Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Feast of SS Peter and Paul

Today is the feast of SS Peter and Paul, one of the most important feasts of the year.  It has a vigil and a commemoration of St Paul tomorrow, and once upon a time had an octave.  It is still on the list of potential holy days of obligation.

It is also the patronal feast of the FSSP, so you might care to say a prayer for them...

Friday, 25 June 2010

A wish list for Julia

Whatever one might think of Gillard, one has to admire the sheer professionalism with which the coup against Rudd was executed.  Most of the attention has been on the so-called 'faceless men' who counted the numbers and staged such a rapid and clean kill (Peter Costello must be dying of jealousy).  But just as impressive (if not more so) was the work of whoever designed and orchestrated the transition to office plan for yesterday and today.  If this is the standard we can expect from Gillard's office, things are indeed looking up for the ALP. If it wasn't her Office, then she should quickly recruit whoever it was!

Some of the imagery, such as that of our female Governor-General swearing in our new female Prime Minister (pictured above, from the ABC site) was provided free of charge.  A lot of it  - such as the cutting lines added to her parliamentary replies to Abbott and Bishop - comes from the sheer wit, intelligence and competence of Gillard herself.  But a lot of it reflected some very sound strategic and tactical thinking behind the scenes, and careful preparation of lines. 

Her speech and press conference yesterday were virtually perfect - she came up with an excellent circuit breaker for the Resource Tax debate, had strong lines to cover off virtually every possible criticism, and showed herself strongly in control.  Question Time was a masterpiece in the sequencing and selection of questions.  And she pretty much conquered 7.30 Land.

The follow up today is pretty piccies of her first Cabinet meeting (below, photo AAP: Alan Porritt).  I have no doubt her people are busily plotting out West Wing style her path over the next few days, weeks and months.  No doubt every journalist, blogger and poster will throw in their two cents worth on what she should do.  So here's a short wish list (of varying degrees of seriousness) from me.

1.  Move into the Lodge.

I can understand Gillard's reluctance to move into the Lodge, desire to appease the sense that she hasn't been elected to the Office.  But security nightmares aside (for her neighbour's as much as anyone else), it is a bad decision. 

If there is anything the Howard and Rudd years should have taught us it is that a Presidential, highly centralized style approach to mandates and Government does not fit well with an Australian style parliamentary democracy.  Whatever the punters might think at the time, Australians are in reality voting for parties and platforms not PMs, and moving into the Lodge now is an important part of the symbolism that goes with that.

Having real Cabinet meetings, genuinely treating Ministers as a team, and actually negotiating instead of imposing are all excellent steps.  But there is a big hole in our democracy to repair, and she needs every tool at her disposal to repair it.

2.  Reaffirm the Labor Party's election commitments to protection of the family

And on the theme of party platforms not personalities, a reaffirmation of some of the Party's commitments wouldn't go amiss.  Many Christians will be worried about Gillard's endorsement by the pro-'choice' Emily's List.  Time will tell whether or not this concern is justified - but in the meantime, Labor got into Government with the support of Christian lobby groups, and owe it to them to stay true to the commitments made.

More, if she is serious about her commitments to those who get up early and work hard rather than whinge, serious about social inclusion and social justice, a focus on looking at how we can strengthen the underlying social bonds that support our society and thus prevent homelessness, mental illness, social isolation and much more, is vital.

3.  Marry your bloke

One way of going some way to meeting suggestion two might be marrying that nice chap on her arm.  OK so 'living in sin', though a serious sin, is in my book actually not as bad a sin as rejecting your catholic faith in favour of some watered down protestantism. 

And I understand and sympathise to some extent with where she is coming from - I too am part of the same generation, the one that simply didn't see the need for institutional endorsement of their relationships.  

But most of us have subsequently come to realise the value and importance of these things, and the generation after us are marrying with enthusiasm, unable to understand the reluctance of their predecessors to try a little commitment. 

And hey, the bloke himself sounded kind of interested in the idea when it was raised in interviews yesterday - so she should go ahead and do the romantic thing, and in the process go some way in neutralising one of the sources of unease with her.

4.  Do a radical rethink on refugee policy, don't just tinker

Gillard has signalled she wants to do something in this areas and she has to - refugee policy is becoming one of those silly issues come every election, one that garners attention far beyond its real importance.  Worse still, our current policies (let alone Abbott's plan to revisit the spend a zillion dollars to park em on a pacific island approach) are a ridiculous waste of resources (what between navy and coastguard patrols; detention camps on and offshore; distorted aid allocations and foreign policy objectives; and the psychological costs on the refugees themselves) with surely the worst cost-benefit ratio of any exercize of power on the part of Australian Governments.

So what is needed is not just some more tinkering at the edges to try and prevent Liberal wedging, but a complete, serious and creative rethink of everything Australia does in this area, starting with mandatory detention, which has notably failed as a deterrent.  There have to be better approaches.

5.  Find some short term wins on climate change

There are various levels of certainty when it comes to policy action that can help determine when action is required.  The first, and most desirable, is when there really is a clear consensus about a problem that needs to be addressed.  I suspect that, sceptics aside, there really is a strong enough scientific consensus on man-made climate change to pass this test, but even if there isn't, there certainly is on the second, prudential test, which is where there is enough evidence that the problem might be real exists - and the risks of not acting are so catastrophic as to merit action.

An example of prudential action was the swine flu outbreak last year - so far at least, it hasn't been the serious pandemic that health experts have feared.  But it could have been (and if it mutates enough, still could be), and if sufficient action hadn't been taken the consequences in terms of loss of life could have been extreme.

When Rudd blithely abandoned his (admittedly appallingly badly designed) carbon tax scheme, enough of the electorate were concerned about the prudential risk of climate change for him to lose support.  Gillard has signalled a consensus building exercise geared towards bringing a new try at this back.

But in the meantime, what about some serious support for the renewable energy industry, designed in such as way as to be phased out when a carbon tax makes direct subsidies unnecessary?  Other countries are moving ahead on climate change; so should we.

6.  Turn the tables on Tony and start a debate about ideals of public service and ripping of the Government.

OK so this one is going to sound a bit naive.  But one of the things that appalled me about the problems in the various stimulus programs was the willingness of the private sector to rort government programs. 

Yes the programs should have been better designed.  Yes there should have been tighter controls and auditing of projects and service providers.

But funding for schools and insulation was funded with taxpayer dollars in the interests of the common good. 

So why didn't the service providers feel any commitment or obligation at all to those broader public policy objectives - such as preserving jobs, reducing electricity costs, and providing good infrastructure to future generations of Australian  children - as opposed to simply lining their own pockets?  Didn't those put or kept in business feel any responsibility to provide a safe, good product to house owners rather than trying to rip off both little old ladies and the Government (as the installer of my mother's insulation tried to do)?

We need a real conversation about business ethics, and about all of our responsibilities as citizens, in this country.

7.  Take a hard look at monetary and fiscal policy

One of the key issues Labor was elected on was tackling household costs - petrol, groceries and interest rates.  They have failed miserably on the first two, and only sheer luck, in the form of the Global Financial Crisis and accumulated surpluses, has kept interest rates relatively low so far.

But the crude use of interest rates to manage inflation (and the flow-on effects of booms and busts in the resources sector above all) causes wild swings in household incomes and some extremely perverse incentives in housing and other markets.  Put Ken Henry on rethinking this one instead of fiddling with taxes (unless of course he is for the chop, as he perhaps deserves to be!).

Oh, and on the subject of (inefficient) taxes, wasn't part of the rationale for the GST way back when supposed to be to allow the States to abolish a swath of inefficient taxes?  Why not put that issue back on the COAG agenda - because a faster route to tax reform might be to take the view that if the States aren't going to do it, maybe the Commonwealth should take back that revenue and use it better....  (OK so yes, that last one is just naive wishful thinking.  Just go for it Julia, abolish the States!).

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Australia's first female Prime Minister....

