Tuesday 17 April 2018

The trouble I've seen

(In an earlier version of this post, I said the father of the child was an atheist. The original Italian, however, says he was a non-believer. I have corrected that here).

These days, before I cast a stone, I like to spend a little time reflecting on my own mediocrity. It usually works and I usually put the stone down. I'm sure at least half the world's problems come from those who throw stones without such reflection. Our Lord said something along the lines of taking out the beam from your own eye before you go rooting out the mote from your brother's.

Something like that happened last night when I watched the footage of the pope comforting a recently bereaved boy. The boy's father, who has died, was a non-believer and the pope spoke to the boy in front of the congregation during a visit to a deprived area of Rome. The boy was crying near the front and the pope beckoned him forward to explain what was wrong. Essentially, the boy had lost his non-believing father who, to his credit, had had all four of his children baptised (no mention of the mother so it is not clear where she is). Thus, the boy asked the pope, "Is my dad in heaven?"

Difficult questions from children are frequent in my experience. But this is where the scene begins to get troubled. How does one answer such a question? It is the action of a civilised adult to want to comfort a child. It is the action of an innocent child - or indeed of anyone not solidly committed to materialism - to wonder where their father is after they die. Two lines of action were on a collision course and the dangers of false consolation or wounded sensibilities were sharp.

I suppose it all depends on your priorities at this point. I know I'm in danger of doing what my American pals used to call Monday-morning quarterbacking, replaying the game from the safety of my kitchen chair. But surely, we are not without some guiding principles here. The immediate duty is to comfort a grieving child. The wider duty is to enlighten his mind. The risk is that we offer false consolation or else cold comfort.

Leaving aside his well-known shortcomings, I believe Pope Francis will live long in public perception in part because he does not appear frightened by public intimacy. Compared to the cold, haughty fish who rule us from government offices round the globe, he appears to know how to cut a figure of approachability and kindness. This is not a fault. Losing what Kipling called "the common touch" is a fairly common vice of successful or powerful assholes the world over.

So what's my problem? Simply that giving warmth without casting light is the property of modernity, just like your corridor radiator. "Everything has been separated from everything else, and everything has grown cold," writes Chesterton (I quote him approximately) in (I think) What's wrong with the world. The pope might have told this child that we confide all our dead to the mercy of God. He might of told him that God alone knows the secrets of the heart. He might have told him simply to pray for his father and to make sure he was a comfort to his mother who must be grieving also.

Instead of which - to my bafflement and I'm sure to that of many others - the pope provided an irrefutable answer there and then that has got the press swooning as usual over his mercy (so tangibly different from that excommunication-throwing German or the weird anti-abortion Pole). He was a good father, was he, says the pope? Well, how could God the Father refuse to welcome him? He had his children baptised, did he, says the pope? Well, that is more difficult for the unbaptised parent than the baptised parent, argued the pope (I confess at this point my mind leapt to the Catholic mothers whose non-believing spouses make them suffer every day for wanting to raise their children Catholic). And thus, he finished: speak to your father, pray to your father, Emanuele.

Don't get me wrong. If I could spray the world with the mercy of God through some huge spiritual hosepipe, I'd do it. Hose it all down: vidi aquam egredientem de hosepipo! Put the world in a coma: we're administering the last rights to all! My model is God: God who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

But not like this. There is not even hope in this reply: the mystery of salvation is solved because God resists no good. Well, there is some truth in the fact that all good is a share in God in some way. But we cannot solve the mystery of judgment in such ways. We cannot say: he looks good, so he's saved. He did something difficult: he's saved. We can hope. We can hope that God who knows the secrets of the heart is privy to secrets we will never know.

Is that all cold comfort? I don't accept that. On the face of it, falsehoods can sometimes be more comforting than truths but in the long run what we need is what can bring us into conformity with God who is good. Of course we have to deliver milk rather than meat to the little ones. That is true. Their minds are not yet formed; their hearts are not yet strong. So, mustn't we try to initiate them to living with the mystery? Children want to solve everything. They ask the huge questions; they have to learn that some questions cannot be solved.

