Saturday 28 January 2012

Responding to criticism

For what it’s worth, I like P G Wodehouse’s approach. When Sean O'Casey dubbed him English Literature’s performing flea, he took it as a compliment, pointing out that all the performing fleas he had worked with had been stout little troupers.  He even called a volume of his letters about writing Performing Flea.

In the introduction to Summer Lightning, he wrote: “A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”


I tend not to follow what is going on in the Anglican communion.  I have enough trouble getting my head around what’s happening in unam sanctam et Catholicam apostolicam ecclesiam.
However, following some blog links in an idle moment (doubtless there was pressing work to be done...) I ended up at Symon Hill’s blog.  

His name alone should have warned me.  

Listen Bertie, said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, I’m an older woman than you are - well you know what I mean - and I can tell you a thing or two.  And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys, or Ysobel, or Ethyl, or Mabelle, or Kathryn.

And I’m sure if she had been warning Bertie off unsuitable men, she would have include Symon.  (Whilst that is not strictly relevant to my main point, I do believe that what this - and indeed every - blog needs, is more and better quotations from P G Wodehouse).

Anyway, Symon was very pleased with himself because his (and others’) blogging had got a chap who thinks he’s a bishop to withdraw an endorsement from a booklet by some other chap called Stephen Green.

I don’t know much about Green, though he has got my email address from somewhere and sends me stuff for my junk mail folder on an occasional basis.

But what had really got in among Symon was that Green pointed out that the relatively recent law creating an offense of marital rape was not in keeping with the Bible or a Christian understanding of marriage.  Symon, of course, is not alone: people have been tweeting in outrage about 'publicly endorsing rape'; which is a misrepresentation of what the argument is about.

As I say, I am no expert on what members of the Anglican communion believe (though I am not sure many of them are either).  

However, in my understanding from a Catholic perspective, marital rape is quite simply an oxymoron; it is not possible.

Before everyone faints with horror, let me be quite clear.  I do not condone a husband forcing himself on his wife (or vice versa, come to that).  I certainly do not condone any force, threats or violence in that context.  Indeed, the standards of love expected of either spouse are very high indeed: husbands must be prepared to give their lives, not just sacrifice their lust, for the love of their wives.  Wives, likewise, must love their husbands.   My point is very specific: as I understand it, (and of course I am open to correction if I have misunderstood) the nature of the sacrament of marriage includes giving consent to marital intercourse, irrevocably.  Rape is intercourse without consent. Therefore in the context of a Christian marriage, it is not possible: consent has been given.  Use of threats, force or violence in that context are  sinful, and also may well be criminal: but they are not rape.

If I am not condoning the use of force or threats (which I most certainly am not) why am I concerned about the designation of forced intercourse within a marriage as rape?

The answer is that I believe we are in the midst of a concerted attempt totally to de-couple both sex and pro-creation from marriage; and also to re-define marriage as well as re-write the sexual norms we have inherited from Christendom.  Therefore it is important to be clear that as Catholics, we understand that the only legitimate use of human sexuality is in a valid marriage, open to life.  Likewise, it is important that we educate our children correctly about marriage, so that they are able to contract valid marriages and know what they are committing themselves to, when they say ‘for better or for worse...’ etc.  

UPDATE: see subsequent post

Thursday 26 January 2012

More on Catholic Voices

I have been musing further on Catholic Voices and the antipathy they have encountered in some quarters of the Catholic blogosphere.

(Blog first, think afterwards, that's my motto!)

As I said previously, the issues are complex, but over the last couple of weeks another dynamic has become clearer to me.

On at least two occasions, and with two different CV speakers, I have found myself explaining some of the history that sits behind some current issues; on each occasion I was greeted with 'Oh, I hadn't known about that.'

That is entirely reasonable; the whole point of CV was to recruit younger and fresher voices.  They certainly wouldn't want old jaded people like me representing the Church in the public forum.  Who knows what I might say!

These younger fresher Voices also tend to start from a positive point of view (that was also a requirement, and an understandable one).  So they see something emanating from the official Catholic Establishment (Bishops' Conference, CES, Ecclestone Sq, CAFOD...) and react to it starting with the assumption that it is likely to conform to, and express, a Catholic worldview.

That should be a safe assumption, of course.  Unfortunately, in my view and based on a few decades of disillusionment (I'll post some more 'why I am so bitter and twisted' posts eventually), that is no longer a safe assumption.

So when I (and others) hear a young fresh Voice extolling the latest pronouncement or nuance which we find problematic, we think 'But don't they realise...!?!'

But of course it is unfair to expect them to know in detail the battles and betrayals of the last 40 years.

Which raises the question: is it fair to dull their enthusiasm by rehearsing all those old disappointments and disillusionments?

But I have never subscribed to 'if ignorance is bliss...'  The task we face is to re-evangelise our world; a necessary pre-cursor in this country is to re-evangelise our Church; and that means really debating and seeking to understand what has gone wrong.

To their credit the Voices with whom I have had these interactions have been open to and interested in the background to my prejudicial views.  I don't expect them to agree with them all (that would be frightening indeed!) but I think a critical engagement with the issues is essential.

I still have reservations about the leadership of CV, but that's another issue...

Wednesday 25 January 2012

A Catholic Charity

A Catholic Charity worthy of your support is Aid to the Church in Need.

At present they are particularly keen to support people in Nigeria, where Churches are being bombed and up to 35,000 are fleeing the onslaught by Muslim extremists.

