Friday, 21 July 2017

Barack Obama and Catholic counter-revolution Part 2


Barack Obama and Catholic counter-revolution

Part 2 – specific comparisons
Part 1 of this article compared, in broad terms, the position of black Americans with that of English Catholics. The purpose of this Part is to highlight aspects of Barack Obama’s life which illustrate that comparison. Those aspects were described by him in “The Audacity of Hope” and “Dreams From My Father” (the editions used as sources for this article were published, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, by BBC Audiobooks Ltd. by arrangement with Canongate Books Ltd.).
The task of Catholic laity is to Catholicise society; in England, the desire and effort to do so is not recognisable in many of them. The Achilles heels of invoking ‘respect’ and ‘charity’ are discreet silence and cowardly seizure on the element of truth in an error. They have particularly calamitous results in politics, by thwarting necessary action. All action depends on the power to take action, and no amount of a respectful and charitable manner makes the slightest difference if power is used wrongly.
How is power gained, and how should it be used?
English Catholics have (primarily by default) been taught to ignore those questions, and consequently ‘blend in’ diffidently and complacently with the dominant secularism instead of working, in ‘concrete’ direct ways, to defeat it. Our adversaries are now so much in control that political ‘doors’ are very likely to be closed to U.K. Catholics who openly aim to establish Catholic principles in law and culture. For a long time, black Americans were in such a position, but, whereas that has improved, Catholic influence on British society has not. A report dated 15th November 2014, contained in “The Catholic Universe,” attributed the following considerable under-statement to Cardinal Vincent Nichols: “the English [bishops’] temperament… has been fashioned in a culture in which the Catholic Church is not a dominant minority or not even a hugely strong influence in the culture. We, from our earliest days, learn how to live in a situation that doesn’t naturally give support to all the desires that we have.” There is scant evidence of any desires which are counter-culturally Catholic.

