Wednesday 30 December 2020

Are teachers public servants?

 In today's edition of the Times newspaper, there is a Thunderer opinion piece entitled "Obstructive unions give teachers like me a bad name". It is written by a teacher in a state school here in the UK who is relatively new to teaching. The piece argues strongly in favour of continuing face-to-face teaching in the present circumstances and castigates teacher trade unions for advocating a delayed return to schools as the Christmas and New Year holiday ends.

However, the last paragraph of the article contains a give away line (my emphasis added):

Teachers need unions .... However, the unions must not forget that, like nurses and doctors, we are public servants. We have a duty to do our bit in times both difficult and good.

The term "public servants" is clearly open to differing interpretations -  it might refer generically to people who provide a service to members of the public or, in its perhaps more common and specific interpretation, it might refer to those who are in the service of and paid by the government or the state.

Should teachers (or, for that matter, nurses and doctors) really see themselves as servants of the state? Are they not firstly at the service of the families of the children they teach or of the patients they treat? Teachers are collaborators with parents in the fulfilling of the rights and responsibilities of those parents for the education of their children; and medical professionals cooperate with their patients in providing health care to them.

Teachers, nurses and doctors may be paid by the state, as they are in the education and health services of the United Kingdom. But that state funding does not undermine the first relationship between them and the families and patients with whom they work. Rather, the role of that state funding is to provide a mechanism that enables those first relationships to take place and to thrive.

Monday 28 December 2020

The Holy See and the United Nations: Paul VI

 In October 1965, during the meeting of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI paid a visit to the United Nations. The then Secretary General of the United Nations had invited the Holy Father to speak to the General Assembly in marking the twentieth anniversary of the organisation. Paul VI himself described this visit as a moment "bearing the imprint of a unique greatness", both for himself and for the United Nations. The full English text of Pope Paul's address can be found here at the Vatican website; the United Nations website carries a radio report, in English, of his visit here, a report that conveys something of the high expectations surrounding Pope Paul's visit. The address was originally delivered in French: text at the Vatican website here and audio on the United Nations site here

Pope Paul's speech is memorable for its impassioned plea for peace:

Here our message reaches its culmination and we will speak first of all negatively. These are the words you are looking for us to say and the words we cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again!

Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind." There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your Institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!

 But what I would like to explore is those sections of Pope Paul's address which indicate how he, and in his person the Holy See, understood the nature of the organisation that is the United Nations. 

You offer the many States which can no longer ignore each other a form of coexistence that is extremely simple and fruitful. First of all, you recognize them and distinguish them from each other. Now you certainly do not confer existence on States, but you do qualify each nation as worthy of being seated in the orderly assembly of peoples. You confer recognition of lofty moral and juridical value upon each sovereign national community and you guarantee it an honorable international citizenship.

There are two components in this paragraph. The first is a recognition that each of the individual states is not able to ignore the others; the behaviours of any one state have an influence on the behaviours of other states. And then secondly, in this context, the UN is recognises for each national community a "moral and juridical value" in a relationship to the like value of every other state, what the speech terms "international citizenship". Each national community is recognised as being of account in the consideration of every other national community. "Your vocation is to bring not just some peoples but all peoples together as brothers", to use the words Pope Paul used later in his address. This same paragraph ends with the following sentence which, though it does not require further exposition, is nevertheless significant for its implications for what should govern the relations between states:

You [ie the UN] sanction the great principle that relationships between nations must be regulated by reason, justice, law and negotiation, and not by force, violence, war, nor indeed by fear and deceit.

Pope Paul identifies a mission of working for peace as being characteristic of the nature of the United Nations:

Gentlemen, you have accomplished and are now in the course of accomplishing a great work: you are teaching men peace. The United Nations is the great school where people get this education and we are here in the assembly hall of this school. Anyone who takes his place here becomes a pupil and a teacher in the art of building peace. And when you go outside of this room, the world looks to you as the architects and builders of peace.

As you know very well, peace is not built merely by means of politics and a balance of power and interests. It is built with the mind, with ideas, with the works of peace. You are working at this great endeavor, but you are only at the beginning of your labors.

We do now have many more years experience of the work of the United Nations than were available to Pope Paul in 1965, an experience during which the deliberations of the UN Security Council in particular have not infrequently been the scene of exactly the politics of power and individual interests (think, for example, of the lack of action with regard to Syria since the civil war broke out there) to which Pope Paul drew attention. Reading Pope Paul's words today makes us feel that those words need to be repeated again to recall the members of the United Nations to their essential vocation.

To speak of humaneness and generosity is to echo another constitutional principle of the United Nations, its positive summit: you are working here not just to eliminate conflicts between States, but to make it possible for States to work for each other. You are not content with facilitating coexistence between nations. You are taking a much bigger step forward, one worthy of our praise and our support: you are organizing fraternal collaboration between nations..... This is the finest aspect of the United Nations Organization, its very genuine human side....

What you are proclaiming here are the basic rights and duties of man, his dignity, his liberty and above all his religious liberty. We feel that you are spokesmen for what is loftiest in human wisdom - we might almost say its sacred character - for it is above all a question of human life, and human life is sacred; no one can dare attack it.

We do not need to say anything further on this dimension of the work of the United Nations as identified by Pope Paul, beyond perhaps suggesting that Pope Paul is identifying an idea of international fraternity in its work that would later become the subject of Pope Francis' encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

Whilst these passages indicate something of how Pope Paul understood the nature and mission of the United Nations, an earlier part of his address offers what might rather be seen as a prudential judgement of the UN as being "the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace":

Permit us to say that we have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you Our message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty Institution, and it comes from our experience of history. It is as an "expert on humanity" that we bring this Organization the support and approval of our recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and our own, convinced as we are that this Organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace.

Whilst it may not be perfect - and Pope Paul recognised that the United Nations was setting out on its path rather than having achieved its purpose - this is an organisation to which support should be given.

[Postscript: it is also worth noting that Pope Paul referred, in a very diplomatic way, to some specific issues in his address - disarmament, birth control, the economic and social progress of poorer nations, literacy and culture.]

Sunday 27 December 2020

...for us...

 I think Pope Francis gave us a very beautiful homily at his Christmas Mass, focussing on those words "for us".

