Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 7. On Faith.

The Big Question

Unto everything there is a season. And, believe it or not, it seems to be the closed season for Church-bashing in Ireland right now. In the hallowed corridors of RTE and in the right-thinking offices of The Irish Times, attention seems to have momentarily shifted from abortion, same-sex marriage, funeral eulogies, dissenting priests, the Magdalene laundries, and Pope Francis, and to have migrated to the crisis in the Ukraine, whistle blowers, the disappeared Malaysian air plane, and Manchester United’s poor run of form. (Of course, by the time this article appears, this might all have changed.)

I hope my readers won’t mind if I take advantage of this unexpected lull to turn from the controversies and slogans of the day towards less topical (but more important) matters. After all, Lent is the time for retreats, isn’t it?
If you publicly profess religious faith in today’s Ireland, it seems to make other people eager to discuss their own religious views with you. It’s rare indeed that you are confronted with an attitude of outright hostility. I think the number of militant atheists in Ireland is very small, though the clamour they make can lead us to mistake them for a mighty host. The attitude of most Irish people towards God could best be described as complicated, or perhaps even troubled. I think there is a tremendous spiritual thirst in the Ireland of our time, a thirst that is rather shy of declaring itself. But just bring up God and it becomes very obvious.

I was recently walking through the city centre at night with a friend, both of us making our way to our respective bus stops from a get-together where the talk had turned to the subject of religion. This friend describes himself as a humanist, but is far from hostile to religion—in fact, he says he would like to be convinced. He says that the wonders of the universe make him think there is ‘something out there’, but he finds himself continually frustrated by the concept of faith. “It always comes down to faith”, he lamented.

As usual, I found myself lacking the right words at the right moment. But I’ve been turning the matter around in my mind ever since—as indeed, I had been even before that conversation.

Losing Faith in Faith

Faith seems to be problematic for a lot of people. That is, the very concept of faith seems problematic. A little after 9/11, the ‘New Atheist’ writer Sam Harris made waves with his book The End of Faith. I haven’t read it, though I browsed it in a bookshop once, and I’ve read several reviews and responses. But the very title is interesting. I think it’s fair to say that, ever since religion began to be openly challenged in Western society, its critics have been reluctant to let go of the concept of faith along with it. Faith in God has been replaced by faith in man, or in science, or in progress, or (formerly) in the nation. Only very recently, it seems to me, has faith itself been denied the status of a virtue.

The most usual argument of those who attack faith, and especially faith in religion, is that faith is a dead-end, a conversation-stopper, a brick wall. They argue that religious believers brandish faith like a trump card that wins the game—or that ends the game, at least. Faith, from this point of view, is something that can’t be queried, can’t be interrogated, doesn’t lead to anything. Faith is the death of thought.

The funny thing is that, although this argument is understandable, I think it’s absolutely the worst argument that could be made against faith. It is faith, and not the rejection of faith, that opens horizons.
Think about it. To reject faith is to accept only what can be demonstrated, either scientifically or logically. But how many things can be demonstrated in this way? A great many, no doubt—but they are the least interesting and important things. If we adopt this anti-faith philosophy, then we can chart the stars, but we are forbidden from exclaiming: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Which of the two is the bolder act of the mind? If you restrict yourself to ‘just the facts’, what interesting statement can you make about anything at all, natural or supernatural?

Do we really want the ultimate truth about life and reality to be something that could be proven like a theorem? And what entitles us to expect that the universe would be like that, anyway?

Take the analogy of a movie, or a novel, or a poem. The things that can be said for sure about any such work of art are the least exciting things—for instance, the fact that the poem is a sonnet, or that the movie is two hours long, or that the novel is written in the first person singular. But the highest truths about the work of art—the meaning, the theme, the existential truths that it probes—are none of them on the surface, or easy to ‘show’. This is why great works of art provoke such impassioned debates and so many conflicting theories and schools of thought. Would Hamlet be a better play if its meaning could be settled scientifically, once and for all?
What's it all about, eh?
In the same way, it shouldn’t be surprising that the highest truths of all should be apprehended by faith rather than analysis, or by logic, or by observation.

But, you might object, there’s no reason to suppose that the universe is like a work of art. You might say that the deepest truth about our universe might well be something that can be established by science, or by pure reason. But isn’t it awfully prejudiced, isn’t it the sign of a narrow mind, to simply dismiss the possibility that ultimate truth might be something that can only be arrived at through faith?

Nor is it true to say that faith can’t be questioned, interrogated, or discussed. The first letter of Peter famously tells us to ‘always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you’. Does this mean that every Catholic should be able to launch into a disquisition on Thomas Aquinas and Church history? Of course not. Why should they be? If a man is asked what made him fall in love with his wife, would we expect his reply to outdo the poetry of W.B. Yeats in lyricism? And if it didn’t, would we assume that he married the lady on a whim?

I see no reason a man shouldn’t be allowed to defend his faith by saying something like this: “Well, I don’t believe the universe just popped out of nothing. It all seems too good to be an accident to me. Jesus seems like the wisest man who ever lived. Praying brings me comfort. Sometimes I think my prayers have been answered. I don’t think Christianity would have lasted as long as it has, and survived through all those persecutions, if it wasn’t true.” Is that a knockdown set of arguments that would pass muster in an academic debate? No. But is it the same as saying, ‘I believe Christianity is true because I have faith and that’s all there is to be said about it?’. Of course it’s not.
Scott Hahn, Catholic apologist. Every Catholic doesn't have to be Scott Hahn.
So faith doesn’t mean believing something in the absence of evidence, or contrary to evidence. It simply means that the evidence is not necessarily the type of evidence that the sceptic is demanding. And why should it be? What right has he to demand that it should be? Will he charge God with contempt of court for making use of miracles, apparitions, tradition, second-hand reports and mystical experiences?