Unlike English Catholics, sedated by limp leadership, Black Americans cared enough to rouse themselves. Barack Obama followed their example, but his first attempts to make a difference were not successful.
In 1983, he decided that beneficial change in U.S. society would not come “from the top,” but “from a mobilized grass roots,” and adopted an ambition to organise black people at that level for that purpose. He wrote to civil rights organisations, elected black officials, local Councils, and tenants’ rights groups. None replied. He was not discouraged, but found “more conventional work,” during which the ‘organising’ idea began to recede and then revived. He resigned from his “conventional” job, and resumed looking for an ‘organising’ one. Most of his letters were not answered, and he made no progress (such experience awaits any British Catholic counter-revolutionary). When on the brink of admitting defeat, he found a job assisting an experienced organiser named ‘Marty,’ who made some comments which raise interesting comparisons with today’s situation in Britain.
Marty said that building real power required “some sort of institutional base,” such as trades unions, but the unions were too weak and the churches were the only prospect, because “that’s where the people are and that’s where the values are.” In today’s Britain, trades unions (despite being much weaker than generations ago) are much stronger forces to be reckoned-with than are numerically-decimated ecclesial organisations whose “values” tend to be expressed in lowest-common-denominator terms which, far from maximising ‘appeal,’ are so tepid and vague that they have no measurable mobilising impact.
Barack Obama’s initial wish to “organise black folks” became a broader altruism, fuelling effort for change at - and through – all levels of American society. This has its counterpart in Vatican II’s declaration that the laity must work (note, work – not merely think ‘yes, it would be nice’) to inculturate God’s law in the life of “the Earthly city” , by Catholicising society’s mentality, customs, laws, and structures.
He believed in the socially–formative, and –normative, importance of the law, especially in defending the powerless. The ‘civil rights’ campaign which became so strong during his infancy was a prime example. He said that moral arguments had not been enough, because the relevant laws had to be changed, and that the ‘internalizing’ effect of anti-discrimination laws during thirty years had deterred white people from expressing antipathy towards members of other races when interacting with them. That is what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when teaching that fear of legally-prescribed punishment can habituate people in virtuous restraint . Barack Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s comment that that even though laws may not change opinions they can restrain wrongful actions. Unfortunately, law can also inculturate wrongful opinions and compel wrongful actions.
Black Americans and British Catholics have had similar experiences of hard times, subsequently relieved by law, but there is a difference. Obama pointed out that the price of social acceptance for a minority tends to be “assimilation” into the majority; visible non-conformity to the dominant surrounding culture incurs negative attitudes. Black Americans, however, have suffered because of what they are, whereas British Catholics have suffered because of behaviour inspired by what they believe. People cannot hide their skin-colour, but they can hide, dilute, or renounce their beliefs, especially to gain tolerance, acceptance, and advancement in an unsympathetic society.
Barack Obama wrote that “things have gotten better,” but that “Better isn’t good enough.” For him and his supporters, legal change serves a continuing effort to remove disadvantage. Typical British Catholics, however, seem to think that freedom to go to Mass, be a priest, and run schools (which produce few noticeably-committed Catholics) are all that we need. As Barack Obama said his maternal grandparents had done, they have decided to cut their losses and settle for hanging on. For such Catholics, ‘better’ is good enough, because mere ‘tolerance’ was the aim. ‘Catholicise society? Too difficult. Just avoid unpopularity, talk in terms which everyone can accept, and live and let live.’
Barack Obama understood the temptation to surrender. He understood because he had heard it among black Americans, and because he felt disillusioned by his own experience. Despite believing that that his efforts had little if any effect on events, because stronger powers than his were at work, after six years as a member of the Illinois State legislature he decided to seek nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Without significant personal resources or help from those of the Party, he had to spend much time seeking donations. His extensive travelling around the State for meetings was ‘rewarded’ sometimes by finding audiences of two or three. He discovered that most people were interested only in basic, every-day practicalities of life, not in politics or intellectual questions; that their hopes were very modest; and that beliefs held by people of different races, religions, and classes were very similar. In other ‘advanced’ countries, also (not least, Britain), every-day practicalities seem to monopolise attention, and ‘casualties’ include not only intellectual politics but also religion. Apart from the understandable pressure of short-term material needs, is seems probable that people do not recognise a substantive connection between religious precepts and how they, or other people, should live.
The results seem to be that most people are so similar in their behaviour and their interests and attitudes to the future that the (supposedly-)religious among them are not recognisably different from the non-religious, and are devoid of evident desire that the non-religious would embrace their faith. In such spiritual sloth are further parallels with Barack Obama’s family. He wrote that his maternal grandfather was an life-assurance salesman who was unable to convince himself that people needed what he was selling, and was afraid of rejection, and that consequently the work went badly and the earnings from it paid fewer and fewer of the family’s bills. The apparently-endemic languid attitude to religion renders credible the thought that most relatively-religious people are satisfied by being able to pay their monetary bills, and have no real interest in spiritual insurance or debts – least of all other people’s. Analogously with Obama’s grandparents in Hawaii, any religious ambitions seem to have drained away, regular mundane daily doings give ‘shape’ to life, and material acquisitions such as new curtains or domestic appliances are the main ‘excitements’.
How different was Barack Obama’s life. His youthful listless drift and tendency to belief in ‘luck’ (for which his mother had reproached him) were replaced by an altruistic sense of purpose, and by the “effort” which she said he lacked. It was tested by disillusionment arising from his, and others’, experience, but was strong enough to become what he called “a chronic restlessness.” While a community organiser in poor areas of Chicago, he was told by a Catholic deacon that “You ain’t never satisfied. You want everything to happen fast. You wanna lighten up a little.”
Paradoxically, however, he wrote that by nature he is “not somebody who gets real worked up about things.” He rejected “a polarized electorate” and advocated “a broad majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill.” It was evident also in his analysis of “values.” So he has been described as conciliatory, naturally inclined to look for common ground and compromise (he seemed, however, willing to concede only extremely limited exemptions from his insistence that employers, including Catholic ones, must provide medical insurance which includes artificial contraception and abortifacients). Politicians often compromise; so do clerics, by means of discreet silence and equivocal comments. Contributing to a BBC Radio 4 programme in 2016, Lord (Dr. David) Owen said “If you don’t want to compromise, don’t go into politics.” It looks also as though counter-cultural intransigence is not wanted in the Church, either; according to the above-mentioned “Catholic Universe” report in November 2014, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that Pope Francis prefers to work with English bishops because of their conciliatory temperament.
Barack Obama’s temperament co-existed with recognition that what matters is who holds the power and how it is used. For example, at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, he gave a speech supporting Senator John Kerry’s nomination as the Party’s candidate in the next Presidential election. A political opponent named Zell Miller had wished Obama good luck in his new job as a U.S. Senator, and described the Convention speech as one of the best which he had ever heard. Senator Kerry was defeated by George W Bush. “In other words,” wrote Obama, “My guy had lost. Zell Miller’s guy had won. That was the hard, cold political reality. Everything else was just sentiment”. Power is what counts in practice.
A good example arose in regard to abortion. While he was a member of the Illinois State legislature there was a Republican Party Bill to ban partial-birth abortion. According to his account of the matter, Barack Obama argued in favour of an amendment to include a ‘mother’s health’ exception to the proposed prohibition, but the amendment was defeated in a vote which reflected the different Party policies. Afterwards, Mr. Obama told a Republican that the absence of the amendment would result in the courts deciding that the ban was in breach of the U.S. Constitution. The Republican replied that the judges would do what they wanted to do anyway; he added that “It’s all politics, and right now we’ve got the votes.”
In democracies, power depends on votes. People can talk as much as they wish, but without voting-strength it remains only talk. Admittedly, a majority of votes does not always ensure that a particular consequence will follow. A law is ineffective if there is no willingness to enforce it, but without a law there is nothing to enforce; so law is necessary. Although Catholics are as able as anyone to recognise that, there is no sign that they are more inclined than most people to act accordingly. All but a handful, at least in England and Wales, seem to drift along passively, contented with what Archbishop Oscar Romero called “very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone” . It is the equivalent of praying ‘thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, but let us watch idly from the sidelines while our society defies it.’ The task of the Catholic laity, made clear by Vatican II and by the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” is not limited to spreading sentiment. That is indeed part of the task of “permeating with a Christian spirit the mentality and the customs, the laws and the structures of the community in which one lives” , but that is a means to another end. We should not be satisfied with lip-service respect for what is now known simply as ‘faith’ (a minimalist word). It must be given concrete form in the governance of the country. Sentiments and favourable attitudes will not withstand being undermined by governmental contradictions of them. Hearts have to be changed, but as a means to the greater end of changing also “the laws and the structures of the [country]”. In other words, it is the whole temporal order which must be renewed, and the task of the Catholic laity is, as Vatican II declared, to make the affairs of “the Earthly city” comply with God’s law .
The divine law covers many things, of course. Taking part in impressing it on society is an individual decision, and the form of participation will vary between individuals according to their aptitudes, opportunities, and their judgment from time to time of whether priority should be given to causes or to symptoms. Events result from beliefs. Erroneous beliefs cause erroneous conduct. On that basis, therefore, arguing against error should be the priority. It should not, however, be an inadvertent or deliberate means of ignoring other action to obstruct grave sin.
Again, abortion provides an illustrative context. Regardless of what has been said against it, the practical situation has remained substantially unchanged. It came about because debate influenced the thinking of people who held the power to introduce change. Because the people who now hold such power do not use it in accordance with Catholic principle, abortion is freely available. It will remain so until the law forbids it. Arguing against abortion, and offering a practical alternative, is no substitute for changing the law, and the law will not be changed until anti-abortionists hold power and are willing to use that power accordingly. In pursuing the arduous task of seeking power, anti-abortionists can surprisingly take heart from Barack Obama.
That is “surprising” because legal abortion was acceptable to him. The fact that he approved of it is itself surprising, for two reasons. The first one is general: abortion is intrinsically so evil that approval of it should always cause surprise (but, of course, we know that many people do approve of it). The second reason is specific to Barack Obama: in the Preface to “Dreams From My Father” he wrote that “[m]y powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.” He made that comment with reference to the terrorists’ attacks in America on 11th September 2001. Somehow, he believed abortion to be ‘different’. According to a LifeSiteNews report , he had a practice of issuing annual statements supporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The 2014 and 2016 statements commemorating that infamous decision declared, in standard pro-abortion style, that the Court had “affirmed a woman’s freedom to make her own choices about her body and her health.” The statements added a commitment to “protecting a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care” and her “right to reproductive freedom,” because in the U.S. everyone deserves “the freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams.” It did not add, ‘and to kill anyone, however innocent and defenceless, who is regarded as an obstacle thereto.’
Why, therefore, can anti-abortionists take heart from Barack Obama? A specific incident symbolises the reason very well. It seems to have occurred at an early stage of his effort to become a U.S. Senator. He had only basic practical campaigning-resources, was contending with an up-hill struggle to obtain funds from Party supporters, and held press conferences to which nobody came. Nothing could have illustrated his seemingly-poor prospects more clearly than the fact that when he and his handful of helpers “signed up for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade [we] were assigned the parade’s very last slot, so my ten volunteers and I found ourselves marching just a few paces ahead of the city’s sanitation trucks, waving to the few stragglers who remained on the route while workers swept up garbage and peeled green shamrock stickers off the lampposts.”

