Saturday 28 January 2023

Sin and Crime

 This is the way in which Associated Press reported Pope Francis' remarks about homosexuality in his recent interview:

Pope Francis has stepped up his criticism of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. He called laws criminalising homosexuals unjust but reiterated Catholic Church teaching that homosexual activity is sinful.

Bantering with himself, Francis articulated the position: "It's not a crime. Yes, but it's a sin. Fine, but first let's distinguish between a sin and a crime".

A fuller discussion of his remarks in the interview were reported here by Associated Press: The AP Interview: Pope says homosexuality not a crime

Pope Francis has since replied, in the form of a letter, to three questions that were asked of him by Fr James Martin SJ. The exchange is reported on Fr Martin's website: Pope Francis clarifies comments on homosexuality: "One must consider the circumstances".

And I wanted to clarify that it is not a crime, in order to stress that criminalization is neither good nor just.

When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin. Of course, one must also consider the circumstances, which may decrease or eliminate fault. As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said “It is a sin, as is any sexual act outside of marriage.” This is to speak of “the matter” of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this, for every kind of sin.

And I would tell whoever wants to criminalize homosexuality that they are wrong.

In a televised interview, where we spoke with natural and conversational language, it is understandable that there would not be such precise definitions.

I think that it has been very easy to misunderstand Pope Francis' previous exchanges of correspondence with Fr Martin, and in one respect this latest letter removes some of the cause for that misunderstanding. Pope Francis' letters have offered support for a ministry of closeness, without any suggestion that this should represent a change in Catholic teaching. America reports one such letter in August 2021. It is worth reading what it says carefully:

I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with that closeness that Jesus had and that reflects the closeness of God. Our Heavenly Father approaches with love every one of his children, each and everyone. His heart is to open to each and everyone. He is Father. God's "style" has three aspects: closeness, compassion and tenderness. This is how he draws closer to each one of us.

Thinking about your pastoral work, I see that you are continuously looking to imitate this style of God...

When Rocco Buttiglione was proposed as a candidate to be a commissioner in the European Union in 2004, the question of the sinfulness of homosexual acts in relation to political action arose in a slightly different way. Rocco Buttiglione explained his stance during the hearing in advance of the appointment being made as follows (see my post here):

They introduced the category of sin into the political discourse, and I said "No, in politics we may not speak of sin. We should speak of non-discrimination, and I am solidly opposed to discrimination against homosexuals, or any type of discrimination." I did not say that homosexuality is a sin, as many newspapers reported. I said, "I may think." It is possible that I think this, but I did not tell them whether I think it or not. What I think about this has no impact whatsoever on politics, because in politics the problem is the principle concerning discrimination and I accept that principle.  
That was not enough. They wanted me to say that I see nothing objectionable about homosexuality. This I cannot do because it is not what I think. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is written that, from a moral point of view, homosexuality is not a sin but rather an objectively disordered condition. Homosexuality can become a sin if one adds the subjective element, which is to say, full knowledge that this is wrong and also freedom of the will which accepts this wrong position. I was not allowed to say that and for this reason I was deemed not worthy to be a European commissioner.  

In different contexts, Pope Francis and Rocco Buttiglione are sending the same message.

Thursday 26 January 2023

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

 Aaron Sorkin's stage adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been running at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue since March 2022, and is currently booking until 20th May 2023. The production is quite exceptional in terms of the script, acting, set and lighting designs. If you have the chance to see it, the play is very highly recommended. It justified completely drawing applause at the interval curtain (I haven't seen that happen before) and a standing ovation at the final curtain.

In most respects, the play is very faithful to the original novel. It very cleverly interleaves the earlier episodes of the novel with the development of the trial of Tom Robinson; and, by using the device of Scout, Jem and Dill acting as narrators alongside the acted scenes, it successfully captures the way in which the novel portrays its events through the eyes of the children. My appreciation of the play was very much enhanced by familiarity with the novel from a recent reading - that familiarity enables a much readier recognition of the significance of scenes in the play. I suspect that someone seeing the play without having previously read the novel will have a very different experience than someone who is already familiar with the story.

There is, however, one area in which the playwright has deliberately chosen to differ from the novel and to thereby place his work within the context of the early 2020's rather than a context of the early 1960's when the novel was written or the 1930's when it is set. According to the progamme, Aaron Sorkin noted that the novel included two significant African- American characters, but that neither of them have very much to say. He also notes that a story of racial tension is told through the eyes of a young white girl, Scout. He therefore wishes to enhance the voice of the black characters and to reimagine the dynamics of the relationship between the black and white characters.

Instead of there being actors to represent the all white jury at Tom Robinson's trial, the seats of the jury box are unoccupied, though the lawyers, Atticus Finch in particular, are shown addressing themselves to the jury. This effectively, though subtly, expresses the absence of an effective black voice in the trial. That the racist rants of Bob Ewell have been drawn from commenters publishing on the Breitbart website - something that is not apparent when you listen to it in the play but is referred to in the programme - indicates a certain relocating of the play to a contemporary time.