To us a son is given.  ..... the birth of Jesus is the “newness” that enables us to be reborn each year and to find, in him, the strength needed to face every trial.  Why?  Because his birth is for us – for me, for you, for all of us, for everyone.  “For” is a word that appears again and again on this holy night: “For us a child is born”, Isaiah prophesied.  “For us is born this day a Saviour”, we repeated in the Psalm.  Jesus “gave himself for us” (Tit 2:14), Saint Paul tells us, and in the Gospel the angel proclaims: “For to you is born this day a Saviour” (Lk 2:11).  For me, for you.

Yet what do those words – for us – really mean?   They mean that the Son of God, the one who is holy by nature, came to make us, as God’s children, holy by grace.  Yes, God came into the world as a child to make us children of God.  What a magnificent gift!  This day, God amazes us and says to each of us: “You are amazing”.  Dear sister, dear brother, never be discouraged.  Are you tempted to feel you were a mistake?  God tells you, “No, you are my child!”  Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from the dark tunnel of trial?  God says to you, “Have courage, I am with you”.  He does this not in words, but by making himself a child with you and for you.  In this way, he reminds you that the starting point of all rebirth is the recognition that we are children of God.  This is the starting point for any rebirth.  This is the undying heart of our hope, the incandescent core that gives warmth and meaning to our life.  Underlying all our strengths and weaknesses, stronger than all our past hurts and failures, or our fears and concerns about the future, there is this great truth: we are beloved sons and daughters.  God’s love for us does not, and never will, depend upon us.  It is completely free love.  Tonight cannot be explained in any other way: it is purely grace.  Everything is grace.  The gift is completely free, unearned by any of us, pure grace.  Tonight, Saint Paul tells us, “the grace of God has appeared” (Tit 2:11).  Nothing is more precious than this....

The angel proclaims to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: a baby lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).  That sign, the Child in the manger, is also a sign for us, to guide us through life.  In Bethlehem, a name that means “House of Bread”, God lies in a manger, as if to remind us that, in order to live, we need him, like the bread we eat.  We need to be filled with his free, unfailing and concrete love.  How often instead, in our hunger for entertainment, success and worldly pleasures, do we nourish life with food that does not satisfy and leaves us empty within!  The Lord, through the prophet Isaiah, complained that, while the ox and the donkey know their master’s crib, we, his people, do not know him, the source of our life (cf. Is 1:2-3).  It is true: in our endless desire for possessions, we run after any number of mangers filled with ephemeral things, and forget the manger of Bethlehem.  That manger, poor in everything yet rich in love, teaches that true nourishment in life comes from letting ourselves be loved by God and loving others in turn.  Jesus gives us the example.  He, the Word of God, becomes an infant; he does not say a word, but offers life.  We, on the other hand, are full of words, but often have so little to say about goodness. 

And towards the end of the homily, Pope Francis offers a thought provoking quotation from a short poem by Emily Dickinson, which reads in full:

WHO has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above. 
God's residence is next to mine, 
His furniture is love. 

Thursday 24 December 2020

Saturday 19 December 2020

Christmas 2020 and religious illiteracy

 As I write, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just announced "Tier 4" restrictions (of a tier system that only included Tiers 1, 2 and 3 before today) for London and other parts of East and South East England, effective pretty much immediately on his announcement. The announcement also included a significant modification of the previous rulings with regard to household mixing over Christmas for the whole of England, modifications that have been mirrored in Scotland and Wales.

The London Evening Standard website headlines its report: Tier 4 rules for London as Christmas cancelled by stay at home lockdown.

Even before Boris Johnson's announcement, the London Times newspaper for today was carrying two letters suggesting that the celebration of Christmas could be moved to another time.


Surely it's all in the marketing. Were the government to declare that Christmas is banned there would be a surge of resentment  and many people would carry on regardless. However, if it were to change its pitch to: "Clearly, celebrating Christmas now is not in anybody's interest, so the government declared Christmas will be celebrated at Easter 2021", this would offer hope rather than despair. Countless lives would be saved and millions of people would breathe a sigh of relief.


Given the restrictions, perhaps we could instead follow the example of Australia. "Christmas in July" would give us six months to vaccinate everyone and would allow families to enjoy the festivities out of doors.

 Whilst allowing for a measure of the tongue-in-cheek, particularly with the first of these letters, nonetheless a sense seems to prevail that the celebration of the Feast of Christmas can readily be moved or cancelled at legislative or social whim. 

The first component of the religious illiteracy that gives rise to this prevailing sense is the feeling that the celebration of the feast has its essence in the gathering of family and friends on Christmas Day. This certainly forms a part of our celebration of the day, when we are able to so gather; but it is not the essence of the Feast, or of what we celebrate in the Feast.

The essence of the Feast is the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the birth in human flesh of the Son of God, who is both true man and true God. When the gathering of friends and family, and the special lunch that may accompany it, becomes completely separated from this celebration of belief in the mystery of the Incarnation, it ceases to possess the character of a piety that reflects a religious faith; it isn't a celebration of Christmas. (Though I would add, in passing, that even where the celebration of Christian faith is weak, there is still the potential for the family gathering to point, even in an indistinct way, towards the event of faith.)

The second component of religious illiteracy that gives rise to this prevailing sense lies in the failure to recognise the connection in the life of faith between the Feast being celebrated and the specific day given over to that celebration. This is about the religious character of time, expressed in the Christian religion by the Liturgical calendar, but also found in Judaism, Islam and other religions which assign their feasts to specific days. The celebration of these religious Feasts simply cannot be moved arbitrarily by powers outside the relevant religious communities, and even within those communities any movement of feasts is constrained to a very high degree. Whilst we cannot expect everyone to share belief in this understanding of a religious character to time, is it too much to ask of journalists and public figures to at least show by how they write or speak about our Feast days that they have an understanding of the concept?

So, in 2020, while the human aspects of the celebration of the Feast of Christmas may be curtailed, the essentially religious celebration remains in its full splendour.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Taking the knee?

