Politics and Religion


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popefrancis pray for the hungry

When I was young, my father, who rarely spoke about such things anyway, advised me never to talk about politics or religion, so running a blog which combines the two is not, it is safe to say, what he’d have advised. The current culture clash in America is a good example of why his advice, although useful in social situations, could not be followed. The internet headlines saying that the Pope, the last Pope, the bishop or whoever is telling Catholic they can’t vote for Hillary Clinton are, as one of last week’s posts attempted to explain, inaccurate; but nonetheless, if you are a Catholic and you are intending to vote for her because of all the other issues, then you should bear in mind the effect that will have not only on the issue of abortion, but on the make up of the Supreme Court (could Obama be appointed?); the attitude of her camp towards Catholic beliefs should also give pause for thought. But then is Mr Trump in some way a better bet? His record of pro-life issues seems chequered, and his attitude toward minorities, women and just about anyone who he does not identify as a natural supporter, could hardly be said to be in line with Gospel teaching. However, if one starts down that road there is no end to before reaching the natural conclusion that no politician’s programme is wholly compatible with Gospel teaching – even if one could agree how the Gospel teaching ought to translate into the political sphere. It would no doubt be nice if, as the early Christians appear to have done, we could all dip into a common purse to which we had all contributed according to our means, but our fallen human nature has ensured that has not become the model for Christian communities.

In that sense, the Gospel is directed at each of us, at changing our hearts and minds, and by doing that, by conforming us more to God’s will, helping us be part of a change. Were each of us to behave as God wants us to behave, then the world would become a better place. But our impact, we might complain can only be local; local is good, and is better than no impact. We exist in a society profoundly suspicious of Christians and Christianity, and if we are honest we’d have to admit that the behaviour of some in all churches is part of what has created that atmosphere. As ever when one group in society preaches a moral reformation, any shortcomings in its members will be used mercilessly to smear the vast majority of people in that church who lead blameless and even priaseworthy lives; the critic with a hostile agenda is not interested on those people, he obsesses only on the black sheep. But, of course, he does so not for the reasons Our Lord did – to save them – but to use them as sticks with which to beat others.

Which, of course, brings us back to where we started, which is that our faith becomes a political weapon in the hands of those who would seek to mobilise us for agenda which are not our agenda. Attempts to do this are best resisted. The individual can make up his or her mind as to how much their faith would let them vote for candidate x or y – but no one should pretend that that will advance the kingdom of God as much as dealing with their own sense of sin and walking with God’s laws would.

The illusion of progress


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Second Adam

At the heart of the attitude evidenced in the comments of the Clinton campaign about Catholicism is a common enough attitude. The person making the comment, like the person to whom he or she is making them, is aligned with the spirit of the age and is the modern day Pharisee – thanking fate (he or she does not, of course, believe in God) that he (or she) is not like those backward looking folk hanging on to their guns and their religion. They have advanced far beyond such things and entered into the Nirvana of contemporary thought where the only bad thing is to be sure about anything except the backwardness of those who do not agree with the common wisdom of the age. That such ‘wisdom’ is untested and untried is no bar to those who hold these things on no more than the authority of the fact they wish to sound ‘cool’ and what used to be called ‘with it’. ‘Group think’ is a very powerful phenomenon, and not least among those who like to think of themselves as intellectuals.

And yet, and yet, there are very many men and women of intellect who believe in God, and who are humble enough to admit that the secrets of the universe are not wholly revealed to mankind – whatever its high opinion of itself. There was that brief moment of utter hubris in some circles after the fall of Communism when people were bold enough to say that history had ended. But the Gods of the Copybook headings had their revenge – as they tend to. As we survey the chaos that is the Middle East and watch its ripples spread to the corners of Europe, we might well wish history was ended. Instead, we see those instruments of post-1945 civilisation such as the UN and its various agencies, and NATO, all powerless to intervene to do anything to save the millions whose lives are being wrecked by the violence.

The nineteenth century was full of thinkers such as Macaulay who imagined that they had entered some new age marked by progress – he could barely imagine how people had managed to survive in Elizabethan manor houses or castles, and rejoiced in their destruction and replacement by ‘modern’ architecture – a view which has not survived in that sphere or, it might be added, in others. Mankind, as Kipling’s poem implies, remains much what it has always been – the the dog returns always to its vomit.

