Sunday 24 January 2021

"War of words risks wiping women from our language"

 ... is the title of the Weekend Essay in the London Times newspaper for Saturday 23 January. In this piece, Janice Turner argues that the language of biological sex should be retained rather than being entirely replaced by a language of "gender" and gender neutral terms such as "parent", or even "birthing parent" to replace "mother".

The article starts by citing a ruling by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, which removed terms such as "mother", "father", "daughter", "brother" and other gendered words from the House rules, and replaced them with gender neutral terms such as "parent", "child" or "sibling". It then refers to an executive order of President Biden that extended a Supreme Court ruling referring to discrimination "because of sex" so that its provision also apply on the basis of gender identity.

What Ms Turner points out as a consequence of this is that

... with zero debate or legislative scrutiny, biological sex as a discrete political and legal concept has gone.

One might also add that, without a language to describe those distinctive relationships within a family between a father and daughter, father and son, mother and daughter, the specific dynamics of these different relationships will over time be erased from everyday experience.

At one point in her article, Ms Turner recognises a denial of science in the idea that an understanding of a person's gender, and access to facilities based on that gender, might contradict the plain sense of the biological sex of the person when that is opposite to their identified gender. Whilst one can recognise that a person can have a deeply felt internal sense that can be termed "gender", it does not make scientific sense to assimilate this, to a greater or lesser extent subjective, sense of self to the objective physiology of a human body that is termed "sex". Towards the end of her article, Ms Turner characterises it like this:

No semantic shifts can change what ordinary people see: activists who deny biology sound like flat-earthers...

The bulk of Ms Turner's article describes how, firstly, the abolition of the idea of biological sex denies significant areas of women's experience of life: menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, birth. It cites the words of J K Rowling's tweet, which led to her vilification:

If sex isn't real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.

Secondly, it describes how the resulting use of language as it filters down through commerce, charities, health care providers, and public bodies, acts predominantly to the disadvantage of women and not to the disadvantage of men. In some respects it can undermine efforts to address maternal mortality, for example, if data is recorded against gender identification rather than biological sex. 

Ms Turner is not by any means "on the side of the angels", but her reference to the divide between trans rights activists and feminists contains a truth that can be applied more generally for those who would oppose what Pope Francis terms an "ideological colonisation" of the family, namely the necessity of maintaining a conversation about biological sexual difference and complementarity:

There is no need for this rancorous divide between trans activists and feminists. Yet peace depends upon an agreement that sex exists, that in certain limited circumstances it overrides gender, and that language to describe biological reality is valid.

[As an aside, in a way that I suspect was not intended by the writer, the following part of Janice Turner's article might provide a jumping off point for a wider discussion of the part that a father of an unborn child might play in a decision for abortion on the part of a woman:

...if reproductive rights are no longer women's rights but people's rights, "a woman's right to choose" dissolves. It follows that "people" should determine the outcome of a pregnancy, including men.]


Wednesday 20 January 2021

The Holy See and the United Nations: Pope Francis video message to the General Assembly September 2020

 On 25th September 2020, a meeting of the UN General Assembly took place to  mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN. It was largely an on-line event as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions associated with it. Pope Francis poke to the Assembly by way of  a  video message. A report of Pope Francis address can be found at the Vatican News website: Pope to UN: Rethink the future of our common home (though the headline can give a misleading impression of the content of the address). A text in English can be found at the website of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN: Address of His Holiness, Pope Francis, to the United Nations General Assembly (2020).

It is certainly worth a careful read of the complete text. Whilst the speech is given in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis reflects, in the range of his different subjects, the same underlying concerns that we saw in Pope John Paul II's address to the General Assembly, namely a commitment to the human rights expressed in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the dignity of the human person. We can see Pope Francis' specific remarks on, for example, social and economic questions such as unemployment, as an application of these principles to particular situations. Indeed, it is interesting to read Pope Francis' address alongside the Universal Declaration in order to recognise the implicit references as well as the explicit references. As with Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis' address assumes the Declaration of Human Rights as a key basis for the engagement of the Holy See with the United Nations.

