‘Cafeteria Catholics and others’


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Before I converted, Anglican (and Catholic) friends warned me that if I was expecting to find brotherly love and amit, I’d do better not becoming a Catholic. I recall one friend, a former convert who reverted, telling me that as an Anglican I had no idea of the bitterness of the divisions within the Catholic Church – there were, he told me with some vigour, even those who did not think the Pope was much of a Catholic. That Pope is now a Saint, and yes, there are still Catholics who don’t think he was much of a Catholic, even as there are those who don’t think there has been a licit Pope since Pius XII; for all I know, there are those who would argue that the See of Peter has been vacant for longer than that. He was, of course, correct, and that was, of course, irrelevant. The Church is the Church founded by Christ, it has a Magisterium which is authoritative on matters of faith and morals, and when it pronounces on these things it does so with the authority of its founder. Do I think it ought to pronounce more on x or y; do I wonder why it does not say that this or that politician cannot receive communion because they support abortion; do I think it ought to take a firmer stand against this or that thing I think is evil, and which even I can see runs counter to the teaching of the Church? That is a bit like asking if I am human. Of course, I feel these things. But then who am I to judge my bishops and priests? Do I know something about these things or these people that they don’t know? Or might it just be possible they know more than I do?

My good friend ‘Scoop’ has forcefully argued in the comments boxes that:

teaching the faith to the best of our ability is our calling. Should an RCIA teacher (a layman without any formal teaching) do their best to follow the catechism and teach others what is expected of a Catholic? Or should he simply say that it is all up to your own discernment? We really don’t care if you teach the gospel in season or out of season. If it is unpopular you can still be a good Catholic by just keeping your mouth shut and agreeing with those who hold positions that run afoul with the teachings of the Church . . . i.e. don’t make Catholicism hard on you, find a comfort level with the world where you won’t be criticized or chastised.

I am unsure that the dichotomy in the second and third sentences is a real one. Of course all Catholics should do their best to live the faith, and by their example, if nothing else, witness to what it is to be a Catholic. But is there an alternative to one’s own discernment in the end? Are we to assume that those who fail to live up to what our own discernment and our expectations are not doing their best? It seems to me that the reluctance of the Church to censure individual politicians may just be the result of its greater wisdom in these things. Of course it is hard to see how bishops and priests could possibly be in a better position than those of us who read websites and newspapers and see things with our own eyes – away with such faithless shepherds, they are hirelings who have sold out to political correctness. Are we then, alone, and those who agree with us, the only ones who get this right? What effect do our words have?

We can get some example from the reaction of traditionalists to Pope Francis’ strictures. There is little sign that his words prompt anything by way of a rethink, and every sign they prompt further anger with him. Is it to be supposed that non-traditionalists will react is some morally superior way when they are called ‘cafeteria Catholics’ and go ‘goodness me, yes, they are right, thank you?’ Yes, it is true that the Church Fathers sometimes used harsh language, but then one bishop even punched another – are we going to say that we think that is a good way to witness in our own time? If we are to be known as his by the love we bear one another and that were used in evidence to convict of of being his followers, how many of us would be sure of being convicted? As one often on the receiving end of criticism for my conservatism from what I might want to call neo-traditionalists – that is those ‘spirit of Vatican II’ Catholics who want to go further down the liberal road – I also find myself criticised by those who want to close down such avenues. Each side is convinced of its moral rectitude, each side criticises the other. Where has it brought us? What good has it done to the cause of witnessing to the Gospel?

Do such disputes, when conducted in harsh language, do any good? If so, it is hard to find the evidence. Since at least Vatican II some of those in the Church have been calling each other the same things, and it is difficult to see that anyone has been convinced by the other. The mote in the eye of the other is always clearer than the beam in our own (especially when we are convinced we have rid ourselves of it). We all struggle, and I think we all do the best we can according to the Grace we have. I may well think that those Catholics over there are falling down on the job, or even not very good Catholics, and I may well be able to find chapter and verse for these views in the catechism, and I may well tell myself that what I say is inspired by love for their souls. I may also tell myself that I am doing what my priest or bishop will not do because they are politically correct cowards. But then I recall what Jesus said to the teachers of his own day about putting heavy yokes on others, and about the need to love even your enemies, and what St Paul said about the characteristics of love – so I suffer a little longer. As I hope for mercy, I shall give it, and I shall be judged by the judgements I make. Only God’s infinite mercy through the blood of Christ can save me; in that I am no different from everyone else. So I shall leave the name calling to those who are convinced it does good.



