Friday 29 June 2012

Pope Benedict XVI: homily for the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul

Once again I want to suggest a recourse to the original, and, not only to the original, but to a reading of the whole and not just of a part.

Pope Benedict's homily at Mass in St Peter's Basilica this morning is a classic. But not because of it's reference to the authority of the Successor of Peter with regard to excommunication, which is one reference among a range of others.

It offers a commentary on the Scriptural texts of the Liturgy, combining a quite academic knowledge of Scripture and a keen pastoral sense in presenting those texts in the light of that academic knowledge. It is very much in the spirit of the two volumes of Jesus of Nazareth.  Particularly striking is the way in which Pope Benedict draws out the Old Testament precedents for the promises to Peter so much associated with this Solemnity, the promise of the "power of the keys" and that the "gates of the underworld will not prevail against" the Church.

And if one does instead just want to focus upon the reference to the power of the keys manifested in the power of imposing or lifting excommunication, then it is also valuable to recall that that same power is also manifested in the generosity of the plenary indulgence granted to those who, near the point of death, receive the Apostolic Blessing or meet the circumstances which allow them to receive the same indulgence in the absence of a priest (cf Enchiridion Indulgentiorum):
12 In articulo mortis 1. Sacerdos, qui christifideli in vitae discrimen adducto sacramenta administrat, eidem benedictionem apostolicam cum adiuncta indulgentia plenaria impertire ne omittat. 2. Quodsi haberi nequit sacerdos, pia Mater Ecclesia eidem christifideli rite disposito benigne indulgentiam plenariam in articulo mortis acquirendam concedit, dummodo ipse durante vita habitualiter aliquas preces fuderit; quo in casu Ecclesia supplet tres condiciones ad indulgentiam plenariam de more requisitas. 3. Laudabiliter ad hanc indulgentiam plenariam acquirendam adhibetur crucifixus vel crux. 4. Eamdem indulgentiam plenariam in articulo mortis christifidelis consequi poterit, etiamsi eodem die aliam indulgentiam plenariam iam acquisiverit. 5. De hac salutari Ecclesiae dispositione in catechesi tradenda fideles opportune et saepe certiores fiant.
[Sorry, cannot find an English translation]

Wednesday 27 June 2012

What value maternity?

My main "day job" is as a science teacher. From time to time, students comment about how much better I could have done in life if I had worked in industry instead of in the teaching profession. I usually try to point out to them that, though they hadn't really intended it in that way, they have in fact undertaken a valuation of my work (with them) as a teacher, and that the outcome of that valuation has been that my work as a teacher is not considered of a high value. They are, of course, implicitly if not explicitly, valuing my work only on the basis of its relative financial reward. It happened to me again this week.

But I think we also need to be wary of some other instances of inadvertent valuation that take place.
A few weeks ago I saw a poster locally with the strap line, "Condoms are free. Babies are not", against a background image of baby clothes, bedding, etc. Now the underlying message, aimed at young people in an area of London with a high pregnancy rate among young people, that bearing children involves a long term responsibility to those children is quite understandable and it can form a legitimate part of sex and relationships education. Catholics might well not support the use of condoms as the answer, wishing to suggest that sexual restraint and chastity are the ethically more sound alternatives, constituting a more true sense of the idea of "responsible parenthood" as taught by Humanae Vitae. But much more subtle in the strap line is the implicit valuation of children, negatively, in terms of their financial cost to young parents.

This morning a head line to BBC Radio 4 coverage of  summit being held in London to promote the provision of contraceptive services referred to pregnancy as being the biggest cause of death among teenage girls (I can't remember the exact words, and can't readily find them on the BBC Today programme site). The particular reference was to a report from Save the Children: Pregnancy is the biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide and a conference being held in London under the aegis of the Department for International Development: Family planning: UK to host summit with Gates Foundation.  As John Smeaton points out, 

... it is misleading to say that pregnancy or childbirth are in general causes of death. Haemorrhage, sepsis and infection may cause death. In most cases, death and serious injury can be averted by good maternity care, such as trained birth attendants, blood transfusion, antibiotics, etc.

But it is the subtle valuing of pregnancy as if it were a disease, something taken up uncritically by today's news coverage, that I think we should spot and resist.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Liverpool Care Pathway

Some Catholic commentators are happy to lash out at the Liverpool Care Pathway, or at Catholic bishops who they do not feel oppose it when they should. Their comment can be ill-informed both with regard to the content of Catholic teaching in its application to a moral evaluation of the Liverpool Care Pathway and with regard to the nature of the Liverpool Care Pathway itself.

