The Empire Strikes Back?


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.


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.

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.