Faith is not unreasonable, or lacking in reasons. But much more can be said for it than this.

The Adventure of Faith
Faith is truly an adventure. It is not simply an adventure in the sense that it opens up a universe more full of potential than mere scientific investigation ever could. It is a lived adventure. Faith rarely arrives in the soul like a light bulb being switched on. It is usually a gradual process, a story—and a unique story for every human being who comes to faith. The crucial moment might occur in the middle of a war zone, or it might occur in a deserted church on a winter morning. It is inherently dramatic, inherently poetic. Nor is the initial ‘yes’ the end of the road. Faith grows, and matures. It faces challenges.

Faith (to adopt a phrase of Pope Paul VI’s) concerns every man, and the whole man. It is the high privilege of every human being— whether that person be intellectually gifted or not, worldly wise or not, born into privilege or not—to say ‘yes’, freely, to the proposition that the universe is founded upon infinite love and wisdom. If we live in a godless universe, those who are smarter and who are born in the right time and place are almost certain to have the deeper grasp of reality. But if we live in a universe created by God, than we can rejoice in the truth of Christ’s words: “I praise you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Faith concerns the whole man—faith speaks not only to the intellect, but also to the emotions and the aesthetic sense and every other aspect of our humanity.

Faith makes life interesting. Why else is the ‘crisis of faith’ theme so irresistible to writers, and so compelling for their audiences? (Signs, the 2002 science fiction film starring Mel Gibson as a no-longer-practicing Episcopalian priest, is probably the best recent example of this theme). Indeed, it could be argued that almost every story is a kind of ‘crisis-of-faith’ story. Most stories end with the triumph of good over evil, of affirmation over negation, of loyalty over discord. Our faith in the ultimate goodness of things is rewarded. And when a story refuses to pander to the audience in this way—by giving us a bleak and dismal climax, for instance—we tend to come away feeling, not only unsatisfied, but that it isn’t a proper story at all.

Mel Gibson in Signs
If faith is such a deep yearning of the human spirit, can we really flourish if we repress it? And isn’t it reasonable to assume that we have this yearning in the first place because it is directed towards something real, something that’s out there?

I don’t think religious believers should be embarrassed by the idea of faith. I think we should present it to the world for what it is—something human, something dramatic, something beautiful and life affirming and convincing. And just the sort of gift that a loving God would give to his children.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Library Side of Things

What appalling tosh is this, I wonder?
Earlier this year I entered a library assistant blog post competition. Despite my extensive experience at blogging (!), I didn't come anywhere.

Although libraries are enthralling places in general, it's hard to write something entertaining and interesting about the actual nitty-gritty of library work. I went for a bit of a colour piece about the book exchange outside the library. The winning entries were more serious-minded and technical.

But here is the post, anyway, on the blog of CONUL (the Consortium of National and University Libraries). Some people may be interested.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

What I Took from the Fairy Queen

A few years ago, I made a serious effort to read The Fairy Queen (or, if you insist, The Faerie Queene), the long narrative poem by Edmund Spenser which is much praised and seldom read. One of the reasons I wanted to read it was because C.S. Lewis, who I admire so much, praised it so highly. Not only that, but he made it sound very interesting and absorbing. I was drawn to the idea of a timeless never-never land of high romance.

Edmund Spenser

Added to that, I admit, there was the challenge of the thing, like wanting to climb a particular hill-- all the more attractive and enticing because it is a landmark.

I gave up a little way into the second book, and I decided that I was never going to try again. (Although, who knows...?) C.S. Lewis wrote very interestingly of the themes and ideas under the surface, but it was the surface itself I found tedious. In writing, physical description is the thing I find most boring, and this poem is packed with it. Descriptions of physical combat are something else I find boring, and the book is also packed with these. (Just like The Iliad, which I finished but probably shouldn't have.)

However, two passages lodged in my mind. One was a description of the Seven Deadly Sins, embodied as characters. (The Fairy Queen is an allegory, or a quasi-allegory.) 

The other was just the opposite. The hero of the beginning of the book is the Red Cross Knight, and in Canto Ten he goes to a 'house of holiness' to recover and to do penance for his sins. Considering this is a poem dripping with all sorts of gorgeousness and finery and ceremony, (and also with a great deal of foullness and ugliness), the sudden change towards the austere and clean and humble is very striking. He is led by Una, his fair lady

Arrived there, the dore they find fast lockt;
For it was warely watched night and day,
For feare of many foes: but when they knockt,
The Porter opened unto them streight way:
He was an aged syre, all hory gray,
With lookes full lowly cast, and gate full slow,
Wont on a staffe his feeble steps to stay,
Hight Humiltà. They passe in stouping low;
For streight and narrow was the way which he did show.

Each goodly thing is hardest to begin,
But entred in a spacious court they see,
Both plaine, and pleasant to be walked in,
Where them does meete a francklin faire and free,
And entertaines with comely courteous glee,
His name was Zele, that him right well became,
For in his speeches and behaviour hee
Did labour lively to expresse the same,
And gladly did them guide, till to the Hall they came.

