Monday, 16 August 2010

Blogging will continue ...


Summer is icummin in

No, I haven't died. And, no, I cannot explain that odd smell coming from the screen. It's not me anyway.

I've just been rather busy, finishing a big project, tending the sick and needy (I kid you not) and then doing a job interview - no news yet.

Still, this is summer, what are you reading blogs for? You should be outside in the fresh air, not mooching around in the house growing pale and wan. I myself intend to go sloping off soon enough.

Come to think of it, this isn't working, is it? I think it might be time to knock it on the head. Can you stand the loss? I dare say you can. Thank you, faithful readers. I shall be back in a week or two with a forwarding address.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Rejoicing and feasting

After my post on Bishop Conry the other week, I really didn't think I would have anything kind to say about a bishop for quite some time. It's not that I'm a judgmental man, though I do make judgments; as Chesterton said, the only point of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid. Still, since Bishop Conry seems only slightly worse than many of our mitred shepherds, I've taken to not looking too closely, a bit like a man who is expecting an accident from a certain direction.

Well, what do I read this week in the Catholic newspapers but that the bishops of England and Wales have requested and obtained permission for four new feasts commemorating St Gregory the Great on September 3, St Thomas Becket on December 29, the English Martyrs on May 4, and St Augustine of Canterbury on May 27. A long article in The Catholic Herald explains that the Congregation for Divine Worship has approved these feasts. Oh frabjous day, you say, callooh, callay, he chortled in his joy.

But hang on, hang on. There is something I don't quite understand here. Pardon me if I'm wrong but aren't these four saints already saints, and don't they already have feast days? So what exactly did the English bishops ask for and what exactly is the result of this decision by the CDW? As low as my opinion of most of these men has sunk, I cannot believe they are hoping for the merit of setting up these feasts, like some latter-day government claiming the merit of instituting democracy (although, when I think of it, that's practically what our last government did!), or like some kid standing next to a fancy car in the hope the passing girls think it's his.

So what is this about? Can some liturgist please enlighten me?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Special relationships

While on holiday in the USA a few years ago, an English friend and I fell into conversation about the so-called 'special relationship' which is supposed to exist between the USA and Great Britain. Having kicked around the expression's meaning and history for a few minutes, he wondered whether this term 'special relationship' was one known among Americans, like it is known among Brits. Well, since we were in the USA, it was the perfect moment to find out.

We were at that very moment in some east-coast town, probably Baltimore. Surely, if anyone knew about the 'special relationship' between the USA and GB, it would be the Baltimorers. After all, Baltimore is the site of Fort McHenry where American soldiers fought so bravely during a nocturnal bombardment by the British in the War of 1812. The words of the US national anthem were inspired by that event, as Francis Scott Key, their author, witnessed the 'star spangled banner' emerge through the smoke and the mist the next morning.

So we asked. I think we asked in several places. Most memorably, we asked at a museum where artifacts from the War of Independence and the war of 1812 (and probably a few other wars too). And in each place, the answer came back: 'The special WHAAT?' Hmmm, well those who listen to the vox populi get what they deserve.

That was an illustrative experience for a couple of proud Brits abroad, I can tell you. Just when we had studied the British part in America's rise, we were exposed to that cruellest of cultural encounters: they have all the uniformed mannequins and narratives of liberating conflict you can ask for, but scratch away at the surface and America has moved on. I felt like a Norman touring the southern counties of England a century or two after 1066 and hearing from the natives that they had never heard of Bayeaux.

At this point a certain kind of non-American critic likes to scorn the American thing. It's an easy and common emotion for a conservative-minded Brit, but it is one I strongly disapprove of. In any case, on reflection I'm sure the inhabitants of Hastings hardly dwelt at all on their own relationship with Normandy. Why should the Baltimorers know anything about the special relationship anyway, especially since it was invented by Winston Churchill to help lever the Yanks into WWII? I'm reminded of the importance that Britain takes on for certain ex-colonies and colonials who sometimes look to this country with a piety and fervour that is hardly reflected in the complete popular indifference, not to say ignorance, which Britain shows towards its former empire. I dare say the natives of Tuvalu feel a pulsating fidelity to the civilisation brought to their country by the British lo those many years ago, but do we know who they are? I think not. Ask the average Brit what Tuvalu is and they will probably think it is some kind of soya-based meat substitute.

So, there are several conclusions which we can draw here. One is that when David Cameron meets President Obama today we should not be surprised if Barack gives him an order for drinks ('since Prime Minister Cameron is about to arrive'). The second is that we cannot pretend to any greater importance in their lives than our neighbours are prepared to grant us. Some diplomatic relations are like an unrequited attempt at mutual respect.

And perhaps the last is that we cannot trust Churchill, except when he's telling a joke (Like 'some chicken ... some neck'). When he was deadly serious, on the other hand, the man could be a menace!

Monday, 12 July 2010

When boo words are best

In one very interesting study of contemporary English a distinction is made between what the author calls 'boo words' and 'hurrah words'. His contention is that in the flow of vocabulary which constitutes our media-led public discourse certain words can be used in order to produce in listeners, readers or spectators instant approval (hurrah words) or disapproval (boo words).

And he's quite right of course. Introduce words like 'advanced', 'daring', 'latest' or 'taboo-breaking' and the public mind - I use the terms loosely - is supposed to give the old thumbs up. Use words like 'traditional', 'middle-class', and the like, and you''re bound to stimulate the contrary reaction. The responsibility of public communicators ought to be to avoid this kind of language, but we know they don't. After all it's not as if public debates are about truth; they are only about who wins. Who cares if you use a little loose language, like a used carpet salesman?

I think that's why I am so irritated by reports that Bishop Kieran Conry has labelled the new Pontifical Council for Evangelisation as unnecessary. I have tried to find the edition of BBC Radio 4's Sunday on which he made these remarks but it is no longer available online. Still, The Catholic Herald reports him saying that the Church had become 'simply irrelevant' for many people:

It's authoritative. It's intolerant. It's demanding. It's exclusive. I think the Church has got to re-present itself rather than simply blame everything on the ills of society.

Begging his Lordship's pardon, but he must be fantasising about some Church I have yet to come across.

In the first place I object to the use of the word 'authoritative'. I assume he means 'authoritarian', but that is not the same thing. Then again, is the Church authoritarian today? And if so, is there cause to be a little authoritarian? I would have thought any bishop reading the newspapers this year must be well aware that if there is one thing the world acuses the Church of, it's of not being authoritarian enough, especially over the sins of its own clergy.

But what about the rest of this quotation? Intolerant? Now there is a 'boo' word which is heavily coded. After all, ask Bishop Kieran if he is happy to be intolerant of racism, and you can bet he would say yes. So, intolerance isn't the issue. Indeed, it's only the issue if you are using boo-speak. As for a demanding and exclusive Church, well, I certainly hope the Church is demanding and exclusive. It couldn't be true to its Master if it were not. What, after all, is undemanding about being told to take up your cross and love Christ more than anything else? What is more exclusive than saying nobody goes to the Father except through Christ?

Well, as I say, we cannot hear everything Bishop Kieran says in his interview, and one wouldn't like to pass any definitive judgments on this material. We can all be suspectible of misrepresentation. One can almost expect it from the media.

But, please, somebody, explain to me why Bishop Conry sounds more like an editorial writer from The Independent than a Catholic bishop. Or rather, don't bother. I understand why. What I don't understand is why, even if not every bishop maintains this line, we almost never hear the contrary line. That the problem with the Church is not that it is authoritarian, intolerant, demanding and exclusive, but that it has at times in recent years been lax, fuzzy, indulgent and bland. The choice isn't between being a murderer or a milksop. So why is it those who accuse the Church of murder sound more like milksops than anything else?

I pray for Bishop Kieran. But I would despair of being understood by him. I assume that's because I'm authoritarian, intolerant, demanding and exclusive.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Three years on

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the papal Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum which recognised that the Tridentine Liturgy had never been abrogated.

Over at St Mary Magdalen, Brighton, the same day Fr Ray received an email from some diocesan coordinator for the papal visit with the following information:

The Park [Hyde Park] will open from 2pm and liturgical entertainment will be running through the afternoon - dance acts, videos etc (it promises to be an enjoyable event). The Pope will arrive to conclude the prayer vigil and benediction and the whole event will be finished by 9.00pm. I am told that the Pope will be there for the latter half of the event.

I'm struggling to contain my feelings about what on earth 'liturgical entertainment' might involve. I'm afraid I feel very strongly these days that until the powers-that-be want to change the landscape, we might as well all sit in the corner making bleebling noises to ourselves. Really, I'm sure if I made an effort I might imagine that 'liturgical entertainment' is loose language aimed at labelling something designed to engage the youth of today in something religious. It's what comes under the label of entertainment that alarms me. I hope to God it isn't something like the recent Western Mass in the diocese of Cardinal Schoenborn.