Well, that in some people's opinion is surely a lot of unfeeling hand wringing. How dare I question how the pope comforts a little boy who has lost his father? But, speaking as a father, I would want my children not only to be warmed by comfort but illuminated by the light. We must pray for the dead and we can hope that God's mercy is greater than the limitations of our knowledge. There is immense comfort in the mystery of God. Perhaps that is what the pope wanted to underline. We can all be caught out by unexpected questions.

But - once again in this papacy of double speak - we have something that is close to the truth but misses it by a country mile. It must be tremendously difficult to be expected to produce words of wisdom and guidance every day and that before the whole world's media. I throw no stones.

But A la douce pitié de Dieu, say I, as Bernanos wrote in his final letter to Charles Maurras. Dead non-believers and living popes have this much in common: we cannot solve the mystery of their actions before God. We can only confide them to the ministry of mercy that heaven conducts in ways we cannot fathom. For those of us who remain, we might remember that the severance of light from warmth is a sin we should all be wary of.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

The law is an ass

Ealing Council have voted in favour of creating an exclusion zone around the infamous Marie Stopes abortion clinic in its area. Neither pro-lifers nor pro-abortionists can stand within 100 metres of the entrance to the building. It is a perfect solution for the council managing local unhappiness among its electorate and presumably for Marie Stopes UK which can now procede without the risk pro-lifers posed to their objectives. Don't get me wrong: they are a not-for-profit business. They have only the purest of motives: facilitating women's lives by extinguishing those of the unborn.

This is not incoherent: merely profoundly wrong. Once the law has allowed abortion, it makes perfect sense that those who avail themselves of this freedom should do so unimpeded. Allowing pro-lifers to stand outside these mills of death is like allowing atheists to stand at church doors distributing humanist leaflets. Many worshippers would affirm their right to freedom of worship and to be free of harassment when exercising it. Is poor Marie Stopes not doing the same thing?

They are all lost in a thicket of murderous logic. The Council can hide behind the law of the land and the idea is that anyone acting within the law should be able to do so without interference. What a brave stand for the councillors! Meanwhile, the academics who have facilitated the buffer zone concept can acclaim their 'impact' and be rewarded with promotions and peer esteem. Their research has had an extra-mural effect, and is this not why we fund universities - to be heard outside the ivory towers of academia?

And what about the unborn....? Ah, them. Well, the law implicitly says they only matter if we think they matter. If we think they don't matter, then they don't matter. It is that simple. The electorate want it this way, as one can hear in common language. When the unborn are wanted, they are 'babies '; when they are unwanted, they are 'foetuses'. One of the sociologists who has helped drive the buffer zone initiative wrote a rather whiny essay saying how use of the word 'child' for the unborn had to be got rid of. She has not finished yet and indeed has just won public funding to pursue her campaign for deconstruction of the pro-life movement.

And there is the hard lesson for people such as you and me. We are old fashioned enough to think it is about the issues, the substance of the moral arguments. Those who have facilitated the buffer zones know that once the law is on their side, they must no longer be advocates of direct action but now of the most merciless dialogical warfare. They don't look at arguments (I mean, why bother?); they look at what they call "discourses". They root out what they identify as the oppressive nature of the discourse - the power-driven construction of some set of vocabulary or speech acts - and then they tootle for all they are worth in their academic journals about how "pro-life" discourse is actually "anti-choice" and how irrational and anti-woman such discourses are. The fact that the Church backs the pro-life position works a treat for them, because there are few institutions with more credentials for oppression. Not that they have made that argument openly but need they do so? It speaks for itself. Only the State is the guarantor of freedom after all...

A few things are certain after this ruling by Ealing Council. First, women walking into Marie Stopes in Ealing will not have to brave the last call of conscience before they deliver the life of their unborn into the hands of the executioners. Second, fewer of them will decide not to abort and more of the unborn will die. Third, other councils will sit up and take notice, not because pro-lifers are a menace but because they will be persuaded that this is a pro-women action and because, after all, there is no electoral cost in smoothing the way for women intending to have an abortion. Dead men have no votes.