There fairely them receives a gentle Squire,
Of milde demeanure, and rare courtesie,
Right cleanly clad in comely sad attire;
In word and deede that shew'd great modestie,
And knew his good to all of each degree,
Hight Reverence. He them with speeches meet
Does faire entreat; no courting nicetie,
But simple true, and eke unfained sweet,
As might become a Squire so great persons to greet.

And afterwards them to his Dame he leades,
That aged Dame, the Ladie of the place:
Who all this while was busy at her beades:
Which doen, she up arose with seemely grace,
And toward them full matronely did pace.
Where when that fairest Una she beheld,
Whom well she knew to spring from heavenly race,
Her hart with joy unwonted inly sweld,
As feeling wondrous comfort in her weaker eld.

And her embracing said, O happie earth,
Whereon thy innocent feet doe ever tread,
Most vertuous virgin borne of heavenly berth,
That, to redeeme thy woefull parents head,
From tyrant’s rage, and ever dying dread,
Hast wandred through the world now long a day
Yet ceasest not thy weary soles to lead
What grace hath thee now hither brought this way?
Or doen thy feeble feet unweeting hither stray?

Strange thing it is an errant knight to see
Here in this place, or any other wight,
That hither turnes his steps. So few there bee
That chose the narrow path, or seeke the right:
All keepe the broad high way, and take delight
With many rather for to go astray,
And be partakers of their evill plight,
Then with a few to walke the rightest way;

O foolish men, why haste ye to your owne decay?

The whole canto can be found here.

I find this all very beautiful. What strikes me most is how counter-intuitive it is. I have heard the claim that all religions and all systems of morality are pretty much the same, and that human nature is pretty much the same everywhere and always. I don't agree with this. The Christian ideal, at least, seems to me very distinctive in its celebration of so many of the things which we are naturally inclined to see as undesirable.

Whatever Spenser's personal guilt or failings, he is obviously holding the Christian ideal up here not simply as a starry ideal, or a standard to which we direct ourselves in a vague kind of way, or the province of a few specially holy people, but the expected business of the hero of a story-- like courage and pluck and initiative in the hero of a modern thriller.

I have to admit that it takes Christianity to make the Christian ideals compelling to me, even as ideals. It's one thing having chivalry towards the poor, or the sick, or the simple. It's one thing accepting deprivation with graciousness and stoicism. But the Christian notion that these things are admirable in themselves is something that would, in my view, be almost impossible to really believe unless it had the backing of a whole religious tradition.

However, once you have seen the beauty of humility, chastity, meekness, forgiveness, and so forth-- in the lives of the saints, for instance-- it becomes real and unforgettable.

"Dammit, there's sugar in this!"
Strangely enough, it always puts me in mind of Orwell's observation about sweetened tea: "Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again." This is true-- I had the experience myself many, many years ago.

I must also, once again, quote Chesterton:

White is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.

For many years, in Christian Europe, warring and vastly rich nobles decorated their castles with depictions of hermits, saints and momento mori. They had personal chapels and chaplains to preach to them the virtues of peace, forgiveness, meekness, poverty and charity. Many find this hypocritical and absurd. I don't. I find it admirable.

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, with a momento mori

I find the momento mori particularly fascinating. We live in an era when life expectancy is high and the danger of fatal sickness or violent death is comparatively low. To our way of thinking, medievals and early moderns lived dangerous and deprived lives, and might have been forgiven for trying to enjoy life while they could. But that's not how they viewed it. They thought they were in too much danger of forgetting mortality and being seduced by the pleasures of the world and the moment. 

But why do I find such comfort in looking at momento mori pictures, and why do I feel that they are the very opposite of morbid?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 6: St. Patrick's Day, Comely Maidens, Pope Francis, Modern Drama

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

Last week I went to see a theatrical adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, directed by Jimmy Fay, in the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. I am not much of a theatre-goer, being much more a partisan of the cinema. A notice that I saw in the theatre’s bathroom might help to explain my aversion. It read: “Our wonderful housekeeping staff clean these toilets daily. However, if they are not to your satisfaction…” Extending the luvviness to the cleaning staff is rather sweet, but it’s the luvviness itself that tends to make me break out in a rash whenever I breathe the same air as theatre folk—players and punters alike. Silly? Perhaps, but there it is.

James Joyce
However, A Portrait of the Artist is a terrific novel, and one that made a huge impression on me when I first read it. That was when I was about the same age as Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s fictionalised version of himself. Stephen’s climactic epiphany on Dollymount Strand electrified me, and I still consider it one of the most brilliant flights of lyricism ever written.
Disheartened, he raised his eyes towards the slow-drifting clouds, dappled and seaborne. They were voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march, voyaging high over Ireland, westward bound. The Europe they had come from lay out there beyond the Irish Sea, Europe of strange tongues and valleyed and woodbegirt and citadelled and of entrenched and marshalled races. He heard a confused music within him as of memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could not capture even for an instant; then the music seemed to recede, to recede, to recede, and from each receding trail of nebulous music there fell always one longdrawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence. Again! Again! Again! A voice from beyond the world was calling. 

Given my admiration for the source material, I decided I would give the play a try. And Joyce’s prose and dialogue are so good that I guessed there was only so much damage that even the most perverse dramatisation could wreak upon it. However, this production really did its best—or rather, its worst.

The young man is a young girl. How clever!
Nobody will be surprised that Stephen Dedalus was played by a girl. This kind of gender bending seems to be par for the course these days, when idiotic gimmicks like an all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest are routine.

