Is this a case of a sad but congenital blindness to a reality they cannot comprehend?

In the final volume of his masterly trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, writes of how the replies of Jesus to Pilate in his interrogation “must have seemed like madness to the Roman judge. And yet he could not shake off the mysterious impression left by this man, so different from those he had met before who had resisted Roman domination and fought for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.”


It is difficult not to see similar bewilderment lurking in the hearts and minds of the thousands of media functionaries who were milling around St. Peter’s basilica and the Vatican since that historic day, 11 of February, 2013. In the six or seven weeks since then the world’s media vainly – for the most part – tried to grapple with realities which they were fascinated by but which they simply could not comprehend. Just as Pilate was bewildered by the idea that Christ was a king in the sense that he, Pilate, understood kingship, they were looking at a group of men assembling in Rome to elect the ruler of an entity which they only half understood. Essentially they read it all in terms of purely human politics. As a consequence they missed the entire plot.


The New York Times of 11 March gave us what might be a textbook example of how the application of political language takes you only so far in this drama, and how, when you reach a certain point, if you persist with it, it simply leads you into a dead end.


Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo began their “analysis” piece for the Times by telling us that the cardinals who would enter the papal conclave on Tuesday of that week would walk into the Sistine Chapel in a single file. That would be something deceptive, for “beneath the orderly display, they were split into competing line-ups and power blocs that will determine which man among them emerges as pope.”


Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy was, for example, described by Goodstein and Povoledo, as “a top contender for pope among some in the conclave.” Marlon Brando famously muttered to Rod Steiger, his older brother in On the Waterfront, “I could’a been a contender”, meaning a contender for a boxing title. This was not a boxing match. This was not a title fight, not even a contest in any meaningful sense of the word. This was a meeting in which over a hundred men who have given their lives to the service of Christ and his Church were going to look among themselves for the one whom they deemed, in their hearts and minds, would most faithfully and effectively lead and sustain that Church in the mission which its founder gave them.


Nothing of this understanding, nothing, was evident in the 1,500 or so words penned by Goodstein and Povoledo on that Sunday and filed to the Times. From beginning to end they read the drama – and a papal conclave is high drama, no doubt – unfolding before them as power bloc pitted against power bloc in pursuit of the control of a political and administrative structure serving an end which to them was very ill-understood indeed.


“The main divide”, they said, “pits the cardinals who work in the Vatican, the Romans, against the reformers, the cardinals who want the next pope to tackle what they see as the Vatican’s corruption, inefficiency and reluctance to share power and information with bishops from around the world.” What had all that to do with the billion and more ordinary people who want to follow the teaching of Christ, receive his sacraments daily and weekly and be helped to make their way through this world to a promised eternal life? Serving these people is the sole and ultimate object of this institution and the raison d’etre of those men walking into the Sistine Chapel on the morning of 12 March.


The faithful of the Catholic Church throughout the world, within hours of the white smoke appearing, were at peace once again. Indeed, as the smoke appeared, the cheers from the thousands in the square told us that they were once again in the place they wanted to be and that they knew that God’s ordained instruments had once again chosen a shepherd in his own mould to care for all their needs.


When the secularist world’s reading of the history and the reality of the Catholic Church is not naively political, it is driven by the media’s own very unbalanced and self-created image of the reality of the institution, its problems and its crises in the world today.


The next pontiff, Goodstein and Povoledo said, “must unite an increasingly globalized church paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age (my italics). And among the cardinals, they said, there is no obvious single successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who rattled the church by resigning last month at age 85”. Obvious to whom? The short and decisive conclave showed precisely the contrary. The cardinals, after their days of prayerful conversation and reflection walked into the Sistine Chapel with much more unity of intent and purpose than the watching world imagined.


But who really thinks the Catholic Church is paralysed? No one who looks at the phenomenal growth of the Church in different parts of the world could say it is paralyzed. It may be challenged to keep up with this; it is being challenged by the decline of the faith in the old world  – a decline brought about primarily by the growth of materialism, indifference and the lure of hedonism and only very marginally by the weakness its members see in each other.


Of course the lure of hedonism has infected servants of the Church. Of course there has been scandal, but there has always been scandal. Two thousand years ago followers of Christ were told “How terrible it will be for the world due to its temptations to sin! Temptations to sin are bound to happen, but how terrible it will be for that person who causes someone to sin!” Holier than thou media is one of the phenomena of our time, and while the abandon with which sinners are stoned from the media’s so-called high moral ground today is occasionally halted by exposures like those at the BBC in the Saville affair, the stones keep raining down.


The Church, for its part, has never wavered in its teaching on what is and what is not sinful. It knows all too well that it is populated by sinners but it also knows that its God-given task is to help those sinners to repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name. It forgives repentant sinners but remains constant on what is sinful, despite pressure from many quarters through modern media to move with the spirit of the age and abandon the Way, the Truth and the Life of which it is the mystical incarnation.