Le diable de mon coeur s'appelle à quoi bon? wrote Georges Bernanos. The demon of my heart is called 'what's the use?' If it wasn't for prayer, so would mine. Only I hate to admit to praying in case the people who organise liturgical entertainments try to co-opt it.

Every age has its vices; our appears to be a propensity to daub our ugly image on anything vaguely transcendent as a way of participating in it.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Back again - or rereturning

Sorry to have been out of touch in the last couple of weeks. In that period I have managed to move house, travel to the other end of the country for an ordination, interview unsuccessfully for a university post (I didn't get it because my course proposal was not eclectic enough, my teaching manner was perceived to be too magisterial, and my approach to the subject too intellectual, possibly to the detriment of weaker students ...) and land back in my home town for a two month stint of inter-contractual support (gratefully received). 'Eeep', I believe, is the only appropriate noise to be made at this juncture. If there is anybody out there still reading this nonsense, just rattle your chains a bit. I suppose I'm lucky I don't have squatters by now.

As usual, I'm here to tell thee naught for thy comfort. At least nothing that will make your wallets feel better. Are you feeling yours? Mine's got an awful pinch. It wasn't helped by listening to the radio during my morning ablutions and hearing some twerp from the defeated Old Knuckleheaded Party ( Pat Ronisethepur) tell someone from the recently elected New Knuckleheaded Party (Hiram Ripemoff) that spending cuts would take money out of the economy. I might not be an economist, but it seems to me that for every pound the taxman leaves in the punters' pockets, that is not a pound taken out of the economy but a pound left in the economy (unless it's in the pocket of a man who leaves the economy).

We were then treated to the spectacle - or should that be oracle, since this is radio? - of a representative of the Unison trade union reminding Hiram Ripemoff of the New Knuckleheaded Party that cuts affect human beings. It was a point well made and one I felt myself concurring with wholeheartedly. But it seemed, however, to fall on stoney ground. And no wonder. After all, what is a human being, as my academic colleagues would ask (with all the confidence of hostages to fad-makers, struck down with Stockholm Syndrome)? Talk of human beings in the current climate is a bit like talk of goal lines: the boundaries are where the referee says they are. We are not human beings in this country. We are tax payers. Let us get that straight at least.

Still, Mr Unison's talk of human beings is not quite kosher. Scratch our humanist, who is laudably defending human dignity in a climate of spending cuts, and we'll probably find a man whose model of human behaviour embraces freedom of abortion, civil partnerships and all the panoply of liberal culture. And just how human is that?

I'm reminded of Chesterton's gargoyles Hugde and Grudge from What's Wrong with the World? Those in favour of freedom of capital tell us they know best. Those in favour of State provision tell us they know best. Both argue that the average punter will suffer if the opposing side's policies are followed. And, ultimately, the average punter is left in the middle wondering which way is up.

But of course neither way is up. Both ways are down. The pursuit of security through economic recovery or the provision of security through State provision (even when diluted with the benefits of champagne socialism) are both ideological substitutes for the sane, human and Christian relationship to wealth, wealth creation, education, and all the other services which charity compels us to perform for our fellow human beings.

But who is telling that tale in these times? And how will Pope Benedict's visit in a couple of months affect this monochrome picture, even with the coloured chalk of Newman, the Fathers and hermeneutics of continuity?

We have fished all night, Lord, and have caught nothing. But on your command we will let down the nets.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Budgeting for the future

With the full horror of Tuesday's budget not yet upon us, there is a last opportunity to wish that things were other than what they currently are. Let us try a little idealist analgesia before we have to swallow the bitter pill.

For a start I always welcome anything which reduces the size of the State. I confess it and do not repent it! Big states are the answer to big markets, not to big countries. And big markets are the fruit of a philosophy that declares goodness to be the fruit of 'bigger' or 'more'. That's the problem with any lie: it always has a good dose of truth in it. For bigger and more are sometimes 'good'; it's just that they do not exhaust the category.

So, I'm filled with glee at the prospect of any measure which sets about cutting the State down to size ... And yet, now that we're in this situation, I wonder what misery will result from these measures. And here, I speak not idealistically but with the clarity of a flee resting on a part of the body politic which is about to be scratched. I have always worked in the public sector. I work in education. I've been helping to drag up the yoof of this country for over ten years now. And, in my current sector of education, I and hundreds like me already cannot find jobs. So, what the heck are we going to do now? I speak merely for my constituency; I could speak for many others in the same place.

Well, of course one could take the Blarite view that all knowledge which falls short of a tangible measure of social and economic impact is necessarily icing on the cake. But is it? Here we go again: not the philosophy of better and more but the philosophy of the useful. I remember that wing-eared butter ball Charles Clarke asking a few years ago what the point of studying Medieval History was. A lot of people replied by asking what the point of Charles Clarke was. Others replied by declaring that the study of a corrupt poilitical landscape was an act of rebellion in an age of chronic spin.

But they were all wrong. The point of studying Medieval History is for itself and for the moral benefits that the study of history produces generally. Historia magister vitae. We should spend money on 'useless' things; because they remind us that humanity is for something more than wealth-producing, leisure-getting activity. They remind us that the optimum condition under which the country operates is not one in which the economy depends for its meat and drink on our work-a-day stress and our drink-sodden weekends.

Hmm, I'm off my point, to some extent, but the essence of it is this: 'bigger' (and the concomitantly profitable 'smaller', and 'more and more', and 'the useful' are concepts that will be at the heart of this Tuesday's budget.

And I take it we're all going to pay ... well, nearly all!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

It's never about what it's about

I know the readership here includes very few football fans. It includes very few of anybody! But bear with me, non-football lover, just for a moment. Something very illustrative about our public discourse has just happened in the football world and it's worth a few moments of consideration.

Frank Beckenbauer, former captain and obergruppenfuhrer of the German football team, has attacked the tactics practised by the England of Fabio 'Fab' Capello. According to the old Kraut, the England team has gone back to what is called 'kick and rush' football. I understand that to the non-initiated, calling any football 'kick and rush' might seem somewhat redundant; rather like calling boxing 'hit and duck'. But Becksie's point was that England under Capello have achieved the nadir of footballing tactics, abandoned the beautiful game and are lurking in the very worst darkness of schoolboy strategy. The press and the media in general are always eager for any stick to beat an England manager, and were anxious on Monday for an explanation of why England couldn't beat the USA last Saturday. Thus, they seized on these remarks and rolled them around their collective mouth, like an old tramp supping a bottle of meths. Indeed, this was mother's milk to a story-hungry press. Even Henry Winter in the Telegraph got confused and used FB's remarks to reflect on how badly English footballers are served by a foreigner-player driven Premier League.

All of which missed the point, which I note is slowly sinking in in some quarters ... that Beckenbauer's comments weren't about England; they were an assault intended to undermine England's confidence in the highly competitive context of the most important footballing competition in the world. In other words, the last thing we should do is ask whether this is true; the first thing we should do is ask why FB said it! It's not about what it's about.

Personally I find this a very useful rule of thumb. And a rule of thumb it is, since sometimes it is indeed about what it's about. But it's very often not. Human beings generate myths almost as easily as they exhale carbon dioxide. Of course we can and should distinguish conscious and unconscious myth making. The latter always makes me marvel at how much someone can come to believe their own spin. But it happens. Daily. Hourly for some.

I find it comforting in a media age to have to hand the kind of analytic tool we can use to scrutinize what our self-appointed guardians are doing for us. Ask first not whether what they say is true but why they have said it. The good ship Bull Shit can only set sail on a sea of caca.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Look before you leap in

In the last week or so there have been some reports alleging that the plans for the papal visit to England and Scotland in September are in chaos. Venues have not been booked and no clear system of allocating tickets for events exists. Damian Thompson suggests this is the fault of a clerical cabal who, in any case, are close to a Blairite model of Catholicism, and hostile to Benedict XVI. New elements in some kind of culture war have been suggested by the removal of three Oratorians from the Birmingham Oratory. James Preece (with whose conclusions I do not universally agree) reports that these men have been sent away on indefinite spiritual leave, the implication being that they need to be kept out of the way during the run up to the papal visit.

Personally, I'm convinced by neither of these theses. The older I get the less I am inclined to accept the precipitous conspiracy theory. Thompson has something of record in suggestive reporting in this regard. His explanation of why Liverpool diocese blocked the assigning of a church to the Extraordinary Form was wide of the mark for those who knew what was really at stake. I'm not saying his article about the Pope's visit was without virtue, but it remains to be seen what actually happens in September. Lobby in private and let's leave the condemnations for later.

The same applies really with regard to the Birmingham men. Again experience has taught me to be very circumspect about jumping to conclusions, especially where clerical behaviour is under scrutiny. I have no idea why these men have been sent away; neither, please take note, am I opening discussion on the matter. I'm simply saying that the public narratives are often lacking vital facts which cannot be disclosed for very sound moral reasons. I don't think we help the situation by speculation.

This is not a counsel of the blind eye; it's just a counsel of circumspection, which, after all, literally means 'looking around'. The last time I remember Thompson firing from the hip at Bishop Hollis of Portsmouth (concerning Paul Inwood's ludicrous 2007 email about Summorum Pontificum), the story from inside the Portsmouth curia was somewhat more nuanced. The narrative of 'modernist bishop blocks SP' didn't apply since Inwood's email on the topic was done on his own initiative. I'm not saying Hollis is a completely innocent party; his agreeing to blocking Communion on the tongue during the swine flu crisis (the one that killed millions last year ... didn't it?) was a bad case of invertebrate leadership collapsing in the face of middle management (or middle mis-management). But labelling him as an SP opponent is silly. The FSSP is strongest after all in his diocese.

My point being: never underestimate the complexity of clerical rows, whether at Eccleston Square or the Birmingham Oratory. It pays to look before you leap in.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

In which Innocent returns

There was a flood of one get well message from readers in my recent illness, so thanks for that ;-) I'm feeling a lot better, which is a relief for me at the very least, though I'm still awaiting some tests.

Meanwhile, what a week of astonishing events on the public stage. It's difficult to know where to start really. Probably my favourite story was about the Duchess of York flogging introductions to her husband to an undercover reporter from the News of the World. As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote:

The work is light, and, I may add,

It's most remunerative.

In The Gondoliers the Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro provide the essential comic turn; not so much mutton dressed as lamb, as wideboys dressed as nobility. In other words, aristos selling favours is hardly a recent innovation. It's just a while since we had it so magnificently unveiled (thank you, gutter press).

I rather like the line from the same song in the Gondoliers:

I present any lady,

Whose conduct is shady,

Or smacking of doubtful propriety;

When virtue would quash her,

I take and whitewash her,

And launch her in first-rate society.

Er, well, yes, thanks Fergie.

Bizarrely, when Fergie then appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to explain her conduct, she spoke about herself in the third person singular (she, her, etc). No airs and graces she, this appeared to be an attempt to portray herself as a victim of the situation and to elicit compassion.

The kudos of the victim has been one of the more unusual manifestations of our culture over the last few years. It was memorably the cloak under which Diana, Princess of Wales, operated in the latter part of her own tale. The assumption is that it is a sign of our sentimentality, or indeed a sort of dessicated compassion, akin to the 'charity' which drives Britons to raise money so Africans can have free condoms. There is undoubtedly something in that. I'm currently working on another explanation, namely, that only a society with our latent commitment to the pleasures of hatred could have the passion both to vilify and exonerate our chosen scapegoats. The point is though that scapegoats shouldn't do their own exoneration, which is why Fergie got it so badly wrong. Must be hard being a Duchess. Somebody give that woman a salary.


If you want genuine victims you only need turn to the other major story of the last few days. The victims of Derrick Bird will long live in the memory, like those of Thomas Hamilton and Michael Ryan. May they all rest in peace.

Why do such men do such things? We barely have an explanation in the pretexts of family feuds or what have you. Mass-killers on a shooting spree commit suicide without exception, putting what they might have revealed about their actions beyond the reach of analysis. Some people think this has something to do with our gun laws. That may be so, at least insofar as they create the opportunity. But the opportunity is available much more readily in the inner cities where, at least thus far, such massacres have not occurred.

What we can sensibly glean from only three cases is hardly compelling. Does it say something about lone lower-middle class men in contemporary Britain? Are these three killers as random as passing meteorites? Or are they like cracks in the hardened magma crust of a society in which charity has cooled and congealed over a lake of fallen passions? I sympathize greatly with the drive to ensure 'such things never happen again', but I think it is impossible. There is something wrong in the hardwiring of the human being.


Well, that's probably quite enough from me. The weekend beckons with promise of jolly weather and jollier company. In media mortis, summus in vitae. It's a lesson worth remembering at times like this.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Elusive Rome

I don't mean to grumble but I cannot help reflecting on the elusiveness of Rome. Not for others, but for me. Last year I should have been out there for an ordination, but at the last minute, for reasons it is unnecessary to rehearse here, I didn't go.

So, I was looking forward to climbing aboard the Easyjet flight tomorrow from Gatwick to Fiumicino. I was due in Rome to give a paper at the Dietrich Von Hildebrand conference at the Holy Cross Seminary. I have indeed sent off my paper so it can at least be read in my absence. But I won't be going. Ho hum.

I won't describe the problem, but it is very painful. My mother and grandmother have had it too. I'm sure I need the penance. And I'm not going to turn up my nose at the £300 I have saved on accommodation and conference fee. Still, elusive Rome again ...

As I may, mustn't grumble. But I really hope one of these days to make it. It's little consolation Rome is coming here in September.


I say it's little consolation. I've been noticing over the last few days the debate concerning limits on numbers at Pope Benedict's public functions in Scotland and England. The official line is that health and safety demand some restrictions, and that people can always watch on TV at home. Hmm, well, of course they can watch the Pope on TV at home. But they can do that now while they AND the Pope stay home for the occasion. They only need to tune in to EWTN via satellite or the internet. It's anybody's guess how TV coverage of the papal visit is consolation for anybody but the infirm and the elderly.

On the other hand, the older I get the less I am impressed or attracted by the kind of mass gatherings which the papal visit will undoubtedly give rise to. Of course we could treat them as a pilgrimage, or as penance of some kind. I personally will have to (if indeed I am in the country and choose to attend). For me, it will feel like going to a Catholic version of the Boxing Day sales.


So, maybe what I should try to do is plan my trip to Rome while the Pope is visiting England. I will still get a pilgrimage in the bag, but instead of queuing on a London street or standing for hours without toilet or water in Coventry Airport, I will be able to watch the Pope on TV from the comfort of my Italian hotel before trotting down to the Gesu to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Strada.

Is this the soft option? Well, it might be. But be gentle. I'm really feeling quite poorly. And quite disappointed. Rome, the elusive...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Spring is here, spring is here

It was quite tropical this evening on the way home from work. I say tropical. Maybe that's an exaggeration. It's so long since we saw the sun in any meaningful quantity. I hope he reads this. Perhaps he will be shamed into appearing more often.

Truly, though, a late-spring evening, like the one we have tonight, is just full of promise. Absolutely full of promise. And all the more meaningful in the current climate. Let's face it, there are few things to feel particularly positive about at the moment, at least for poor little England.

But that's the odd thing: the seemingly infinite variety of experience, of modes of impression, such that one can live in the same space and time as those up yonder, and hardly know the other side of the moor (as we northerners say). Somewhere in England tonight, the hearts are light, the minds are free, and there can be caught on the scent of the evening's air all the promise that God has instilled in life. At the same time, worried hearts go to bed, tired and numbed by trial, oblivious to the weather, in the cell of their own problems. None but a Saviour who has laughed and wept will do for such folk.

How does God keep track of it all? But He does, in some infinitely mysterious way which, in itself, calls on our hearts to open to His largesse and look with universal charity on those who are cheery and those who mourn.

Lord knows where all that came from, but it came from somewhere. Maybe it's the prospect of another weekend away (I know! The extravagance!). I'll be back to the blog on Sunday or Monday with a fair wind. Never seem to stop running these days.

And while we're in the mood for spring, what about a little Tom Lehrer? Go on!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A bitter pill to swallow

Mary Kenny has a piece in this week's Catholic Herald (print version) which I cannot find online. In it Miss Kenny notes the 50th anniversary of the licensing of the Pill in the USA. The 50-year anniversary in Britain falls next year (can't wait, can you?). She remarks that in the 1960s she had hoped Pope Paul would go with the majority advice from his theological commission and allow Catholics the freedom to use the Pill. Nowadays she says she wishes the Pill was allowed to Catholics but only because young couples struggling to space their children should be supported and helped. And yet she notes in her conclusion that the Pill has had mixed results, failing to reduce school-girl pregnancies or bring down abortion and divorce rates. She avoids making any indication of whether people should actually follow the Church's teaching on the issue. For charity's sake I must take it that she thinks they should follow it, even with a heavy heart.

That such an article can appear in the Catholic Herald is surely yet another indicator of conditions among the Catholic elites. Is this the best we can do in this country? Parade our longings to embrace the boons of the pill, while we acknowledge the unfortunate rise in teenage pregnancies, divorce and abortion? Of course, I was forgetting, I am in England where it is much more important for readers to be familiar with their journalists than for journalists to have something constructive to say. I am in England where it is much more important to acknowledge the pragmatist's point of view than to state your own principle. For The Catholic Herald Mary Kenny probably draws in the confortably-padded, late middle-aged reader of whom there are still quite a few in the Catholic Church in England; they might even be the best represented constituency...