Does your experience in pro-life campaigning enable you to empathise with how he can be imagined reasonably to have felt in that ‘tail-end’ position? It could easily have been regarded as symbolic of very poor prospects. Does your honest assessment of the prospects for the pro-life campaign (in its several forms) lead you to a similarly-pessimistic conclusion? If so, take heart.
He had been the last in the line, but became President of his country . He experienced several periods of time during which his fortitude was tested severely. Despite wavering, he did not give up. Perseverance was not the sole cause of his success, but without it he would not have been able to profit from other advantageous factors. He did, of course, have an existing ‘constituency’ to which to make his appeals for support and which (after the resources of his national Party organisation were, eventually, put at his disposal) ‘propelled’ him forward, whereas the extent to which the same is true of the pro-life campaign is debatable. Certainly the campaign seems very far more energetic and supported in the U.S. than in the U.K., but similarly lacking in substantive progress. Take heart, however, from the fact that it is possible for once-seemingly-fanciful objectives to be achieved. A recent example is legal status of ‘marriage’ for same-sex relationships. Before that, there was legal dismantlement of racially-based disadvantage. Soul-singer Sam Cooke had predicted that “change gonna come.” By the time of that record’s release in December 1964 there were strong grounds for belief that the prediction would come true. It had not always seemed likely, or even possible, but it occurred because (a) people who wanted it became increasingly vocal and visible in promoting it and (b) their witness emboldened sympathisers. Eventually their ‘time had come’.
On 16th October 2011 President Obama gave a speech at the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. He said that the movement of which Dr. King was a part included “multitudes of men and women whose names never appear in the history books — those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized — all those men and women who through countless acts of quiet heroism helped bring about changes few thought were even possible.” He said that change has never been quick, simple, or uncontroversial; that it depends on persistence and determination. He said that after a crucial Supreme Court decision on ‘civil rights’ there were ten more years until necessary legislation by the Congress, but that during those ten years Dr. King continued campaigning until the legislation was passed. “His life, his story,” said the President, “tells us that change can come if you don’t give up” (an ‘echo’ of Marilyn vos Savant, American columnist, to whom has been attributed “Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.”). Dr. King, added President Obama, “would not give up, no matter how long it took.”
For opponents of abortion, and other inculturated contradictions of Catholic moral principle, the ‘time’ is still awaited. It may, credibly, not come until the end of time, but it will come then. Meanwhile, we must face a fact with which Caroline Farrow, who writes and speaks in the U.K. for Catholic Voices, ended one of her articles: “Sometimes…it’s all about witnessing, not winning” . Those of us who want to win, and who work for it, must resign ourselves also to agreeing with Blessed John Henry Newman’s opinion that “We can but desire in our day to keep alive the lamp of truth in the sepulchre of this world till a brighter era” .
That would be a discouraging note on which to end this comparison of circumstances in America and in Britain. It would be the more discouraging having regard to indications that anti-abortionists can (and, indeed, should) take heart from the ‘civil rights’ campaign in America and from the life of Barack Obama. Probably everyone prefers an uplifting ending to a discouraging one. So here are two uplifting points from Scripture. Firstly, writing to Timothy, St. Paul said that God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but one of (among other characteristics) power. We’ve got to work to give it practical effect. Secondly, Our Lord said “I am with you always, to the end of time” . It’s good to remember that.
1 Apostolic Exhortation, “Ecclesia in Europa,” June 2003, at paragraph 9.
2 “Birmingham Catholic News,” April 2002, at p.2.
3 “Fit for Mission? – Church,” Catholic Truth Society, 2008, p10-13, & 93.
4 “Sunday Plus,” Redemptorist Publications, 10th July 2011.
5 BBC 2, 19th September 2010; reported in “The Catholic Herald,” 1st October 2010, p.3.
6 Article entitled “Pope Benedict’s visit: beleaguered Catholic Church struggles against secular tide,” in “The Observer,” 29th August 2010.
7 “Thomas More – The Greatest Englishman,” distributed as a supplement with Hamish Fraser’s “Approaches” magazine, no. 61, May 1978.
8 Enobarbus, in “Antony and Cleopatra,” Act III, Sc. XI).
9 Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., “Render Unto Caesar”; Doubleday, 2008, p.37.
10 See “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 837, last sentence.
11 cf. “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2273.
12 “Gaudium et Spes,” paragraph 43.
13 “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” paragraph 13.
14 “Summa Theologica,” 28, Qu. 92, a.1.1 & 2.4.
15 Although that is probably true, assimilation is not necessarily a safe solution. It did not protect Jews in Nazi Germany: “The total number of German Jews killed in the Holocaust has been estimated at 160,000. German Jews who survived were mostly in mixed marriages or were the children of such unions.” (“The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police,” by Frank McDonough; Coronet, 2016, Ch. 7, p.191, citing “Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question,” S. Gordon; Princeton University Press, 1984; p.119). 16 “Evangelii Gaudium,” paragraphs 81-83.
17 Quoted in “The Catholic Times,” 25th July 2010, p.13.
18 “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” paragraph 13.
19 Matt. 15:8.
20 “Gaudium et Spes,” paragraph 43.
21 (by Patrick B. Craine, 22nd January 2014.)
22 cf. ‘the last shall be first’ – Matt. 19:30 & 20:16; Lk. 13:30.
23 “The Catholic Universe,” 6th February 2015, p.6.
24 “How To Accomplish It,” section 11.
25 2 Tim.1:7.
26 Matt. 28:20.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Barack Obama and Catholic counter-revolution


Part 1 – broad background

by Anthony Hofler

Writing of his baptism in the Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama said that “kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.” To a committed Christian considering support for a political candidate, such statements would be encouraging signs. They would be useful criteria also by which to judge an elected candidate’s conduct.
     The original purpose underlying this article was to highlight lessons from the life of Barack Obama for Catholics (especially in the energetic U.S. and the languid U.K.) who are interested in acquiring power for good purposes. Engagement in that work brought, however, a realisation that Catholic-significant aspects of President Obama’s life should be combined with a comparison, from a recognisably-Catholic standpoint, of the situations in the U.S. and in Britain. Lessons can be clearer and more memorable when learned in their appropriate contexts. So before focusing predominantly on President Obama, it will be useful to take a broader view.