The Church certainly has to find new ways of more effectively managing the challenges it faces but it is far from paralysed. As for the Church being rattled by Pope Benedict’s abdication, that is about as far from the truth as you could get. The pilgrims, 200,000 of them, who came to his final audience in St. Peter’s Square on 27 February were not rattled – and they represented millions more. Surprised, no doubt; puzzled perhaps, for a short time; but ultimately profoundly grateful for a magnificent example of humility and wisdom which in the end could only be interpreted as coming from one source, his prayer and the grace of him whose vicar he has been.


And that is the missing link in all the volumes of deliberations we have been absorbing from the world’s media in the days and weeks since 11 February – as the world in its very limited wisdom tries to work out the “madness” of the Wisdom of Catholic Church.

Perhaps we might hope for some change in all this now following the new Holy Father’s words of encouragement to 5000 journalists on the Saturday following his election?  Pope Francis was nothing if not positive when he offered

“A particularly heart-felt thanks… to those who have been able to observe and present these events in the Church’s history while keeping in mind the most just perspective in which they must be read, that of faith. Historical events almost always require a complex reading that, at times, can also include the dimension of faith.

 “Ecclesial events are certainly not more complicated than political or economic ones. But they have one particularly fundamental characteristic: they answer to a logic that is not mainly that of, so to speak, worldly categories, and this is precisely why it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wide and varied audience. In fact, the Church, although it is certainly also a human, historical institution with all that that entails, does not have a political nature but is essentially spiritual: it is the people of God, the holy people of God who walk toward the encounter with Jesus Christ. Only by putting oneself in this perspective can one fully explain how the Catholic Church works.”

  “Christ is the Church’s Shepherd, but His presence in history moves through human freedom. Among these, one is chosen to serve as his Vicar, Successor of the Apostle Peter, but Christ is the centre, the fundamental reference, the heart of the Church! Without Him, neither Peter nor the Church would exist or have a reason for being. As Benedict XVI repeated often, Christ is present and leads His Church. In everything that has happened, the protagonist is, ultimately, the Holy Spirit. He has inspired Benedict XVI’s decision for the good of the Church; He has guided the cardinals in their prayers and in their election. Dear friends, it is important to take due account of this interpretive horizon, this hermeneutic, to bring the heart of the events of these days into focus.”

 Might we hope that those words would be printed out and pinned up over his or her desk by every journalist planning to write authoritatively about the Church in future? Without the perspective given in that message they will continue to write little better than worthless nonsense.

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.

It was amphitheater stuff

Extraordinary though it was, perhaps still more extraordinary was the world-wide response to the news. Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement of his abdication was truly historic. But for Catholics, for whom he has been for the past eight years the Vicar of Christ on earth, it was simply one more act carried out within the context of everything they believe about the nature and character of this office. For everyone else it was a strange and sensational event in a drama which is only half understood – if even that. For believing Catholics it was providential; for others it was a riddle to be grappled with, marveled at, even laughed at and for some an opportunity to grind once again any number of axes with which they have been trying to wound, if not slay, this man since he took office in 2005.

Twitter’s collapse under the weight of all this within minutes of the news breaking was just one of the indications of the reach of interest which the Catholic Church “enjoys”. Although venerated and loved by hundreds of millions, this universal body of believers is reviled by a significantly smaller number whose enmity and disdain is nourished by the powerful elite which dominates the Western world’s media.

It was not just Twitter and the other social media which carried this massive load of news, comment and analysis. Mainstream media, from the ridiculous to the prestigious, lined up friends and enemies of the Catholic Church in general, and Pope Benedict in particular, to do battle with each other. It really was amphitheater stuff. For the most part it was bewildering fare for any Catholic with an understanding of the Church and the office of its Supreme Pontiff.

One of these in particular, written two days after the event, seems to illustrate the phenomenon we are talking of. Ruth Marcus, Washington Post columnist, writing on Wednesday the 13th, used the whole event as a pretext to attack – politely on the surface but somewhat less so under the surface – the Catholic Church’s sacramental theology. Wielding her feminist weaponry she weighed in on the issue of the priesthood and took no prisoners in her attack on the pope and the Church for not permitting the priestly ordination of women.

What Marcus’ view of the Church – as well as what perhaps ninety percent of the entire media output surrounding this story – shows is the apparently unbridgeable gap between the worldview of those who see and subscribe to the existence of the happy marriage of faith and reason and those for whom reason alone is the standard by which to judge everything they see and experience.

Marcus and many more who consider themselves the apostles and apologists of modernity, those who – even while professing to be religious – cannot really comprehend what religion is about, are this kind of rationalist. But as was so clearly defined and explained by Joseph Ratzinger and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, this kind of absolute rationalist almost inevitably succumbs to relativism – and that road leads to many forms of nightmare.

Why do we say “professing to be religious”? Because for them religion  can only ever be a kind of social construct – something made by man for his own purposes, either for his consolation or to help him cope with his vague sense of the divine which will be there if he is in any way reflective.

These two worldviews now dominate Western civilization and in fact have generated two separate civilizations. These now live uneasily side by side but are currently producing all the signs of an impending conflict of dimensions not seen since the first Christians came into conflict with the Roman world, and before that, when the Judaic world came into conflict with the Hellenist forces of Antiochus and his successors.