But as I kick over this article there is much that is so evidently wrong in it. Kenny observes that while Jewish theologians objected to contraceptive devices - since they interposed a barrier between husband and wife - the Pill changed the state of the question because no such device was involved. Well, yes and no. True, the Pill does its work chemically rather than mechanically, but the 'barrier' it introduces into the system are the manufactured hormones that make the female body behave chemically as if pregnant. Thinking that the Pill is not a barrier between man and wife is a bit like saying poison isn't dangerous because it's not a heavy, blunt object.

Kenny observes - I think with some acuity - that one of the most influential works on this subject, at least among those who bother to read, was David Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down. This novel dramatizes the plight of a young Catholic family who are rather poor, and desperate to avoid a fourth pregnancy by practising what was then jocularly called 'Vatican roulette'. But, you know, what strikes me in all these discussions is the unshakeable assumption that poverty and virtue are incompatible. I'm told that these days NFP is far more reliable than the so-called Rhythm Method, but that isn't the point. The point is that the discourse that prevails is one in which poverty is an unremitting evil: not one of the evangelical counsels. This isn't Christianity, it is meliorism. Ought we not at least to say that if our convictions carry us into uncomfortable spots, so be it? And in the Catholic ban on contraception was there not a principle of life to defend, a principle which has been trampled over by all those who wrung their hands over poverty but hardly over the damage to marriage which contraception facilitated? I'm not underestimating the stomach-churning anxiety poverty can cause; I'm just saying it is sometimes as urgent a moral risk as daring not to be a racist or a capitalist.

Kenny finishes off her article with a nod at the negative results of contraception. But then nobody could approve of the rise in school girl pregnancies, divorces and abortions, which were supposed to decline in the Pill's wake. This is where I find Kenny's article at its most reckless. We all know fine well that the Pill was a major plank of sexual liberation in this country and in the West in general. Many of us know that it was precisely the attitudes that the Pill helped engender that led to the rise in abortions, and most likely to the rise in divorce too. And, those who thought about the issues in the 1960s - including, incidentally, Paul VI - knew that the most significant thing about contraception in the Sexual Revolution was its capacity to sever procreation and sex, leaving practically nothing but taboo to block the way to homosexuality. And where do we find ourselves today? Ahem.

People I know could raise a dozen other objections to the Pill, starting with the merry hell hormonal interference can cause in relations between the sexes. One explanation for the calamitous developments in female fashion of recent years is that many women are now chemically pregnant a lot of the time, with the result that they have to work harder to attract the men because their bodies do not emit partner-attracting pheromones.

But the cultural legacy ought to be proof enough for Kenny's generation that they made a colossally stupid mistake in siding with liberal opinion against the Church. Indeed, where are their children now? Very few have stayed. In fact, what's the point of staying if you are not going to listen?

Still, Kenny has a front row seat among the Catholic opinion formers of this country. The mind boggles.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


Very sorry, dear readers - all three of you - it's been a helluva week chez Innocent. Last weekend took me to a far-flung corner of the country. Lovely place, happy company, all-round excellent trip. But this week has come down on me like a ton of bricks. It is the examination period and my profession is kept rather busy at this time of the year. Then, I also have a paper to prepare for a conference in Rome in two weeks. This is what Sir Alex Ferguson calls 'squeaky-bum time.' Hmm, says it all really. Innocent is also threatened with unemployment pretty soon too, so if you have a spare prayer going, I could use it.

Meanwhile, the country is reeling to news of the 'new politics'. Or at least that is what we have been assured of by the politicians forming a coalition government of Conservative and Liberal Democratic sentiment. How does one tell them to pull the other one? If you believe that, you'll believe anything. Sure, they will all be friendly to start with, but just wait for human nature to click in. And we'll be back to the old politics, which in fact we will never have left! Dontcha just love the 'société du spectacle', as that old French alcoholic Guy Debord called it?

Meanwhile, the truer things of life, the seasons, the spring, the morning chorus, seem to go on in spite of it all. Even old Gordi Brown acknowledged, as he was leaving Downing Street, that being PM was only the second most important job he could do in life. His young children waved at the photographers in ignorant and wild abandon. And there was a moment of humility, the afternote of a premiership of hubris. I might wish us all such moments.

So, it's back to the grindstone. Never mind the taxes, feel the pinch. If, like me, you're a public sector worker, well, make sure that vegetable patch is dug. I would, were it not for the fact I leave my digs at the end of June. Who knows where, who knows wither? As I say, all spare prayers are most welcome.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Hung Parliament

So it looks like a hung parliament scenario, with the strong possibility of a Con-LibDem coalition. There will be no word from David Cameron until 2.30pm, by which time I will be sailing up the M1 on a weekend break (yes, another one, it's shocking!). More comment when I return. It's always possible that Nick Clegg will tease us and then join hands with Labour. We must wait and see.

In the short term, we can observe that some awful people have been voted out, most notably Dr Evan Harris who was MP for Oxford West. Harris was known as Dr Death for his support for the anti-Life agenda and for the way he worked the lobbies during the vote on the Human Embryology Bill. Whether his successor, Nicola Blackwood, proves to have a better voting record on Life remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, here's a thought from a friend. 'A hung parliament? Okay, which one should we hang first?'

Deus, exaudi nos!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fighting talk

After my post of yesterday about l'entre-deux-guerres, I read Fr Finigan's blog post about meeting Cardinal Pell at St Peter's some time ago. Cardinal Pell is rumoured to be the new Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, an appointment which has all the tantalizing potential of a yickity old, crime-ridden frontier town hiring Wyatt Earp as the sheriff. I approve. The relevant portion of Fr Finigan's post is as follows:

On one occasion I happened across Cardinal Pell at St Peter's. I was flattered that he remembered me and said: "Tim - remember my advice. Keep your guard up and keep moving round the ring."

[Innocent rubs his hands]. Never mind entre-deux-guerres! Why not à la guerre comme à la guerre!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

L'Entre-deux-guerres: Back in the wars

One of the funniest albeit most offensive French writers I know is Léon Daudet. Readers might have heard of Alphonse Daudet, author of Lettres de mon moulin and one of the founders of the myth of the sun-kissed, olive-groved, lavender-scented Provence. Alphonse himself hardly had clean hands; he was a fincancial supporter of Edouard Drumont, France's most notorious nineteenth-century anti-Semite, and died from complications caused by syphilis. Léon, his son, became famous as the journalist editor workhorse of the Action française movement. He was a fearsome bon viveur, quaffing sometimes as many as six bottles of wine in a day, and he was also a feared duellist. You'd be amazed at how popular duelling remained in the late nineteenth century in France; Georges Clémenceau himself was a crack shot with a pistol. Anyway, I digress.

Well, Daudet it was who gave French journal literature the concept of l'entre-deux-guerres. This is not the same as peacetime. Rather, any period that followed a war could legitimately be seen as a period of l'entre-deux-guerres: between two wars. Perhaps this was an especially French way of looking at the issue. Daudet was born in the 1860s in a France which was usually between two wars, not to mention two governments, at least until 1958. I don't remember all the nuances now, but the entre-deux-guerres mentality is not hard to fathom. It is a warning about optimism; it is a monitory note sounded while the John Lennons of this world drivel on about no possessions. Don't get comfortable, war isn't that far away, dixit Daudet. It's a useful lesson.

Well, please don't believe that I'm revelling in the idea, but I couldn't help coming to that conclusion during my short break last weekend. There are few benefits to the wave of prejudice and anger aimed at Pope Benedict XVI in the last few months, and at the Catholic Church in general. But one of them is that it has popped the myth that had sprung up around the 'men of good will'. Of course we greet all men as honest and upright; of course we take them where they are. But that discourse has for the last few decades promoted a kind of irenic pacifism, an unrealistic expectation concerning the benignity of the world at large. The problem with trying always to see the other man's point of view - like Trollope's Septimus Harding - is that sometimes we actually miss his point. The trouble is that sometimes the other man's point of view is not the sign of a benign attachment to what he thinks is truth, but the tool with which he is setting out to beat us. The trouble with trying always to see his point of view is that we fail to do him the honour of thinking him capable of ill will. The trouble is we forget we are in a war. Or at the very least between two wars.

I'm not complaining about that of course. I don't mind a bit of a fight. I suppose what I struggle with are the loitering Munich agreement makers. Them and the advance party of collaborationists. You know who they are! That said, all is not fair in love and war; Christ's victory is one of love, not force. Still, it's about time we stopped interpreting love as niceness. After all, niceness doesn't stop the l'entre-deux-guerres ending in another conflict. It only disarms the battle weary and makes them think that peacetime has come at last.

Now, where is my helmet of salvation? Perhaps I should be wearing it already. Is it any wonder I am thinking of this old socialist melody? As a colleague once said of Léon Daudet, sometimes the devil has the best tunes.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Good intentions

Yes, well, that's what comes of good intentions. It is of no comfort to you, reader dear, that I spent the morning examing my students (yawn), most of the afternoon in the dentists (ouch), and most of the evening on the phone (yeah! but not blogging material).

