Friday 29 November 2013

Pope Francis on Time - and Andrei Tarkovsky

In a section of Evangelii Gaudium devoted to "The Common Good and Peace in Society", the first of four principles offered by Pope Francis is that "time is greater than space" (nn. 222-225):
A constant tension exists between fullness and limitation. Fullness evokes the desire for complete possession, while limitation is a wall set before us. Broadly speaking, "time" has to do with fullness as an expression of the horizon which constantly opens before us, while each individual moment has to do with limitation as an expression of enclosure. People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space.  
....One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.  
This criterion also applies to evangelization, which calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long run. The Lord himself, during his earthly life, often warned his disciples that there were things they could not yet understand and that they would have to await the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:12-13). The parable of the weeds among the wheat (cf. Mt 13:24-30) graphically illustrates an important aspect of evangelization: the enemy can intrude upon the kingdom and sow harm, but ultimately he is defeated by the goodness of the wheat.
I have added the italics above because they represent the point in these paragraphs where the thought of Pope Francis most readily points to that of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian film director.  In writing about his film making in the book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky writes of the "image" that is presented in a film. What that "image" can do is take an impression of time, an imprint of time:
For the first time in the history of the arts, in the history of culture, man found the means to take an impression of time. And simultaneously the possibility of reproducing that time on screen as often as he wanted, to repeat it and go back to it...
In a discussion of the process of editing a film after it has been shot, Tarkovsky writes of "time imprinted in the [individual] frame" and of "time itself, running through the [different] shots". It is in a section at the beginning of Chapter III of Sculpting in Time, entitled "Imprinted time", where one can recognise in Tarkovsky's thought something of what Pope Francis expresses in Evangelii Gaudium:
Time is necessary to man, so that, made flesh, he may be able to realise himself as a personality. But I am not thinking of linear time, meaning the possibility of getting something done, performing some action. The action is a result, and what I am considering is the cause which makes man incarnate in a moral sense.
History is still not Time; nor is evolution. They are both consequences. Time is a state: the flame in which there lives the salamander of the human soul.
Time and memory merge into each other; they are like the two sides of a medal. It is obvious enough that without Time, memory cannot exist either.... Memory is a spiritual concept!.... As a moral being, man is endowed with a memory which sows in him a sense of dissatisfaction. It makes us vulnerable, subject to pain.
....The time in which a person lives gives him the opportunity of knowing himself as a moral being, engaged in the search for the truth; yet this gift which man has in his hands is at once delectable and bitter. And life is no more than the period allotted to him, and in which he may, indeed  must, fashion his spirit in accordance with his own understanding of the aim of human existence.... The human conscience is dependent upon time for its existence.
Time is said to be irreversible.... by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time cannot vanish without trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.
I have no way of knowing whether or not Pope Francis was influenced by Tarkovsky in writing the passage of Evangelii Gaudium devoted to time. However, as I have observed in earlier posts - here , here and here - Pope Francis is very familiar with the charism of Communion and Liberation. And Communion and Liberation have been admirers of Andrei Tarkovsky for many years. Tarkovsky twice attended the Rimini meeting, and Communion and Liberation publications have over the years presented articles about him. At the very least, we can suggest that Tarkovsky's thought helps us to understand what might otherwise appear a somewhat obscure piece of writing from Pope Francis.

Pope Ramps up Charity Office to Be Near Poor, Sick

Pope Ramps up Charity Office to Be Near Poor, Sick
"Being an almoner, it has to cost me something so that it can change me," he said. He contrasted such alms-giving with, say, the unnamed cardinal who once boasted about always giving two euros to a beggar on the street near the Vatican.
"I told him, 'Eminence, this isn't being an almoner. You might be able to sleep at night, but being an almoner has to cost you. Two euros is nothing for you. Take this poor person, bring him to your big apartment that has three bathrooms, let him take a shower — and your bathroom will stink for three days — and while he's showering make him a coffee and serve it to him, and maybe give him your sweater. This is being an almoner."

