Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Dare we hope that all men be saved?

One might preface any remarks about von Balthasar by indicating that he is a theologian who is Catholic in the deepest and widest sense of the word, so the slighting of his orthodoxy by those of a more traditionalist inclination seems to me to say more about them than it does about von Balthasar.

But having seen once again a "re-tweet" - more or less well informed - of the side swipe at Hans Urs von Balthasar's position on whether or not anyone actually goes to hell, I offer the following.

At the front of Ignatius Press English edition of the relevant work Dare we hope that all men be saved? is the following quotation, from a catechism published by the German Bishops Conference (emphasis in the original):
Neither Holy Scripture nor the Church's Tradition of faith asserts with certainty of any man that he is actually in hell. Hell is always held before our eyes as a real possibility, one connected with the offer of conversion and life.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church nn.1033 ff, on hell (my italics added):
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion ...
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.
 From the Catechism of the Catholic Church nn.2090 - 2092, on Hope
When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and of incurring punishment.
The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:
By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy.
There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).
Hans Urs von Balthasar's position is less one that suggests that no-one will go to hell than one that, in the first instant recognises the real risk on my own part (the call to responsibility and conversion), but then, in terms of my love towards others, insists that I should continue to hope "to the end" in the possibility of their conversion (and therefore ensure my love for my neighbour).

I do wonder how it can be possible to live a bearable Christian life if hell is seen only as a driver for the avoidance of mortal sin, that is, in its negative import, and not also in its positive import as a hope that one's response to the call to conversion will be sufficient, as will be the response of my neighbour.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

All the Cathedrals (1): Oxford...

( .... with apologies to Geoff and Vicki at All the Stations).

For some time now, Zero and I have been making use of a Two Together railcard to visit towns with cathedrals. Our visit to Oxford ignored Christ Church cathedral and instead took in Keble College, and the chapel there. One realises in later life  just how much one should have appreciated something when living next door to it in one's younger days.

An account of the architecture of the chapel at Keble can be found here; and images of the mosaics that decorate the walls of the chapel can be found by following the links from this page.

Together the windows and mosaics are intended to show God's dealings with his people through history. They therefore include Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Moses and Joseph - seen as prefiguring the person of Christ himself. The saving work of Christ is also represented by its prefiguration in the offering of Melchisedech and Abraham's intercession on behalf of Sodom. Christ's own life and death are also represented in the mosaics. In keeping with the spirit of the Oxford Movement, saints and fathers of the Church are also represented. As you leave the chapel, it is the scene of the last judgement that faces you above the door.

The underlying principles of the decoration are profoundly liturgical, and oriented to the celebration of a worship which renewed in the Church of England its catholic sense. The inspiration for the decoration of the Chapel is John Keble's The Christian Year - those more familiar with John Keble than I am will appreciate this link.

The only other place I have seen anything like this is the Benedictine Abbey of St Hildegard, at Eibingen, across the River Rhine from Bingen. The guided tour of the Abbey Church indicates clearly how the decoration of the Church is designed to celebrate the living presence of God with his people through the course of history.

The experience of sitting in the nave at Eibingen, somewhat gobsmacked by the decoration of the Church came strongly to mind as I sat in Keble College chapel. Both churches are well worth a visit.


Sunday, 13 August 2017

St Maximilian Kolbe: an "offering of life"

Some spirited remarks about St Maximilian Kolbe in this morning's homily have reminded me to place alongside each other the text of Pope St John Paul II's homily at the canonisation Mass for the saint (Italian original here, English translation here) and Pope Francis' recent motu proprio Maiorem Hac Dilectionem establishing the offer of life as a cause for beatification.