But what can one say at the end of an election campaign in which so much ink has been split by so many for so little? As I write, rather late in the day, Bird, Bremner and Fortune are on the TV trying to convince us all that the golden age of satire has not entirely passed away. But we know it has. You cannot enjoy satire unless you believe in something, and what do we believe in now? I speak corporatively, of course!

Instead, we are like the proletariat, bourgoisie and industrialists of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, hardly caring who comes to power, so long as they line our pockets. Economics is king. Roll out the bank balance. A necessity of course, but why must our necessities always become our virtues?

Hmm, well, perhaps I have said something of what I intended to say tonight, but the time is lacking, and so I promise again to return tomorrow. A busy one, but not so busy that I cannot divulge my own thoughts before the fateful day of the election finally dawns.

Still, none of us know the hour ...

Monday, 3 May 2010

Hiatus over

Just back from a bank holiday hiatus so I will blog on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, if, like me, you are public sector worker on a contract, let me advise you to make sure your garage is stocked with tinned food and your new CV is written up neatly before Friday.

On the optimistic side, there are large numbers of roadsweeper jobs in Iceland, so I understand.

Deus exaudi nos!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Let's get rational

Gary McFarlane, a marriage guidance counsellor, was sacked because he refused to provide his services to homosexual couples. An employment tribunal backed this action in 2008 and McFarlane was in court today seeking leave to appeal. Lord Justice Law (no pun intended), however, found against McFarlane and, in his ruling, stated the following:

"We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.

"The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself."

We do not quite know on what grounds McFarlane's lawyers tried to argue the case, but we do know that Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, intervened on McFarlane's behalf and found his argumentation criticized in Lord Justice Law's ruling.

What I find interesting about this is how much it reveals the deeply unwise strategy of ecumenical associations of common witness. There are several reasons for my saying this. The first is that theologically speaking it has blurred the difference between ecclesial faith (as transmitted by the Church) and privatized faith (the individual conviction of this person or group). That is not to say the latter is unimportant, but that common witness can involve a veiling of the difference. Bad mistake.

The second reason I make this point is that the fostering of a 'faith' ticket has been a great facilitator of ecumenical friendliness, especially now we are surrounded by a secular society, but it seems to have been achieved at the expense of a cogent, persuasive and well-argued Christian rationality. Seeking out a richer scriptural basis for doctrinal understanding is all very well as an ecclesial exercise ad intra, or as a way of convincing Bible Christians that the Church is no stranger to Scripture, but if you want to win an argument in the public square, you have to base your position on principles recognized in the public square. Claiming a special status for Christian sensibilities is just not going to work in the current climate.

Could McFarlane's job have been saved with a more rationally grounded argument? I'm not a lawyer and frankly I don't know. But I do know that since conscientious objections are recognized elsewhere in the law, there must surely be some grounds for a legal argument. The most worrying thing is that in Law's ruling, and its ilk, a hardening secular reason marches on almost without any opposition, and the religions intervening in the debate are sounding increasingly shrill by looking for a special 'faith' status.

Defend this ground on the basis of natural law, or you'll not have a shred of religion left in this country which can function in the public domain. The paradox is in this regard that we have to be faithless in order to be faithful.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Preece bites back

James Preece has now given his account of the Catholic Voices incident. Ivereigh knew about his blog and Preece was still welcome until the last minute ...

Now, that is odd.

An apology to Balliol Men

I said some sarcastic things about Oxbridge yesterday. My irritation is not with Oxbridge people themselves. As Sir Humphrey might have said, some of my best friends are Oxbridge graduates! My problem is with the public perception of this class. It is an irritation which goes back to when I was a teacher and a senior colleague blocked a frank report I had written about the school's most aggressively insular student on the grounds that she was destined for Cambridge (not what he said, but that was the truth of it). All I had said was that she had to learn to listen to other people and dialogue with their ideas, instead of treating everyone who disagreed with her as a lower species. I resented enormously the assumption that attendance at a swanky university was more important than her development as a human being. I hope she has since developed.

Anyway, I was thus quite unsurprised by todays's news that Anjoum Noorani, the senior civil servant really responsible for the papal visit memo scandal, also studied at Oxford (like Steven Mulvain who took the flak yesterday for circulating it). I'm perfectly sure I wouldn't have lasted five minutes in either place, but I cannot stand the kind of British snobbery that laments the fall of Oxbridge graduates as if it were as tragic as the fall of Satan.

That said, the fact these two specimens attended Balliol College touched my heart, and made me think warmer thoughts. And my mind went back to Hilaire Belloc's ode to Balliol Men, which I post here as an apology to my Oxbridge readers.


YEARS ago when I was at Balliol,

Balliol men and I was one
Swam together in winter rivers,
Wrestled together under the sun.

And still in the heart of us, Balliol, Balliol,
Loved already, but hardly known,
Welded us each of us into the others :
Called a levy and chose her own.

Here is a House that armours a man
With the eyes of a boy and the heart of a ranger,
And a laughing way in the teeth of the world
And a holy hunger and thirst for danger :

Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again :
And the best of Balliol loved and led me.
God be with you, Balliol men.

I have said it before, and I say it again,
There was treason done, and a false wordspoken,

And England under the dregs of men,
And bribes about, and a treaty broken:

But angry, lonely, hating it still,
I wished to be there in spite of the wrong.
My heart was heavy for Cumnor Hill
And the hammer of galloping all day long.

Galloping outward into the weather,
Hands a-ready and battle in all:
Words together and wine together
And song together in Balliol Hall.

Rare and single ! Noble and few ! . . .
Oh ! they have wasted you over the sea !
The only brothers ever I knew,
The men that laughed and quarrelled with me.

Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again;
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,
God be with you, Balliol men.

Monday, 26 April 2010

James Preece and Catholic Voices: Updated

James Preece runs a blog called Catholic and Loving It. He is well known in Catholic blogging circles, and has made several appearances in the media, notably on the BBC's Sunday morning discussion programe The Big Questions. He was, so I understand, recently to take part in a training session for Catholic Voices, an organization headed up by Austen Ivereigh and Jack Valero and founded to create a new breed of Catholic media commentator who could more convincingly put the Church's line out there in the media age. According to Mulier Fortis (authored by Mac), Preece, who lives in the North East, planned specially to be in London for this meeting, but was contacted shortly beforehand and unceremoniously blocked from coming by Ivereigh on the grounds that "+Vincent" (Archbishop Nichols to you and me) would be present.

Now, to Ivereigh's consternation, Mac published this story on her blog, and when Ivereigh then aimed a pointed comment at Mac's private vows, accusing her of publishing only part of his message to Preece, she riposted by publishing a screen shot of Ivereigh's correspondence which showed she had published it pretty much as it was written. As one would expect. (Update: Please see Ivereigh's apology to Mac at the foot of this post).

Several things spring to mind here about this whole incident. First, Ivereigh has behaved rather badly from start to finish. If Preece was not welcome as a member of Catholic Voices - and we'll come to that question - then Ivereigh should have been more selective from the start. Secondly, Ivereigh is a savvy media operator, and his whining about Mac's publication of his email is just guff. Proof of that is his meretricious accusation that Mac had deformed his message, when she had not. Further proof of Ivereigh guff is that he then took a swipe at Mac's private vows (asking if they did not include charity). Guff, Ivereigh. Guff, man. Just admit it. Mac did little wrong, and printed correspondence which showed up the operation of a public body to be privately shabby. You can question its wisdom - for, while true, does it really reflect well on the Catholic Church at this time? - but don't question its justice. Catholic Voices took a dump on Preece, and if they thought they wouldn't get bitten back, then they're not quite as sharp as they will have to be in the media cauldron.

Which leads us to the question of Preece. I must say I do not know the man. I read his blog from time to time and find lots to admire in it. Preece is an intelligent and articulate writer, and he has a sharp nose for what we might call humbug. He only recently had an interview with Bishop Drainey published in The Catholic Herald, if memory serves.

But with it all comes a sometimes unbridled approach to Church polemics. Preece has been pretty merciless in the pursuit of Vincent Nichols in the last twelve months or so. He went after him for Birmingham Archdiocese's sex education programme, photoshopping pictures of male genitalia (from the programme, I think) over VN's head. He went after him for VN's failure to chastize Terry Prendergast publicly, after Prendergast, the chairman of the Church-funded Marriage Care, backed the idea of gay adoption.

Now, I'm sure these are not the only grounds on which Preece has gone for VN. But for anyone who knows anything about Preece's career as a blogger, they are fairly well known, which leads me to certain queries. If Catholic Voices did their research properly, then surely they should have known about Preece. Why was he finally admitted to Catholic Voices (after some struggle apparently) only to be dropped at the last minute? As for Preece, how could he have thought that after his public hounding of VN he would be allowed to be a part of such a Catholic-establishment operation like Catholic Voices? And why, finally, should Ivereigh resent having his actions revealed in public if, as one supposes, there was a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation for them: that nobody would expect VN to agree to Preece being a 'Catholic Voice'.

