THE THIRD HORSEMAN OF THE APOCALYPSE

It was an eerie sight. The lone figure of the Vicar of Christ on earth standing under a canopy in the rain-drenched esplanade of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome addressing the world, Urbi et orbi. A little short of one year earlier he imparted the same traditional blessing to something in the region of a hundred thousand pilgrims gathered in the same esplanade. What apocalyptic event had brought this about? We know the answer well enough – and few will argue that the ‘A’ word is overstating reality.

For some, perhaps for many, thinking and talking about death betrays a morbid obsession. For others it is a truly liberating preoccupation, for it is an engagement with a reality, a gate through which we enter on the Way to nothing less than Truth and Life itself.

The message of that evening was about hope; hope in the face of fear – for fear is what now is predominantly in the hearts of mankind, the fear of death. But the message of hope was centred on the answer to that question asked by Christ of those fearful disciples in the sinking boat who called out to be saved from what looked to them like certain death. Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

The Scriptural apocalyptic vision of death describes it as coming accompanied by and through the three-fold agency of Famine, War and Pestilence. In the lifetimes of those of us present on this planet today the former two have been, sadly, familiar enough. The latter, in the terms in which it threatens us today and now – the prospect that it would bear away, as some experts estimate, forty million of us were it to get out of control – is a new experience. But in all this there is also an invitation to each one of us to reflect on the true nature of that fourth horseman – is he friend or is he foe?

He is friend for he is the bringer of wisdom. Don’t be afraid of death. Accept it from now on, generously … when God wills it, where God wills it, as God wills it. Don’t doubt what I say: it will come in the moment, in the place and in the way that are best: sent by your Father-God. Welcome be our sister death! (The Way, 739) These are the words of St Josemaría Escrivá.

The wisdom which the Christian life embodies encompasses both a glorious rejoicing in the gift of life and a peaceful acceptance of the inevitable moment in which we will pass from this temporary sojourn to an eternal joy. What Pope Francis reminded us of emphatically was that faith is the antidote to fear. His words were also a reminder and an encouragement to fight together those three humanly engineered real enemies of mankind, War, Famine and Pestilence. We know that Death came into the world through the willful folly of our race. But we also know that the act and witness of Christ’s death on a Cross, followed by his Resurrection, has totally changed its meaning for mankind and is now in itself a reminder to us of the true meaning and ultimate end of our existence.

Napoleon Bonaparte, approaching death on the bleak South Atlantic Island of St Helena, reflected on his self-absorbed life and the turbulent events of his time. In doing so, with the help of his sister Death, he finally and peacefully saw the true measure of the significance of life, fame and human glory.

St John Henry Newman recalled – in The Grammar of Assent – that in the solitude of his imprisonment, and in the view of death, Napoleon was said to have reflected on the motivations of his years in pursuit of glory.

“I have been”, he said, “accustomed to put before me the examples of Alexander and Cæsar, with the hope of rivalling their exploits, and living in the minds of men for ever. Yet, after all, in what sense does Cæsar, in what sense does Alexander live? Who knows or cares anything about them? At best, nothing but their names is known; for who among the multitude of men, who hear or who utter their names, really knows anything about their lives or their deeds, or attaches to those names any definite idea?”

“But, on the contrary” he is reported to have continued, “there is just One Name in the whole world that lives; it is the Name of One who passed His years in obscurity, and who died a malefactor’s death. Eighteen hundred years have gone since that time, but still it has its hold upon the human mind. It has possessed the world, and it maintains possession.” 

“Amid the most varied nations, under the most diversified circumstances, in the most cultivated, in the rudest races and intellects, in all classes of society, the Owner of that great Name reigns. High and low, rich and poor acknowledge Him. Millions of souls are conversing with Him, are venturing on His word, are looking for His presence. Palaces, sumptuous, innumerable, are raised to His honour; His image, as in the hour of His deepest humiliation, is triumphantly displayed in the proud city, in the open country, in the corners of streets, on the tops of mountains. It sanctifies the ancestral hall, the closet, and the bedchamber; it is the subject for the exercise of the highest genius in the imitative arts. It is worn next the heart in life; it is held before the failing eyes in death.”

