Thursday 15 September 2016

Faith and reason in a letter of Robert Bellarmine

To mark his feast day on 17th September, Thinking Faith have published an article about St Robert Bellarmine by Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, who works at the Vatican Observatory: Bellarmine in Perspective.

In part, the article gives an account of a letter written by Robert Bellarmine in connection with the Galileo affair. Br Consolmagno observes in connection with the letter:
We now recognise that the way science understands the universe is not subject to the kinds of proof that one would demand in mathematics. Rather, science argues from probability to probability, always recognising that no description is perfect or final. 
I suspect that this reading of a letter from the 17th century in the framework of a later time skews Br Consolmagno's way of reading it. I am not sure, for example, that practicing cosmologists do really consider the heliocentric view of our solar system as a "probability". My own reading of Bellarmine's letter, from the days of my youth some 20 years ago when Cardinal Ratzinger was still Cardinal Ratzinger and not Pope Benedict XVI, is offered below. What struck me then, and still strikes me now, about the letter is its profound trust in both human reason and in religious faith as giving access to knowledge. (My translation is, so far as I recall, taken from Part V of Arthur Koestler's book The Sleepwalkers.)
In April 1615, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote a letter to the author of a book which had defended the Copernican view of the universe, clearly addressing the letter to Galileo as well.  St. Robert Bellarmine fulfilled a role in the Church of his time similar to that of Cardinal Ratzinger in our own time.  He was a man of great intellect and profound devotion.  He was well informed about the state of contemporary scientific endeavour and seems to have had quite cordial communications with Galileo.  His letter is strikingly modern, and very concisely presents an answer to the debate as it had come to be presented. 
“..It seems to me that your Reverence and Signor Galileo act prudently when you content yourselves with speaking hypothetically and not absolutely, as I have always understood Copernicus spoke..”

This is a reference to the fact that the Copernican view was an interpretation of astronomical observations.  At least one other successful interpretation was possible, and it is in this sense that the Copernican view represented a “hypothetical” rather than an “absolute” claim.  To accept it as a “hypothesis” in this sense was quite a different thing than accepting it as being the way things really were.
“..If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe ... and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining the passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true..”
This is the critical passage in the letter.  Underlying it is the conviction that the results of scientific study and the content of Christian faith are in harmony with each other.  When science can offer convincing proof, then it is necessary to look again at the way in which Scripture is understood.
“But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me.....I believe that the first demonstration (i.e. that the Copernican view is a workable hypothesis) may exist, but I have grave doubts about the second (i.e. the existence of proof that the Copernican view is the way things really are); and in the case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the holy Fathers..”
This is an important balancing of the previously expressed willingness to look again at the way in which Scripture is understood.  In the seventeenth century there really was not any absolute evidence of the earth’s movement through space.  In the twentieth century there is, and, if he were alive today, St. Robert Bellarmine would accept that proof and be willing to understand Scripture differently as a consequence.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Keith Vaz: the nature of "scandal"

While Jeremy Corbyn is reported as saying that "he has not committed any crime that I know of, as far I'm aware it is a private matter", Theresa May indicated that it was for Keith Vaz to make his decisions about his future course of action. But Theresa May did preface her remark by saying that it was important that people feel they are able to have confidence in their politicians. In other quarters, it is the apparent conflict of interest between Keith Vaz's chairmanship of the Home Office select committee, which has included drugs and prostitution in its recent considerations, that presents the main problem.

The reporting of the scandal is at the BBC news site (here and here)..... and with rather more lurid detail on the website of today's Daily Mirror. Since Keith Vaz's own statements have been very limited, there is only the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror reporting to go on as far as the circumstances of the meeting with the male prostitutes is concerned; and this leaves some uncertainty as to the exact circumstances (was it, for example, a "sting" by the newspaper?)

The comment on Radio 4 yesterday morning came from Peter Tatchell. He was clear that the scandal did not represent a resigning matter, that there was no inconsistency between Keith Vaz's public view in favour of gay rights, legalisation of sex work (Peter Tatchell's phrase) and against the criminalisation of party poppers. Since Keith Vaz had not broken the law in any way, and had not hurt anyone (Keith's own apology, quoted in the Sunday Mirror, for  the hurt particularly to his family would seem to gainsay this), it was an entirely private matter and there was no need for him to resign.