In one of Australia's swiftest and most spectacular political coups ever, the Labor Party today elected Julia Gillard leader unopposed (pictured above with the Deputy Prime Minister-designate Wayne Swan, photo by Andrew Meares, SMH), after Kevin Rudd stepped down.

The end came swiftly

There had been leadership rumblings for a while in the face of a series of disastrous political decisions on the part of the Rudd Government.  But until yesterday, they looked mostly like a typical media beat-up, the inevitable rumblings when the polls started to dive.  Certainly Gillard herself looked convincing when she publicly rejected all attempts to persuade her to make a challenge. 

Indeed, only a few days back, the Australian wrote an opportunistic article telling her that she had probably thrown away her chance to ever become Prime Minister by refusing to use the last scheduled meeting of the Parliamentary Caucus this session to challenge.

But that all changed yesterday.  The straw that broke the camel's back seems to have been a media story that claimed that despite Gillard's assurances to Rudd that she wouldn't challenge, his office had been taking soundings of backbenchers to see if he retained support.  Media reports claim that she was outraged at the display of distrust.  Whether or not this is true, it is clear that the ongoing stoush with the mining industry amongst others, combined with disaffection on the part of Ministers effectively sidelined from decision-making processes all contributed to a collapse of Rudd's internal support, and led to key players cornering Gillard once again in an effort to persuade her to stand against Rudd.

Last night she met and a few key players met with him; he refused to stand down, but called the caucus meeting for this morning so that a vote could be had. 

After a no doubt typically sleepless night, he resigned the leadership, and decided not to contest the ballot.

A sensible decision really since it is clear that it would have been a slaughter, with the numbers running at around 70:30 in Gillard's favour.

The causes of Rudd's demise

Mr Rudd has only himself to thank for his own demise. 

From the beginning of his regime he rejected the idea of working with the internal power bases of his party, preferring instead to ride on his personal popularity alone.  He disdained any role for the Labor party faction system (which may well have become overweaning, but does have some positive features in ensuring the party remains representative of its membership and promoting party discipline), and appointed ex-Liberal pollies to a series of prominent positions.  Hardly the way to win friends among those who count.

And then, having grabbed the freedom to appoint his own Cabinet, he proceeded to sideline most of his Ministers in favour of an inner kitchen Cabinet and making virtually all announcements himself (unless of course it was bad news).  Ego got in the way of good government.

His Office was filled with young, arrogant and inexperienced staffers.

And worst of all, it became clear that the reason the Government had no narrative, so consistent story about what it stood for, and that Rudd could speak at length without managing to convey any actual information whatsoever, was because Rudd in fact stood for nothing except power itself.  He backed down on issues he had claimed to be the great moral challenges of our times, and was left looking nothing but opportunistic and incompetent.

No wonder then, that the party decided he had to go.

Will Gillard be any better?

Gillard is an extremely intelligent, highly competent parliamentary performer and Minister who has widely impressed (not withstanding some stumbles).  A lawyer who has moved up quickly through the ranks and despite the handicaps of not being the most beautiful woman to grace our stages, and that voice, she does have considerable charisma, a special something that people do warm to.

The big question mark is whether her judgment is any better than Rudd's.  She was, after all, his Deputy, and part of his inner decision-making circle.  But given Rudd's autocratic and domineering style, it is possible that doesn't mean much.

The challenge she faces is enormous: to restore proper Cabinet Government processes, overhaul key policy directions, and go to an election in the near future.

Canberra bureaucrats will be rejoicing today at the prospect of getting some sleep at last. 

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on the other hand, I suspect, is facing some sleepless nights as the prospect of him winning the next election look like slipping a lot further away.

Either way, it is heartening to see a political party (regaredless of whether or not you support it) effectively stand up and say that it does in fact stand for something.  Whether that something is what we want to buy remains to be seen.

Should be an interesting few weeks and months ahead.

Oh and by the way, happy feast of St John the Baptist!

Ad multos annos: Fr Michael McCaffrey FSSP

And you can find a little feature on the Latin Mass community in Adelaide under Fr McCaffrey's leadership here.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Welfare reform and catholic social policy: when and how should the bishops' speak out?

This week legislation to extend compulsory income management - quarantining of half of welfare benefits to ensure it is spent on food, rent and other basics - finally passed the Senate. 

It was supported by all of the parties - except the party dubbed anti-Christians this week by Cardinal Pell, the Greens.  Yet it has been condemned by catholic welfare agencies such as Vinnies and more importantly, by Bishop Saunders on behalf of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Commission.

Over in the US there is an interesting debate going on about the role and authority of bishops vs lay catholic organizations when it comes to matters of public policy in the context of the recent health care debate.  I do think the underlying issue, about the role of bishops when it comes to prudential judgments in the areas of the social teachings of the Church, is an important one that requires close scrutiny. 

Compulsory income management of welfare payments to the whole of the Northern Territory provides an excellent case study in the Australian context. 

The role of bishops on social teaching

The role of bishops and the Church when it comes to social teaching has always been fraught.  On the one hand it is quite clear, as emphasised by Gaudium et Spes, Centesimus Annus and many other documents, that the primary role in relation to the enactment of laws for the common good belongs to the laity. 

The Church espouses principles to guide lawmakers - but it does not have the power to propose definitive solutions to policy issues: Pope John Paul II wrote that the Church “is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution,” nor to “pass definitive judgments” on specific policy options, “since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium’s specific domain. 

So when bishops advocate for this or that policy option, they are not, it would seem, doing so with magisterial authority.

What they can do however, and with authority, is pass judgments on whether or not on whether an action by government is moral or immoral. 

It is a fine line, but an important one.

When should the bishops' make such rulings?

It is one thing for bishops to point out the lines of Catholic social policy, and urge respect for the individual's dignity and rights, as Bishop Saunders has done on this particular legislation - that's a legitimate reminder of the principles legislators must consider when acting.  It is quite another though to go on, as he does, and essentially conclude that this particular legislation is paternalistic, discriminatory and won't solve the real problem.

Because a strong, legitimate case for income management as one of a suite of policies to address the problems caused by welfare dependency, particularly in dysfunctional Indigenous communities, can in fact be made.  And where good people working from the same principles can come to different prudential judgments, then one must really consider seriously whether and when the bishops should speak up.  There will be cases which justify it.  But if the Church really wants the laity to be active in the public square, intervention by the bishops should surely be rare.

Is income management a case that justifies such a voicing of concerns?

Indigenous policy is certainly Australia's single most pressing social policy issue, and so it is right for the bishops to be concerned about it and focusing our attention on it.  But is also the area where there is virtually no real evidence base for what works and what doesn't - an area where pretty much all we have is a litany of policy failure.  So there is a strong case for trying new approaches.

Australia's moves down the path of welfare conditionality  - enforcing 'mutual obligations' - have generally shown quite strong positive results.  And income management isn't totally new in the social policy world - it reflects ideas such as the longstanding and successful US food stamp program for example.

But applying any policy to a new environment needs a considerable amount of time to be in place in order to be assessed properly for its effectiveness.  There are always teething problems that need to be sorted out.  The early evidence from income management trials across Australia, as well as from the Northern Territory Intervention did show up some problems in implementation - and the new legislation has made a number of important changes in the light of that.  But overall, the evidence for its reception and effect is generally pretty positive.  So why all the concern?

The case for income management

No one - or at least no one who has visited one - will dispute the facts about the horrific situation in many welfare dependent Indigenous communities.  Regardless of the causes, the reality is stark.  The argument is what to do about it. 

Do we wait for Indigenous communities and individuals to start taking control of their lives, or do we have a duty to act?

Of course the ideal, consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, is that the individual, family and local community to manage their lives.  But it is not an unqualified principle, and by providing welfare payments, the Government is actually providing the means by which communities can continue on a path to destruction.  The argument is that it really isn't appropriate to simply allow people to continue to spend taxpayers dollars on alcohol, drugs and gambling while their children starve.

