Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Cherie Blair at the Angelicum

I have at last got round to reading the text of the lecture that Cherie Blair gave at a day conference at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (the Angelicum) in Rome in December 2008. I have two texts to hand, one which I downloaded and printed in December, soon after the lecture itself, and a second text on the official Cherie Blair website. This latter text appears to be a fuller version of the earlier text, but, since I cannot now find my source for the first text, I cannot say this for certain. A transcript of a recording of the lecture is posted at Lifesite News; this transcript is very close to my earlier text, but in at least one point, it completely reverses the sense.

Perhaps the main difference between the two texts - and this appears to represent a difference between the lecture as delivered and the lecture as written up for posting on the website - lies in the concluding paragraphs. The website text is quite forthright in its attack on the Church's teaching on contraception, whereas the delivered text is more indirect. Cherie Blair cites Pope Benedict XVI's insistence that there is no contradiction between faith and reason, referring to his address at Regensburg, and then says:
Yet in relation to contraception the Church has preferred to avoid revisiting old doctrines in the light of present day knowledge.

The reality is that many Catholic couples, exercising their own consciences, in fact limit their families as the declining birth rates in Europe and the US testify. But in the face of the plague of HIV/AIDs where the Church has played such a role of compassionate ministry; that work is undermined by our refusal to allow the use of condoms which are literally making the difference between life and death across the world. And beyond HIV/Aids in a world where two thirds of world’s poor are women, to prevent the devout but poor in the third world, the choice that the devout but rich in the first world have to regulate their own fertility and thus release the potential of women to participate fully in economic and political life just reinforces the stubborn gap between the haves and have nots which the Church campaigns against so passionately across the world....

..unless [the Church] is prepared to be informed and changed by that Enlightenment rationality praised by Pope Benedict at Regensburg, unless it is prepared to look again with clear eyes at what is fundamental truth and what is just a reflection of the culture of the past that voice will be diminished and even distorted to the detriment of the mission of the Church to bring spirituality, wisdom and compassion to the modern world.

It is, of course, quite disingenous to cite Pope Benedict as if his thought provides a basis for supporting a point of view that he would in fact oppose quite strongly. Particularly when Cherie has cited earlier in her lecture Pope Benedict's warning against the "subjective 'conscience' becoming the sole arbiter of what is ethical".

There is, however, a very positive section in Cherie Blair's lecture. This comes in a section headed "The Church and Human Rights", the second section of the lecture. The website text appears to replace a section of the delivered lecture outlining the origin of the discourse on human rights in general with a fuller account of the thought of Pope John XXIII expressed in Pacem in Terris and of Pope John Paul II. I do not reproduce it here but refer the reader to the link above to read it directly. There is also an interesting recognition that the Church contributes a religious underpinning to the principle of universal human rights that genuinely adds something when compared to an exclusively secular understanding. And an interesting citation about the universality of human rights, that they apply to all people. This is a section of the lecture that is well worth reading.

In trying to understand exactly where Cherie Blair is coming from, I recognise two "hermeneutic principles" at play in her lecture. The first is to treat the role of women in terms of "leadership" or "rank". In the text as it appears to have been delivered, Mary Ann Glendon, as head of the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences is described as "the highest ranking woman in the Church"; and the roles of Edith Stein, Mother Teresa and others are described as "leadership roles". In the website text this language of leadership is extended, perhaps softened, to include the language of "breaking down barriers to female participation". The language of "participation" is quite nuanced, and to participate is not the same thing as to lead; but I think one should recognise that for Cherie Blair it is a language that refers to leadership and positions of rank in the Church.

However, if we are really to understand the part played by women like Edith Stein and Mother Teresa in the Church, a hermeneutic of "leadership" and "rank" does not work. Instead, one needs a hermeneutic of the "evangelical counsels" which define the religious life that they embraced, and the spirit that is reflected in a genuinely Christian lay lifestyle of those who are active in the Church. I think one can legitimately suggest, as Cherie Blair did, that more women could have roles in the Curia. But that should conform to an authentically ecclesial hermeneutic, which is not one that can be fully expressed in the terminology of leadership and rank. Indeed, a hermeneutic of "leadership" and "rank" misunderstands the part that men should play, too.

The second key "hermeneutic principle" for Cherie Blair is that of freedom for women with regard to child care, and by implication, to an extent at least, from child birth (their "ability to control their own fertility"). For her, the promotion of women's rights only comes about where being a mother does not come in the way of women taking leadership roles. So, for example, in the text of the lecture as it appears to have been delivered, Cherie says of Edith Stein and Mother Teresa that "in return for leadership roles they had to turn away from having children. As a result the Church, like the rest of our society, did not accept the equality of every woman in practice". Fundamental to this, of course, is access to contraception, and this is the basis of Cherie Blair's forthright attack on the Church's teaching on this topic.

It is quite fascinating to see what is present in the text of the lecture as it appears to have been delivered - but has been taken out in favour of the much stronger attack on the Church's teaching on contraception in the website text:
And, while I am on record, as having had difficulties with the current teaching on responsible parenthood, I do recognize that much of what Paul VI predicted could happen in Humanae Vitae as a result of what could happen as a result of wide and indiscriminate use of abortion has been born out in particular in relation to baby girls as the birth ratios of boys to girls in some countries testify. What those lost girls demonstrate is that, across the world, we lack the widely held sense of the contribution of women which is important to society in its own right. The situation of too many women in the developing world shows that we are still far away from women being regarded as of equal worth to men. Here the over-whelming problems: economic, education and health related.

The British Independent newspaper commenting on the 1994 UN Population conference in Cairo singled out the Catholic Church for praise – not something it always does – it persuasively argued that, by being one of the leading providers of education across the developing world, the Church is making a powerful contribution to improving the lives of women, lifting them out of poverty and enabling them to reduce levels of child-birth, which can be, and is actually often dangerous to their health. History teaches us that improving the general economic situation and particularly improving women’s educational levels, gives women more power in society and helps them exercise more responsible fertility.
The appropriate hermeneutic to respond to this second hermeneutic of Cherie Blair's is that provided by the "theology of the body". In other words, a hermeneutic based on an integration of the sexual aspects of women's (and man's) existence into a whole of life. Such a hermeneutic has its application to both married and religious life.

Whilst it is very easy to attack Cherie Blair's lecture for its dissent from Catholic teaching, it is also useful to clearly identify the two "hermeneutics" which underpin it. These can then be evaluated in their relation to wider Catholic thinking and to the thinking of the non-Catholic world.

No comments: