Saturday 27 February 2021

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

 In the light of information that I have seen being circulated recently, I am reposting the link to Fr Matthew's explanation of the ethical issues surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines. Fr Matthew's message provides a well informed and relevant message for his parishioners and for a wider audience. As I noted in my earlier post, Fr Matthew's parish is located in one of the East London boroughs that were affected by high case and sickness rates in the recent wave of the pandemic in England.

A message from Fr Matthew about COVID-19 vaccines.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre have also produced a series of papers related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including one on vaccines and foetal cell lines. These cover several different aspects of the response to the pandemic, and can be accessed here.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Lent: Pope Francis, Mercy and the Salvific Value of the "via caritatis"

 There is something that I think is true of Pope Francis, just as it is true of all the recent holders of the office of the Successor of Peter: some exercises of their office (audiences, Apostolic letters, interviews etc) are just for their particular time or context, while others have a permanent significance for the future life of the Church (what might more strictly be termed the "Magisterium"). I wonder at times whether some sections of the ecclesial commentariat are too willing to confuse the former with the latter when they choose to criticise Pope Francis....

The beginning of Lent, however, leads me to suggest an aspect of Pope Francis' exercise of his office that I think does have a permanent significance for the teaching and life of the Church. It arises from the celebration of the Year of Mercy in 2015-16. If we read the Bull of Indiction for the start of the Jubilee and the Apostolic Letter issued to mark the end of the Year, we cannot escape the place given to  the living out of the Sacrament of Penance and to the living out of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.

I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy. We do not become good confessors automatically. We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy. Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that pardons and saves. We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this. None of us wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it. Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again....

I invite priests once more to prepare carefully for the ministry of Confession, which is a true priestly mission. I thank all of you from the heart for your ministry, and I ask you to be welcoming to all, witnesses of fatherly tenderness whatever the gravity of the sin involved, attentive in helping penitents to reflect on the wrong they have done, clear in presenting moral principles, willing to walk patiently beside the faithful on their penitential journey, far-sighted in discerning individual cases and generous in dispensing God’s forgiveness. Just as Jesus chose to remain silent in order to save the woman caught in adultery from the sentence of death, so every priest in the confessional should be open-hearted, since every penitent is a reminder that he himself is a sinner, but also a minister of mercy. 

 During the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis undertook a series of encounters called "Fridays of Mercy" in which he modelled the practice of the works of mercy by visits, for example, to hospitals.

It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead....

Let us make every effort, then, to devise specific and insightful ways of practising charity and the works of mercy. Mercy is inclusive and tends to spread like wildfire in a way that knows no limits. Hence we are called to give new expression to the traditional works of mercy. For mercy overflows, keeps moving forward, bears rich fruit. It is like the leaven that makes the dough rise (cf. Mt 13:33), or the mustard seed that grows into a tree. 

 In one sense Pope Francis' promotion of the Sacrament of Penance is entirely traditional; but the context of mercy gives to it a freshness and attractiveness that is of a permanent value.

As far as the works of mercy are concerned, Amoris Laetitia takes a further step, in the specific context of "irregular" marital situations and against the background of the Year of Mercy, but nevertheless in a way that is of wider application too. It is the suggestion that the way of living the works of mercy - the via caritatis - is the way in which those who are not able share fully in other aspects of the life of the Church can nevertheless work out their salvation. This is to recognise a very high estimation to be given to the salvific value of the works of mercy for the one who carries them out, in addition to their value as a testimony of Christian faith to others. This is an aspect of Pope Francis' exercise of his office, in Amoris Laetitia and in the experience of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, that I think contributes an insight, to an extent new, that is of permanent value for the life of the Church.

306. In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians (cf. Jn 15:12; Gal 5:14). Let us not forget the reassuring words of Scripture: “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8); “Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged” (Dan 4:24[27]); “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sins” (Sir 3:30). This is also what Saint Augustine teaches: “Just as, at the threat of a fire, we would run for water to extinguish it… so too, if the flame of sin rises from our chaff and we are troubled, if the chance to perform a work of mercy is offered us, let us rejoice in it, as if it were a fountain offered us to extinguish the blaze”.

To conclude, a quote from the Apostolic Letter written at the close of the Year of Mercy:

Mercy renews and redeems because it is an encounter between two hearts: the heart of God who comes to meet us and a human heart. The latter is warmed and healed by the former. Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh (cf. Ezek 36:26) capable of love despite our sinfulness. I come to realize that I am truly a “new creation” (Gal 6:15): I am loved, therefore I exist; I am forgiven, therefore I am reborn; I have been shown mercy, therefore I have become a vessel of mercy.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Pope Francis address to the Diplomatic Corps: two points

 Pope Francis' address during his delayed annual encounter with the diplomatic representatives accredited to the Holy See is lengthy and wide ranging. A full text can be found at the website of the Holy See: Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. The address, at various points, demonstrates an interest and familiarity of the Holy See with a wide range of international situations.