Give Up Yer Auld Sins

But this wasn’t the only daft stunt that the director pulled. Joyce’s novel, though it certainly has comic and ironic aspects, is at heart a very serious and even solemn portrait of a writer discovering his vocation. It’s also a very vivid picture of Ireland at a crucial moment in its history.

However, the New Theatre company seemed intent upon playing it as a kind of bawdy farce.

The legendary Christmas dinner scene, where an argument breaks out in the Dedalus household on the subject of Parnell’s fall and the Catholic Church’s role in it, was played entirely for laughs. When the Director of Vocations at Belvedere College is advising Stephen on the possibility of a priestly vocation, Stephen is frolicking with a dominatrix in the background. And when Stephen goes to confession to confess his liaisons with prostitutes—a dramatic highlight of the story—he is simultaneously entangled with a devilish lady of the night. Most bizarrely, the priests on stage carry a plastic, near-life-size skeleton around with them—presumably to symbolize the ‘dead hand’ of the Church.

Now, nobody is going to argue that A Portrait of the Artist paints a rosy picture of Catholicism. The entire book hinges on Stephen’s escape from the ‘nets’ of language, nationality and religion in order to devote himself to the life of a writer. But Joyce was too much of an artist to go in for caricatures. He never denied the debt he owed to Catholicism. A Portrait certainly doesn’t present the Catholic faith as being something silly and tawdry, as this production did. It takes it very seriously indeed.

It seems that contemporary Ireland is both obsessed with Catholicism and incapable of taking it seriously. It needs the Church as a villain, but it will only accept it as a comic opera villain.

The night wasn’t a complete disappointment, though. The bathroom was indeed very clean.

Eamon De Valera, symbol of everything modern Ireland hates
 Those Comely Maidens

By the time this column appears, St. Patrick’s Day will have come and gone. There will be the usual complaints about paddywhackery, gay activists looking to politicise parades, and alcohol. Discussion of the saint who converted the Irish to Christianity will, of course, be minimal.

St. Patrick’s Day, of course, was the occasion of √Čamon De Valera’s infamous ‘comely maidens’ radio speech, the speech where he never actually used the words ‘comely maidens’. (This phrase comes from a misreporting of his words in The Irish Press.)

I remember the first time I actually read the text of this speech. (I had already encountered a highly critical discussion of it in my history text-book, but it only quoted snippets.) It was, strangely enough, on a bus-shelter advertisement in Ballymun. There was no indication of who had paid for the advertisement, if it could be even described as an advertisement. It was simply a photograph of the Ballymun flats, looking suitably grim, juxtaposed with De Valera’s words. I suppose some individual or group had commissioned it to make a political point.

At this time, I was a teenager, a socialist, and a confirmed anti-nationalist. Patriotism seemed pointless to me, a mere distraction from the all-important matter of working conditions and standard of living. But, in spite of all that, I was touched by De Valera’s words, and baffled by the ridicule they inspired.

"...whose firesteads would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age..."
What’s Wrong with this Picture?

What is objectionable about the following? “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.”

In an era of rocketing childhood obesity, surely “the romping of sturdy children” could only be welcomed. We have endless campaigns against ageism, so why should a reference to ‘the wisdom of serene old age’ be laughed at? And, when everybody and his second cousin is now condemning the greed of the Celtic Tiger era, why should it be ridiculous to hope for a people who were ‘satisfied with frugal comfort’ and who ‘devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit?’. Granted, the ‘happy maidens’ might want to have their own athletic contests (incidentally, there was no reference to ‘dancing at the cross-roads’ in the speech, either). But Dev was hardly implying that they should be barred from them.

I won’t pretend that, after seeing this bus shelter ad, I boarded the bus to school as a convert to De Valera’s social vision. But it certainly stuck in my mind, and started to tug at the threads of my teenage self-assuredness.

In the Ireland of 2014, the agrarian idyll evoked in this St. Patrick’s Day speech is no longer a runner, whatever might have been its viability in 1943. Still, it’s a noble ideal. So the next time someone makes a smarmy comment about ‘comely maidens’, why not ask them what the speech actually says and what exactly they object to in it?

Il Papa

Christ, Not Charisma 
A survey of the Pew Forum has found that there is not much evidence of a ‘Francis effect’, at least in America. The number of Americans identifying as Catholics has remained more or less the same since last year, as has the number of American Catholics attending Mass.

I think this finding is, in a strange way, rather heartening. It would be terrible to think that religious commitment was decided by something as superficial as Time magazine’s Man of the Year award, or the good opinion of television pundits.

This finding should (but won’t) be a discouragement to those who obsess about the public image of the Church. Christianity is not, thank God, advanced through marketing campaigns. It is, instead, the seed that grows as the sower sleeps.

I have no doubt that Pope Francis is doing wonderful work for the propagation of the Faith, just as Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II did. But the fruits of that work will not be measurable by surveys and short-term increases in congregation size. The life of the Church is measured in centuries, not by statistics. How many of the mega-churches that have sprung up in America and Korea, with their thousands-strong congregations and their snazzy worship styles, will still be going strong twenty or thirty years from now? 
David Tencer, current bishop of Reykjavick

Good News from Iceland
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano recently reported a Catholic resurgence in a surprising corner of the world. Apparently, the number of Catholics in Iceland has doubled in the last ten years, now standing at eleven thousand. As one website pointed out, this actually represents more than three per cent of the population. There are eight priests and forty religious, many of whom are young, and new churches are being bought and built.

The numbers might seem small, but what is important is that the tide seems to be going in the right direction.

