Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Feast of St Benedict

July 11, 2018

Listen carefully, my child, on this festive day, to the sons of St Benedict at Pluscarden Abbey:

(Tonsure-tip: Sacred Miscellany)

Ratzinger: In the Beginning

June 17, 2018

In the Beginning
A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
(Eerdmans, 1986)
100 p.

Based on four Lenten homilies given in 1981, this book examines the first three chapters of Genesis in the light of both the Church’s enduring teaching and our contemporary situation.

It is a theological study, not a scientific one, but Cardinal Ratzinger does grapple with how the sciences have affected our theological understanding of these foundational texts. He makes a basic point — basic, but nonetheless often forgotten — that the Bible is not a scientific text, and should not be read as one. Scripture itself varies its images of God’s creative action, even giving two distinct creation accounts, so that we are to understand that we should distinguish the content — what is being said — from the form in which it is said. And what is being said is something theological:

Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became — in the Word — the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith.

For Christians, by long established tradition, the Scriptures are read and interpreted with the understanding that they form a unity, a unity founded on Christ: the whole points to him. Applied to the Creation accounts, this means that we should not be surprised to find that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who in that particularity might be thought a kind of local deity, is actually the Creator of all things, the God and father of all, whose salvation is ultimately intended for all — and that this universal fatherhood is precisely what Christ came to make manifest. The creative action of God is mediated by his Son, the Word, by whom and in whom the rational structure of reality is constituted — and this order in things is itself one of the principal truths the creation accounts are meant to teach.

The idea that the world is made according to a rational order Ratzinger finds reinforced by the use of numbers in the creation accounts. There are the 7 days of creation, of course, but also instances of three and four, and the phrase “And God said” occurs ten times, which he (following a tradition?) argues is meant to remind us of the Ten Commandments, suggesting a harmony between the physical and moral orders, as both proceeding from the same source.

But what does it mean to talk about Creation in an age that can give a thorough and persuasive temporal account of how the world came to be the way it is? Is it still reasonable to speak about “Creation”? The Catholic tradition says that it is reasonable, for the good and obvious reason that being does not explain itself. The state of things may be, at some level of explanation, explicable in terms of some underlying order, but that underlying order does not account for itself. Scientific explanations of the physical order, no matter how elaborate and ingenious and praiseworthy, are ultimately incomplete, because powerless to account for the principles operative within that physical order. This is an inescapable conclusion derived from the empirical nature of the sciences. Moreover, there are aspects of the world, such as the moral order, which the sciences are not equipped to investigate.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes a special interest in the passage in Genesis 2 (v.4-9) in which God makes man from the dust of the earth. What does this teach us? It does not explain “how human persons come to be but rather what they are”. He identifies at least three things we should notice: first, a man is not God, he is made and does not make himself, he is contingent and not necessary; second, a man is neither a beast nor a demon (as could be inferred from some other, non-Biblical creation stories), but good, as being the special creation of a good God; and third, all men are equal in dignity and, in their common origin, unified. This unity is underlined and augmented by Christianity, for the Incarnation united our common nature to God himself, thereby further uniting each of us to one another, and in a most exalted sense.

In the story of the Fall, we see that humanity, made good in its essence and oriented to God, also lives under limitations imposed by the nature of good and evil. We have freedom, but must not use that freedom in certain ways. Denial of those limitations — which he argues is “a fundamental part of what constitutes modernity” — means a denial of the reality of things as they actually are. When we live in that way, rejecting creation and not acknowledging that things have natures independent of our will, we live in untruth, which the Scriptures call the realm of death. This same denial — called sin — destroys our relationships with one another, with the world, and with its Creator, a destruction that can ultimately be repaired and restored only by the Creator himself, and this is the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection: to re-establish relationships. Christ, once again, is at the centre.

*

[Creation and humility]
The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on love.

[Doing and seeing]
People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.

Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.

Douthat: To Change the Church

May 7, 2018

To Change the Church
Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Ross Douthat
(Scribner, 2018)
256 p.

