominent place – have come to the conclusion that to safeguard public order and the rights of the community as a whole, the claims of these successors must be maintained, even in conscience, when a long period of peaceful possession has elapsed.

 The principle is termed “prescription,” and is universally acknowledged. The period varies in the different countries, but the time since CromweIl is long enough to satisfy the most exacting reading. The present holder may keep what he has without being troubled in conscience.

 If a person questions that conclusion, he must meet certain difficulties. The real owner in the days of Cromwell held the land from an ancestor who disturbed the previous owners in the days of a previous invasion. So through the days of the Milesians, the Firbolgs, and the countless other regimes of which history knows nothing. If we reject the principle of “prescription” we must face the suggestion that no human being on the globe at the present moment owns a single particle of anything he holds.

 Another question was asked. This was probably some time early in the last century. It’s clarity is uncompromising.

 Should the right of conquest be always recognized?

 The “right of conquest” , he answered, has been asserted by bellicose invaders and by their “scientific” supporters. It is no better than the right of the highway robber to seize all he can on a night-raid.

 Can we see anything but wisdom and a force for good in a world view which enshrines principles of common sense and justice like these? This is just a glimpse of the patrimony of the authentic Christian Church, passed from generation to generation in the manner eluciadated in the first encyclical letter from the current incumbent of the See of Peter, “Lumen Fidei.”

 The Church, like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories. But how does this come about in a way that nothing is lost, but rather everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood? It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory. What was handed down by the apostles — as the Second Vatican Council states — “comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.

 The often flawed striving and rough hewing of mankind to implement this patrimony should not be the measure of the value or goodness of the Foundation itself. What is frightening in the contemporary debate – and it is often hard to recognise it as a debate – is the flight from reasonableness in failing to recognize this distinction, a flight accompanied by what appears to be a visceral hatred of the very idea that underlying our existence there might just be that benign “divinity that shapes our end” and that this Divinity subsists in the Catholic Church.

 


[i] Dr. Michael J. O’Donnell, Professor of Moral Theology in st. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Pope Benedict and “the ultimate purpose of Catholicism”

Here is a very perceptive summing up of the legacy of Pope Benedict from Damian Thompson on his  Daily Telegraph blog. He says, for example, that

Benedict’s central achievement was that he began – but came nowhere near finishing – the “purification” of the Catholic Church that was his most pressing concern. This necessitated the reform both of the liturgy and of the behaviour of the clergy entrusted with its performance. It might seem strange to yoke together the two, but Ratzinger has always emphasised that liturgy – properly orientated worship of God – is the ultimate purpose of Catholicism, requiring a holy priesthood and laity.

Benedict saw himself as continuing the mission of his predecessor, John Paul II, to restore the divine dignity of the Eucharist by renewing the celebration of Mass and encouraging adoration of the Sacrament. The extraordinary scenes in Hyde Park during his visit to Britain in 2010 testified to his success – but his reluctance to bully bishops into following his suggestions meant that the mission was not fully fulfilled. (A little example that infuriates me: the Pope encouraged priests to celebrate Mass facing a standing crucifix. He himself did so at Westminster Cathedral, but the tall cross was quickly removed after he’d gone. Why?) Benedict also restored Catholics’ freedom to attend the Tridentine Mass, suppressed in the 1970s – but, again, many bishops did their “la-la-la-can’t-hear-you-Holy-Father” act and Summorum Pontificum has yet to be enforced.

Add to that this prescient interview of the the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 2003 with Raymond Arroyo of EWTN and you get a measure of the achievement of this Papacy in terms of the vision of the Church shared by two of the greatest popes in modern history.