The ‘saved’


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Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with Bosco, who has been here from the start, telling us all that Jesus will save us all if we just ask. This has always struck me as both laudable and strange. Laudable in so far as he is motivated by the desire to ‘save’ us all, and strange because by his own confession, he did not ask Jesus for help, he just (if I recall aright) received a new spirit. But then if his new spirit has told him that Catholics (or ‘cathols’ in Bosco-speak) are not saved, then one can see why he is not asking why God does not treat each of us as he treated Bosco. He has just made a long comment to which I have replied in part, but on which, because it contains matter of wider interest, I want to essay a broader commentary.

He begins by doing something he occasionally does, but which often gets lost in the general rant sometimes – that is by saying something nice about Catholics:

I spent 7 weeks listening to Immaculate Heart Radio 93 KHJ AM. Ive heard testimonies of changed lives and what have you. I think that’s great. They profess a want and love for Jesus. They repeat some passages of scripture and say that its what they do. Sounds great, and for the most part, it is.

But we know there is going to be a ‘but’, and here it comes:

Then Bosco comes along and calls them idolaters and other terrible names. Where does this Bosco clown get off calling gods people idolaters? Us cathols profess faith in Christ and do all sorts of good works. You know what? Unsaved is unsaved. I got born again and I was in the choir of my church. The reverend was a family friend and I knew him and his family all my life. Dinners and BBQs, birthdays. After meeting Jesus, I took him into his office and asked him if he knew Jesus personally. He said he didn’t. Then I said to him…how can you talk about him when you don’t know him? I left it at that and I don’t think I ever attended another service there. Why would I? I don’t need anybody to tell me about Jesus. I know him and he shows himself to me

In not needing anyone to tell him about Jesus, Bosco stands in a place many modern people seem to stand, but it is far from clear that it is the only way to encounter the Lord. We read in Acts 8:26-40 about one of the earliest Gentile converts, an Ethiopian Eunuch who is reading Isaiah is asked by St Phillip if he understands what he is reading? We are told the it was the Holy Spirit who inspired Phillip to ask. Phillip did not ‘do a Bosco’. He did not tell the Eunuch to ask Jesus to open the door to him. The Eunuch asked how he could understand what he was reading without a teacher? Phillip still did not say ‘ask Jesus to come into your heart, he stands at the door.’ Instead he told the Eunuch the Good News, and the Eunuch asked to be baptised. That is one way of coming to the Lord, and one many of us have followed. Of course, no one denies that there are other ways, such as the one Bosco describes, but that is not the point: the point is there are many ways, and it is a relatively late phenomenon for people to decide that they, unlike the Eunuch, need no help to understand what it is they are reading in the Bible. It was for that very reason that the Church was wary of people reading the Bible on their own.

We are told that the sheep of Jesus’ fold know their master’s voice, but Bosco takes this a stage further and often tells us that he knows who and who is not saved by what they say. This again, is profoundly unscriptural, as nowhere does the Bible tell us that the ‘saved’ will know each other. God alone knows who is saved, and if we feel able to judge as he judges, we have gone wrong because we have arrogated to ourselves something that is God’s alone. The danger here is clear, we end up relying on our own judgment and attributing what we feel and say to God. If someone points out another reading, or that Christians have not believed this traditionally, that can be dismissed by saying such people are not ‘saved’. That not a single Apostle behaved in such a manner seems to give no pause for thought to Bosco or to others who feel the same way.

We can quarry the Scriptures for the meaning we think they ought to have and act as unlike the Eunuch as possible and proclaim we need no help. As one who does, and who finds the help of many St Phillips of great assistance, I cannot attain such exalted heights. I know whatever I see now I see as through a glass darkly, and it is through faith that I believe I shall one day see him face to face. God brings us to him in the way he considers best, and I consider myself ill-equipped to tell him there is only one way he can do that. As the theme of today’s sermon was humility, I am glad to think I learned something from it.

NT Readings 22 Sunday in OT Year C


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The Gospel commentary can be found here. The NT reading is

Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24

Chrysostom tells us that wonderful indeed were the things in the Temple, the Holy of Holies. while those things which occurred at Mt Sinai were terrible – ‘a blazing fire, and darkess, and gloom, and a tempest (Deut 33:2). But the New Covenant was given in quite another way – through Jesus Christ, where there is nothing frightening, and where God reveals himself to us more fully than ever before, and through whom alone can we be saved. Where in the OT men feared that to hear the word of God was to die, (Ex 20:19) we know that the Word of God is life, and through Him we shall inherit life eternal.

