Friday, December 14, 2007

Spe Salvi

I am, says God, the Master of the Three Virtues

Faith is a faithful wife
Charity is an ardent mother
But hope is a tiny girl.

I am, says God, the Master of the Virtues.

Faith is she who remains steadfast during centuries and centuries.
Charity is she who gives herself during centuries and centuries.
But my little hope is she
Who rises every morning.

I am, says God, the Master of the Virtues.

Faith is she who remains tense during centuries and centuries.
Charity is she who unbends during centuries and centuries.
But my little hope
is she who every morning
wishes us good day.

I am, says God, the Master of the Virtues.

Faith is a church, a cathedral rooted in the soil of France.
Charity is a hospital, an almshouse which gathers up the miseries of the world.
But if it weren't for hope, all that would be nothing but a cemetery....

Hope is the shoot, and the bud of the bloom
Of eternity itself.

Charles Peguy (1873-1914), Hope

Back Again

The general craziness of part-time study, full-time work and a daughter doing her final year of school has kept me a away for a couple of months. Back on deck!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Separating the men from the boys

A rare example of a grown-up voice in today's media:

Cardinal Pell replied scathingly that church leaders should be allergic to nonsense. "My task as a Christian leader is to engage with reality, to contribute to debate on important issues, to open people's minds and to point out when the emperor is wearing few or no clothes," he said.

And what precipitated this outburst of common sense?
Canberra Bishop George Browning, the Anglican Church's global environmental chief said Cardinal Pell was out of step with his own church and made no sense on global warming.

Heaven forbid - "out of step"! The cardinal* vice of the post-modern Christian!

Archbishop Pell recently applied a tincture of scientific scepticism to Browning's pet cause - global warming - and has even questioned the motives of the statist quasi-moralists who have crowded into it.
"Radical environmentalists are more than up to the task of moralising their own agenda and imposing it on people through fear. They don't need church leaders to help them with this, although it is a very effective way of further muting Christian witness," he [Cardinal Pell] said.

Like all paganism, the pagan cult of environmentalism is ultimately motivated by fear and the spirit of slaves, as its consistent tone of panic and irrationalism ("act now, think later") shows. Its purpose is to create an environment where clear thought and open discussion is impossible, and to achieve a political majority that can trump rational argument.

Browning's strategy of harnessing Christian faith to this unequal partner is bound to end in tears. The spirit of slaves and a spirit of sons can have nothing to do with each other, and sooner or later we must choose.

If there is a global warming problem (and that still is an 'if', because surveys of climate scientists show a diversity of views on the subject) we will face the challenge far more effectively if we employ Cardinal Pell's cool scepticism than if we succumb to Bishop Browning's agitprop.

Who do we have more confidence in: the man or the boy?

* Yes, pun intended. Sorry.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Heroic virtue

Virtue is purchased cheap these days:

"ONE day each year Rupert Murdoch stands before an auditorium filled with shareholders of his global media company, News Corporation.

In the past he has received a frosty reception with complaints about an underperforming share price, anti-takeover poison pills, nepotism and questionable investments.

It was not so chilly today......

Even a Franciscan monk had nice things to say about the mogul. The monk, Father Michael Crosby, who in the past has taken American entertainment corporations to task for depicting smoking in movies they produce, congratulated News Corp's movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, for its impressive anti-smoking policy in its films. "

I suppose that discouraging smoking isn't a bad thing. But don't we have the right to expect a little more from someone receiving the praise of a follower of St Francis? Perhaps Rupert might strip stark naked and hand his clothes back to his shareholders...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Welcoming the Stranger

The announcement that the Government will cut the Sudanese refugee intake this year has precipitated a storm of protest and counter-protest. This has got me thinking about the Government's rights (and responsibilities) in this vexed area.

On one hand, we have those who draw on the scriptural admonition to welcome the stranger in our midst. On the other, we have those who argue that "we should determine who comes here".

The contest is not a simple one between a scriptural and a worldly principle. Those who argue that we should control our immigration also have scriptural support, especially St Paul's acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the use of the "sword" by the state. This includes border control. The authority of the state is ordained by God, and what exists legitimately can be exercised legitimately.

Of course, it can also be exercised illegitimately. I would place the Pacific Solution in this category. Other means to control people smuggling should have been used. But there is nothing inherently wrong with the Government varying the refugee intake according to Australia's capacity to integrate new arrivals. The strain that is placed on existing communities is a legitimate state concern, and this cannot always be addressed with extra financial resources. This is not prima facie evidence of racism.

I am not offering an analysis here, but I do think that the whole scriptural and traditional resource of the Church should be brought to bear on the issue, not just single proof-texts. It is too simple to insist only that we have a duty of hospitality - those with secular authority have other issues to consider as well, and have the responsibility to do so.

So is Kevin Andrews a racist? I don't have a clue. But I have one question for him. Why was this particular change to the refugee intake announced so publicly, when others have not been? And why now? Even if a policy is legitimate, the announcement may have had other purposes. I hope it did not.

We've made a few... changes

After a brief fifteen minutes of fame, the fuss over Catholica's petition to reconsider the issue of married and female priests has died down. Despite a manful effort by the usual suspects, it now seems unlikely that the Australian Church is the tinderbox of radical reform some would hope, and no wave of reforming zeal will sweep over it. Thank God.

I don't spend much time responding to such interventions. Life is too short to waste. But I cannot help but notice what a tame affair these reforms always are, and how predictable. All will be well, we are told, as long as priests are ladies, and priests get laid. Two nostrums that have worked so wonderfully in the mainline Protestant churches, which will have withered by the end of this century.