I'm not going into the rights and wrongs of Preece's blogging. Putting aside its vulgarity which I prefer to see as prophetic rather than polemical - and which in the end has proven to be more damaging to Preece than to VN - its main strength is that it is not part of 'the club'. But why then would Preece even want to have a platform provided by 'the club'? Of course, one might say that Preece's blogging suffers from not being part of 'the club', i.e. not having the kind of card-carrying credentials which could get his well-crafted and intelligent articulation of Catholic principles onto a wider stage. But if that stage is being marshalled by Ivereigh, does Preece really want that anyway?


Well, no doubt almost everyone could have behaved more charitably. Catholic Voices could have been more competent. Ivereigh has been paid back by having his insinuations spiked. And Preece has been paid back for the excesses of his anti-VN campaign by being inconvenienced. None of that is particularly satisfying though.

As for Mac, I say 'well done', though you have exposed once more - in a week when we needed little extra proof - the sadly befuddled and self indulgent ways our Catholic establishment elite can behave.

Thank God He is perfect; His servants most certainly are not.



Austen Ivereigh publishes this comment on Mac's blog:

Having been rebuked -- rightly -- by Fr Ray Blake for being uncharitable, I'd like to apologise to Mulier Fortis for the unnecessary jibe about vows. I was furious at having been used in this way, and didn't check my anger. Sorry. [IS: Probably, Ivereigh, not as furious as someone who was dropped unceremoniously from a Catholic Voices training session, but we'll let that pass].

But I was right to object to a gross breach of trust [IS: no you weren't, Ivereigh]-- and that, I assure you, was the only nerve that was struck.

As for the rest of the mob: pacem pro vobis.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Greetings, visitors

Dear Fr Ray at St Mary Magdalen's Brighton has linked to me again. Thanks, Father, you're a gentleman and a scholar.

It's a small following here on The Sunday Morning Soap Box. Yesterday's metre reading showed a whopping twenty-five visitors, though our average is between six and eleven.

Still, I like to think of it as a select group, a chosen band. Not for us perhaps the heights of Mulier Fortis or Fr Tim Finigan's blog, but no matter. You don't reach many ears from a soapbox, just the ones who care to listen.

So, welcome all. Glad you're here. I'd look pretty silly without you!

The anti-Pope memo: the REAL scandal

It should come as no surprise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been echoing to howls of laughter coming from the readers of a witty little memo about Pope Benedict's visit in September. A junior offical indulged in what they are calling 'blue-sky' thinking - update: now, it appears, with the help of a senior civil servant called Anjoum Noorani - about possible activities for the Roman Pontiff to undertake while in the UK. You can see a copy of the proposals here, but they include:

* launching a 'Benedict condom'
* blessing a civil partnership
* opening an abortion ward

Oh dear, how very funny, and yet, how very offensive for Catholic sensibilities. So the FCO had to do the British thing and apologize quick. In fact all the newspapers report this. Their angle on the story is not the presence of purblind and juvenile anti-Catholic bile among civil servants but rather that the FCO has already 'apologized' - apologized while most of us were still in bed, as if they expected the Vatican to get up and read the British newspapers before going to chapel (well, don't they? no? what a very odd religion). A slap on the wrist for the young official involved has been administered and he was sent to bed without any supper for a week, the naughty boy. If a civil servant had written a memo suggesting that a visiting Israeli president open a pork-pie factory or that President Obama be asked to chair the next BNP convention, I take it he would have been dealt with with equal leniency. We're all equal now, you know.

Now, while it is the "offended-sensibilities" reading of this memo which strikes one the hardest - in fact, this is the angle that all the journalists are taking this morning - the oddest thing about this memo are the other suggestions. I happen to know someone who went through a selection process for the FCO, and it is not easy to get in there. You have to speak at least one slightly exotic language for a start (my acquaintance spoke Czech). Moreover, it has been reported that the official responsible for this memo was an Oxbridge graduate, though to what end I can only speculate. Perhaps because he's one of the country's finest - for we accept as a cornerstone of our civilization that not only does Oxbridge give the country nothing but the finest, but that the finest are to be found nowhere else but Oxbridge - we must be more lenient with him, as the judge was with Sebastian Flyte: 'Young Marquis unused to drink', or rather, 'Young Oxbridge graduate unused to power'. Give him a ten bob fine, wag a monitory finger at him, and give him 'other duties'. Anyway, coming to my point, what struck me about the other suggestions was that only an ignoramus could call them the fruit of 'blue-sky' thinking. There was nothing azure, celestial or thoughtful about them at all. Have a look at the suggestions (my comments in brackets):

* give a speech on equality (the Pope often does)

* training course for all bishops on child abuse allegations (the English clergy have been doing this for years)

* Vatican sponsorship for network of AIDS clinics (the Church is one of, if not the greatest, provider of care for AIDS suffers)

* announce whistle blowing system for child abuse cases (that is what Cardinal Ratzinger did)

* debate on abortion (the Pope is a professional academic and likes few things more than debate)

* speech on democracy (he often speaks on democracy)

* Vatican and CofE funded committee on dialogue (this has been going on for decades)


So, there you have it, staring out at you from the page. The real scandal about this memo, the thing the FCO ought really to be apologizing for is not that its officials have been caught in flagrante delicto of anti-Catholic prejudice - we expect as much - but that in this case their deep prejudice has led to the exposure of profound ignorance about what the Catholic Church does on a daily basis. The scandal is not the anti-Catholic prejudice (though that is bad enough); the scandal is what this incident could be symptomatic of in terms of diplomacy. What this young man really needs - a[art from a good spiritual advisor - is a serious lecture about the obligations of an FCO official to study and understand 'foreigners'. If he cannot love his enemy, the very least he can do is to learn to know his enemy, and not make the necessity of despising Catholicism - surely, one of the growing number of important reflexes in those who wish to get ahead in Britain - into a virtue.

If he must be nasty, must he have done it so stupidly? Really! Stupid boy.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The egregious CES and the Pope's conversion

Sir Humphrey (reading from a newspaper): 'The egregious Jim Hacker ...'

Jim: 'Eh? What does egregious mean? Outstanding?.

Sir Humphrey: 'Yes, sort of outstanding.'

I returned home very late on Thursday evening to the kind of news that makes one think one has fallen down the Rabbit Hole and is staring at a Mad Hatter's tea party. The Catholic Education Service of England and Wales (the CES) whose episcopal chairman, Malcolm McMahon OP, was telling us recently that it was unproductive to fight a government with an overwhelming majority - while three of his episcopal brethren were defeating the provisions of the same government's Equality legislation in the High Court - has appointed Greg Pope as its deputy director.

Well, let us not be mean spirited. Congratulations to Mr Pope. One has to think that any job is a move upwards from the increasingly perverse institutions housed at the palace of Westminster. And yet there is a problem. The problem is that Greg Pope has apparently spent large amounts of his time in the legislature voting for laws which represent the very best in anti-Catholic, secular practice. John Smeaton has analysed Pope's record in Parliament in great detail here. And it includes voting for laws or supporting parliamentary motions facilitating some of the following:

* praise for a condom manufacturer for helping schools host “National Condom Week”
* the defeat of an amendment which would have required doctors to provide pregnant mothers with certain information and an offer of counselling before any abortion of an unborn child on grounds of disability
* “Contraceptive Awareness Week”
* the reduction of the homosexual age of consent to 16 (to equalise it with the heterosexual age of consent)
* the defeat of amendments which sought to retain the requirement for doctors to consider the child’s need for a father or male role model before a woman is given fertility treatment.

You can find the dreadful details here. It makes for fascinating reading.


So why might the CES have hired a man like Pope? Well, of course the CES has to lobby on behalf of the Catholic Church in this country with regard to Catholic education. Someone with Pope's experience and contacts would be handy to have, n'est-ce pas? He has been in Parliament for thirteen years after all. I'm glad the CES have recognised their need for such a skilled advocate, since their recent quasi-total aquiescence in the face of proposed government legislation for sex education was proof positive of their incompetence. They came close in fact to collaborating in the pillage of parents' rights by supporting the most weasley ammendment dreamt up by a human jelly fish. And then they attempted to spin this into a victory while the rest of us looked on weeping: we hear almost every other week about yet another Catholic school which prefers to use Channel 4's guide to bonking in its sex-ed classes anyway.

But then isn't that the problem? What the CES needed right now was not a deputy director who could facilitate this kind of suppine resignation to the suppposedly inevitable, but rather one who could pose a genuine, imaginative defence of the principles of Catholic education in the public square. What the CES needs right now is a deputy director so formed by Catholic principles and so adept at the machinery of parliament, that never again will the CES find itself climbing into bed with the most anti-Catholic and immoral legislature to disgrace our country.

Instead of which, we get Greg Pope who in 2007 voted AGAINST a bill would have required practitioners providing contraception or abortion services to a child under the age of 16 to inform his or her parent or guardian. Voted against, i.e., he thought that contraceptive and abortion services should be made available to under-16s without their parents' or guardians' knowledge. This isn't the Rabbit's Hole. It's the Brave New World.