My interest in Church politics ranks somewhere below my interest in professional sports, and I last watched a game of professional sports about two years ago. Nonetheless, I have been aware of at least some of the controversies that have been unfolding during these past five years of the pontificate of Pope Francis. My response has been, mostly, to ignore them. For most of history Catholics have not bothered themselves with the minutiae of papal governance, and my basic attitude has been that it will sort itself out in the end, without my contrivance. I owe the Holy Father my prayers and my good will, not my anxious criticism.

This is a defensible position, but, then again, being informed about goings-on in the Church is not a bad thing either, and when the opportunity came up to read Ross Douthat’s new book about Francis’ pontificate, I took it up with curiosity. He gives an overview of the main events thus far, including those that have generated the controversy, sets them in the context of Catholic politics since Vatican II, and speculates on what the likely consequences might be for the future.

Douthat is a broadly conservative writer, but employed as columnist at the New York Times, and so accustomed to rubbing shoulders each day with liberals, and adept at seeing things from their point of view. Something to admire about his book is that, although he has a variety of concerns about what Francis has been doing, his assessment is remarkably even-handed — more even-handed than I would be, quite honestly. He is critical of liberal trends under Francis, but he is critical too of the conservative elements that have resisted them. He does not pretend to know how things will, or should, turn out, but he does raise a number of questions — questions that seem to me to be entirely reasonable.

It is conventional to frame the main disagreements that have roiled Francis’ papacy as being between “liberals” and “conservatives”. I don’t particularly like this language, borrowed from secular politics, but no other terms have gained currency. Generally speaking, it is fair to say that liberals put emphasis on the Church changing to keep up with changing times, while conservatives put emphasis on stability and continuity, and Catholics know that since Vatican II, especially, a conflict between the two sides has played out across many issues, ranging from the Church’s moral teaching to her liturgical practices.

The book begins with an overview of how Church affairs have developed across those fifty years since Vatican II, sketched first from a broadly liberal point of view (“a promising renewal betrayed by the hierarchy”), and then from a broadly conservative (“a temporarily hijacked renewal recovered by John Paul II”). He discusses the dramatic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, not without some pointed criticism (“an implicitly secularizing act, one that undercut the traditional image of the pontiff as a spiritual father”), and then the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. We learn — which I did not know and am probably not supposed to know — that Bergoglio had been second in voting at the conclave that elected Benedict, and emerged quickly as the favourite at the 2013 conclave.

To Douthat’s way of thinking, the first year of Francis’ papacy was a very promising one, especially against the backdrop of Church history since Vatican II. The Pope brought a new perspective to the papal office, and this was healthy. His pontificate shifted emphasis away from certain hot-button issues (mostly pertaining to the sexual revolution and all its empty promises) toward the Church’s social teaching on solidarity with the poor, economic injustice, and stewardship of the natural world, and the hope was that in so doing he would bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives, reduce the heat on the long-simmering internal controversies, and forge a new Catholic centre. Writes Douthat:

“Part of the promise of his pontificate was that there could be once again in the developed world an orthodox Catholic liberal-left, as in the time of Dorothy Day and Catholic New Dealers and the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. The hope in Francis’s early days was that he would revive a form of Catholic engagement with modern political economy that was populist or anti-plutocratic .. but also orthodox in its theology, countercultural in its attitude toward the sexual revolution, zealous in its commitment to the essentials of the faith.”

But then — alas! — came the Synod on the Family, first in 2014 and then, a second meeting, in 2015, and on those shoals the pontificate struck; its aftermath has, in Douthat’s view, undermined most of that early promise, consumed the good will of both right and left, and ignited a high-stakes debate over Catholicism’s future.

Douthat’s basic reading of Francis’ pontificate, of which the story is the Synod is an important part, is that it is an attempt to make peace with certain aspects of the modern world, and especially with the sexual revolution. I resist that conclusion, but it is Douthat’s view. The Catholic Church has, over the past few decades, as the sexual revolution’s consequences have gradually unfolded, been the principal public institution opposed. This has cost her influence and friends, of course, and there have always been voices within the Church complaining about that, but she has held fast to her teachings in fidelity, she said, to the faith once delivered.

To a conservative, there is nothing particularly troublesome about this state of affairs. Prevailing moral norms vary from time to time, and from place to place, and the Church teaches what she teaches in season and out. Those who have ears will hear. Of course the conflicts between her moral vision and that of whatever culture she finds herself confronting should not be artificially exaggerated, and searching for common ground is good and healthy, but neither should the mere fact of a conflict occasion any serious doubts about her teachings, and certainly it would be foolhardy, in a short-sighted vein, for her to abandon those teachings in order to make herself more appealing. “He who marries the spirit of the age soon makes himself a widower,” said Chesterton; the Church is married to Christ.

And so, in the face of the sexual revolution, with its legacy of broken families, dead children, casual intimacy, and loneliness, the Church would seem to have all the more reason to hold fast in confidence to her teachings, presenting them as winsomely as possible, patiently, against the day when people will, once again, begin to listen. In the meantime, she does her best to treat the wounded and welcome home prodigals. And there might indeed be certain measures she could take to make that treatment more widely available, and make that welcome more fulsome. A variety of reforms, such as a relaxing of the conditions for annulment, have been proposed.

But at the Synod on the Family, an influential group of Cardinals, seemingly but not certainly supported by the Holy Father,

“fastened on the one reform that the Church could not contemplate — at least not without falling into self-contradiction and performing an auto-demolition on its own claim to authority.”

The reform in question was, of course, admitting the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion. This reform seemed (but see below) to contradict Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching founded directly on the still-shocking words of Christ (in Mark 10 and Matthew 19). This reform, first put forward by Walter Cardinal Kasper (at the invitation of the Pope), was supported by a group hand-picked by the Pope to manage the Synod. But they were opposed by a considerable conservative block; liberalizing language did not garner enough support to qualify for inclusion in the final report. Whereupon the Holy Father ordered its inclusion anyway, and concluded the Synod with a memorable speech berating the opposition.

All of this was remarkable enough. Then came the post-Synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia (which, I confess, I have not read). The many different readings of this document that have proliferated in the meantime testify to its ambiguity. Some claim it is fully consistent with what the Church has always taught about marriage, family, and sacramental life; others say that it introduces a “new paradigm” in Catholic moral theology. Some have claimed to discover, in a footnote — a footnote the Holy Father has claimed not to remember writing — warrant to change the Church’s practice about admitting the re-married to Communion, and several bishops’ conferences have acted on that alleged discovery. These liberal readings of the document follow a pattern familiar from the aftermath of Vatican II: “whatever was novel was taken to control the text’s meaning and implications; whatever was conservative was assumed to be vestigial.” It’s a tactic that seems to have duped the conservative Cardinals now as then.

To these liberalizing changes there has been little resistance from Rome, and some encouragement. Douthat’s interpretation is that, having lost the battle at the Synod, the fall-back position for the liberals has been to decentralize, pushing decisions out to local bodies of bishops, and letting a thousand roses bloom, as it were. (A recent instance.) The problem, of course, is that what is a sin in one diocese can now, apparently, be acceptable in another. This is irrational.

In all of this, my inclination has been to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt. When the Synod was happening, my hopeful reading of the turmoil was that he was gentle and cunning; perhaps by seeming to give support to Kasper, he was actually giving the most liberal Cardinals enough rope with which to hang themselves — and this may yet prove to be the final result, but not, Douthat has convinced me, during this pontificate. In the meantime, it is hard to understand the Pope’s actions as anything other than favourable to the liberal faction.

As Douthat said in the citation above, this is troubling for two main reasons: it seems to endorse a position at odds with basic Catholic teaching on marriage and sacramental life, teaching founded unusually firmly on the words of Jesus; and it seems to be at odds with clear papal teaching, both remote and proximate, and if the Pope can teach something contrary to his predecessors, then presumably his successors can likewise teach something contrary to him, and papal authority puts itself at risk of becoming transient and partisan. This, too, is irrational. Popes may not contradict one another on matters of faith and morals.