They are also supporting the reconstruction of a Convent (and Catholic life) in Sarajevo, following the terrible troubles there.

There are many ways to support them, by donations, Mass offerings or getting more actively involved in their work.

Of course prayer is always both valuable and appreciated, so add them to your prayer intentions.

If you are a Twitter user, you can also follow them @churchinneed.


Reflecting on yesterday's post, I was wondering if I was just indulging in CAFOD-bashing.  (For overseas readers, I should explain that CAFOD is the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales).  

Some of the complaints I have against them go back quite a long time, and perhaps it is time to forgive and forget.

However, I really don't think so.  I work on the (quite possibly delusional) assumption that if I am thinking like this, others may be too.

For that reason, and because it seems to me that CAFOD has betrayed the trust of many who gave (and many who still give) to it based on its claim 'CAFOD seeks to exercise a role consistent with its Catholic character,' I think that CAFOD really needs to do three things:

Firstly, admit that they have got some things wrong: specifically and without reservations (none of the 'sorry if we have been misunderstood' type of rubbish);

Secondly, apologise for the errors;

Thirdly, reform, so that they are totally aligned with Catholic social, moral and liturgical teaching and praxis.  That may involve changes in personnel, policy and practice.

Until they do that, those of us who mistrust them will find it very hard to be convinced that they are worthy of support, and will continue to examine them with a prejudicial eye...

Prejudicial, in that we have made our judgement (based on evidence) and until we see reason to reverse it, it is likely to stand.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

CAFOD's Remit...

Fr Ray Blake raises some interesting points about CAFOD leaping on the anti-Boris Island bandwagon.  I think he makes a good case.

The Thirsty Gargoyle responds, linking CAFOD'S concerns to the Holy Father's words about concern for the environment relating closely to concern for people.  I think he makes a good case, too.

However, I would have less sympathy for the first and more for the second if CAFOD were to:

a) Align its teaching and praxis more closely with the teaching of the Church in all other areas;

b) Support the pro-Life movement in this country (as well as be proactively pro-life overseas), as after all, our country's record on these issues undermines our ability to offer moral leadership abroad - indeed leads to us exporting a culture of death to many of the countries CAFOD is meant to be helping.

Follow tags at the side for CAFOD if you want to understand my prejudicial approach to this...

Monday 23 January 2012

Misrepresenting Opus Dei

A number of correspondents have told me, some privately and one in a comment on the blog, that I have misunderstood, and therefore inadvertently misrepresented, Opus Dei.

I am assured that numerary members of Opus Dei do not take vows in the way religious do, and of course I accept that. In fact I never said that they did, but I realise it might have been inferred from my talk of commitment to the Evangelical Counsels.

However, I am also told that they are not particularly committed to the Evangelical Counsels; that is to say, no more than to all the virtues, which like the rest of the laity they strive to live.  One of them wrote, for example: So, the answer is that the Evangelical Counsels don’t apply to me any more than to you.

I am clearly missing or misunderstanding something here, because my recollection is that when I was invited to join the Opus Dei some 33 years ago, some stress was laid on the Evangelical Counsels and the commitment to them that was part of being a numerary member.  Particularly, the commitment to chastity was not just a commitment to chastity in the way all the laity are committed to it.  It was a specific commitment to lifelong celibacy.  I really don’t think I have got that wrong, as it was fairly pivotal in my decision not to join, and I have also been told by my correspondents that nothing has changed in the interim.

That commitment to celibacy does strike me as something over and above the normal commitment to chastity required of the rest of the laity, which may be pursued in either the single or the married state (typically first the one, then the other, as in my case).

I have probably extrapolated too much from that difference: clearly some of those who are members of Opus Dei think so.

I should make it clear that it is no part of my intention to attack or denigrate Opus Dei.  In all years I went to their various centres in London (Kelston, Netherhall, Westpark) I only ever encountered sound Catholic teaching and reverent liturgy - and lots of good formation and good fun.

As ever, I am happy to apologise for any misunderstanding or misrepresentation, and of course any members of Opus Dei who wish to clarify this further are welcome to comment here, or to email me privately.

Sunday 22 January 2012

At what price?

It’s what every parent dreads: the arrival of the police at the door, with bad news about your child.

‘She was on a caving trip from University and there’s been accident.  A flash flood has caused a small rockfall, and one student is trapped in a narrow passage.  Your daughter is behind her, and there is no way to get her out.  The student in front of her is in a bad way, with a spinal injury, and can’t be moved without risk to her life.  But we can keep her alive at least for a while, with food and water.  But your daughter simply can’t be reached, so will not hold out for long.  I’m sorry.  The tragedy is that there’s no chance of the student who is blocking the passage living.  She’s on borrowed time and heavily sedated.  The only way we could save your daughter is actually to kill the student in front of her.  And even though we know she’s not going to survive, we obviously can’t do that.’

Obviously; and rightly.

None of this has happened, of course: so what is this about?

This morning I heard an exchange on the radio (the Sunday Programme, I think) about organ donation and presumed consent.  For balance, they had someone from each side of the debate; that is each side of the 'presumed consent' debate.  But both were clear their goals were the same: to increase the number of organ donors.

I am against presumed (= involuntary) consent - for the obvious reasons.

Further, for me, consent is meaningless if uninformed; but how may people know that when they donate a vital organ, it will be taken from them while their heart is still beating?

