Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Cross, the Crucifix and a Court Ruling

Yesterday I posted about Stations without the figure of Christ? As part of that post I asked the question:
Under what circumstances, if any, is it true to the Christian mystery to leave out a representation of the bodily figure of Christ from a work of art that shows his presence?
In asking that question I did not particularly have in mind the representation of the figure of Christ - sometimes known from the Latin term the "corpus" - that makes a Cross into a Crucifix, though that is clearly a proximate question to the slightly wider one that I was asking.

In response to that post I received a comment with a link to the website of St Andrew's RC Church in Bearsden, Glasgow. The header image of the site shows the sanctuary of the Church, and the purpose of the comment I received was to point out that there is a representation of the Cross on the wall behind the altar, but that it is a Cross rather than a Crucifix - the figure of Christ is absent. From the point of view of the Liturgy, n.308 of the Revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal sets the context for an initial comment:
There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, positioned either on the altar or near it, and which is clearly visible to the people gathered together. It is fitting that a cross of this kind, recalling for the faithful the saving passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.
That having been said, I do find the arrangement of the sanctuary at St Andrew's attractive. One can see an alignment of the ambo, altar and tabernacle that would not exist if the tabernacle were positioned in a side chapel. I might be inclined to suggest that the priest preside from "sideways on" rather than from the chair positioned so that he has his back to the tabernacle. Moreover, such an arrangement would give an analogue to the "Benedictine arrangement" whereby people and celebrating priest both have an orientation towards the Cross for at least part of the Liturgy. The impression conveyed by the images to either side of the sanctuary is one of the presence of Eucharistic imagery - the loaves and fishes of the young boy on the right, for example. So it would be wrong to see this as an example of a work of art - or architecture - which removes all images of the physical body of Christ.

In general, apart from the rubrical point made above, I am relaxed about whether or not the Crucifix should be seen as "better" in some way than a Cross. In a Roman Catholic context, it appears to be preferred by way of historical practice to which most of the people are accustomed. I do not buy into an explanation for a Cross that it represents Christ as risen - its symbolism seems to me to be still one of the saving death of Christ. I also expect that in many contemporary contexts the viewing of a Cross shows a presence of the Christian mystery rather than any sense of a removal of the figure of Christ. The World Youth Day Cross, for example, is a Cross and has no figure of Christ on it. Yet it must be one of the most powerful symbols of the presence of Christ to contemporary culture that we could possibly have.

My post coincided with the Grand Chamber judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of the display of crucifixes in the classrooms of state schools in Italy. The press release from the registrar of the court giving explanation of this judgement is here and, as usual, I do think it is useful to read the original source. The full text of the judgement itself can be found here. There is also an interesting summary of previous cases relating to religious liberty that have been considered by the European Court. If we look at the judgement, what are the grounds that it gives in allowing Italy to continue with its current practice? My following remarks are based on the text of the press release.

1. The court did not feel entitled to encroach on what it calls the "margin of appreciation" proper to individual member states, in this case Italy, in meeting the requirements of the parents' right to ensure the education of their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. As far as the provision of education by the state is concerned, an individual member state is entitled to decide how that will be done in their own country in a way that respects the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. The view of the court was that a decision about whether or not crucifixes should be displayed in classrooms was within this "margin of appreciation", that is, within what Catholic social teaching would recognise as an area of subsidiarity.

2. The effect of the presence of the crucifix on the walls of Italian classrooms was considered from the point of view of its impact on the pupils. Fundamentally, this is a question of whether or not the presence of the crucifix represents a proselytising impact for pupils of religions other than Christianity, Roman Catholicism in particular, or of no religion at all. The view of the court was that no such proselytising impact existed in Italian state schools, and the press release cites a range of ways in which those of non-Catholic belief are respected in the Italian state school system.

3. The effect of the presence of the crucifix on the walls of Italian classrooms was also considered from the point of view that it gave to the majority religion in the country an unjustly greater visibility in the school environment. Citing previous cases, the court did not consider that this of itself amounted to a form of indoctrination (ie teaching that would not respect the rights of parents to ensure the education of their children in accordance with their own religious or philosophical convictions). The court took this view in the light of the non-proselytising nature of the presence of crucifixes as already noted at 2 above.

4. The presence of the crucifix in Italian classrooms was also considered from the point of view, argued by the Italians, that the display of the crucifix in classrooms formed a tradition in Italy that the government now considered important to perpetuate. This has a historical origin particular to Italy, but can now also be argued from the point of view that the crucifix, beyond its specifically religious meaning, also symbolises the principles and values which are at the foundation of democracy and western civilisation (and indeed at the heart of the founding of the European Union). The view of the court was that the maintenance of such a tradition also lay within the "margin of appreciation" proper to an individual state, but that it did not allow a state to disregard its obligations towards the rights of parents with regard to the education of their children contained in the European Convention. A role of supervision by the Court was stated in this respect and, in effect, is contained in the decisions view that the presence of crucifixes in Italian schools does not have a proselytising impact.

I do not think that the press release really says that the Court decision allows Italian schools to continue displaying the crucifix because they have no influence on pupils, as some are suggesting. When the press release is read as a whole, rather than just focussing on "there was no evidence before the Court that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils" and "a crucifix on a wall was an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities", then its decision is more securely founded than this assertion suggests.

The implication for schools is that their attitude to non-Catholic pupils is one of dialogue and not proselytism - and the Court decision is saying that that is completely compatible with the display of the crucifix and, by a certain implication, of other religious images, in the school environment. So far as I am aware, this is where any Catholic school would be at with regard to non-Catholic pupils who might attend the school.

UPDATE: Further interesting comment here, focussing on the significance of the place in the court judgement of the idea of "margin of appreciation".

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