What is there to add?

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Pope Francis on the homily

One might not expect humour in an Apostolic Exhortation, but Pope Francis does provide it. Here is what he has to say as part of his treatment of the homily in  Evangelii Gaudium nn.135 ff.:
We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!
[My own experience suggests that homilies at every weekday Mass can add to this suffering, especially when there is an insistence on preaching on the Scripture readings of the day. Finding something significant to say is not easy, and tediousness too readily results. I am not sure how far Pope Francis example in this regard is one for others to follow.]

That Pope Francis takes the subject seriously, though, is indicated by the sentence which immediately precedes the above:
The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people.
and by the observations that follow it:
It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.

Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words.
Pope Francis goes on to offer an extensive treatment of the art of preaching during the Liturgy, a treatment that is of considerable interest. He assumes that the homily will be on the Scripture readings, though the rubrics do allow the other Liturgical texts, or, indeed, the saint of the day, to be the subject of the homily. There is a particularly interesting reflection on the homily in its Liturgical context, seeing it as a moment in the dialogue between God and his people and oriented towards bringing both the preacher and the congregation to a communion with God in the Eucharist. Pope Francis is characteristically forthright when he concludes a paragraph asking pastors to prioritise giving time to preparing the Sunday homily, even if that means setting aside other activities, by saying:
Trust in the Holy Spirit who is at work during the homily is not merely passive but active and creative. It demands that we offer ourselves and all our abilities as instruments (cf. Rom 12:1) which God can use. A preacher who does not prepare is not "spiritual"; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received.
[It is worth noting that an unscripted homily is not necessarily an unprepared homily, though an unprepared homily will certainly be unscripted. I do not expect that Pope Francis homilies at morning Mass in the Casa Santa Marta are delivered without some preparation.]

Monday 18 November 2013

Protect the Pope: the publican or the pharisee?

It is some considerable time now since Protect the Pope appeared on my side bar; I took it off because, if I am quite honest, I got a bit fed up of the harping/antagonistic tenor of many, though not all, of its posts. I also felt that it was not trustworthy as a news source - not that it was deliberately dishonest, but that I felt I could never quite trust it enough not to want to check out what it said from other sources before relying on it. It had become very difficult to separate the blogger's spin from the news story itself. And that was quite a considerable time ago. I have never felt the need to put it back on my side bar.

One might benignly forgive the pontificating - that is, the desire to busily tell others, particularly those in ecclesial authority, how they should be living out their Christian vocations.  See here for a recent example, or perhaps reflect on the implications of the erstwhile excommunication of Enda Kennedy portrayed in the side bar. [In this latter case, one might want to suggest that Mr Kennedy might have better represented the Catholic point of view in the political sphere ... but that has a definite dose of humility about it rather than busily telling bishops how to live out their vocations.]

One is less forgiving of those posts where, essentially, Protect the Pope has just got it plain wrong. I think of his post on Philomena, upon which you will recognise my own comment. This was something I was familiar with because I had seen the film (my own post on it is here) and could comment on it - but I just wonder how many other posts at Protect the Pope, about which I do not know the background, are just as unreliable as this one was. And yet, it was all stated with such confidence (and considerable levels of what I remember being termed "glosses" - aside marginal additional comments - when many years ago I studied Nestle-Aland's critical apparatus to the New Testament Greek text). And with the support of commenters who appear to be a rather uncritical fan club and appeared to have not seen the film itself. I was tempted to comment again, to the effect that Protect the Pope and his commenters might want to ride the train of anti-Catholic media and attach all sorts of different carriages to that train, perhaps quite justifiably or perhaps not ... but that Philomena was a carriage that definitely would not belong on that train as it had the wrong gauge and would only derail the whole train by undermining its credibility.