It's at times like this I wish I were both brave and clever. I don't mean clever enough to take a few pot shots at these people from a blog. Any idiot can do that. I mean clever enough, qualified enough, to do the counter studies on the women who have asked the Good Council Network for help and whose children owe their lives to the GCN. The decision of Ealing Council is like an edict against the value of the lives of the children of these mothers. It is like saying that all the hurt of the women approaching that clinic outweighs the dignity and value of the human lives that have been snatched from the clinic's jaws.  It is long since time for them to speak and I pray they do so. It is also about time that someone senior in the Catholic Church created the platform for them.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

A blast from the past

I'm just about to finish for a two-week staycation. Until the dying embers of Friday afternoon, however, I will be hard at it, trying to finish an important stage of my current project. One of the texts I recently came across in my necessarily voracious reading was Daniel-Rops's Le monde sans âme (1932). Daniel-Rops became better known as a Church historian, notably for his book Palestine in the Time of Jesus, but the 1932 work was written while he was trying to make a name for himself in the literary and critical circles of 1930s Paris. It is not, however, a literary work, so much as a political, social and philosophical one, making the case that France and indeed the wider world was now given over to a cultural project that excluded transcendence and pursued the fullest, fiercest realisation of a consumer system. I nearly used the word 'paradise' then but the point is that it can only be a paradise for those with lots of disposable income. The lower orders either must do without, or must pursue their ends with significant debt.

The connection of this analysis to my own interests is that technology becomes the lynch pin in a system driven by an essentially hedonist motive. Daniel-Rops sums up the machinery of this system in terms that roughly translate as follows:

Do not go looking for anything other than the physical joy of living, of buying things, of delighting in appearances as technology refreshes the horizon for us every six months. There is the order you are looking for: the perfect adaptation of production to consumption, solid stock market performance with five percent gains, and an increase in well-being and the pleasure of living.

I'm still reeling from how contemporary this kind of prospect sounds. With a few adjustments, it could have been said by just about any of the last six British Prime Ministers, and probably quite a few more before that. All of which suggests that ever since Daniel-Rops's time, the world has moved on little. He had not quite seen how much of a 'throw-away' culture such principles would encourage, but his contemporary Georges Duhamel had, describing in his book Querelle de famille (1932), published the same year, the masses of household detritus left by the roadside in country villages, soiling the green vistas of a fast-technologising France.

Of course, today we would have to add in the pseudo-causes that help sustain this consumerist culture: identity politics, Gaia-style eco-politics, etc, etc. But we are all consumers now, whether we like it or not.


Something in the appalling logic of consumption and throwing-away has led to my recent interest in the World Down Syndrome Day event, held annually on 21st March. It came to my attention a couple of years ago when its Youtube clip "Dear Future Mum" was judged to have breached advertising standards in France - ostensibly because it was not selling anything, but fundamentally because its contents were likely to upset women who had had abortions to avoid bearing DS children. Jean-Marie Le Mené, president of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation, has written about these children as the first victims of transhumanism. That seems to be rather too complimentary towards a project that involves eradicating individuals who have DS. It is no more than the rebirth of old-fashioned eugenics under the cover of the contemporary cult of individual choice.

There is the lie that DS can be eradicated in this manner: it cannot of course. What is eradicated are the individuals with an extra chromosome. What makes their eradication all the more gruesome, however, is that the decision to abort such children seems to be predicated on the most impoverished account of what life is. Here is where Daniel-Rops is again prophetic. The reconciliation of 'well-being' with the choice to abort the DS foetus tells you everything you need to know about 'well-being' in the 21st century. Towards the end of his book, Daniel-Rops points firmly to the origins of this culture:

The Enemy will not come to impose his reign on earth, a winged figure of might, appearing through terrible cloud formations. He will rise up among us discretely, looking like one of us, dressed soberly. He will not stand for negativity or the passionate rejection of truth; he will be indifference, a kind of gap, the sum of forces that tether man to matter and force him to betrayal. He will be that soiled form of renunciation: forgetfulness.

If this is so, perhaps one of the challenges of our time is not to forget, not to let the accelerating passage of events and consumer objects blot from our memories the coordinates of truth, the burden of our past faults, and the actions of those who betray us. Forgive and forget in the sense of harbouring no grudges? Yes! Forgive and forget in the sense of becoming naive again? That is not what charity requires.