As Minister Jenny Macklin pointed out in an interview with the ABC:

"I don't think there's any human dignity in your children not going to school, not having a chance to be well fed. This is all about providing an additional tool to help families who are needing that extra support to make sure that they get their finances in order, to make sure that their children are not neglected, to make sure that their children do go to school. We've got more than 2,000 children not even enrolled to go to school in the Northern Territory. Thousands of children not attending regularly and that's got to change. It's got to change so that those children have a better chance to get a decent education and then a decent job. I really just can't see the logic in saying that a life on welfare is good for anyone."

The second leg of the bishop's argument is essentially that welfare reform targets the individual, whereas what is needed are structural solutions.  Noel Pearson offers a rebuttal of this line in today's Australian.  The welfare safety net, he argues, is a civilising achievement.  But making it conditional, using it as a tool for behaviour change, is essential because welfare dependency and the ills it leads to have both structural and behavioural causes and effects.  Ignoring individual behaviour in favour of addressing only structural issues, he suggests, means that when structural change does occur, individuals will not be able to take up the opportunities created.

The intricacies of this debate illustrate I think, the problematic approach to the social teaching of the Church by which principles are regularly converted into specific policy solutions and then put forward as if those solutions were in fact Church teaching.   It is dangerous, potentially misleading, and ultimately harmful to the cause of good public policy and Catholic engagement in the public square.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Notes for young philosophers IIB: Perfection, judgement and feelings

This is a response to a comment from my nephew Matthew on an earlier post (apologies again for the delay, blogger ate my speel and then I got sick!) - I've put it up as a separate post as it is too long to fit in the comments box.  You can read the exchanges so far over there, but I'll put in some extracts (out of order) of the latest response to make it easier to follow.

1. Public vs private religion

"I don't know if this is the way it should be, but from a distance, the only noticeable difference between my religious and non-religious friends is that some of my religious friends are above-averagely kind and caring. It's true that they'll invite their friends to their churches and social groups and so on, and occasionally they'll quietly offer to pray for someone who needs it (if they think it'll be appreciated), but often when I learn that an acquaintance or a friend-of-a-friend is religious, I'd had no idea."

You are probably right that to outsiders Christians don’t always seem that different to non-Christians. A lot of the times the reasons we do things aren’t necessarily going to be clear to others. But I guess what I was trying to get at is that even if it isn’t always obvious to bystanders, for the Christians there isn’t really a divide between their public and private lives – they are all manifestations of a life motivated above all by their belief in God. Their faith does in fact determine how they act publicly, and what causes they take up.

In terms of that outward persona being kinder and more caring – you are lucky in your friends, but there have been some pretty grumpy saints in history (my personal favourite being St Jerome), and lots who were scorned by their contemporaries for all sorts of reasons!
2. Gentle Jesus meek and mild…

"Ok, you've got a good point there: "be nice to everyone" is a bit of an oversimplification, and there is such a thing as being too nice. Certainly, there are times when you have to be cruel to be kind, but like you said, we've had "love thy neighbour as thyself" since Leviticus. Most of the time, Jesus was a pretty nice guy.

Reversing the Golden Rule gives you "an eye for an eye", which is not at all Christ-like...

I’d have to say that while compassion is certainly a Christian quality, I’m not sure that many of his contemporaries - including his disciples - would have characterized Jesus as ‘a pretty nice guy’.
Personally I think those who see a disjunction between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New have been mislead by some bad theology.

It is true that Jesus went well out of his way, even beyond the bounds of proprietary, to help the poor, sick and suffering. People were naturally drawn to him, attracted by his charisma.

Yet it is also clear that his disciples and many others found him extremely intimidating (and for good reasons – take a look at the story of the calming of the storm in Mark chapter 5, and the withering of the fig tree in chapter 11). His teachings were often hard to understand (see the discussion of the parables in Mark chapter 4). When he did speak clearly, his teachings were so hard to stomach as to cause most of his disciples to desert (John 6). And his arguments with the recognized teachers and authorities of his time as reported in Scripture included a lot of name calling and fairly full on tricky debate!

As a result of what I see as the soft-soaping version of the life of Jesus, I think our ideas of what constitutes perfection are often a bit warped – Jesus is our model of perfection, and the Gospels record him weeping, getting angry, struggling with fear, and much more. Perfection doesn't mean we have to live in a world of soft and soapy nicencess!

3. So is God condemning all non-Christians to torture?

"In my opinion, how we live our lives matters either way. If God exists, He's either going to condemn billions of wonderful non-Christians to eternal torture — which rather goes against His loving, fatherly image — or He'll be reasonable enough to accept people who, although they may not have spent their lives striving to figure out what it is He wants them to do with their lives, were pretty decent nonetheless."

Jesus was pretty upfront about the need for conversion and belief in him in order to get into heaven: the last chapter of Mark for example includes the summary line: ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

But of course, that isn’t necessarily quite as simple as it sounds!

First, it is important to be clear that heaven is not a right, it is a gift offered which we can reject through the choices we freely make. It is inherent in our nature to seek God – if we choose not to, that is our decision, not God’s.

Second, the most important thing you need to know about the nature of hell is that its most important aspect, the biggest punishment of all, is simply the absence of God. What we are choosing when we sin is to reject the good, the right and the true. And if we stay fixed in that choice by the time of our death, what we lose out on is the sense of his loving presence, a sense we have only weakly now, but can enjoy in its fullness in heaven.

The medieval writer Dante actually described a hell where the lowest level – for what he viewed as ‘righteous pagans’ – was actually quite pleasant, a kind of limbo, where all - but the all important all - that was absent was love. All up he constructed nine circles of hell, with increasing levels of punishment depending on the sins people committed. It isn't a bad way of thinking about it.

However even Dante admitted that some non-Christians could make it to heaven. The Catholic Church recognizes lots of Old Testament figures as saints for example (even Adam and Eve made it eventually according to tradition!), as well as people who wished to become Christians but were martyred before they were formally baptised.

The reality is that there is a lot of theological debate about just who else can make it into heaven. It is pretty clear that if you explicitly know about Christianity and deliberately reject it, on the face of it you are in trouble (though some theologians still find some wiggle room!).

But what about the many people who grow up in societies where they had no chance to learn of it?

Many catholics would argue that if they genuinely seek God, and do good, they may be covered by the idea of ‘baptism of desire’. But it is one of those areas where the Church simply says the only certain mechanism we know about is baptism, and that is why we must evangelize!

4. Perfection and respecting other people’s feelings

"I don't want to be a saint. I may not have worked out what I want to do with my life yet, but I know I'm not perfect and I'm not going to try to be. I basically work on a combination of gut feeling (which I suppose has been pretty strongly influenced by my upbringing) and empathy. I've become pretty sensitive to how other people feel and react, and I'm also really analytical, so whenever I do something that makes someone else feel bad I think about it later and see if I could have somehow responded better. I regularly decide to change some part of my personality, whether by stopping doing a certain thing (e.g. pointing out flaws) or by trying to start something new (e.g. complimenting people's appearance).

I don't think I have a framework as such, other than the basic social norms of my community. In the crudest of terms, something's wrong if it makes other people feel bad. Punching one of the boys on the arm is ok, because we all do that and understand the context and no one minds, but punching, say, one of my sister's friends on the arm is not ok, because she'd be hurt and offended. Teasing someone about a crush is ok, because unless they're sensitive about it they'd understand that it's all in good humour and respond in kind, but teasing someone who's overweight about their weight is generally not ok, because they'd usually be pretty hurt. Does that sort of explain where I'm coming from?"

So lastly you say you aren’t trying to be perfect. In a way though, it sounds like you are – from what you’ve said you’re using your intellect and observation to improve your ability to be as sensitive as possible to other’s feelings, learning from experience what will offend and what won’t? Learning and improving whatever we think is ‘virtuous’ is really what I mean by a commitment to perfection.

That said, I’d have to say I really do think taking as your guiding principle, the virtue you have made of  of not hurting other people’s feelings, is not actually a moral code that is going to stand up very well to scrutiny.

Because how do you decide whose feelings should get the most weight when two people’s preferences and desires clash – as they inevitably must as some point? And what about when their desires and feelings clash with the greater good of themselves, the group, town or society?