There are around 50 applications for the newly-instituted diaconate in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Fifty! We have an abundance of pastoral resources, if we would only use them.

On the other hand, if we're going to sell out to the prevailing culture, let's do it properly. It's about time these amateurs stood aside for the professionals...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"It cries, because it doesn't know what is it all for..."

Helium gas is great fun at parties. Anyone can do the Donald Duck voice.

But at a temperature of -271C, helium undergoes a strange transformation, turning into helium II, a "superfluid".

If ordinary helium were a light beam, then helium II would be a laser. The helium atoms "line up" in a single quantum state, eliminating all viscosity. It can therefore flow through the smallest holes.

Even odder, it will not stay inside its vessel. It climbs the side of the jar, and "tears" of helium II flow down the outside.

This video of helium II experiments is in Polish, with rather off-beat English subtitles. It concludes:

"It cries, because it doesn't know what is it all for...".

For some reason, I find this strangely moving . I don't know why.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Umpire Strikes Back

The institution of a new liturgical role is a rare event, but this one is very welcome. Hats off to Cardinal Arinze.

I rather fancy myself in the role. Where do I apply?

Friday, September 28, 2007

The True Protagonist of History is the Beggar

"The true protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ." - Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion & Liberation movement.
Mother Teresa's struggle with her long, dark night of the soul is not fresh news. The surprising fact of this struggle was revealed several years ago as her cause for beatification proceeded, and I recall reading a moving article at First Things on the subject perhaps three years ago.

The reaction of the secular press was bewilderment and disillusionment in equal measures. Bewilderment amongst those who had assumed that sainthood was a blissful experience, and disillusionment amongst those who concluded that Teresa could not have been a real saint after all.

What both of these errors shared was the underlying assumption that a relationship with God was primarily a matter of worldly success, a utilitarian choice designed to maximise pleasure and reduce pain, an experience no different in principle from the experience of purely human comfort.

Our relationship with God is linked to an experience, but not an experience of this kind.

The beginning of our relationship with God is, paradoxically, the painful experience of our fallen, limited humanity. If we are serious about our desire to follow God, then we immediately experience the loneliness of our own inadequacy. This jarring sense of impotence and solitude is the first sign of our spiritual maturity: "Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man...".

When St Peter spoke those words, Christ's response was to promise him that he would become a great fisher of men. Like Christ, we should not despise our own frailty. On the contrary, our frailty is the very means God uses to open us up to his grace, if only we will listen to our frailty, enter into it, and place our trust in him.

The distractions of a frivolous consumer culture, the banalities of the purely career-driven life, and the delusions of Nietzschean self-creation are driven by the desire to deny this frailty, and reassert a false self that (we convince ourselves) we have created through our own efforts and merits. Dust and ashes. Whatever we are is, by definition, not created by us, but by something prior to us and greater than us.

And if we finally go to God with this false self, denying our true self, we will hear those terrible words: "I never knew you...".

Our true self is this frail creature that cannot lift its own head before the demands of godly perfection. We are truly ourselves only when we are open to our gaping, crying need, our divine hunger for the divine that we can never satisfy by ourselves. Only then does our faith really mean something: when, like the beggar, we know how great is our need, and we trust God to fill it.

Through this painful darkness we are led towards a greater light; in terror, in wonder, in gratitude.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Indulge me

If you, like me, have been brought up in the English-speaking world, all that you know about indulgences will have been cribbed from anti-Catholic propaganda. This is a great loss. The Church's authority to forgive sins, and forgive the temporal punishment of sin, has always been there, and remains a potent help in our growth towards holiness.

This excellent post by the Historical Christian sums up the practice of partial and plenary indulgences:

"The Church has granted three types of general indulgences, each extensively supported with scripture references in the Handbook, that may be done on a daily basis, several times a day or constantly throughout the day. The first is this:

"A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation.

"This is so simple. It can be done everyday, and several times a day. In fact, if we are really striving to live for Christ, we’re already doing part of it: enduring the difficulties of life while trusting in God. We just need to add to it: the intention of receiving an indulgence, being aware of our littleness, our sinfulness and inadequacy before God, and making a “pious invocation,” such as “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or “Jesus, I trust in you.” The Handbook has a whole list of invocations; or you can make up your own.

"If we just did this one thing on a regular, daily basis, several times a day as we went through our day, how our lives would change, and how we would grow and deepen in humility, prayer, and trust in God. Which of course is exactly the intention of indulgences, as the Church has spelled it out.

"If a majority of Catholics would do this, imagine how it would transform the life of the Church. As explained, sin affects the whole Body, for the worse. But holiness also affects the Body – for the better. If we receive the benefits of indulgences, we will not only improve our own spiritual health, we will improve the overall health of the whole Body, by aiding in removing the mystical, temporal effects of sin that weigh her down and disfigure her, and so lighten and uplift the whole Body, by our personal growth in holiness.

"Here is the second general indulgence:

"A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, prompted by a spirit of faith, devote themselves or their goods in compassionate service to their brothers and sisters in need.

"This can include both corporeal and spiritual works of mercy, helping with both material and spiritual needs, such as giving food or clothing to the poor, or counseling, teaching, or praying for those in need. And if we did this on a regular, daily basis, how it would help us grow in selflessness, and love and concern for others.

"The third general indulgence:

"A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penitence, voluntarily abstain from something which is licit for and pleasing to them.