Speaking of the event of St Maximilian's death, Pope St John Paul II said:
All this happened in the concentration camp at Auschwitz where during the last war some four million people were put to death, including the Servant of God, Edith Stein (the Carmelite Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), whose cause for beatification is in progress at the competent Congregation. Disobedience to God-the Creator of life who said, "Thou shalt not kill"-caused in that place the immense holocaust of so many innocent persons. And so at the same time, our age has thus been horribly stigmatized by the slaughter of the innocent.
Father Maximilian Kolbe, himself a prisoner of the concentration camp, defended in that place of death an innocent man's right to life. Father Kolbe defended his right to life, declaring that he was ready to go to death in the man's place, because he was the father of a family and his life was necessary for his dear ones. Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe thus reaffirmed the Creator's exclusive right over innocent human life. He bore witness to Christ and to love. For the Apostle John writes: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 John 3:16).
I have added the italics to try to draw out how John Paul II's words indicate a way of understanding the intention of Pope Francis' idea of an "offer of life". Later in the homily, this becomes clearer still:
Men saw what happened in the camp at Auschwitz. And even if to their eyes it must have seemed that a companion of their torment "dies," even if humanly speaking they could consider "his departure" as "a disaster," nevertheless in their minds this was not simply "death." Maximilian did not die but "gave his life...for his brother." In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love.
And in this human death of his there was the clear witness borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.  
Pope Francis characterises the offer of life as "a free and voluntary offer of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of a certain and untimely death". Pope John Paul II, to an extent foreshadowing Pope Francis' motu proprio, assimilated St Maximilian's offer of his life to martyrdom and proclaimed that St Maximilian was to be recognised, not just as a confessor of the faith, but as a martyr for the faith.

Many years ago now I recall speaking and writing about Archbishop Oscar Romero and Fr Jerzy Popieluszko as "martyrs for the truth about man". I think we can see in both of these great figures examples of the "offering of life" which Pope Francis has now established as a way to beatification.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Swedish physicist revolutionising fertility awareness

I have slightly altered the headline of the BBC news report. The story first came to my attention through the "Once a physicist" feature in July 2017's Physics World. That story was headed as follows:
Elina Berglund is the chief technology officer and co-founder of Natural Cycles - a fertility app that helps women to prevent, plan and monitor pregnancies. As a physicist, she was part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson at CERN in 2012.
The Physics World feature gives an indication of the particular contribution that Elina Berglund's background in physics has made to the development of her algorithm, and what may constitute a novelty in relation to other natural methods (corrections on this point via the comments box please if necessary). The use of temperature as an indicator of the fertile time in a woman's cycle is itself well known, but it is the improved analysis of the data that may make this app a genuine innovation.
I was in a stable relationship and I did not want to use hormonal contraception anymore. We looked into "natural family planning solutions", but there was nothing out there that was easy and reliable to use. Such a solution is prone to human errors if you analyse the data yourself; while the few devices that were available were outdated, expensive and, most of all, used simplistic algorithms. Using my statistical and programming skills from analysing data in particle physics, I developed an algorithm that analyses a woman's body temperature to detect ovulation and pinpoint fertile and non-fertile days. Although the algorithm was at first only for my own use, I quickly realised that this was something many women wanted and needed. Several of my physics colleagues started measuring their own temperatures as well and sending them to me to run my algorithm and give them a "green" or a "red" day. My husband, also a physicist, suggested we turn the algorithm into an app, so that all women and their partners could benefit from this innovation.
Physics World's feature also suggests that the reason for the temporary revoking of regulatory approval was essentially technical. It had to do with whether their app was classified as a fertility monitor, which required one regulatory classification, or as a contraceptive device, which required a different regulatory classification. It achieved this second regulatory classification in February 2017.

Elina Berglund's own experience of using the app is within her own marriage, something that clearly indicates a particular context in which it is going to be more effective. It is also a context that significantly reduces the criticism that using the app does not protect against sexually transmitted infections, as women with single sexual partners are much less exposed to such a risk.. The app is clearly going to be less helpful for a woman whose lifestyle involves multiple sexual partners, both from the point of view of STI protection and from the point of view of the willingness of partners to respect a "red" day.