Nor should this surprise us, because it is precisely what our Christian faith tells us, that however hard man tries to do what he knows is right, he does not what he wills, but too often what he did not mean to do. The words of the old Anglican general confession ring true – ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us’. Nor is there. Had there been then the Lord Jesus would not have needed to have become Incarnate, suffered and died and then rose again to save us. There is one name alone which saves us – and it is not that of any politician. The works of men are vain, empires rise and they fall, and for all save a few, their names pass away and are forgotten. True ‘progress’ is possible only in cooperation with the wisdom of God. But we have eaten of the fruit of the tree of good and evil, and have exiled ourselves from Eden.

The Church and the Nations

One of my favourite songs is I Vow to Thee, My Country, which uses an adapted version of Holst’s Jupiter. The song speaks of the call to be faithful to one’s earthly country and to the heavenly country that Christians inherit, sometimes referred to as the New Jerusalem, taken from the last chapters of Revelation.

This song does raise questions, however, and it also highlights the differences in patriotic fervour between cultures. Whenever I visit the United States I am struck by the prevalence of the flag and the pride which her citizens show in her history, her institutions, and her values. At the same time, however, I also notice a tension, a kind of identity crisis: there are those who would like her to stand unashamedly as a Christian nation, and there are those who would like to see her defined in secular terms. Both parties stake claims as to the intentions and disposition of the Founding Fathers.

The United Kingdom is a different story. We are more reserved and questioning concerning patriotism. Sure the England flags come out during the World Cup and in Brexit conversations, but on the whole we do not express ourselves in the way that our American cousins do. Does that mean that we do not have these feelings? Or are we simply more reserved?

As a Christian I am aware that the Church is drawn from all nations. Our Head of State is not the Queen or the President or the Prime Minister: it is Christ, God’s King. Our national interests are subordinated to the needs of His Kingdom. We send money overseas to help our brothers and sisters in Christ and to support missionary projects – money that the strict nationalist would have us spend at home. We show love and mercy to people whom we ought to consider risks to our national security. Why? Because we live in the hope that they may give their souls to Christ.

God divided the children of Noah into nations and sent them on their way with different languages. But God came in the person of His Son, Jesus, to make us a family once more. In Christ, He has broken down the national and cultural barriers that divide us. We now have a common frame of reference, a recognized truth that we share in common: Christ. He makes possible our fellowship in a world of divisions.

One day He will come again to judge the nations to which we once belonged. He will judge them on how they treated His people, His brothers and sisters. Some will enter into blessing and honour for their righteous acts and holy motivation; others will be sent into torment and disgrace.

I leave you with these words from Matthew 25:

When the Son of man comes come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit upon the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.


Patronising and insulting


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The last acceptable prejudice is the one which was the subject of Cardinal Dolan’s comments which form the title of this post – anti-Catholicism. It is inconceivable that had someone from Hillary Clinton’s campaign made the sort of comments about Muslims that were made about Catholics that that person would still be employed; moreover, one can be certain that their name would have been all over the media and a Twitter-mob would have been stalking them. But insult Catholics and – well, meh, who cares? So it is fine to say:

“It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith. They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.”

Toleration? Only of what liberals find tolerable. But that fact is now so clear, from the reaction here to Brexit, and in the USA to Trump, that it is in danger of becoming a cliche. This does not mean that there are not real reasons for opposing both, but it highlights the ease of access of a lazy set of stereotypes – which, as ever, are a substitute for thinking.

Can A Catholic in the USA vote for Mrs Clinton? Let us see what Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) wrote in 2004:

When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.] 

Earlier in the same letter he quotes from Evangelium Vitae:

Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. […] This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it” (no. 74).