     For a long time, black Americans were down-trodden by law and culture; today, so are recognisably-Catholic principles. That should matter to us. Catholicism and its adherents are recognisable as such to the extent that they differ from other creeds and people. If we sink those differences we sink our religious identity, and the faith goes down with us. Pope John Paul the Great, never one to sink, said that Europe “gives the impression of ‘silent apostasy’ on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist”[1]. The same applies here. In 2002 Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor (not famous for discontentment) said that “in England and Wales today Christianity as a background to people’s lives and moral decisions is now almost vanquished” and noted the (long-obvious) “secular outlook in our society which ignores the Gospel: it does not know it and it does not want to”[2]. The situation is worse now, especially in the law.
    Typical Catholics seem uninterested in this. Parishes lack any significant counter-revolutionary activity. Now-retired Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster found languor and reticence, even hopelessness in the Church. He wondered what had caused it, and lamented ‘back-pedalling’ on fundamental principles[3].

     Despite Scriptural and high ecclesiastical exhortation to conform society to God’s laws, attempts to energise defence of controversial Catholic teachings are either deftly turned aside or met with a “granite exterior” or a “puzzled stare”[4]. Clerics will, of course, dispute that, but their ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ policy is characterised by vagueness and incapable of ending the endemic torpor.
     At one time things were bleak also for black Americans, but an important difference between their position and that of British Catholics is that here the challenges are directed at Catholic principles, whereas there they were directed at practicalities in blacks’ daily lives. Black Americans could not have shrugged and answered lamely, ‘But it doesn’t affect us,’ because it did. If, however, typical Catholics in England today were asked to fight this or that un-Catholic law or practice, many would shrug and answer lamely, ‘It doesn’t affect us.’ Practicalities outweigh principles.

     Indicative of a wish to make religion recognisably (although – a very important proviso –uncontroversially) ‘relevant’ and thereby stem the loss of ‘credibility’ in an ever-more secular society, statements by the hierarchy give material matters at least equal weight with subjects which seem comparatively peripheral to people’s ‘normal lives’. Similarly, politicians often neglect ‘moral’ subjects and promote attention to those which ‘people care about’/ which ‘matter to people’. Promotion of ‘marriage’ status for same-sex relationships was an exception to that. Catholic bishops did speak up against same-sex ‘marriage’ (although not very cogently), but not long beforehand Archbishop Vincent Nichols (as he then was) said during a televised discussion of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain that the hierarchy’s priority-subjects are poverty and education[5]. Those subjects are indeed addressed directly by Church teachings, but they are not distinctively-Catholic subjects. The comparative neglect and ‘soft-pedalling’ on other matters, especially the greatest modern triumphs of secular permissiveness, reflects the fact that very few Catholics in Britain show any concrete interest in what does not affect them materially, directly, and recognisably. That is a formidable obstacle to the reversal of secularism.
     As well as apathy within the Church, Catholic counter-revolutionaries have to consider how best to defeat adversaries outside it. During the secularists’ rise to power, they had to consider how to defeat us, in so far as the law enshrined our principles, just as American ‘civil rights’ campaigners had to consider how to defeat deeply-entrenched resistance. Probably the greatest practical asset was the existence of a large body of supporters who cared enough to respond. Opinion produced practical effect because of “those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized,” as President Obama described them. There is no equivalent body of Catholics in Britain or Europe; that is the greatest difference between achieving civil rights for black Americans and re-asserting down-trodden Catholic principles.

     Former “Catholic Herald” editor Peter Stanford has written that the Church “instinctively keeps a low profile and shrugs off criticisms rather than confronts them,” but that this is “now being mercilessly exploited” by “the new breed of abrasive secularists.” He wrote that the “innate reluctance to be drawn into public confrontation,” and “to hammer home…contentious Catholic teachings,” is a “legacy of the history of the faith here and its accommodation to the prevailing norms of the wider society.” He described this as “being realistic,” and as “pragmatism”[6] .
     It amounts to an admission of subservience, perhaps with an underlying (and hitherto-unfulfilled) hope that we can turn our adversaries’ criteria against them (e.g. ‘equality’) just as they have been adept in using ours against us (e.g. ‘conscience’). According to American Catholic Judge Albert C. Walsh, St. Thomas More wrote, in “Utopia” (p.47f): “…that which you cannot turn to good, so order it that it be not very bad”[7]. The temptation to ‘make the best’ of an unsatisfactory situation is understandable. Everyone can see the attraction of ‘why hold out for perfection when you can’t get it?’ Courage v. compromise. It is true that “when valour preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with”[8], but a rather similar result arises when pragmatism preys on principle.
     The black civil rights campaigners in America managed eventually to persuade the Supreme Court that the language of the law was on their side, and to persuade the Congress that further laws were needed. It was the psychological weight of sustained large protest which wore down resistance. Black Americans believed in the justice of their principles, and (aroused by strong leadership) had enough tenacity and perseverance to win. Those factors are lacking among Catholics, not only where Catholics are a minority but also even in the few places where they are, at least nominally, a majority (ascertainment of the true numbers is impossible, because (i) a claim to be a Catholic is not a reliable indicator of beliefs (“A man may claim he loves his wife. His wife will want to see the evidence. … Saying we’re Catholic does not mean we are, except in the thinnest sense”)[9], and (ii) self-declaration is not conclusive)[10].