Meanwhile, love remains very much the answer, as it always has been. That is one reason why, in spite of it all, the World Down Sydrome Day phenomenon surprises me. It seems like a heresy against the pursuit of 'well-being', a defiance thrown in the faces of the 'choice' brigade. This year's video celebrated it with a cheesy pop song, but I find myself drawn in by the words, so much do they contradict the murderous intent that pursues the lives of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. Annihilation, let us not forget, is a crime against being.

I have died every day waiting for you,
Darling, don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years,
I'll love you for a thousand more.

Saturday 31 March 2018

Another Easter morning

As I have blogged here and elsewhere over many moons, I say again that Easter Sunday morning is one of the most beautiful of the entire year. That first appearance to Mary in the garden...the even earlier appearance of Jesus to the Blessed Mother, according to a tradition St Ignatius and others believed... the peace of a grove that briefly rang with the screams of frightened pagan soldiers who could not believe their eyes and scuttled away to report the return of the Crucified One... If we had no eye for comedy in the Gospel, could we even be true spiritual Semites?

Peace be to you...There seems no fuller, richer greeting on such a morning. No matter if you feel unworthy of the peace He offers. There are many mansions in His Father's house, even for workers of the 11th hour. This is our hope, those of us clinging on for dear life in this rollercoaster known as the Ark of the Covenant.

It is unfitting, unworthy even, to dwell solely on the turbulence of the last few days, so we will not do so. I cannot be the only blogger who wrote a post and then deleted it following the latest Scalfari debacle. All we can do is to pray. The greater the evil - and if denial of hell were not bad enough, what is more contrary to the goodness of God than the literal annihilation of souls? - the more we can be sure it is the devil's work. Whether or not the Pope said those words to Scalfari, it has served the devil's agenda to have them spread abroad. Contrariwise, perhaps the fact that some Catholic leaders were dragged in front of the media to explain that there is a hell is a good thing. Fine. But not for me the fatuous excuses of the John Allens, claiming that the pope might prefer dialogue over clarity of doctrine. Because frankly, if you are going to be so utterly misrepresented, what is the point of dialogue? What was reported did not lack clarity; it lacked truthfulness. Who reads beyond the headlines most days? "Pope says no hell?" many will say. "Well about time too." Goodnight, Vienna!

So this Easter morn, we have to take Peter in our arms more firmly and hold him in prayer. Thursday was not his finest hour. Maybe he did not say what was reported. Maybe he did. I would not be surprised either way. What we cannot doubt is Christ's resolve to drag Peter into the light. Peace be to him and to us all this Easter.

Saturday 10 March 2018

More coping strategies

It's all about survival! This is what I used to say to my wife when our twins were babies. Just get through! It's important but sometimes treacherous terrain to occupy. You can justify a silly wine bill and more biscuits than are strictly good for you with reasoning like that.

Yet if the survival mandate is important, it's not the be-all-and-end-all. Charles Péguy once wondered how many betrayals had arisen from the fear of not looking progressive enough; we might equally wonder how many compromises have arisen from making survival an absolute. Survival as an absolute sometimes involves us in uncompromising flight, and sometimes flight is a lesser expression of fear than having to stay and withstand the spectacle of whatever threatens us. For example, I've no doubt the rate of converts from Catholicism to Orthodoxy is on the rise currently. At a distance, it seems like a sanctuary of mystery in the context of moral therapeutic deism that afflicts so many of our co-religionists. It is a flight, however, and the sanctuary is not as safe as we might suppose. 

In this context I came across a passage of Georges Bernanos's novel La Joie. It needs little commentary and the characters' names hardly matter. I'll just leave it here (as they say these days)...

I have mocked fear too much, he admitted one day. I was young and way too hot blooded.

What? she replied, I cannot believe you are saying that to me. Are you now going to give fear entry into Paradise?

He raised his red, swollen hand as if to calm her down, laughing silently as he did.

Not so fast, not so fast! In a way, even fear is a daughter of God, redeemed on the night of Good Friday. She is not beautiful to look at - no! - sometimes ridiculed, sometimes cursed, abandoned by everyone...however, make no mistake about it: she is at the bedside of every dying person where she intercedes for man.

