Monday, 26 July 2021

Freedom in reading the Scriptures

I have recently been reminded, twice, of a thought that I not infrequently mull over. That thought relates to how one approaches Sacred Scripture as a Catholic. The reading of Scripture within the life of the Catholic Church's tradition and teaching authority at first sight suggests a serious restriction to how an individual Catholic, be they an ordinary member of the faithful or a Scripture scholar, may read the Scriptural text. But what I mull over from time to time is the thought that, though the life of the Church does define how some passages of Scripture are to be understood (for example, on the office of the successor of St Peter and the institution of the Eucharist), these passages are relatively few compared to the entirety of the Scriptural canon, and there is enormous freedom with regard to how much of the Scriptural text can be understood. The Catholic, who reads Scripture in the framework of the tradition and teaching authority, therefore actually has much more freedom in relationship with the text than the Evangelical Christian, whose only source of the content of faith is the text alone and whose relationship to the text is make-or-break on every question.

The first reminder came in a conversation with a lady I have only recently come to know. Over a lunch break, she steered conversation very quickly from asking whether or not I was a believer via the recent decision of the Methodist Church in the UK to allow same sex marriage to asking whether or not I thought the Catholic Church would give in on the issue as well. I pointed out that the arrangements which give the Holy See an existence as an independent state as well as a universal authority of faith protects the Church at a local level from political and social influences that might affect other ecclesial bodies - even if local bishops wanted to give in on the issue, they wouldn't be able to do so. But what struck me was this lady's very brief observation that same sex marriage was against Biblical teaching, which suggested that no other authority sat behind her belief on this question than that. The lady in question did not appear to recognise an insecurity that exists in that basis.

The second reminder came in the homily at Mass this last Sunday. Preaching on St John's account of the feeding of the 5 000, a visiting priest suggested that Jesus' intention in performing this sign was to teach the necessity for the Christian life of caring for the material needs of our neighbour. Noting St John's statement that the event occurred "shortly before the Jewish feast of passover", Father suggested that St John was putting this sign into the context of the first passover, where the Jewish people were to enter the desert with the need there for them to receive earthly nourishment. Father saw this as a first stage in St John's presentation of Jesus teaching, with the later parts of the chapter of his Gospel building up in steps from this first stage. This is not the customary Catholic reading of the text and its parallels in the other Gospels. The more usual reading sees in it, perhaps particularly in St John's Gospel, a sign of the abundance of the Eucharistic gift to the Church (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church n.1335, but see also n.1397, where commitment to the poor is indicated as one of the fruits of reception of the Sacrament). There is a question about the wisdom or otherwise of offering such an unusual interpretation (from the Catholic point of view) during a homily at Sunday Mass in a parish and in the context of a sequence of Sunday Gospel readings that are essentially eucharistic in their intent; but, if that question is put to one side, the interpretation lies within, but perhaps at the boundaries, of the range of freedom that a Catholic exegete has with respect to the Scriptural text.

Monday, 12 July 2021

The Praise of Glory

 MAGNIFICAT for last Sunday uses as its "Meditation of the Day" an extract from St Elizabeth of the Trinity.  The text is published under the title Heaven in Faith in the Institute of Carmelite Studies (ICS) complete works of St Elizabeth, Volume 1. In the following I use the Scripture translations used in the ICS edition, rather than those used by MAGNIFICAT, which use the Jerusalem translations used in the Liturgy (and thereby seem to lose a subtlety in St Elizabeth's thought).

"If you knew the gift of God", Christ said one evening to the Samaritan woman. But what is this gift of God if not Himself? And, the beloved disciple tells us: "He came to His own and His own did not accept Him". St John the Baptist could still say to many souls these words of reproach: "There is one in the midst of you, 'in you', whom you do not know".

The two words "in you" are inserted into, and emphasized, in the quotation of St John the Baptist, and echo a phrase in St Luke's Gospel.

The MAGNIFICAT meditation then omits a following section, losing a Marian reference in St Elizabeth's thought (St Elizabeth may have included this section prompted by the occurrence of the solemnity of the Assumption at the time of her writing):

"If you knew the gift of God..." There is one who know the gift of God, one who did not lose one particle of it, on who was so pure, so luminous that she seemed to be the Light itself: "Speculum justitiae". One whose life was so simple, so lost in God that there is hardly anything we can say about it.

"Virgo fidelis": that is, faithful Virgin, "who kept all these things in her heart".