Instead of Moses, we get Jesus, and instead of the people ‘innumerable angels’. When he speaks of the ‘first born’ he means the faithful – those who are saved in Christ. From the first, therefore, the Israelites were themselves the cause of God’s being manifested in the flesh, and we know, as they did not, that there is no need to fear God speaking to us – provided we follow His precepts through the revelation of Christ. We hear the voice not through the storm or the dark or the fire, but through Jesus Christ.

St Ambrose reminds us that we must always be anxious to hear the Word of God and to obey it. We must be on the watch always – the soul knows no peace until it finds it in Christ. Just as Christ raised Adam and Eve, so too did he raise Abel, for his offerings were pleasing to God. Jesus offered himself as the one perfect sacrifice acceptable to God. We are purified by that precious blood. What was prefigured in the Old testament is revealed more full in the New, and we are to attend on Christ and the revelation and the Good News he brings. There, alone, can salvation be found.

Comfort Catholicism?


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One of the most reliable of Catholic commentators is Msgr Charles Pope. He always has something good to say, and unlike some, he does not court controversy. So, when he writes it is the end for ‘comfort Catholicism’, it is an invitation one should take seriously. He comments:

There is a growing consternation among some Catholics that the Church, at least in her leadership, is living in the past. It seems there is no awareness that we are at war and that Catholics need to be summoned to sobriety, increasing separation from the wider culture, courageous witness and increasing martyrdom.

The Church is not, he says, preparing its people for the moral and spiritual war in which we are engaged, and its leaders prefer soft words and ambiguous formulations to addressing serious issues in what the world would perceive as a controversial way.

We who are supposed to be the light of the world, with Christ shining in us, have preferred to hide our light under a basket and lay low. The ruins of our families and culture are testimony to the triumph of error and the suppression of the truth.

We should be prepared, he thinks, to defy ‘unjust’ laws and if necessary go to jail rather than obey them:

We have to retool and provide every opportunity to get clear about our faith. Sermons and other teachable moments must sound a clear call to personal conversion and to battle for souls and to stop treating lightly the sinful disregard for God’s law in our families and communities.

How, one is tempted to ask, did it come to this? Msgr Pope seems to be suggesting that it was the failures of the 1970s – a fashionable scapegoat, but ultimately unsatisfying as an explanation. The failures of the 1970s were not confined to the Catholic Church, and had the Church been solid in the preceding decades, then it is hard to see how the 1970s could have taken the route it did. What went wrong was due to deep-seated defects and not confined to the Catholic Church. No one, I suspect, would accuse the Irish Church of the 1960s of an excess of liberalism, and as late as the 1980s Ireland was still a conservative Catholic country; the crash when it came was in large measure due to the conduct of those in the Church – and their faults were not undue reverence for the Spirit of vatican II. The fault, as Mary O’Regan noted last year in the Catholic Herald, lay with the Church which had failed to recognise the sex abuse crisis, and a hierarchy which had failed to deal properly with it once the media forced it to do so; this produced a loss of faith in the institution. There is a strong argument to be made that this has been a disaster for Ireland as much as for the Church, and that the country desperately needs the faith.

It is easy and tempting, to fall for what one might call the ‘American culture war’ explanation of the decline in the position of the Church in the Western world; but we should resist it. For one thing, it is far from clear that the American ‘culture war’ narrative has any result save for an increase in partisanship, in which both sides demonise the other to gain political brownie points; whatever his partisans say, Mr Trump’s attempt to use this to gain himself the presidency is going to end in the sort of failure the Republicans last saw with Barry Goldwater; one fears, however, that his supporters will see it all as the results of nefarious forces fighting against them. If that is where they go after November, they will both further inflame a bad situation, and, from the political point of view, fail to arrive at an answer which will get them back into power. Under Mr Corbyn, the Labour Party seems to be moving in the same direction. The paranoid style is the fashion of the moment. Msgr Pope seems to be in danger of joining a long list of public figures who see their own movement as being under threat and who warn of being ready for the coming persecution. It is a style which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

None of this is to say that the Church should not fearlessly proclaim the Good News, nor to say we should somehow conform to the ways of this world, but it is to suggest that succumbing to the American culture wars narrative would be to conform in an especially unhelpful way, not least for those Christians in the world who are subject to genuine severe persecution. Is this really the moment to be alienating our governments, or is it a time to remind them of the duty they owe to Christians who have been driven from their homes by the forces of evil? Might we put the needs of others above the virtue-signalling of our own desires? We can send any message we want to the governments which represent us, but I suggest this is the one to send now. As for ‘comfort Catholicism’, I’m not sure we need yet another dismissive slogan to aim at our fellow Catholics. We all stand in need of comfort, we all stand under judgment, and we are called to love one another. I know this last command of Our Lord is one which ignites some readers to impatience, but it is His command, not mine, and they might, perhaps, meditate on why the word ‘love’ creates such un-loving emotions? Misuse is no excuse for ignoring the proper use.

Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch?

Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. The children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days: so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. Now Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel listened to him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses. Since that time there has not been a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face…

-Deut. 34:7-10

Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch? Really? For those familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis, rejection of the traditional account of the Pentateuch’s composition is nothing new. But the Documentary Hypothesis is itself under attack these days in academia. There are questions regarding the methodology, the dating of certain parts, and the distinction between certain traditions. That is not to say that scholars are returning to the traditional Mosaic view; they are not.

The question of how the various books of the Bible were composed raises deeper concerns about how we read the Bible. Often debate becomes heated as people fight for opinions that are important to them. People who take a more mundane approach to the composition of the Bible get accused of having a “low view of Scripture” as if God’s guidance and human free will were somehow incompitible. Conversely, those who insist on a process of “divine dictation” like the Qur’an’s composition find themselves in quandaries when their interlocutors point out “errors” and “contradictions” in the Bible. Does God make mistakes?

The attempt to harmonize seemingly contradictory parts of Scripture and to explain “mistakes” has produced much fruitful work, but it has also resulted in ridiculous assertions and convoluted contrivances that create barriers to evangelization in intellectual circles. That is not to say that we should be ashamed of our faith or that we should downplay the importance of faith. However, the Church’s primary task is “saving souls”; like Saint Peter and the Apostles, we are called to be “fishers of men”; we have been given the Great Commission. It is our obligation, therefore, to do what we can to persuade people of the reasonableness of our faith and of God’s love and mercy. We cannot show God’s love to people if we are constantly belittling them or refusing to engage with sincere and reasonable concerns that people may have (although one must also recognize “smokescreens” that people create to avoid having the “real conversations”).

Within the Church also we must acknowledge that many believers have questions and doubts. Failure to meet these needs has at times resulted in apostasy and withdrawal. Today there is a great polarization that is occurring in Western Christianity: at one extreme are those who devalue the intellect and those who wish to use it; at another extreme are those who value human reason to such an extent that they are unwilling to leave room for mystery and the supernatural in their relationship with God.

Much harm can result from either of these extremes. A smart, academic-leaning Christian in a culture of resentful anti-intellectuals can feel isolated and can experience low self-esteem. A Christian in an evironment that eschews supernaturalism may feel he has no one to talk to about dreams, visions, hopes for healing, or words of knowledge from the Lord. Suspicion and distance, tools of the enemy, occur when we gravitate towards extremes such that we become unable to talk to one another.

We need a way forward. We need to affirm the fundamental truths and lessons of Scripture, while understanding that Scripture’s human authors wrote in a specific context with its own needs and norms. Comparison between Scripture and other Mediterranean and Near Eastern works helps to shed light on the customs and polemics of the Biblical authors. The writers of Scripture were not Enlightenment thinkers in northern Europe. Their concerns are not identical to our own. Nor, it must be said, were Greek writers of the same mind as modern academics. Our own Chalcedon, in writing a history of a period would not dream of saying, “I have put in their mouths what they should have said.” But Thucydides, the father of modern historiography, said just that. He did not shrink from the kind of fabrication that served the interpretation of the Peloponnesian War that he wished to promote.

This is the world in which the Bible’s texts were written, redacted, transcribed, and interpreted. But the core message is still there for anyone to read: God made the heavens and the earth; mankind and the spiritual beings sinned; God sent His Son to redeem us; we must choose to accept God’s mercy or to go our own way; we shall all be judged. These are the points that we must emphasize in our conversations with inquirers. Whether God chose to use guided evolution or whether he literally made the first man from a lump of clay is not the point: the point is that God is the author, maintainer, and judge of creation. He is sovereign; He is good; and He loves us. The Genesis account was written as a polemic to denounce rival creation stories of the kind found in works such as the Enuma Elish and the Atra-Hasis. It was intended to assert the fact that Yahweh, the God of gods, made the universe. There is none like Him in the heavens above or the earth beneath.

Did Moses write the creation account? We cannot say for certain, but the idea that it was composed during the Babylonian Captivity should not disturb us: the truth of its fundamental claims is unaffected by the dates of composition and redaction.