I sometimes think that the Catholic world spends too much time concentrating upon traditionally Catholic societies like Poland, Ireland and Brazil, or young but vibrant Churches like those in China and Africa. Surely the entire world is our mission field, and the tiny churches in countries where Catholicism is a vanishingly small minority should be especially dear to our hearts, and present in our prayers.

Furthermore, Iceland is one of the most secularised countries in the world, and we should take a very special interest in the fortunes of Catholicism and Christianity in such countries. Secularisation is a wave that seems to be passing over the entire developed world, and while there is no reason to assume that the same pattern will be repeated everywhere, it does suggest the very important question—will there be such a thing as post-secularism?

Less exciting to Norwegians than the Bible. Probably old hat to them.
Signs of Hope

I believe there is reason to believe that the answer to that question is ‘yes’.

One remarkable phenomenon that may be relevant is the popularity of a new translation of the Bible in Norway. It became the country’s best-selling book of 2013, outselling Fifty Shades of Grey. A play based upon the Bible also became a huge hit. All this in a country with one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the world. (The percentage of Catholics in Norway, however, has been climbing steadily.)

The Catholic Church in England, which is also one of the most secularised nations in the world, is enjoying something of a quiet renaissance. Vocations to the priesthood are rising, as are the numbers of women joining religious orders. Some years ago the numbers of English Catholics attending Mass surpassed the number of Anglicans attending Sunday service. Meanwhile, in America, there was a sixteen per cent increase in seminarians from 1995 to 2013.

The Catholic Church in Sweden is one of the fastest growing in Europe, and while this growth mostly comes from immigration, the bishop of Stockholm (whose diocese covers the entire country) said in an interview with the Australian Catholic Weekly in 2013 that there “seems to be a growing interest among young people for vocations, especially for the religious life.”

George Weigel
 Are these small signs? Of course. But remember what Our Lord said about the mustard seed. And since the Catholic writer George Weigel described Ireland, not implausibly, as “the epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”, we may inspire ourselves with the thought that we are in the very front line of the confrontation with secularisation..

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 5: Homophobia, Pope Francis, and the Magic of Movies...

Catholicism without Apologies: Chapter Five

I have to admit I've changed my mind about the first item in this article. The prediction I made, that the Iona Institute's threat of legal action against the 'homophobia' libel would be held over their head forevermore, didn't really come to pass. In reflection, they did the right thing, as the debate would have been even more strangled than it was if the 'homophobia' charge could be tossed around without any inhibition at all. Still, I think the argument I make here is worth at least considering-- perhaps not in this case, but in others.

I'm publishing this post on a very special date, and dedicating it to my dear wife Michelle-- indeed, this whole book is dedicated to her.

John Waters

The controversy over RTE’s apology to John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute is still rumbling as I write this column. Readers of this paper will be familiar with the story, but here goes anyway…

An Irish drag artist and gay rights activist appeared on an RTE television show (I didn’t see it), and apparently accused the Iona Institute and John Waters of homophobia, on the basis of their opposition to gay marriage. Mr. Waters, along with several members of the Iona Institute, threatened legal action unless an apology and a retraction were issued.

RTE, acting on their own legal advice, rather reluctantly shelled out 85, 000 euro in compensation, along with a somewhat mealy-mouthed apology. David Norris went on a march to protest this. Fintan O’Toole wrote an Irish Times article recounting an occasion when he was accused, in print, of hypocrisy for driving a BMW home from some left-wing demonstration, despite not owning a car at all. He forbore from suing his accusers, he says, out of respect for free speech. Meanwhile, Ivana Bacik complained about the Iona institute “lawyering up”.

Fintan O'Toole. I've seen him on the bus a few times.

As far as I can see, reactions to the incident in the Catholic press were entirely supportive of the Iona Institute’s action. Most commentators argued that a serious debate on same-sex marriage could not be held while its opponents were continually having their character defamed and their motives called into question. David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute, argued in a televised debate that the Institute had no choice but to threaten legal action. Otherwise, he said, the accusations of homophobia would continue throughout the debate on next year’s referendum on gay marriage, and opponents of the referendum would find it impossible to get a fair hearing.

Sometimes Fintan O’Toole is Right

I don’t agree with him on this. I think the Iona Institute made a big mistake in taking the course they did.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased, as any sane person must be pleased, that RTE are lighter of 85, 000 euro. It's 85, 000 euro less for them to put towards more agit-prop documentaries and banal home makeover shows. I'm also a great admirer of the Iona Institute and of John Waters. And I think the personal abuse that has been dished out towards the Institute's members— especially Breda O'Brien—is utterly scurrilous. These people are defamed on a regular basis. The worst abuse comes from those nameless, faceless denizens of the Irish internet, who daily spit bile from behind their avatars and their weird pseudonyms.

Breda O'Brien
In spite of all that, I think that the Iona Institute has unwisely given a hostage to fortune, as well as gifting ammunition to its critics—ammunition which they have not been slow to use.

Fintan O’Toole, in the aforementioned Irish Times column, wrote that: “there’s a price to be paid for the considerable privilege of being granted an especially loud voice in the national conversation. With the megaphone comes a duty to protect freedom of expression and a vested interest in keeping it as open as possible.” Other supporters of gay marriage, less urbane than Mr. O’Toole, have accused the Iona Institute of fearing a free debate.

I actually agree with Fintan O’Toole on the fundamental principle involved. Free speech and the free exchange of views are so precious that even their abuse should be tolerated as far as reasonably possible. In the last issue of The Catholic Voice, as part of a very deep and thorough analysis of the controversy, Dualta Roughneen asked: “How much defamation, mud-slinging, sloganeering and shouting down is to be tolerated in the name of fairness”? I would answer: ‘A great deal’.