**

It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment, leaving Douthat and his furrowed brow, to think about the main contested issue — that of admitting to Communion those who have divorced and re-married.

The Church’s withholding of Holy Communion from Catholics in this state does not rest, unsupported, in the air, but is a conclusion from premises, and some of those premises are:

1. A valid Christian marriage is indissoluble.
2. A Catholic may be married to not more than one person at any one time.
3. Married spouses can reasonably be presumed to have an ongoing sexual relationship.
4. Adultery is a grave sin.
5. Marriage is a public commitment.
6. A public commitment to commit a sin makes that sin manifest.
7. A Catholic presumably in a state of grave, manifest sin cannot be presumed to be in a state of grace.
8. A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion.

From 1 and 2 we deduce that a Catholic cannot licitly contract a second marriage without an annulment of the first, for in the eyes of the Church, and of God, he remains married to his first spouse; this is just what Christ said, and is the cornerstone of the whole argument. Adding 3 we deduce that a Catholic who contracts a second marriage without an annulment of his first can reasonably be presumed to be committing adultery. With Premise 4 we can reasonably presume that he commits a grave sin. The addition of premises 5 and 6 yields that such a Catholic can reasonably be presumed to be in a state of grave, manifest sin. Therefore, from premise 7, that person cannot presume, and should not be presumed, to be in a state of grace. And therefore, finally (premise 8), that person should not receive Holy Communion.

The peculiar position we now seem to find ourselves in is that there are highly placed churchmen, possibly including the Holy Father himself, who want to change the conclusion of this argument, but do not specify which of the premises they consider to be false. No doubt Premise 1 seems radical, but it is the most securely founded on the words of Jesus; his disciples thought it radical too, but he didn’t see fit to change it on that account. Premises 2-4 and 8 are, similarly, all based on Scripture and are declared in Catholic teaching. Premise 5 is, under normal circumstances, reasonable. Premise 6 is arguably tautological. Likewise Premise 7. The presumption of sexual union (premise 3) is of course not always accurate, and for this reason an exemption from the denial of Communion to re-married Catholics can be, and is, granted in special cases. Otherwise, an attack on any one of these premises is either going to be theologically fraught, frankly unreasonable, or both.

Yet as bad as the denial of any one of these premises would be, the denial of none of them (while denying the conclusion deduced from them) is arguably worse, for it casts doubt on all of them. It’s a difficult position to be in, not knowing which section of the roof might cave in first.

There is some evidence that it is premise 8 that is being challenged most directly. The Pope himself, in that famous, all too easily forgotten footnote, has said that the Eucharist is a “medicine for the sick”. This is true, of course, but can be read in different ways. Some of the Cardinals promoting Kasper’s proposal have taken it to mean that a person could be, objectively and knowingly, committing a serious sin (like adultery), and not to have a serious purpose of amendment (owing to some unspecified range of difficulties), but nonetheless be admitted to Communion. The Church, it is said, should “accompany” that person as he discerns what to do. This is one way to think about Communion, but it has not, heretofore, been the Catholic way.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument above: A marriage should be presumed to be valid. This too seems reasonable (and is affirmed in Canon Law) but there is evidence that Pope Francis denies it, and this might account for the decisions he makes. For if many (or even a large majority) of Catholics are in invalid marriages, those relationships are not indissoluble, and the distinction drawn between the married and re-married ceases to make demographic, and, arguably, pastoral sense. But this cure is worse than the disease, for one trades having a smaller set of adulterers seeking Communion for a larger set of fornicators seeking the same, and without sensibly mitigating the problems of the smaller set (for the re-marriages cannot be presumed to be more valid than the initial marriages). This, quite apart from the legitimate pastoral problems that such a view would create for all (putatively) married Catholics worldwide, for how could one be reasonably confident in the validity of one’s own marriage? I myself do not see a clear path out of these woods along these lines.