Reading so much of the commentary generated around the impending event announced this week produces an inordinate sense of frustration in believing Christians. An enormous chasm seems to have opened up between those for whom God is a living Being who really does exist, and those for whom he is at best a vaguely perceived possible solution to some of the more persistent puzzles of our human condition.

For the former it is a theological truth that his essential mode of communication with the beings he has created is through the agency of grace and a gratuitous gift called Faith. For the latter this is nonsense. This renders any dialogue between them very fraught indeed.

Ruth Marcus’ difficulty in coping with the concept of the Catholic priesthood is just one illustration of the kind of impasse that divides these two civilizations. There are many, many more and they seem to multiply with each year that passes. Marcus has no concept, it seems, of what every faithful Catholic believes the sacraments are, what they do and how they came to be. If she did I think she would respect the right to believe and not denigrate that belief as something “backward” to which she then attributes numerous unworthy motives of greed, power, and rigidity. To her they are simply social constructs, now being held in place against the forces of modernity to preserve the hegemony of a male establishment over one half of humanity.

To faithful Catholics all the sacraments are a God-given foundation for their lives on this earth to help them on their way to eternal life. A Catholic – even if he is Pope –  will no more interfere with the sacrament of holy orders, its matter and form, than he or she will interfere with the matter (bread and wine) and form of the sacrament of the Eucharist, or with the sacrament of penance in which a penitent confesses his sins to an ordained priest to obtain absolution from God. Ruth Marcus version of modernity simply cannot comprehend such a system, but is at the same time not really prepared to tolerate its existence without denigration.

Another currently more fraught flash-point in the clash of these two civilizations just now is that of marriage. Divorce constituted the first redefinition of the institution which Christians believe was elevated to the level of a sacrament by the founder of their faith. For a Catholic, marriage remains an indissoluble bond, broken only be death. The arrangements of the state to provide for the legal dissolution of that bond have no real effect on that bond for the validly married Catholic. He or she who becomes the victim of a divorce forced on them remains married. This is incomprehensible to a brand of modernity. Equally incomprehensible to a Christian – as well as to many non-Christians, of course – is the redefinition of marriage now being pursued by some which declares that a marriage bond can be established between two human beings of the same sex. This defies not only their faith but also their rational grasp of human biology.

Marcus’ special axe is the feminist one. “The common chord of orthodox religions’ struggle against the tides of modernity involves women,” she writes, “specifically whether to loosen doctrinal restrictions on women.” She goes on to equate a current struggle between Jewish women who want to wear the tallit, a prayer shawl traditionally only worn by men, with Catholic women who want to be ordained as priests. For her it was a fitting coincidence that the latest skirmish in Israel on this issue occurred the same day that Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication.

 “One of the central questions facing the Catholic Church — one of the stances on which Benedict was most unrelenting and on which his successor is likely to be similarly rigid — is the ordination of women,” she wrote. Most of us would not have thought so, but perhaps if feminism is your big issue then it is.

Marcus thinks that the “rational move”, for a church facing a dire worldwide shortage of priests, would be to expand the pool of potential candidates. This concession to modernity would not be resisted by the faithful, she argues, “because polls in the United States and abroad show strong majorities in support of women serving as priests.” That is precisely where raw rationalism takes you. The Catholic Church has always had and always will have a shortage of priests in relation to the task of evangelization it has been given.

The goal of the Catholic Church is not a numerical one. It is the sanctity and salvation of each individual soul on this earth, one by one. The total headcount is incidental. Had it been otherwise Christ would have watered down his insistence on the Eucharist which caused a portion of his following “to walk no more with him”. Indeed, the rational thing for Christ to have done when he came into conflict with the religious authorities of his time would have been to seek some accommodation with them. He did not, because the truth he told took precedence over the modernity of his time.

She is also wrong about resistance. The “faithful” who would ignore the sacramental truths about priesthood would no longer be faithful. The faithful who live by these sacraments will be, if necessary, the remnant of Israel. They know that to abandon the sacraments, their essential matter and form, is to abandon their faith in Christ.

Marcus, in her opening observations mentions her daughter’s bat-mitzvah at which three generations of women wore the tallit – as did the presiding rabbi. That rabbi was also a woman. From there she goes on to talk of restrictions on women in the Catholic Church. Consider this. A rabbi is, as I understand it, essentially a teacher. The Catholic Church has down through the centuries had many teachers who were women – some of whom are formally recognized as doctors of the church. Among its greatest teachers and spiritual inspirations have been Catherine of Sienna, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Hildegaard of Bingen – and in our own time Edith Stein, Teresa of Calcutta and, dare I say it, Rita Antoinette Rizzo. Who? She who is better known as Mother Angelica. These women, and many like them, had no trouble emerging from the “restrictions” imposed on them by the Catholic Church.

But all this is poppy-cock to the ultra modernist. Modernity itself is not a problem for Christians. Indeed modernity is the air that they breathe and the substance of their mission. They were exhorted by the predecessor of Benedict XVI not to be afraid of it. But modernity divorced from faith and reason is a card of the wildest and most treacherous kind. Christians are challenged to read the world in the light of something beyond reason and with that “something” to redeem it. Faithful to their sacramental life in all its divine dimensions and the message of the gospel, they will. Sadly, those anchored in a world in which faith and reason remain divorced from one another, cannot comprehend the world of these others and if their power permits it they will inevitably ridicule them, marginalize them and condemn them to obscurity – or worse. But these others will still to hear those words, “Be not afraid”, and continue on regardless.