The courageous man is not the one who feels no fear; he's the one who holds fast, even when he is fearful. That surely is the meaning of "Do not be afraid". It is not a call for severing ourselves from the desire to flee, as if Jesus were inviting us to a condition of nursery-teatime security; it is a command not to flee when the fear comes. And it surely will.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Monday 5 March 2018

The technology crutch

Our water pressure has gone very low. It's not hard to fathom why. Our week of Siberian temperatures has led to frozen pipes, water leaks and a wave of emergency call-outs across the county. The shortage is creeping closer and closer to us. Tonight by 6pm the other side of the street had no water at all. My young daughter thought it would be clever to flush the toilet for no reason and was surprised that the cistern then refused to fill up again (at least at anything other than a senile snail's pace). So, here we are, in one of Britain's largest cities, and across the suburbs the water pressure is going down to a trickle or stopping completely.

The shelves of the local supermarket were already cleared of the cheaper bottled water by the time I arrived after 7pm this evening. Bowed figures could be seen struggling through the doors, laden with lires and litres of water. I'd never realised how heavy the stuff is! In point of fact, without a well-oiled trolley or some other means of portage, you cannot actually carry that much without incurring injury.

Back at home I headed into the garden to find to my dismay that the children's snowmen had already melted with all of today's rain. There goes my water flush supply, I thought! Then I remembered how much was still stockpiled in the front garden and so out I headed with the wheelbarrow to collect it all for flushing purposes!

Over reaction, you say? Well, we want to be careful, especially with three small children in the house. But bobbling about tonight, making my logistical preparations for a small water shortage, made me think how brilliant our water system is and, equally, how patently vulnerable we are when it breaks down. Here we are in our gloriously complicated civilisation but how close in fact to a state of incipient chaos. Miss a beat or two and the structure begins to sag beneath the strain. We only occasionally have flashes of how close we are to social breakdown. The petrol lorry drivers strike a few years ago was one such moment.

Henri Bergson believed that every technological progress required an equally profound spiritual progress in order to counterbalance it. We might say in a different sense that every technological progress comes at the cost of some skill or practice. Most of us are rubbish at letter writing now. Mind you, conversational skills are probably on the wane also. Invent the phonograph/record player/CD player/mp3 file and while you will not kill musical skills altogether, you will encourage above all their vicarious enjoyment: let others play while we sit back and listen. And soon enough there will be hardly any parlour pianos and youths will even privatise their own vicariously performed music with earplugs.

So what did the water system destroy for us? Well, probably quite a bit of death and disease, and that is no bad thing! The problem, however, is our infrastructures are now organised on the basis of water being piped clean and fresh into our own homes. We don't have wells (and their loss was probably another killer of social cohesion). At least we know we have to boil water if it comes from a standing pipe in the street (if things get that bad), but our whole lifestyle supposes this is not the way of things. Before I had a mobile phone, I kept probably a dozen phone numbers in my head. Now, I don't even remember my wife's!

So, you say, in that case, why even learn to write? Well, quite. In Greek mythology Theuth presents Thamus with the gift of writing and the latter complains precisely that it will destroy memory. That's the cost of the technological crutch. Use a tool of some description and you risk losing something else. I make no argument in favour of grass-skirted, native-level, Luddite obscurantism, but I do argue in defence of the ethical gate to technological progress. In the war of all against all, you cannot not pursue a technology when your neighbour has it. Such a decision would leave you tactically, not to say strategically, weaker. In a world under ethical guidance, however, there are other calculations to be made beside that of how to reign supreme. How to be good, for a start.

Our water will probably come back to normal pressure by the morning (I say with trepidation). Other crises no doubt await when different technologies break down. In this context I cannot help ticking off my privileges and admitting to all the advantages that they provide me with.

Nevertheless, just a small flirtation with a breakdown of the system is enough to remind one of how thin civilisation's technological skin is. We look orderly, we might even have reasonably clean streets and normally functioning cities. But beneath it all we bleed with the vulnerability of humans. Were we not to protect ourselves so well with our tools, we might live a more human life without even trying very much.