"If we did this on a daily basis, how we would grow in a spirit of poverty and simplicity, overcome gluttony and strong personal preferences, detach ourselves from sensuality and the world, and learn to focus so much more on God, our true happiness and providence.

"All three of these are so simple, and embody the Christian spirit of trusting in and loving God, and loving and serving others, in a spirit of poverty and detachment from the world. And if we do so with awareness of our own sinfulness, imploring God for His indulgence, how He will indulge us with the increasing grace of Christ! “Ask, and it will be given you. . . . How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:7, 11b)"

In other words: prayer, charity and self-denial. Not rocket science.

Read the whole thing to find out about "indulgences on steroids" i.e. plenary indulgences!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

King of Glory

Everyone who knows me well, also knows about my unreasoning hatred of liturgical dance.

The "unreasoning" bit is important. If you have to think about whether you hate liturgical dancing, your judgement is already suspect.

I'll leave Stephen Colbert to make the clinching argument...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Snow Queen

"Once upon a time there was a wicked sprite, indeed he was the most mischievous of all sprites. One day he was in a very good humor, for he had made a mirror with the power of causing all that was good and beautiful when it was reflected therein, to look poor and mean; but that which was good-for-nothing and looked ugly was shown magnified and increased in ugliness...

"That's glorious fun!" said the sprite. If a good thought passed through a man's mind, then a grin was seen in the mirror, and the sprite laughed heartily at his clever discovery. All the little sprites who went to his school--for he kept a sprite school--told each other that a miracle had happened; and that now only, as they thought, it would be possible to see how the world really looked. They ran about with the mirror; and at last there was not a land or a person who was not represented distorted in the mirror. " The Snow Queen, Hans Christian Andersen

Catholic dissent is driven by a sense of grievance. The person who rejects the teaching of the Church does as a demand for justice, for their "due" as they conceive it. This is no surprise. No-one consciously desires the bad. Everyone desires the good, or at least what they conceive of as the good. And justice is one of the highest natural goods.

Both liberal progressives and conservative vigilantes share this vice. Each conceives of themselves as serving the good better than the Church ever could, the first calling the Church harsh, the second lax, but agreeing that the Church fails in justice.

But to call the Church unjust strikes at the heart of what it is to be Catholic, and the Catholic who makes this accusation is always in danger of falling into open apostasy. Consciously or not, this Catholic will claim to reject not the magisterium, but its unjust or imprudent exercise, denying the accusation of apostasy. A certain equilibrium is recovered, but this move comes at a cost.

If the magisterium is not motivated by justice or prudence, all that is left is to claim that it is motivated by power (the possibility of motivation by grace, in both its strictness and generosity, having never been considered). For this reason, much of the language of debate is couched in terms of power: criticism of monarchical popes or bishops, demands for more democratic decision-making, claims to determine what is authentically Catholic and what isn't on personal "authority", along with talk of "taking back the Church", and purging "dead wood".

But an authentic Catholicism can never see the Church as an exercise of power. To see the Church as a political institution is to see it reflected in a false mirror, which will ultimately make "all that was good and beautiful when it was reflected therein, to look poor and mean". And most of us have encountered such types: fighting non-existent enemies, rallying troops on non-existent battlefields.

The magisterium does not belong to the order of power. It belongs to the order of truth and grace, and even the Pope is subject in obedience this order. To quote the current Pope:

"In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of faith..." -
The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger.

Power is a false mirror. If we begin to see our lives in the Church through that mirror, we will begin in resentment and end in despair.

Jesus thought so little of power that he refused it when offered by the Devil. And he carried that refusal through to the Cross, when he could have exercised His divinity to escape. But He didn't. And I suspect this is a clue to something very important.

We assume the reason Christ did not resort to power on the Cross was because he chose not to. I am sure that's true. But I suspect there might be an even deeper, secret reason: power does not exist.

I repeat it, as absurd as it sounds: power does not exist. Only love, in the end, exists. That is the only mirror that yields the true Image. Dissidents and vigilantes take note.

Friday, September 07, 2007

"...for I am a sinful man"

Sacramental Reconciliation is a discipline that I practise around once a month. I would never say that it is something I enjoy, but the Sacrament is a tremendous source of grace and comfort. It can be humiliating to confess the same sins again and again in a long-term struggle, but I prefer to keep up the struggle and suffer the humiliation, than let it slide and be beaten once and for all.

I can therefore understand the popularity of the Third Rite, when it was being used extensively in the Melbourne Archdiocese a few years ago. How easy it was to simply pass over "the unpleasantness" and receive absolution without really naming the sin! When we confess sin we acknowledge our role in the activity of Sin in the world, the disruptive and destructive principle that is at the root of all evil, both natural and moral. This must be accepted for healing to begin, because it it the Truth which sets us free first and foremost.

Sandro Magister, an astute observer of the Vatican and the Italian Church, sees a trend back towards the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

"The indications are modest, but consistent. The latest one comes from Loreto, where twelve thousand young people received the sacrament of forgiveness, with the pope's encouragement. And in the seminaries, there's a return of books for studying "cases of conscience."

I read once, I can't remember where, that the two best indications of the spiritual health of a Catholic community are the number of vocations and the frequency of Confession. On either of these measures, Catholic community in Australia is in poor shape. It would be interesting to know whether there is a similar trend towards Reconciliation here, or whether World Youth Day in 2008 might result in similar scenes.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Farewell To All That

The day when it was all over for the dinosaurs.