A refreshingly clear and accurate account can be found at Christian Medical Comment: here.

My own sense is that, if it is used properly with a patient who is coming to the end of their life, the Liverpool Care Pathway expects a very high level of health care staff attention to the patient. It expects a multi-disciplinary meeting when a decision is made to use the pathway with a patient, it expects a four hourly review of the patient's condition with escalation to the multi-disciplinary team if signs of changed prognosis are seen, it expects full multi-disciplinary team review at 3 days if it has not occurred before then. On a typical busy ward in an NHS hospital, the main challenge to effective use of the pathway is likely to be lack of sufficient staff resources.

Another challenge may be the layout of the forms adopted by a particular hospital trust for use in planning and recording a patient's care under the pathway. The pathway itself, for example, does not mandate removal of aided nutrition and hydration, but raises the question of its continuance or removal as a question to be considered by the multi-disciplinary team. However, a hospital's paper work might allow a team deciding to remove such nutrition and hydration to just "tick the box", whereas a team deciding not to remove it would have to complete the "exception report" at the back of the pack to justify their decision. In this respect, and in others, the paper work, not the Liverpool Care Pathway itself, might create default options in favour of certain courses of action rather than others. Such default options would run counter to the principle of assessment of needs of the individual patient in their individual situation which seems to me to be of the essence of the assessment process of the Liverpool Care Pathway.

If I recall correctly, the Liverpool Care Pathway also expects the multi-disciplinary team to consider provision for the spiritual and pastoral care of the patient. Perhaps this is an aspect of care under the pathway to which Catholics should draw more attention.

In his post Peter Saunders refers to the risk that some who are opposed to euthansia will have their public credibility undermined if they undiscriminatingly label deaths of patients on the Liverpool Care Pathway as euthanasia. I think this is an important point.

Peter Saunders ends his post thus:
In good hands the LCP is a great clinical tool. But in the wrong hands, or used for the wrong patient, any tool can do more harm than good.

Corners in the Vineyard

I have from time to time encountered very ordinary people in parishes who manifest a quite unexpected depth of Christian living or perceptive insight into matters of faith. I expect that many parish priests also have experience of knowing these unexceptional "saints" of every day parish life. The evangelising impact of such people can be very profound, but its reach is to only the few who meet them. They fulfil a mission to their particular corner in the Lord's vineyard, and it is their influence in that small corner that is the measure of their efficacy and of the authenticity of their response to the vocation that they have particularly received from the Lord.

Bishop Mark Davies, and Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue before him, were allocated their own portions of the Lord's vineyard as diocesan bishops. It is certainly true that an individual bishop, as a member of the universal order of the successors of the Apostles, has a wider dimension to his mission in the Church. But that bishop also has a first mission towards their own corner of the vineyard.

Do we do them any favours by making them into champions of causes outside of their dioceses? Or do we actually make it more difficult for them to undertake the "unexceptional", though in reality exemplary, pastoral care of the diocese entrusted to them?

The measure of their ecclesial fruitfulness is not whether they are the darlings of (traditionalist) bloggers but rather how faithful they are to the work in their own corner of the vineyard.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Statio Orbis homily: "Jesus Christ is the shoot taken from the highest branch"

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Papal legate to the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, preached a rather beautiful homily at the Statio Orbis Mass. The idea of the Statio Orbis is that, on this particular day at the end of the Eucharistic Congress, every celebration of Mass throughout the world has a kind of orientation towards and an alignment with this celebration at the Eucharistic Congress itself. The whole Catholic world looks towards this celebration in a very particular way.
At the end of this celebration we will listen to the message of Pope Benedict XVI. His speaking to us reminds us that this International Eucharistic Congress bears witness to the Catholic Church as the universal communion of many particular Churches. The Bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful here represent the Catholic Church which is found throughout the world in thousands of communities, but which is one in faith and love of Jesus Christ.....
Referring to the first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel, Cardinal Ouellet said:
We understand the prophecy of Ezekiel in the light of Christ. Jesus Christ is the shoot taken from the highest branch, he is God from God, and planted by God himself on a very high mountain, which is Calvary....