Now, is it possible that Greg Pope has actually had a Road-to-Damascus conversion in the last few months? Is it possible? Entirely possible of course, but that would have had to have been since February 2009 when he signed this early-day motion in favour of Contraceptive Awareness Week. Should we await Pope's conversion story? Or is it that his voting record on Life issues has been so bad, so utterly, mind-bogglingly egregious that he feels duty bound to work for the Catholic cause to repair some of the damage? That is always possible. If we have any incisive Catholic journalists left, perhaps they can put the question to him. And if this is the case, no doubt he will be more than happy to advertise his regret for the work of destruction in which he has so amply participated.

Well, call me a cynic, but I have this nagging feeling that even as we remain open in our judgment to Pope's potential reform, we would probably be safe betting money that never a word will be said to justify this appointment. How just how can such a man, with such a PUBLIC record of opposition to the Church be recruited to represent the interests of Catholic parents in the public square? And since these are all matters of public record, how will the CES defend the appointment of an individual whose practical lobbying skills are of nugatory importance in comparison with his understanding of, and adherence to, the teachings of the Church on Life?

All together now:

I see a clinic full of cynics
Who want to twist the peoples' wrist
They're watching every move we make
We're all included on the list

A Belated Saint George Wish

Hmm, sorry, a day late, but on the other hand, 364 days early.

St George he was for England,

And before he killed the dragon

He drank a pint of English ale

Out of an English flagon.

For though he fast right readily

In hair-shirt or in mail,

It isn't safe to give him cakes

Unless you give him ale.

St George he was for England,

And right gallantly set free

The lady left for dragon's meat

And tied up to a tree;

But since he stood for England

And knew what England means,

Unless you give him bacon

You mustn't give him beans.

St George he is for England,

And shall wear the shield he wore

When we go out in armour

With battle-cross before.

But though he is jolly company

And very pleased to dine,

It isn't safe to give him nuts

Unless you give him wine.

G. K Chesterton.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Tomatoes when they are red

Maybe I don't shop in the right places. Maybe the local suppliers are just a sorry bunch. But it is months now since I saw a real, half-decent selection of tomatoes for sale. Tomatoes, you say. He hasn't blogged for almost two weeks and he comes back to speak about tomatoes? Well, silence, pale prosamaniac! I will come to my weighty point in a little while. In any case, these are the essential things.

I know, of course, tomatoes are only in season from March to November, so no wonder I have not seen any for a while. But even in season we only find a mere handful of varieties in the average supermarket or even market stall. People think they're being exotic if they get 'vine ripened' Whoopy do! Cherry and plum tomatoes are somehow regarded as the latest in outré exoticism.

But what about the coeurs de boeufs? Or black tomatoes? What about simple yellow cherries? No, we in Great Britain feel we have been daring if we deploy one of those red, watery, salad pingpong balls, mixed in with the iceberg lettuce and cucumber rings. It makes me want to weep. It really does.

But herein is a grand metaphor of our current times, is there not? We have rationalized our national life, as we have rationalized our tomatoes; we have standardized our mediocrity, as we have standardized our salad ingredients; we have narrowed down our variety in a grand show of conformity that is both cultural and culinary. If only we had remained hobbits with a love of growing things.

Of course there is a drift back in the opposite direction - a direction not abandoned by some - but only a little. We take our varieties now in shop-made boxes; we reclaim our individualism in ready-made packages. Anything else would be too expensive. Have we have been priced out of originality? Out of authenticity?

Well, I suppose we have up to a point. Still, there is nothing to stop us doing our own thing in our own back gardens, at least for the time being, even if these things are always more easily advocated from the comfort of the sofa (or our blog) than in real life. Armchair quarter backs; armchair culture. How did we come to this?

That's a long way from tomatoes, but I think I'm onto something.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

It's not for me to comment on government policy

I cannot resist one last little passage from Sir Humphrey.

Good night.

Roll on 6th May

And so it begins. I honestly cannot find a single reason to take an interest in the shennanigans which will pass for an electoral campaign in the weeks ahead. After all, they only want our vote, right? That and our taxes when they are elected.

I think that is why I much prefer in this season to begin watching my DVDs of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Cynical and caricatural in many ways, and yet, true. And yet, ahead of their time in representing the self-interest and the manipulation at the heart of our spectacular political culture - I mean spectacular in its original sense of something to be spectated, watched.

They all think the same things. They all represent the same self-interested groups. There is barely a cigarette paper between them, not only because they have banned smoking in public spaces, but also because there is no other way in which vote fishing can be successful.

Who will be the least damaging? That is the question which is potentially tempting at this juncture. Still, I fear I will once again be spoiling my ballot paper. I see no other option. The trouble is that our politicians are such creatures of the system that spoilt ballots appear as no more than the work of cranks.

To be frank, however, I would be glad to be thought a crank by our current political class.

If only they were at least as charming as Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Another worthy petition

If you are a UK citizen, whether resident or overseas, please consider signing this petition in favour of allowing Catholic Adoption Agencies to operate without prejudice under Equality legislation in the UK.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Myths and science

Philip Pullman has written his own take on the gospels in a new work entitled. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In it he reworks the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ who becomes twins: Jesus, the charismatic talker, and Christ, the dark brother who infiltrates his own teaching into Jesus's teaching. Why such a story? Well, Pullman told The Times last year:

“For every man or woman who has been led to goodness by a church, and I know there have been many, there has been another who has been inspired by the same church to a rancid and fanatical bigotry for which the only fitting word is evil.”

In other words Jesus must have had some monstrous double, which explains why some Christians are nice and some nasty. The story makes sense of the confused picture. To Pullman at least.

There are several things which are really fascinating about this, but perhaps the central one is that Pullman is doing exactly what he accuses religion of doing: generating a myth to explain something that he does not understand. Something else myths do is to explain away hostility. Which is of course exactly what this Pullmanian myth does too. After all, he doesn't want to be angry with Jesus the Good Man; but Christ the Scoundrel can take a good hiding. It's okay to hate Christianity when it is separated from Jesusism (of whatever Jesus's religion without Christ could be callled).

This function of a myth also allows you not only to veil violence, it also has the benefit of making you appear virtuous. Those who drive out the scapegoat have an aura of benevolent power. It doesn't matter that Pullman's animus feeds on some mythical division of Christians into fifty-fifty bigots and saints. I've met a lot of mediocre Christians; they're the biggest proportion. What is all this fifty-fifty stuff doing? Well, mythically justifying Pullman's hostility, I suppose ...

I just read Pullman's response to Stephen Hawkings's 2006 Oxford lecture on the origins of the universe. Therein, he reduces all creation thinking to the same level as the myths of the Boshongo story whose god, Bumba, is said to have vomited the sun, moon, stars, world and humans from his own belly. What is interesting here is that Pullman gives himself away not as an enlightened man but as a scientific fundamentalist. Having assigned to all talk of creation the rank of metaphor or allegory, he says this odd thing:

The delight for me in the account Professor Hawking gave us tonight, and has given us in his marvellous book A Brief History of Time, is that we can both listen to it with wonder and take it literally.

Take it literally? Well, yes and no. This is the problem. Pullman looks benignly on englightened thought but places on it a heavier burden than it can bear. Scientific theories are not literal truths; they are working models or best-fit descriptions. Oddly enough, to confuse them with literal truth is arguably to fall into the same trap as thinking that the physical account of the universe found in the Bible must be true in the same way that Revelation about God is true. Pullman isn't free of fundamentalism; he has simply swapped one fundamentalism for another because it has better material credentials.

Pullman has said that if people don't like his new book, then they don't have to read it, or they can write their own book about it. Somewhere I hope there is a Christian with a sense of humour who writes a book entitled Isaac the Good Man and Newton the Scoundrel. Isaac will be known for his brilliant scientific mind and wise understanding of science's limits; he will always be aware of science's contingency, and will allow other disciplines to explain things in their own order. Newton, his evil twin, on the other hand will represent everything that is hubristic about scientism; he will lampoon any doubts about science as fundamentalism and will embrace the latest theories, even those that lead unwittingly towards genocide and mass destruction.

But then again, maybe not. Myth making is the stuff of human culture when it is sub-Christian. It took the cross to unveil the self-veiling violence of the human being; Pullman ought only to be met with that truth, and with a fully committed Christian rationality.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Thoughts on abuse

I wrote this last year but in view of this week's news, and of the new allegations regarding the pope (the full history of which is yet to unfold), it seems right to publish it again.