This artist's impression is rather good at showing the physical effects of the asteroid strike in the vicinity of the present-day Caribbean, 65 million years ago. A few minutes after initial impact, ejecta has gone boyond middle earth orbit (MEO), and a devastating atmospheric shockwave has passed the 1000 km mark.

In the coming hours, rock, dust and molten slag will fall all over the planet, blacking out the sky and igniting massive fires. On the opposite side of the earth, so much debris will burn up in the atmosphere that the sky will glow like a kiln, and surface temperatures will exceed boiling point.

Read the full story at the Sydney Morning Herald.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Wreck of Western Culture

John Carroll's The Wreck of Western Culture was published in 2004. In it, he traced out the progress of modern thought through art, and the corresponding erosion of the spiritual and moral imagination of the West. The cover illustration is a reproduction of Holbein's The Two Ambassadors, featuring a distorted skull floating ominously in the foreground, hinting at the failure of a purely human culture to address the spectre of mortality.

Carroll's book is a profound analysis, and full of insights into the role of culture in our spiritual and moral lives. The occasional unevenness of the arguments is probably inevitable since he covers an enormous territory.

Carroll isn't a Christian, but he finds himself in the same awkward place as Oriana Fallaci: he doesn't believe, but sees no alternative to belief if we are to remain human. His lack of Christian faith makes the whole subject problematic for him, because he clearly sees the damage that modern metaphysics has done to our spiritual and moral imagination.

Carroll's point about 'stories' and their power to stimulate or erode moral and spiritual imagination is crucial. I just finished reading Vigen Guroian's Rallying the Really Human Things, and Guroian makes a similar point in his essay on Russell Kirk.

This is the Age of Stories now. The Age of Argument is gone. How many times have we heard a member of Parliament weigh up the pros and cons of, say, embryonic stem cell research, only to fall back onto a story about a relative who died painfully, and conclude that the research must proceed, irrespective of any arguments. The story carries conviction, the arguments do not.

Doctrine still matters, now more than ever. But as James Schall has said many times, Catholicism has never been so intellectually coherent as it is today, yet it has never been so culturally marginal. More is required than argument and doctrine.

Chesterton once wrote that if we discovered an ancient legend of a god who died for men, people would immediately sit up and say "what a beautiful story that must be". Yet somehow, Christians have allowed that story to become something hateful and burdensome.

The New Evangelisation is therefore, first and foremost, a recovery of the story of Christ, the most compelling and beautiful story ever told. That story will be best told, not in words, but in the way we live our lives. And it will be no less compelling and beautiful for being true.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lord of the Dance

Best comment I've ever seen on liturgical dancing:

"Liturgical dancing does not discriminate between innocents and those deserving of punishment. It is only permissible in self-defense against military combatants, or for the preservation of one's virginity."

HT to someone called Kevin Jones over at Catholic and Enjoying It!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Musical Offering

For those with an interest in sacred music, the Tallis Scholars are the benchmark for the performance of Renaissance choral music. Details can be found on the ABC's Second Hour program.

Their most recent release is a re-recording of a series of pieces by Allegri and Palestrina, including the so-called Sistine Chapel music. Originally it was never performed outside the Chapel, and no written copies were in circulation until a quiet young lad stopped by the Chapel one day to listen to the choir sing. He went home that night, and wrote down the notes from memory, returning the next day to check a few details. Mozart, of course.

A segment of the signature track Miserere by Allegri can be heard at the Amazon site (Windows media). The CD is fairly readily available in CD stores like JB's and St Francis bookshop in Melbourne city. Buy it!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI: the new Socrates

“Socrates was the tertium quid, the third element sought for and seeking, in that Greek life which was already tottering to its very foundations. Upright, impartial, the mediator between the two hostile parties, he was for that very reason the object of the implacable hatred of both”. (Soloviev, Plato’s life drama)

The modern world - and I mean the whole world, not just the handful of Caucasians clinging to the shores of the North Atlantic and its colonies – faces a crisis.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

(Yeats, The Second Coming)

But God does not leave Himself without prophetic witnesses. There has always been a modernity of one sort or another, and the crisis we face has been faced in many ways and in many places. In Western history, the confrontation between Socrates and the modernity of his day was seminal.

Soloviev’s essay on Plato sets out the position and importance of Socrates with unusual clarity. When Socrates was born, Greek society was approaching a crisis of its own. Its traditional way of life was a unitary religious-political system that knew nothing of the separation of Church and State. Acceptance of the ancestral law required unquestioning belief in the ancestral gods who guaranteed it.

Such a system is fragile, and Soloviev thanks God that it is:

“A blind faith, based exclusively on facts, is unworthy of the dignity of man. It is more proper to the devils, who believe and tremble, or to dumb beasts, who, of course, accept the law of their being without reflection or regret, without thought, or vain and foolish doubts”.

A new class of intellectuals, the Sophists, subjected the traditional law to criticism, spurred by the growing knowledge of far-off lands where things were done differently. The democratisation of some of the Greek city-states also revealed the awful truth – law could change over time as well as over space.

“There arose a whole class of people possessing regularly developed powers of reflection, literary culture, and keen intellectual interests – people who had lost all faith in the shaken traditional bases of national life, and who at the same time lacked the moral power of devoting themselves to the true and better standards of life”.

Drawing on the principle of relativeness, the Sophists undermined the concept of philosophy itself, pointing out the inconsistency of the cosmological speculations of the early Greek philosophers. Not only the law, but all knowledge was held to be contingent and unreliable, and to seek the truth was held pointless. But it was open to everyone to pursue their desires and achieve their own practical ends, and rhetoric, not philosophy, was the means to those ends.