But aside from the basic principle involved, it would be prudent of Christians and moral conservatives to cherish freedom of speech, even beyond the point of defamation.  And here’s why.

Appealing to Caesar

The accusation of homophobia is a cheap shot, and everybody knows that it’s a cheap shot. Many people in this country already regard the Iona Institute, and indeed all opponents of same-sex marriage, as being homophobic. So it’s hard to believe that such throwaway slanders would really change how anybody viewed the spokespeople of the Institute, or indeed others who oppose gay marriage.  In truth, such childish gibes only rebound upon the accusers, since it makes them look incapable of making a sober and rational case.

But the accusation that the Iona Institute ran to their lawyers to shut down a free debate, though unfair, is less obviously unfair than the charge of homophobia. It will stick a lot easier, well after the marriage referendum is over.

This is an important issue. In our time, the traditional Christian worldview is coming more and more into official disfavour, and the expression of traditional Christian beliefs—not only regarding marriage, but a host of other subjects—is increasingly considered offensive, discriminatory, even a form of hate speech.  (The very week I write this, it was reported that a Spanish cardinal is being investigated by police in Spain after being accused of “hate speech” by a gay rights group.)   Appealing to courts and official bodies as the arbiters of what may and may not be said is, for this reason, a very bad idea for Christians. In the long run—in the not-so-long run, perhaps—they will almost certainly get the worst of it.
The time may soon come when Christians must defy the law in order to follow their consciences, and to proclaim the fullness of the Gospel. In that hour, do we really want to hear an echo of the words of Festus, in the Book of Acts: “You appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go”?

Why are we Undoing the Pope’s Work?

The tug-of-war over Pope Francis continues, in newspaper columns and bogs and on radio panel discussions. Some liberal Catholics, and other left-wing observers, consider him something of a fellow traveller, on account of his apparently less rigid approach to Catholic tradition—the simple robes, the off-the-cuff question and answer session with reporters on the plane back from World Youth Day, the eyebrow-raising interview with America magazine, and passages like the following from his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:  ‘A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism’.

Conservative Catholics pounce, rather triumphantly, on those passages and interviews where Pope Francis proclaims himself “a son of the Church” and re-affirms Catholic doctrine on abortion, female ordination, and other controversial subjects.

Isn’t it obvious that, in doing this, both “liberals” and “conservatives” are going against the very spirit of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s pontificate?

Probably liberal Catholics

Probably conservative Catholics

There is no doubt that Pope Francis is quite deliberately frustrating the media’s attempts to paint him as a “liberal” or a “conservative” figure. His canniness in avoiding the hot-button topics that make easy headlines, and instead concentrating upon proclaiming the central message of the Gospels, can only be a conscious strategy—and, so far, a wonderfully successful one.

A Moment of Grace

Surely this is an opportunity, even a moment of grace, for the rest of us.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics—or at least, Catholics in the developed world—have been embroiled in something of a feud between left wing and right wing, liberals and conservatives, “dissidents” and “orthodox”. And—as with all feuds—the longer it continues, the more emotion and ego and personality becomes invested in it.  It becomes difficult for either faction to back down, or to admit that they were ever wrong, or that they were uncharitable, or that the other faction has even a modicum of truth on their side.

Perhaps it is time to drop all the talk of “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, to have done with finger pointing and “I told you so”, and to join the Pope in his work of reconciliation and bridge building.

We know the promise that Christ made to St. Peter.  We know that Pope Francis is the inheritor of that promise. Our faith tells us that he is not going to compromise the dogmas and sacred truths with which he has been entrusted. Let us stop fighting over every word he utters, and join him in proclaiming the timeless truths that are more conservative, and more liberal—in the best sense of both those adjectives— than any other doctrine in the world.

St. Peter

Movie Magic

All through my twenties, and well into my thirties, I was a cinema addict. I have sometimes been to see three films on the same day. I’ve seen some movies up to five times in the cinema. For a long time, the first question anyone would ask me—rather to my chagrin—was, “Seen anything good in the cinema lately?”

The fascination extends back to my childhood. The first movie I ever saw in the cinema was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I was seven years old. (I didn’t realize that the seats folded down and I spent the first few minutes quite literally on the edge of my seat.)

I was enthralled. It wasn’t only the enormous pictures on the screen that set my imagination on fire. It was the exciting darkness all around the screen. Somehow, I had the sense that that darkness contained a great presence, a great mystery—although now I would consider it a great Presence, a great Mystery. It was not that the Mystery was any more present in the cinema than anywhere else. But somehow the drama and solemnity of the setting made me more aware of it.

I still love the cinema, and I still sicken for it if I’m away too long. But now that I am recently married, I have discovered that the small screen has a magic all of its own.  For some reason, watching a DVD with the one you love is even more transporting than a trip to the movies. Perhaps it is the lure of domesticity kicking in.

Thankfully, my wife is every bit as enthusiastic about movies as I am.

When I reach the end credits of a good movie, I feel that I’ve lived a whole other existence—that I’ve had years added onto my life (but in a good way!).

Stories and the Sacred

Human beings need stories. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity”. We carry within us a deep intuition that human life is a quest for meaning, that we were made for great things. We have an ineradicable sense that life is a drama, a journey, and that its destination is something bigger and better than any storyteller can ever imagine.

