Wednesday 25 October 2017

Abortion: a tragic anniversary [UPDATED]

On Friday, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act in Britain, I will be away from home at an all day meeting and then travelling home. This will prevent me from taking part in the prayer vigil to which we are being called by our bishops on that day (though I expect I may be able to join in spirit during my train journey home).

After fifty years of legalised abortion, few in our countries have not had some experience of abortion. This is something that makes it a difficult topic to discuss in a public arena, particularly for a man, as the articulation of an objective ethical view is all to easily read by members of an audience as an individually directed comment on their personal choices in a situation whose complexity may be unknown to the writer/speaker. It is also the case that legalised abortion has impacted on the lives of Catholics, again, in a variety of ways.

The provision of Canon Law (Canon 1398) for a latae sententiae excommunication of the person who actually procures an abortion is intended to teach how seriously the Catholic Church views the offence of abortion. The joint statement of bishops describes every abortion as a "tragedy"; the Second Vatican Council, taking place at a time before abortion was legally available in many of the western democracies, described abortion as an "unspeakable crime" (Gaudium et Spes n.51). This teaching is balanced by the provisions of charity towards those who have experienced abortion. The absolution from the penalty of excommunication can now be offered by any priest and is no longer reserved to the bishop (earlier special provisions for the Year of Mercy and for participants in World Youth days are now permanent); and the bishops statement indicates a similar approach of mercy:
When abortion is the choice made by a woman, the unfailing mercy of God and the promise of forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation are always available. There is always a way home to a deeper relationship with God and the Church, as recent Popes have emphasised, which can heal and bring peace.
A particular challenge of conscience that faces a Catholic is that of how, given the prevalence of abortion in the culture and practice of life in our countries, we indicate our own "no" to abortion and thereby avoid feeling that, however distantly, we are complicit in the culture of abortion. One way of doing this is to join with those initiatives that seek to help women facing a choice for abortion. Peaceful prayer vigils at abortion clinics are one way of doing this, and the work of one such vigil in Ealing has been in the news recently. Coverage can be seen here, here, here and here.  Radio 4's World at One has an interesting clip here of an interview with a lady which indicates a value for the practical help offered by these vigils (you might need to register at the site to hear the clip).

From time to time I am stunned by the "economy with the truth" that I encounter on the subject of abortion. British law, for example, does not recognise in any way that access to abortion is a human right. On the contrary, it is framed to establish exemption from prosecution under other legislative provisions if certain conditions are met; and it is difficult to reconcile the availability of abortion in our countries with the right of life of Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And an interview on the World at One with a woman who had travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester for an abortion describes the woman waiting for her return flight in pain and with bleeding .... and yet she had been discharged from the abortion clinic, something that did not cause comment. (I can't trace the clip, but I am quite confident of my memory). The allegations of "harassment" at abortion clinic vigils, including the one at Ealing, are utterly unfounded as I have good reason to know.

UPDATE: The BBC News website is carrying this report of three women's experience of abortion. The reactions of boyfriends that occur in two of these stories appears to me very striking, with implications not only for the education of men in terms of understanding and taking responsibility for their sexual activity but also for the authenticity/character of their love for the girlfriends involved. Two phrases stand out to me: "I felt pressured into having an abortion" and "I didn't have much choice". So much for "choice" in the real experience of abortion.

Monday 16 October 2017

The concensus of the Holy Fathers .....

I have for a long time been familiar with St Robert Bellarmine's letter to Paolo Foscarini, which provides the good Cardinal's personal commentary on the situation of Copernicanism at the time (1615). It has always struck me because of its witness to both Catholic faith as a source of knowledge of what is true and reason, in this instance, that of science, as likewise a source of knowledge of what is true.

An English translation of the full text of the letter can be found here. The third paragraph could not be a stronger exposition of the obligation imposed by the Council of Trent that Holy Scripture should be understood and expounded in accordance with the Holy Fathers and doctors of the Church.