Socrates gave prophetic witness that a cultural renovation was possible - though not without great sacrifice – through the synthesis of these two great tendencies of his time. With the traditionalists, Socrates accepted the obligations imposed by the truth, reason and goodness that were part of the Greek tradition. With the Sophists, he believed in the need for critical investigation of this tradition. He reconciled these beliefs in his assertion that there exists an absolute obligation, but only to the things which hard thinking demonstrates are, in fact, absolute.

But this was a message that neither side wished to hear, because each saw that Socrates demanded a complete reorientation of their principles. The traditionalists saw that their traditions would be judged by this new ‘absolute’, and the Sophists saw that their relativism could not survive its glare. Caught between these two enmities, Socrates lost his life.

Today, we face a situation uncannily similar to the one that faced Socrates.

On one hand, the Islamic world sees men of violence who call on tradition to deny the role and universality of reason in the moral and religious life. They hold the lives of their co-religionists just as cheap as they hold ours; which is very cheap indeed.

“I have spoken of beasts and devils, not for the sake of stylistic embellishment, but to recall the historical truth that religions, founded only on a blind belief in facts, and rejecting other and better bases, have always ended either in a devilish lust for blood, or in a brute-like absence of shame”. (Soloviev)

At Regensburg, Benedict XVI offered this challenge to the Islamic world: “How do you tell what is mere culture and what is Truth? For surely, if you have no answer, you can only fall back on tradition; not a living tradition like Catholicism, that questions and renovates itself over and over, but a dead tradition that merely tries to return to a dead past”.

On the other, the West is threatened by a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and a culture of degenerate scientism that combine to deny the very possibility of virtue. They reduce our moral and political life to nothing more than the pursuit of our own individual ends. All of this is based on a ‘rationalism’ so narrow that it denies the very existence of a shared reason that we can together apply to the great moral and political issues of the day.

At Regensburg, Benedict XVI offered this challenge to the West: “How do you defend your values and your way of life, when you have already abandoned the possibility of justifying them? For surely, if you have no absolute foundation for your values and way of life, you must accept that only power directs human affairs. And those that live by the sword will die by the sword.”

These tendencies have not won everywhere, but the forces of resistance are weakening as the cultural capital of the great moral traditions erodes. We read the papers, we watch the news, and the message is always the same: the bad guys are winning.

In our time, Benedict’s Regensburg speech, with uncanny echoes of the teaching of Socrates, demands a similar cultural renovation based on a similar synthesis of faith and reason. He offers a hard word to both the West and the Islamic world, one both sides can barely understand, so weak has their hold on truth become.

Yet the centre does hold. It may be the only thing that holds. And we have Christ's promise that this centre will not fail: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it". This promise the Orthodox Soloviev himself recognised, and he acknowledged the primacy of Peter.

And there are many others like him. The teaching authority of the Peter's successor is as real and hard as a rock. Slowly and strangely, even Christians who do not recognise or even respect this authority are, consciously or unconsciously, gathering under the shelter it affords.

"You are your own God"

Anthony Succar, a quadraplegic author and Catholic activist, has written an impassioned plea against embryonic stem cell research, and the cynicism of those who use the disabled to promote that cause. Here is a man to admire, and who speaks with authority.

The first time I browsed through the comments, I was angered by their dismissive and even vilifying tone. (You'll gather from my last post I can get cranky). The genetic fallacy was everywhere - Anthony's views were wrong because he was a Catholic, and for no other reason. People who believe in any transcendence are fools. All that counts is saving yourself. We even got the old canard: "You are your own god".

I've since re-read the article and the comments, and I have noticed something else. One can't help but be impressed by the desire of so many other people - Christian and non Christian alike - to defend life, and to give it the benefit of the doubt when they are not even sure when life really starts.

"I am not a Catholic, or even a Christian. I hold no organised religion of any kind. I just know the thin edge of the wedge when I see it".

Perhaps there is stiffer resistance to the medical-industrial complex than I thought.

Evil always disintegrates, by virtue of its intrinsic incoherence. New follies will arise until the end of time, but they don't last. Neither will this one, though we may have to endure it for longer than we'd hope.

But then again, who expected the Berlin Wall to fall so quickly? Even evil people tire of evil sooner or later.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Make my day

The Speakers of the various Australian parliaments are a motley crew: too lightweight to get a ministry, but owed a favour by the powers that be for some grubby political hackery. The position carries a higher salary and, often enough, a bit of regalia for ceremonial occasions. They are best seen and not heard.

However, the Speaker of the Western Australian parliament has made the mistake of attracting our attention. As most of you know, Archbishop Hickey's has remarked to Catholic MPs that voting in favour of destructive embryonic stem-cell research would put them beyond the Catholic pale, and that this would jeopardise their fitness to take communion with the Catholic community.

The reaction to this has been ridiculous. These remarks are facts that are the Archbishop's responsibility to point out to the faithful, including to Catholic MPs who do not have a get-out-of-jail-free card to ignore moral law. Catholic members of parliament are Catholics by choice. That choice entails taking pastoral direction from their local bishop. If they don't like taking that direction, then an alternative course is open to them: leave the Church.

Speaker Riebeling (and a few other MPs) has interpreted this statement of bald fact as a 'threat' to MP's independence, and a matter to be referred to the parliamentary privileges committee he chairs.

I wonder how Riebeling plans to enforce his desire that the Archbishop shut up? Send around a gang of toughs to bash him and his priests up? Maybe burn down a few churches? Because these are very real risks that Archbishops run in many countries of the world.