     A lamentable example occurred in October 2016, when the Parliament of (according to the Reuters news-agency) “staunchly Catholic” Poland rejected by 352 to 58 a Bill which, reported Reuters, proposed “a near-total ban on abortion.” Reuters described the result as “an embarrassing setback” for the Polish Government and for “the powerful” Catholic Church. For two reasons, that seems an untenable conclusion. Firstly, the Government withdrew its earlier support for the ban; so apparently it wanted the result which occurred. Secondly, Reuters seemed to contradict themselves by alleging that the Church’s influence has been “steadily eroded” (by democracy and “market reforms”). Obviously it is not powerful enough to procure a much-improved compliance of the law with this fundamental aspect of Catholic moral doctrine[11]. The impossibility of achieving that even in Poland emphasises that it is a mere dream elsewhere. A 100,000-strong public protest against the Bill was ‘credited’ with swaying the vote (and thereby negating 450,000 signatures on a petition supporting it). Lesson: results depend on whether the powerful are receptive to a campaign, not necessarily on the number of campaigners. Few power-holders are receptive to distinctively-Catholic moral principles. ‘Empower allies of Catholicism’ is the solution, but there is no practical effort to do so.

     Such failure to give practical effect to Catholic principle is a grave dereliction of duty.

Part 2 coming soon...

[1] Apostolic Exhortation, “Ecclesia in Europa,” June 2003, at paragraph 9.
[2] “Birmingham Catholic News,” April 2002, at p.2.
[3] “Fit for Mission? – Church,” Catholic Truth Society, 2008, p10-13, & 93.
[4] “Sunday Plus,” Redemptorist Publications, 10th July 2011.
[5] BBC 2, 19th September 2010; reported in “The Catholic Herald,” 1st October 2010, p.3.
[6] Article entitled “Pope Benedict’s visit: beleaguered Catholic Church struggles against secular tide,” in “The Observer,” 29th August 2010.
[7] “Thomas More – The Greatest Englishman,” distributed as a supplement with Hamish Fraser’s “Approaches” magazine, no. 61, May 1978.
[8] Enobarbus, in “Antony and Cleopatra,” Act III, Sc. XI).
[9] Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., “Render Unto Caesar”; Doubleday, 2008, p.37.
[10] See “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 837, last sentence.
[11] cf. “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2273.