A first thought is that it is quite wrong that Keith Vaz should be vilified for his behaviour in the print and electronic media. Whatever he has done, he still has a right to his good name, and to be treated in a manner that respects him as a person like any other. Likewise, he should not be subject to bullying with regard to his future decisions.

A second thought, though, and it is the one that Theresa May's remark touches on, is a question about how far citizens and fellow MPs can now have confidence in Keith Vaz as an elected representative. Given the fallibility of his private life that has now become public knowledge, is it possible to trust Keith Vaz in his public/political activity? Can we really live with a complete separation of the principles of integrity and probity in public life from those same principles in private life? Or should we be able to expect from those who hold public office, and perhaps to a degree determined by the level of public office that they hold, more by way of a unity of these principles across both the private and the public realms than we would insist on from others?

A third thought is prompted by the phrase "moral relativism" as a reaction to Peter Tatchell and Jeremy Corbyn's comments. Has Keith Vaz actually done anything wrong? I suspect that our society still retains an implicit sense of there being something wrong with using prostitutes (despite the cultural re-wording to "sex worker") and something wrong with cheating on your wife and family, though at the same time there is an unwillingness to articulate that uneasiness in terms of moral right and wrong. From a Catholic point of view, he has certainly done something that is morally wrong,  and perhaps we should not be hesitant in saying that. And, particularly because his behaviour sets an adverse example for others with regard to the institution of marriage, that moral wrong has an impact for the common good of society as a whole. Whilst a personal persecution would be quite wrong, I think it is unfortunate that the question of whether Keith Vaz's behaviour is morally right or wrong does not form part of the public conversation.

And the final thought arises from this third thought. Keith Vaz's behaviour is a "scandal", in the sense that it has caused a political and media furore. It should be recognised as a "scandal" in a second sense, too. When someone in public office does something wrong, it sends a message to society as a whole, and the idea of "scandal" communicates that there was something untoward about it.

One might end with some words of Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Westminster Hall in 2010:
If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

Sunday 4 September 2016

The Church: "catholic" or "inclusive"?

At the time of posting, gay activists within the Church of England are calling for "a way forward to greater inclusion" that will allow those parishes that wish to do so to celebrate same sex marriages in Church. It follows the reporting of Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain's long term and committed gay relationship, a relationship that is celibate; and the response of Gafcon that his appointment was a "major error".

There is a first difficulty in the use of the word "inclusive" here. The word can have two distinct senses, and, typically for the debate about LGBT issues, the word is used in the letter to the Times in a way that does not distinguish between the two senses. The outcome of this failure to distinguish is an unjustified presumption that "inclusion", poorly defined, should become a characteristic of the life and practice of the Church.

If the object of the term "inclusive" is persons, then one can quite rightly say that the Church should have an openness to everyone, as persons, regardless of their origins or lifestyles. Pope Francis' use of the term "accompaniment" expresses something of this idea.

If the object of the term "inclusive" is the teaching of the Church on matters of marriage and sexuality, then it is quite another matter. And the meaning is quite different. It is the assimilation of this second sense to the first sense in the common sensibility of both Christians and others that is the unfortunate, and, I suspect, intended consequence of failure to distinguish between the two senses on the part of pro-gay advocates.

A first reflection, from the point of view of Christian life, arises from the moment of Baptism, the Sacrament by which a person becomes a member of the Church. The Baptismal profession of faith expresses a turning away from sin and a turning towards the person of Christ, a conversion of life. That call to a conversion of life asks those who enter the Church to live a changed life, not just at the temporal moment of Baptism but existentially in the subsequent living of the Christian life. Each individual might face that call in a different specific manner, and so the specificity of that call experienced by a person who identifies as LGBT will differ from the specificity of the call for a person who has, say, pursued a life of crime.

A second reflection arises from considering whether or not the Church should use the term "inclusive" to describe its nature. According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.166:
The Church is catholic, that is universal, insofar as Christ is present in her: "Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church " (Saint Ignatius of Antioch). The Church proclaims the fullness and the totality of the faith; she bears and administers the fullness of the means of salvation; she is sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.
This is more fully developed in the corresponding paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 830-831:
Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race:
All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God's will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one.... the character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit.
It is clear, I think, that the Church describes herself as "catholic" or "universal", and does not use the term "inclusive" to describe her own nature.  I would suggest that, in responding to the misguided claim in favour of an "inclusive" Church, we should instead respond with an account of the catholic, or universal, nature of the Church.