Thankfully, it doesn’t stop storytellers from trying…

I think it is wonderfully fitting that when God came into the world, he told stories, and that he himself provided the resounding climax of the great story that had started with the words, “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth.” No wonder that we, his creatures, crave narrative so much.

The Bucket List

Not that movies, even good movies, are always adroit at handling sacred themes. A recent DVD that myself and my wife both enjoyed was The Bucket List, a film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two chalk-and-cheese cancer patients trying to live all their dreams before they die. When they come to discuss religion, it is rather frustrating to hear the following exchange:

Jack Nicholson: I envy people who have faith, I just can't get my head around it.

Morgan Freeman: Maybe because your head's in the way.

As though one’s head could ever get in the way of authentic faith! (The screenwriter had obviously not read John Paul II’s great encyclical Faith and Reason.)

But some movies do better. Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, is a truly mature and profound meditation on faith. And my favourite film of all time, Groundhog Day—a comedy about a narcissistic weather reporter, played by Bill Murray, who is compelled to relive the same day over and over until he comes to appreciate his life—succeeds in awakening in the viewer a powerful sense of God’s grace, and of the infinite preciousness of His gifts. This despite the fact that the most theological line in the movie is, “Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omnipotent, He’s just been around so long He knows everything!”

"I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace..."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 4: Christmas, Freedom of Speech, Catholic Schools, Eucharistic Adoration

In my second article, I was still writing my 'View from the Pew' column in the diary format I would soon discard in favour of long articles on a single subject. At this time I was also more of a 'culture warrior' than I am now. The perils of being a culture warrior seem clearer to me now-- the danger of Catholics being seen as 'the angry brigade', the very real risk of becoming hooked on righteous indignation and dependent on the stimulus of an outside enemy, the ever-present temptation to get sucked into passing squabbles and lose sight of the big picture. However, some battles still need to be fought.

I don't at all apologise that I am posting a Christmas article in June. I have loved reading collections of newspaper columns all my life, and the 'untimely topicality' was part of the appeal. I like reading articles that were written during the Olympics, a general election campaign, the death of a historical figure etc. and which carried the flavour of that time-- the sense of immediacy. This, to be sure, is a very particular taste!

Catholicism Without Apologies 4: Christmas, Freedom of Speech, Catholic Schools, Eucharistic Adoration

Is there any sight more beautiful than a Christmas tree?

It’s become a venerable Christmas tradition to complain about the commercialisation of the season, and the appearance of Christmas decorations in shops by late October. The worst part of this is that everybody is tired of the whole thing by Christmas Eve, and the idea of a Christmas season lasting to the feast of the Epiphany becomes a foreign concept. It has become common for “Merry Christmas” to be replaced by “Happy New Year” as early as St. Stephen’s Day. (I insist upon replying with “Merry Christmas” when this happens.)

But, although the familiar complaints are perfectly justified, I can’t bring myself to disapprove of the early appearance of Christmas trees. A Christmas tree, even if it is not an explicitly Christian symbol, is a blessed antidote to so many of the worst tendencies in our modern society. It is jolly. It is innocent. It is sentimental. It is unabashedly traditional. In other words, it is cheerfully subversive.

The Christmas tree may not be a Christian symbol, but the atmosphere of hope and innocence and wonder that hangs around it has everything to do with Christianity.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that: “There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas”. But for a few weeks of the year, the modern world—for all its efforts to bury the meaning of the season under a mountain of merchandise—can’t keep itself from honouring the Christ child, even if it does so reluctantly and indirectly. After so many decades (even centuries) of secularisation, it has found nothing better worth celebrating.

I think that is cause to be glad, and it is part of the reason I don’t join in the annual panic about the “War on Christmas”.

The offending Legion of Mary poster

Belief or ‘Harassment’?

If the “War on Christmas” is not worth getting upset about, the same is not true of the global war on Christians. In many parts of the world, this war is being fought with bombs, bullets and incarceration. In Ireland, such things do not happen. But it sometimes seems as though we are hearing the overture of a future persecution here.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago famously said that: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” Of course, the reality of free will means that we can never know the future for sure, but there are undoubtedly very worrying portents to be seen.

Earlier this month, the Legion of Mary branch in NUI Galway (which had been applying for status as a university society and had been granted ‘temporary membership’ status) had that status suspended because of a poster which they displayed on campus. The poster promoted the Courage Community group, which (as the text explained) “ministers to persons with same-sex attraction and their loved ones. By developing an interior life of chastity, which is the universal call of all Christians, one can move beyond the confines of a homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ.” At the bottom of the poster was printed the slogan: “I’m a child of God, don’t call me gay.”

There were over seventy formal complaints to the NUIG authorities as a result of this poster, resulting in the disciplinary action. The Irish Times reported this statement from the university: “NUIG has a pluralist ethos and will not condone the production and dissemination of any material by students which discriminates against other students. Discrimination or implied or direct harassment, on the basis of sexual orientation and/or religion, is contrary to Irish and European law.”

The NUIG branch of the Legion apologised for any offence caused, while the national headquarters in Dublin said it had no knowledge of the affair. The communications officer of the Galway diocese, Fr Sean McHugh, while admitting that “the poster is about the call to live a chaste live, which is part of Christian teaching”, also said that the ‘don’t call me gay’ slogan was “offensive”.

We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

Now, I think it was imprudent of the Legion of Mary branch to display this poster in the first place. But it deeply disturbs me that there was no public outcry against this act of censorship by the NUIG authorities. Although the words ‘I’m a child of God, don’t call me gay’ were a bad choice and do seem provocative, it is obvious from the context that they were not supposed to imply that gay people are not children of God. Rather, they expressed the idea that the “homosexual label” is “confining”.

