Saturday 20 March 2021

Alas! Sin came ...

This if from the "Meditation of the Day" in MAGNIFICAT for 21st March, the fifth Sunday of Lent.

Alas! Sin came, it entered in, it took hold in us, whence the current reign of death and suffering. It is by them that our trial continues: it is by the suffering that must last unto death, even death on a cross, usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis (Ph 2:8). The shadow and  light of the cross now extend over our whole path. The cross is the pillar of cloud, a mixture of brightness and darkness, which goes before us: this is what truly matters, and we need only follow it to the end.

Friday 19 March 2021

St Joseph

 For the Solemnity of St Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin, I offer extracts from Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter Patris Corde:

I like to think that it was from St Joseph that Jesus drew inspiration for the parable of the prodigal son and the merciful father....

I consider St Joseph the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution and poverty...

We should always consider whether we ourselves are protecting Jesus and Mary, for they are also mysteriously entrusted to our own responsibility, care and safekeeping. The Son of the Almighty came into our world in a state of great vulnerability. He needed to be defended, protected, cared for and raised by Joseph. God trusted Joseph, as did Mary, who found in him someone who would not only save her life, but would always provide for her and her child. In this sense, Saint Joseph could not be other than the Guardian of the Church, for the Church is the continuation of the Body of Christ in history, even as Mary’s motherhood is reflected in the motherhood of the Church. In his continued protection of the Church, Joseph continues to protect the child and his mother, and we too, by our love for the Church, continue to love the child and his mother....

...the Church cannot fail to show a special love for the least of our brothers and sisters, for Jesus showed a particular concern for them and personally identified with them. From Saint Joseph, we must learn that same care and responsibility. We must learn to love the child and his mother, to love the sacraments and charity, to love the Church and the poor. Each of these realities is always the child and his mother....

In every exercise of our fatherhood, we should always keep in mind that it has nothing to do with possession, but is rather a “sign” pointing to a greater fatherhood. In a way, we are all like Joseph: a shadow of the heavenly Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). And a shadow that follows his Son.

Monday 15 March 2021

Three thoughts on violence against women

 After recent events, it is important to recognise the sorrow and anguish of Sarah Everard's family and friends, and I join in offering my prayers and condolences to them.

The subsequent debate on violence against women has prompted three thoughts.

The concern being expressed by protestors and others about the safety of women on the streets of our towns and cities is primarily a concern about violence directed towards women by men. Whilst the fashion might be to describe this as "gender based violence" - with all that the ambivalence contained in the word "gender" implies - we are in reality, even when we use this language,  designating a violence directed against women because of their physiological sex. And likewise the men responsible for this violence are being designated, in reality, by their physiological sex.

I think I can be forgiven for thinking that, in recent years, the prime ethical principle governing sexual behaviours is that of consent. The #MeToo movement drew to public attention circumstances where men in powerful positions have taken advantage of their power to engage in unwelcome sexual behaviours with women. In educational circles, attention is given to enabling young people, both boys and girls, to properly understand the significance of consent. But, in terms of building barriers that will discourage men from abusing women, would it not also be helpful to have a recognition that some sexual behaviours are wrong even if the parties involved consent? It would then be crystal clear to all concerned that men in positions of power, or boys exerting peer pressure, should not be engaging sexually with the women and girls they encounter. 

The term "sex worker" has now become common place in referring to women who would previously have been described as "prostitutes". (Though men do also engage in such work, women do predominate). In effect, this change of terminology encourages a societal acceptance of a situation where a man pays women for sex. But, from the point of view of such a man, with an inevitably weakened sense of right and wrong, what is the difference between this paid-for sex on Friday night and an approach to a non-consenting woman in the street on Saturday night?  If the only difference we expect him to observe is that of consent, the difference is not a strong one.