Sunday, 22 January 2017


Part 2
by Anthony Hofler
The new element in David Cameron’s Bratislava speech (19th June 2015) was in the section following immediately after his examples of ‘extreme’ opinions which must be fought. “The question is,” he said, “how do people arrive at this worldview?” He said that “There are, of course, many reasons,” and he mentioned three in particular. Their religious significance is worth highlighting.
     One was the “too often hear[d]” and “dangerous” opinion that responsibility for “radicalisation” lies with “someone else,” such as “agencies or authorities.” That, he said, ignores the fact that “radicalisation starts with the individual,” and risks the overlooking of many ways by which “we must try to stop it at the source.” No doubt unwittingly, he thereby echoed comments by Pope John Paul the Great about sin and sinful situations (“Reconcilatio et Paenitentia,” 1984 , para. 16). One way (although the speech did not refer to it) by which the Government is targeting “the source” is the prominently-publicised strategy for using the education system to identify and counteract signs of unacceptable beliefs. The Church in England and Wales does not seem to have a reputation for doing the same (that is a subject in its own right, and too large for consideration here).
     Another factor cited by Mr. Cameron was “national identity and making sure young people in our country feel truly part of it.” The implication (apparently accurate) is that some people, especially young ones, see an incompatibility between national identity and religious identity. Probably very few Catholics feel like that (whether they should do is another distinct subject too large for consideration here).
     The third factor which Mr. Cameron blamed for contributing to the relevant ‘extremism’ is very important in other contexts, also. He said that there are people who, although not going as far as advocating violence, hold the types of ‘extreme’ views which he had mentioned and who give credence to them by quietly condoning them and portraying them as being part of an identity (“telling fellow Muslims, ‘you are part of this’ ”). He said that for impressionable people who live in such an atmosphere “it’s less of a leap” to join violent, murderous groups than it would be for someone who has not been exposed to those subtle influences. Putting that in different words but not altering its substance, it means that showing an equivocal or sympathetic attitude to wrong ideas can give them a credibility and legitimacy which events show to be dangerous.
     When expressed in abstract words such as those, it would receive assent from just about everybody, and just about everybody would agree also that in the context which Mr. Cameron had in mind events prove that it is true. Agreement often begins to disintegrate, however, when general principles are applied to specific situations. Nowhere is that recognisable more clearly than in religion and ethics. For example, Monsignor Keith Newton, the leader of the Ordinariate for former Anglican ministers who have joined the Catholic Church, once said that to hold the Anglican Communion together is a very difficult job because taking a firm line in anything causes people to disagree. (Probably that was why a former Archbishop of Canterbury was alleged to have “nailed his colours firmly to the fence.”)
     David Cameron would ‘row back’ from his comment about condonation strengthening the power of dangerously-extreme beliefs if he were faced with its application to now-deeply-rooted-and-strongly-defended changes in British society since the Second World War. The 1983 Darwin Lecture by the Lord Chief Justice (Lord Lane) contained remarks similar to that comment in Mr. Cameron’s 2015 Bratislava speech, but he applied them in a different way: He noted also the role of words in influencing thought and events. “We use,” he said, “innocuous words or words with happy and pleasant connotations to describe things which are the opposite of innocuous… By the ‘permissive’ society, we mean the immoral society. Look what has happened to the word ‘gay’. It had beautiful connotations of carefree happiness. It has now been so devalued that it is unusable without causing sniggers. … That is dreadful. It corrupts the language and gives tacit approval to the situation which is being so misdescribed. … But I digress. Easy divorce; the Pill; legalised abortion; easy access to pornography; all these things are now everyday, unremarkable phenomena of our society. They were unthinkable thirty years ago. They’ve all made their contribution to our present condition.”
     Mr. Cameron’s probable reaction to that would begin with something like ‘Ah, well. Those are very different from murders of innocent people. Although some of us may think that in some ways perhaps some of them go too far, we must accept that they are features of a modern, tolerant society…’ Mr. Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, Theresa May, would probably condemn Lord Lane’s views as symptoms of why (according to her speech to the 2002 Conservative Party Conference) some people had regarded the Conservatives as “the nasty Party.” Although saying that that opinion of the Party was unfair, in effect she surrendered to it by calling for “No more glib moralising, no more hypocritical finger-wagging. We need to reach out to all areas of our society.” The friends of licentiousness accepted joyfully that gift, planted it firmly in political posterity, and still quote it.
     Lord Lane’s ‘unthinkable-thirty-years-ago’ point was expressed similarly by Father Timothy Finigan, in his contribution to “Proclaiming the Gospel of Life” (Catholic Truth Society, 2009, p.56): “Had an orthodox moral theologian suggested in 1968 that the consequences [of adopting artificial contraception] would include civil partnerships for homosexual people, demonstration of the use of condoms for children, secret abortions for girls under 16, In Vitro Fertilisation and the discarding of ‘spare’ embryos, they would have been dismissed as alarmist and unrealistic.”
     Do you remember “In the Year 2525,” a song by Zager and Evans which was a hit in the Summer of 1969? Issued at the time when walking on the Moon changed from fantasy to fact, it made predictions of other things. One was that in 6565 it would be possible to choose children “from the bottom of a long glass tube.” The first ‘test-tube baby’ was born in 1978. A related prediction was that husbands and wives would not be needed. The basis of that prediction was a two-fold norm of life in the 1960s – most children were conceived naturally from bodily union of men and women who were married to each other. Not only has the conception element become anachronistic, but the status of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ is removed from legal recognition as a result of ‘marriage’ between same-gender couples being introduced.
     From the dawn of time marriage has been a heterosexual concept, arising from the anatomically-complementary sexual organs of the parties, bearing fruit in children conceived and nurtured and delivered by the purpose-made construction and natural processes of female bodies, and reared within the security resulting from the marriage of the parents and (to that end) the parental duties imposed by law. Same-sex ‘marriage’ is a perversely-logical outcome of a long-established mind-set which rejects openness to conception as a condition of sexual propriety, and which imposes a contrary relativist insistence on autonomous ‘choice’. Same-sex ‘marriage’ is, therefore, another dimension of a strategy to transform an allegedly-archaic institution.      Civil partnerships were the main ‘trail-blazers’ for this, not only in Britain but internationally. Using civil partnerships as a ‘spring-board,’ it was “less of a leap” to legalise ‘marriage’ between same-gender individuals. For example, a strategist in America argued that all of the very important legal incidents of marriage would best be secured by properly-crafted legislation establishing civil unions. He said that, with the legal incidents the same for married people and for the parties to civil unions, the two relationships would differ (only) in regard to the level of public approval inherent in the word ‘marriage.’ He added that in most cases the best way of obtaining that public approval (for ‘marriage’ status being granted to same-sex couples) would be first to secure the legal incidents under the title of civil unions, after which people would look at civil unions, see no significant distinction from marriages, start calling them marriages, and gradually forget why they objected to doing so before.
     Events in Britain have vindicated that assessment. Anyone na├»ve or self-deluded enough to have believed that civil partnerships were not trail-blazers for same-sex ‘marriage’ should feel very foolish now. Their embarrassment should be the greater for the fact that the Government explicitly used such partnerships as a ‘launch-pad’. The Ministerial Foreword bearing Theresa May’s name and contained in the Government’s 2012 consultation-document said that “Same-sex couples now receive access to equivalent legal rights, bar the ability to be able to be married and to say that they are married. We do not believe this is acceptable. The introduction of civil partnerships in 2005 was a significant and important step forward for same-sex couples… We recognise that the personal commitment made by same-sex couples when they enter into a civil partnership is no different to the commitment made by opposite-sex couples when they enter into a marriage” (yet the same consultation-document declared, in paragraph 1.10, that whereas marriage entails the saying of prescribed words “civil partnerships are formed simply by signing the register – no words are required to be spoken” – a silent ‘commitment’!); “We do not think that the ban on same-sex couples getting married should continue.” Bowing to the ubiquitous supreme secular criterion, the Ministerial Foreword declared that “this is about providing choice for our modern society.” When leaving office, Mr. Cameron included it in his list of achievements, and on taking over from him Theresa May invoked it in describing him as “a great modern Prime Minister.” This aspect of Government policy can be expected to continue with consistently-widening, and minimally-hindered, practical effects.
     The campaign to prevent ‘marriage’ status for same-gender relationships laid great stress on the connection between marriage and procreation. That stress suggested astonishing obliviousness of the obvious fact that most people regard children as entirely optional, whether within marriage or outside of it. That general view, which is catered-for by a large part of the National Health Service and sustains a vast international industry, undermined substantive objection to biologically-childless unions being given legal ‘marriage’ status. Although many people regarded the proposal as objectionable, many of the objectors would have been unable to say anything other than that it was ‘unnatural’ in a cultural sense. Subconsciously they would have been ‘disarmed’ by the pervasive presence and influence of the foundation-stone of same-gender sexual relationships. It is a factor which campaigners against same-sex ‘marriage’ ignored. The fact that they ignored it testifies to its unassailable social position, because its strength is such that if opponents of same-sex ‘marriage’ had attacked it as the root of the problem they would have lost support. It is, of course, contraception.