But the fourth paragraph qualifies this in a quite remarkable way (the part translated below is taken from James Brodrick's two volume 1928 biography of Bellarmine rather than the website linked above):
If there were a real proof that the sun is in the centre of the universe, that the earth is in the third heaven, 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 passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true....
I do not think any one today would insist on interpreting the passages from Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Joshua according to the consensus of the Fathers and doctors as it existed in 1615.

Applying this to Catholic teaching on the death penalty:

1. Though there is a consensus in favour of the (conditional) legitimacy of capital punishment, I am finding it difficult to find a point at which one can clearly say it became defined teaching. That being the case, the freedom then still exists, in the sense in which Bellarmine suggests, that the cited passages of Scripture might be understood differently without it becoming a matter of heresy. (Indeed, I suspect that the passages of Scripture where the Church has defined one particular understanding rather than another are relatively few.)

2. In this case, the use of reason being suggested by Pope Francis lies in the field of the humanities, and, in particular, our understanding of the nature of the dignity of the human person. One can look, as does Pope Francis ("... No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity...”), to the inalienable nature of the rights of the person (cf the preamble to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And one can also look, as does Pope Francis again and as is recognised to an extent in the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.2267, to studying the injury to human dignity represented by the death penalty (the writing of Sr Helen Prejean provides an evidence that can be considered in this regard).

3. That a definition against the death penalty could constitute a genuine development of doctrine appears to me, in the light of the considerations above, quite possible, as Pope Francis himself suggests.

4. But I suspect that a final definition one way or the other may not be forthcoming and, rather like the question of conscientious objection and the legitimacy of military service in the teaching of Vatican II (cf Gaudium et Spes n. 79), the two strands of Catholic life with regard to the question will continue to exist side by side.

Sunday 8 October 2017

Guardini on the Rosary

MAGNIFICAT's "Meditation of the Day" yesterday, for the Feast of the Holy Rosary, has directed me to Romano Guardini's short book The Rosary of Our Lady. It is a book that contains both very practical advice to enrich the way in which we pray the Rosary and theological/catechetical instruction that places the manner of our praying of the Rosary within the context of salvation history and of a genuine human dynamic of prayer.

The chapter entitled "Mary", for example, offers an explanation of how the Christian relates uniquely among the saints to Mary, without compromising the orientation towards Christ:
It is Mary on whom the Rosary is centred in a focus ever new. This prayer means a lingering in the world of Mary, whose essence was Christ.
It is this chapter which precedes the chapter entitled "Christ in us" from which the MAGNIFICAT meditation was taken:
To linger in the domain of Mary is a divinely great thing. One does not ask about the utility of truly noble things, because they have their meaning within themselves. So it is of infinite meaning to draw a deep breath of this purity, to be secure in the peace of the union with God ...
All prayer begins by man becoming silent - recollecting his scattered thoughts, feeling remorse at his trespasses, and directing his thoughts toward God. If man does this, this place is thrown open, not only as a domain of spiritual tranquillity and mental concentration, but as something that comes from God.
We are always in need of this place, especially when the convulsions of the times make clear something that has always existed but which is sometimes hidden by outward well-being and a prevailing peace of mind: namely, the homelessness of our lives. In such times, a great courage is demanded from us; not only to dispense with more and to accomplish more than usual, but to persevere in a vacuum we do not otherwise notice. So we require more than ever this place of which we speak, not to creep into as a hiding place, but as a place to find the core of things, to become calm and confident once more.
For this reason the rosary is so important in times like ours - assuming , of course, that all slackness and exaggeration are done away with, and that it is used in its clear and original forcefulness. This is all the more important because the rosary does not require any special preparation, and the petitioner does not need to generate thoughts of which he is not capable at the moment or at any other time. Rather, he steps into a well-ordered world, meets familiar images, and finds roads that lead him to the essential.
[So far as I can tell, this book was first published in German in 1940 - so Guardini's reference to "times like ours" is a reference to war time conditions in Germany.]

Guardini offers an explanation of the part played by each of the prayers in the structure of the Rosary. This is what he says about the Our Father, prayed at the beginning of each decade:
The start and the goal of all spiritual movement is the Father. So the prayer to Him is placed at the beginning of each decade, to ask Him for the things that are really vital. The meditation that follows is thus made in the sight of the Father; like the seer in the Revelation of St John we look at all the different events that pass before the eyes of Him "who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever".
And on the Glory be:
And finally, with the "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit" at the end of each decade, he who prays bows before the triune God, from whom everything comes and to whom everything returns.
Guardini has already spoken about the role of the Hail Mary in representing for us the mystery that is the subject of each decade. He assumes a practice that is not well known in the English speaking world, of introducing into the Hail Mary a reference to the mystery being prayed:
...the Rosary is, in its deepest sense, a prayer of Christ. The first part of the Hail Mary ends with His name: "And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus". After this name follow the so-called mysteries (for example, "Whom thou, O Virgin, dids't conceive of the Holy Spirit, "Whom though didst bear with thee to Elizabeth", "Who was born to thee in Bethlehem"). Every decade of the Rosary contains such a mystery.
It is worth noting, too, Guardini's suggestion that the Rosary needs to be both given the time that it needs by the one who prays, and also to be allowed to take the time that of its own nature it will ask:
The Rosary is a prayer of lingering. One must take one's time for it, putting the necessary time at its disposal, not only externally but internally..... It is not necessary to ramble through the whole Rosary; it is better to say only one or two decades, and to say them right.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Further reading ....

.... on Amoris Laetitia and the correction (of that which didn't need correcting).

Rocco Buttiglione suggests that the correction is premised on reading in to the text of Amoris Laetitia things that  Amoris Laetitia does not in reality say (read the article in full, do not rely just on the headline): “The correctio? The method is incorrect: they do not discuss, they condemn”.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet has presented a more overarching analysis of Amoris Laetitia and its call for a "pastoral conversion" in speaking to the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference. The full text has been published at the National Catholic Reporter (scroll down this report to find the embedded text): Critics of Filial Correction of Pope Francis Weigh In.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Correcting the correction .....

There is a thought that I came to adopt quite some time ago now, prompted I think by an observation of Hans Urs von Balthasar in his study Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Mission. Von Balthasar suggested that Therese was reduced in her experience of Christian life, in particular the mystery of confession, by an early confessor who said to her that she had never committed a mortal sin. The thought prompted by this is that the person who has experienced sin has a deeper experience of the Christian mystery, because that mystery is one of redemption from sin rather than being one of perfection originally achieved. Perhaps those who try to live in the Church with the greatest experience of sin are also those with the greatest experience of the Christian life. In any case, we can say that, both at the level of the individual Christian life and at the level of the community of the Church as a whole, there co-exists that which is sin and that which is grace, this co-existence characterised by the wish that it is the latter that will be in the ascendant over the former.

By analogy, watching the lives of marriages that I have encountered, I wonder if those marriages that experience the most difficulty (and difficulty arising from a whole range of different causes), and the lack of both financial and emotional security that result from difficulty, might have a deeper experience of the Christian life than other, more stable marriages. There can be among those difficulties a very radical experience of poverty - of not knowing what the next day, or week, or month will bring. The Christian in these kinds of circumstances has an experience of poverty that may not be readily experienced by others; they may not advert to it consciously as a Christian vocation, but they might nevertheless live it in a profoundly existential way.

There can, of course, be causes for a marriage break up that are a result of choices that go against the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to marriage. This might be an extra-marital affair, where one spouse betrays the other. But then, later, both of the spouses involved might enter into a second marriage through a close friendship that comes about through the every day circumstances of life. Both of those second marriages are choices that are not morally just according to Catholic teaching. In both cases, the "objective state of sin", to use the term of Amoris Laetitia, means that they cannot receive Holy Communion should they still wish to practice their Catholic faith. The second is, however, perhaps more understandable in human terms than the first.