**

These considerations make reasonable, to my mind, the dubia which were submitted to Pope Francis after the Synod: several questions posed by a group of Cardinals seeking clarification on the meaning of things written in Amoris laetitia. The Pope, as is his right, declined to answer, which, however, only added to the prevailing confusion, raising afresh the possibility that the Pope actually does not want to speak clearly on these matters, and fosters uncertainty intentionally.

The whole situation has a certain strange quality to it. The papacy is, in its nature, an intrinsically conservative office. The role of the Pope is to be the guardian of Catholic doctrine, preserving it from error and maintaining continuity with the faith once delivered to the apostles. What, then, are we to make of a Pope who, possibly, is not inclined to exercise his office conservatively?

I put the question in that tentative form because the Holy Father has, himself, been quite reticent to speak, and seems more comfortable with ambiguity than clarity on these matters. Those churchmen with whom he has surrounded himself, however, have not been so reticent, and what they have said caused my eyebrows to go up on more than one occasion.

The most common response, for instance, to the conservative concern that the changes proposed by Cardinal Kasper alter Church doctrine — for instance, on the indissolubility of marriage — has been to say that the doctrine remains unchanged and only Church discipline is changing. This is itself an odd reply, as though a dissonance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy could be somehow advantageous, but, anyway, it is presented as a minor matter. This, at least, is the response to conservatives, but to other audiences they sometimes answer differently. Douthat does a good job of gathering up these Jekyll-and-Hyde replies in a passage that is worth quoting at length (and which, in the book, is liberally footnoted):

“Francis’ defenders, when it suited them, … downplayed the stakes when the pope faced some sort of setback or opposition; the rest of the time, they tended to play up the significance of what he was attempting to accomplish…

“The Kaspar proposal is just a change of discipline, not doctrine … but by the way, the church should establish intercommunion with Protestants as soon as possible. Conservatives are wildly overreacting when they interpret Amoris as a kind of surrender to the sexual revolution … but by the way, the church should offer recognition to gay couples and grant last rites to suicides and revisit Humanae Vitae and for heaven’s sake stop obsessing about abortion. It is ludicrous to suggest that Francis was changing doctrine on marriage … but by the way, his casual comments on the death penalty and just war meant that he was developing church teaching on those issues too, and soon any Catholic who favored capital punishment would be out of step with the modern magisterium. It is absurd to suggest that any core Catholic teaching was at stake in the synodal debates … but by the way, Jesus’ strict teaching on marriage probably reflected his mistaken view that the world was about to end, or maybe we just don’t know what Jesus really said, because after all the Gospel writers didn’t have tape recorders. It is ludicrous to draw analogies between the Amoris controversies and the great debates over Arianism or Gnosticism or Lutheranism … but in fact, now that you mention it, some semi-Arian understandings of Jesus, some semi-Gnostic concepts of the human person, some semi-Lutheran understandings of sin and the sacraments, might actually deserve a home in the Catholic Church. It was ridiculous to say that Catholicism’s intellectual integrity and theological consistency were at stake in the remarriage debate … but in fact it’s time for the church to acknowledge that “theology is not Mathematics,” and if necessary “2+2 in theology can make 5.””

It is hard to know what to make of this sort of thing. Maybe it is just human folly run amuck on Vatican precincts, and nothing to worry overmuch about. Catholicism has survived many things, including, in living memory, a silly season that persisted through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and it will survive this too. And it will. But it is dispiriting, all the same, to contemplate the prospect of future decades contending against the zombie of liberal Catholicism that just won’t die.

And it is possible that this struggle could be a long one, for, as Douthat notes,

“The Kasper proposal pertains specifically to the divorced and remarried but there is nothing in the logic that confines it to those cases. Polygamous unions, same-sex unions, even the unmarried — the same reasoning could apply to all.

After all, if a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily rewritten … well, what rule or teaching could not?”

It could be that there’s a good answer to that question, but I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to ask it in good faith.