     Contraception closes the sexual act to the gift of life. Its solely-sensual basis is the root of all sexual perversions, and (to the extent that such unions include sexual acts) of same-sex ‘marriages’. The initially-limited provision of contraceptive devices and services by the State, and the granting of legal immunity from prosecution for homosexual acts in private between two consenting adults aged at least 21, meant that it was “less of a leap” to extend such services and to lower the age of consent. The basic principle having been accepted, relaxation of restrictive attitudes and practices followed naturally. So mere toleration has developed into ‘marriage’ status for same-sex couples, demands that children be taught that homosexual relationships are just one among a range of legitimate and freely-chosen lifestyles, and intolerant outcries against comments to the contrary.
     Likewise, contraception is the root of abortion. Helping people to prevent conception meant that it was “less of a leap” to enabling them to destroy the unintentionally-conceived. That is not a mere theory. For example, in his autobiographical “Faithful for Life” (1997), Father Paul Marx, the founder of Human Life International, quoted abortion-supporters who admitted candidly that abortion is the ‘back-up’ for contraception. Of one such quotation, he wrote that he wished he could frame it and “put it on the wall of every Catholic priest’s desk, and urge him to read it twice weekly.” In many cases it probably would make no practical difference. Father Marx wrote that although “the evidence is mountainous that contraception leads to abortion,…bishops and priests just do not seem to see the connection, if one may judge by the fact that they rarely (if ever) preach against it.” Perhaps ‘want’ is often more accurate than “seem”.
     At the other end of people’s life-span, the same process is evident. The campaign for legal and open euthanasia, which had made no significant progress in many years, is now conducted under cover of a campaign for legal and open ‘assisted suicide’ (or ‘dying,’ as seems to be the preferred word). Just as civil partnerships were the trail-blazers for same-sex ‘marriage,’ assisted suicide is serving the same purpose for euthanasia, although its overwhelming rejection by vote of the House of Commons on 11th September 2015 has postponed legal change. Assistance with suicide is euthanasia by another name. Once people are allowed to kill other people who request it (subject to ‘careful safeguards,’ of course, such as a requirement that two doctors give the ‘go-ahead,’ which has helped to ensure that officially-recorded legal abortions in Britain have been limited to several millions since 1968), it will be “less of a leap” to relax the rules when ‘difficulties’ emerge and require a solution. A precedent for this occurred in the early 1940s, although its salutary influence may be waning as the history becomes distant. In his detailed account of the history of the SS (Abacus, 2012, at p.169-170), Adrian Weale wrote that rigorous pursuit of efforts to arrange the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany shows that, at least before the start of the Second World War, extermination of the Jews was not seriously considered as an option by the men who were dealing with the ‘Jewish question’ directly. “In fact,” he continued, “many [members of the SS] were sharply critical of the crude anti-Semitism of their counterparts in the [Nazi Party]. They recognised that the logical conclusion of National Socialist hate propaganda was to kill the Jews, but they simply did not believe that this was feasible, for numerous political and legal reasons. Tragically, though, they had no moral objections to it, which meant that most of them shifted effortlessly from forced emigration to mass murder and extermination as soon as the ‘final solution’ was devised.” It was “less of a leap.”
     Once a basic principle has been surrendered, it is often “less of a leap” to go further. Concessions are susceptible to exploitation. In an essay entitled “The Christian Apologist” (“Light on C. S. Lewis,” Geoffrey Bles, 1965, p.23), Austin Farrer wrote of “what one might call the Munich school, who will always sell the pass in the belief that their position can be more happily defended from foothills to the rear.” Apparently this was an allusion to the Munich Agreement on 30th September 1938. Adolf Hitler wanted to occupy the (ethnically-German) Sudetenland inside Czechoslovakia’s Western border. The Czechs had rejected his demand that by 1st October they should evacuate the area. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier, met Hitler at Munich to seek a solution. Faced with Hitler’s intransigence and Germany’s military superiority, they agreed to Czech evacuation beginning on 1st October and ending on 10th October. On return to England, Chamberlain held up to the brisk wind the relevant paper which Hitler had signed. He (Chamberlain) described the outcome as “peace with honour” and “peace for our time,” and recommended to his happy listeners that they should go home and sleep quietly. This detailed (though brief) digression into history is necessary in order to highlight the following key point: In a speech a few days before signing the Munich agreement, Hitler had said that the Sudetenland was his last territorial claim in Europe, but a few months later Germany subjugated the whole of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain and Daladier had conceded the basic principle of German incursion, and Hitler exploited the concession. A similar example of what turned out to be ‘reassurance leading to calamitous concession’ occurred when the legislative liberalisation of English law on abortion was proposed. During an interview in BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme on 20th December 2007, Lord Steel said that the proposal had been based on “a Christian view of society.” On 22nd July 1966 he told Parliament that “it is not the intention of the Promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request. Abortion on request is, however, what resulted in practice.
The basic principle at stake (murder of innocent lives) had been surrendered, most people had no moral objection – no objection in principle – to abortion, and so they had no inclination to interfere. Whereas Hitler’s subsequent additional territorial claim in Europe (Poland) led to war and the end of his murderous Reich, nothing has disturbed the daily mass murder authorised by the Abortion Act 1967.      In religion as in politics, concessions contain the same capacity for exploitation, often by capitalising on events and using cunningly-disarming arguments. Time has justified Barbara Wootton’s observation that ethical doctrines for which divine authority is claimed were being steadily withdrawn from the particular to the general, and that each such retreat, surrendering a previously-final position, threatened the fundamental security of religious morals and provoked the unbeliever to ask, ‘Why stop here?’; and certainly they have not stopped.
     Those examples show that David Cameron was right in believing that even quiet condonation of wayward thinking can lead to wayward behaviour.
     Such condonation often takes the form of an attitude which is useful to people who do not wish to be seen to disagree with a currently-promoted idea: ‘there is something to be said for it.’ According to Archbishop Nichols (as he then was), the Catholic bishops of England and Wales did not oppose ‘civil partnerships,’ because they recognised that there “might be a case” for them.
Bishop O’Donoghue of Lancaster declared his disappointment that the Bishops’ Conference could not agree a collegial response to the Government’s legislation on same-sex adoption, so evidently some of them thought that there might be a case for that, too. Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote somewhere that there is something to be said for every error, but that whatever may be said for it the most important thing to say about it is that it is erroneous. Probably David Cameron would agree with that, and with his Foreign Secretary (Philip Hammond)’s comment (to
the Royal United Services Institute on 10th March 2015) that “the responsibility for acts of terror rests with those who commit them. But a huge burden of responsibility also lies with those who act as apologists for them.” That is as true of sin in general as it is of the type focused-on by Mr. Hammond, and by Mr. Cameron. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches that “[s]in is a personal act,” and that “we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we co-operate in them by…approving them…” Other ways by which that responsibility is incurred are (according to the “Catechism of Christian Doctrine” which the Catholic bishops of England and Wales approved in 1971) “by defending the ill done” or “by silence.”
     A final important point made (twice) during Mr. Cameron’s Bratislava speech was that it is necessary to tackle the root, and not only the symptoms, of a problem. That certainly is true. So much effort, in many contexts, is directed at symptoms. There are two reasons for that.
     Symptoms tend to be ‘immediate’ and therefore have greater ‘impact,’ and often present at least some scope for practical counter-action, whereas causes tend to be comparatively ‘remote,’ are less-clearly recognised, and are less within most people’s ability to bring about change.      The other reason (which is very relevant to matters on which religion has ‘something to say’) is that, whereas people might agree that a ‘symptom’ is undesirable, they are often very far from agreement in identifying its cause(s) and/or how it should be remedied, and so attention remains focused on symptoms. The brother of Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that an all-powerful force could not be overcome by resistance to its symptoms. Hearing that his wife, Emmi, had been speaking openly about Nazi murders of Jews, he urged her to understand that Nazism was like a snake, in the sense that it would bite someone who trod on its tail (seemingly a metaphor for exposing its evil works). He told her that the only way to neutralise the Nazi ‘snake’ was to hit its head; and that because no individual citizen could do that the only way would be to convince the military who had the necessary means. Of course, convincing enough of the military to act required explanation of relevant symptoms which showed that the cause had to be removed, but we do not have information about whether Herr Bonhoeffer had ideas for dealing safely with that hazardous task.      The situation in 2016 Britain is, fortunately, much better than that in 1940s Germany, and the seemingly-few Christians who are unhappy with tramplings on their moral principles do not hanker for forcible removal of the people responsible. The ‘symptoms or causes?’ quandary and the advice of Emmi Bonhoeffer’s husband combine, however, to bring to light a fact which is lamentably absent from religious analysis of society’s ills. Successful action requires power.