So there are my three contributions to the discussion, for all they are worth: honesty about treating it as a question of physiological sex, being willing to consider the ethics of sexual behaviours to have an objective content other than just consent, and recognising that cultural accommodation of prostitution is not going to reduce risk to women.

Saturday 13 March 2021

The Holy See and the United Nations: the Holy See's reservations against the Sustainable Development Goals

 I have already noted (here) that, through its Permanent Observer status at the United Nations, the Holy See can have its documents with respect to the work of the UN circulated as official documents of the organisation, and that it is able to state "reservations" (in effect, objections) with regard to positions adopted by the UN, and to have those reservations circulated.

Some quarters are strident in their criticism of the Holy See for the support that it offers to the UN's sustainable development goals. It is, however, worth looking carefully at the reservations that the Holy See has recorded against those goals and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Holy See's advocacy of the sustainable development goals is explicitly qualified by these reservations, and perhaps more is to be gained by widening knowledge of the reservations than by criticism of the Holy See on grounds that are actually answered by the reservations.

These reservations have been expressed consistently by the Holy See Mission to the UN. In an early form, these reservations were expressed as follows:

(1) With reference to “sexual and reproductive health”, so-called “reproductive rights,” “family planning” and other language on which the Holy See has registered reservations at Cairo and Beijing, we reiterate these reservations as set out more fully in the Report of the ICPD and in the Beijing Platform for Action. In particular, the ICPD rejects recourse to abortion for family planning, denies that it creates any new rights in this regard. 
(2) With respect to so-called “education” or “information” on “sexuality”, my Delegation reaffirms the “primary responsibility” and the “prior rights” of parents, including their right to religious freedom, when it comes to the education and upbringing of their children, as enshrined, inter alia, in the UDHR and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 
(3) By “gender” my Delegation understands to mean “male or female” only, and to have no meaning other than the customary and general usage of the term.

 These reservations are expressed in a more developed form in a response to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Firstly, in reference to the language of "sexual and reproductive health" and rights that might derive from it:

Regarding the terms "sexual and reproductive health" and "reproductive rights", the Holy See considers these terms as applying to a holistic concept of health, which embrace, each in their own way, the person in the entirety of his or her personality, mind and body, and which foster the achievement of personal maturity in sexuality and in the mutual love and decision-making that characterize the conjugal-relationship between a man and a woman in accordance with moral norms. The Holy See does not consider abortion or access to abortion or abortifacients as a dimension of these terms.

With reference to the terms "contraception", "family planning", "sexual and reproductive health", "sexual and reproductive rights", “reproductive rights”, and any other terms regarding family-planning services and regulation of fertility concepts in the document, the Holy See reaffirms its well-known position concerning those family-planning methods which the Catholic Church considers morally acceptable and, on the other hand, family-planning services which do not respect the liberty of the spouses, human dignity and the human rights of those concerned.
 And a reservation which refers to the term "gender", and is welcome in providing a basis on which others can engage in a dialogue in wider society from a like position:

With reference to "gender", the Holy See understands the term to be grounded in the biological sexual identity that is male or female.

The last reservation is with regard to education:

With respect to "education" or "information" on "sexuality", the Holy See reiterates the "primary responsibility" and the "prior rights" of parents, including their right to religious freedom, when it comes to the education and upbringing of their children, as enshrined, inter alia, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In that sense, the Holy See wishes to underline the centrality of the family, “the natural and fundamental group unit of society,” as well as the role and rights and duties of parents to educate their children. 

Thursday 11 March 2021

Equalising "equality"?

 In introducing the recent Westminster Hall debate on LGBT conversion therapy, conversion therapy was defined by the member of parliament leading the debate in the following way:

First, we must ask ourselves what conversion therapy is and why it needs to be banned. According to a May 2020 report by the UN Office for Human Rights, and indeed according to a definition from the Government Equalities Office, so-called conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These so-called therapies can manifest in many forms, from pseudo-psychological treatments and aversion therapies to practices that are religiously based, such as purification or fasting. At the most extreme, there has been evidence that this practice can also involve physical and sexual violence, including so-called corrective rape.