One cannot forgive a post that is just plain cyberbullying,  I refer to the attack on Mike Conway. There is a hefty dose of getting it wrong again - just look at the spin put on Mike Conway's letter, which completely distorts its intention, and the complete failure to understand any idea of a dialogue as per the "Court of the Gentiles" that underpins the publication of the article about Peter Tatchell. Protect the Pope might not have published that article, and, if he had done so, might not have been as unqualified in the praise of Peter Tatchell as Mike Conway appears to have been. He is quite entitled to explain why, but to then turn that into pontificating about what Mike Conway and others should or should not be doing .... The advocacy among the comments of sending emails to Mike is clearly bullying. [Everything I know about Alive Publishing suggests that they are a positive apostolate in the Church - a couple of years ago they even published an article by me on Edith Stein, for heaven's sake!]

I would suggest that those who "like" Protect the Pope as a defender of the faith might like to consider more carefully how far he is actually reliable in this regard. The more thoughtful among us do not find him always credible - and that does matter as much as hits. And, of course, one takes one's life in one's hands (in blog/web terms at least) by offering criticism such as that in this post ....

Which leads me to ask of Protect the Pope: in the Gospel story, is he the publican or the Pharisee?

Sunday 17 November 2013

Fr Brian D'Arcy on BBC Radio 2

I have just listened to part of an interview of Fr Brian D'Arcy on Radio 2's Sunday morning programme. The presenter was Clare Balding.

In part - and in a way that would be reflected by many other Catholics from the kind of background from which Fr D'Arcy comes - Fr D'Arcy spoke about the impact of Pope Francis' election for him. The way in which he spoke about the resignation of Pope Benedict and the subsequent election of Pope Francis as a miracle for him in his own situation at first sight seems somewhat hostile to Pope Benedict, but it was combined with a tribute to the greatness of an act of someone who stepped aside as he realised that another was needed to do what was needed for the good of the Church. Perhaps we should not be mean in recognising the disposition of divine providence for Fr D'Arcy in this regard.

Two particular points, though.

Fr D'Arcy attributed his being the subject of disciplinary provisions from the Congregation for Doctrine to his being outspoken in his criticism of the way in which superiors in the Catholic Church had responded to the child sex abuse scandal in Ireland, and he insisted that, though progress has been made by the Church in this area, he would still be just as outspoken today. However, I suspect that the reasons for the intervention of the Congregation for Doctrine are actually other than this. This BBC News report refers to other issues in Fr D'Arcy's work, as well as to those around sexual abuse:
Fr D'Arcy has spoken out against mandatory celibacy for priests, church teaching on contraception and has been a vocal critic of the handling of clerical sexual abuse. In the wake of the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin Fr D'Arcy called for reformation of church structures and accused the Holy See of using legal procedures to shield itself from criticism over its handling of abuse.
The second point is that, in his interview, Fr D'Arcy spoke in a way that contrasted the institutional in the Church to the living of the Christian life by its people in, for example, action in favour of those suffering in the Philippines at the moment.  Though Fr D'Arcy was presenting himself as being very much encouraged by Pope Francis action in the Church (though with an aside qualification that "strangely enough, he hasn't changed any rules or regulations yet" - memory quote, not exact), he appeared to me to be very much off-Pope-Francis-message here. Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken to the effect that to know Christ is to know the Church, to be one with Christ is to be one with the Church. The following is from a General Audience address earlier this year, but in other addresses Pope Francis has made the point more systematically (I will post those links when I have time):
Still today some say: “Christ yes, the Church no”. Like those who say “I believe in God but not in priests”. But it is the Church herself which brings Christ to us and which brings us to God. The Church is the great family of God’s children. Of course, she also has human aspects. In those who make up the Church, pastors and faithful, there are shortcomings, imperfections and sins. The Pope has these too — and many of them; but what is beautiful is that when we realize we are sinners we encounter the mercy of God who always forgives.
This having been said, it was interesting to hear Fr D'Arcy speaking in a way that acknowledged the difficulty of the situation in which he found himself as a result of the intervention of the Holy See - he observed that he had come to a position where he felt he was going to assert his own freedom and that you could not go on feeling that you are being hounded for what you are doing. The way in which he spoke, however, seemed to me to lack any edge of bitterness, and this was something I found encouraging.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Two Collects