Child abuse is one of those traumas so extraordinarily singular that it leaves one grasping not only for words but to find any entitlement to talk about it. Thank God, I never suffered it, though I know those who have. Sometimes they suffer the consequences all their lives, and in a handful of cases, they bring their lives to an end because of it. Compassion itself seems inadequate here, not by lack of empathy but because it is impossible to know the suffering - to passus cum - caused by such transgression of a human being, whose very world is wrecked often by those who have defined it for them. This is as near as anyone can get, if it were possible, to casting another freewill into mortal sin. No wonder Christ said it would be better that a millstone be tied around the necks of those who scandalize the little ones of God. Of course it is also true that abusers sometimes begin as the abused, in a colossal chain of unstinting misery known to God alone. How our own sufferings seem small in the lights of these scandals.

What leaves me, however, in a similar state of incomprehension are the strategies of those who have been, with the best of intentions, covering up child abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese for several decades. Complaints only started coming to light of course in the 1980s and 1990s, but whether we look at more recent incidents or those that were happening as long ago as the 1930s (cf the Ryan Report on child abuse published in May) - and Lord knows how long before that - it is not modernism which has brought this about (though it might have compounded it) but clericalism. By clericalism, I mean not only what the Irish State is now acccused of, in having deferred to the Catholic Church in Ireland in this matter. By clericalism, I mean also the type of churchmanship that serves lower moral considerations at the cost of higher ones. I mean especially the kind of churchmanship that can conceal the sins of the clergy but not, at the same time, punish them with severity. Of course, there is the issue of the private forum. We do not know what penances have been imposed under the seal of confession.

But how can that be enough? Did these people never realise that eventually cesspits have to be cleaned out? That you cannot keep shoving transgressions against immortal souls into the limited space of a nation's mortal psyche? Some spiritual plumber was needed, some moral sanitary engineer, who could have predicted the lamentable outcome. For eventually some blockage always forces the shit back up the pipe, and here we are today, knee deep in decades of foul-smelling, mind-numbing fecal matter, studded with the souls of children loved by God and wrecked by men.

Neither do I buy the line that we didn't really know what pederasty was truly like four or five decades ago. Scandal of the young is specifically and graphically described by Christ as a sin deserving of the worst punishment. What edition of the Bibile were they reading not to have understood that?

Perhaps one of these complacent clerics muttered the kinds of bourgeois reassurances which made Léon Bloy fulminate against the bourgeoisie so much: least said, soonest mended; let's draw a veil over that; it will all be forgotten in a little while. Or perhaps they said something like, 'Well, they were only Christ's words' ...

Like the priest who was preaching on the day John Berryman, the alcoholic American poet and life-long depressive, turned up at church, trembling with the DTs, anxious to put his life right after decades of chaos; he'd been going for a little while apparently. That day though, the priest was preaching about the constraints of celibacy. Citing the words of Christ that there are some who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God he railed against the faithful who put the clergy on such a pedestal. 'They were only Christ's words,' he said. Berryman, rising to his feet, clutching a rosary, sweating, and shaking in anger, shouted out, 'Only Christ words?' And stomped out the door ... later to throw himself off Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

Berryman's life was marked early on by the suicide of his father. I wonder if parental suicide doesn't have a similar effect to child abuse. For what is parental suicide, or indeed child abuse, if not the wrecking of a child's certainties about the goodness of the world? What is parental suicide or child abuse if not the destroying of what is, for the child, the most powerful symbol of God's providence, if not an initiation into an absurd world? Confession makes priests and bishops more insightful about human motives and tendencies than anyone can imagine. The Catholic Church invented psychology long before Freud or anyone else. But how did these Irish churchmen (not to mention those elsewhere) get child abuse so badly wrong? How did they fail so categorically when the stakes were so much higher than the reputation of the clergy? When the stakes were immortal souls made in the image and likeness of God? God save us all from the unintended consequences of our own complacency.

You cannot serve God until you've lost your reputation, said Saint Teresa of Avila. That is a lesson the Irish Church - and the rest of us by association - have to learn.

Friday, 19 March 2010

But the one thing that makes spring complete for me

Alright, I know I'm a little bit ahead of the game but there is no doubt spring is here. Have you seen the weather this week? I ask almost in order to get some information out of you (all three of you). I have spent most of this week either in a chair or in bed suffering the effects of a late winter bug that took up residence last Thursday and seemed to be on some kind of busman's holiday until last night. Finally, finally, expectoration has begun ... okay too much info there. Moving right along.

But listen, I'm not the only blogger to be talking about spring. The puppy-kicking author of Orwell's Picnic has a delightful little piece anticipating spring which she published on Wednesday. If you live in the UK, you look at those pictures - the garden, the fruit, the flowers, the fishmarket (yes!) - and wonder again why on earth you are still living in this nasty little pimple of a country, encrusted with more nanny legislation than ever before, losing its Gulf Stream, practically bankrupt, and ruled by the mad, the bad, and the excessively well-funded.

But then - [Innocent tries to make the most of being penniless and prospect free] - what if being receptive to spring is the only way of revolting against this revolting mess? Look, I'm not out to chant 'every-day-in-every-way, etc'. I'm continuing my thought from Monday really. Sadness is of the devil. Joy is of God. Or at least we are most ourselves when we are joyful. The trick of course is to be joyful under current conditions; which I suppose means being joyful as a way of being subversive, as a way of revolting. Or perhaps there is also a place here for the nostalgic lament which comforts and consoles as it exorcises. How did we ever think we could call ourselves Christian and not expect to get our portion of trouble? But we did, didn't we?

I know. Believe me, I know. But then, who was it reminded us that in the Gospel the only recorded instance of Christ actually singing is after the Last Supper and before his agony on the garden? I don't know where I'm going with this thought, other than to welcome spring, to celebrate St Joseph (with whom I have a fraught and difficult relationship), and to try to get my own vision clear.

I tell you nought for your comfort,

Yea, nought for your desire.

Except of course I wish you a happy spring and a joyous ending to Lent.

Right, nausia over Back to the grind, you three!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Catholic Care and Catholic Courage

In a recent post I highlighted a section of the pre-election guide published by the CBCEW Choosing the Common Good. The words of this section read something like this:

The virtue of courage ensures firmness, and the readiness to stand by what we believe in times of difficulty. It is the opposite of opportunism and of evasiveness (p. 12).

The opposite of opportunism and evasiveness. I like that formulation very much. 'Opportunism', the vice of short-termism and 'evasiveness' the vice of moderation.

So we can only applaud the news today that the High Court has approved the appeal made by Catholic Care, the Catholic adoption agency connected to the dioceses of Leeds, Middlesborough and Hexham and Newcastle. The Charity Commission has been ordered to reconsider Catholic Care's request to be made exempt from the 2006 anti-discrimination legislation which in the concrete meant Catholic agencies could no longer refuse to place children with homosexuals.

So what can we draw from this incident? Well, let's not be hasty. The Charity Commission has yet to reconsider the case of Catholic Care. But, it seems that insofar as these dioceses have shown 'firmness and the readiness to stand by what [they] believe in times of difficulty', they have not only been true to the principles of Choosing the Common Good; they have also shown that the nannying, secularist, anti-discrimination legislation passed by the current pond-dwellers in Parliament was not some inexorable and supreme edict which had to be be swallowed whole, but was rather emminently, pre-emminently contestable. Hang on folks, I feel a Shakespeare moment coming on. Yes, here we go:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day (Henry V).

So bravo, Catholic Care, for reaching parts other Catholic adoption agencies have failed to reach ... as far as I am aware. Well, okay, many were under the control of trustees anyway, and of these a couple signed away their Catholic identity in order to preserve their work with children. Salford's Rescue Society - founded by the venerable and intrepid Cardinal Vaughan when he was bishop of that see - was dissolved. I'm not sure if any other dioceses have actually gone to court. Could these people have fought alongside Catholic Care? Could they have? I simply ask the question.

I note that elsewhere Catholic adoption agencies have even closed their doors, rather than comply with the imposition of legislation requiring them to place children with gays. Boston archdiocese took that option in 2006. Only last month the Archdiocese of Washington DC went the same way. Hang on, another Shakespeare moment dawns ...

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named.

Such actions are not always possible. Such actions are sometimes compromised by calculations the details of which we are hardly privy to. But doesn't Catholic Care prove something really important in the context of the UK?

Shouldn't there be now an examination of conscience here among those who have the responsibility for such matters, among those who apparently feel that there is nothing to be gained by conflict with the government? I read these lines of Bishop McMahon to another Catholic blogger concerning the position of the CES regarding the Children, Schools and Families Bill:

There is no question of the CES colluding with the Government.. I also believe that confrontation with the Government over this Bill would not achieve anything.

Maybe it wouldn't. Maybe it wouldn't achieve anything practical. I dare say confronting institutions more powerful than you rarely achieves anything tangible. But wouldn't it just be a sign, if nothing else, a sign in this case that this government is robbing parents of their rights, children of their innocence, and imposing relativism by diktat? And isn't it true that God asks us not to be victorious but only to be worthy of victory?

BUT, what if, WHAT IF confrontation did actually achieve something, my Lord? What if - as in Catholic Care's victory in the High Court - confronting the government made the agents of power crumble?