It is clear from the whole tone of the Clinton campaign that she regards the stance of the Church on ‘life’ issues as ‘backward’. A serious attempt has been made by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (go find it, I’m not providing a link) to provide a ‘Catholic Spiring’ in which the down-trodden masses in the pews would rise against the ‘medieval monarchy’ and the antiquated attitudes. It has hit the buffers of the fact that those in the Church who think like this are generally in their seventies and already find the orthodox vigour of the young problematic. Despite the claims of one of the founders of the group that they challenge the orthodoxies of ‘both sides’, no one has been able to produce what does not exist – which is evidence of it challenging the liberal line on abortion and contraception. Contrary to the stereotype, most Catholics long ago saw through the claim that ‘dialogue’ was about ‘challenging both side’; it is always tipped in favour of challenging orthodoxy. That is why there will be no ‘Catholic spring’ – we are already the Easter people and ‘alleluia’ is, as St John Paul II said, our song.

It is plain that those with a vote in America’s elections are free to use it as they wish. I would not want to have to choose either of the candidates. But if one places the highest value on the sanctity of human life in the womb, then voting Clinton is not in alignment with that priority.

This apple tastes funny…

Matthew 7:15-20:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruits.

Jesus teaches an important principle in this section of the Sermon on the Mount: do not judge by appearances but by the results of a ministry or teaching. The context is the danger posed by false prophets and false teachers. In every age such figures have appeared to try and lead the faithful astray, and the very end of the age is marked by the worst kind of spiritual deception (vide Matt. 24:24-27; Rev. 13:11-15).

This principle has allowed the Church to assess the efficacy of various ministries and to reconsider their doctrinal and methodological foundations. When we see cases of trauma or relapse or misunderstanding, according to this principle, we should re-examine the process and the practitioner that claimed to have effected a transformation.

Deception can be a very difficult thing to spot: if it were not so Christ and His Apostles would not have been concerned to warn us about it. Consider the following passage:

For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

The context in this passage is the threat posed by Judaizers to the early Church. Their words seemed full of wisdom because the Church had been taught to revere the Word of God in the Old Testament and to recognize the place of Israel in salvation history. Moreover, it was clear from the teaching of the Apostles that God cared about morality: our sins were forgiven in Christ, but that did not mean that sin had been declared good.

Paul exhorted the Church of Corinth to be watchful and to exercise discernment. Falsehood is at war with the Truth, and it seeks to lead people away from Jesus, who is the Truth. The harsh language used by Paul was meant as a wake-up call to this fact of life. He used serious language because our souls are at stake and because we will face persecution for Jesus’ sake.

I said, therefore, to you, that you will die in your sins: for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)

And you will be hated by all men for My name’s sake: but the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

The Jews and Christians of Arabia were persecuted because they would not compromise the truth. They recognized that this new “revelation” was not from God, that it contradicted the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, they could see the fruit of this new teaching in the lives of its adherents: violence, theft, rape, murder, idolatry, and other forms of licentiousness. This was not the Way.

That new teaching has gone through a variety of changes over the years to make itself palatable to the West, but its core remains the same, and its fruits continue to manifest. The work of ISIS has convinced many in the Middle East that this religion, though it was delivered by one like an angel of light, cannot be from God. In rejecting the false prophet, they have found the Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Deception is always around: examine the fruits.


A man of courage


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Blessed John Paul II

Today is the feast day of St John Paul II, a man who, even in an age of giants such as Thatcher and Reagan, stood out on the the world stage. He was the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, and if ever there was a larger than life figure, it was him. A youngish man (for a Pope) when he came to the throne, he made an immediate impression with his vigorous personality, and he set a pattern since followed by all his successors, of globe-trotting. This was not because he liked travelling, but because he knew the Church was a global Church, and he knew that by visiting churches locally he could make a great impact. Not everyone approved of his style, and some of his gestures towards other faiths and other Christian churches upset those who had no idea there could even be a Pope like the current one. But in all these things he has one objective, to show the world what a Catholic could be like – and in so doing, he set the benchmark high.

His own background was as dramatic a could be imagined. A Pole by birth, he found his homeland wrecked by totalitarianism, first from the Right in the form of Nazism, and then from the Left in the form of Communism. He distrusted both system because he had experienced them. If his enmity seemed aimed mostly at Communism, that because it was the great enemy for most of his life. Many Poles, and many in the West, counselled caution, and thought the best that could be done was to establish a modus vivendi with Communism; but John Paul II- whilst never reckless (after all it was not his life that was at most risk) also refused to believe the common wisdom that Communism was here to stay. He had lived under its soulless rule and he could not believe that such a system could last; man did not live by bread alone, and the fact that Communism had difficulty even providing that made its eventual fate inevitable in his eyes.