One of the themes of Pope Benedict XVI's time as Pope was that of the correct relationship between faith and reason, between what we can know through revelation and what we can know through the natural exercise of human reason. Two of his most controversial addresses - that at Regensburg and the one that he was unable to deliver at La Sapienza University in Rome - touched on this in different contexts. The Regensburg address set the question in the light of the nature of religious freedom and the challenge to that freedom represented by coercion of religious belief, before going on to examine the relationship between Christian faith and reason in a treatment ranging from ancient times to the present day. The La Sapienza address started from the point of view of how a historically received set of beliefs still remains a form of the wisdom that should have a part in a contemporary search for ethical truth, and then explored this particularly in the relative relationship between reason and belief in the search for what is ethically true, in the context of the mediaeval university and the contemporary university. Pope Benedict's address in Westminster Hall placed the question in the context of the relationship between religious belief and political activity.

In the light of this, I found the Collect for yesterday's feast of St Albert the Great quite pertinent. I offer two translations, one from the "Liturgy of the Hours" and the second from the revised English translation of the Missal. Their relevance to the pontificate of Benedict XVI illustrates, in my view, how the texts of the Liturgy at once can specifically reflect the charism of a particular saint, but at the same time retain a universal applicability:
Lord God,
you made Saint Albert great by his gift
for reconciling human wisdom with divine faith.
Help us so to follow his teaching
that every advance in science
may lead us to a deeper knowledge and love of you.

O God, who made the Bishop Saint Albert great
by his joining of human wisdom to divine faith
grant, we pray, that we may so adhere to the truths he taught,
that through progress in learning
we may come to a deeper knowledge and love of you.
In my own diocese, Saint Edmund of Abingdon's feast day is today celebrated as an obligatory memorial. He is one of the patrons of the diocese. Again, the Collect for the feast day expresses both something of St Edmund's charism whilst retaining an uncanny relevance to modern times:
O God, by whose grace the Bishop Saint Edmund of Abingdon
was vigilant over integrity in public office
and discipline in religious life,
grant, we pray, through his intercession,
that same spirit of constancy to your Church,
that she may be fearless in promoting justice.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Mis-reporting the survey ...

How does this, from the Vatican Information Service, with my italics added:
Finally, Archbishop Bruno Forte recalled that the approach for addressing the challenges of contemporary family life should be that which Blessed John XXIII noted in his diary shortly before the opening of Vatican Council II: “All is to be seen in the light of pastoral ministry: that is, in terms of souls to save and to edify”. He added, “It is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions, which have in any case been clarified by the Magisterium recently … the invitation deriving from this for all the Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God's mercy and the beauty of responding to His call”.
become this, from the BBC:
The Vatican has launched a worldwide survey to find out what Catholics really think about its teaching on marriage and family life.
I have only quickly perused the questions contained in the Lineamenta for next October's Extraordinary Synod. But I do not believe there is a single question which asks for what the respondent thinks about Church teaching, or about whether or not they believe it should be changed. Some questions do ask about the extent of acceptance of teaching and about difficulties with putting it in to practice; some others ask about the attitudes and practice in local Churches.  But there is no suggestion anywhere in the Lineamenta of debating the truth or otherwise of the teaching itself...