The counter-culture pendulum

In the 1960s Simone de Beauvoir was at the heart of the counter-culture of that age. As the Pope reminded us in his pre-Christmas address she advanced the then-radical view that one is not born a woman, but one becomes so – that sex was no longer an element of nature but a social role people chose for themselves. Her theory applied quid pro quo to men. She, with her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, were the icons of the sexual revolution.

Fifty years later who is the leader of the new counter-culture in the West? Pope Benedict XVI is the answer. In a half-century the cultural pendulum has swung so far in the direction of Simone de Beauvoir’s view that we can now look at a routine questionnaire from an agency as commonplace as Stockport Council in Manchester and find a question asking “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned with at birth?”

In the 1950s and ‘60s the killing of babies in the womb was a crime, an offence against the person in the legislation of most Western countries. A map of the world then, showing where a child in the womb was considered to be a human being, is a radically different one form a similar map today. The international uproar reflected in media across the globe in the aftermath of the death of Savita Halappavanar in an Irish hospital last November – where it was alleged, without any reliable evidence, that she died because she was refused an abortion – was an astounding snapshot of the cultural and moral change which has taken place. With a total disregard for the facts of the case – and for the truth that Ireland’s maternity hospitals are among the safest places in the world for both mothers and children –  the country was branded a pariah among the nations for its refusal to buy into a culture which legislates for the wanton destruction of human life in the womb. But ever there now, its PC-conscious political establishment seems determined to go with the flow and succumb to the concerted pressure for the international media, the UN, the EU – and Hilary Clinton.

Add to this the gradual acceptance of homosexual activity as just one more mode of sexual expression, along with the knock-on effect this is having on definitions of family and marriage, and you see that the social and cultural conventions of Western society have experienced a seismic shift. And who stands firm in the face of this? The Catholic Church and its moral leaders of the past 50 years – Pope Pau VI whose encyclical Humanae Vitae affirmed the anthropologically and moral foundations of its teaching on the nature and purpose of human sexuality; Pope John Paul II whose 27 years of tireless teaching and pastoral activity reaffirmed and developed the culture of life; and now Pope Benedict XVI whom only the blind – and there are multitudes of them – will not acknowledge as the leading public intellectual of our time.

All of them have done so in the face of near constant opposition from the spokespersons of the new conventional wisdom. Furthermore, Pope Benedict now does so in the face of triumphant cries of victory from the forces opposing this teaching. It might seem that the scheme laid out by Mammon for a new post-paradise world in John Milton’ Paradise Lost has come to pass as the Masters of this world seek to turn the desert of relativism into some kind of Heaven.

As he our darkness, cannot we his Light
Imitate when we please? This Desart soile
Wants not her hidden lustre;
Nor want we skill or Art, from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heav’n shew more?

But Pope Benedict is having none of it. He knows that those “Gemms and Gold” are disastrous illusions.  Recognising that at the heart of the new rebellion against God there is fundamentally a rebellion against man himself, he focused in that pre-Christmas address on the fear of commitment to anyone other than “self” in the modern world. Rhetorically he asked questions about the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment which today is at the very heart of the cultural and moral divide in the West and which have has so much bearing on the threatened destruction of marriage and the family.

“Can one bind oneself for a lifetime?” He asked. “Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for?

“Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”

“In the fight for the family, the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question,” the Pope said in his address . “The question of the family … is the question of what it means to be a man, and what it is necessary to do to be true men,” he said.

The craziness of gender theory, craziness of the kind exemplified in the thinking of those Stockport councillors, is central to the craziness which is seeking to redefine marriage. But it is a mere by- product of the attempt to redefine human nature itself.

The Pope spoke of the “falseness” of gender theories and drew on the wisdom of France’s chief Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, who has spoken out against gay marriage. “Bernheim”, he said, “has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper.”

The Pope supports Bernheim’s thesis that up to  now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, but that it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. For him this is exemplified in de Beauvoir’s infamous dictum: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient).

These words, outrageous when they were uttered and seen as such by the vast majority, are now no longer so. Anything professed to the contrary is now done so at one’s peril. To get evidence of that all you have to do is to survey the international media uproar in response to the Pope’s address.

De Beauvoir’s dictum has laid “the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality,” the Pope said.  “According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

“The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves…”

“The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation.

“Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”

France’s parliament is to debate the government-backed “marriage for all” bill early next year. With President Francois Hollande’s Socialists enjoying a strong majority, the bill is expected to pass despite opposition from the right and religious groups. In Britain the Conservative Party is getting itself tied up in knots over the issue as it leads Parliament into a vote on the which with unquestioned backing across the house it will inevitably win. The Administration in the US is driving the country in the same direction while in Ireland the political establishment has clearly bought into the same political consensus.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church, now truly counter-cultural, stands firmly by its teaching on the right to life, on human sexuality generally, on marriage and the family. It did so two thousand years ago, it has had to do so many times in the intervening centuries and it now has to do so again. That it might find itself doing so in a wilderness, surrounded by Mammon’s false “Heaven” on earth, will not deter it. That again would be nothing new.