 The extract then takes up the theme of the praise of glory, quoting St Paul:

"We have been predestined by the decree of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we may be the praise of his glory."

It is St Paul who tells us this, St Paul who was instructed by God Himself. How do we realize this great dream of the Heart of our God, this immutable will for our souls? In a word, how do we correspond to our vocation and become perfect Praises of Glory of the Most Holy Trinity?

"In Heaven" each sould is a praise of glory of the Father, the Word and Holy Spirit, for each soul is established in pure love and "lives no longer its own life, but the life of God". Then it knows Him, St Paul says, as it is known by Him.... St John of the Cross affirms that "the soul surrendered to love, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, is not far from being raised to the degree of which we have just spoken," eve here below! This is what I call a perfect praise of glory!

 Where the Jerusalem translation "..chosen to be, for his greater glory..." appears to be passive in its intent - it is God's action that makes us manifest his greater glory - ".. so that we may be the praise of his glory" suggests an active sense too, on the part of the soul, though active in response to the initiative of God. Whatever the subtleties of the exegesis of the Scriptural text, the idea that the soul should live as a praise of glory of the Trinity is a key part of St Elizabeth's thought.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Can we just make it up?

In his newsletter for last weekend, our parish priest reflected on martyrdom in the light of several feast days occurring around this time: St Oliver Plunkett, Sts John Fisher and Thomas More, St John the Baptist and, today, Sts Peter and Paul. The italics added below are mine:

Some martyrs were ordered on pain of death to deny Christ and conform to false worship, and refused. Others, like John the Baptist, paid with their lives for preaching a message that was uncomfortable for those in power, or for standing firm on a point of principle, like Thomas More and John Fisher. Perhaps we find the last category most puzzling, in an age when religion is seen as a purely private matter. Yet persecution of a different form certainly occurs when people publicly express opinions that are out of step with certain fashionable orthodoxies, and find themselves, not martyred (in the West at least) but effectively silenced and excluded from discourse. 

More and Fisher were martyrs not only for truth, but also for conscience, and for freedom. Many people today are uncomfortable with the idea of objective truth, a reality that they must accept and conform to, rather than invent for themselves. If truth is considered subjective and relative, conscience is even more so. And being subjective, these things must be kept private, so as not to intrude on the freedom of others, including the freedom not to be challenged by differing points of view: that is the way many people seem to think today. However the Christian faith is one that cannot simply be privatised. It is not just a question of proclaiming Christ to the world, which is indeed the heart of the church’s mission, but even more a matter of simply living out our faith and putting into practice the values of the gospel. If the highest of these values is love, we should remember that love sometimes requires us to speak up for the good of others, rather than simply keep quiet.

Father did not directly refer to it, but his words prompted me to think about one of the "fashionable orthodoxies" of our day, namely, the widespread acceptance of ideas of LGBTQ identities. Public conversation has to all intents and purposes replaced talk of biological sex with talk of gender, a somewhat less exact concept (though, interestingly, when Matthew Paris argued recently in the Times newspaper that the experience of gay men in 1989 was not one of wanting to change in any way their identification as male, he appeared to restore, at least for some within the LGBTQ community, biological sex to contemporary debate). The term "gender assigned at birth", for example, is being promoted as an alternative to biological sex.

.... gender isn’t about someone’s anatomy, it is about who they know them self to be. There are many different gender identities, including male, female, transgender, gender neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and all, none or a combination of these.

When I read this extract from a website aimed at teenagers (a site called teen talk, with a .ca domain name), I did wonder: are young people being subject to an ideology that essentially says to them "you can choose from a list" as far as "gender" is concerned, rather than learning to grow in a given biological sex, male or female? Is it really sensible to ask young people to, in effect, choose "who they know them self to be", rather than helping them to grow in living the reality of a male or female sex? 

[I was struck on first reading this extract by the last part: "... and all, none or a combination of these". It really does suggest the idea of gender as being something that a young person can make up, separated from any reality of their biological presentation. Indeed, the next paragraph begins: "There are many more gender identities than we have listed..."]

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Matt and Gina: observations on the Zeitgeist

I suspect that the Sun newspaper's video of Matt Hancock, now the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in an intimate clinch with a female aide will turn out to be a classic of its genre.

But it does raise a three interesting questions, not specific to the case of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo, but with respect to a range of surrounding assumptions, what one might term "the zeitgiest".