UPDATE 2: If you saw the earlier update referring to how my own Diocese of Brentwood was presenting the "survey" (it isn't a survey in any conventional sense) on its website, I have now deleted that update. The wording on the Brentwood Diocese website is now significantly different: Calling for Responses.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Thoughts on "Philomena" [UPDATED]

Philomena has gone on general release in Britain this weekend, after premiering in the UK during the London Film Festival. It is a film that is recommended. A screen caption indicates that the film has been "inspired by true events", so one should perhaps see it as representing the story rather than following it exactly in every respect.  Martin Sixsmith's book is probably where one needs to go to find the story in an exact form: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. [UPDATE: This piece by the real Philomena at the MailOnline gives some indication of where the film varies from the exact story, and gives a perhaps more realistic picture of Philomena's character. A Google search will throw up a number of media reviews. The MailOnline are also now reporting the response of the religious order involved in Philomena's story to the film: Hit film makes us look like villains, say nuns: Judi Dench movie Philomena 'twisted the truth'. The MailOnline report is based on this report at The Tablet.]Nothing in watching the film suggests that it is misleading in any way, though I make that observation as someone who has no immediate experience of Catholic life in Ireland or of the environment of "cover up" that has characterised the Catholic Church's response to historical abuse.

The World Catholic Association for Communications (SIGNIS) jury at this year's Venice Film Festival gave its award to Philomena:
The SIGNIS Award went to the film Philomena, of Stephen Frears (United Kingdom), a film about an elderly woman who has fought during all her life to find her son, taken from her and given in adoption by the nuns of the convent where she was abandoned by her family after becoming pregnant. In its citation, the jury explains that the Award was given to the film “for its vibrant and touching portrait of a woman whose faith sets her free. In her search for the truth, she is further liberated from the burden of the injustice done to her, when she overcomes it with forgiveness”.  
Philomena was widely greeted by critics and audiences, and went on to receive the award of the official jury of the Festival to the best screenplay, as well as the award of the Interfilm jury. It is particularly interesting that, apart from obtaining the Catholic and Protestant awards, it received the award of the Italian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, in a striking demonstration that cinema is indeed polysemous.
The Catholic Church does not come out of the film without some criticism. One of the representative aspects of the film is the dialogue between Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Martin Sixsmith). At times it is Sixsmith who appears to lead by bringing to light a naivety on the part of Philomena in terms of her relationship to the Church and to the sisters in whose care she had lived as a young girl as they respond to her situation. To me this appeared most clearly in the discussions around sexuality - Sixsmith arguing that surely if God has given us a sexual faculty we should enjoy it, while Philomena, recognising that she enjoyed her one night stand, still seemed to retain some sense of discretion (by which I mean shame in its most healthy sense) about it. At other times, it is Philomena who seems to take the lead - as in the closing scenes where she insists on forgiveness over and against Sixsmith who determinedly refuses to forgive, Philomena asserting that she does not want to hate people like he does.

What remains utterly incomprehensible, though, is the somewhat condescending attitude of the sisters towards Philomena as she visits them trying to gain information about the son they had sent for adoption. Whilst sister appears very gentle and caring in the reception room, she nevertheless blocks as strongly as she possibly can any possibility for Philomena to gain the information she wants. When, at the end of the film, it emerges that Anthony is in fact buried in the grounds of the very convent in which this blocking action takes place, one cannot help but recognise a deeply rooted dishonesty on the part of these religious. As portrayed in the film, this dishonesty is not only a dishonesty on the part of individual sisters, but a dishonesty at the level of the institution of the religious community itself.

In the final scenes, an elderly sister defends the treatment given to Philomena (and, by implication, the other girls in the care of the convent) as being a punishment for their immorality, something they brought on themselves, and contrasts it with the virtue of her own life of self-denial. Some of that treatment has earlier in the film been described as "evil" (though Philomena herself is shown as not sharing the use of that term), and I suspect that it is the behaviour of the elderly sister portrayed in these last scenes that prompts one newspaper review I have seen to refer to the behaviour of the sisters as "pure evil".  What is most striking in this scene is that, while Philomena is shown as forgiving the said sister and Martin Sixsmith as refusing it, the elderly sister herself does not even seem to appreciate that a question of forgiveness exists at all.