The situation that Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia tries to address does not primarily appear to me to be the situation at the time of the entering in to the second marriages, or of first embarking on a cohabitation. Instead, it appears to me to address a situation much later in time, when the immediacy of the decisions that created the "objective state of sin" has been moderated with the passage of time (cf n.298).

At this point, I am prompted to reflect on the  requirements set for the admission of a person to the monastery set out in chapter 58 of the Rule of St Benedict. It is not a requirement of any particular perfection but instead a requirement that the aspirant should "truly seek God", with provision for the testing of the integrity of that seeking of God:
A senior, skilled in conversion, should supervise him to see if he truly seeks God and eagerly hopes for the Divine Office, obedience and humiliations. He must be told of the difficulties and austerities ahead of him on the pathway to God.
At this later point in time, there might well emerge for the re-married person through a conversion, experienced in all probability in some limited way, a wish to "truly seek God". Equally, for some, no such wish may exist and the people involved will move away from the practice of the faith altogether; these would take the view that there is nothing wrong with being in a second marriage or with cohabiting. Chapter 8, however, faces up to the question of how, in practical terms, the Church approaches the situation of those who do have an at least latent wish to "seek God" (ie fidelity to Catholic teaching and life with regard to marriage) in their irregular situation.

[Whilst it is less easy to see how it might occur, it is also possible that those who are living together without marrying, or who contract a civil marriage only, might also reach this point of conversion that represents a wish to "seek God" through fidelity to Catholic teaching. Though some of these situations might be readily resolved through a marriage, one might think, for example, of a couple co-habiting when one of the couple is prevented from marriage by a previous marriage, or where one might wish to move to marriage and the other not.]

In this light, I propose the following theses.

1. The person who, even in a limited way, wishes to "seek God" in the sense suggested above, already knows that there is something (morally) wrong with their situation. They do not need to be told it. "Doctrinal clarity" is neither here nor there for them. I recall the parable of the ship's captain and the lighthouse that Mgr Paul Watson was wont to tell when he was at Maryvale Institute - once the captain of the large ship realises that he is heading towards a lighthouse on land instead of a smaller ship that can move out of his way, he does not need to be told that he needs to change direction. And this is where the logic of the dubia and the clamour for clarification runs up against the pastoral approach proposed in Chapter 8. None of the doctrine being "defended" by the dubia and the calls for clarification have ever been put into question by Chapter 8 or by any other passage in Amoris Laetitia. There is no objective need for Pope Francis to clarify that teaching. There is every need, in the pastoral intention of Amoris Laetitia, to maintain the sense of welcome to those whose conversion leads them to "seek God" in their marital situation. The need for clarification has arisen because of the activity of those who call for it, and not because of the manner of Pope Francis' exercise of the office of the Successor of Peter.

2. If the pastoral programme of Chapter 8 is followed, there is a certain testing of the desire to "seek God" and of the conversion giving rise to it. An examination of conscience and moments of reflection and repentance are proposed by Amoris Laetitia n.300; and the discernment is against the bench mark of "truth and charity as proposed by the Church", humility and discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching. If priests and bishops fulfil their responsibility in respect of this part of the pastoral programme of Chapter 8, it is difficult to see how a person in a second marriage could embark on the process of discernment and integration without a genuine wish to "seek God". Indeed, the one who "flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal ... needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion" in the words of Amoris Laetitia n.297. There is no question here of accepting as morally just the "objective state of sin" with regard to a second marriage or cohabitation.