In the context of the response to COVID-19, Pope Francis draws attention to one of the less well known articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, which includes a right to health care:

The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to promote public health and to make every person’s right to basic medical care a reality.[3]  For this reason, I renew my appeal to political leaders and the private sector to spare no effort to ensure access to Covid-19 vaccines and to the essential technologies needed to care for the sick.  If anyone should be given preference, let it be the poorest, the most vulnerable, those who so often experience discrimination because they have neither power nor economic resources.

An implicit reference to Article 23 can be seen in Pope Francis' remarks on unemployment:

There is an urgent need to find new forms of work truly capable of fulfilling our human potential and affirming our dignity.  In order to ensure dignified employment, there must be a change in the prevailing economic paradigm, which seeks only to expand companies’ profits.  Offering jobs to more people should be one of the main objectives of every business, one of the criteria for the success of productive activity.  Technological progress is valuable and necessary, provided that it serves to make people’s work more dignified and safe, less burdensome and stressful.

There are implicit references to Article 3 (the right to life) and Article 26 (the right to education) in this passage:

Millions of children are presently unable to return to school.  In many parts of the world, this situation risks leading to an increase in child labour, exploitation, abuse and malnutrition.  Sad to say, some countries and international institutions are also promoting abortion as one of the so-called “essential services” provided in the humanitarian response to the pandemic.  It is troubling to see how simple and convenient it has become for some to deny the existence of a human life as a solution to problems that can and must be solved for both the mother and her unborn child. 

The reference here to Article 16 is explicit, and we can clearly see Pope Francis' understanding of the family as being founded in the relationship of a woman and a man:

The first teachers of every child are his or her mother and father, the family, which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society”.[15]  All too often, the family is the victim of forms of ideological colonialism that weaken it and end up producing in many of its members, especially the most vulnerable, the young and the elderly, a feeling of being orphaned and lacking roots.  The breakdown of the family is reflected in the social fragmentation that hinders our efforts to confront common enemies. 
In concluding his address, Pope Francis indirectly takes to task the Security Council of the United Nations for its failure to act in some circumstances of recent years (the situation in Syria, for example, where vetoes by permanent members of the Security Council have hindered initiatives):

In addition, our strife-ridden world needs the United Nations to become an ever more effective international workshop for peace.  This means that the members of the Security Council, especially the Permanent Members, must act with greater unity and determination.  In this regard, the recent adoption of a global cease-fire during the present crisis is a very noble step, one that demands good will on the part of all for its continued implementation.  Here I would also reiterate the importance of relaxing international sanctions that make it difficult for states to provide adequate support for their citizens....

The pandemic has shown us that we cannot live without one another, or worse still, pitted against one another.  The United Nations was established to bring nations together, to be a bridge between peoples.  Let us make good use of this institution in order to transform the challenge that lies before us into an opportunity to build together, once more, the future we all desire.

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Why you can (and even should) receive a COVID-19 vaccine when offered

 A message from Fr Matthew about Covid-19 vaccines: why you can (and even should) receive the vaccine when offered. Fr Matthew's message is posted in a video on facebook that is linked here:

Fr Matthew is parish priest at St Teresa's parish, in Newbury Park, East London. The parish lies in the London Borough of Redbridge, one of the hardest hit boroughs in the recent wave of COVID infections (yesterday, along with two neighbouring boroughs, it was described in one media outlet as being part of the "COVID triangle").

Fr Matthew's message offers a well informed and relevant message for his parishioners and for others. As I post, the presbytery are completing the last day of a period of isolation after Fr Matthew's wife (Fr Matthew is a former Anglican clergyman) tested positive for COVID-19 as part of her regular screening as an employee of the local NHS hospital trust. Thankfully, all in the household appear to have been well throughout the isolation period. But please keep in your prayers the patients and their families being cared for in the two hospitals run by the trust, many of whom are very sick; and the paramedics, doctors and nurses who are working in very challenging circumstances to care for them..

Friday 8 January 2021

Twitter, politics and telling the truth - and the end of Donald Trump


Media reports no delays for trucks at Dover. Quite unlike the chaos of last month when we were in the single market. Time for the media to cheer up about the majority democratic decision of a great independent nation.