But no. Reibeling is very cross, and plans to send a very cross letter to the Archbishop (which has Hickey trembling in his boots, no doubt).

Someone needs to point out to Riebeling that Archbishops, though generally polite, are made of sterner stuff than Speakers and glass-jawed Catholic MPs. Archbishop Ncube of Zimbabwe is taking enormous risks to defend of human rights of the defenceless in his community, and faces violent retribution in return. Hundreds of bishops around the world run similar risks, even making the ultimate sacrifice like Archbishop Romero. Hickey would do no less if put in a corner, and Riebeling holds no terror for him.

I am sorely disappointed that Hickey won't have the opportunity to confront Riebeling and cronies in the committee room. Hickey could hand them back their well-toasted arses. And then they would have to consider imprisonment as retaliation. How I would love to see Riebeling go down in history as the first man to threaten a churchman with prison for preaching to his flock.

I can just imagine Hickey: " ... I know what you're thinking... is he prepared to go to prison, or isn't he... well, I guess it depends if you're feeling lucky... are you feeling lucky? Are you ? Punk?"

Monday, March 26, 2007

The garden of forking paths

At First Things, Robert T. Miller parses the concept of ethical relativism. A useful map of the dead ends of modern ethical thought, but a warning too: we should take even error as we find it, and not as we hope or think it might be…

Faced with a bewildering assortment of moral systems all different from the Catholic one, Catholic thinkers cannot throw up their hands and condemn all the competitors as forms of relativism. For one thing, knowledgeable people will realize that the charge is clearly false and will thus conclude that the Catholic thinker doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. For another, the people the Catholic thinker is accusing of relativism are in fact producing arguments—often very sophisticated ones. Religious believers who are committed to participating in the public square need to understand these arguments and be prepared to answer them. They cannot escape this hard work by invoking the bogeyman of ethical relativism.

[Update] I have one reservation with Miller's analysis. Academe may parse concepts ad absurdum, but what happens in academe is not the same as what happens in the wider culture. It is a truism that apparently practical men implement the thoughts of long-dead scribblers. The emotivism of the 20th century, discredited amongst serious thinkers, is nonetheless potent. We all encounter this, every time we hear someone say, in defiance of facts, "I'm still entitled to my opinion...".

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

War is peace

"In His will is our peace; it is the sea into which all things are drawn by Him who created all the works of nature." (Dante's Paradiso 3: 85-87)

In a recent post, Dreadnought speaks of what same sex attraction demands of the Christian..."the radical humility, the ego-kill, the sometimes literally bloody discipline that Christianity demands of its adherents, even her intellectuals, certainly her same sex attracted children".

I haven't a thing in common with Dreadnought in his SSA. My lusts are all too conventional. But his story (well worth reading on his site) is very much like mine, and every human being's. The divine prescription is the same for all of us.

But isn't this God at war with us? Doesn't he want to take away the very things that we love most? This is the old, false image of the God whose favourite words are "can't", "shouldn't" and "stop it", a false image that we feel tugging at our coat fringe whenever temptation rears its ugly head.

God is not at war with us, but with the sins that cripple us. The loveless, brutal world of the daily newspapers is the consequence of that sin. But God's love is an astounding, limitless and dangerous love. The radical humility we need is matched by His radical determination to save us, by surgical means if necessary.

And if we let Him, we will ultimately become everything he created us to be. Contemplate this description of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which says it better than I ever could:

Readers of C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce will remember the myth in which the dreamer encounters various souls at the point of choosing heaven or hell: choosing, that is, to abide with their besetting sin -- and so be damned -- or to throw it off by accepting the offer of salvation. One of the figures is an oily, dark man "parasitized" by a lizard-like creature perched on his shoulder and continually whispering into his ear. After much pathetic reluctance, the man permits his parasite to be ripped away from him and killed, whereupon the man -- almost killed himself by the pain -- stands erect and whole; and the slain lizard (in one of Lewis's better imaginative thrusts) comes back from death to life, no longer as a reptile but as a great stallion, which the man mounts and controls with perfect mastery.

Lewis's lizard is an allegory of any high-energy habitual sin -- i.e., any besetting lust, whether the lust be lust for power, or acclaim, or the satisfactions of the flesh. It's not a question of dividing "good" lizards from bad; any sin that a man ultimately refuses to do without will damn him. And any man, when he is in the grip of his pet obsession, convinces himself that he can't survive apart from it: his parasitism tries to be accepted as symbiosis, or even to claim identity with the host organism ("I am who I am"). Yet, in this scheme, every parasite is a perversion of a desire originally wholesome. When the perversion is put to death -- mortified, in traditional language -- the underlying wholesome desire becomes free to take on its proper life, sub ordinated to the rationally governed human will. The bloodsucking reptile becomes an obedient warhorse. "

Why do I blog?

It's a good question, with a simple answer. Flannery O'Connor used to say she didn't know what she thought until she wrote it down. Neither do I.

Speaking out makes an idea, a belief, a conviction suddenly more real. It demands a clarity and commitment that fleeting thought can never have.

A few years ago, the Australian bishops cracked down on the excessive use of the Third Rite of reconciliation, which required no personal confession of sins, only mere attendance. The decision generated angst at the time. There's no doubt that the Third Rite was attractive to many, but for all the wrong reasons. The human heart is a slippery thing, and we squirm and weave in our efforts to deny responsibility for our sins.