Here and there…on September 30

With hindsight revolutions can look very organised things. We think of them as great turning-points. They may be that but the way they turn is never something certain and determined – as it might seem to have been when we get down to writing history.

The so-called “Arab Spring” is one such phenomenon. There is no question but that what we are watching there is a kaleidoscope of turning-points across North Africa and the Middle East. But who can dare say what the final outcomes will be in those diverse locations. Some might prove to be a flourishing Springtime indeed, but there are real and justified fears that others will result in long cold Winters.

A conference of 30 representatives of Justice and Peace commissions representing European Bishop’s Conferences met in Malta recently to work out some policy options on this phenomenon but failed to solve the quandary which these events always present to outside interested parties when it comes to doing something practical.

But there is good advice. Firstly, don’t apply “trivialising stereotypes” to these events which for so many are literally a matter of life and death. So perhaps we should drop the simplistic “Arab Spring” altogether. Secondly, – and this is where the quandary appears – respect the right of other nations to define democracy in accordance with their traditions and religious beliefs but  at the same time don’t ignore the “need to protect dignity and human rights.”

We could do with a little more of this respect on our home turf as well.

It was all precisely what  the Pope stressed in his visit to the Lebanon – the  importance of working to ensure “that cultural, social and religious differences are resolved in sincere dialogue, a new fraternity, where what unites us is a shared sense of the greatness and dignity of each person, whose life must always be safeguarded and protected.”

Reports are that Pope Benedict XVI is getting it hot and heavy in cyberspace. Andrea Tornelli, the sharpest of sharp Vatican journalists tells us that the Italian reputation management company Reputation Manager has demonstrated this in a study published recently. Using its software system and a dedicated team of editorial staff for the analysis of data relating to the Italian web world, including social media, Reputation Manager compared the digital identities of Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama. The Buddhist leader gets a much easier ride. Surprise, surprise.

I don’t know what Buddha promised his followers, but we do know what Josef Rattzinger signedup for when he nailed his colours to the mast: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6, 24-26). The true disciples of Jesus are, in fact, a sign of contradiction: “If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world (…) therefore the world hateth you- (…) If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15, 18-20).

So popularity is not what this is all about. Nevertheless, perhaps we need a few more cyber-Christians out there taking on the detractors.

Jeremy O’Grady, editor-in-chief of The Week, draws our attention to an interesting contrast in media coverage of two recent events.  While there are general cries for “free speech” in the commentary on the trailer for the film The Innocence of Muslims which has provoked such outrage across the Islamic World and the deaths of many, including the US ambassador in Libya, there is a whiff of cowardice on the part of the media as well.

There is, he says, much talk about the appropriate policy reaction. Some say governments are is unduly restricting freedom of expression but others that there is too little restriction. But he points out that government are not the key players in this hue and cry at all. “Scouring newspaper web-sites,” he point out, “I can’t find one that has embedded an extract of the offending trailer, an Exhibit A that would let viewers gauge why and whether it warranted so much fuss. Contrast that with the treatment of Piss Christ, the 1989 work, deeply offensive to Christians, of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. It’s being exhibited in a Manhattan gallery this week, and to illustrate the news story behind it, every other website has a picture of it. Free expression? This isn’t a question of policy; it’s a question of fear. The sword is mightier than the pen: that’s the truth journalists prefer to deny.” Well said Jeremy. As George Orwell said, to see what is in front of our noses requires a constant struggle.

The Spirit of the Maccabees

The history of the Jewish people tells the story of what is regarded as the first religious persecution of the Graeco-Roman world. This is the account of the ruthless, brutal but ultimately futile attempt by Antiochus IV to Hellenise the culture of the Jews by destroying their own religion. The biblical version of the story, contained in 1 and 2 Macabees, recounts an event which typifies the persecution at its height – the martyrdom of a widow and her seven sons who refuse to deny their God and submit to the self-styled god-ruler, Antiochus. The story of the persecution culminates with the eventual revolt against the persecution by the old priest, Mattathias and the subsequent war against the tyrant led by his son, Judas Maccabeus.

It is a story which resonates down through history, century after century, millennium after millennium. It still does so today. Pope Benedict XVI might well be a latter-day Mattathias when he recently exhorted his brother bishops of the United States of America to resist the encroachments of what he even suggests may be a new tyranny facing those who put a value on their religion to the extent that they see it as an essential part of their very way of being in this world.

When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.

Pope Benedict, speaking to the US bishops on their recent visit to Rome, reflected on America’s historical experience of religious freedom, and specifically the relationship between religion and culture. At the heart of every culture, the Pope said, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus…was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.

Pope Benedict spoke to the bishops of the United States but he might equally have said this to all the bishops and all the Christians of the wider Anglo-world – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Ireland. In all these countries a clear agenda is emerging from the dominant political classes which is not only seeking to “liberalise” laws and custom but is seeking to marginalise out of existence any who seek to live by and speak out in favour of another way, a way which they argue is the one which best serves mankind’s true flourishing.

Just recently in Ireland, a member of the Dáil (the country’s lower house of parliament), Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said to be a ”major influence” on the Education Minister, Rory Quinn, spoke openly to The Irish Catholic newspaper, saying ”that religious ethos has no place in the educational system of a modern republic”. The remarks follow an accusation by the Labour Party that Catholic schools are breaking the law over enrolment policies in the way that they admit Catholic children to their classrooms.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said  ”I see no reason for to give a faith-based school any protection” to ensure that it can fulfil its mission to provide a faith-based education in line with the denominational ethos of the school by way of an admissions policy.

Dr John Murray of Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute of Education said the Labour move amounted to an attempt to ”intimidate” the schools. ”It is nothing less than an attack on the religious freedom of denominational schools,” he said. Nor did he see it as just a Catholic issue: ”A curb on the enrolment policy of denominational schools would hit Church of Ireland schools particularly hard because Church of Ireland children are often a small minority in their own communities and if their schools couldn’t admit Church of Ireland children first, then they would face the prospect of having to turn away the very children they were established to serve,” he said.

Mr Ó Ríordáin’s views do nothing to reassure Christian denominations of the sincerity of Minister Quinn’s words a few months ago that ”religious education will have an important place in the future of education in Ireland”. Minister Quinn makes no secret of his atheistic secularism. In his view Ireland is a post-Christian society in the making – if not already made.

In some critical instances, of course, laws and constitutional roadblocks are thwarting this process – Ireland’s Constitution has so far successfully protected her society from abortion on demand. However, this remains constantly under pressure and the present Irish government’s recently established “expert” study group looking into the matter is now the focus of national and international media speculation as to whether or not the pro-abortion lobby will eventually succeed in getting the legislation it wants.

The remodelling of the Irish education system, a system which currently has a strong commitment to education in a context of religious faith, is another plank on the secularist platform.  There are more. All these planks are designed to chip away and erode the overall Christian cultural ethos of the society. The most sinister of all is probably the one to which the Pope himself refers in his address – the drive to push out of the public square anyone who speaks of ideas which connect in any way with their religious faith.

This agenda, for example, concedes no rights to a Church which, in Benedict’s words, alluding to Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10). To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God.

The people driving this agenda have no time for the Pope’s justification of the Church’s defence of a moral reasoning based on the natural law and grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. Nor do they believe him when he says that the Church proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future.

The Pope agues coherently that the Church’s witness is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.

Benedict XVI does not mince his words and has no qualms about describing what he sees as grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.

Of particular concern to him are the attempts he sees being made to limit the freedom of religion. In the American context he alludes to concerted efforts being made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

To help counter all this the Pope calls for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. His call can apply to all societies which have the right to call themselves genuinely democratic.

He concluded his address: No one … can ignore the genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment. Yet in faith we can take heart from the growing awareness of the need to preserve a civil order clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as from the promise offered by a new generation of Catholics whose experience and convictions will have a decisive role in renewing the Church’s presence and witness in American society. The hope which these “signs of the times” give us is itself a reason to renew our efforts to mobilize the intellectual and moral resources of the entire Catholic community in the service of the evangelization of American culture and the building of the civilization of love.

Things are unlikely to get as bad as they were when the Jewish people faced the forces of Hellinisation some 2200 years ago. Nevertheless the spirit of Mattathias and his sons, expressed in different ways and with different means, seems to be very much what the Pope is calling for  – and not just in America but right across the Anglo-world.

In Search of the Great Poem of the Earth

One of the fundamental characteristics of what we call “modernism”, that cultural shift in the way we see the world, ourselves and our condition, was the celebration of the ordinary – ordinary life, ordinary work, ordinary people and the ordinary things they do. Not everything about the “modern movement” – which began over 100 years ago – was a boon to humanity. For Christians one dimension of modernism made a total muddle of theology and bears a big share of the blame for the creation of that “desert of relativism” of which Pope Benedict XVI speaks. But surely a vision of the ordinary things of life, liberated from the realm of the hum-drum and the boring is something to rejoice in?

This positive dimension of our modern sensibility was taken up in a paper I read recently by an American professor teaching in Rome. Professor John Paul Wauck, speaking to a congress on Poetics and Christianity there, spoke of a change in how Christians now see ordinary life. He described this change as “a genuine revolution” in terms of ascetical theology and found it epitomised in the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá when he wrote that the Christian vocation, “consists in making heroic verse out of the prose of each day.” Those words, along with all his teaching, moved Blessed Pope John Paul II to proclaim Escrivá “the saint of the ordinary” on the occasion of his canonisation in 2002.

Wauck was, however, setting out to explore another dimension of modernity’s celebration of the ordinary – how this celebration in general, and this theological revolution in particular, seemed to have to struggle to make its way into literature. He set out to look at how literature and ordinary life stand in relation to one another, and more particularly, to look at how Christian faith might affect that relationship. “Ultimately,” he said, “the question I hope to raise is whether a change in how Christians see ordinary life could change the way we see, read and write literature.”