Should doctors not tell their patients to lose weight for example, in order to stop them from feeling bad about themselves? Should teachers give all their students As so they feel great about their work even if it is crap?  Would you continue let someone sing or play in your band if they were completely destroying the groups's performances to avoid hurting their feelings?

I suspect in reality you also have some other principles that you draw on - so the thing to do is understand what those are and whether when you think a bit about them, they are really principles you want to keep using.

5.  What's next...

"I'd be very interested to hear your perspective on some of these modern issues, and I suspect that'd start a good solid debate or two"

Once you've replied to this one, perhaps you could name your preferred topic and I'll have a go!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Europe's demographic suicide, nuns and a catholic culture revisited

Jack Waterford has a piece in the Canberra Times today highlighting the demographic suicide problem facing Europe (and in the longer term Australia), and drawing attention to some research I pointed to in a previous post, on the correlation between the number of nuns and family size: the more nuns there are, the larger family sizes are. 

Waterford links the original studies finding of the importance of low cost of social support services - traditionally mostly provided by nuns in catholic countries - to the Government's proposals for maternity leave. 

And I agree - up to a point. 

But I think the economic argument he makes needs some qualification.   And his throwaway lines to the effect that we shouldn't be too concerned about Muslim immigration because they will assimilate I think need some hard scrutiny.

Making social services cheaper encourages larger families

The nun study makes the point that church attendance, the number of priests and a number of other factors seemed to have no impact on family size: but the number of nuns did.  It found a strong correlation between the drastic decline in the number of nuns over the last forty years and average family size.  The reason?  The study argues it was the availability of cheap social support services provided by nuns.

Financial factors clearly are important - a number of studies have found that the previous Governments' baby bonus, for example, did seem to have a net positive effect on fertility rates at least in the short run (whether it would cause a lifetime boost in fertility rates of individual women remains unknown).

But while economists tend to think that everything is all just about cost (just hike up the tobacco tax rate, for example, and everyone will stop smoking) most policy analysts take the view that for most people, more is needed.  In the case of tobacco control, for example, first you need to persuade people of the dangers of smoking, make the case for giving it up.  Only then is it useful to provide the tools (taxes, nicotine patches, counselling, etc) that can help the individual make the necessary changes in their lives, rather than just seek ways to get around the problem (such as using roll your owns rather than filtered cigarettes).

Recovering the culture of life

In the case of the decision not to use contraception, or not to abort, you have to actually persuade people why these are inherently evil things, and why having a large family is a good thing.  You have to persuade people that there are long term consequences - in terms of the loss of heaven - to rejecting the Church's teachings. 

Above all, you have to persuade people, for example, that their own culture is valuable something worth passing on, something worth sacrificing personal pleasures for.

The collapse of the religious life, just as much as the demise of large families, owes as much to the loss of faith in Western culture as to economics and the pill which merely provided the tools with which to effect the decision that our culture is not worth preserving.

Towards a real catholic culture

Waterford argues, correctly I think, that simply labelling something - whether a school, a hospital, or whatever - doesn't actually make it so. 

If you actually want a catholic hospital, you probably need to have actual nuns recognisable as such, formed and intent on handing on a genuinely catholic institutional culture, working out on the floor as nurses, not just as administrators.  Otherwise the 'catholic' element will be drowned out by the professionalized essentially secularized culture that pervades most hospitals - and schools for that matter.

So in my view, if we want to restore a culture of life, we don't just need maternity leave - we do actually need nuns. 


Waterford argues that we shouldn't panic over the failure of catholics (or indeed anyone who isn't a muslim immigrant) to have children :

"...the population of Europe is starting to fall dramatically. In some countries the decline is somewhat disguised by a major influx of immigrants, particularly Muslim refugees. It is by no means inconceivable that the average signorina, mademoiselle and fraulein will be Muslim 100 years from now. There are people (not me, I am afraid), who shiver when they image Italy as a primarily Muslim state sheltering, as no doubt it will, the Vatican and St Peters.

France, Spain, Italy, Germany and even Britain have suffered repeated invasions from alien cultures over the past 2000 years, and, by and large, they seem to have absorbed new folk such as Goths, Slavs, Huns, and Turkmen without massive impacts upon their cultures or their religions..."

Well actually no.  Some groups have historically assimilated well. Others - Jews being the classic example - have noticeably not. 

In general though, assimilation has not been the rule.  The fall of the Roman Empire, and subsequent struggle between the Lombards and Romans in Italy for example, reflected the inability of the Empire to assimilate adequately those barbarian invaders.  And the subsequent waves - including Islamic (the real first model of forced conversions to hit Europe) and latter Nordic invasions were the reason for the so-called 'dark ages', causing a destruction that took centuries to recover from.

What determines whether or not a race, culture or religion will assimilate?  Undoubtedly there are several factors.  When it comes to religion though, the American sociologist Lawrence Iannaccone has found that religions that demand too little of their adherents - as the catholic faith has done in recent decades - tend to assimilate reasonably quickly to mainstream culture and effectively disappear.  Catholicism has been effectively wiped out of countries in the past, and we are well on the way to seeing it happen again in Europe and much of the West, even as it grows in Africa and Asia.  

What is necessary for survival is a certain degree of 'strictness', symbolic demands that involve some personal sacrifice to demonstrate one's commitment - something Islam is particularly strong on. And that Catholicism used to have. 

I'm talking here about things like use of a sacred language (Latin vs Arabic), fasting (fish on fridays and Lent vs Ramadan), habited nuns and cassocked priests (vs Imams in flowing beards and robes), requirements to actually attend mass and pray, and more....

Unless we can recover some of that 'strictness' and re-evangelise the West, it is we who will be assimilated, not the reverse.  And you only have to go to some European cities such as Rotterdam to see it already happening.

Oh and by the way Mr Waterford, the crusades were not anti-Muslim attempts at forced conversion.  The first crusade was actually a response to a rise in fundamentalist, expansionist Islam that had the Turks threatening the Christian Byzantine Empire, and had led to the traditional access of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Lands to be killed and churches (most notably that of the Holy Sepulcre) to be burnt down.   And though restricted economically and socially, Muslims were allowed to continue to practice their faith in the crusader kingdoms that were established.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Feast of the Sacred Heart; End of Year for Priests

For reference purposes, here is my complete list of priest ordination/obit dates (of Australian/Australian-based priests who have said the TLM) where I have them. 

I will keep the month by month sidebar going somewhere on the blog, so do let me know of any additions, corrections or additional information  - I'm particularly looking for name, date of ordination and location, but more info/photos are also welcome.  Add your material to the comment box, or email me at australiaincognita@gmail.com) - priests are particularly welcome to contact me to add there own information! 

Please give these priests your prayers:

Fr Richard Aladics

Fr William Aliprandi

Fr Andrew Benton - 30 April 2009

Fr Jim Boberg (R.I.P.)

Fr Jim Boland (R.I.P.).

Fr Thomas Brennan

Bishop William Brennan – 4 March 1984

Fr Ephraem Chifley OP - 30 Aug 84

Archbishop Mark Coleridge – 19 June 2002

Fr Paschal M Corby OFM Conv – 17 November 2007

Fr Timothy Deeter - 8 May 1981

Fr William Define FSSP

Fr Gerard Diamond

Fr Nicholas Dillon - 27 June 2003

Fr Christopher Dowd OP – 30 July 1988

Mgr John Duffus

Fr Martin Durham

Bishop Peter Elliot – 15 June 2007

Fr Harry Fenton (R.I.P.).

Fr John Fongemie FSSP - 23rd June 2001

Fr Peter Grasby

Fr. Joseph Grealy (obit 11 August)

Fr Lawrence Gresser FSSP - 4 March 2000

Fr William Grogan - 22 June 1979

Fr Peter Guy, M.S.C.

Fr Paul Guy, M.S.C. 1974.

