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.