Of course the Soviets hated him, and all the more when the 1980s threw up two other world leaders who refused to believe that ‘containment’ was all that could be hoped for. Naturally, the foreign policy establishment in their own countries distrusted Reagan and Thatcher, whom they dismissed as unsophisticated thinkers unable to grasp the flexible and nuanced diplomacy that was necessary to keep the Cold War from turning hot. Like John Paul II, these were leaders who relied on their instincts and beliefs rather than ‘position papers’ from the diplomats – and like him, they turned out to be right – something for which they have never quite been forgiven by those ‘experts’ whom they showed to be wrong.

If in the heyday of his vigour, St John Paul II set one sort of example to the world, then in his later years he set another – that of the suffering servant. As his health deteriorated it would have been easy enough for him to have gone into seclusion and even to have retired – but he did no such thing. There are prudential arguments that it might have been better had he done so as that might have prevented some of the scandals from spreading – but that depends not only on hindsight, but on the view that any successor would have had more success here, which, given the mind-set of the Church then seems improbable. Be that as it may, by staying where he did and literally suffering in public, St John Paul emphasised that human life is sacred at all its stages, and that illness did not mean any loss of personhood.

St John Paul II was, I think, the greatest leader of my lifetime, and this is a suitable day to pay tribute to him.

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism


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Over the course of the last posts, here, and here, and his link on Catholic social teaching, here, Chalcedon has done much to limn the problems many of us have reconciling our present economy to our Christian beliefs.

Most here will know that I have quite deep libertarian political tendencies, but I too, recognize those problems. It seems to me that what we see today as capitalism, is not what I grew up with, it has become something else, the unchanging focus on the quarterly bottom line highlights the problem. The world I grew up in honored, sometimes too much, the loyal employee, who stayed with the same company, doing his best to help the company, which in turn was loyal to him. Today, that entire ethos is gone, and work has both become all encompassing and completely individualized. But we, especially as Christians know that we are far better as individuals in a community, whether that community is a corporation, the military, or indeed the church.

So how did we get here, and where do we go from here, if anywhere. Most of you know how my thinking goes generally, but I’m no expert, I take in data, analyze it in view of my experience, and draw conclusions. As they say, your mileage may differ, in fact, it probably will.

But recently I ran across something that strikes me as relevant. Professor Kathryn Tanner, the Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. gave a series of Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. I think there are five of them, I’ve only watched the first so far, but I think she has a quite large contribution to make to the conversation.

Here is her introductory lecture.

I do agree with much of what she say about economics, I’m still evaluating, though. What do you think?

Markets and values


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Wilde was right – a philistine is a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing; we inhabit a philistine society. We talk a lot about ‘human rights’, but as even the briefest acquaintanceship with Western foreign policy towards China and Saudi Arabia will reveal, we do not put them ahead of making money. We are happy to lecture Russia, but then America is not heavily dependent on Russia for very much. This points to the wider societal question of how we find a language for dealing with things which are valuable for what they are, not for what they are worth? An example would be the idea of the inalienable dignity of every one of God’s children. This is only partly captured in our language of ‘human rights’, and as the examples just offered suggest, is far more contingent than we might care to suppose. Involved in this is the question which the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron formulated in terms of the ‘Big Society’. Mocked by the media for its vagueness it was, in fact, nothing more than what Edmund Burke called the ‘small batallions – that is those bodies intermediate between the State and the individual. We in the West have tended to reduce the role of such groups, not least in the area of welfare provision, and, as the State has come to realise there are limits on what it can do, gaps, dangerous gaps, have been left, and having destroyed most of the ‘small batallions’ we have simply left some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society at the mercy of circumstances which are not in their favour. It is one thing to drive down on welfare claimants who defraud the system, it is quite another to invent a system which routinely tells chronically sick people that they are fit to work, whilst running a parallel system which allows fabulously wealth international companies to pay ‘all the tax that is required’, when that tax is less then some individuals pay. That creates a distrust in the system which is corrosive of the bonds of society.