 I have a memory of a remark made by Pope Francis early in his pontificate. It was to the effect that popular piety represented the inculturation of the Gospel. I found it an interesting observation at the time, as it suggested an understanding of inculturation that reflected an experience of the ordinary faithful rather than a "project" to be promoted in the Church. What it also suggested was a valuing of those events such as processions and popular festivals, not just as public celebrations of a particular culture, but as lived expressions of the Catholic faith that lies behind them. Pope Francis' remark suggested that we should value such expressions of culture as also being expressions of Christian faith. 

However, a difficulty arises when the form of the cultural expression becomes distanced from a lived experience of Christian faith. Perhaps the most clear example of this is the secular celebration of Christmas in  the developed nations, where the assertion that Christmas is "all about the family getting together" rather overtakes the religious concept of it as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. (As an aside, I often wonder how I would have coped if I had been brought up in Ireland, where large Sunday Mass attendances I have seen during holiday visits have always seemed to suggest a deep faith on the part of the people that was not reflected in the celebrating clergy, leaving me wondering just how much was culture and how much was faith.)

So it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the faith-filled meaning of those gestures that can all too readily become just a habit, a product of a culture. Just as I ask myself exactly what each of those football players feel they are marking when the "take the knee" at the start of their match (and I suspect it is varied), I also ask myself what each of us feels we are marking as we genuflect towards the tabernacle as we enter and leave a Catholic Church. One of the tell tale signs of a culture only weakly informed by faith is the genuflection directed towards the front of the Church when the tabernacle is in a side chapel!

When he offered a catechesis on adoration as part of his homily at the closing Mass of the World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI did not intend it to be an explanation of the genuflection that we direct towards the tabernacle. Hearing it live, though, it immediately struck me as providing exactly that - an understanding of genuflection as an act of adoration, an act of both going down (submission) and loving embrace.

The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.

We all eat the one bread, and this means that we ourselves become one. In this way, adoration, as we said earlier, becomes union. God no longer simply stands before us as the One who is totally Other. He is within us, and we are in him. His dynamic enters into us and then seeks to spread outwards to others until it fills the world, so that his love can truly become the dominant measure of the world.

I like to illustrate this new step urged upon us by the Last Supper by drawing out the different nuances of the word "adoration" in Greek and in Latin. The Greek word is proskynesis. It refers to the gesture of submission, the recognition of God as our true measure, supplying the norm that we choose to follow. It means that freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves can become true and good. This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it.

We can only fully accept it when we take the second step that the Last Supper proposes to us. The Latin word for adoration is ad-oratio - mouth to mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love. Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way submission acquires a meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.

I was, of course, also struck as a physicist by Pope Benedict's use of an analogy of nuclear fission earlier in the homily, when talking about the transformation achieved in the Eucharistic celebration:

By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15: 28).

In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.

Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.

To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.

Pope Benedict's explanation of adoration can help us to achieve exactly that inculturation of the Gospel in an act of piety - genuflection towards Jesus present in the Eucharist  - foreseen by Pope Francis 

Friday 4 December 2020

Ellen or Elliot?

 Some 12 years ago I saw a film Juno, and commented on it: Film Review: Juno and here.  As I observed at the time, as well as its humour, the film shows how an unplanned pregnancy can be viewed in a positive way and explores how all those involved - the parents, the boyfriend and school friends - respond to the situation. If I recall correctly, it includes a scene where Juno leaves an abortion clinic, in effect making the decision to continue her pregnancy. Wikipedia gives a fuller account of the film here.

The title role of Juno was played by Ellen Page, who has now "come out as 'trans'". It is sad to see just how quickly sources such as Wikipedia, for example, are willing to change the casting in their post about the film from "Ellen" to "Elliot". Because the role of Juno in the film is not just a female role; because of the nature of the film's plot, it is an essentially feminine role, too. 

Whilst there is a courtesy in addressing someone now in the way in which they ask to be addressed, without that implying anything other than courtesy towards the person, it will be unfortunate if a retrospective "re-gendering" should in any way overshadow the essentially female casting of a film that pre-dates transition. Whilst I might greet him now as Elliot, in Juno she remains Ellen Page.

Sunday 29 November 2020

A hazardous "re-tweet"

 On 20th December 2019 Pope Francis visited a school in Rome, and answered questions from the students. Pope Francis' response to two of the students, in the original Italian, is below (there is no English translation on the Vatican website). My partial translation is inserted - I will try to do a full translation when I have more time.

The major part of Pope Francis' first answer is an account of his own experience living as a young person in Argentina, in a natural encounter with other young people of different faiths at school and at home. It was a natural education to co-existence. And it is a situation where an explicit attempt to convert would represent an abuse of the natural friendships of the school and community - this is the proselytism that Pope Francis speaks against. And remember that Pope Francis' words are addressed to young people, in a school, where the same considerations would apply.

The essence of Pope Francis' second answer is that witness is the first step in evangelisation, and it is when witness arouses curiosity that it is then possible to speak explicitly. This is exactly in line with the teaching on the process of evangelisation in n.31 of the recently published Directory for Catechesis.

It is therefore quite scandalous to suggest that Pope Francis opposes or speaks out against the conversion of others to the Catholic faith: Pope Francis: "never try to convince an unbeliever"

DOMANDA – Francesco T.

Salve Santo Padre, io volevo chiederle, quando lei insegnava, che sguardi, che gesti, che pensieri aveva nei confronti di persone di altre credenze religiose, anche? [Holy Father, I want to ask you, when you teach, what look, what signs, what thoughts do you have before people of other religious beliefs?]

DOMANDA - Damiano

Buongiorno Santità, io volevo porle un quesito. Se un ateo venisse da lei e le chiedesse una ragione fondamentale per cominciare a credere che cosa gli risponderebbe? [Good morning, your Holiness, I want to ask you a question. If an atheist comes to you and asks you for one fundamental reason to begin to believe, what would you reply?]