We are thinking animals, and when we get off the rails our rationalisations are never far away. The act of speaking out our sins breaks that bondage, and that is exactly what the Third Rite could never achieve. Hence its popularity.

So when I make my confession here, I challenge things in me that I'd rather were not there. I give myself something to live up to, and commit myself to what I believe. And there is something sacramental in that. It's an act that changes that actor. And I hope that you get something out of it too.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Freedom is slavery

Audacity in the service of hypocrisy is rare; we prefer not to advertise ourselves as frauds. When it happens, it is usually because we are too blind or complacent to see the incoherence of our position. And so it was with last Sunday's Melbourne Age.

The Age featured an editorial, envoking the authority of no less than St. Thomas More, and arguing that David Hicks incarceration without trial for five years is an assault on the rule of law. I don't dispute the point, though I can think of characters who deserve my concern more than Hicks.

But that is not the question here. My question is this: how can the Age, with a straight face, call upon the authority of a Thomas More when their whole philosophy of law, a philosophy that More would have rejected with vehemence, is the culprit here?

The philosophy of law is called legal positivism. In essence, this is the view that the law is simply what we declare it to be. As long as legal and/or democratic process is respected, any law or legal right can be manufactured, without regard to natural or divine law, which are held not to even exist.

A topical example is the hotly-disputed "right" to gay marriage, of which the Age is a leading supporter. No matter that the institution of marriage predates any legal system, and reaches back into prehistory. A legal "right" to gay marriage can be constructed irrespective. It's simply a matter of marshalling the numbers, and sufficient propaganda can achieve that. Any attempt by opponents to engage the issue on its merits is deflected by accusations of discrimination.

Underneath this reluctance to defend the concept of gay marriage on its merits (or reject it otherwise) is a deep refusal to concede that the law is subject to reason, nature or God (the source of reason and nature). The logical conclusion is that these manufactured rights cannot and need not be justified rationally. Instead, they are justified purely by the exercises of power that brought them about.

A polity that becomes infected with legal positivism is always on the verge of a slide into fascism. If the majority rules, and is unrestrained by any appeal to an external moral or intellectual standard, then anything goes - provided only that a majority can be marshalled for it.

Because if rights can be manufactured, why can't they can be destroyed as well? If a legal system decides, according to the law, to remove a right - oh, let's say, habeas corpus for terrorists - on what grounds can we complain? Aren't we being anti-democratic?

As so happens often, the two poles of a "debate" are united (and trapped) in their common assumption: the Age's assumption that rights can be created by legal fiat, without regard to natural or divine law, and the assumptions of the US Government that they can just as easily be withdrawn.

The Age thinks that its positivistic conception of law and rights is part of the solution. In reality, it is part (and a big part) of the problem. Those who think they can sip at the cup of legal positivism will find instead they must drink it to the last bitter dregs.

And with that realisation, the Age's quotation from A Man for All Seasons suddenly seems more menacing:

"This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast, and if you cut them down … do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

Take cover. There's a hell of a storm coming.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A fraction too much faction...

I was recently struck by an article by John Allen at All Things Catholic, and especially by the following quote: undergraduate student approached me and thanked me for the response. He said that listening to Cordano, it struck him that the feelings of being underappreciated that Cordano attributed to [liberal/conservative] young Catholics are remarkably similar to what he and his more [conservative/liberal] Catholic friends have felt in many parishes, schools, and Catholic social circles.

“You tell people you [agree with the magisterium/believe in freedom of conscience], and they look at you like you’re a freak,” he said. “We end up quietly passing around books like [John Paul’s Theology of the Body/John XXIII's writings], almost as if we’re part of some underground.”

Try guessing which way the options should go around (I've added one of the options to the text, the other is original.) There's no way to tell. Either way, it sounds just like a complaint you'd hear if you spoke to enough young (and not so young) Catholics here in Australia.

How is it possible that both sides of this divide can both feel themselves a misunderstood and oppressed minority? That's the result of factionalism, one of the least Christ-like aspects of the Catholic community today.

I don't think Australia has polarisation problems as bad as North America's, but we have them nonetheless. Questioning the good faith of other Catholics, refusing to hear them, even branding them lesser Catholics, is a consequence of a partisan spirit that is flatly contrary to the Spirit of Christ. It occurs all too often amongst intellectual commited Catholics.

One of the outstanding features of Saint Francis was his refusal to condemn priests and bishops whose sinful lifestyles brought the Faith into disrepute. The only answer he offered to moral and intellectual error was the witness of his own holiness, and he instructed all of his followers to do the same. His humility forebade him from doing anything else. Peter Waldo, another advocate of evangelical poverty, failed this test, and brought himself and his followers to ruin.

Jesus had a simple word for the factionalist (left, right or whatever inappropriate political analogy you want to adopt): get the plank out of your own eye before you point out the splinter in your brother's. God's purposes are not served by human politicking, but His action in human lives.

This doesn't mean we surrender our judgement. Some things are wrong, and we can't be afraid to make a prophetic call to repentance. But our call only has credibility if it's an act of love. We aren't just handling ideas, and the Church isn't a debating society. The Church and the World is made up of people who are infinitely precious to Christ. They need the witness of our personal holiness much more than they need our rancour and criticism.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ignorance is strength

Schutz over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia notes a strange phenomenon:

When I hear an opinion expressed that shows signs of not having been
sufficiently thought through, I cannot resist embarking upon an examination of
the opinion....I usually receive one or both of the following

1) Everyone is/I am entitled to their/my own opinion.
2) I don't have to justify myself to you.