The Government in the UK makes noises about devolving power to the big provincial cities, but even if it did more and actually began to deliver on the promises, it is far from clear that it would do much to alleviate the sense of helplessness and deracination in the populace which has helped to fuel the anger we saw in the ‘Brexit’ campaign, and which we see in the Trump’s support. It is very easy for the metropolitan elite to dismiss these things, but we have already seen their effects in the UK, and even if Trump loses (and lose he will) those who backed him are unlikely to have the anger assuaged by anything President Clinton II might or might not do; quite the opposite.

But we do not have a real concept of the common good, we have lost, or at the most optimistic reading, are losing, a sense of shared values. We lack a sense of what it is human beings are for, why we exist, and what we should be doing with our lives. The notion, popular during the Reagan/Thatcher years, that wealth creation and ‘trickle down’ to the rest of us, would produce some sort of answer, even if only unlimited growth and the consumerist utopia it promised, seemed, for a while, before the crash of 2008, to contain a sort of answer which, whilst unpalatable and even chilling to those of us who thought human beings should be aiming higher than the wallet/pocket-book, nonetheless kept a lot of people happy, has crumbled into the dust of stagnant, and even regressive income distribution. The failure of this ‘dream’ has produce a great deal of anger but no solutions.

To Christians none of this is surprising, but what might be is the failure of Christian thinkers to put forward an alternative – one based on a conception of the human condition which sees us not as consumers but as brothers and sisters and as children of the living God. We cannot, of course, expect secular thinkers to do this, but we might expect Christian ones to be less backward in coming forward. It is not, after all, as though the secularist alternatives seem either varied, new, or particularly brave.

On a darkling plain?


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One of Jessica’s reflections on Arnold’s Dover Beach, came to mind as I pondered yesterday’s post and some of the responses to it. If you follow the link you will find the full text of the poem, in which the poet responds to the ebbing of the ‘sea of faith’ with the reflection that the lovers should cling to each other, as that was all they could know to be true in a society where the certainties were fading away. She suggested that there might have been a spot of self-indulgence in the attachment to despair. That may well be how it might strike a younger person, but to an older one, it seems a realistic enough reaction to an otherwise intolerable situation. She also mentioned Larkin’s line from An Arundel Tomb that ‘what will survive of us is love’. Larkin, of course, calls this an ‘almost true’ ‘almost instinct’. hinting at the difficulty the modern sensibility has with something that looks like a sincere expression of deep emotion; there seems to need to be at least some nod toward the direction of a knowing cynicism. That, too, is part of the modern malaise. In losing God we lose also that sense that we are loved, loved unconditionally, and that we have a unique value simply by being who we are. In losing that, in losing God, we lose an anchor which holds us to a place our ancestors would have recognised, but which is increasingly foreign to us.

We are not ‘alone’ as on a darkling plain, we are children of the living God, and as such we are part of a relationship, even as the Trinity is a relationship between its three persons; as it is characterised by mutual love, then so, too, should our fellowship with each other. Christ the Word became Incarnate, thus honouring our flesh; we are not simply creatures of spirit, we are material beings, and the material world in which we live, not least its local manifestations such as our churches and homes and communities, matter to us; they help nurture and support us, and we do the same to them. Traditional religion has contributed immensely to social cohesion and our sense of justice; indeed it has helped define our society and our laws; it helps locate us where we are, and, at the same time, to connect us to the transcendent. Catholic social teaching has much in it from which a society lost in materialism could still learn. The social order cannot, or should not at any rate, be reduced to a set of market transactions; culture is not simply a commodity to be traded at whatever price can be had for its material artefacts. If there is no more to the world than secular materialism, then there really is not that much purpose to life beyond eating, drinking and being merry, because tomorrow we die. But not can eat and drink, and many cannot be merry, and so what purpose did their lives serve? Down that road lies an instrumentalisation of the human person, where it seems quite ‘normal’ to celebrate the ability of one person to exercise their ‘freedom’ to realise their ‘happiness’ at the cost of a a human life in the womb, and where to argue over what everyone used to call a ‘baby’ seems wisdom rather than folly.

Is democracy simply a means to the end of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or has it some more moral purpose? Even to ask such a question in a society which lacks a common morality (or at least in which this is increasingly so) is to realise how far we have come from ‘Dover Beach’.