Andiamo alla tua prima. Quando insegnavo che sguardo e che parole avevo verso i ragazzi credenti o di altre religioni... Ma in Argentina c’è un fenomeno sociale, che è il fenomeno migratorio. Dopo le due grandi guerre ci sono state ondate migratorie dall’Europa, anche dall’Asia minore e gli italiani... Pensa che il 40 per cento degli argentini ha un cognome italiano, quasi l’altro 40 spagnolo. Poi polacchi, russi, tutti... anche arabi, che noi chiamavamo “turchi” perché venivano col passaporto del grande impero ottomano. C’è una mescolanza di sangue, un meticciato forte in Argentina - io sono figlio di un migrante – e questo ha fatto una cultura della convivenza. Io ho fatto la scuola pubblica e sempre avevamo compagni di altre religioni. Siamo stati educati alla convivenza: “C’è un ebreo, ah russo... Vieni, vieni! Io sono amico del russo!”. Dicevano russo perché la maggioranza degli ebrei venivano da Odessa, alcuni dalla Polonia ma la maggioranza da Odessa. Poi c’era qualche arabo, libanese, siriano... “Ah, turco! Vieni, vieni!”. Questo era maomettano, questo era ebreo... Ma tutti insieme giocavamo, al pallone, eravamo amici tutti. Questo a me ha insegnato tanto, che siamo tutti uguali, tutti figli di Dio e questo ti purifica lo sguardo, te lo fa umano. In Argentina c’è un piccolo gruppetto di cattolici troppo chiusi che non vogliono gli ebrei, non vogliono gli islamici ma questo gruppo, almeno a me non è mai piaciuto, è un gruppo che è all’angolo, hanno una rivista culturale ma non hanno incidenza nella società e quando io insegnavo li guardavo com’erano, questo è il segreto. Tu devi essere coerente con la tua fede. Non mi veniva in mente e non deve essere così di dire a un ragazzo o a una ragazza: “Tu sei ebreo, tu sei musulmano: vieni, convertiti!”. [It did not come to my mind, and it should not be like that, to say to a boy or girl: "You are Jewish, you are Muslim: come, be converted!"]Tu sii coerente con la tua fede e quella coerenza è quella che ti farà maturare. [You must be consistent with your faith and that consistency is what will make you mature.] Non siamo nei tempi delle crociate. E’ una cosa brutta ma che a me ha fatto soffrire tanto, un passo della “Chanson de Roland”, quando i cristiani, i crociati avevano vinto i musulmani e poi si faceva una coda di tutti i musulmani e davanti c’era il prete e un soldato. Il prete davanti alla fonte battesimale e tutti venivano - leggete quel passo – egli domandavano: “O il battesimo o la spada”. Questo è successo nella storia! Anche lo fanno con noi cristiani in altre parti anche lo stanno facendo ma quello che è successo da noi a me “vergogna” (fa vergognare) perché è una storia di conversione forzata, di non rispetto della dignità della persona. Per questo la mia esperienza era naturale con le persone di altre religioni perché il mio papà il lavoro del mio papà era ragioniere e lui aveva tanti clienti imprenditori ebrei e venivano a casa, era normale e non ho avuto questo come un problema. Ma deve essere normale. Niente lasciarli da parte perché hanno un’altra fede. E tu. Damiano, che parola userebbe per convincere qualcuno a diventare cristiano...


Se chiedesse a lei una ragione fondamentale per cominciare a credere...


La prima è tutto. Davanti a un non credente l’ultima cosa che devo fare è cercare di convincerlo. Mai. L’ultima cosa che devo fare è parlare. Devo vivere coerente con la mia fede. E sarà la mia testimonianza a risvegliare la curiosità dell’altro che dice: “Ma perché tu fai questo?”. E lì sì posso parlare. Ma senti, mai, mai si porta il vangelo con proselitismo. [Before a non believer the last thing I must do is to try to convince them. Never. The last thing that I must do is to speak. I must live consistently with my faith. And it will be my testimony that will arouse the curiosity of the other who says: "But why do you do this?". And then it is possible to speak. But listen, never, never preach the Gospel with proselytism.] Se qualcuno dice di essere discepolo di Gesù e ti viene col proselitismo, questo non è discepolo di Gesù. Il proselitismo non si fa, la Chiesa non cresce per proselitismo. L’aveva detto Papa Benedetto, cresce per attrazione, per testimonianza. [Proselytism does not work, the Church does not grow by proselytism. As Pope Benedict said, it grows by attraction, by testimony]. Il proselitismo lo fanno le squadre di calcio, questo si può fare, i partiti politici, si può fare lì ma con la fede niente proselitismo. E se qualcuno mi dice: “Ma tu perché?”. Leggi, leggi, leggi il Vangelo, questa è la mia fede. Ma senza pressione. 

Saturday 28 November 2020

Advent: a double expectation

 The two-fold expectation that is characteristic of the Advent season draws our attention to a feature of our Liturgical life as a whole. As we celebrate the Sacraments and life of prayer bestowed on the Church at Christ's first coming, that very celebration is oriented towards Christ's second coming. The Liturgy faces us from the events of one coming towards the event of a second coming; it exists in a kind of "in between". Our Liturgical prayer has a direction: it faces towards the East, that is, towards the dawn, the sign of Jesus coming.

Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, 
graciously grant peace in our days,
 that, by the help of your mercy, 
we may be always free from sin 
and safe from all distress, 
as we await the blessed hope 
and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

It is very easy at Mass to listen to the words of the Preface without really "hearing" them. Participating on line might make us more attentive, and we might then notice how the first Preface for the Advent season captures the two-fold expectation typical of the season:

For he assumed at his first coming 
the lowliness of human flesh, 
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, 
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, 
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty 
and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day  
may inherit the great promise 
in which now we dare to hope.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Red Wednesday

 Today is being marked as "Red Wednesday", an initiative begun by Aid to the Church in Need but now recognised as a global initiative.

The day is intended to draw the attention of people and their governments to the persecution of Christians and other religious believers. Aid to the Church in Need are publishing today their report Set your Captives Free: A Report on Christians unjustly detained for their Faith. It is possible to request a copy of this report here.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Christ the King

 Magnificat has an article by Bishop Hugh Gilbert for the Solemnity of Christ the King, which we celebrate this weekend, at the end of the liturgical year.

The Solemnity of Christ the King has sometimes been called an "idea-feast". It is nothing of the kind. It is the feast of a reality. The reality of Christ's kingship, Christ's kingdom. A bewildering, mysterious reality, even a joke sometimes (at the foot of the cross, for example), and yet more real than any other kingship or kingdom there has ever been. A hidden King, but visible in his sacraments. A king who has come, but is coming again. A kingdom like and unlike, friend and foe to, every other kingdom. A kingdom here and not here, in the world but not of it. The paradoxes are endless....