The Catholic Church in Ireland does have a very striking counter-example to the practice with regard to unmarried mothers reflected in the film Philomena. It lies in the work of the Regina Coeli hostel operated in Dublin by the Legion of Mary. This opened in 1930, and part of its work was intended to provide an environment in which unmarried mothers could keep the care of their children - with no other such arrangement existing anywhere in Ireland at the time. The fullest account that I can quickly find of the work of this hostel is on pp.91-98 of Finola Kennedy's Frank Duff: A Life Story. The arrangements in the hostel, operated by volunteers from the Legion, seemed deliberately to go against that of the provision in convents at the time:
Every woman would pay a small contribution towards her keep, and a "task system" of laundry or domestic work would be avoided at all costs.... The object was to create a "home-life feeling about the place". Duff stressed that the surrounding should be as beautiful as possible because "the silent influence of beautiful and artistic surroundings is incalculable"...

In the first week fifteen women were admitted to the hostel. Soon after the opening, a pregnant woman sought admission. Her entry to the hostel and keeping her child led to the inauguration of the Mater Dei aspect of the hostel, a type of hostel within a hostel specifically organized on the basis of units for mothers and children. One of the mothers in each unit elected to stay at home and care for the children, while the others took jobs to pay for household costs. Thus began a revolutionary system for assisting lone mothers to keep their children.
The depth of Frank Duff's feelings in favour of enabling single mothers to successfully keep the care of their children is revealed in a letter written in 1970, forty years after the opening of the hostel, a letter which has earlier recognised the opposition to its work. The following observation from that letter, cited by Finola Kennedy on p.98 of her book, is indeed extremely hard hitting in the context of the events portrayed in Philomena and the recent legalisation of abortion in Ireland:
I find it a little difficult in my own mind to make a broad differentiation between the determined separating of the unmarried mother from her child and the relieving of the unmarried mother from her unwanted child by way of abortion. Deep down it seems to me that those two processes have an identical root. This root would be the denial of the fact that a spiritual relationship of the supremest order exists between a mother and her child, inclusive of the unborn child.

UPDATE: Among the reviews now appearing on Google is one at the Guardian. This is not particularly sympathetic to the Catholic Church - though its description of the process of adoption experienced by Philomena/Anthony as 
.... stealing babies from vulnerable teenagers, selling them overseas and then preventing them tracing their parents by burning records of the transactions...
is pretty much what the film portrays though, for the record, it is not clear from the real Philomena's account in the MailOnline  whether or not any money was paid to the sisters at the time of adoption. It is the final paragraph of the review, though, that prompts my linking to it (with my italics added):
At the end of the film, it's Martin who's bitter and confounded. Philomena, for all that she's been through, is both cheery and serene. Such is the priceless reward that only her faith can yield. How she managed to cling to it while it slipped from Martin's grasp remains beyond his understanding. Yet her ingenuousness turns out to have been more productive than his scepticism. The Catholic church survives its scandals, Philomena's story shows us, because it delivers the goods.
SECOND UPDATE:  The MailOnline are also now reporting the response to the film of the religious order involved in Philomena's story: Hit film makes us look like villains, say nuns: Judi Dench movie Philomena 'twisted the truth'. The MailOnline report is based on this report at The Tablet. Perhaps the most significant points made in the response are that the elderly sister portrayed in the film's final scene,  a scene added in the film and not occurring in Martin Sixsmith's book, had in fact been instrumental in reuniting many mothers with their children.  The sister speaking for the order also denies that any records were destroyed and said they never received any payment in relation to adoption. What I have written in my original post will indicate that I believe the film represents a dialogue - in the film this occurs between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith - exploring the Catholic Church's participation in and response to the abuse involved, rather than any anti-Catholic diatribe. In this, I agree with the observation reported of the film makers at the end of this MailOnline report, and can understand the representive/dramatic character of the addition of the final scene.

UPDATE AT 2nd MARCH 2014: Oscar Night

This is the text of a comment I posted at another blog, responding to a critical stance towards the film.