The implications of the coronavirus pandemic for healthcare is addressed at an early point in Pope Francis' address:

The pandemic forced us to confront two unavoidable dimensions of human existence: sickness and death. In doing so, it reminded us of the value of life, of every individual human life and its dignity, at every moment of its earthly pilgrimage, from conception in the womb until its natural end. It is painful, however, to note that under the pretext of guaranteeing presumed subjective rights, a growing number of legal systems in our world seem to be moving away from their inalienable duty to protect human life at every one of its phases.

The pandemic has also reminded us of the right – the right! – of each human being to dignified care... I thus renew my appeal that every person receive the care and assistance he or she requires. To this end, it is indispensable that political and government leaders work above all to ensure universal access to basic healthcare, the creation of local medical clinics and healthcare structures that meet people’s actual needs, and the availability of treatments and medicinal supplies. Concern for profit should not be guiding a field as sensitive as that of healthcare.

If one reads this in an exclusively American context, one might see push back against President Biden's measures in favour of access to abortion (note Pope Francis' not insignificant reference to "the pretext of guaranteeing presumed subjective rights"), and a cautious support of President Biden's moves on affordable health care in the United states (qualified by the preceding remarks on the value of human life from conception to its natural end). As addressed to other parts of the world represented by the diplomats in his audience, the implications will differ.

[See here for a summary of President Biden's intentions in these regards.]

Later in his address, Pope Francis refers to the impact of measures to control the coronavirus pandemic on religious freedom:

The need to halt the spread of the virus has also had implications for a number of fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, restricting public worship and the educational and charitable activities of faith communities. It must be recognized, however, that religion is a fundamental aspect of the human person and of society, and cannot be eliminated. Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.

Freedom of worship, furthermore, is not a corollary of the freedom of assembly. It is in essence derived from the right to freedom of religion, which is the primary and fundamental human right. This right must therefore be respected, protected and defended by civil authorities, like the right to bodily and physical health. For that matter, sound care of the body can never ignore care of the soul.

 Whilst measures that limit public gatherings can be seen as qualifying the right of assembly in favour of the general welfare in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, measures taken have at times banned public religious worship as if it comes under the same title as the right to freedom of assembly. Pope Francis points out that it is, in fact, a distinct right from that of freedom of assembly, and is deserving of protection in a way that differs from the protection due to the right of assembly. 

[Article 29 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains the provision that allows for limitations on the rights contained therein in order to meet the "just requirements of the general welfare in a democratic society".]

Saturday 6 February 2021

Why free will is beyond physics

"Why free will is beyond physics" is the title of a comment article in the January 2021 issue of Physics World, the member magazine of the UK Institute of Physics. It can be accessed on the site here.

The argument of the article, which is offered in response to a newly published book which argues that free will is a mirage which hides outcomes of deterministic physical law, is summarised in its strapline:

Philip Ball argues that "free will" is not ruled out by physics - because it doesn't stem from physics in the first place.

 In Ball's account of the newly published book, each level of complexity in our world provides the underlying explanation of the next level - a constructionist approach which believes that the explanations of the more complex systems in the physical world can be found in applying the  fundamental laws of the simpler systems which in a sense precede it. This is the fundamental idea that Ball sets out to refute in his article.

The most interesting aspect of Ball's article is his reference to an article entitled "More is Different", by P. W. Anderson, a condensed matter physicist,  published in the journal Science in 1972. The full text of that article can be found here; it is a more challenging read than Ball's own article! Ball summarises Anderson's article thus:

The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. The behaviour of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviours requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.

 What Anderson does in the body of his article is argue this case across a range of examples, suggesting that at each successive level of complexity the symmetry (in a more precise scientific sense than the everyday understanding of the term) of the preceding level is broken and a new symmetry needs to be adopted to provide successful explanation at the new level of complexity. Particularly interesting are Anderson's (to an extent speculative) suggestions about the types of broken symmetry which occur in living things. The spatial regularity/symmetry of the DNA molecule contains information, not because of the spatial symmetry, but because each section of the molecule (gene) can vary in the way it combines four bases and so code for different proteins. He also identifies regularity or pulsing in time as a feature associated with living things. This appears to be associated with the way in which living things gain energy from their environments to establish a stable existence; and it provides a means of handling information. Anderson cites human spoken language as an example of this latter. 