I first saw John Redwood's tweet shown above when it was re-tweeted by my own MP, which took it out of the context of the original author's regular tweeting on the greatness of Brexit.

But there is an important reflection to be had about the first two sentences of the tweet - the last we can recognise readily as containing various strands of opinion with which some will agree and some will not. But the first two sentences are about the truth of events, and so it matters whether or not they are actually true.

Literally, the sentences are true. At the date of the original tweet - 1st January 2021 - the huge queues of lorries on the motorway and at Manston in Kent had cleared. And at the end of the previous month there was chaos on the roads of Kent as lorries queued on the motorway and at Manston. And, yes, on the 1st January the UK had left the single market whereas on 31st December and before the UK was still in the single market and customs union.

But an implied connection between membership or otherwise of the single market and chaos or smooth running at the port of Dover is not true. The chaos in December was caused by the closure of the French border, and then by the insistence on negative COVID-19 tests as a condition before lorry drivers could cross from the UK to France.

Twitter, of course, of its nature, lends itself to this kind of abbreviated post, which does not tell the whole story; and one should not blame John Redwood excessively if his use of the medium incurs a fault that lies in the nature of the medium itself.

But John Redwood is a prominent Conservative MP, so his use of twitter is a political act. It does matter that an elected representative tells the truth. This is particularly the case as an elected representative posts to twitter in the expectation, not only that the original post will be seen, but also in the expectation that it will be re-tweeted by supporters and the "message" therefore passed on widely. And this separates the original tweet from any context provided by previous and succeeding tweets. It is unfortunate when a prominent elected representative posts in the way described above, though I do not expect John Redwood is any more at fault in this regard than many another politician or political commentator, and in all likelihood, and with some grounds, would defend the truth of his post.

Politicians have a particular responsibility to tell the truth because their words act as a lead to what others, and in particular those who follow them in their political sympathies, believe to be true. If they were singers these followers might be described as their fan base; as politicians they might instead be referred to as their power base. In the age of twitter, however, a political power base gains something of one characteristic of a fan base - it becomes a following that can be without its own thought or analysis. The responsibility of a politician to tell the truth in their use of twitter (other social media platforms are available, as the BBC would say) is therefore somewhat greater precisely because of the way in which it can influence others.

This is, in my view, the fundamental issue with Donald Trump's behaviour in the United States since the recent Presidential election, in which a new President, Joe Biden, was elected. Ever since that election Donald Trump has persisted in telling a lie to his power base, by way of social media platforms and public appearances, to claim that he was the winner of the election. An unthinking alliance of others has further promoted this lie; and the power base have bought in to it. With the events at the Capitol this week the dangers represented by that lie became vividly apparent - and, as far as Donald Trump's future is concerned, came home to roost.

Here in the UK it should perhaps act as a warning to our politicians and political commentators that, in their tweeting in particular, they take care to tell the truth.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

The Holy See and the United Nations: Pope John Paul II addresses the General Assembly in 1979

 Pope John Paul II addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in October 1979, at the invitation of the organisation's Secretary-General. A full text of his address is at the Vatican website: here. Audio of his address is at the United Nations audiovisual library, in two parts: part 1 and part 2. The language of delivery was English; the spoken form was shortened, but the full original text was published for the members of the United Nations. The observations below are based on the text as published at the Vatican website.

After expressing the historic confidence and support of the Holy See for the work of the United Nations, Pope John Paul II asserts that it is the religious and moral character of the mission of the Church that is the foundation of this confidence:

This confidence and conviction on the part of the Apostolic See is the result, as I have said, not of merely political reasons but of the religious and moral character of the mission of the Roman Catholic Church. As a universal community embracing faithful belonging to almost all countries and continents, nations, peoples, races, languages and cultures, the Church is deeply interested in the existence and activity of the Organization whose very name tells us that it unites and associates nations and States. It unites and associates: it does not divide and oppose. It seeks out the ways for understanding and peaceful collaboration, and endeavours with the means at its disposal and the methods in its power to exclude war, division and mutual destruction within the great family of humanity today.