Finally, I am against the whole business of vital organ donation: that is the removal of organs, whose removal will cause the death of the donor.  Non-vital donation is fine and noble: the donor will live on healthily.  But vital organs can only be donated by living patients: once the heart stops beating, they deteriorate too quickly.  So medics have had to re-define 'death' to justify taking organs from living donors.  I have blogged about this before, at more length, here.

And also about the case of the ‘dead’ donor who woke up just in time here.

But Ben, Ben, if it was your child who needed a new heart...!

That’s why I started this post with the caving story.  If my daughter were trapped behind someone, even if they were dying, I would not sanction their being murdered to save my child.  Likewise, I would not accept the premature killing, even of an (apparently) dying patient so that my child could live longer.  Indeed, the medics should never put me in the position to make such a choice.  One of the tragic things about the retreat from proper Medical Ethics in favour of a utilitarian culture of abortion, cloning, embryo experimentation, euthanasia, transplanting organs from living patients etc, is the corruption of the medical profession.

Death is not as bad as sin…


Saturday 21 January 2012

Oona Stannard steps down from CES

Oona Stannard has officially resigned from her role as Chief Executive and Director of the Catholic Education Service.  She has been on leave from her post since November, and will not return before her resignation takes formal effect.

I understand that this is due to health reasons in her family, and am sure all will join me in offering prayers and good wishes for a speedy recovery, God willing.

Astute readers will have noticed that I have not been a fan of the CES under her leadership, and I am pleased that the acting Director, Fr Marcus Stock, will continue in that role for the time being.

Let us hope and pray that a permanent change in leadership leads to a permanent change in approach.

H/t Total Catholic

Petition to restore communion on the tongue (only)

Some friends have pointed out the petition started by two Australian priests.  It requests that the Holy Father personally intervene to restore the traditional practice of allowing reception of Holy Communion on the tongue only, not on the hand.

If you, like me, agree that this is a vital step in restoring Catholic Liturgy, please sign.

I include below the text of a letter, which was sent as part of the email telling me about this.  I do not know the authorship of the letter (UPDATE: see post script below), but think it may be of interest.

Dear friends,
Two Australian priests in the Victorian diocese of Sale have started a worldwide petition to the Holy Father, for going back to the older practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.
Both of these priests, Fr Speekman & Fr Wise are priests in good standing, and accept the current discipline of the Church.  Thus they would never refuse to give communion on the hands, to anyone who comes to them.  It is because of their pastoral ministries, that they are well aware of the terrible abuses and sacrileges that have crept in to the Church because of this practice, and are requesting the older discipline.
Communion on the hand has been allowed by many countries in the world, with the permission of the Holy See.  (In Australia it started on Pentecost Sunday 1976, for instance).  The Church says that if one chooses to receive Holy Communion in this manner to receive Our Lord in an reverent manner following the exhortation of St Cyril of Jerusalem, "When you approach, do not extend your hands with palms upwards and fingers apart, but make your left hand a throne for your right hand to receive the King of Kings".

The problem has been that these days, this is the exception rather than the rule, and fragments of hosts (occasionally even the whole ones) turn up in other places, instead of being consumed.  In addition to this, surveys have been done throughout the world which indicate that most Catholics have more of a Protestant conception of the Eucharist (in that they see this just as a symbol) instead of its reality as the Body, Blood, Soul & Divinity of Jesus Christ.   Poor catecheses in both classes and homilies is very much responsible for this, but it has been reinforced by cavalier attitudes towards the Holy Eucharist.
Restoring the older discipline will go a long way towards solving these issues, if this is what the Church decides.  Should anyone think the petition is imprudent or lacking in respect towards the current directives of the Holy See, it is worth reminding us of this precept from the Code of Canon Law, "In accord with the knowledge, competence and pre-eminence which they possess, the Christian faithful have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence towards their pastors, and for consideration for the common good and dignity of persons."  (Canon 212:3)

Communion in the hand remains an option throughout the Latin Church presently, and one must respect the right of persons who choose to partake of this privilege, with the proper dispositions.
With the petition you will find that you can leave a comment.  My favourite one is by my friend Michael Hichborn of the American Life League (who I met in 2009 at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington DC to be interviewed by Raymond Arroyo on EWTN), a big issue in this American presidential election year.  
"Amen! Restoration of the Culture of Life MUST begin with TOTAL respect and reverence for Christ in the Eucharist [the Bread of Life] !"

Neither do I know the source of the accompanying photos, which I assume to be in the public domain as they were circulated with the email.  If anyone knows anything to the contrary about their copyright status, please let me know.

Oh, and there's an associated blog, too.

PS And the blog is the source of the letter, written by Andrew Rabel.  I really should follow things through before blogging...

Friday 20 January 2012

An Absolute Responsibility

As Catholics, we believe in absolutes.  We believe, for example, that it is true that God created the Heavens and the Earth; that God is Father Son and Holy Spirit; and so on.

We also believe in the teachings of the Church as the teachings of Christ.

We believe these things are not just true for us, but absolutely true, even for those with different belief systems or none.

For that reason, we object when people speaking on behalf of the Church about her official teachings seem to equivocate.

But also for that reason,we must be very careful in the truth-claims we make.  We should claim no humility, and make no apology, for the teachings of the Church.  But we should not claim absolute authority or truth for our interpretation or articulation of them.  

The Church is rightly careful in her official teaching documents, and these must be read in a Catholic way: that is to say, in accordance with Scripture, Tradition, and the previous teaching of the Church.  To pull individual lines out, or to make our own summaries, and then proclaim them as true is a risky business. 