There are two sub-plots shown in dialogue between Calpurnia and Atticus that articulate the reimagining intended by the playwright. Calpurnia calls out Atticus when he has presumed that she should say thank you to him for an act which was only the naturally right thing to do. It is the idea that a black person should have a particular demand of gratitude placed on them because of their colour that is here being challenged. (Aaron Sorkin has seen this in a scene in the novel where the coloured community are shown thanking Atticus for his defence of Tom Robinson). She also observes, in the context of Atticus' insistence that even those guilty of racism are people deserving of respect, that he might think about how that respecting of them is at the same time a disrespecting of those who are the targets of their racism. Aaron Sorkin sees this aspect of Atticus' character as excusing the racism that ought not to be excused, and expresses it in this dialogue between Calpurnia and Atticus. For the playwright, this is the flaw in Atticus' character that Harper Lee had already given him in writing the novel; but it could equally be argued that it represents an imposition on Harper Lee's novel from a later, perhaps to some extent ideological, point of view.

I think that Atticus Finch, if he were a real person, could justifiably complain about this re-writing of his character, with its adverse effect on his good name. For most of the play's audience, though, I suspect that the fidelity in other respects to the novel leaves Atticus' good name intact. I came away from the play, though,  feeling that it had not completely captured the character of Atticus that I recall from reading the novel.

All of this is subtle detail to be discovered from reading the programme. The play, seen in itself, remains an outstanding piece of theatre in every way. If you have the chance to see it, I would make sure you take it.

Sunday 22 January 2023

March for Life

It is interesting to note that the BBC have given coverage to this year's March for Life in Washington DC, both on the website and on the radio. Coverage I heard on Radio 4's Today programme earlier this week was less edged than this on the BBC website: Thousands gather for first post-Roe March for Life. Though a very significant demonstration, it has not in previous years gained much coverage in this country. The Today report was in some ways more interesting, referring to how pro-life activists recognise a change of focus to legislative activity in individual states; and to how abortion providers are trying to reach women on states where abortion has been restricted since the overthrow of Roe v. Wade (eg by posting abortion pills to locations near state boundaries for women to collect).

Pope Francis words, in a wide ranging address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See in early January, showed a good understanding of the implication of the overturning of the Roe v Wade judgement in America, in its reference to an "alleged right to abortion":

Peace requires before all else the defense of life, a good that today is jeopardized not only by conflicts, hunger and disease, but all too often even in the mother’s womb, through the promotion of an alleged “right to abortion”. No one, however, can claim rights over the life of another human being, especially one who is powerless and thus completely defenceless. For this reason, I appeal to the consciences of men and women of good will, particularly those having political responsibilities, to strive to safeguard the rights of those who are weakest and to combat the throwaway culture that also, tragically, affects the sick, the disabled and the elderly. States have a primary responsibility to ensure that citizens are assisted in every phase of human life, until natural death, and to do so in a way that makes each feel accompanied and cared for, even in the most delicate moments of his or her life.

Thursday 5 January 2023

Pope Francis homily at the funeral Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

 I think Pope Francis has preached a lovely homily at Pope Emeritus Benedict's funeral this morning. The full text is here, at the Vatican website: Homily of His Holiness Pope Francis

One can see in the homily Pope Francis practice of adopting "three words" or phrases to structure a homily. And, though Pope Francis expresses himself in a general way about the experience of one who is a pastor, he has clearly reflected on that experience in the light of the life of Pope Emeritus Benedict. 

I was particularly struck by the number of occasions on which Pope Francis referred to the hands of the Father, in one instance citing Pope Emeritus Benedict. As the funeral took place during the Christmas season, I was reminded of the image of the Christ child in the crib, lying with extended hands. That image of the extended hands of the Infant Jesus formed the motif of a meditation by St Edith Stein. I can't find the text at the moment, but can find an adaptation of it that I used for a visit to the crib during Christmas time several years ago.

A prayer for a visit to the Crib during Christmas time
[This prayer was adapted from a meditation of St Edith Stein]

Dear Jesus, your hands reach out to us as we come to the Crib.
We come like the shepherds who followed the call of the angel.
We come like the wise men who followed the star.
“Follow me” say your little hands.

May we always listen to you when you call us.
Keep us together in faith and in hope.

Dear Jesus, your open hands welcome us, and they ask us at the same time.
They ask us to be at the service of your Peace.

Open our hearts to people who are suffering.
May each of us offer signs of friendship and welcome to people who are less well off than us.

Dear Jesus, your open hands welcome us, and they ask us at the same time.
They ask us to give our lives to you.

May we choose the way in life that you want us to follow.
In the light of Christmas, may we face the problems of life today, together with people of other Churches and religions.

Mary, you are the Mother of Love.
You praised the great things done by the Lord.
You sang about how God kept his promises to the people of Israel.

Mother of Love, protect our families.
Help them to stay together.
Give them the happiness of loving and passing on life.