G.K. Chesterton once remarked that only belonging to the Church sets one free from the degrading slavery of being a child of one's times. And so it is. Affirming, acclaiming this King - You are the Christ, the true King - loosens the clutches of all other competing kingdoms: public opinion, totalitarian governments, market forces, the dogmas of the age, our own addictions, King sin and King death. They all have their day and their sway, but there is something else abroad as well, subverting them all. There is a freedom and a clarity and a kingship of soul in the gift of Jesus the King....

.... surely, we'll find ourselves resolving. We'll find ourselves wanting to live free, with kingship over ourselves, free enough therefore to give ourselves in humble love. Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me. That is the kingdom and the kingship of Christ.

Next Sunday it is Advent, and a new liturgical year, a year for hearing St Mark... At the beginning of his Gospel stand the Beatitudes, at the end these works of mercy.... And in the middle comes the acclamation of St Peter, You are the Christ, the messianic King, the Son of God. Let us live what we hear, proud to have Christ as our King.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

What is truth?

 A go to text for the feast of Christ the King is the account of the dialogue of Jesus with Pilate, in Part Two of Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet during the interrogation we suddenly arrive at  dramatic moment: Jesus' confession. To Pilate's question: "So you are a king?" he answers: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice" (Jn 18:37). Previously Jesus had said: "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; by my kingship is not from the world" (18:36).... it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him "What is truth? (18:38).

Pope Benedict then goes on to explore the meaning of that word "truth". He asks a question that can be placed alongside an observation of Pope Pius XI with regard to the League of Nations and the international efforts for peace in the years immediately after the First World War (italics added to both quotations to draw out the parallel):

Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its space taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?

And Pope Pius XI in his first encyclical letter, written at the end of 1922, when conflict in the near East and the Balkan region was already emerging despite the negotiations and treaties that had followed the conclusion of the First World War:

45. When, therefore, governments and nations follow in all their activities, whether they be national or international, the dictates of conscience grounded in the teachings, precepts, and example of Jesus Christ, and which are binding on each and every individual, then only can we have faith in one another's word and trust in the peaceful solution of the difficulties and controversies which may grow out of differences in point of view or from clash of interests. An attempt in this direction has already and is now being made; its results, however, are almost negligible and, especially so, as far as they can be said to affect those major questions which divide seriously and serve to arouse nations one against the other. No merely human institution of today can be as successful in devising a set of international laws which will be in harmony with world conditions as the Middle Ages were in the possession of that true League of Nations, Christianity. 

Pope Benedict offers a succinct account of Thomas Aquinas teaching on truth: firstly, as the conformity of intellect to reality; secondly, as properly present firstly in God's intellect and derivatively in the human intellect; and finally God as "truth itself, the sovereign and first truth".

... if man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger. "Redemption" in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognisable. And it becomes recognisable when God become recognisable. He becomes recognisable in Jesus Christ. 

Which brings us back to the appeal of Pius XI, in Quas Primas, that the world should recognise and obey the rule of Christ the King. 

Saturday 14 November 2020

Quas Primas and the Source of Civil Authority

 In Pius XI's encyclical Quas Primas, we read:

What We said at the beginning of Our Pontificate concerning the decline of public authority, and the lack of respect for the same, is equally true at the present day. "With God and Jesus Christ," we said, "excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation."...

If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects.
....When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King... Men will see in their king or in their rulers men like themselves, perhaps unworthy or open to criticism, but they will not on that account refuse obedience if they see reflected in them the authority of Christ God and Man. 
And in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we can read:

1897 "Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all." By "authority" one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them.

1898 Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.

1899 The authority required by the moral order derives from God: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

I have added the underlinings in both quotations, as it seems to represent the source of a particular integrist interpretation of the teaching of Quas Primas that is not reflected in the teaching of the Catechism or the section of Gaudium et Spes (nn.73-76) on which the Catechism draws. References for the citations in the extract from the Catechism can be found by following the link to the Catechism above..

The idea that all authority has its (direct) origin in God and, from a Christian point of view, in the person of Christ to whom the Father has entrusted all things, is what gives rise to the notion that that authority can only be rightly exercised in a confessional Catholic state. This contrasts with the suggestion of the Catechism that political authority has a foundation in human nature, distinguished from an authority in the moral order which derives from God. It also contrasts with the teaching of n.76 of Gaudium et Spes that:

The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. 

The resolution of this contrast is found in a subtle formulation of Gaudium et Spes, to which the Catechism refers, and emphasised again by my added italics:

Yet the people who come together in the political community are many and diverse, and they have every right to prefer divergent solutions. If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good, not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one's freedom and sense of responsibility. 
It is clear, therefore, that the political community and public authority are founded on human nature and hence belong to the order designed by God, even though the choice of a political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free will of citizens.

Where Pius XI uses the language of direct representation of the authority of God in the exercise of authority in public office, Gaudium et Spes instead speaks of a public authority that is exercised within a created order originating from God. The former might be seen as an expression in the order of revelation, while the latter is a like expression in the order of creation.

It is worth appreciating three aspects of context for Pius XI's remarks about the nature of authority in political life. Firstly, Quas Primas has its immediate purpose in establishing, as a celebration in the universal Church, of the liturgical feast of Christ the King, and therefore the relevance of Christ's kingship to the religious life of Catholics. Secondly, the encyclical also has a section that surveys the different places where the Old and New Testaments refer to Christ as a King, or as one who will rule. And thirdly, the discussion of the relationship between the kingship of Christ and authority exercised by civil powers is offered in response to Pius XI's perception of a rejection of Christ by rulers and states of his time (perhaps with a reference to the rise of fascism in Italy and atheistic communism in Russia?).

Though Quas Primas urges that rulers and states should acknowledge in their public life the rule of Christ, this has more the sense of an impulse for evangelisation than an advocacy in favour of a confessional Catholic state. This is particularly seen to be the case if the discussion of civil authority is placed alongside such sections of Quas Primas as the survey of Scriptural texts, which present Christ's kingship in a messianic and eschatological perspective, and its discussion of the feast day in relation to the lives of Catholics themselves.

The penultimate paragraph of Quas Primas provides a useful reflection as we approach the feast of Christ the King this year:

If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.