An interesting aspect of the app is the way in which it responds to the data of an individual woman as more data is entered. It adapts to the individual's cycle, rather than imposing a single algorithm on to the data. The potential of the app to monitor a pregnancy, not fully described in the media coverage, might also have interesting application to the care of women in remote locations in less developed countries .... can a medical professional access the woman's data via the app from a different location?

Natural Cycles website is worth exploring, particularly the reviews from users which, leaving aside the question of whether the app is used primarily to achieve contraception, show an appreciation of a better understanding by women of their own bodies.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Workers of the world unite! (or revolution at Felbrigg Hall) - UPDATED

I have been brought back to Vaclav Havel's text The Power of the Powerless (full text available by following the link from this page) in reflecting on the position of the National Trust in its "Prejudice and Pride" programme, its participation in gay pride events and in the position in which it put some of its volunteers (the more cautious BBC reporting is here). Though, of course, the BBC's Gay Britannia programming equally prompts it.

What exactly are we doing when we ask people to wear that T-shirt, that badge, that lanyard or to walk in Pride marches? What are we asking of them in seeking their reception of that TV and radio programming?

Are we asking people to adhere to an ideology (of gender, of sex) that is unrelated to an authentic understanding of the dignity of the human person and therefore related only to ethical indifference? Are we asking people to adhere to an ideology that should be subject to the level of critique that Vaclav Havel offered to the communist ideology of his times in Czechoslovakia?

I suspect those National Trust volunteers who have preferred not to wear the requested badges and lanyards have exercised an ethical freedom that is becoming less common.

See Wrong rights? for my fuller account of Vaclav Havel's essay:
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.

UPDATE:

The National Trust have now issued a statement reversing their instruction to volunteers:
The National Trust was established “for the benefit of the Nation” and we passionately believe our purpose is to make everyone feel welcome at our places, as our founders would have wanted. 
We are using the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality as an opportunity to tell the stories of the people at some of our places, whose personal lives were outside the social norms of their time. 
We hugely value our volunteers and many across the country have taken the opportunity to get involved in developing our Prejudice and Pride programme, which explores LGBTQ heritage. 
At Felbrigg, many volunteers have enthusiastically supported a new exhibition, which looks at the life of the extraordinarily generous Robert Ketton–Cremer.  His decision to leave the house to the Trust was the result in part of the fact that he had never married and had no heirs. 
We asked all our staff and volunteers at the house to wear rainbow lanyards or badges during the six-week event as welcoming symbol to all our visitors.  We remain absolutely committed to our Pride programme, which will continue as intended, along with the exhibition at Felbrigg. 
However, we are aware that some volunteers had conflicting, personal opinions about wearing the rainbow lanyards and badges. That was never our intention. 
We are therefore making it clear to volunteers that the wearing of the badge is optional and a personal decision.  We will be speaking to all our volunteers at Felbrigg over the coming days about this issue.
The change of policy does not appear to apply to National Trust employees.  The Trust's earlier statement is as follows (I have added emphasis - it would be interesting to know the nature of the "training and support" and the meaning of feeling "confident to take part").
Annabel Smith, Head of Volunteering & Participation Development said:
“All of our staff and volunteers sign up to our founding principles when they join us – we are an organisation that is for ever, for everyone.  We are committed to developing and promoting equality of opportunity and inclusion in all that we do regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
“Relating specifically to the Prejudice and Pride programme, we do recognise that some volunteers may have conflicting, personal opinions.
“However whilst volunteering for the National Trust we do request and expect individuals to uphold the values of the organisation. We encourage people with any concerns to chat to our teams. As part of Prejudice and Pride we have worked closely with Stonewall and the University of Leicester who have been providing training and support to help as many volunteers as possible feel confident to take part.”
As part of our ‘Prejudice and Pride’ programme our staff and volunteers are wearing rainbow badges and lanyards, as an international symbol of welcome.
Some volunteers at Felbrigg have said they feel uncomfortable wearing these and we have offered them the opportunity to take a break from front facing duties if that’s what they would prefer.