“Here, then, is One who is not a mere name, who is not a mere fiction, who is a reality. He is dead and gone, but still He lives, – lives as the living, energetic thought of successive generations, as the awful motive-power of a thousand great events. He has done without effort what others with life-long struggles have not done. Can He be less than Divine? Who is He but the Creator Himself; who is sovereign over His own works, towards whom our eyes and hearts turn instinctively, because He is our Father and our God?”

And it was to Him, two hundred years after Napoleon uttered those wise words, that Pope Francis once again drew the city of Rome and all the cities of the world to ask for help today as we face the rampaging Third Horseman of the Apocalypse, asking for help to deal with the multiple devastations he will bring in his wake. But the miraculous crucifix which was so central in the images relayed from St Peter’s on March 27 reminded us powerfully of the truth that death itself is not a fearful thing, but is the true beginning of all Wisdom and Life.

(First published in Position Papers, April 2020. http://www.positionpapers.ie)

A people not fit for public purpose?

In the Irish referendum campaign the Yes side – in favour of same sex marriage – kept saying all it was about was a handful of words in the country’s constitution. The No side focused on what they feared would be the unintended consequences of what they saw as a radical redefinition of not only marriage but also of the family. The Yes side in turn accused them of scaremongering. It was ugly. No political debate in Ireland in living memory was so ugly and acrimonious.

But that is now history – or is it? If the No side was right, it is only beginning. Conor Brady, former editor of the Irish Times, the paper which was cheerleader  extraordinaire  for the Yes campaign from  start – several years ago – to finish, ominously reflected today in his Sunday Times column on what he saw over the past few months and the past week.
“A revolution”, he said, “without generosity, broadmindedness and a respect for the sweep of history will simply lay the foundations of a new tyranny”.

A friend has just told me of a conversation she had with someone who was speaking to a priest from the old Czechoslovakia and now working in Ireland. The priest says that the atmosphere and culture in Ireland at the moment is almost an exact replica of that in his country just before the Communist take-over. The main similarity he sees is the almost 100% indoctrination of the youth to the ideology. His view? Ireland must now prepare itself for a time of persecution.

The Canadian story about the same issue is worth looking at. What has followed that country’s legislation is a nightmare of bitterness and discrimination and the insertion into the public square of a cancerous growth of the marginalization of conscientious Christians – and people of other faiths as well. The new hostility to religion is not about driving people of faith into the arena to be eaten by wild beasts, but it is about confining them to the margins of society as people not fit for public purpose.

Professor Robert George of Princeton this morning flagged an article in Crisis magazine which it would behove us all to read. It is an account by Lea Z. Singh, a Canadian lawyer, writer and a stay-at-home mom to three young children, of the “unintended consequences” which have occurred in her country in the aftermath of their radical law-making.

Canada legalized same-sex “marriage” in 2005, she wrote, the fourth country in the world to do so. During the rushed public debate that preceded legalization, the Christian and traditional understanding of marriage as the union of a man and a woman had strong support. Polls showed a deep split among Canadians, and the majority (52 percent) were actually against legalization at the time that it occurred.

Opponents of same-sex “marriage” were given all kinds of assurances. The preamble to the Civil Marriage Act states that “everyone has the freedom of conscience and religion,” “nothing in this Act affects the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion and, in particular, the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs,” and “it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.”

The Irish electorate was not even given this assurance.

But how quickly things change, she continues. Since the watershed moment of legalization, Canadian social norms have shifted rapidly, and what was once considered fringe or debatable has become the new normal.

Today, different opinions on “gender identity” and same-sex “marriage” are no longer tolerated. Our society is sweeping away respect for religious faiths that do not accept and celebrate same-sex “marriage,” and the Civil Marriage Act’s assurances seem merely farcical. It is not premature to speak of open discrimination against Christians in Canada.

The Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms declares that Canadians have a fundamental “freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.” But constitutional guarantees are at the mercy of lawyers, and Canadian lawyers have emerged as among the most fiercely intolerant of anyone, including their own colleagues, who fails to support same-sex “marriage.” Read her full account here.

The spread of ideas is a fascinating subject – how they start, how they take root, how they spread, and the consequences which follow; sometimes good, sometimes indifferent and sometimes dire.

John Henry Newman offered a description of the process in his masterly Essay on the Development of Doctrine. What he says offers us a remarkable picture of what has been unfolding before our very eyes in Western culture over the past 50 years or so.

When an idea, he says, is of a nature to arrest and possess the mind, it may be said to have life, that is, to live in the mind which is its recipient. But, when some great enunciation, whether true or false, about human nature, or present good, or government, or duty, or religion, is carried forward into the public throng of men and draws attention, then… it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side.

He cites as example such ideas as the doctrine of the divine right of kings, or of the rights of man, … or utilitarianism, or free trade, …or the philosophy of Zeno or Epicurus, doctrines which are of a nature to attract and influence.

Let one such idea get possession of the popular mind, or the mind of any portion of the community, and it is not difficult to understand what will be the result. At first men will not fully realize what it is that moves them, and will express and explain themselves inadequately. There will be a general agitation of thought, and an action of mind upon mind. There will be a time of confusion, when conceptions and misconceptions are in conflict, and it is uncertain whether anything is to come of the idea at all, or which view of it is to get the start of the others.

It will, he wrote, introduce itself into the framework and details of social life, changing public opinion, and strengthening or undermining the foundations of established order. Thus in time it will have grown into an ethical code, or into a system of government, or into a theology, or into a ritual, according to its capabilities.

Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, in the aftermath of the Irish referendum, described the event as “a reality check”. It was. The day before the referendum a great number of Irish people had made assumptions about the condition of their culture, about the ideas which carried weight within it. Two days later those assumptions were shattered. A radical idea – for many a terrible idea – about the nature of mankind, about gender, the nature of family and marriage had been working under cover for twenty, maybe thirty years. On the 23rd of May, 2015, Ireland awoke to find it in full flower.

But we must not forget that Newman’s words were written in the context of the ever-renewing process of refinement and development of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Those words hold fast to the promise that the truth of its teaching is strangely and marvellously rejuvenated from age to age. We should expect nothing less today.

Why worry about a few turbulent clerics?

gay-marriage-image
Some Irish people are a little dismayed this morning, opening their newspapers or listening to their radios, finding a priest asking them to vote for the redefinition of marriage in the forthcoming referendum on the issue. They shouldn’t be.
 
The early history of Christianity should help any modern Christians trying hard to live by the authentic teaching of Christ in dealing with the disappointment occasioned by the utterances of Fr. Iggy O’Donovan. O’Donovan may not be Gnostic and may be small fry when taken in the context of what authentic Christianity was up against in those first centuries. But he is cut from the same cloth as the likes of Valentinius, Marcion and Tatian. Pedigree, or association with faithful Christians, is no gaurantor of orthodoxy. 
 
Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us, intially quoting another source:
 

“When [the reader of Christian history] comes to the second century,” says Dr. (Edward) Burton, “he finds that Gnosticism, under some form or other, was professed in every part of the then civilized world. He finds it divided into schools, as numerously and as zealously attended as any which Greece or Asia could boast in their happiest days. He meets with names totally unknown to him before, which excited as much sensation as those of Aristotle or Plato. He hears of volumes having been written in support of this new philosophy, not one of which has survived to our own day.”[221:1] Many of the founders of these sects had been Christians; others were of Jewish parentage; others were more or less connected in fact with the Pagan rites to which their own bore so great a resemblance. Montanus seems even to have been a mutilated priest of Cybele; the followers of Prodicus professed to possess the secret books of Zoroaster; and the doctrine of dualism, which so many of the sects held, is to be traced to the same source. Basilides seems to have recognized Mithras as the Supreme Being, or the Prince of Angels, or the Sun, if Mithras is equivalent to Abraxas, which was inscribed upon his amulets: on the other hand, he is said to have been taught by an immediate disciple of St. Peter, and Valentinus by an immediate disciple of St. Paul. Marcion was the son of a Bishop of Pontus; Tatian, a disciple of St. Justin Martyr.