Saturday 7 November 2020

Decolonising "decolonisation"

 A conversation about "decolonising the curriculum" has been fashionable in educational circles of late. But the conversation about "decolonising" extends beyond just the professional field of education. The September 2020 issue of the magazine midwives, the magazine of the UK Royal College of Midwives, carries an article entitled "Decolonising maternity services". And in Bristol, the conversation really extends to the decolonising of the civic culture of a whole city much of the wealth of which originated in the slave trade (see, for example, this BBC report, which appears to pre-date the use of the term "decolonising" thought it addresses the issues to which the term refers). The term has of late emerged from the world of academia into that of different professional and cultural fields.

I have two observations to make about what appears to be an emerging fashion for "decolonisation", both as a term in itself and as a term which refers to programmes of ideas and activity. 

The first observation is that, in wider society, we should not adopt this new term without some critical reflection. "Decolonising" is one term, one word. But is it always being used with the same sense, with the same meaning, in different contexts? Does it refer only, as one might think at first sight, to addressing wrongs of the past which may endure into the present of a British Empire, or the empires of other European nations? Or does it refer just to present day questions about disadvantage experienced by people of colour? This point about a certain imprecision in the exact meaning of the term is illustrated at this page from Warwick University: What is decolonising methodology? If it is, as the Warwick University article suggests, "a powerful metaphor for those wanting to critique positions of power and dominant culture", then its practical meaning is going to depend heavily on the perception of power and dominance in culture of the individual who adopts the term. Without having some security about the meaning of the term in its professional and cultural application we should approach its use with caution.

My second observation is perhaps somewhat more significant. The language of "decolonisation" at first sight implies the removal of something, or, at least, the acknowledgement of something, unfortunate from the past that may still have an influence on practice today. But, when it comes to professional practice and wider culture, it is highly likely that the outcome of "decolonisation" will be simply the replacement of  one "colonisation" by another of a different, and perhaps highly ideological, type. The example cited from the magazine midwives above illustrates the point. One paragraph of the article reads:

In 2018, I founded Decolonising Contraception - a community-based organisation for black and people of colour working within Sexual and Reproductive Health. We felt frustrated that the conversations that we wished to have concerning how unethical history continues to influence our practice were not being had, so looked to social and digital media to start new conversations.

And this is the link to the SEXFESTO (ie mission statement) on the website of Decolonising Contraception. It is also worth looking at the activist curriculum vitae on this page at the site (a name and brief CV appear when you hover over each photograph). Quite clearly, the term "decolonisation" is hiding the promotion of a very particular idea of what constitutes sexual and reproductive health. It is also worth being aware of the use of social and digital media to promote that particular idea, an indication of ideological intent.

The practical suggestion I would make for anyone who is faced with the question of "decolonisation" in their professional environment would be this. After the proponents of "decolonisation" have proposed their point of view, ask them to explicitly state what they would like to fill the space that has been left by their "decolonisation". And then challenge them if all they appear to be doing is replacing one (perceived) "colonisation" with another ... and then to resist the ideological colonisation of their profession.

Sunday 1 November 2020

k, R and the Scandal Reproduction Number

Readers with a background in physics may recall that there was a quantity from the late 1930's research into nuclear physics referred to as k, or the k-number. It refers to the way in which neutrons produced by one nuclear fission in a reactor can then go on to cause further fission in other nuclei of the reactor, leading to a successive chain of reactions. The account in Alwyn McKay's The Making of the Atomic Age, reads as follows:

This is called the neutron multiplication factor, and is usually denoted by k. If, for instance, the number doubles from one generation [reaction] to the next, k=2, and if it increases by  five per cent, k= 1.05. Any increase, be it noted, is at compound interest, and if unchecked, may lead to an explosion, whereas a decrease, with k less than one, implies that the chains will peter out.

In the days of coronavirus, we have become very familiar with the R-number, the virus reproduction number.  This is the average number of people to whom one infected person will pass the virus. Where the physicists of the 1930s were trying to achieve a k-number equal to or just above one so that a sustained chain reaction would be possible, public health officials of 2020 want to achieve a value of R that is less than one so that the transmission of the coronavirus will gradually die out. 

Now, I am not one of those who think that Pope Francis is a Pope who gives rise to scandal among the faithful. But, just for a moment, just suppose I was one such.... would I want to contribute to the scandal reproduction number by posting about it on the internet? In particular, would I want to do that by re-tweeting. embedding or re-posting someone else's observations about how scandalous Francis is? 

Just as with the k-number of the physicist and the R-number of the epidemiologist, there comes a point where a value greater than one for the scandal reproduction number gives rise to a permanent prevalence of scandal, even though the scandal at that stage may bear little or no relation to the original event that is claimed to have given rise to it. When this happens, the responsibility for the scandal lies with those who have been happy, in the first instant, to call it scandal; and, in the second instance and perhaps more significantly, with those who have been willing to repeat the message of scandal after them.

Friday 30 October 2020

Abortion and Disability

 While Poland experiences street protests against a judicial determination that abortion on the grounds of disability of the unborn baby is unconstitutional, the BBC has carried a report of the experiences of mothers of Down's Syndrome children. The headings of the three testimonies in the report are:

'The support was only there if I chose an abortion'
'At 38 weeks, I was told I could still terminate'
'I started to ask myself what is so wrong with him having Down's Syndrome'

The last testimony is, in some respects, the most challenging but at the same time the most instructive:

When Tom was born, Nicola was euphoric. But the following day, a paediatrician asked her if she thought he looked normal.

Tom was diagnosed with Down's syndrome and Nicola's world fell apart.

"I was offered absolutely no support to rebuild it," she says. "I felt complete and utter despair and devastation. Gone was this gorgeous baby and instead he was replaced with this unknown entity." .....

..... Nicola's maternal bond had been "severed" and it took her more than a year to fall back in love with her son.

"I started to ask myself, 'what is so wrong with him having Down's syndrome?'"

Tom, now 16, is a pupil in mainstream education. Nicola describes him as "charming, witty and charismatic". A West Bromwich Albion fan, he also enjoys golf, snorkelling and kayaking and hopes to get a job and get married.

Nicola says cancelling the amniocentesis was the best decision she ever made.