**

Given the uncertainty in which the Holy Father has implicitly asked us to stew, we might ask what’s to be done in the meantime. Douthat, looking for the hand of providence, argues that maybe something like this had to happen; maybe, as Eliot said, “to be restored / our sickness must grow worse”. Liberal Catholicism had been exiled from the Church’s highest office for a few decades. Conservatives thought they had established a secure interpretation of Vatican II that was beginning to bear fruit, but, at the same time, we all knew that liberals still controlled most Catholic educational and charitable institutions. Many older churchmen, and some younger, were still in thrall to the elusive “Spirit of Vatican II”. Poor catechesis has meant that many, many Catholics have been more formed by the prevailing secular culture than by Catholic culture, and would be more happy than not to see the latter conform to the former. So the stability we thought we were enjoying under Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI was more apparent than real, and now, with a papacy more friendly to liberals, liberals have started to flex their muscles, and the real state of affairs has announced itself. Like it or not, these are the times we live in.

What to do? When, in the summer of 2017, Cardinal Meisner, who had been among the group who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis, died, a remarkable letter was sent by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to be read at his funeral. In this letter, Benedict said that the Cardinal lived “out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing,” and he noted the Cardinal’s love of the Sacrament of Penance and of Eucharistic Adoration. Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to take from this letter implicit counsel: your anxieties are not unfounded, but trust in God and draw close to him by the means given us. It cannot be the worst course, at any rate.

Caussade: Abandonment to Divine Providence

March 13, 2018

Abandonment to Divine Providence
Jean Pierre de Caussade, SJ
Translated from the French by Ella McMahon

(Benziger, 1887) [c.1750]
200 p.

The basic counsel of Fr Caussade’s book is that if we wish to discover God’s will for our lives, we should do so by heeding and accepting “the duties, attractions, and crosses of every moment”. This advice he founds on two sturdy pillars of Christian doctrine: God is good, and God is omnipotent. Therefore his good will cannot be thwarted, and his Providence governs the world. Therefore “that which comes to us each moment by the order of God is best and holiest and most divine for us.”

On this conception of the spiritual life, it is not a matter of finding God’s will, exactly, so much as it is a matter of apprehending it. We are living within God’s providential plan already and have only to learn to see it and then to align our own will with that of God by loving and accepting it:

O dear souls who read this, let me repeat to you: Sanctity will cost you no more; do what you are doing; suffer what you are suffering: it is only your heart that need be changed. By the heart we mean the will. This change, then, consists in willing what comes to us by the order of God.

This attentiveness to the present moment, the present moment which “is like an ambassador which declares the will of God”, is the core spiritual discipline to be cultivated. In the months since I first read this book I’ve been trying, by fits and starts, to practice this discipline. It’s not at all easy. If it is truly a path to spiritual maturity then of course we’d not expect it to be easy, but perhaps it is also not easy for some other reasons, which I’ll get to. Fr Caussade writes that the fruit of the attentiveness and openness he advocates is an inner simplicity of spirit, an uncomplicated docility, taking its daily bread from God’s hands and not bestirring itself with worry or frustration. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished:

The work of a soul in this state of simplicity is nothing less than marvellous to eyes and minds divinely enlightened. Without rule, yet exactness itself; without measure, yet nothing better proportioned; without reflection, yet nothing more profound; without ingenuity, yet nothing better managed; without effort, yet nothing more efficacious; without forethought, yet nothing better fitted to unforeseen events.

The growth of this simplicity of heart requires faith and hope and love, and in turn fosters these same virtues in a never-ending, burgeoning cycle:

The present moment is always filled with infinite treasures: it contains more than you are capable of receiving. Faith is the measure of these blessings: in proportion to your faith will you receive. By love also are they measured: the more your heart loves the more it desires, and the more it desires the more it receives. The will of God is constantly before you as an unfathomable sea, which the heart cannot exhaust: only in proportion as the heart is expanded by faith, confidence, and love can it receive of its fulness. All created things could not fill your heart, for its capacity is greater than anything which is not God.