The Church has had to contend with this kind of thing throughout its history and will always have to do so. But if the gates of Hell will not prevail against it why should a few turbulent clerics worry it?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving On

We have got to move on from here. The Church in the 16th century took the bull of corruption and abuse by the horns and moved on to the Catholic Reformation. It must do the same now. Another tranche of documents – 10,000 pages of them – are in the headlines in the US this week, detailing more records of abuse. Mind you not all 10,000 pages will be disturbing. Some of them record complaints about the long hair-styles or Elvis-style sideburns of some of the clergy of the time. But some of them are indeed disturbing. This time they come from the files of the diocese of San Diego, California. Good. Read then, beat our breasts sincerely and contritely – but then move to do what we should have been doing when these ugly heinous crimes were being committed. We are not doing a service to anyone, least of all the victims of abuse, by just continuing to beat our breasts. If the corruption within the Church in the early modern age was the occasion of driving good men out of the Church, the corruptions of our own age have had no less drastic consequences. It is time to address these consequences.

Moving on is not the same as forgetting. We must never forget what has happened – we cannot, in fact, ever forget it. It is and always will be part of us. It is part of our fallen condition, the effects of which we have all inherited.

We were reminded of this by Pope Benedict in his address at Oscott College in Birmingham in September. “As we reflect on the human frailty that these tragic events so starkly reveal, we are reminded that, if we are to be effective Christian leaders, we must live lives of the utmost integrity, humility and holiness. He then quoted an Anglican priest to express his hope for the future: ‘O that God would grant the clergy to feel their weakness as sinful men, and the people to sympathize with them and love them and pray for their increase in all good gifts of grace’” Those words were the prayer of the Rev. John Henry Newman, now Blessed John Henry Newman, delivered in a sermon on 22 March 1829.

The Pope made no bones about the impact of the scandal on the moral credibility of Church leaders. “I have spoken on many occasions of the deep wounds that such behaviour causes, in the victims first and foremost, but also in the relationships of trust that should exist between priests and people, between priests and their bishops, and between the Church authorities and the public.”  But he went on to acknowledge the new awareness “of the extent of child abuse in society, its devastating effects, and the need to provide proper victim support should serve as an incentive to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community”. He did not make the obvious point that clerical abuse was but the tip of the iceberg of child abuse. He sees no point in that kind of defence but those looking on should be ready to concede it, if they are at all interested in fairness. What he did propose was much more positive: “Indeed, what better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards children who continue to suffer abuse elsewhere? Our duty of care towards the young demands nothing less.” At the heart of the response must be, he said, “Integrity, humility and holiness”.

Looking forward, with the supernatural vision that is the hallmark of his office, he said that his prayer would be that among the graces of his visit to Britain “will be a renewed dedication on the part of Christian leaders to the prophetic vocation they have received, and a new appreciation on the part of the people for the great gift of the ordained ministry. Prayer for vocations will then arise spontaneously, and we may be confident that the Lord will respond by sending labourers to bring in the plentiful harvest.”  

Finally, as if to underline that essential platform of the spiritual and supernatural on which that harvesting work can only be based, he spoke to them of the Eucharist – in the context of the imminent publication of the new translation of the Roman Missal for the English-speaking world. “I encourage you now to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration. ‘The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the people of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 6).

Then, in final words of encouragement the Pope seemed to echo back to that age when the failures and corruption of churchmen five centuries ago drove good men into a revolt which still divides Christendom. He spoke about the generosity needed for the implementation of the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, that apostolic instrument by which members of the Anglican Communion might be reunited with their fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. “This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished.” Now that is moving on.