Likewise, to take a particular solution to a problem highlighted by Catholic social teaching, and proclaim it as the answer, is likewise problematic.

This also applies to our judgements of actions and people.  We may (and indeed must) say that some actions are absolutely wrong.  We may not (indeed must not) judge the people who commit them, as we cannot know the state of their souls.

Precisely because we believe in absolute truth, we should be careful and precise in claiming it.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Cultural Catholicism

This post is prompted by the rather sad and acrimonious dispute about Denum Ellarby.  I am not going to comment on the specific case, because Caroline Farrow has already written an excellent post on it.
However, reading some of the comments in the online papers made me reflect on Cultural Catholicism.

There seems to be a number of people who want their children to receive First Holy Communion because... well because it’s what their parents did with them, because their friends are doing so, and so on.

I am not denigrating that.  I think that a Catholic Culture is a good thing, and we should be very wary of demanding absolute purity of motive in all circumstances.  Many of us would not be Catholics or Christians now, if it was not the way things had always been done in our family.  Ideally we move beyond that, but it is a fair starting point.

However, what I have noticed is that that Catholic Culture itself has been distorted and corrupted.  For time and again I am reading people saying ‘That (or something else) happened to me, and we have never been to Mass since.

That strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon: to react to some slight, real or imagined, committed by a single priest by completely excommunicating oneself.  That is not something our parents and grandparents would have done, and is a symptom of a deep malaise within the Catholic Community.

In part, that is no doubt fuelled by the media, which love to leap on a story like this and have a fun time Catholic-bashing.  But I think it goes much deeper than that, and is the fruit of years of poor education, poor catechesis, and impoverished liturgical life.

It would be easy to say that such a reaction shows the priest was right to refuse to enroll a child for preparation for the sacrament, as it proves the parents had neither the firm intention nor the competence to raise the child in the Faith, which is the commitment they are expected to make.

But I think that would be the wrong lesson to draw.  The question has to be: why are the parents so poorly formed, intellectually and spiritually, that they think refusing to go to Mass is going to 'show the Church' rather than realise that what they are really doing is risking their (and their kids') eternal salvation?

The responsibility sits with us all: bishops, priests, teachers, catechists, and laity.  We must turn this around.

Prayer and fasting...

Wednesday 18 January 2012

BBC and Porn

The ever-wonderful BBC (Radio 1 Newsbeat site: target audience teens and young adults I think) has a charming interview with a young lady about her life as a porn star.

You will learn that she is excessively well paid, protected from STIs by a rigorous screening programme, and that her parents, once they learned what she was earning, were able to reverse their previous disapproval.

All most edifying, and just what the licence fee should be paying for.

The BBC seems dedicated to normalising many things which as a civilised nation we have habitually deprecated.

H/t @sitsio on Twitter

On Blogging

The other day, someone was hurt and upset by my posts, and tweeted: you've decided to become unappointed uninformed arbiter & commentator to which I penned the riposte:  Yes, it's called blogging... (Ho ho Ben, very witty, quote of the day award...)

Twitter brings out the worst in me, I think: the temptation to say the quick and witty thing without really pausing for reflection on its veracity or helpfulness. (Actually, that’s not the worst in me, but this isn’t the confessional and the rest is none of your business!)

But it did cause me to reflect: is that really what I am doing when I am blogging?  And if so, is that something I should be doing?  I have already reflected on my SAGO tendencies.

However, I do believe that discussing things in the open is frequently helpful.  It is conceivable that the Catholic Blogs were in part responsible for the cancellation of the proposed ‘Methodist Ordinations’ in Liverpool Cathedral.

Certainly the fuss over Bonus Pastor alerted me to the problems with Keeping Mum, and enabled me to get it withdrawn from the RE syllabus at the kids’ school.

And in the present instance, even if I am wholly wrong (which is quite probable) in my analysis both of Catholic Voices and its critics, I still think it is helpful for all concerned to know what it looks like from my perspective (and not mine alone, judging by feedback both public and private which I have received.)

Tom Stoppard, in Night and Day, has a character defending the press say: ‘I’ve been around a lot of places.  People do awful things to each other.  But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.  It really is. Information is light.’

I think there is some truth in that: information about how others see things, even if that perception is flawed, partial, prejudicial, ill-informed or plain wrong, is helpful.

I apologise to anyone whom I have misrepresented, abused or hurt in anyway.  And I shall continue to blog.

Monday 16 January 2012

What's wrong with CV's critics?

In my last, I summarised what I think has gone wrong with the Catholic Voices project.

I think it is also worth looking at the other side of the coin: the way in which some on the Catholic blogosphere have interacted with, and commented on, CV and CV members.

I include myself in that number.

It seems to me that some of us, at least, have been viewing any CV activity, and the activity of anyone associated with it, in a prejudicial light.

For some, that prejudice is partly an occupational issue: for journalists, bad news generally makes better stories than good news: and that applies not only to the likes of Damian Thompson, but also to bloggers who lose sight of their real purpose in pursuit of hits.

On top of that, some have a predisposition to attack anything in which  Opus Dei or any member thereof is involved (let's not rehearse the no involvement argument here...)

Then there are those who feel they have been slighted by CV collectively or by Jack or Austen individually.  Understandably, that risks colouring their perception of CV.