"I am terrified I would have terminated Tom's life. I was led to believe he would have a negative impact on our lives but he has enriched them and we are without doubt better people for having him in them."

The BBC report demonstrates clearly a presumption on the part of health care professionals to encourage mothers to consider abortion where there is risk of a baby having Down's Syndrome. It is difficult to read the BBC report without actually feeling that that encouragement is close to, if not in fact, undue pressure. The BBC report links to the page on the NHS website page - here - that offers advice for women with regard to the outcome of pre-natal screening tests. It would be interesting to know how much, in the light of the advice on this page, the experience of mothers has changed compared to the testimonies in this report (the advice has been changed as a result of campaigning by Nicola).

The BBC report prompts two thoughts:

Is an abortion a truly acceptable option in the case of a disability that still leaves the new born baby with a life expectancy of between 50 and 60 years (according to the BBC report), and where, during their lifetime, they can be expected to contribute much to the lives of those around them?

The fact that such an abortion is legal in the UK means that every woman who is expecting a child who may be disabled is put in the position of having to make a decision for or against that abortion. Is the challenge/difficulty, or even the degree of trauma, involved in that decision really in the best interests of every woman, particularly given the apparent presumption in one direction of the surrounding medical care? Is this a choice that women should really be asked to make?

Sunday 25 October 2020

The dangers of not defining the term "love"

 In times when the word "love" is often used in an ill-defined way, it is tempting to assimilate the teaching of the Gospel at Mass today (30th Sunday of the Year):

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.... You must love your neighbour as yourself.

to the mantra of those who advocate for same-sex marriage:

We should be free to marry whoever we love.

Among Christians in general, the ability to answer this incorrect assimilation is undermined if there is no clear definition of what is meant by the term "love", and so there is a slide into an almost passive acceptance of same-sex unions through a lack of confidence as to how to argue against them.

The parish newsletter in the parish where I go to Mass opened with the following commentary on the words of the Gospel:

We are all surely familiar with these words. The question is, do we understand them, and do we live them? Before we can consider the three elements of this summary of the law (love of God, neighbour and self) we need to understand what love is, for we often mistake other things for love. Love is not just a feeling, though feelings certainly form part of it. Nor is it mere instinct or attraction, though these too play a part. Love, ultimately, is an act of the will – a choice. A choice for the good of another person, that takes priority over our own feelings, and is made without any thought to self -interest or personal gain. Put like this it sounds daunting, impossible even, but this kind of love is something we grow into, with God’s help, and our lives on earth are principally a preparation and training ground for the life of perfect unalloyed love which is heaven. 

The full newsletter, with its further commentary on the Gospel, can be found here - note that it will not be a permanent link, as the parish website only keeps recent newsletters. 

The homily I heard at Mass (from a priest covering from a neighbouring parish) was also interesting. In answering the question as to why it was love of God that was the first commandment, rather than love of neighbour, Father suggested that it was our need to experience love first that then enabled us to act in love towards others. As we come to appreciate and know just how much God has loved us, before we have loved him, then we grow in our ability to love others. 

But these words also have a resonance at the ordinary human level which Father did not develop.  Young people who do not have an experience of love in its true sense from their family backgrounds in their turn find it much harder (though it is not impossible) to love their neighbour, and to love a spouse and children in marriage. And we see this consequence in our societies today.

The commentary from the parish newsletter came to its conclusion with the following:

It is easy to overlook the last part: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Loving ourselves means accepting ourselves as God’s beloved son or daughter, and seeking our own good just as God does – that ‘good’ being a share in his life for eternity. Cut adrift from God and the notion of absolute truth and absolute values, many people in society today feel that it is necessary to affirm every choice as equally ‘good’. But God, as a good and loving father knows that not every choice is good for us. It is because God loves us, that he wants us to choose what is good whilst respecting our freedom to make good and bad choices. He affirms us but not every choice we make! Since God loves us, we can and must love ourselves. The three loves Jesus speaks of – God, neighbour, and self – are not in competition, for our supreme good, that of our neighbour, and God’s will, all coincide. 

Thursday 22 October 2020

Pope Francis and same-sex unions

 Catholic teaching on same-sex unions - and, I would suggest, Pope Francis' attitude to them - have not changed despite the reporting of his remarks in a recent film. The BBC include some balanced commentary, but the London Evening Standard are suggesting a "major step forward" that appears unjustified.

Catholic teaching is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Pope Francis has been very clear in critiquing the "colonization of the family" by an ideology of gender, and in critiquing theories of gender that undermine the proper complementarity of the male and female sexes. He has also upheld the idea that marriage is rightly understood as being a vowed relationship between one man and one woman. No-one should be under any misapprehension about this.

I have added the italics in n.2358 in the quotation above because, so far as I can tease it out from the media reporting, Pope Francis' remarks on same sex unions in the film are addressed to particular circumstances for which he articulates the principle of non-discrimination. He does not appear to me to be seeking to change Catholic teaching, or the perception of Catholic teaching.

There is, for example, no moral approval intended of the same sex relationship between the two people contained in the encouragement that they and the children they are bringing up should attend Mass. Applied to the particular circumstances, this appears to me nothing other than "accepting with respect, compassion and sensitivity". The observation that people "have a right to a family" appears to me to address two possible situations: firstly, where children are being brought up by a same-sex couple, where it represents a statement of the care due to those children whoever might provide it; and secondly, to a situation where a member of a family identifies as LGBT and might at that point be cast out from their family as a result. In both cases we again have an articulation of the principle of non-discrimination applied to a specific instance, and, in addition, a thought provoking suggestion as to how Catholic families might prepare to respond should such an instance occur in their own family or extended circle.

The difficulty with expressing support for legislation for civil unions for same-sex couples is that those unions can be perceived as a form of same-sex marriage in all but name (and, as has now happened, represent just a stepping stone on the way to further legal provision that does equate same-sex unions with opposite sex marriage). They can be perceived as an acceptance of the moral legitimacy of such relationships. However, there is some justice in making provision for same-sex couples who may have lived a shared common life over many years to have similar protections over their goods and property that a married opposite sex couple would have - but, of course, this does not have to be linked to the sexual aspect of their shared life. Such provision can be framed for any people who have lived such a shared common life, of which same-sex couples would be one example. In speaking out for a legal provision for civil unions, Pope Francis is again attempting (perhaps in a way that lacks precision) to articulate the principle of non-discrimination.