The seed of Christ's love, buried in the ground of Calvary, produced an unimaginable fruit: a tree, the Tree of Life, a noble cedar which is the Holy Church of God, the dawn of the Kingdom. We believe in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, because we believe in Christ who wills the Church to be His body, born from the self-gift of His Eucharistic Body.
At the present time of the Church, as the Year of Faith and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council approaches, this vision of what constitutes the nature of communion between the local Church and the universal Church, and the role of the office of the successor of St Peter in confirming that communion, is very timely. It should give cause for reflection to both those of a traditionalist inclination and those of a liberal inclination

Saturday 9 June 2012

Things that are passing me by

At this time, there are a number of ecclesial events which, though signficant, are somewhat passing me by.

The first of these events was the Seventh World Meeting of Families in Milan from 1st-3rd June, which took place with the participation of Pope Benedict XVI. This is essentially World Youth Day for families, and the numbers presented at the final press conference give some idea of the scale of the event. It even made the travel advice section for Italy of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office because of the expected impact on life in Milan. The website of the Holy See contains the addresses of the Holy Father. Particularly moving are the answers given by the Holy Father to the questions he was asked during the Evening of Witness, an event watched by more than 3 million people via RaiUno's television coverage. Read particularly his observations about the "for ever" of the commitment of marriage, which have an interesting historical texture as well as a moral character. This meeting could not have taken place at a more culturally and politically significant time for the future of the family, and deserves a much wider coverage than it has so far had in the UK media.

The second is the Spirit in the City event in the West End of London. I took part in this annual event three years ago, but have missed out again this year. I really will make more effort next year, as this really does represent the idea of the "new evangelisation" at a place very near to home. Today, for example, the events take place in Leicester Square, one of London's key landmarks for visitors. The Eucharistic and Marian processions are particularly powerful.

And the third event is the International Eucharistic Congress, taking place in Dublin this coming week. One way or another, I am not going to be there (this time). See here for my posts about the last Congress in Quebec. Of interest so far, and worthy of a detailed study, is the talk given by Cardinal Marc Ouellet to the theological symposium on the theology of the Church as Communion, which he presents as a key hermeneutic for the authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council. I have been particularly struck by the style of the Marian dimension of life in the Church expressed in this talk (which exactly matches my own sense) and by the long discussion of the relation between the universal Church and the local Church of the individual dioceses. In the light of some reporting of he state of discussions between Bishop Fellay of the Society of St Pius X and the Holy See, this orientation is very important. Cardinal Ouellet hosted the last international Congress when he was Archbishop of Quebec, and he is the Papal Legate to the Dublin Congress.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

An aside on abdication

Cardinal Newman wrote of conscience as a voice of God heard in the heart; a voice that prompts us to act in one way rather than another and a voice that, after we have acted, provides a sanction as to the rightness or wrongness of what we have done. He is also clear that conscience does not act as a judge of the truth or otherwise of what we might believe, but rather that it bears directly on our action, on what we do (or do not do). This is not to suggest that the business of "following our conscience" is an irrational thing; on the contrary, our responding to the prompting of conscience is a profoundly reasonable and reasoned act, rooted in the urge to put our actions in conformity with what we know and understand to be morally true and just.

Understood in this way, a theory of conscience does not give Catholics the freedom to act in disregard of Catholic teaching. Its demand is quite the oppositie. It asks us to put into effect in our actions what we know from the teaching of the Church is morally true and just (and the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides an authoritative and contemporary statement of what that teaching says). For the lay faithful, whose task is to live their Christian lives "in the world", this demand of conscience has a particular relevance to their state of life in the Church and the world.

There are circumstances where the demands of conscience impose an absolute, and the question in those sorts of circumstances is more one of courage than one of decision. But there are also circumstances where a potential course of action exists in a relation to Catholic teaching but where different choices are possible that do not involve acting against Catholic teaching. So, for example, many Christians feel able to be members of political parties some of whose policies they do not support, while others do not feel able to join a mainstream political party. And among Catholics, some feel called to engage in one particular area of apostolic activity when others feel that they are called to engage in another field - this is where the voice of conscience has an individual and vocational character.

The question of political resignation - or of abdication - does I think come in to this latter style. The core questions that impinge on conscience in these circumstances are, firstly, that we should not support or collaborate in a policy that we believe to be morally evil and secondly, that others should not believe that we do support that policy when we believe it to be evil. A resignation - or abdication - could very easily be one among a range of courses of action that could meet the demands set by conscience, but not be the only such course of action. Both objective principle and prudential judgement are in play, and my view is that it is in circumstances like these that we can genuinely talk about a "freedom of conscience". Many political situations are ones where different people in a party (or, in my case, a trade union) hold different views on a matter, and the nature of membership organisations such as these is that a certain pluralism with regard to policies is a recognised feature of their landscape. Some people will make the judgement of conscience that they can remain "in", recognising that this pluralism means that their membership is not to be equated with adherence to each and every policy; whilst another person might make a judgement that continued membership does imply support for a policy they find morally unjust, and that therefore resignation - or abdication - is called for.