Professor Wauck seems to suggest that there is a conspiracy against the ordinary in a great deal of literature, and particularly in the classics, ancient and modern, against the celebration of the ordinary. This conspiracy is rooted in our apparent deep attraction to what we see as the heroic. He speaks ofthe tension between the thirst for the heroic, grand, ecstatic life and the reality of the life we actually live, with its humbler virtues.”  He quotes Charles Taylor (in his book, Sources of the Self, p.422):

We are in conflict, even confusion, about what it means to affirm ordinary life…. We are as ambivalent about heroism as we are about the value of the workaday goals that it sacrifices. We struggle to hold on to a vision of the incomparably higher, while being true to the central modern insights about the value of the ordinary life. We sympathize with both the hero and the anti-hero; and we dream of a world in which one could be, in the same act, both.”

To develop his point, Wauck draws on the work of the American writer, Walker Percy, a convert to Catholicism, quoting his biographer, Jay Tolson: “The horror of ‘dailiness’ is in fact the starting point for many of Walker Percy’s novels, and if it is not the central problem for many of Walker Percy’s works it is always at least one of the problems.”

“Tolson”, Wauck says, “uses the word ‘horror’ advisedly, for Percy does not mince words:

‘[A]s Einstein once said, ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world is a dreary business. I mean dreary. People will do anything to escape this dreariness: booze up, hit the road, gaze at fatal car wrecks, shoot up heroin, spend money on gurus, watch pornographic movies, kill themselves, even watch TV. Einstein said that was the reason he went into mathematical physics.’”

 How many of us, when we pick up our papers to read the news, are drawn to the “great” events, the exceptional, the extra-ordinary? Is that not the definition of news? Not many of us have the insight which moved the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh to write his poem, “Epic”, written in late 1938:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided : who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.


I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”

And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen

Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –

“Here is the march along these iron stones.”


That was the year of the Munich bother. Which

Was most important ? I inclined

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.

He said : I made the Iliad from such

A local row. Gods make their own importance.

And so does God. The mite of the widow tossed into the Temple collection box looked like a very small and ordinary thing. It is now, for all mankind, a symbol of heroic detachment and sacrifice.

But for Kavanagh’s ordinary Monaghan farmers, fighting over scraps of land, this was warfare. In some ways fighting has raised the stakes in the human imagination, lifting our actions out of the realm of the ordinary and into the heroic. Wauck alludes to this when he again cites Percy’s observations about our struggle with the ordinary. “The apparent emptiness of ordinary  life is only intensified by our occasional tastes of the extraordinary, dramatic and heroic – nowhere more typically experienced, as Percy was keenly aware, than in that timeless feature of heroic literature, warfare.”

But if literature in general has had problems coping with the ordinary, literature in the context of Christian faith is where he finds the greatest challenge. The revolution in ascetic theology has still, he feels, to translate into the realm of Christian literature. He asks, “If Christianity offers an answer to the dilemma of ordinary life on the existential level, might it not also open up new possibilities for capturing the grandeur of ordinary life in literature?” The perception is that clearly it has not done so yet.

He illustrates the problem by quoting a letter from the non-believing American novelist, Shelby Foote, to Walker Percy who was his friend, in which he says: show me a Catholic writer who doesn’t write about doubt, putting God in scare-quotes, but instead handles religion with the matter-of-factness of Maupassant writing about sex. Certainly the oeuvre in Catholic Ireland’s substantial literary canon would seem to bear out the validity of that challenge.

But even in this Irish context, there are exceptions. The later novels of John McGahern – Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun – show not only a wonderful and delightful portrayal of the lives of simple and ordinary people in rural and small-town Ireland, but also show them in the simple practice of their Catholic faith. In these novels – written over the last years of McGahern’s life – there is the full spectrum of the faithful, the unfaithful, and those with doubts, but all are sympathetically and authentically presented in ways which do not diminish the glorious ordinariness of their lives and their communities.

However, that being relatively exceptional, Wauck’s speculations remain very pertinent.  “How might one, then, in practice,” he asks, “convey the heroism of ordinary Christian life? To appreciate the difficulty, consider, for example, the following point from The Way by Saint Josemaría Escrivá, the champion of sanctity in ordinary life:”

We were reading – you and I – the heroically ordinary life of that man of

God.  And we saw him struggle whole months and years (what an “accounting”

he kept in his particular examination of conscience!) one day at breakfast he

would win, the next day he’d lose…. “I didn’t take butter… I did take butter!”

he would jot down.

May we too – you and I – live our…. “drama” of the butter.

The protagonist of this little drama was an Irish Jesuit priest, Fr. Willie Doyle, who went on to die a more traditionally heroic death in the trenches of the Great War where he served as a chaplain in the British Army. It was, however, the “butter” drama of his daily interior struggle which appealed to Escrivá as an example for ordinary Christians in their own struggles to live lives pleasing to God.

John Paul Wauck speculates at the end of his lecture that perhaps it is not possible to directly portray the grandeur of an ordinary Christian life. “Perhaps the ordinary is not meant to be the subject of great Christian literature. I can think of no a priori reason why it has to be.