Monday 2 January 2023

Thoughts on the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Amongst the many tributes paid to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in recent days, it was the report of the observation of the Prime Minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, that I thought most fully captured what he was about. Media outlets shortened it to refer to him as "a giant of faith and reason", but the full text can be found on the website of the Italian Government.

Benedict XVI was a giant of faith and of reason. A man who loved the Lord and devoted his life to the service of the universal Church. He spoke, and will continue to speak, to the hearts and minds of people with the spiritual, cultural and intellectual depth of his Magisterium. A Christian, a shepherd, a theologian: one of history’s greats, whom history will not forget. 
I have conveyed the Government’s and my personal sympathy to the Holy Father Pope Francis for his and the entire Church community’s grief.

 This was also reinforced by Tim Stanley's contribution to the "Thought for the Day" on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning. He pointed towards Pope Benedict's address in Westminster Hall during his visit to Britain in 2010 as a key to understanding him. I would additionally point towards the lecture that Pope Benedict would have delivered at the La Sapienza university, had that visit gone ahead in January 2008.

The first of these highlights what should be the just relationship between government or state and the ethical proposals that might be the proper province of religions.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.....

...there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.
 Pope Benedict's lecture prepared for La Sapienza explores the relationship between the mission of the Pope and the mission of a university, addressing the community of a university that in its origins was a Papal foundation but is now an institution of the Italian state. In discussing first the role of the Pope as Bishop of Rome, who first exercises a care for the community of the Church, Pope Benedict wrote:

Yet this community which the Bishop looks after – be it large or small – lives in the world; its circumstances, its history, its example and its message inevitably influence the entire human community. The larger it is, the greater the effect, for better or worse, on the rest of humanity. Today we see very clearly how the state of religions and the situation of the Church – her crises and her renewal – affect humanity in its entirety. Thus the Pope, in his capacity as Shepherd of his community, is also increasingly becoming a voice for the ethical reasoning of humanity.

Pope Benedict then goes on to suggest that there is a human wisdom passed down that gives a credibility to the religious thought of earlier generations:

Here, however, the objection immediately arises: surely the Pope does not really base his pronouncements on ethical reasoning, but draws his judgements from faith and hence cannot claim to speak on behalf of those who do not share this faith. We will have to return to this point later, because here the absolutely fundamental question must be asked: What is reason? How can one demonstrate that an assertion – especially a moral norm – is “reasonable”? At this point I would like to describe briefly how John Rawls, while denying that comprehensive religious doctrines have the character of “public” reason, nonetheless at least sees their “non-public” reason as one which cannot simply be dismissed by those who maintain a rigidly secularized rationality. Rawls perceives a criterion of this reasonableness among other things in the fact that such doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support of the doctrines concerned. The important thing in this assertion, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that down through the centuries, experience and demonstration – the historical source of human wisdom – are also a sign of its reasonableness and enduring significance. Faced with an a-historical form of reason that seeks to establish itself exclusively in terms of a-historical rationality, humanity’s wisdom – the wisdom of the great religious traditions – should be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.

After observing that man, in exercising his reason, seeks what is good as well as what is true, Pope Benedict goes on to address the question that he would later address in Westminster Hall:

At this point, however, the question immediately arises: How is it possible to identify criteria of justice that make shared freedom possible and help man to be good? Here a leap into the present is necessary. The point in question is: how can a juridical body of norms be established that serves as an ordering of freedom, of human dignity and human rights? This is the issue with which we are grappling today in the democratic processes that form opinion, the issue which also causes us to be anxious about the future of humanity. In my opinion, Jürgen Habermas articulates a vast consensus of contemporary thought when he says that the legitimacy of a constitutional charter, as a basis for what is legal, derives from two sources: from the equal participation of all citizens in the political process and from the reasonable manner in which political disputes are resolved. With regard to this “reasonable manner”, he notes that it cannot simply be a fight for arithmetical majorities, but must have the character of a “process of argumentation sensitive to the truth” (wahrheitssensibles Argumentationsverfahren). The point is well made, but it is far from easy to put it into practice politically. The representatives of that public “process of argumentation” are – as we know – principally political parties, inasmuch as these are responsible for the formation of political will. De facto, they will always aim to achieve majorities and hence will almost inevitably attend to interests that they promise to satisfy, even though these interests are often particular and do not truly serve the whole. Sensibility to the truth is repeatedly subordinated to sensibility to interests. I find it significant that Habermas speaks of sensibility to the truth as a necessary element in the process of political argument, thereby reintroducing the concept of truth into philosophical and political debate.

Whilst many in public life seem to appreciate Pope Emeritus Benedict for his gentleness and warmth of character, it will be interesting to see how many really appreciate the dimensions of his intellectual thought on how the public sphere should have a just regard for religious belief. It would be quite unfair, for example, to dismiss his thought in this field on the grounds that it is being cited by two people who wider society would recognise as being politically right of centre