Is consent on the part of the man and woman a sufficient condition to make an otherwise morally unjust action morally just? If we were to remove the element of consent on the part of Ms Coladangelo to the action shown in the Sun's video clip (Mr Hancock is shown squeezing her bottom), the video would provide an example of precisely the wrong behaviour of a man in a position of relative power towards a woman in the workplace that has been raised by #Me Too. News reporting suggests that both Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo were being unfaithful to their respective spouses, and the consenting nature of their office clinch does not remove the injustice towards spouses that this involves. Even if one sets this consideration aside, there remains a question as to whether or not that squeezing of the bottom in an office clinch represents a respectful behaviour of a man towards a woman, and whether the woman's consent is sufficient to overcome that lack of respectfulness.  (I don't intend this as a criticism of Mr Hancock as an individual, but as a more general observation about male/female behaviours.) 

The question is of a much wider significance, as much of the contemporary discussion about the safety of women in society, both in social life and in the workplace, focusses on educating men about the nature of consent. But if consent is not a sufficient criterion (though it will be a necessary criterion along with others) for the morality of the actions involved, a focus on consent is not going to resolve the question of the safety and wellbeing of women. We do, perhaps, need to have a conversation about what constitute the boundaries of right and wrong behaviours independently of, and in addition to, the question of consent.

Should we be indifferent to marriage in our public life? Mr Hancock's resignation has with, some emphasis, been connected to his breach of social distancing rules that he himself was responsible for drawing up. In Mr Hancock's own words:

I understand the enormous sacrifices that everybody in this country has made, that you have made, and those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them and that's why I have got to resign.

Reporting, following Mr Hancock's colleagues, have distinguished this reason for resignation from matters of his personal life. The public conversation appears to have a certain style of indifference to the lack of faithfulness to spouses and families shown by Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo; tabloid comment refers to Mr Hancock"cheating on his wife" and Ms Coladangelo as a "cheating aide", but more serious comment is keeping a discreet silence about this. Certainly it would be wrong for public conversation to consist of a witch hunt in the media or hounding on social media; charity is required in this context as in any other, and Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo just happen to represent far more publicly than is typical the circumstances of many others. A certain silence about the specific case might well be the manner in which charity is shown. 

But the BBC are carrying this morning what might be considered a piece of lazy reporting, reflecting I think reporting from the Sun, but which nevertheless is indicative:

Mr Hancock has ended his 15-year marriage to his wife, Martha, and the relationship with Ms Coladangelo is understood to be a serious one.

It would appear that Mr Hancock has left his wife with an immediate effect, announcing his departure abruptly as the Sun broke the story of his office encounter with Ms Coladangelo (according to the Sun, at least); but even in civil law, leaving aside any particular belief that one might have about the permanence of marriage vows, a marriage has not ended until a divorce has been granted.

Whilst one would not want to launch witch hunts in any individual cases, is it really healthy for society that the wider public conversation in the case of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo should remain  indifferent to the the place of marriage in the life of society? Should not the good of marriage, and expectations around that good, be at least a part of the public conversation? 

How should we correctly understand the significance of private life for public life? There are certainly dangers to freedoms when matters of personal life are seen as necessary conditions for participation in public life. But does this mean that how people conduct themselves in their private lives is completely without significance for their public lives? A personal characteristic such as integrity is one that can be common to both a person's private and public life, for example; likewise a characteristic such as honesty.  The commonality of such characteristics to both private and public life does mean that I think we should be able to expect more from those who play a larger part in public life than might be the case of those who play a smaller part (recognising that we all risk failing to live up to expectations, those with a large public profile as much as those without). 

At the very least, I think we should recognise that private life has some significance for public life, and that this is true for all of us, even if our part in public life is relatively small. It might be of greater significance for those who have a large public profile.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Film Review: The Father

 It is now well over a year since Zero and I last visited the cinema, but this afternoon we went to see the film The Father

The film has its origins in a stage play, Le Pere, by playwight Florian Zeller. It was co-written by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (who previously had translated the stage play in to English), and directed by Florian Zeller.