Something to think about.

Catholic higher education (2)


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blessed john henry newman

It would be a legitimate question to ask whether one could in all seriousness write about Catholic higher education in the UK? In the USA there are dozens of Catholic colleges, and however much some might query the aptness of the name in some cases, there is a large Catholic sector to American higher education. The UK, by contrast, has four Catholic Universities (and other ‘institutes’ and ‘colleges’), in order of foundation, St Mary’s, Twickenham, Newman, Birmingham, Leeds Trinity, and St Mary’s Belfast. All were (and Belfast still is), until recently, ‘University Colleges’ and all have distinguished histories in terms of training teachers for Catholic schools, but together, they account for no more than about 0.5% of UK undergraduates. All of them talk about their ‘Catholic ethos’, and for those in this very secular society who, seeing the word ‘Catholic’, freak out, what they say should act as some reassurance.

St Mary’s, Belfast speaks for them all when its website says:

“Wherever it is found throughout the world Catholic Higher Education seeks to integrate intellectual, personal, ethical, and religious formation; and to unite high academic achievement with service to others.”

The mission is, at one level, that of every good university, to provide excellent teaching and to do good research, but where secular universities can stop there, a Catholic one needs to go further. We have to help meet the teaching and the pastoral needs of our students in the light of the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ. So we are responsible, in part, for passing on our Catholic heritage to the next generation, not as something set in aspic, or as a museum piece to be admired but disregarded, but rather as part of a living faith engaging with the trends and fashions of the academic world. But where, perhaps, others pay obeisance to the modern faith in relativism, we do that thing academics ought to do, we approach it with a proper scepticism. We do believe in the search for truth, and though we acknowledge that search cannot be completed in this world, we know that it exists. Newman saw Catholic education as developing the following attributes: freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom. A Catholic university is charged with developing a learning community which inculcates such values, and should strive to help form its students in such a way; but it also needs to engage its students actively in this process – there is no room for ‘safe spaces’ or for students to be merely passive receivers (even if such students existed and wanted to come to a university with a Catholic ethos).

A Catholic university places itself, Newman wrote, at the service of revealed truth (Idea of a University, Discourse 4). That gives us the immense task of trying to harmonise the spiritual, cultural and personal worlds within which we live, with a view to producing students who are not only well-educated in a secular sense, but whose spiritual needs (even if they are not Catholics) are being met, and who see an horizon wider than that of contemporary utilitarianism. Such students will go on, in whatever walk of life they follow, to be good citizens of this world, and we pray, through Grace, to reach their destiny in the next.

Whilst fulfilling all the intellectual needs students have, a Catholic university also values each one of them as a unique individual with a God-given destiny, and our job is to work with them to help them realise it. In addition to the ubiquitous ‘performance indicators’ of grades and exam success, a Catholic university will keep its eyes fixed on the wider purpose of education, and it will not neglect the spiritual yearnings of people. It is an impoverished vision of education which narrows it down to the acquisition of knowledge and worldly success; these things matter, but they are only a part of education, not its ultimate objectives. Education is not a commodity, even if the Government insists it operates in a ‘market’. A Catholic model of a university begins with the heart of the Church, and it teaches from there. Each person is made in the image of God, and we emphasise the inalienable dignity of each of us, and as God loves us, so, too must we love one another. A Catholic university is a community where teamwork consists not only of interaction between staff and students, but between both groups and the Church in the parish, the diocese and the wider world. We are, even in the modern, secular UK, part of a wider, global Catholic community. That, too, is the mark of a Catholic university. Whatever the politics of ‘Brexit’, no university in this country has, or could afford to have, an insular outlook. Where Catholic universities here have an advantage, is that although there may be few of them here in the UK, there is a global Catholic community of which we are already part. Cooperation between us offers students and staff opportunities which we need to take advantage of – not least at this point in history.

Catholic higher education (1)


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What does it mean to be a Catholic University in the public square? By that, I mean a University which is part of a national system which is filled, very largely, with secular universities, and which has many students, and staff, who are not Catholics? It would be easy to answer that in these circumstances it either is not Catholic, or, that in order to become so, it must become exclusively Catholic. Setting aside, for a moment, the question as to whether the Catholic equivalent of a Madrassa is desirable, one might well conclude it is not viable; are there enough Catholic students who want to come to a Catholic University, and are there enough staff? And what, in the meantime, would one do with those staff and students who are not Catholic? Then there is the little question of what ‘Catholic’ might mean in a world where some Catholics doubt that the Pope is a Catholic (but still maintain their faith in what bears do in the woods)? Easiest, perhaps, to retreat into vague talk about a ‘Catholic ethos’; but that does not provide us with much of a refuge.