And there are those, and this included me, who had high hopes of CV, but were dumbfounded at some stage (in my case, the view that the BBC's programme The Pope's Divisions was 'superb').

The result of all that is that a small but vociferous number of Catholic bloggers and journalists have been looking critically (and no doubt from the CV point of view with jaundiced eyes) at everything they do.

Positive things are less likely to be commented on, both because they are less newsworthy (no newspaper ever sold with a headline that every plane landed safely at Heathrow yesterday) and also because they do not fit the dominant narrative about CV in these circles.  Anything that can be questioned, is.  And anything that is ambiguous is presented as proof at least of incompetence, if not of collusion with some dodgy agenda.  That's all fairly understandable, if not always wholly edifying.

But there has also, it seems to me, been something more; something that on the receiving end has felt like harrassment and bullying, even if that was not the intention.

To some extent that is to do with style, but there is something more.

So what have I seen?

Bombardment with a series of messages, showing no inclination to listen to the responses, merely to repeat the message with ever increasing force; name-calling ('CVeebies'); leaping to judgement rather than enquiring ('that's heretical' rather than 'can I check what you're getting at here...?'); treating individuals as part of a collective all the time - and tarring them all with the same brush; casuistry and nit-picking to score points; failure to recognise (even when told) that someone is in an emotionally fragile state, and so on; failure to recognise that these are not career bureaucrats, nor theological experts (that's the point!) but rather individuals who wish to serve the Church and give freely of their time and energy to stand up in the public square and take the hits from the enemy (do they really need 'friendly fire' too?).

I am sure that most of this is done with good intentions: in the pursuit of truth.  But when we forget the fundamental inter-relation of Caritas and Veritas, we have lost the plot.

Mea culpa, 
Mea culpa,
Mea maxima culpa.

Sunday 15 January 2012

What’s the problem with Catholic Voices?

When first I heard of the Catholic Voices project, I thought it a great idea.  I was fed up with heterodox people popping up on the BBC allegedly representing the Church - and even the occasional orthodox person they found made me look young (and I was born before Vatican 2).

So training up some young orthodox Catholics in media skills, and helping and encouraging them to present a positive and accurate view of the Church in the public square was a solution to a real problem.
However, recently there has been quite a lot of antagonism between some members of Catholic Voices and others on the Catholic blogosphere.  I think the roots of this go quite far back and have little or nothing to do with some of the Catholic Voice members who have got involved more recently.
I hope, in this post, to shed a little light, from one perspective at least, on some of this mess, in the hope that more light will equate to less (inappropriate) heat.

I think there are several separate but intertwined issues that make the CV project very hard to execute successfully as things stand, including the context, the remit, the history, and issues of competence.
The context, as I see it, is that the Catholic establishment in this country has lost its identity and purpose.  There is a degree of institutionalised dissent (pace The Tablet, CAFOD etc) and a larger degree of ambiguity and poor leadership, such that Catholics are frequently surprised and dismayed to witness bishops and their officials say and allow things that would have been unimaginable in previous generations (pace Soho Masses, ‘Who knows what’s down the road?” etc.)  

In that context, providing a positive and clear voice for Catholicism to the media poses some immediate challenges.  What is CV to do when something emerges from the bishops or their agencies that is ambiguous or frankly dubious?   

That leads us to the remit.  I think for CV to work, they should stick very closely to the areas where there is clear and definitive teaching by the Church: that is areas of Faith and Morals. They should avoid areas where there is scope for prudential judgement and therefore legitimate diversity of opinion between Catholics in good faith.  However, many of our  bishops seem to like to talk definitively about such things (eg Fairtrade) whilst maintaining a studied ambiguity or steadfast silence about issues of Faith or Morals.  When CV start to back the bishops’ positions on prudential matters (whether or not these positions are right) they are inevitably going to alienate some, and position themselves as a mouthpiece for the bishops rather than doing what it says on the tin.

When it comes to history, I was first really alarmed by Catholic Voices when they proclaimed the BBC Programme The Pope’s British Divisions to be ‘superb’ which was an extraordinary verdict, and seemed to me to suggest more complicity with the establishment than Catholic sense, as I blogged here. Many other British Catholics were similarly outraged at the programme.  There have been a number of other occasions on which CV has taken a position that has dismayed some orthodox Catholics.

It is against this background which people judge current CV proclamations - and indeed members: they see CV as having ‘form’ - that is being compromised.

Finally, there are issues of competence.  Recently Damian Thompson wrote a characteristically snide piece on his Telegraph blog, mainly attacking Opus Dei, but including the assertion that Catholic Voices has ‘Opus Dei's fingerprints all over it.

Catholic Voices then tweeted: Opus Dei has no financial, spiritual, managerial, or indeed any other involvement in CV. Damian Thompson is spreading counterknowledge.

Yet we all know that one of the leading figures in Catholic Voices is Jack Valero.  His Twitter profile says: 'Press Officer for Opus Dei in UK. In 2010 Press Officer for Newman's beatification. Coordinator for Catholic Voices.'  He is not just a press officer as a hired hand, of course: that is not how Opus Dei works: he is a senior member of the organisation.

As PR experts, could CV not see that the tweet was not hugely convincing?  When I suggested that CV had shot itself in the foot with this one, the reply was:
Two of the coordinators are members of a parish in Pimlico. Does that mean their parish is involved in CV? Of course not.'

This starts to look like casuistry. Is that really the image to cultivate?  