3. A key point of both pastoral and theological importance in Chapter 8 is the suggestion that, though a couple might be in an objective state of manifest sin (ie a state of sin that is openly visible), there are circumstances where the element of consent in particular, but also of knowledge, that are necessary for that sin to be mortal may be lacking or compromised. In other words, it is possible for someone living in an irregular marital situation, with that desire to "seek God", to still share in the life of grace that is the common spiritual life of the Church. This is the discussion that extends across nn.301 - 305 of Amoris Laetitia, with reference to both St Thomas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It seems to me that this discussion reflects what one might call traditional teaching with regard to the requirements of mortal sin - full knowledge, full consent and grave matter. It does not question that the irregular marriage situations represent grave matter, and leaves intact the provision of Canon 915 that persistence in manifest sin in grave matter means that a person should not be admitted to Holy Communion. It also reflects what is said above about the Christian life being one that shares in sin and grace, with the effort always that grace should become the ascendant. If one can summarise the discussion, it is in this sentence from n.305:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin - which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such - a person can be living in God's grace, and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church's help to this end.
4. The discernment expected by the pastoral programme of Chapter 8 is not a discernment with regard to admission to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. That aspect is relegated to a footnote to n.305 just quoted (or it was until the critics raised it to a kind of canonical status that is entirely sui generis), the essence of which is to say that the process of discernment does not rule out an eventual access to the sacraments and neither does it rule it in. The admission to these sacraments is not itself the subject of the discernment. It should also be absolutely clear that recognising that an objective state of sin can exist alongside grace does not represent a kind of acceptance as a status quo of the objective state of sin, and to suggest so is a very serious misrepresentation of the teaching of Chapter 8. Amoris Laetitia is not suggesting a standing still in that objective state of sin. Instead, it is presenting a discernment of a way forward enabling a growth in the life of grace and charity, "so they can reach the fullness of God's plan for them, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Amoris Laetitia n.297).

5. When I look at the manner of Pope Francis' exercise of the ministry of the Successor Peter, its most striking feature appears to be the raising of the status of the act of charity in terms of the living of the Christian life. For Pope Francis, it is a central focus of the bringing of grace into ascendancy over sin in the life of the individual Christian and in the life of the Church as a whole. The promotion of the corporal works of mercy - exemplified by Pope Francis himself in his Friday "visits of mercy" - was perhaps an underestimated intention of the recent Year of Mercy. It is n.306 of Amoris Laetitia which is crucial to recognising the part to be played by engagement with the Church's mission of charity in the process of discernment intended by Chapter 8:
In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God's law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians (cf Jn 15:12; Gal 5:14). Let us not forget the reassuring words of Scripture: "Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8); "Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged" (Dan 4:24[27]); "As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sins" (Sir 3:30). This is also what Saint Augustine teaches: "Just as, at the threat of a fire, we would run for water to extinguish it… so too, if the flame of sin rises from our chaff and we are troubled, if the chance to perform a work of mercy is offered us, let us rejoice in it, as if it were a fountain offered us to extinguish the blaze".
It is the discernment, and accompaniment, of how a person might engage in this activity of charity that is seen by Pope Francis as the manner of an approach that integrates them in the life of the Church rather than rejecting them from it. Its spiritual, and therefore redemptive, value derives from the possibility that the person has participation in the life of grace of the Church. For the one who "seeks God" whilst in an objectively sinful marital situation, it offers a way of moving forward, of growing towards perfection. There is no reason why such a person should not be active in an SVP conference, engaged in hospital visiting or engaged in ship visiting (to give examples with relevance to my own locality), though they are not able to receive Holy Communion.

6. Pope Francis' answer to the dubia and to the correction is already there in Amoris Laetitia n.308:
I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, 'always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street'".

According to one of its signatories, the real claim of the correction is that Pope Francis has left  little doubt about how he wants Amoris Laetitia to be understood and applied, and this understanding is in the last analysis incompatible with the Catholic Faith. I think this claim is in the realm of speculation. Several of the cited instances of actions by Pope Francis that are claimed to indicate how he wishes us to understand and apply Amoris Laetitia do not in reality do any such thing unless a speculative interpretation is placed on them; and in so far as there is any indication of how Amoris Laetitia might be understood and applied, it is as  I indicate above. The Argentine bishops guidelines referred to, for example, do not say anything other than what is already in Amoris Laetitia itself, so Pope Francis' endorsement of them has no content in addition to Amoris Laetitia in any case.

Perhaps the authors of the correction would have better spent their time in promoting an understanding and application of Amoris Laetitia that is faithful to its text.