St John Paul II – a man whose life was much enriched by a Catholic higher education – gave us his thoughts on this in Ex Corde Ecclesiae back in 1990. There he wrote, inter alia that:

‘It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. This is its way of serving at one and the same time both the dignity of man and the good of the Church, which has “an intimate conviction that truth is (its) real ally … and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith”(7). Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God.’ A Catholic education is not only preparation for a career, but preparation for the rest of your life; but what does a “Catholic education” mean in the West in the twenty-first century?

In a society which has moved ever further away from the idea that there is any such thing as ‘truth’, that makes a Catholic University an interesting phenomenon. It cannot fail to engage with the modern relativism, but it begins with something that the modern relativist lacks – a scepticism about such claims. As St John Paul recognised: truth is a ‘fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished’. As we have seen when looking at the ‘option for infanticide’, it is not easy to construct a non-Christian argument for why that option should not be taken. Scoence and technology have immeasurably enriched our lives, but provide, in themselves, no moral frameworks: the job of Catholic higher education is to do just that – to suggest, nay more, to explore and assert those values which follow from our religion. Our job, he suggest is to assist ‘in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities’. That means that:

“In a Catholic University, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance with the proper nature and autonomy of these activities. In a word, being both a University and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative”


We cannot, and indeed should not, shy away from the debate between faith and reason, for the Truth has nothing to fear from such a debate. But for us, ethical and moral considerations underpin everything – from our research, through our teaching, right into the conditions of employment for our staff. In an era where it is increasingly common for universities to farm out non-academic related services to ‘service providers’, Catholic universities should resist that. We should pay our staff properly (in the UK the ‘living wage’) and recognise them as a critical part of our community. That has to be at the heart of our Catholic higher education – a spirit of community, where everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, (all) staff and students, feel a sense of being part of a common endeavour. As St John Paul recognised, this brings its own rewards if you get it right:

“The source of its unity springs from a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ which gives the Institution its distinctive character. As a result of this inspiration, the community is animated by a spirit of freedom and charity; it is characterized by mutual respect, sincere dialogue, and protection of the rights of individuals. It assists each of its members to achieve wholeness as human persons; in turn, everyone in the community helps in promoting unity, and each one, according to his or her role and capacity, contributes towards decisions which affect the community, and also towards maintaining and strengthening the distinctive Catholic character of the Institution.”

That all sounds excellent. But that was 1990 – and is anyone bold enough to make the claim nearly 30 years on that we have achieved that? The USCCB produced a 25 year report which is is rich in comments about ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation’, but somewhat lacking in specifics. And that, of course, is in the US – so may not offer much to the UK – except an example of how opaque prose discourages serious questions. America has many ‘Catholic Schools’ and the USCCB at least has some views on these things – whatever may be the criticisms of it. Here, we have made a start, of sorts, with the ‘Cathedrals Group’ of Universities whose members ‘share a common faith heritage and a strong commitment to values such as social justice, respect for the individual and promoting the public good through their work with communities and charities.’ That’s good to know, but does not take us further into the question of what a Catholic University in the UK might look like.


The history of religion


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The former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church (1992-2000), the Right Rev Richard Holloway has just published a book called A Little History of Religion (Yale, £14.99, pp. 244), which I reviewed for The Times, but since that is behind a paywall for many, I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts on it here in a less formal setting.

The first thing to say is it is well-written book, and few will come away not knowing more about the religions of the world than they did before reading it. It is very much the product of its author’s own theological evolution, and its conclusions are not surprising to those who have read any of his last few books. Religion is the product of human imagination; it served our needs when we knew no better; it did some good things; it did more bad things (at least in its monotheistic forms); and it is now on its way out. Long before he announced his own conversion to a ‘post religious’ point of view, Holloway had seemed almost a caricature of the progressive, self-consciously ‘modern’ cleric, who never saw a ‘progressive’ cause he couldn’t support, or an orthodox Christian position he could. Naturally he was a frequent broadcaster on the BBC, and often asked to contribute to newspapers and magazines; he was the very model of modern bishop. In some ways the caricature was unfair. He thinks deeply about what he writes, but if it ever really existed, somewhere along the way, his faith in the redeeming power of Christ faded away. That viewpoint dominates the book.

