Sunday, 15 January 2017

Kessler syndrome and the urge to come down from the cross

I'm running out of superlative adjectives and metaphors to describe how bowel-cringingly awful this current period in the Church actually is. This week offered us something like a New Year Special Big Mac with Abomination of Desolation Bonanza on Ice. If Ferrari manufactured ecclesiastical crises, this would be one of them.

Given the evil times, those of you who have not yet embraced Flat Earthism might be interested to learn about the Kessler Syndrome. As we know, many satellites now orbit the globe at approximately 17, 000 mph. There is not a vast amount of metal in Low Earth Orbit but there is an increasing amount, and the stuff that gets decommissioned needs to be carefully monitored. So far so orbital.

In the 1970s, however, NASA scientist Donald Kessler wondered what would happen if one satellite collided into another and, as a result, debris from that collision then started triggering collisions with other satellites. On reflection, two immediate effects would arise. First, you would begin to get a cascade; a kind of chain reaction of collision and counter-collision, each one creating another new fissive strand. Second, all the earth-bound systems that depend on satellites would start breaking down. Kessler, I believe, was not so exercised by the latter problem since little did depend on satellite communications in the 1970s. These days, it would pose immense difficulties for communication technologies across the globe (not to mention spy networks!). Thus was born the Kessler Syndrome in which the cascade of colliding satellites in Low Earth Orbit achieved crisis levels of mutual destruction. One artist thought it might look like this.

Pretty, n'est-ce pas? Hagan-lio that, m'hearties!


I only mention it because the news stories rolling in about you-know-what and you-know-who seem to me to be entering a Kessler Syndrome phase. No sooner do we hear about one dreadful story than another one appears in lurid technicolour, bouncing off the first with all kinds of consequences that are apparently unforeseen, though not necessarily unforeseeable.

For example, ten days ago we heard about three priests being dismissed from the CDF - apparently, three good ones. Then, early last week, Cardinal Muller gave a 'move-along-folks-nothing-to-see-here' kind of interview in which he admitted that the dubia were indeed dubia but that there was no danger to the faith in Amoris Laetitia. Just to prove there was 'no danger to the faith', the bishops of Malta then issued the most liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia yet proposed, and it was published for them in L'Osservatore Romano (so with apparent Vatican approval). There are only two bishops involved: Archbishop Scicluna of Malta and and Bishop Grech on the nearby island of Gozo. Yes, that is correct: there are two bishops involved, the combined populations of Malta and Gozo come to around 460,000 souls, and the bishops still had their letter published in L'Osservatore Romano.

Malta isn't exactly a geo-political giant on the world stage but there are still two factors about this that are immediately disheartening. First, Malta is an iconically Catholic culture where the people are overwhelmingly Catholic and, by all accounts, overwhelmingly devout. You have to hope we will hear vociferous objections from the island itself, but if so, we haven't heard them yet. We need to give it time. The second immediately disheartening thing is that Archbishop Scicluna is supposed to be one of the good guys - a leading figure in Rome in the investigation of abuser priests before his elevation to Malta.

The Maltese letter has already been gutted and filleted by Ed Peters. Yet its publication in L'Osservatore Romano gives it an importance that it would otherwise not have. Maybe I'm wrong here and L'Osservatore Romano publishes the internal pastoral documents of the Maltese church on a regular basis. I somehow doubt it though. What this publication looks like is a papal pat on the shoulder for a document which contains such egregious gems as the following:

If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351)

I'm no theologian and far be it from me to carp but look at the utter contradiction. How - just how? can anybody help? - can an informed and enlightened conscience manage to acknowledge that they are at peace with God when they are living in an objectively sinful state? To think one is at peace with God when living with someone who is not your spouse is neither informed nor enlightened. It is precisely and in every sense of the terms deformed and unenlightened.

One of the things that is so bewildering about the letter is that it appears to lump all the difficult cases together. Those who are personally convinced their first marriage was not valid - a case still blocked from the sacraments by Familiaris consortio - are lumped in with those who were abandoned. What counts is that their consciences might not be guilty of serious sin if they acted under any of the following conditions:

ignorance, inadvertence, violence, fear, affective immaturity, the persistence of certain habits, the state of anxiety, inordinate attachments, and other psychological and social factors (see AL 302; CCC 1735, 2352). 

I can see that such conditions might mitigate sinfulness to some degree in the moment in which a sinful act was committed. But when that act has become a structural part of someone's way of life and when that person is fully informed of their duties, what then?

If this were not bad enough, the argument then follows that such couples might even continue to live as married persons. This is quite astonishing in its implications:

Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).

I'm really curious as to what constitutes greater harm than serious sin. This all reminds me of the conclusion of Silence, the Shusaku Endo novel recently made into a film, where the Jesuit missionary abandons the faith and desecrates and image of Christ to save his fellow Christians from being martyred. Why ...? Because, according to this logic, God in the end does not require us to endure suffering at such human expense, surely .... Or else, if we do hold the line in such circumstances, it can only be under the non-compulsion of counsel, not the obligation of precept... Or else, if we choose not to desecrate the image of Christ, it is not that the alternative is unviable.

Perhaps what is most confusing about this is the following: such irregular situations are compatible with a growth in the life and love of God in the soul. This at least is logical: if these people can be in a state of grace, they must be able to grow in grace and, if grow, then why not become great saints. Amoris Laetitia says it more or less explicitly:

“It is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305).   

There are only two conclusions I can see in this light. First, it means that God sometimes requires the humanly impossible by precept. But what about grace, you say? Quite, we cannot fulfil God's will without his grace but there is the second problem. By this new calculation, God's grace is not sufficient for us, or at least not sufficient for someone in an irregular marital situation. Yes, apparently God has given us the law but does not give us the strength to fight free of our transgressions of it....

To my mind - my poor, fraught mind - it is just like the end of Silence. When Fr Rodrigues is asked by his Japanese persecutors to trample on an image of Jesus, Christ speaks these words in his mind:

You my trample. You may trample.  [...] It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.

But Shusaku's conclusion is a perversion of the Gospel. It reminds me of nothing so much as the very moment of crucifixion when certain passersby shouted:

Come down from the cross

Come down from the cross, because the sin you are accused of isn't really on your conscience; because life is too complicated; or because too many people will be hurt by your obedience to God; or because following God's commands can only harm you; and because those who say you must obey God are being Pharisees anyway. Come down from the cross. You cannot do it anyway and God will not help you commit 'greater harm' than seriously offending him. Come down from the cross. Whatever the priests do, let them not promise a resurrection beyond the crucifixion of separation.


I know of so many who are broken hearted by current events. I have known much anger, confusion and trouble myself in the last year or more. But, by the grace of God, I think I now understand something that brings me much comfort.

No response we make to the terrible times in which we live can help us if we do not look upon events with the gaze of God. I hear talk of anger and scorn towards Pope Francis and those involved at the very top. I understand it. I know where it comes from. I am not beyond it myself.

But we will only offend God and hurt ourselves to let such an attitude take root in our hearts. We should hate collaboration but love the collaborators. Hate betrayal but love the betrayers.

We have all collaborated or betrayed in one way or another, and there are more sins in the catechism than those against faith. But let us ask God once for the grace to look on these tumultuous events with his eyes and the path of constancy and serenity opens at our feet.

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