Mark Lambert has some very useful additional comment on the question of Pope Francis' words about  the "right to a family" and about civil unions here: No, no he didn't actually ..

As the BBC commentary observes, there is no indication what so ever that a change in the substantive position of the Catholic Church on this subject is likely, and media coverage that suggests a "major step forward" is not helpful either to expectations in the Church at large or to the expectations of the LGBT community.

Monday 19 October 2020

Life: A Mystery

 ... is the title of a session at the 2020 annual Rimini Meeting organised under the auspices of Communion and Liberation. The link to the video of the session is here: Life: A Mystery. The first and third presentations are in English; the second presentation is a simultaneous English translation from Italian (there may be one or two infelicitous translations, where an English phrase may not fully reflect the Italian original). Total length is just over an hour.

The first presentation gives a survey of the experience of euthanasia in the Netherlands by Theo Boer, an ethicist who had originally supported legislation in favour of euthanasia but subsequently resigned from one of the regional oversight committees that exist in the Netherlands. The second is given by the doctor responsible for leading on the intensive care provision in Lombardy province during the COVID-19 emergency earlier this year. He describes his experience during that time. The third presentation is from Elvira Parravicini, describing her work in Neo-natal Comfort Care. She ends her talk with a very moving account of one of her cases. 

I think the video is worth watching, not just because of its content, but also because of the encounter it engenders with the presenters, and the sense it gives of how they have responded to the challenges of their professional lives.

Friday 16 October 2020

Globalisation: 1931 and 2020

 From Quadragesimo Anno (1931):

105. In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.
106. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.
107. This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience.

My italics added.  There is an interesting point raised here, given that the discussion of Quadragesimo Anno, and the earlier Rerum Novarum, focusses so much on the principle of ownership and the relationship between capital and ownership and between labour and ownership. Is there an ethical objection to be raised to this divorce of capital from ownership of an enterprise? Is not this the true sense of the term usury - a use of capital to gain profit without any ownership or labour that is ordered towards the creation of wealth?

From Fratelli Tutti (2020):

12. “Opening up to the world” is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries. Local conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy in order to impose a single cultural model. This culture unifies the world, but divides persons and nations, for “as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours, but does not make us brothers”. We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life. Indeed, there are markets where individuals become mere consumers or bystanders. As a rule, the advance of this kind of globalism strengthens the identity of the more powerful, who can protect themselves, but it tends to diminish the identity of the weaker and poorer regions, making them more vulnerable and dependent. In this way, political life becomes increasingly fragile in the face of transnational economic powers that operate with the principle of “divide and conquer”. 

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Anscombe Bioethics Centre: the Ethics of Pandemic Lockdown

 The Anscombe Bioethics Centre have commissioned, and published on their website, a series of  COVID-19 briefing papers. One of these papers addresses the ethics of imposed lockdowns to control the spread of the pandemic virus in different places. Written in mid-June 2020, it is able to draw on the experience of lockdowns in different parts of the world. It is able to discuss the part that has been played by lockdowns in relation to other steps aimed at keeping the spread of the pandemic under control, and the necessity of moving to a lockdown if those steps are not able to limit community spread.

The headings of the first three substantive sections of the paper are: "The Science of Pandemics", "The Logic of Pandemic Lockdowns" and "The Efficacy of Pandemic Lockdowns". These sections are clear that the virus responsible for COVID-19 represents a real and serious threat to the health of populations and to the well being of their communities. These sections provide properly academic analysis of the experience of different nations with respect to the implementation - or otherwise - of lockdowns. They are worth reading fully to provide a proper balance to coverage in the news media.

Before identifying the ethical principles that would underpin an evaluation of lockdowns, the fourth section, entitled "The Ethics of Pandemic Lockdowns", begins:

As we discussed above, lockdowns are the most potent weapon that public health officials can deploy to prevent or to limit a viral wildfire. They are used to bring an uncontrolled pandemic into control. From a public health perspective, this would ensure not only the health and well-being of a community but also the integrity and functioning of its healthcare system. However, a lockdown also has profound and often devastating impacts on the community’s economic and financial well-being. In April 2020, because of the Global Lockdown, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that global growth in this year of pandemic would fall to -3%. This is a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020.

 Three ethical principles are then identified. The first is that there should be no differentiation in the duty of care between different members of society. Human dignity, and the regard for that dignity, attaches to each and every person regardless of their particular circumstances of physical health or social standing:

As a community, we have to try to protect them equally well during a pandemic even though we may not be able to protect everyone equally well. 

The second is a call to favour and protect the poor and the vulnerable:

Recalling the story of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46), we are called to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. This is especially important to remember during this pandemic because it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the loss of health and the loss of wealth caused by COVID-19. 

 The third principle is that of protecting and preserving the common good of our communities:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the common good as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.’ Within the commonweal, the government is given the authority to care for the common good. This is its primary responsibility. 

Pandemic lockdowns only make sense, from an ethical point of view, in their ability to protect and preserve the common good by reducing viral spread and, in particular, viral spread in the community. 

Lockdowns are ethically justifiable precisely because they protect both the individual good, especially the individual good of the poor and the vulnerable, and the common good. They ensure not only the health and well-being of a community but also the integrity and functioning of its healthcare system. 

The responsibility of government for the common good is what allows them to establish regulations with regard to the conduct of their lives during the pandemic that oblige the  population of their country. The citizen in their turn has an obligation to engage, as a subject of their own action, in favour of the common good and therefore in compliance with established regulations. Government is entitled, for example, to make self-isolation mandatory when a person is identified as a "contact" or tests positive for COVID-19. But the common good in its economic dimension also needs to be considered in determining the exact provisions of a lockdown. 

As we move forward, public health authorities should do what they can to avoid another global lockdown. The pandemic experience in several countries and locales including South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, show us how to do this: By building a robust testing, tracking, and tracing capacity that can identify clusters of infections and break chains of viral transmission before they trigger community spread and exponential growth of the pandemic. 

I would recommend Rev. Austriaco's briefing paper, particularly to those who are tempted by the inclination of some towards virus-sceptic or lockdown-sceptic positions.