It is thought provoking that, as scientific understanding reaches the levels of complexity associated with living things, it encounters a coding of information that is determinative, firstly, of physiological outcome and, secondly, of communication. [See my posts from some time ago here and here, if you want to explore this thought further.]

Those who are familiar with the thought of Fr Edward Holloway and the FAITH Movement (see here) will recognise in this an echo of two things. The first is the idea that the universe has developed in a way that is, at each point in time, equational and balanced; that the evolution of each new physical or biological phenomenon occurs in a directed way, and is determined by, an environment to which they are entirely relative. The second idea is that of a discontinuity in this determined evolution which occurs with the coming of humankind. At this point, the proportion between the capacity to act with freedom over and against determination by the environment demands the existence of a spiritual principle of action.

Returning to Philip Ball's article, he observes before his reference to Anderson:

There is good reason to believe that causation can flow from the top down in complex systems...

After noting that an understanding of what he terms volitional decision making in animals requires an understanding of how brains work, Ball points out that this understanding does not share the same epistemic language as Newtonian and quantum mechanics:

To talk about causation in science at all demands that we seek causes commensurate with the phenomena: that's simply good science and good epistemology.

But when he applies this principle to free will, and the moral responsibility for human action that follows from it, Ball's conclusion is a little infelicitous:

Moral responsibility is not a physical principle but a construct of human psychology and society. It expresses the view that we must strive to choose some behaviours and reject others.

Philip Ball's article usefully defends the notion of free will against the incursion of the notion of determinism, and even, through its citation of P.W. Anderson, hints at a certain directedness in the steps to increased complexity in the universe. As the strapline to his article says, free will doesn't stem from physics in the first place. But, in concluding that moral responsibility is a construct of human psychology and society, he fails to do justice to the phenomenon of human conscience. Psychology and sociology do not provide an explanation that is commensurate with the phenomenon of human conscience. For that a newer, and higher, symmetry is required.

Friday 5 February 2021

LGBTQI+: Human rights or ideological colonisation?

 When contemporary reflection looks back to the times of European colonisation of different countries around the world, it holds up a critical light to the transfer of customs and practices from those European countries to the peoples of the countries which came under their governance. Instead it now advocates a cooperation with and regard and encouragement of the local cultures, rather than the overruling of them by developed nations that make an assumption of their superiority.

And so President Biden's commitment to LGBTQI issues in his remarks during a visit to the State Department raises an interesting question:

And to further repair our moral leadership, I’m also issuing a presidential memo to agencies to reinvigorate our leadership on the LGBTQI issues and do it internationally.  You know, we’ll ensure diplomacy and foreign assistance are working to promote the rights of those individuals, included by combatting criminalization and protecting LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers.

 There is a nuance present in the presidential memorandum itself that has been lost in President Biden's remarks. Where the memorandum largely refers to steps to advance the human rights of LGBTQI people, and does not refer to LGBTQI rights as if they are a distinctive set of rights, President Biden refers to "leadership on the LGBTQI issues". This is what the memorandum sets out as the aim of its specific provisions:

It shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.

 The rights articulated by, for example, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are universal and they are inalienable. People who identify as LGBTQI are therefore fully entitled to each and every one of those rights - and the rights that refer to security of the person, standing before the law, respect for honour and reputation, employment, participation in the life of the nation are the specification of the "end to violence and discrimination" to which the memorandum refers.

The universal and inalienable nature of these rights means that it is legitimate that the United States seek to promote them in so far as they apply to LGBTQI persons in the course of their relations with other countries. 

But is this really what is intended by President Biden, or has he indicated another agenda in his reference to "leadership on the LGBTQI issues"? Does the language of human rights hide an intention to promote to other nations an ideology according to which LGBTQI lifestyles and behaviours are to be societally accepted as being morally equivalent to married behaviours between a man and a woman (and any resistance to this societal acceptance to be seen as discrimination)? Particularly if the acceptance of such an ideology by a foreign state is the condition for receipt of US aid, are we not dealing with a colonisation, an attempt to transfer an ideology from the provider nation to the receiver nation without regard to the cultural values of that receiver nation?

Is President Biden's policy a policy in favour of human rights or is it, in reality, a policy in favour of a new colonisation, this time a colonisation of an ideological nature?

Thursday 4 February 2021

International Day of Human Fraternity

Today, the 4th February 2021, marks the first celebration of the International Day of Human Fraternity, following a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in December 2020.

It is interesting on this day to re-read the document on human fraternity adopted by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, on the 4th February 2019, a document which can be seen as a forerunner of the UN resolution. That resolution was introduced by the representative of the United Arab Emirates; and it was during Pope Francis' visit to the UAE that the document on human fraternity was promulgated.