 What is interesting in this definition is that it refers to "orientation" and "identity"; it leaves out any reference to the question of how behaviours that follow from orientation and identity might be considered. Is it a definition that assumes that an orientation and identity are of necessity only experienced in intimate sexual activities that align with that orientation and identity, and that an orientation or identity only exist when they are experienced in such sexual activities? 

The question matters, and it matters because it touches on the right of communities such as the Catholic Church to propose their teaching on marriage and human sexuality (cf Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cf Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights). That teaching is that the sexual act is ordered only between the male and female person, engaged in a married relationship, and in a manner open to the gift of new life. It is a teaching about a sexual behaviour; it is a teaching that has both a moral character based in human reason and a theological character in terms of the analogy of the wedded relationship of man and woman to the relationship of Christ and the Church.

Circumstances can clearly be envisaged where the way and situation in which the proposal of this teaching takes place might constitute an abuse of the freedom of the individual to whom it is proposed; but, equally, and probably more commonly in mainstream churches, circumstances can also be envisaged where it is proposed in a respectful and considered way that is totally fair to the freedom of the individual. And leaving aside the cases of individuals, the Catholic Church will propose this teaching generally to wider society as a whole.

But would this proposal of a teaching that is focussed on sexual behaviours fall foul of legislation banning conversion therapies that is framed exclusively in terms of "orientation" and "identity", and mistakenly assumes a congruence of "orientation" and "identity" with corresponding intimate sexual behaviours? Would the proposal of such a teaching be seen in law as a form of conversion therapy?

Perhaps it is considerations such as this that are prompting considerable caution on the part of Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Equalities, and the present government in the UK. As she said towards the end of the recent parliamentary debate:

The Government have been clear that we do not intend to stop those who wish to seek spiritual counselling as they explore their sexual orientation, but there will be cases when a line is crossed, where someone is actively seeking to change another’s sexual orientation—an innate aspect of their personal identity—via coercion under the guise of spiritual support. The Government will exercise great care when considering what does and does not constitute conversion therapy, and how to intervene. ....
We continue to work to ensure that the actions we take are proportionate and effective, and will set out our next steps soon. We have heard a range of views and voices, and it is imperative that we continue a constructive dialogue to ensure that we get our proposals right.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

I miss saints during Lent ....

 The liturgy of the Lenten season gives precedence to the week days of Lent over the celebration of those saints who would otherwise be celebrated as memorials or optional memorials. They become "commemorations". And I miss these celebrations of saints ....

Yesterday (9th March) would have seen the celebration of St Frances of Rome. MAGNIFICAT included as its "Meditation of the Day" an extract from an address by Pope Benedict XVI during a visit in 2009 to the monastery of the order of Benedictine oblates founded by St Frances. I was particularly struck by the following section, which reflects the charism of St Frances which is both prayerful and charitable. It is the connection of the gift of a motherhood to that of religious self-gift that caught my attention.

..... I wish to emphasise the feminine dimension: women, who belong wholly to God and wholly to their neighbour; women who are capable of recollection and of generous and discreet service in conversation with Christ and in first-hand experience in the area of charity, assistance to the sick, to the marginalised, to minors in difficulty. This is the gift of a motherhood that is one with religious self-gift, after the model of Mary Most Holy. Let us think of the mystery of the Visitation. Immediately after conceiving the Word of God in her heart and in her flesh, Mary set out to go and help her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth. Mary's heart is the cloister where the Word continues to speak in silence, and at the same time it is the crucible of a charity that is conducive to courageous gestures, as well as to a persevering and hidden sharing.