The Pimlico parallel is so weak as to be ridiculous: if the PP at Pimlico were involved, the parallel would be closer - and the claim of ‘no involvement’ even weaker.  And of course, we know that any numerary member of Opus Dei is bound by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. When Jack Valero is acting as Coordinator for Catholic Voices, he does not, presumably, leave his obedience to his Opus Dei superiors at the door.  So the claim that he is acting in a purely private capacity is hard for anyone outside Opus Dei to understand, however self-evident it may be to those within Opus Dei...

But my point is not the propriety or otherwise of this, but that, given that context, the CV tweet saying Opus Dei has no financial, spiritual, managerial, or indeed any other involvement in CV was inept.  There is so much else they could usefully have said that would not have made them look either stupid or deliberately misleading.  And the tweet ended with an Ad hominem attack: a poor and unworthy strategy, I think. And that is just one, recent, example of what I see as a very poor record in managing PR.

My hopes are two:

One is that CV finds a way to re-invent itself, and does not fall into the trap which so many parts of the pro-Life movement have fallen into, of keeping people at the top who had  a great idea but are not the best leaders for the long term...

The second is that those young Catholics who have joined CV with the sole intention of sticking up for the Church are not brow-beaten by those who, like me, have grown frustrated with the ineptitude and complicity of some at the top of CV.  If people have a quarrel with Austen or Jack, don’t take it out on anyone else - and don't tar all CV members with the same brush.

Update: further musings here.

Thursday 12 January 2012

I'm such an elitest snob...

Fr Ray Blake carries an appreciative note about an event at the Oratory on God and Shakespeare.

I thought it sounded really interesting, but I was clearly wrong...

Rev Alan Griffiths said...
I don't think this would be very relevant or a priority to the lives of most working class urban catholics struggling to get by in difficult times. I feel it also highlights what a fantasy bubble most of you uber-traditionalists live in.
I am sure Fr Griffiths knows more about the lives and priorities of working class urban Catholics than I do, but I can't help wondering: even if he is right, is that a good thing?

Would it not be better if intellectual and cultural  stimulation were more of a priority, and seen as more relevant, in such circles and such times?  Not least given the social support that comes from people meeting to discuss together things pertinent to their Faith (though of course holding hands at the Our Father, and shaking hands at 'the Peace' is so much more effective at building solidarity...)

There is something rather brutal in the implication that in tough times we insult people by talk of culture and ideas. Though I do accept, of course, that only working class urban Catholics are worthy of any support...

And then the well-informed comment about uber-traditionalists...
But hey, I'm white, male, middle class, educated, middle aged, Catholic (probably that means uber-traditionalist) so what would I know? Think I'll go back to my fantasy bubble.

Monday 9 January 2012

The Light goes on in Lancs

This Lent, every Catholic Church in Lancaster Diocese will be open every Wednesday evening from 7.00 pm - 8.00 pm for confession and quiet prayer.  From the Diocesan www site:

The Light is On For You!


The special invitation to experience Christ’s love through the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a major new initiative of Bishop Michael Campbell OSA. The Light is on For You! initiative highlights the importance of this sacrament in the life of Catholics and increases its availability, hoping that every Catholic will visit this source of God’s mercy and healing love.

Congratulations to our bishop! Ad Multos Annos!

H/t Fr Brown at Forest Murmurs

Bishop vs. Bishops

I am privileged to live in the Diocese of Lancaster.

Perhaps because it is the furthest in England you can get from Ecclestone Square, the Bishop here sometimes breaks step with the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

Bishop O'Donoghue famously did it with his Fit for Mission series; this was well received by Rome (and many lay Catholics and priests), but ignored by the Conference...  

Now our current Bishop, Bishop Campbell has done the same thing, with his New Year Pastoral Letter, about which I shall probably write more.

Why is it that when individual Bishops speak out, they are sometimes so much more Catholic than anything that emerges from the collective bureaucracy?

Bishop O'Donoghue addressed that, too, in Fit for Mission, Church.  His analysis was that dividing important issues into  "areas of responsibility" for designated bishops to lead on, had the effect of making the rest of them "reluctant … to speak out on these issues, as if somehow they had handed over their competence in these areas to the responsible bishop and his particular committee".

This collegial approach does not seem to be working.  Bishop O'Donoghue lamented that, too.  For example:  "I must register, too, my disappointment that our Bishops' Conference recently could not agree a collegial response to the Government's legislation on same-sex adoption."

So what should we do about it?

The good bishop had plenty to say about that as well: at a talk to the Oxford Newman Society soon after the publication of Fit for Mission, Church, he had several practical and excellent suggestions.  The talk is well worth reading - and re-reading - and then acting on.

However, what has not been resolved is the problem of the Conference vs the individual bishop, the dampening effect of bureaucracy and the party line.  What we need is more bishops prepared to act as bishops: teaching with authority, in accordance with the Faith of our Fathers.

Sunday 8 January 2012

On SAGO and other issues...

I am in a reflective mood today.  Yesterday I posted a pertinent and searching post (I thought) and then pulled it in short order, because I realised that it was more likely to fuel unpleasantness than achieve the ends I wanted.

That made me reflect: what were the ends I wanted?  Positive change, I suppose.

And I realised that the post as written was extremely unlikely to have effected that.

So why had I written it the way I had?  Because it was clever, incisive, likely to draw some cheers from some people, controversial, likely to inflate my stats?...