1. In evaluating the film Philomena, I do think it is useful to be aware of where the film differs from the actual events that, to quote the film’s credits, “inspired” the film. The statement from the Sisters reported in the Tablet is useful in this. There are other significant differences too. In real life, for example, Philomena Lee did not accompany Martin Sixsmith to the United States, something that is quite central to the narrative of the film. If I understand correctly, too, Philomena was for many years not a practising Catholic, where the film suggests that she is.
2. I do not believe the film to be an anti-Catholic film. One feature of the film is a kind of dialogue between (sceptical) Martin Sixsmith/Steve Coogan and the (believing) Philomena/Judi Dench around their respective responses to the situation of Philomena’s search for her son and the difficulties to this search presented by the sisters. This gives the film a representative rather than a literal/documentary character – and it is in this context that I think the final scenes (which show Sr Hildegard in a less than positive light) need to be understood. While it may be legitimate for the sisters to point out that Sr Hildegard as portrayed in the film, is not the real Sr Hildegard, nevertheless the significance of what her character represents in the film is something that needs to be recognised.
3. I believe the film usefully represents different responses to the experience of women such as Philomena, and represents those responses in a genuine dialogue with each other rather than as conflicting ideologies.
4. The obstructive attitude of the sisters to Philomena’s efforts to find her son, as portrayed in the film, is utterly incomprehensible – and it was that which struck me rather more in watching the film than Sr Hildegard’s unfeeling attitude portrayed in the final scenes. So far as I have been able to determine, the representative character of the film in this regard is accurate to the real events. (I would be happy to be corrected if this is wrong …) The unfortunate aspect of the sisters statement, as reported, is that it does not appear to address this aspect of the film, and nor does it appear to address the practice of involuntary adoption.
4. I recommend seeing the film. As the SIGNIS jury indicated when they gave Philomena their award at the Venice Film Festival: the Award was given to the film “for its vibrant and touching portrait of a woman whose faith sets her free. In her search for the truth, she is further liberated from the burden of the injustice done to her, when she overcomes it with forgiveness”. By all means be aware of where the film differs from reality … but that does not undermine the film’s real and quite genuine value.
[And for the journalists ... there is a sub-theme involving the ethics of journalistic practice ...I missed it watching the film, and only recognised it after reading reviews.]

Friday 1 November 2013

Law, Morality and Religion

Sir James Munby's recent lecture was given at an annual conference on Family Law organised by the Law Society. As such, the range of its treatment was limited to that of family law, and not the law in general. The full title of the published text of the lecture is "Law, Morality and Religion in the Family Courts" (the full text can be downloaded as a pdf). That having been said, there are some important implications of his lecture that reach across all areas of the practice of law and its relation to the life of our society as a whole.

Firstly, I think we should recognise the truth of Sir James Munby's observation of the morally pluralistic nature of contemporary society (cf pp.7-8 of the full text in pdf). Sir James perhaps assumes that this plurality is mostly driven by a move away from Christian belief by today's citizens, primarily towards secularism (ie lack of religious belief of any kind). Sir James does acknowledge that there is a pluralism in religious belief in society. I would not argue for a privileged position for Christian belief in our law based on the history of our country; I think that any such position is rooted in the extent and manner in which Christian faith continues to be lived in our land (though, of course, that is not to deny that there are historically Christian roots to much of our law and legal process). However, the question raised by Sir James' observation on this point is not that which he pursues, namely, the promotion of an absence of religious consideration in matters of law. On the contrary, I think it raises the much harder question of what is an appropriate consideration of religion in matters of law. If it is quite correct that (p.10 of full text in pdf)
... reliance upon religious belief, however conscientious the belief and however ancient and respectable the religion, can never of itself immunise the believer from the reach of the secular law.
the real underlying question of how the formulation of  law that will apply to believer and non-believer alike takes in to consideration matters of religion remains unasked. As I might choose to express it, rather than religion becoming less relevant, the question of religion and its proper place in society and law is now alive and well and of greater importance than ever.