Archbishop Denis Hart – 9 December 1997

Archbishop Barry Hickey - 1 May 1984

Fr Terance Hogan

Fr Kim Holland - 25 September 1992

Fr Patrick Holmes 27th May 1961

Fr Leo Hynes - 28 June 1975

Bp Geoffrey Jarrett - 22 February 2001

Fr Gregory Jordan SJ –

Msgr John Kelly (obit 5 August)

Fr Joseph Kramer FSSP

Fr Leo Lane - 27 July 1948

Fr Brian Limbourne - 29th September 1989

Fr Donald Lourensz -28 June 1987

Fr Vel Maglica

Bishop Kevin Manning - 10 July 1991

Father Georges Maurel - 29 June 1979

Father Michael McCaffrey FSSP - 24 June 2006

Fr James McCarthy - 30 April 2009

Fr John McDaniels - 29 June 2002

Fr Paul McGavin

Fr Bernard McGrath - 17 August 1984

Bishop Aloysius Morgan (obit 21.5.08)

Fr Kevin Muldoon

Fr Terence Mary Naughtin OFM Conv - 7 May 1988

Fr Peter-John Nievandt - 1 July 2005

Fr John O'Neill

Fr Thomas O'Sullivan (R.I.P.).

George Cardinal Pell – 21 May 1987

Fr Gerald Quinn CP - 21 July, 1962

Fr William McPherson Ross, 19 July 1959

Fr Michael Rowe - 21 May 1994

Fr John Parsons - 3 April 1982

Fr Dominic Popplewell FSSP - 22 Nov 2008

Bishop Patrick Power – 18 April 1986

Fr Chris Reay - 19 August 1978

Fr Marko Rehak FSSP - 22 November 2008

Fr. John Rizzo FSSP, 19th May 1985

Fr Anthony Robbie

Fr Martin Roestenburg O Praem - 13 April 1991

Fr Jim Shelton - 30 June 2000

Fr Mark Spora

Fr John Stockdale

Fr John Stork

Fr Glen Tattersall - 23 June 2001

Fr Mannes Tellis OP - 20 December 2008

Fr David Thoroughgood - 20 March 1982

Fr John Walshe

Fr Ken Webb FSSP - 22 May 2004

Archbishop Philip Wilson – 10 July 1996

Fr Andrew Wise

Fr Mark Withoos

Fr Duncan Wong FSSP – 7 June 2003

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On the importance of priests and the perils of congregationalism

It is par for the course, I suppose, though still disappointing, that Cath News has chosen to mark the nearing end the Year for Priests with yet another (see here and here for commentary on previous efforts in this vein) congregationalist blog piece by Fr Michael Kelly SJ attacking what he argues is clericalism, in particular the significance of the priest’s power, by virtue of his ordination, to confect the Eucharist. 

It is perhaps then timely to remind ourselves of some of the Pope’s excellent catechesis over the last year on the absolutely indispensible role of the ministerial priesthood in the Church.

In particular, he has repeatedly stressed that without priests, ‘there would be neither the Eucharist, nor even the mission nor the Church herself’.

We need to keep reminding ourselves of that, and using it as the focus of our prayers.  In particular, we might pray that priests infected with the heresy of modernism might come to a better appreciation of the nature of their own ministry.

Kelly on the nature of the priesthood

It is true of course, as Fr Kelly points out, that the priest’s ability to confect the sacraments does not depend on his worthiness. And it is equally true that at one level it is not the priest acting as himself who effects the change, for as St Thomas teaches us, ‘only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers’ – rather he is acting ‘in persona Christi’. True also that the priest must intend to do what the Church (and here we mean the whole Church informed by the magisterium, not some little dissenting community of ageing liberals) intends.

But missing from his little exposition is the fairly vital point that ordination does in fact make the priest ontologically different from a layperson. The ministerial priesthood ‘is different essentially, and not just in degree, from the common priesthood of all the faithful’.

The priest does not, as the Cath News piece seems to suggest, acquire his ability to confect the sacrament from the people, because of his ‘relational role’ to the community of the Church he serves. Rather, ordination ‘enables the ordained to exercise a sacred power in the name and with the authority of Christ for the service of the People of God’ (Compendium of the CCC, 323).

And contrary to Fr Kelly’s assertions, the Eucharist is absolutely central to the nature of the priesthood (CCCC 328).

So what is clericalism really?

The excuse for Fr Kelly’s piece is a discussion of the problem of clericalism.

And I do agree that clericalism is a real problem in the Church, endemic amongst liberal, conservative and traditionalist communities alike. Where I suspect we differ is in just what we mean by clericalism, and what we see as its manifestations.

So in the interests of ending the Year for Priests with a better appreciation of the true role of priests, let me give my own perspective on what I think clericalism is and isn’t.

Clericalism in my view is best thought of as an overemphasis on the clerical state to the point where distortions of proper roles and spheres occurs. It is the situation where power, prestige, entitlement and privilege become more important than service.  And amongst conservatives and traditionalists, it can manifest as an implicit or explicit view that only clerical prayers are efficacious.

Its manifestations include a contempt for and distrust of the laity (manifested for example in the reactions to claims of sexual abuse by many bishops); the clericalisation of the laity for example as Extraordinary Ministers or placing of laymen dressed up in surplices etc and acting as if they were a liturgical (clerical) choir for the Divine Office; and the denial of the legitimate role of the laity, for example of their leadership in secular affairs, in the right to express their opinions on things happening within the Church, or to take the initiative in relation to the apostolate.

The problem though in discussing the problem of clericalism is that its opposite pole, congregationalism, which denies any real role at all for the ordained clergy, is also endemic and perhaps even more destructive. Its manifestations include an exaggerated view of the importance of the ‘common priesthood’ of all the faithful to the point of denying the efficacy of ordination, an avowed preference for ‘lay-lead’ communities, an agenda of de-sacralisation, and an aversion to Eucharistic devotion.

So where does the proper balance lie?

The first and critical point is that we do actually need to recover a genuine appreciation for the importance of the priest in the Christian community, and in particular of his role in ‘teaching, sanctifying and ruling’ and thus nourishing the people of God (CL 1007).

Of the three roles, one could perhaps argue that sanctifying is the most important – only the priest after all can act as the channel of grace in the Eucharist, can forgive our sins in confession, and so forth.  And I'd have to say I've seen more than a few priests (traditionalists included) who behave as if delivering the sacraments is their only role, dissapearing into the sacristy after Mass never to be seen again until the next time they are scheduled to be in the confessional or on the altar.

But it is a mistake to downplay his other roles. The Pope has point out, for example that the apostolic mandate "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole of creation" (Mk 16: 15) is constitutive of the ministerial priesthood.

The reason I think the clericalization of the laity in all of its manifestations is so problematic is that it obscures and takes away from the proper leadership role of the clergy.  And the priest can hardly lead his people, whether by example or otherwise, if he never interacts with them.

The second point though is that there does need to be a proper balance in all of the roles in the Church: the priest and bishop should be open and responsive to the needs, concerns and complaints of his people rather than defensive; the priest doesn’t have to be a Robinson Crusoe, rather he should draw on the advice and support of the laity as his collaborators; the laity should not just be passive recipients of the sacraments, but, nourished by the sacraments and sound catechesis, should carry out their own vocations focusing on the ordering of temporal affairs.

We have a long way to go in achieving that proper balance at the moment. But the Year for Priests has made a start on this.

And now more than ever, all priests need our prayers.

Last chance for Year for Priests indulgences....

The Pope will officially close of the Year for Priests tomorrow, Friday  11 June  - when it was originally announced the official decree said that it would run until June 19, but based on the official websites that seems to have changed. 

At his General Audience this week for example, the Pope said that:"The Feast of The Sacred Heart of Jesus, which we celebrate the day after tomorrow, marks the end of the Year for Priests. Thousands of priests from all over the world will come together in Rome to praise the Lord and renew their vows. I invite everyone to participate in this event with their prayers".

So today and tomorrow would seem to be your last chances to obtain the Indulgences proclaimed for the year. 

In particular, today (Thursday) you can obtain a partial indulgence(s) by devoutly reciting five Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glorias, or another expressly approved prayer, in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to obtain that priests be preserved in purity and holiness of life.