The self-abandonment Fr Caussade recommends is, of course, intended not only for the good times, but also the bad. When we experience joy it is easy to accept it gratefully from God’s hand; when we experience suffering it is not. In suffering we are tempted to reject what the present moment offers us, poisonous waters that threaten to wash us away. But we must not do so, says Fr Caussade, for here is the true test of our simplicity. Instead, we must keep our door open, even as the flood of destruction comes pouring through, not hiding or even shielding ourselves:

Weep, dear souls; tremble, suffer disquiet and anguish; make no effort to escape these divine terrors, these heavenly lamentations. Receive into the depth of your being the waters of that sea of bitterness which inundated the soul of Christ. Continue to sow in tears at the will of divine grace, and insensibly by the same will their source shall be dried. The clouds will dissolve, the sun will shed its light, the springtime will strew your path with flowers, and your self-abandonment will manifest to you the whole extent of the admirable variety of the divine action.

All shall be well, in the end, if we but stay the course. We are asked only to apprehend that everything, whatever may come, “is a banner to guide you, a stay to uphold you, an easy and safe vehicle to bear you on.”

**

This, it seems to me, summarizes the main argument in brief compass. I have attributed the book to Fr Caussade, and the attribution is traditional, although there is some doubt about it. The book was not published until 1861, over a century after Fr Caussade’s death, apparently out of concern that the book advocated self-abandonment to an excessive degree.

You can see the problem: if we should abandon our own will, is it possible that we should carry this self-abandonment so far as to desire, or at least to accept with equanimity, harm to ourselves? Is the health of our own souls included among those self-interests which we ought to be ready to forsake? There were some in Fr Caussade’s time who argued that true submission to God’s will required consent even to our own damnation, if God should will it, and a spirituality of self-abandonment could be quite dangerous in the hands of such people.

In a prefatory essay in this volume, the editor argues that we must therefore set “just limits” to our abandonment, which is sensible, but which makes it sound not so much like abandonment anymore. But he has good reason:

… the Church has condemned this doctrine which, in proposing to man a perfection contrary to his nature, reverses the order of God’s designs. How, in fact, can perfection consist in destroying the most essential law of our moral nature, viz., that irresistible inclination which leads us to seek our happiness? How could love of God require that we rob God of one of His attributes—the one which makes Him the supreme object of our beatitude? How could one of the theological virtues be contrary to another, and charity exclude hope?

A lesser, but still probing, criticism of the discipline of self-abandonment to the present moment is that it turns us away from our duties. If I were devoted to accepting whatever life brings me as a gift from God to be received with love, I might take a rather peculiar view of my children’s misbehaviour, for instance, taking it as an occasion of divine chastisement rather than an occasion for fatherly intervention and correction. I might stay home from work, day after day, preparing myself to receive as a gift the poverty and attendant suffering that I would undoubtedly receive from God’s hand by way of my employer’s boot. Fr Caussade does make some effort to address this problem:

The soul must follow no inspiration which she assumes comes from God without first assuring herself that it does not interfere with the duties of her state in life. These duties are the most certain indications of the will of God, and nothing should be preferred to them.

This is a necessary qualification, but it carves off a rather large — indeed, on some days, a nearly comprehensive — range of activity for exemption from the self-abandonment discipline. Sometimes we have to act. Sometimes we have to fight.

Sometimes we have to decide. It has been interesting, in fact, to read a book on God’s will which never really takes up the question of how to discern God’s will. For Fr Caussade it doesn’t arise, because God’s will is whatever is happening. But a common difficulty with which Christians often contend is that of facing a decision and trying to discern which choice best aligns with God’s will. Sometimes — actually, pretty often — this takes a crude form of wanting some sort of private revelation to show the way, but there are developed traditions of discernment, such as that of St Ignatius, intended to help with exactly this kind of question. We are constantly confronted with the need to make decisions. Should I accept what is happening to me, and learn to deal with it, or should I take action to change my situation? I’m afraid that Fr Caussade’s approach to life seems pretty useless in this respect.