Secondly, I think we can ask ourselves exactly what Sir James intended by his use of the term "secular" to describe the role of judges and the nature of the law that applies in our land. In France and Italy, the equivalent term is often "laicite" or "lay-ness", with its slightly different nuance. If by this term Sir James intends that any religious consideration should be over-ridden in law unless it happens to be acceptable on secular grounds - and we can be forgiven for believing that this is his intention despite the assertions of the law's having (p.9 of full text in pdf) "every respect of the individual's or family's religious principles" - then he is in effect suggesting the imposition of a secular "religion". Cranmer weighs into this point of view with gusto:
Except, of course, when it comes to enforcing the state orthodoxy of equality and the inviolable beliefs of secularity. In this new theology, there is no theos: human rights are sacred writ, and salvation is found in the veneration of secularism. Therein lies the true source of freedom and justice.

Except, of course, it is no freedom at all; indeed, it becomes a manifest oppression to Christians seeking to live their lives in spirit and in truth....

It is ironic indeed that we are winding back the clock on the 1689 Act of Toleration and 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act, and moving toward the reintroduction of a religious bar to holding office. Christian magistrates, registrars, paediatricians, GPs, teachers, nurses and foster parents are finding it increasingly difficult to manifest their faith without risk of disciplinary action, dismissal or prosecution for offending the ascendant secular religion.
 What is really required of the law and of judges is that, while not promoting or imposing any one particular religious belief (or, for that matter, secular "religion"), they allow the space in society for those beliefs to flourish. This is what Pope Benedict would have termed an "appropriate secularity". The address in Westminster Hall in 2010 sets out both this and a way of understanding the part to be played by religion in political processes, and by implication in the law and law making process:
Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law...

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.
But the third, and perhaps most worrying, point to be made about Sir James' lecture is its advocacy of a relativistic standard for the working of judges (p.7 of the full text in pdf):
Today, surely, the judicial task is to assess matters by the standards of reasonable men and women in 2013 - not, I would add, by the standards of their parents in 1970 - and having regard to the ever changing nature of our world: changes in our understanding of the natural world, technological changes, changes in social standards and, perhaps most important of all, changes in social attitudes.

As a letter in today's Times points out:
What if in time these changes render acceptable matters which he currently views as "beyond the pale"?
[cf p.10 of full text in pdf where forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour violence are listed as being in this category of "beyond the pale"]. One can see here an almost complete refusal to engage at the level of genuine reason, despite Sir James' use of the adjective "reasonable". And its inevitable consequence, as Cranmer cited above appreciates, is the persecution of the minority who do not adhere to the prevailing majority "social attitude". Am I naïve to think that the role of judicial decisions is to uphold the rule of law?

In the specific context of family law that was Sir James Munby's subject, this does have a significant implication. Whatever the historical context of case law cited by him in the first pages of his lecture, and whatever view one might take of those judges in the past who have seen their role as being, at least to a certain extent, one of  upholding morals in society, there are nevertheless strong legal grounds for giving to marriage a preferential protection in law. Article 16 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, states:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
And we should be clear - as intended by the declaration we are here talking about marriage between one woman and one man, with a view to children, and it is this that is intended by the term family. At the time of its writing, no other meaning would have been intended and it would be quite misleading to interpret the Declaration in any other way. If the law, and the work of judges, does provide this preferential protection for marriage and (authentic) family, it is not a question of judges being guardians of public morality in any sense. It is instead their acting in the interests of a common good that is for the welfare of all in society.

And a final aside. Sir James suggests (pp.7-8 of the full text in pdf) that earlier jurisprudence assumed a society marked by a very high degree of homogeneity in moral outlook, and that the content of this outlook could be easily ascertained. Now, on many of the topics coming before the courts, society no longer has a single, discernible voice. Does not this raise a very significant question with regard to what is nowadays referred to as social cohesion? How much commonality of moral outlook is necessary in order to assure social cohesion, and at what point does a lack of such commonality lead to social disintegration?