And tomorrow, a plenary indulgence "...is granted to all the faithful who are truly repentant who, in church or in chapel, devoutly attend the divine Sacrifice of Mass and offer prayers to Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest, for the priests of the Church, and any other good work which they have done on that day, so that he may sanctify them and form them in accordance with His Heart, as long as they have made expiation for their sins through sacramental confession and prayed in accordance with the Supreme Pontiff's intentions..."

The pious thing would surely be to apply those indulgences to priests (in purgatory), perhaps particularly remembering those who have said the traditional mass for our communities.  I'm sure that there are many names missing from this list (and please do add to it by way of the comments box or email), but the names I've been given for my priest list are as follows:

Bishop Aloysius Morgan (obit 21.5.08)
Father Jim Boberg
Father Thomas O'Sullivan
Father Jim Boland
Father Harry Fenton
Msgr John Kelly (obit 5 August).

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The rising tide of Islamic violence

The Pope's recent visit to Cyprus has highlighted the plight of Christians living in Middle Eastern and Islamic countries. 

First, the news that the murder of a Turkish bishop shortly before the trip may have been an act of jihad, a fact suppressed in the interests of not disrupting Islamic-Catholic relations during the trip.

Secondly, the Pope spoke several times during his visit on the problems faced by Christians in these lands.  He noted that "Cyprus is traditionally considered part of the Holy Land, and the situation of continuing conflict in the Middle East must be a source of concern to all Christ's followers. No one can remain indifferent to the need to support in every way possible the Christians of that troubled region, so that its ancient churches can live in peace and flourish."

A working paper (Linneamenta) for an upcoming Synod of Middle Eastern bishops released during the Pope's trip points to the "extremist current" and the rise of "political Islam" as a threat to Christians.

Of course, it's a threat is Muslims too, particularly if you happen to be a woman, as the film The Stoning of Soraya M, currently doing the rounds, makes clear.  You can read an excellent review of it - and of Western relativist and secularist reactions to it - by Janet Albrechtson in The Australian today.

Notes on Christianity for young philosophers (3) continued

OK so I’ve temporarily stunned (or bored) my nephew into silence while he attempts to think how to respond to my counter-intuitive view of what Christianity is, viz not about being nice to others, and something public not private.

So while he is thinking, I thought I’d have a go today at responding to my not entirely rhetorical question, how do you decide what is right and wrong, good and evil?

Do good, avoid evil

In my earlier post I mentioned the Golden Rule, which can be summarized as ‘Whatever you wish others would do to you, do to them’. (Mt 7:12).

Aside from the Golden Rule there is another fundamental moral principle embedded in Christianity (and shared with Judaism), namely the principle “Do good and avoid evil’.

But how do we know what good and evil are?

Do we really have to rely on those dusty old passages from Genesis and Leviticus?

The Catholic answer is no. We can actually work out for ourselves what is good and what is evil using our reason. The Catholic view is that the ‘natural law’ is programmed into all of us, and that we can, if we think hard and logically enough about it, work it out for ourselves.

So what are the basic principles of the natural law?

One of the problems we often have in our culture is that we tend to look at things from an individual perspective – what I want to do right now as ‘the good’. But the idea of the natural law is actually rather closer (somewhat ironically) in concept to ideas about ‘the selfish gene’ – they are inclinations in our nature to specific good things that drive the continuation of both our particular culture and the human race.

And the requirement that we obey the natural law rests in large part on the idea of that the ‘common good’ of society as a whole is important, and may require the individual to sacrifice his or her own personal preferences.

There are different formulations around what the natural law consists of, but in essence it is based on the idea that we naturally have three key inclinations: self-preservation, to have and raise children, and to know the truth about God and live in society.

From these three inclinations you can derive most of the fundamental laws that underpin both Biblical morality and secular laws.

From the instinct to self-preservation, for example, comes the commandment not to kill and the laws against suicide (or euthanasia, abortion, etc). From the instinct to marry and have children, and thus continue the race, comes the case against gay marriage.

And there have been no lasting societies (as yet at any rate!) that have managed to completely exclude God from their consideration.

The argument is that God gave us these natural instincts for a reason, enabling us to survive, multiply and be the custodians of the Earth. And if you think about it for a moment, any culture that attempts to run counter to these fundamental instincts in its laws is inevitably doomed to collapse, probably sooner rather than later.

So why aren’t these principles self-evident to us now?

The obvious question then is, if these things are programmed into us, why aren’t they always obvious and why don’t we always do what is right?

The answer is that they generally are – we do tend to instinctively squirm when we see behaviour that runs counter to the natural law.

But humans have an amazing capacity to rationalize what they want to do.

There are several reasons for that. The first is Original Sin – by virtue of the Fall (ie getting kicked out of Eden), we are subject to ignorance and the tendency towards sin. We don’t always think through or even know what is truly good for us in the long term.

Secondly, what we think is right and wrong is conditioned to some degree by what we are taught, and the conscious and unconscious assumptions of our society. And societies can get things very wrong indeed, for surprisingly long periods of time (think of the Aztecs, sacrificing thousands and thousands of people to their gods until the Spanish stopped them).

Thirdly, even when we know objectively what is right or wrong, we can often ignore what we know in favour of what we want to do: think for example of the smoker who knows full well that smoking is bad for your health – but blithely hopes that it won’t affect them.

For all of these reasons, revelation – including in the form of the Bible – is given to us as a backstop, a check on our natural tendency to avoid hard truths. Formulations such as the ten commandments are there to save us the time and effort of reasoning it all out for ourselves, and to confirm clearly what can be obscured by our own and a particular culture's rationalizations.

The other factor is that the crucial difference between us and a computer program is that we have free will – we can choose to disregard these natural inclinations. But doing so has consequences in terms of our relationship to God and the future…

And that is probably enough for now.

On the nature of Christianity: notes for young philosophers

This is actually a post based on a comment to a previous post, which I thought I'd put up as a standalone post for reference purposes.  It deals with some common misconceptions about the nature of Christianity.

1.  Is Christianity about being nice to everybody?

The view that the public dimension of Christianity is really about being nice to everybody has a lot of fans at the moment.  But personally I think that what I’d call the ‘cult of niceness’ is actually a false religion and not true Christianity at all.

There is a blog I occasionally look at called Cathoilic Pillow Fight which I primarily love for its tag line, which is: "When someone asks you 'think about what Jesus would do', remember that a valid option is to freak out and turn over tables".

The point is that while Christians do (or should) subscribe to the ‘Golden Rule’ (which actually first appears in the Old Testament), treating others as they would like to be treated themselves, that isn’t necessarily the same thing as always being nice.

Sometimes, for example, we’d all prefer it (at least in the longer run!) if someone had actually just told us the truth, rather leaving us to find it out the hard way or when it is too late to do anything about it. And some of us prefer a good solid debate to exchanging inane niceties!

Belief as a private matter

Secondly, belief in God is often viewed as something that is or should be something private and not visible to the outside world. Yet Scripture actually requires us to confess our faith publicly.  Matthew 10:32 states: "Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven."

Moreover, if God truly exists, and if heaven and hell exist, then how we live our lives matters, and has an effect on our public personas.

The Catholic view is that salvation isn’t something that just happens once, when we are baptized for example, but something we have to continue to work for, and that can be lost at any time, throughout our lives. Our long term goal is achieving the perfection that we call sainthood, or getting to heaven. And our life now is a pilgrimage to that end.

That doesn’t mean our life now should be grim and boring, far from it. Pilgrimages, like road trips, can be fun, filled with joy and good things to find along the way. But they do have an end point that dictates at least to some degree which route we take (though it can be a pretty twisting and turning one, with a few loops and backtracking). Still, that end point provides a ‘public’ framework to guide us as we develop our own personal relationship with God (the private side of things).

So what does that mean in practice? Well firstly joining in the public worship of God. The Catholic view is that the necessity for the Jewish Temple sacrifices ended with Jesus’ death on the Cross and the institution of the sacrifice of the mass at the Last Supper, taking their place. I’m not quite sure how Jews rationalize the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent failure of attempts to rebuild it or reinstitute sacrifices, but I guess its just part of that waiting waiting waiting for the Messiah to turn up thing!