 There are two key points that can be identified in the body of Pope John Paul's address. The first is what the Pope sees as the absolutely foundational standing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the mission of the United Nations, where, in his words, it is "placed as the basic inspiration and cornerstone of the United Nations Organisation":

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—with its train of many declarations and conventions on highly important aspects of human rights, in favour of children, of women, of equality between races, and especially the two international covenants on economic, social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights—must remain the basic value in the United Nations Organization with which the consciences of its members must be confronted and from which they must draw continual inspiration.

Pope John Paul takes this Declaration as the reference point for all his remarks, including when he takes up the theme of Paul VI in advocating for peace in the world and in his discussion of some specific contemporary situations.

The second point is the insistence that the specific rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are all directed towards the dignity of the human person. Referring to the Declaration, Pope John Paul says:

The governments and States of the world have understood that, if they are not to attack and destroy each other, they must unite. The real way, the fundamental way to this is through each human being, through the definition and recognition of and respect for the inalienable rights of individuals and of the communities of peoples....

These rights concern the satisfaction of man's essential needs, the exercise of his freedoms, and his relationship with others; but always and everywhere they concern man, they concern man's full human dimension.

A large section of the Pope's address looks at threats to rights that refer to the material dimensions of the human person and then to threats that refer to the spiritual dimension of the person. 

If then we are looking for principles that seek to define why the Holy See maintains an interest  in the work of the United Nations Organisation, Pope John Paul offers two: a foundational role for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the orientation of the rights contained in that Declaration towards both the material and spiritual dignity of the human person.

[As an incidental comment: the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enjoins on member states of the United Nations to promote the rights contained in the Declaration and "by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance". Legal provisions, therefore, are intended to protect human rights, and not to in some way confer such rights, rights which already exist from the dignity of every human person. In a time characterised by the language of "equalities" rather than of "human rights", where legal provisions are perceived as conferring new rights, Pope John Paul's anchoring of the engagement of the Holy See with the United Nations in the foundational role of the Universal Declaration is of significance.]

Saturday 2 January 2021

Christmas as the birthday of the Church?

 From both a theological and a liturgical point of view, it is not unusual to associate the birth of the Church with Good Friday (particularly the flow of blood and water from the side of Christ) and with Pentecost (the gift of the Holy Spirit and the commencement of the public teaching of the Apostles).

But subtleties in the Roman liturgy of 31st December and 1st January prompt the association of the birth of the Church with Christmas. Firstly, the Office of Readings on 31st December, which contains a reading from a Sermon by St Leo the Great:

For the birth of Christ is the origin of the people of Christ, and the birthday of the head is the birthday of the body.

It is true that each of those who are called is allotted a particular place, and that all the children of the Church are separated from each other by intervals of time. However, just as all the faithful together, born of the waters of baptism, are crucified with Christ in this passion, raised with him in his resurrection, and given a place at the Father's right hand in his ascension, so too, with him they are born in this his birth.

The idea that the Virgin Mary is also the first to become a disciple of her Son, a thought suggested from Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus n.37, supports the association of Christmas with the birth of the Church:

 [She is] the perfect model of the disciple of the Lord: the disciple who builds up the earthly and temporal city while being a diligent pilgrim towards the heavenly and eternal city; the disciple who works for that justice which sets free the oppressed and for that charity which assists the needy; but above all, the disciple who is the active witness of that love which builds up Christ in people's hearts. 

And John Paul II wrote in his Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Mater n.26:

But above all, in the Church of that time and of every time Mary was and is the one who is "blessed because she believed"; she was the first to believe. From the moment of the Annunciation and conception, from the moment of his birth in the stable at Bethlehem, Mary followed Jesus step by step in her maternal pilgrimage of faith.

The second subtlety in the liturgy is the Prayer after Communion at Mass on 1st January, the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, which closely connects Mary's motherhood of her Son to her motherhood of the Church:

We have received this heavenly Sacrament with joy, O Lord:
grant, we pray,
that it may lead us to eternal life,
for we rejoice to proclaim the blessed every-Virgin Mary
Mother of your Son and Mother of the Church.