A first observation to be made is that, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its roots, and the fact that the director is the author of the original stage play, the film does look like a film that has been made from a play script (though it would be wrong to suggest in any way that it is a filmed performance of the stage play). An early scene with just Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins really did have the feel of two actors on a stage set, with Anthony Hopkins on stage as the curtain went up and Olivia Colman entering from stage right.  An aspect of this, too, is a very strong accentuation of themes, that comes close to but just falls back from exaggeration. Watching a stage play in a theatre would make this rather less noticeable, and would indeed be part of an effective use of the art form; but on film it can be a bit disconcerting. In this respect, if I were looking for a film that communicates a more natural experience of dementia, I would probably choose Still Alice, which was in cinemas in 2015.

The reflection of the play script in the film does, however, have a strength in an underlying intention on the part of the writer/producer to portray the confusion experienced by Anthony Hopkins character in such a way that the audience themselves also experience that confusion. As you watch the film you become increasingly unsure of what is reality and what is the product of Anthony's confused imagination. I came out of the cinema, for example, quite unsure as to whether or not Olivia Colman's daughter figure had actually gone to live in Paris leaving Anthony in a nursing home. Even the time sequence of scenes becomes confusing, with uncertainty as to whether you are later in the same day or at the end of the previous day. The film is certainly successful in getting the viewer to share in Anthony's confusion, with perhaps only the closing scene relieving that confusion; the effectiveness of the stage play in this regard must be quite stunning. There is also a more subtle aspect that might be discernable at a second viewing, and that is the extent to which the film at some points places the viewer essentially in the point of view of Anthony and in others in the point of view of Olivia Colman's  daughter figure. Where another film might make such a transition explicit by way of some technical device such as a blurred transition, The Father does not, so you never quite know for sure when you are in the daughter's point of view.

There seem to be one or two suggestions of features that might be typical of memory loss - Anthony's preference for chicken, which Olivia Colman's character cooks for him; Anthony's wanting another daughter to visit who we learn part way through the film had been in an accident and presumably died (though the film does not make that explicit); and Anthony's obsession with his watch. But, on the whole, I did not feel that the film communicated a genuine understanding of the nature of dementia; and Zero suggested that the nurse in the closing scene did not really show the kind of skills that specialist nurses caring for dementia patients might show. As I suggest above, I think that Still Alice would be a better film to go to if you want to understand something of the nature of dementia.

A theme that is clearly portrayed in The Father is the impact that caring for an elderly relative with memory loss/confusion has on the carers' relationship with a "significant other" (in the film, it is not absolutely clear if they are married or not) who is not a blood relative. The tensions between them are perhaps deliberately accentuated in the film, but the challenge is a real one.

Anthony Hopkins portrayal of his character is absolutely gripping, and his Oscar very well deserved. There are several shots where the cinematography places Anthony Hopkins in one half of the screen, perhaps the left hand side; and you eventually realise that your regard has been drawn totally to his portrayal in that part of the screen and you have to make a conscious effort if you want to even notice the right hand side of the screen shot. His acting of his role really is outstanding. Perhaps I undervalued Olivia Colman's portrayal of her part, in the way in which she shows her character's reaction to Anthony's difficult behaviours. Perhaps a second viewing of the film would allow me to appreciate it more; but it does face the challenge of wondering, in the intention of the film maker, how far her character is being portrayed from the point of view of Anthony or from her own point of view.

Another aspect of the cinematography is of interest. Most of the film shots are filmed with a static camera, and it feels as if that is the case as you watch those shots. The setting in a flat lends itself to this... with a room, or a view through a door from one room into another, providing a natural kind of frame for such a "fixed" shot. Such fixed shots of a scene without the presence of the characters also lends itself to the similarity of portrayal of Anthony's own flat in early scenes, of his daughter's flat in the middle section of the film and, with a noticeable change of decor, of the nursing home at the end of the film. It will take me a second viewing of the film in order to appreciate exactly what the film maker is trying to achieve with these shots. [Listen to Florian Zeller's account of this, and Anthony Hopkins' remarks about how the set is another actor in the film, in the interview linked below, which I listened to only after writing this comment.]

Whilst there are moving moments in the film, I am not sure that I would describe the film as a whole by the term "moving". The accentuation of its style, referred to above, and its intention to embroil you in Anthony's own confusion, gives the film an overriding sense of drama rather than of being moving. 

There is an interesting conversation with Florian Zeller, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman about the film: The Father: Conversation with Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Ideology, the family and the human person

There is a very good account of what is meant by the term "ideology" in Don Luigi Giussani's book The Religious Sense (pp. 128-129 in my edition), a book which is a key text for the movement Communion and Liberation:

Ideology is a theoretical-practical construct developed from a preconception. 

More precisely it is a theoretical-practical construction based on an aspect of reality, a true aspect, but taken up in such a way that it becomes unilaterally and tendentiously made into an absolute; and this comes about through a philosophy or a political project.

Ideology is built up on some starting point offered by our experience; this, experience itself is taken up as a pretext for an operation that is determined by extraneous or exorbitant preoccupations.

Pope Francis (who will be very familiar with Don Giussani's account of ideology - he presented the Spanish edition of The Religious Sense in Argentina before his election as Pope) has spoken more than once of "ideological colonisation". He adds to the understanding of "ideology" an understanding of the term "colonisation", which extends that concept beyond its geographical/political presentation, generally in the past, to an ideological presentation today, in the 20th and 21st centuries. Though he refers to ideological colonisation largely in the context of the family, his understanding of ideological colonisation includes the propaganda activities of the 20th century dictatorships, that is, colonisation by any ideology.

Speaking to a meeting of families (a video report is here) during his visit to Sri Lanka and the Phillipines in 2015, Pope Francis spoke of the "ideological colonisation of the family":

Let us be on guard against colonization by new ideologies. There are forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family. They are not born of dreams, of prayers, of closeness to God or the mission which God gave us; they come from without, and for that reason I am saying that they are forms of colonization. Let’s not lose the freedom of the mission which God has given us, the mission of the family. Just as our peoples, at a certain moment of their history, were mature enough to say “no” to all forms of political colonization, so too in our families we need to be very wise, very shrewd, very strong, in order to say “no” to all attempts at an ideological colonization of our families. We need to ask Saint Joseph, the friend of the angel, to send us the inspiration to know when we can say “yes” and when we have to say “no”.

In the press conference on his way back to Rome, Pope Francis was asked to say more about this, and, in part, answered as follows, a response which clearly indicates that he considers gender theory as an "ideological colonisation of the family":

Ideological colonization. I’ll give just one example that I saw myself. Twenty years ago, in 1995, a minister of education asked for a large loan to build schools for the poor. They gave it to her on the condition that in the schools there would be a book for the children of a certain grade level. It was a school book, a well-thought-out book, didactically speaking, in which gender theory was taught. This woman needed the money but that was the condition. Clever woman, she said yes and made another book as well and gave both of them. And that’s how it happened. This is ideological colonization. They introduce an idea to the people that has nothing to do with the people. With groups of people yes, but not with the people. And they colonize the people with an idea which changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure.

The promotion of gender theory, and of LGBT culture, to the whole of society is an example of an ideology - the move from respecting an aspect of life in society to making that aspect an absolute for the whole of life in society. 

And is there not a possible new manifestation of an ideology in the conversation about climate change, where some are now referring to the effect of "humans" on the planet, rather than the effect of "people", as if the human race were just one species absolutely equivalent to other species?

Friday, 4 June 2021

The greengrocer's slogan - updated for 2021

 Some five years ago I posted on St Charles Lwanga and companions, on the occasion of their feast day (3rd June): St Charles Lwanga and Companions: an opportunity to comment on recent events.That post included an explanation by Rocco Buttiglione of events which occurred when he was nominated as a commissioner for the European Union.

When we compare the experience of St Charles Lwanga and his companions to that of Rocco Buttiglione, what occurred for the former as a physical persecution has been replaced now by a discrimination at the level of culture. At root, what is at issue is the same - Catholic teaching on homosexuality, explained very clearly by Rocco Buttiglione in my earlier post. But the challenge experienced by Catholics now is in resisting a cultural imposition of an opposite teaching rather than in facing a direct threat to life. The timing of St Charles' feast is surprisingly pertinent, with the annual display of LGBT flags and banners that is currently under way just about everywhere. 

I am reminded of a passage from Vaclav Havel's famous essay The Power of the Powerless, in which the author reflects on the role of ideology in a post-totalitarian society such as that existing in Czechoslovakia (as it then was) during the Communist era. The passage begins at the bottom of page 5 of this post of the essay, and forms section III of the essay. Reading the whole of this section, but with "Pride" flags in mind rather than "Workers of the world unite!" slogans, prompts the thought as to how far Vaclav Havel's essay can be applied to the very different time and context that prevails now. Think about it, especially when you visit your supermarket during this month.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moments thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean? 

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

Do follow the link to read the rest of Vaclav Havel's analysis.