As Schutz notes, this is fair enough as far as it goes, but the response avoids the issue. No-one suggests that an opinion can't be expressed. What is at issue is whether the opinion should be taken seriously. And it's tough to take an opinion seriously if it owner won't defend it in a serious way.

Underlying this phenomenon is a deep cultural problem. The Enlightenment project was launched on the promise that a purely rational basis for moral knowledge could be found, one that did not depend on either religious authority or traditional natural law. Successive attempts to realise that project have failed, leading to the collapse of moral reasoning and a growing conviction that moral statements are simply statements of feeling, without any rational basis. In the prevailing emotivist ethos, moral statements aren't seen a propositions that must meet some external standard of truth.

In such a culture, any questioning of propositions is taken as a personal affront to a person's feelings. And any claim to be seeking the truth by testing propositions can only be a tactical move, made in bad faith.

The corollary of emotivism is the denial that there is any kind of "public reason" that can be used to test moral statements made in the public domain. Alistair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, developed the consequences of this fact in detail, and used it to explain why moral debate in Western societies is likely to remain both shrill and inconclusive.

Which places a responsibility on Christians to find better language that can express moral truth in compelling ways. Scripture suggests that philosophy won't be the vehicle for this; when Paul attempted to reason with the Greeks, he failed. At the end of his book, MacIntyre pins his hopes on the emergence of new moral communities within which virtue can thrive. A life lived in Christ "speaks" with a conviction that mere words cannot convey, and changes minds. Those same lives, lived together, can change the world.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Who was Athanasius?

Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt in the 4th century, and of course I am only borrowing his name.

Athanasius was the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation, and in his lifetime was called the "Father of Orthodoxy”. His lifetime coincided with outbreak of the Arian heresy, the Council of Nicaea, and a long period of political instability in the Roman Empire.

He was born sometime around 296. His intellectual gifts and religious sense apparently marked out for the priesthood from an early age. The Alexandria of the time was the intellectual centre of the Roman Empire, and the capital of theological learning of the Catholic Church. Athanasius imbibed this environment of classical scholarship under the mentorship of Bishop Alexander. His early writings included studies of the Incarnation, in which he defended the traditional Catholic view of Jesus’ divinity. These writings seem to have been prompted by a new and growing tendency to question this teaching. Athanasius detected this tendency early, and was one of the first to recognise the threat it posed to a meaningful belief in God’s commitment to humanity.

There was a great deal at stake in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Catholics had always maintained that Jesus was truly the Son of God, and truly divine. They never separated Jesus from the Father, whose Word He was and always had been. The full divinity of Jesus, co-equal with the Father, was the lynch-pin of Christian belief because it demonstrated that God spared nothing in His love for us, giving us His very self. The Incarnation of the Son as a simple carpenter made God present and available to all of humanity, not just to a self-appointed spiritual elite.

The logical corollary was that we should value each other as we are valued by God. This belief is the foundation stone for every concept of human rights and equality before the law over the last two thousand years. No Incarnation, then no John Locke, no "all men are created equal", and no liberal democracy.

This belief had its opponents then as it does now, and for similar reasons. For a particular kind of person, it is just self-evident that God cannot have anything directly to do with the sordid details of our existence. Why God would be so concerned with their sense of propriety is never really explained.

Earlier in the Church’s history, the Gnostic movement had attempted to sever the link between God and man by denying Jesus’ humanity. In Athanasius’ time, the challenge came from the opposite direction in the form of Arianism. Arianism was named after the leader of their faction, Arius, a Libyan in origin who trained for the priesthood at Antioch. Arius denied that Jesus was co-equal with the God. The Son was rather demiurge, created by God, and standing mid-way between God and his creation. Rather than deny Jesus' true humanity, Arius denied his true divinity.

What the Arians lacked in theological sophistication they made up for in a phenomenal capacity for political organisation, a feature they share with many modern theological dissidents. By the early 4th century, they had gained considerable influence amongst the Imperial household, if not amongst ordinary Christians. Unlike Catholicism, Arianism only thrived when it had political support, a weakness that would later prove important.

By 325, the Emperor Constantine was concerned about the implications of theological disagreement for civil order. He called for a Council to be held at Nicaea to settle the vexed issue of Jesus’ status. Athanasius was only in his late twenties, shorter than average, but wiry and energetic. Though still not ordained, he attended the Council where he played an important role. The Council concluded by affirming the traditional Catholic belief in Jesus’ divinity.

But as we’ve seen in our own time, the fact that a Council says something doesn’t prevent others from running their own agenda. The First Council of Nicaea was simply the opening shot in a long battle between Catholics and Arians in which Athanasius played a leading role through his writing, preaching, and spiritual leadership. Exiled from Alexandria on three separate occasions, he traveled as far as Gaul seeking refuge, avoiding assassination in what became an increasingly violent and political dispute.

As the Imperial leadership swapped between Catholic, Arian, and pagan hands, Athanasius’ fortunes rose and fell with those of orthodox Christianity. In all of this confusion he was buoyed by the conviction of faith, the support of loyal colleagues, and a droll sense of humour which never left him.

But in the later years of Athanasius’ life, the theological weakness of Arianism was evident, as it broke into factions and began to retreat. A Catholic Emperor ascended to the throne, cutting off the Arians’ political support, and some Arian leaders and factions made their peace with orthodoxy. The matter was finally settled at the Second General Council of Constantinople in 381, five years after Athanasius’ death, with the final reaffirmation of the First Council of Niceae’s formulation of Christ’s divinity.