The connection between such a character of church leadership and the state of the Church in the modern West would make an interesting study; whatever their personal virtues, men who do not really believe in Jesus except as an interesting moral teacher cannot make good shepherds. What they can do, however, is to spread doubt and encourage those who would do the same. The hungry sheep look up and are fed stones. Holloway’s teleology is a common one. With the advance of science and the spread of better education, religion has had its day. But let us stop here for a moment. For an author sensitive to the cultural imperialism of some religions (including the one he used to belong to), this is a strangely Western viewpoint, ignoring the fact that Europe is very much an outlier in global terms. The notion, once common (and implicit here) that the rest of the world would surely follow the enlightened example of the West, gets little support from an example of trends outside the Western world, and even there, his (to him) optimistic conclusion that religion will be replaced by ‘secular humanism’, seems doubtful on a long-term projection of demographic trends, which see Islam becoming steadily more important. Since he is critical of the founder of Islam for using war as an instrument of his spiritual purposes, one might have expected a pause for thought here.

Holloway’s technique, like his prose, beguiles. He takes what he calls a ‘zig-zag’ approach, which could, in less skilful hands, have been disastrous, but which, in his own, offers us an interesting path through the subject, beginning with why humans have always needed a God or gods (a phenomenon which might have detained him for longer had he offered us some reflections on its implications) then proceeds on an erudite pilgrimage through the world’s religions. It is easy to spot his favourites. He likes those religions which he thinks sit most lightly on their devotees and which align them (in his view) with Western environmental concerns, so the Jains, with their renunciation of desire and refusal to make judgements about right and wrong, like the Quakers (for not dissimilar reasons) score highly with him. The religion of the Native Americans inspires one of his few rhetorical flights (‘They had a sacred connection to the land that sustained them … They felt themselves to be enclosed in a living mystery’), and he writes movingly of their ‘crucifixion’ at the hands of the slave-owning colonists, without noting their own slave-owning habits and some of the less desirable manifestations of their culture

If, at times, this comes close to being an A-level primer for ‘World Religions’ (with better prose but no illustrations), it is also curiously dated in its treatment of Christianity. With the exception of a mention of the Eastern Orthodox Church, his Christianity is that of the West, and his treatment of that fails to reflect the scholarship of the last thirty years. Despite the work of scholars like Eamon Duffy, Holloway still gives us a Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation that was corrupt and in decline, and persists in writing as though in England it was all about Henry VIII’s libido. His Reformation story is mainly about England, which allows him to deal with America, but from this point on, there is a sense that the book loses its global ambitions and becomes about the Anglosphere. Here, as ever, he has interesting asides about some of the stranger manifestations of apocalyptic belief, charting the myriad disappointments of those who have preached the end of the world; one day, no doubt, their moment will come.

As Hollway eases us into the modern period, his focus remains Eurocentric, both in the areas he treats and the way he treats them. Naturally, he approves of the Ecumenical movement in Christianity, but seems to see it as the antechamber to his favoured ‘secular humanism’, as it perhaps was for him and has been for others. He has predictably hard things to say about fundamentalism, which shades into disapproval of any church which fails to accept the dictates of twentieth-century Western liberal humanism. This gives the impression that, in a very unecumenical way, he fails to understand the theological arguments against women priests, or (more likely) considers them spurious and self-serving excuses not to do the right thing (as he sees it).

In the end, Holloway offers us a period-piece to which people will react in different ways: to those who suspect that some bishops have never quite believed what the men and women who pay their salaries believe, this book will offer succour; to those who stick with the secularisation thesis, it offers hope; and to those who think religions are a bad thing, it offers ammunition. But for anyone wondering about the significance of the fact that across the globe, religious belief is rising, and for those wondering about the effects of that even in the West, there is nothing to be had from Holloway; he knows what he knows with a certainty which was lacking in his Christian faith. This is a book which starts by asking the biggest questions, but it ends with the most trite and conventional liberal answers.

[This is a longer version of a review which appeared in The Times on 20 August].






Christianity and the value of life


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Our friend Steve made an excellent comment on yesterday’s post:

Aside from religion are there grounds to value another person for anything other than utilitarian reasons? Reason can construct all sorts of arguments in favour of humans living cooperatively because this produces good outcomes for individuals and their children. Where cooperative endeavour is unproductive of such benefits, as in the case of, say, disabled babies, then are there any purely reasonable grounds to continue with such endeavours?

That is a good question. If we take a ‘survival of the fittest’ line, then anything, or anyone, who is unproductive to the survival of the tribe should be jettisoned; food is always at a premium, why have useless mouths around consuming it and giving back nothing in return?