Sunday 7 March 2021

Pope Francis in Iraq: honouring our father Abraham

 As part of his apostolic visit to Iraq, Pope Francis yesterday visited the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham. He participated in an inter-religious meeting with leaders and members of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic communities, along with representatives of other small religious communities present in Iraq. The Catholic Herald's report of the encounter can be read here, and the second part of their commentary on Pope Francis' earlier meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani places it in the context of a more specific Shiah-Christian dialogue in Iraq itself. After listening to testimonies from the different communities, Pope Francis addressed the meeting: the text of his address is at the Vatican website. It was a visit, and an event, that could only have uniquely taken place during a visit to Iraq, what a marketing executive might label a "unique selling point".

In the context of this meeting of Christian, Jewish and Islamic communities Abraham is described by Pope Francis as a common father in faith to all three religions, and to other believers and people of good will:

Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honour our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth.

In his "Prayer of the Children of Abraham", Pope Francis asks:

As children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers and all persons of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved country, to be our common father in faith.

This is entirely in keeping with the nature of this particular address being given to this very particular gathering. A Catholic theological treatise in a different context might distinguish between a providential nature of the fatherhood of Abraham for Islam and a revelatory nature of that fatherhood for Judaism and Christianity, but that is not to detract from the appropriateness of Pope Francis' words in Ur.

Whilst the figure of Abraham is a universal figure for religious faith - one strand in Pope Francis' address is a reminder that we need to look to the stars, to God, as we journey on earth, that we cannot live without that reference to God - he is also a figure for human fraternity. In so far as he represents a common fatherhood in religious faith, he can also represent a common origin to human society for many people and therefore to the kind of fraternity in which Christian and Moslem communities have worked together in restoring both churches and mosques in parts of Iraq.

His was a journey outwards, one that involved sacrifices. Abraham had to leave his land, home and family. Yet by giving up his own family, he became the father of a family of peoples. Something similar also happens to us: on our own journey, we are called to leave behind those ties and attachments that, by keeping us enclosed in our own groups, prevent us from welcoming God’s boundless love and from seeing others as our brothers and sisters.

 Pope Francis' resounding words condemning the use of religion to justify violence make an appropriate end to this post, framed as they appear to me to particularly speak, though not exclusively, to those whose violence claims justification in Islamic religious belief:

From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Pope Francis: Apostolic Visit to Iraq

 Pope Francis is due this Friday to depart for an apostolic visit to Iraq, a visit that has been raising some questions in recent days due to a rise in COVID-19 infections in that country. The programme for the visit (that will in due course be populated by texts and video of addresses) can be found at the Vatican website: Visit to Iraq. France-24 has a useful report here: Francis prepares first-ever papal visit to Iraq. Aid to the Church in Need have a report that is a preview of the visit: Respect for Christians will grow.

Pope Francis' visit includes events typical of Papal overseas visits - meetings with civil authorities and representatives of civil society, with clergy and religious and with principal leaders of other religions. What perhaps makes this visit unique is a visit to the Plains of Ur, from where Abraham departed to travel to the promised land. Somewhat akin to the testimony of the Holy Father to the Resurrection of the Lord at the start of the Easter Mass in St Peter's Square this visit, by the very fact of its taking place, provides an opportunity for a unique testimony to the place occupied by Abraham in the history of salvation that finds its completion in the Christian mystery. That an interreligious meeting is due to take place there reflects the significance of Abraham for both the Jewish faith and for Islam.

More by accident than deliberate intention, I am currently reading Suha Rassam's book Christianity in Iraq (I am reading a second edition - a third edition can be purchased from Gracewing here). For Christians in Europe, the description of regions of northern Iraq as being home to some of the oldest Christian communities lies outside our immediate cultural familiarity; we are more inclined to think of the ancient (but much younger) shrines of Europe instead. Suha Rassam's book is giving me a useful  understanding of the different Christian denominations that have, at different times, lived in Iraq generally and in the northern regions in particular. I hope as I finish reading the book that I will gain a fuller appreciation of the news reporting of events in northern Iraq, and of the communities that Pope Francis will, God willing, visit in the next few days.