Living as if God exists also has consequences for the code of behaviour and attitude to the world that we adopt.

This debate continues here.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Ad multos annos: Fr Duncan Wong FSSP

The end of the Year of the Priest is drawing near; indeed the ordination anniversary of Fr Duncan Wong FSSP is the last on my list to be celebrated that fall within the year.  In a way that is rather appropriate given his role in promoting traditional vocations, so I thought I'd just highlight the day for you and request prayers for him and all priests, particularly those on the list of Australian EF celebrants I've been highlighting (I'll put up the full list again in a few days).

There was actually a rather nice article about Fr Wong in the Easter edition of the Catholic Weekly, but unfortunately its not online and although a kind reader has sent me a PDF version, I'm not able to put it up here.

But just to pick out a few key points, Fr Wong grew up in Malaysia, and originally sought to be a Benedictine monk  - but his french wasn't up to the standard necessary for the existing traditional French houses, and so providentially he ended up with the FSSP instead.  He is now director of the FSSP first year seminary-noviciate based in Petersham, Sydney.

Ad multos annos!

**By way of a postcript on things FSSP, I've been alerted to some wonderful pictures up on the Transalpine Redemptorists blog of the first mass of Fr Simon Harkins, one of the group of newly ordained FSSP priests, at Edinburgh Cathedral in the presence of  its bishop, His Eminence Keith Cardinal O'Brien.  And if you blow up the photo of the assembled clergy (and probably a few of the other photos) you should be able to spot Adelaide's own Fr McCaffrey FSSP, near the back on the left side.

The cult of 'niceness' and Cath News: ending the debate

Christine Hogan has a self-congratulatory post on the Cath News blog today to the effect that sweetness and light have broken out on the Cath News comment pages, and what a wonderful thing that is.

Well no, Christine, I don't think it is.

A disclaimer

First a disclaimer.  I have never been a regular or active commenter over at Cath News - I often read the debates that used to rage over there with interest and very occasionally tossed in my two cents worth, but that was a rare thing (I have my own space in which to voice my opinions after all!).  And I stopped when a post I tried to make was rejected by Ms Hogan allegedly on the grounds of length, but on the same day and item on which much longer posts were accepted - and I took the view that my real crime was to use the dreaded word 'heresy' (because, hey, heresy doesn't exist any more does it?).

The results of (self) censorship

Ms Hogan reports that (in yet another twist in the increasingly complex and inconsistent approach she has adopted to monitoring the boards) she had decided to allow all comments through last week.  She braced herself.  And, oh, surprise!  The nasty posts didn't come (well except one.  And I'm still not entirely clear what the crime of that poster was, but never mind).

Instead, 'all is calm, all is bright in the world of CathNews’ discussion boards..'!

Take the post I commented on on this blog last week that praised ageing congregations and claimed that it was only the cult of youth that made us see this as a bad thing.  I made a few observations about the obvious problems with this line here.

The comments on it on Cath News are all uniformly positive.  Here's the opening lines of the first few comments:

"What a thoughtful and beautiful perspective. You've really invited me to reflect on the dignity of each person in worship, rather than simply buy into our need to 'attract more numbers'..."

"What a refreshing article. The next step is to value those who still come and let them know how welcome they are..."

"I enjoyed this article...."

And they all go on in the same vein.

Cath News, purveyor of liberalism

Now Cath News is of course entitled to restict comments on articles and posts, whether by direct censorship or encouraging self-censorship, to those who support its basic line. 

Though personally, I'd be a lot more comfortable with this if resources I and other practicing Catholics have contributed to the Church weren't supporting this effort.  Because really, the official Church shouldn't, even indirectly, be supporting the propagation of error.

And just as a refresher, in case you weren't completely sure of what Cath News' basic positioning is, Michael Kelly, its founder gave us a little catechism last week about the Voice of the Church being all about the 'feelings' and opinions of those ageing parishioners (justifying this with an entirely erroneous definition of the 'sensus fidelium'), and telling us that the teaching of Popes and bishops are remote things, not to be taken too seriously.

True leadership

So let me state my own position.

True leadership, in my view, is about getting us to face up to reality, including the reality of our own, institutional, and societal mistakes and failings.  Services like Cath News should help us do that.

One of the most basic teachings of our faith is about the need for constant self-examination in the light of the Gospel, in the light of the teachings of the Church, so that we can see our faults and amend.  At the personal level, that means the ongoing struggle to acquire the virtues and conquer the vices.  At the institutional level that means working to ensure structures and processes support the growth of individual holiness and spread of the Gospel message.  At the societal level it means constantly working to shape society more closely to the social teaching of Our Lord.

Facing reality, and worse, making fundamental changes in the light of the truths we discover in this process, is uncomfortable and hard.  It doesn't, in this life, often involve long periods of calm and light.

It certainly doesn't involve promoting self-serving rationalisations of what is (ageing and declining parishes) as somehow a good thing.

So please Christine, spare us the self-satisfied glow at silencing the voices of those who are critical of this little acatholic community of like minds on your boards.  This is not catholicism you are promoting.

On ancient rules and pointless arguments: a note for my nephew

The unfortunate thing about Facebook is that one can be tantalised by comments on your 'friends' friends' - but not be able to add your own.

And thus one of my nephews commented thus on someone considering conversion  to Judaism: "There's a lot about religion that I admire -- the central tenets of the major religions are all pretty admirable, and I try to live by them -- but when one takes them as a whole I feel they get bogged down with ancient rules and pointless arguments..." 

Now I know he was trying to be supportive of his friend and engage in a conversation.  And I know he has been brought up in a household that disdains 'institutional' religion.  More, his attitude is not an uncommon one, even amongst catholics.  But gah, where do I even start....

1.  'The central tenets of the major religions are pretty admirable'

Just what central tenets are we talking about here Matthew?  I suspect you are talking about morality perhaps?

But before you can get at morality, you have to have a basis for picking one code of practice over another - a basis other than 'I happen to like that one'.

And I would suggest that in fact the three most central tenets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are as follows.  Firstly that there is a God.  And secondly that he doesn't just let us flounder and work out things for ourselves, he actually gives us rules to follow.  Thirdly, all three religions believe that there are consequences that flow from not following those rules - for Jews, the consequences are generally thought to be in this life (depending on the stream of Judaism); for Christians and Muslims, the consequences lie primarily in our hope of salvation in the next.

In the case of Judaism, those rules are the Law set out in the Old Testament, and which all Jews continue to follow with varying degrees of strictness depending on the particular strand of Judaism they follow.  Christians believe God gave the Jews those rules too - but of course they also believe that the New Covenant brought by Jesus means we are no longer bound to the letter of the 613 odd biblical laws, or many latter rules and customs.  That doesn't mean of course that Christians have no rules they have to follow - of course they do.

2.  Ancient rules

Christians actually believe that Jesus himself instituted quite a number of 'rules'.  And Catholics in particular believe that he set up a Church, founded on the Apostles, that continues down today in accordance with the Gospel promise to be with them until the end of time. 

St Paul in his epistles repeatedly talks about the faith as something handed down, a tradition to be passed on (and Luke makes a similar point in his account of St Paul's debates with the Thessalonians and Beroeans in Acts 17).  It is not simply a matter of picking up a Bible and deciding which bits of it appeal to us, or how to interpret it all by ourselves, rediscovering it from nothing.  Rather, it comes to us embedded in the teaching of the Apostles, its implications meditated on, studied and gradually teased out for us down the centuries.

The rules that we follow today, including how we worship, are a mixture of the divine and the human - the divine handed down, the human a matter of pastoral judgments made which can be modified to some degree for the time and place in which we live.

3.  Pointless arguments?

And if these rules come to us from God and those he has entrusted the ongoing mission of the Church to, they have consequences, and are crucial to our continued existence!  No wonder then, that people down the centuries have thought them worth arguing over.