It seems to me, in fact, that the method of abandonment, founded on confidence in God’s goodness and Providence, is missing an important theological ingredient: an awareness of the corrupting power of sin and evil. I have to be careful here, so as not to stumble. Sin and evil are contrary to God’s will, yet they undoubtedly affect what happens in the world. How, then, can I truly accept that everything that wafts toward me in the present moment “is like an ambassador which declares the will of God”? Sometimes things that happen are just evil, and they don’t declare the will of God. It is a teaching of Scripture that God brings good out of evil, but this, I think (and hope) is different from a declaration that whatever is is good. Therefore, given the reality of evil (in the phenomenological, though not metaphysical, sense) we must be discerning first, and only docile and abandoned when circumstances call for it.

And this appears to me a problem with Fr Caussade’s approach to the spiritual life. Perhaps I am wrong in my understanding of Providence, in which case I hope to be corrected. Even if I am right, however, I nonetheless do think that the discipline Fr Caussade counsels has rich potential, in its proper place, for fostering humility and a more intimate relationship to God. As I said, I’ve been trying it, with predictably mixed results. Late in the book Fr Caussade notes that his book is addressed especially to readers who “have already attained a high degree of perfection”, and so evidently I ought not to have read it in the first place.

[Love of God]
The earnest desire to love God is loving Him.

Newman on some great authors

February 15, 2018

In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman discussed prospects for the eventual development of an organic body of Catholic literature in English to rival the Protestant literature that has formed our language to date. In the process, he made reference to a number of the greatest writers of the Western European tradition, including our English ones, and offered brief comments or judgments upon them. Some of these are quite entertaining, others surprising (Pascal!). I reproduce several of them here, without further comment from me.

**

Swift and Addison: “the most native and natural of our writers”

Voltaire: “an open scoffer at every thing sacred, venerable, or high-minded”

Pascal: “does not approve himself to a Catholic judgment”

Ariosto: “is allowed on all hands to occupy the first rank of Literature” but is guilty of “coarse sensuality”

Boccaccio: “the first of Italian prose-writers”

Shakespeare: “There is in Shakespeare neither contempt of religion nor scepticism, and he upholds the broad laws of moral and divine truth with the consistency and severity of an Æschylus, Sophocles, or Pindar. There is no mistaking in his works on which side lies the right; Satan is not made a hero, nor Cain a victim, but pride is pride, and vice is vice, and, whatever indulgence he may allow himself in light thoughts or unseemly words, yet his admiration is reserved for sanctity and truth. From the second chief fault of Literature, as indeed my last words imply, he is not so free; but, often as he may offend against modesty, he is clear of a worse charge, sensuality, and hardly a passage can be instanced in all that he has written to seduce the imagination or to excite the passions.”

Pope: “a rival to Shakespeare, if not in genius, at least in copiousness and variety”, “he was actually a Catholic, though personally an unsatisfactory one.”

Johnson: holds “the special title of moralist in English Literature”

Locke: “scarcely an honour to us in the standard of truth, grave and manly as he is”

Bacon: “deserves by his writings to be called the most orthodox of Protestant philosophers”

Hobbes, Hume, and Bentham: “simply a disgrace”

Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 3, 2017

During Advent this year I intend to learn this lovely hymn, which is sung at Compline during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

A happy Advent to all those observing it.

Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Exodus
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
[…]
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.

Cecilia virgo

November 22, 2017

In honour of the feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians, here is a very fine performance of James MacMillan’s Cecilia virgo, sung by the National Youth Choir of Australia.

Virgin Cecilia, all musicians celebrate your praises,
and through your merits, supplicants can be heard by God.
With one voice and with one heart, they call upon your name,
that you may deign to change the mourning of the world into the glory of paradise;
and be willing, O protecting Virgin, to look upon your wards,
calling upon the pious Lady, and always saying:
Saint Cecilia, pray for us.