All of which is by way of explaining why I am distinctly uncomfortable with the statement that "Queen Elizabeth II, as a Christian monarch, should have made it clear that she would abdicate the British throne if the House of Commons voted to legalise abortion in 1967".  It might be the judgement of conscience that Deacon Nick would have liked her to make; but I think in public discussion we should recognise the broader possibilities.

Resignations are a rather more subtle thing than first meets the eye. And, yes, I do have some experience of my own to draw on.

Sunday 3 June 2012


I have been engaged in a classic piece of teachers overtime this last week - marking scripts for an examination board - and that means that I have only loosely followed the build up to this weekend's celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. It has been interesting to read some of the more personal stories about Queen Elizabeth that are told in some of the interviews with those who meet her. One example of this is Archbishop Rowan Williams' observations about the Queen's sense of humour. His characterisation of Her Majesty as friendly, able to be informal and humorous, and at the same time able to retain an appropriate dignity, is typical of these.

What I think the interviews and coverage reveal about Queen Elizabeth II is a very striking congruence (in mathematics, congruent shapes are shapes that are identical in both shape and size and can therefore be layed exactly on top of each other, whereas similar shapes are the same shape but different size so do not successfully lie on top of each other) between the office that she fulfils and she as the person who fulfils that office. Newspaper accounts of her weekly meeting with Prime Ministers, for example, indicate that those meetings involve a certain intimacy and a well informed discussion of current events. During her very successful visit to Ireland, it was not just the person of Elizabeth II or the office of Queen separately that made for success, but the unity of the person and the office. It is almost impossible to think of any other person who could have carried out that visit, as monarch and as person, in quite the way that Elizabeth did.

If one part of that congruence of person and office is to be found in the way in which Her Majesty carries out functions of state, another part of it is to be found in her relationship to the ordinary people of Britain. The warmth of public response, for example, to the pageant on the River Thames due to take place later today is made up of a respect for the office of the Queen combined with a regard for Elizabeth II as a person. The events of this Diamond Jubilee weekend manifest vividly this aspect of the congruence of person and office to be found in Queen Elizabeth II.

One of Edith Stein's phenomenological studies is one dedicated to an investigation of the ontic structure of the state. It can be seen as the last in the sequence of studies that began with her doctoral thesis on empathy, and through which the nature of the human individual and of relations between human individuals is a developing theme. One of the points that she discusses is how it is part of the nature of a state that it can be represented at times by individuals, or groups of individuals, and Edith Stein analyses this point. In most countries now this might be a prime minister or a president who comes to power in some way. It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which Queen Elizabeth II, in her office as Queen, represents in her person the British state. Clearly this representative role is shared with those who hold office in government, perhaps particularly the Prime Minister; but it is, strictly speaking, Her Majesty who hosts state visits by Heads of State from other countries. The constitutional arrangement in Britain gives the Queen a very nuanced role in this representative dimension of her office, and a reflection on it brings us back to the congruence of person and office that we have seen in Elizabeth II.

Another aspect of the ontic structure of the state discussed by Edith Stein is the nature of the different human communities that can come together within the state, and the way in which the state is a distinctive kind of community characterised by sovereignty. This discussion is rooted in a technical understanding of different types of community developed in her earlier phenomenological studies (translated into English by the terms "crowd", "community", "association"). The individuals who belong to a state form a community with a certain common life current, this community having relations to other communities both within and subsidiary to the state concerned and within other states. Edith Stein's discussion of ethnicity in regard to the nature of the state, written in the context of the increasing influence of Nazi ideology in Germany, has an application in a quite different context in Britain today. She concludes that a state does not need a specific ethnic community to exist as a state properly so called and nor does an ethnic community require a particular form of state government of its own in order that it should live successfully within a state. What is required is that the civic organisation of the state permits ethnic communities that form part of the state to live according to their own cultural strength and life (their "personality", in Edith's technical use of that term). In the context of the Diamond Jubilee, Edith's discussion brings us back to considering Queen Elizabeth's relation to the ordinary people of Britain and the extent to which she is able, by way of the congruence of her office and person, to form among them a community that can be described as a state whilst respecting entirely the wide range of other communities (within the state) to which people also belong. It is the combined regard for the office and the person that is critical to understanding what Queen Elizabeth achieves for us in this regard.