Moreover, it seemed so evidently obvious and unarguable to me that a foot had been placed firmly in a mouth: however, other intelligent people did not see it that way at all.  I still think I was right in my analysis (of course!) but that made it clearer than ever that a clever blog post was not going to be the epiphany for the other party that I hoped.

I have also been observing with growing dismay the unpleasantness of many of the interactions on the Catholic blogosphere.  Name-calling, in particular, I dislike: CVeebies, for example, being used to imply that all those participating in the Catholic Voices initiative are some sort of dumbed down, brainwashed lackies of Austen, Jack and Kathleen; or Taliban Catholics, for people who actually believe the hard bits, too, and expect bishops to stand up for them. This kind of labeling assumes as a given a particular and prejudicial story, and seems to me to be both intellectually lazy and uncharitable.

But actually, I wonder if people like me are a bigger part of the problem: people who sit on the sidelines as Self Appointed Guardians of Orthodoxy (given my dislike of cheap labels, you will understand that SAGO is particularly appealing...)

I fully understand why we do it: our intentions are good.  We know that all is not well in the Catholic Church in this country; we are fiercely protective of it, and hugely frustrated and angered when we try to raise our concerns and are told to hold our tongue.  

But when that turns from constructive comment designed to help and move the agenda forward, to ridicule (of which I have certainly been guilty: I do enjoy it!) and demonisation (of which I have also been guilty, though I try to avoid it) then I think we have lost the plot.  And if SAGO loses its flavour...

Saturday 7 January 2012

Ouch! Was that my foot...?

I have removed this post as I am not sure it was helpful.  I will pick up the issues raised in other ways...

Thursday 5 January 2012

BBC's Euthanasia Campaign

As I write the lead story on the BBC's www site is:
'Strong case' for assisted dyingThere is a "strong case" for allowing assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill in England and Wales, a group of experts says.
If one follows through to the article, they do mention that 'Critics say it is biased.'

As it was set up by people with a commitment to Euthanasia, funded by people with a commitment to Euthanasia, and even the BMA recognised it was bogus and refused to give evidence, perhaps the BBC could have recognised the validity of the criticism...

But as so often, despite 'balance' to give the impression of impartiality, the BBC's view comes through loud and clear, just as it did on the Today programme this morning.

Apart from anything else, giving this top story billing lends it an importance and credibility that few other PR stunts could command, as does the unbalanced front page headline quoted above, (for 'experts', they could have had 'pro-euthanasia campaigners' if they had really wanted to remain impartial - and accurate).

Wednesday 4 January 2012


John Smeaton's blog reminds me that Lord Falconer is due to publish his dodgy euthanasia report tomorrow.

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a Catholic Poet, Elizabeth Jennings (1926 - 2001).  She was fascinating, not least because her conversation (full of non sequiturs, interrupting self with multiple sub-clauses) was so different from her poetry (formal, precise, concise).

Here is her poem, Euthanasia:

The law's been passed and I am lying low 
Hoping to hide from those who think they are 
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow. 
I hurry. Will the executioner 
Be watching how I go? 

Others about me clearly feel the same. 
The deafest one pretends that she can hear. 
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame 
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear. 
Last time the doctor came, 

All who could speak said they felt very well. 
Did we imagine he was watching with 
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell. 
Each minute now we think the stranger Death 
Will take us from each cell 

For that is what our little rooms now seem 
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain, 
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream 
Is now a nightmare. Doctor's due again.
We hold on to the gleam 

Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act, 
And doing so we wear our weak selves out. 
We said, "We want to die" once when we lacked 
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt. 
O life, you are so packed 

With possibility. Old age seems good. 
The ache, the anguish - we could bear them we 
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God 
To turn the murdering ministers away, 
But they come softly shod.

Elizabeth Jennings

Have SPUC lost the plot?

I notice that SPUC has launched a campaign against gay marriage.

As the more discerning readers of this blog will have noticed, I am not a fan of gay marriage.

However, I do wonder about the wisdom and appropriateness of SPUC launching into this one.

I understand John Smeaton's belief that attacks on marriage are fundamentally attacks on a culture of life: indeed I share that belief.

Nonetheless, given SPUC's remit and declared non-religious nature, I think that this risks leaving many supporters behind, as the amount of catechesis needed to get the average non-Catholic (and probably, alas, the average Catholic) to understand the linkage is immense.

Further, by attacking gay marriage, SPUC is provoking a very vehement counter-attack: they had better be ready for it; and they had better have made sure that every last comma of their position paper and their background briefing is unassailable academically, or they will bring themselves - and the whole pro-life movement by association - into disrepute.

Of course, if the Bishops were leading the charge, John Smeaton would not feel the need to do so.  But I think he needs to be clear: is SPUC's purpose to advance the Pro-Life cause on a non-religious basis, or is it to make up for the deficiencies (real or imagined) of the Bishops in this country? Latterly, a lot of energy seems to have been expended on the second of these alternatives.

Either it's simple or I am...

It seems to me...

The purpose and result of Civil Partnerships is to normalise and make respectable homosexual relationships.

Should the Catholic Church approve of or collude with such measures?

The CDF says no.

The Bishops of E&W seem more ambiguous.  Indeed, it appears that their position has changed by 180 degrees.

The fact that some people need to write screeds and screeds to explain how the Bishops' nuanced position is totally aligned with the CDF's (and historic Catholicism's) suggests that the CDF's approach is clearer, and raises further doubts about the Bishops'.