In the case of the Catholic Church, theological debate, as well as debate over pastoral decisions has been part of the Church from its very beginnings.  Fortunately, there have also been mechanisms to resolve those debates present from the very beginning, firstly in the authority given to St Peter and his successors.  And secondly in the Councils of the Church, which trace their origins and practices to the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15.

Of course it is human nature, as Original Sin attests, to resist authority.  So from the earliest times, communities have spun off, rejecting the decisions of the Church.  People have attempted to invent their own faiths, rejecting divine authority.  But that doesn't make those arguments pointless.  Far from it.

Because God exists, and takes a continuing interest in what you and I are doing here and now.  And he will make judgments about our acts, including whether or not we make a genuine effort to learn about him and what he is asking of us....

Part II of this series of exchanges can be found here.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Feast of St Boniface

Today is the feast of St Boniface OSB, one of my favourite Benedictine saints.

St Boniface (aka Winfrid) was born around 672, a product of the same English intellectual and spiritual tradition that gave us St Bede and many others.  He is famous though, for leading the mission to evangelise and re-evangelise Germany and surrounding areas.  A monk, he established a chain of men's and women's monasteries throughout these lands by persuading his monastic brothers and sisters to join him on the continent, and imported with them the cultural traditions that had been preserved and handed down through the lively intersection of Anglo-Saxon and Irish monasticism.

Commissioned by the Pope in 719, he eventually became Archbishop of what is now more or less Germany, and seems to have played a key role in the establishment of the Carolingian regime.  Much of St Boniface's correspondence with his fellow monks and nuns, as well as bishops and Popes, has survived, and makes interesting reading and have a certain resonance in these similarly chaotic times. Here is an extract from the introduction to one of the published collections:

"The correspondence of St. Boniface as edited by Tangl contains many letters which belong to several other people in his circle, such as Lull, and to various correspondents in England and in Rome...The more homely and affectionate side of his nature appears in his letters to nuns, his preoccupation with the education of his disciples and subjects in his letters to abbots and bishops in England; whilst the difficulties of conversion, of organization, of church reform and many other matters are the subject of his letters to the Popes. Nowhere else in this period do we find so vivid a picture of the discouraging conditions amongst which the missionaries laboured and died. But in spite of the moral degradation of the Frankish clergy whom he strove to reform, in spite also of the poverty, dangers, ostracism and opposition which he met, there is no echo in these letters of discouragement, self-pity or weariness. We see him forging patiently and with complete confidence the instruments by which Europe was to be converted-the establishment of convents and monasteries, the foundation of bishoprics, centres of education and schools, submitting all to the ever-watchful guidance of the Popes, to whose devoted and constant service he had pledged himself at the outset of his missionary career." 

You can read a selection from those letters here.

St Boniface was martyred in 754 when at the age of 79 he made one last attempt to convert Frisia, and he was cut down even as he held up the Gospel book to defend himself.

A happy name day to all Bonifaces, particularly those who are monks!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Church and Mission 3: Why (genuine) religious life is important

I’ve been talking in this series about what is necessary to make the ‘New Evangelization’, the re-evangelization of Australia (and the West more generally) effective.  In Part I of this series I suggested that the New Evangelization is not really new, but the project of converting the West and recreating a catholic culture that we should all commit to. In Part II I talked about the significance of priestly celibacy to this cause.

Yesterday, a contribution by Mr Waterford drew out the problems of what I’ll call for the sake of argument pseudo-Jansenism, highlighted in Archbishop Coleridge of Canberra’s recent pastoral Letter on the abuse crisis. I think there is a fair amount of agreement on the nature of at least one of the problems.

But there is far less agreement on solutions!

If pseudo-Jansenism flows mainly from an excessive emphasis on the Fall, the solution in my view, lies in re-injecting two important components into our theology that have to be held in careful balance, namely of the importance of the Incarnation, and the hope of heaven, or the eschatological.

In many respects the reaction to pseudo-Jansenism has been, it seem to me, an excessive emphasis on the Incarnational dimension courtesy of secularism – and a loss of the sense of the concreteness of heaven.

I spoke in the last part of this series about the symbolism of priestly celibacy and its importance as a counter to secularism. But even more important to this is actually religious life.

So today I want to talk a little about why a revival of traditional religious life is so essential for any effective ‘New Evangelization’.

The evidence for the importance of religious life

The evidence for the critical importance of religious life to the health of the Church is largely circumstantial: one of those things that has seemed self-evident to most people in most eras of the Church, at least until recently.

Certainly history - from Henry VIII to Nazi Germany to the devastation after Vatican II – suggests that dissolving the monasteries is a key step to undermining the faith more generally.

And the reverse is true too: monks and nuns played a crucial though largely unacknowledged role in subsequent efforts at re-evangelization necessitated by events such as the Reformation, the French Revolution and the laïcité movement.

There is also some intriguing hard economic evidence for the importance of nuns. A study of the decline in fertility rates in Europe between 1960 and 2000 found a strong correlation between the number of nuns and family size: the fewer nuns there were, the more family sizes became smaller. The author (being an economist) attributes this largely to the provision of social services: nuns, he argued made education, health care and other support services cheaper, so people could afford to have larger families. This may well be something in this.

But I suspect the far greater impact of the visible presence of nuns is their spiritual and psychological impact, praying for and calling married women to faithfulness to the Church’s teachings.

Priests vs religious life

Why is this so?

Firstly, it will be obvious to most that nuns and religious sisters have far more power as a role model for women than a priest. Indeed, one could make a good case that many of the problems of the Church today spring not from the failure to adequately involve the laity (for in the main, involving the laity has been a substantial focus of recent decades). Rather the problem has been the loss of the quiet influence of women religious over priests and bishops. Even more problematic perhaps has been that the putting off of the habit has made women in the institutional church effectively invisible.

Secondly, priestly celibacy, as I suggested in Part II of this series, is one of the spiritual treasures of the West, a sign of the commitment to holiness. But in the end, it is easy for the symbolism that can all too easily be lost. Few priests these days wear cassocks for a starter. And, after all, it can be pointed out, the Eastern churches do ok with married clergy, and increasing numbers of ex-Anglican priests are making a strong contribution to the Latin Church.

Perhaps even more importantly, a secular priest is often – particularly these days – seen in isolation. He leads a parish community, but of necessity is separate to it to a large degree.

By contrast, religious life is typically communal, and it is in the interactions of a community that we can truly see the echoes of the heavenly community, the ‘claustral paradise’ so beloved of St Bernard and other monastic saints. I’m not suggesting of course, that religious communities are necessarily loving and perfect places, far from it! But when properly conceived and founded on strong theological ground, it does make visible to us the striving for perfection through the exercize of communal bonds, a catholic culture that we can absorb and adopt.

The importance of community

Robert Wilken, for example has pointed out that that:

“But Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community's life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.”

For this reason, culture is not and can never be neutral. Tracey Rowland has argued that the failure of transmission of the faith of recent decades is largely the result of the failure to recognize this. She points in particular to the work of Pope Benedict XVI, who has suggested that the importance of religious life to evangelization goes much deeper than either the works of the apostolate or providing an example to the laity. The Pope has defended monasticism as the very source of authentic and enduring culture. In a series of speeches and homilies he has argued that the root of all authentic culture lies in listening to God in his Word. In the case of the West, he argues, it is the monastic engagement with the Word of God that created European culture.

Indeed, Dom Calvet, founder of Le Barroux, developed this idea, arguing that the monastery is the inheritor of (a purified) Roman order and civilization, and that the person knocking at the door of the monastery is essentially sick, needing healing. He viewed the institutions of Christianity, and above all, the monastery, as the walls that serve to enable Christians to withstand the constant siege of secular culture, not least by affirming the primacy of worship and contemplation over action.

So it is in religious life lived out in faithfully and using the visible signs of habit and cloister, that we are truly confronted in a way we can’t readily avoid.

Unfortunately, all too few dioceses these days actually contain any well-formed religious living out their vocation in a traditional and faithful manner; all too few of us these days ever even see a religious in full habit. That needs to change.