And yet, might it not be that, by and large, Christians simply haven’t tried to capture the drama of ordinary life? Are there really no heroes and villains, sorrows and joys, dangers and dramas to describe in day-to-day Christian existence, or are we simply refusing or failing to see them? We do, after all, in principle, believe that each Christian, every day, at home, in the office, on the street, is walking on a battlefield – a battlefield where the stakes are very high, higher even than mere life and death. That same Christian is also, at the same time, caught up in an extraordinary love story – a love affair with a God who is willing to die for him, Who gives Himself to him as food to eat every day. That same Christian is on a journey that will take him farther than Dante’s Ulysses ever dreamed of travelling.

I for one resist the idea that we are still living under the sign of Boileau (French poet of the 17th century),  who said that the mysteries of the faith are ‘too majestic to be represented in a work of art.’”

“The project that lies ahead of us” he suggests, “seems to have been glimpsed already by

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who wrote that “the great poems of heaven and

hell have been written, and the great poem of earth remains to be written.”

To put it another way: where, we might ask, is the Dante of this world? Surely,

it would be an odd thing for a Christian to maintain that Homer and Virgil have

exhausted what there is to say about the earth.”  Patrick Kavanagh would agree.

(John Paul Wauck studied renaissance history and literature at Harvard and lives in Rome, where he is a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. His very substantial paper may be read at .)

With friends like this….thoughts on P.C. own goals

Over the past few years Christmas has become a bit of a battlefield between those who value the customs and traditions we associate with the season and the P.C. brigades. While some of the age-old traditions might seem to be on the losing side, all is not as it might seem. With their blatant excesses the “politically correct” may be their own worst enemies in the long run. The latest that caught the eye was in the school in Britain where little children were singing – hopefully Advent carols – about Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem. They were stopped and told to change the lyrics for fear that someone might be offended.  In the original words they sang, “little donkey, carry Mary safely on her way.” This was far too explicitly Christian, they were told – Mary was the offending word, – and were ordered to change the lyrics to “carry Lucy safely on her way.” With friends like this the multi-culturalists don’t need enemies. They are so devoid of logic and common sense that they inevitably bring down so much ridicule on their heads that sensible people – who are really in the majority when they put their minds to it – see through their folly and begin to think again for themselves. They even begin to find their way back home. This is probably part of what happened over the past few Christmases. A survey just reported on has found that in spite of all the multicultural ballyhoo about Christmas being “offensive” to non-Christians, in spite of all the rampant materialism which invades this most spiritual of seasons, in spite of all the consumption and self-indulgence, Church attendance at Christmas services in Britain has gone up 15 percent since the beginning of this millennium. There are, presumably, multiple factors contributing to this – among them the influx of Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe – but surely the folly about Lucy, added to the follies we read about when schools feel they have to avoid putting on Nativity plays because they might offend non-Christians, must be making people think. Do some of not them say to themselves, “how dare they try to take our valued traditions away from us?” Is it any wonder that parents might decide to bring their children to something which will speak to them of the event which is at the heart of our very civilization? Perhaps there is also in this something of a reaction to the onslaught of Richard Dawkins – and his cohorts –  over the past few years, branding us all as deluded – if not dangerous – dreamers. The great advantage of being challenged is that it makes people think and thinking then may urge them to act. OK, this is just Christmas attendance at a communal celebration of faith. The attendance at services throughout the rest of the year is still in decline. But this is a celebration of when it all started and perhaps it may help a lot of people to start all over again.  Bring it on!


 Not too far removed from all that was the spectacular own-goal by the pseudo liberals in La Sapienza University in Rome who made themselves the laughing stock of Europe by insulting the Pope after Christmas. Last time it was Muslims who were up in arms when Pope Benedict quoted a medieval Emperor’s not too flattering question about Islam’s contribution to religion. This year it was the “intellectuals” of  La Sapienza who staged a protest sit-in when the Pope was invited to address the university. His crime? He had quoted – 18 years ago –  an Austrian philosopher who had the temerity to suggest that Galileo’s treatment at his trial was “reasonable and fair” by the standards of the time. The Pope’s office responded with dignity and issued a statement saying that “Following incidents known to all” it seemed best to cancel the event to which the Rector had invited him. “However,” it went on, “the Holy Father will send the university authorities a copy of the address he intended to give.” And what an address! It must have heaped coals on the heads of the silly protestors. He spoke of truth, goodness and the proper relationship between the Church of God and the university in which men sought above all to search for these things in freedom. 

“What does the Pope have to do with, or have to say to the university”, he asked? “Surely he must not attempt to impose the faith on others in an authoritarian way since it can only be bestowed in freedom. Beyond his office as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral office, there is his duty to keep the sensitivity to truth alive; to continually invite reason to seek out the true, the good, God, and on this path, to urge it to glimpse the helpful lights that shine forth in the history of the Christian faith, and in this way to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us to find the way to the future.”


This, and the 200,000 people from all over Italy, intellectuals, politicians, ordinary people, who turned up in St. Peter’s Square on January 20, to categorically disassociate themselves from the clique who had insulted the Pope and shamed the University, was a perfect response to a shameful folly.