Voltaire never said this, but he should have.

It is quite plain that nobody was being threatened by this poster, that it simply expressed the traditional Christian understanding of human sexuality, one that is shared by hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and by hundreds of millions around the world. That this is construed as “harassment” in the Ireland of 2013 should make us all very worried. And this happened on a university campus, where intellectual freedom should be a cherished value.

It seems extremely likely that, if there is a new persecution of the Church in the Western world the charge of discrimination against homosexuals will be the battering ram of choice. And this will be all the easier if freedom of expression, and in particular the freedom to articulate the Christian ideal of sexuality, is not defended more ardently than it was in this case.

Happy Christmas!

A Heart-Warming Festive Scene

The box set of the first four seasons of Love/Hate is one of the most heavily promoted items for sale this Christmas. I have only seen a few scenes from this drama—it cured me of wanting to see any more—but I understand that it is well scripted and acted. Presumably everybody knows that the show is a no-holds-barred depiction of Ireland’s criminal underworld.

The cover image of the box set is particularly eyebrow raising, and (I think) significant. It shows a shaven-headed man screaming— whether in horror, or in fury, or in agony, or perhaps all at once, I can’t tell. But what does it say about modern Ireland that this is the image we have greeting us through the tinsel and holly in shop windows, and that this box set is at number three in the Irish DVD charts at the time of writing? We’ve gone from De Valera’s ‘laughter of happy maidens’ to a screaming skinhead. Is that progress?

Will They Ever Learn?

The never-ending campaign against religious schools flared up again this month, prompted by an article in The Irish Times in which Kitty Holland lamented that the Church of Ireland and Catholic schools in her area refused a place to her child, informing her that priority was given (in cases of over subscription) to children of Christian parents.  She wrote: “What is also clear however is that denominational or faith schools’ enrolment criteria impact in a gross and disproportionate way on children such as my son by excluding them simply because they have not been baptised.” Later on, that overworked word “discrimination” makes its inevitable appearance.

Kitty Holland, critic of freedom of association

Is liberal society not entirely muddle-headed in revering “diversity” but also setting its face against “discrimination”? The first seems logically impossible without the second, in some form or other.  There are obviously many forms of discrimination that are wicked. But how can any tradition, including a “faith tradition”, survive and prosper if it is debarred from keeping its own forms of association, celebration, symbolism, and so forth—even if that means, inevitably, that some people and lifestyles are excluded from it? Are not the flattening, homogenizing forces of liberalism and militant secularism the real enemy of all meaningful diversity?

Many correspondents to The Irish Times pointed out the most glaring fault in Kitty Holland’s argument—that she had concentrated her criticism almost entirely upon faith schools, despite the fact that non-denominational schools in her area had also refused her child a place. (Of course, religious parents are also taxpayers, and deserve to have the education they desire for their children funded from their own taxes. And non-believing parents are fully entitled to set up their own schools, if they so wish.)

Brave New World?

The part of Kitty Holland’s article that really jumped out at me was the closing line: “Schools are places for numbers and letters, not for icons.” I know this is not the sense in which she meant it, but it made me think of those names that you often come across in Brave New World-type science fiction stories, stories that evoke an utterly dehumanised future. In these, characters often have names like XT44LQ or ZZ93Z, to emphasise how all history, tradition and personality has been squeezed out of existence.

Orwell's 1984, imagined on screen
And is it really such an unfair way to read her words, after all? Shouldn’t school be about a lot more than ‘numbers and letters’? Isn’t it better for children to be instructed in some definite tradition, rather than being subjected to a mere drilling in useful knowledge, garnished with a few moral platitudes in ‘civics’ class?

A child who attends a denominational school may reject the religion taught there, either during their time at school or in later life. But even then, I think, the experience has profound benefits not available to students at a non-denominational school. The child’s imagination, sense of wonder, sense of the sublime, and spiritual awareness will be stimulated by those aspects of school life that are only really to be found in such a setting— by which I mean prayers, hymns, tales of the saints, Bible stories, commandments (as opposed to “values”), holy days, a coherent view of the universe and of our place in it, and—yes—icons.  They won’t get anything to replace all that in civics class.

Advent vs. Shopping Days

My two favourite churches in the world are the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary churches in Ballymun, which belong to the same parish, and which are the plainest churches imaginable. Nevertheless, they were the churches of my childhood, and I love them.

Last Tuesday, I made my way from the other side of Dublin to join in evening Eucharistic adoration in the Virgin Mary, part of the parish’s Advent preparations. It was nearly over by the time I finally took my place in one of the pews.

Sitting there in the prayerful silence, and gazing at the monstrance upon the altar, I couldn’t help thinking about the preparations for Christmas going on outside the church walls, as compared with the preparations taking place inside them. Outside, there was the frenzy of shopping, travel arrangements, and office parties. Inside, nothing at all seemed to be happening. 

And yet, I knew the real “action” was all happening inside—what Pope Francis recently called “the deep breath of prayer”. This is how the Church lives and grows through the ages, even if it as undramatic as the soft breathing of a sleeping baby.

All the revelry and decorations and Christmas trees only continue to make any sense, to have any relish in them for anybody, because people continue to follow the path of the shepherds and the Magi, to honour the Christ child in all earnestness. The Christmas tree is jolly only because the monstrance is solemn.