Christians have not always lived up to Christ’s teaching, but they believe that each human life has a unique value, and that Christ died for each of us. There are no ‘superfluous’ lives; none of us is a mere object to be put aside when it has no obvious purpose. Indeed, it was, in part, and ironically, because of the value that we place on life that David Steel’s abortion bill got through parliament – much was made of the plight of those women who went to back-street abortionists, and with the assurances that abortions would happen only when two doctors certified that the mother’s health was at risk, MPs felt able to pass the bill. Those assurances have not been met, and as recent events at the Marie Stopes Clinics have show, it is by no means certain women’s health is well-served. Statistics also suggest that although illegal, gender-biased abortion is common. It is a sign of the power of group-think on this subject that feminist groups, like ‘black lives matter’ groups seem content not to protest against something which kills far more females and blacks than any number of police forces. But then if your enemy is an abstraction called the ‘patriarchy’, and you believe that its adherents are your main enemies on the abortion issue, the twisted logic makes sense within such a solipsism.

The difficulty here is that ethics are at a discount; this is about power. On that basis, why should anyone give way to the demands of feminists or black people if they have the power to suppress them? What is the argument from survival for valuing feminists or black lives? One can construct a woman’s or a black person’s argument for why their lives matter, but so can everyone else, but once we are in a world where the unborn and the infants can be killed because they are inconvenient, there is a slippery slope argument which leads to some very dark places.

Christianity is a radical religion. It scandalised those Jews who saw themselves as the chosen people. Its founder paid no regard to social standing, with St James being very firm on those who put the poor at the back of the synagogue and invited the rich up to the front. St Paul took this to the conclusion that in Christ there was neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile – we were all one in him. Those so often left behind – women, slaves, the poor, were attracted to a religion which told them that their lives had a unique value. What it said then, it says now. What it said to a world which held human life cheap and valued hedonism, it says still to that world.

The Christian argument in favour of the unique value of each human life is clear. What is less so is the argument for that without Christianity.




The option for infanticide?


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death chess

Arguments have logical conclusions. If it is allowable to abort babies in the womb if they ‘threaten’ the life of the mother or have a health condition, then it has long been something of a puzzle, logically, why the same thing should not apply to new-borns, who, after all, are even more helpless (having no means of feeding themselves at all). Apart from death and taxes, the third thing that is inevitable in this world is that a bad argument will eventually be pushed to its logical conclusion. A recent edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics has a piece by two authors arguing just that case.

The authors go on to state that the moral status of a newborn is equivalent to a fetus in that it cannot be considered a person in the “morally relevant sense.” On this point, the authors write:

Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.


Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.

And there we have it, and a better example of the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument you could not find. Because lawmakers have allowed research to be conducted on ‘spare embryos’ and because some legal systems allow the death penalty, then newborns should be killed if it is convenient. Situations
where after-birth abortion should be considered acceptable include instances where the newborn would be putting the well-being of the family at risk, even if it had the potential for an “acceptable” life. The authors cite Downs Syndrome as an example, stating that while the quality of life of individuals with Downs is often reported as happy, “such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care.

Leaving aside the ‘ethics’ of equating a newborn child with a convicted murderer (one really does wonder about an ‘ethicist’ who can advance such a thesis), the ramifications of this argument take us back to the age of Nazi eugenics. If being alive confers no rights, and if the main consideration is someone else’s valuation of your quality of life, then there is no telling where such arguments will lead – although the Nazi era provides us with chilling examples. If personhood is subject to situational ethics, especially at the hands of such ‘ethicists’, I doubt anyone would want to be poor, sick, disabled or old. But their argument contains an inconvenient truth – which is that it is the logical end of the pro-abortion argument. All that remains to be decided is at what age a child should be free from the threat of post-birth abortion – as a friend of mine commented with black humour, ‘few children would survive the terrible twos’ on that basis.

The editors of the Journal concerned have commented in a passage which perfectly sums up the debased state of our Western culture:

… the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises. The authors provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject.

Such is the brave new world promised us by situational ethics and relativism. Where the only basis of morality is a societal consensus, there is no firm ground, and all is sand – and we know what happens to those who build their houses on sand. The editor notes: ‘The paper also draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practised in the Netherlands.’ So if you thought that no society would allow infanticide, think again.

The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument. Moreover, it supports freedom of ethical expression.

And there we have it. Not killing newborn babies is simply one ‘moral view’ among many others. Oh what a brave new world that has such people (although fewer of the wrong sort) in it!


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