It is important, I think, to read the Pope and Grand Imam's document in its entirety, and not to focus on the one sentence in the whole that provoked criticism. Indeed, a reading of the whole puts that one sentence into a clear context.

Three paragraphs are offered below, chosen in a somewhat random way; but do read the whole.

This Declaration, setting out from a profound consideration of our contemporary reality, valuing its successes and in solidarity with its suffering, disasters and calamities, believes firmly that among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles....

It is clear in this context how the family as the fundamental nucleus of society and humanity is essential in bringing children into the world, raising them, educating them, and providing them with solid moral formation and domestic security. To attack the institution of the family, to regard it with contempt or to doubt its important role, is one of the most threatening evils of our era....

The first and most important aim of religions is to believe in God, to honour Him and to invite all men and women to believe that this universe depends on a God who governs it. He is the Creator who has formed us with His divine wisdom and has granted us the gift of life to protect it. It is a gift that no one has the right to take away, threaten or manipulate to suit oneself. Indeed, everyone must safeguard this gift of life from its beginning up to its natural end. We therefore condemn all those practices that are a threat to life such as genocide, acts of terrorism, forced displacement, human organ trafficking, abortion and euthanasia. We likewise condemn the policies that promote these practices....

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Hearts Revealed

"Hearts Revealed" is the title of the Meditation of the Day in  Magnificat for today. It is a short extract from Adrienne von Speyr's chapter on the Presentation in the Temple, a chapter in her book Handmaid of the Lord. The chapter is an extended reflection on the significance of the episode of the Presentation in the Temple for the Virgin Mary; Magnificat selects from a section about how the piercing of her soul provides an access for us to the Passion foretold by the words of Simeon.

The meaning of the piercing of the Mother is this: "that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare". If the Mother did not suffer, then these thoughts would never be released of themselves.... Suffering as a simple human and yet raised up to the state of grace and in it participating in the Son's sufferings, the Mother is understandable to everyone. And everything that lives in hearts as an unclear longing for God can, at the sight of the Mother's suffering, take on form and become conscious and evident to the heart itself. Thus, through her suffering, she mediates hidden hearts to the Son; she opens them, because her own heart had been opened by the sword.... The Mother's suffering is like a stairway up to the Cross, which before seemed inaccessible. In her it becomes evident that there really exists the Christian possibility of participation in the divine, redemptive suffering...

The Holy See and the United Nations: Permanent Observer Status

 The Holy See is a distinctive player when it comes to the world of diplomacy. It is perhaps captured by the role of the Apostolic Nuncio, who is both a representative to the local Church in a country or region and an accredited representative to the civil government of the country (where the Holy See enjoys diplomatic relations with the country). They thus bring a spiritual representation into encounter with a political representation.

The representation of the Holy See at the United Nations is similarly distinctive - it is the status of a Permanent Observer. The purpose of the Permanent Observer Mission at the United Nations is expressed at the website of the Mission: Discover the Mission.

The Holy See Mission at the United Nations in New York follows attentively and with interest the work of the United Nations Organization. In this forum, the Holy See Mission communicates the centuries’ experience of the Catholic Church to humanity, and places this experience at the disposal of the United Nations to assist it in its realization of peace, justice, human dignity and humanitarian cooperation and assistance.....In its activities at the United Nations, the Holy See Mission works to advance freedom of religion and respect for the sanctity of all human life - from conception to natural death - and thus all aspects of authentic human development including, for example, marriage and family, the primary role of parents, adequate employment, solidarity with the poor and suffering, ending violence against women and children, poverty eradication, food, basic healthcare and education.

This mission has been clearly reflected in the speeches to the UN General Assembly of recent Popes: Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis

 A UN General Assembly Resolution of 16th July 2004 defined the position of the Holy See with regard to the United Nations: The Status of the Holy See at the United Nations with additional explanation here. Roughly speaking, this status allows the representatives of the Holy See to play a part in the debates of the General Assembly similar to that of full member states, but without the possibility of voting or of directly sponsoring draft resolutions in their own right.

There are perhaps two additional points worthy of note, one of which is referred to in the annex of the General Assembly Resolution and the second of which is only implied. The Holy See Mission is allowed to have its communications with regard to the work of the United Nations circulated as official documents of the General Assembly or of the relevant conference held under the auspices of the General Assembly. This engagement with the work of the United Nations is therefore a valuable opportunity for the Holy See to make known Catholic positions to key representatives of the international community of nations. There is within this mechanism a key way in which the Holy See communicates its view if it wishes to record its dissent from a position adopted by the General Assembly or another UN body. It records and publishes "reservations" against the paragraphs or sections of such a position.

And it is important to recall the substance of these reservations when, for example, the Church speaks on a matter such as the Sustainable Development Goals.