Actually, understanding the Church's teaching on this (the intrinsic disorder of homosexual attraction and the sinfulness of homosexual activity) is not so hard.

The more difficult thing is to convey the Church's teaching clearly, in a way that is completely truthful and completely charitable.

This is important, because the genesis of homosexuality is not clear.  It may be genetic, in whole or in part; it may be environmental in whole or in part, and so on.  The point is that if there is any element that is open to influence, we should be minimising the risk of young people coming to self-identify as homosexual - as it is a disorder.  Normalising it works in the opposite direction.

Breast Enlargement and Mind Contraction

All the fuss about faulty breast implants has prompted me to reflect on the similarities of this issue with the abortion debate.

Clearly the scale of seriousness is different, but there are parallels.

First, I should say that I am not talking here about reconstructive surgery, but cosmetic surgery.

When a doctor agrees to undertake cosmetic surgery for trivial reasons he or she is, in my view, doing something similar to an abortionist, in this way.  He is treating social and psychological problems as though a physical solution is the right answer.

Thus he is not only colluding with the superficial diagnosis of the patient ('If only I had bigger breasts, then I'd be happy/confident/loved...') but also contributing both to her not addressing the underlying issues, and also to others feeling under greater pressure to conform to undesirable social norms (that all women should aspire to look like pin-up girls).

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Want to paint an Icon?

You will need to study first - then pray.  To paint (or more accurately, 'write') an icon is a spiritual undertaking.

One of the leading exponents in the UK is Sr Petra Clare of the Sancti Angeli Benedictine Skete in Scotland.

To see some examples of her fabulous work, go here.

She is just launching an online iconography course.  Here is an extract from her wwwsite:

Part A: Roots of Iconography.
The first part of the course starts from the pre-Christian artwork of the great civilisations of the time of Christ, and the techniques which were taken over from them and transformed to convey the new revelation of the Incarnate God.
As the four Apostolic patriarchates - Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria - were formed, the Christians developed a new artistic language.
Iconography exercises include positive and negative space, calligraphic brushstroke, the Sinai Christ, ‘the pilgrim icon.’

Part B: Studying Scripture through Icons.
from 2012
The second part of the course looks at icons as Biblical exegesis. Starting with the Old testament precursors, moving through the Gospel narrative and completing with St. Paul, we see how a visual language was developed which parallels and depends on the Scriptural exegesis of the Church Fathers. Special attention is given to Gregory of Sinai’s exegesis of the Transfiguration.
Iconography exercises include composition, the ‘spiritual flow’ diagram and tonal exercises ‘from darkness to light.’

Part C: Iconography of the Councils.
from 2013
The third part of the course explores how icons became associated with the liturgy. We study icons which transmit the teaching of the Church Councils - Nicea I and the ‘Trinity;’ Ephesus and the Icons of the Mother of God; Chalcedon and the dialogue of colour and form reflecting the two natures; and the effects on iconography of inter-church conflict, the Celtic question and the rise of Islam.
Iconography exercises focus on writing the icon to convey the teaching of the Church through composition and colour

Part D: The 7th Ecumenical & the Iconographical Canons.
from 2013
The fourth part of the course covers the important doctrinal controversy of iconoclasm, in which the theological principles of Church art were clarified and the first canons of Christian art formulated. This covers Nicea II, the western response and ends with the Baptism of the Rus,’ and the association of the Sinai tradition of ‘prayer of the heart ‘ with the luminous Russian icons.

H/t Fr Brown at Forest Murmurs.  Fr Brown has commissioned numerous icons from St Petra Clare, so visit his Churches (current or previous) for a real visual treat!

Monday 2 January 2012

Why I'm so bitter and twisted #314

Many years ago, when I was younger and only a little bit bitter and twisted (at least compared to now) I went to see a bishop.

(It was a different chap from the one there now, and a different diocese from the one in which I now live).

I had some concerns about Catholic education in a Catholic School my daughters were at.  One of the issues I mentioned was that they were not even taught about the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays (this seemed fairly basic to me, if one is to teach anything about Catholicism to anyone...)

The bishop responded that the schools could not teach about the Sunday obligation, as some children's parents might not go to Mass on Sundays, and that would make the children think they were doing something wrong.

I think that was when I started to worry seriously about our bishops...

Just follow that line of reasoning down any of the interesting avenues it opens up...  See what I mean?

Equivocate, that's the word I was searching for.

Now what recently could have brought that to mind?

Sunday 1 January 2012

A Plague on Both Their Houses?...

I  have been watching the spat between various people involved with Catholic Voices (on the one hand) and John Smeaton and many others (on the other) with growing dismay.

I don't know any of the participants personally, though I have communicated with many publicly, and some on each side privately.  To the extent that I feel I know them, I think I like them, and certainly respect the commitment they exemplify.

However, I also agree with some of John Smeaton's criticisms of the bishops, with some of Caroline Farrow's criticisms of John Smeaton, with some of James Preece's criticisms of Catholic Voices' leadership, and so on and so on.

But what I think is really clear is that Twitter, above all, is no place for such discussions.  The brevity alone leads to over-simplification, brusqueness and so on, and there is also something questionable about having such discussions in such a public forum.

So I am tempted to call down a plague on both their houses - but of course I don't want to do so.  I would far prefer...

To see a coherent and united pro-life movement emerge in this country; and
To have clear and unequivocal teaching about Catholic Faith and Morals.

So rather than stir the pot any more, I would ask all readers to pray for all concerned.