     That is a subject for another time.

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Condonation, Concession, and Catastrophe

Part 1
by Anthony Hofler
David Cameron used to work in ‘public relations,’ so it has been said. It is not mere cynicism, but realism, to say that he did so as a politician, and that he will continue to do so (on a reduced scale) despite no longer being the U.K.’s Prime Minister. Because politicians depend on votes from the public, it is natural for them to monitor and keep in mind signs of public opinion. Sometimes politicians’ comments on one subject prompt wondering about whether they understand the application to another. For example, the trite and often-heard reference to ‘protecting the most vulnerable in our society’ raises a question of whether they realise correctly the scope of those words. Although politicians’ mental agility may be above average, they are busy people and cannot be expected to conduct continuous accurate analysis of how best to express themselves. Therefore it may be unfair to pounce too quickly on recognised imprecision. Furthermore, top-level politicians are too busy to prepare fully all of their speeches, and employ assistants for that purpose; responsibility for settling the final version must rest with the politician, but their busy-ness might hinder that.
The previous paragraph is not ‘waffle,’ but an attempt at fairness prior to focusing on ‘specifics.’
Some of David Cameron’s statements in 2015 were probably made in obliviousness of their applicability in ways of which he would disapprove. It is not disrespectful to suspect that his disapproval might owe something to his impression of most people’s opinion. Examples follow.
On 21st February 2015, the BBC reported Mr. Cameron’s call for action to prevent people from “having their minds poisoned” by an “appalling death-cult” in parts of the Middle East. A few days later, staff of the 10 Downing Street office which processes the Prime Minister’s incoming mail were sent a message outlining Britain’s own multi-form culture of death. Because the existence of that culture is not acknowledged in general or in public, an outline of it was provided for the staff. It mentioned:
  • the strong influence of a contraception-mentality which regards new life as lacking any inherent worth and as being freely disposable if unwanted;
  • the resulting de-facto-unrestricted abortion and embryomicide;
  • the outnumbering, by those killings of innocent human beings, of the murders committed by the Nazis during World War II or by fanatical groups recently, the victims differing simply in their size and cognitive development;
  • the perversely-logical impetus towards legal ‘assisted suicide’ and thence to blatant euthanasia;
  • the ‘double-standards’ used by politicians, of whichever Party, who compete for the most trenchant condemnation when people abroad are murdered for not being Muslims, but who discreetly pass over in silence or (worse) defend as a ‘right’ the legally-protected mass killing in our own country;
  • the Prime Minister’s wish to stop one type of appalling death-cult from poisoning people’s minds, whereas the British educational system and State-financed private-sector organisations are poisoning people’s minds with another one.
Accepting the authenticity of the Prime Minister’s outrage, but pointing out that it was myopic or even hypocritical while a ‘culture of death’ is tolerated here, the message requested a reliable indication of how he would respond. There was no reply (unless it ‘went astray’).
Two months later (on 20th April), Radio 4’s 1 p.m. News broadcast part of Mr. Cameron’s comments on the latest drownings of migrants sailing from North Africa to Europe. He said that it is necessary to stop the traffickers who run a trade in death. No doubt he, and nearly every listener, was oblivious of the trade in death which the Abortion Act has entrenched in British society and which has the firm support of most politicians elected by British people. We need to stop that, too, but it is absent from public debate, whether during Election-campaigns or at any other time. Why is that? Read on.
On 19th June 2015, Mr. Cameron gave a prominently-publicised speech at the Global Security Forum, in Bratislava. He focused, as was perfectly understandable and reasonable, on current international political problems, but again some of his comments possessed another significance and raised probably-unrecognised points. At least some of those will now be identified and considered, despite the risk that even within the Church many people would regard the analysis as ‘stretching things’ - it depends on how much importance is attached to the topics raised.
Underlying Mr. Cameron’s speech was his Government’s policy of promoting “British values” (the favourite examples being ‘equality,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘democracy’), and of counteracting “radical views” and (in so far as it is different from radical views) “extremism.” Such concepts are imprecise. Their practical applications can be mutually-inconsistent and controversial. Discussion of them is bedevilled by prevalent (and legally-adopted) relativism.
The extremism with which the U.K. Government is most concerned is known by several names. In his Bratislava speech, Mr. Cameron chose ‘ISIL.’ His examples of its standpoints included opinions that “democracy is wrong, …that homosexuality is evil[, that] religious doctrine trumps the rule of law and Caliphate trumps nation state…” What does Catholic teaching tell us about those subjects? Consideration of them as independent concepts is difficult because they are not mutually-independent. Of the four opinions quoted, homosexuality is the ‘odd one out’ (not the only sense in which that is true), so it will be left until last. The three others are relevant to political authority.
A comment which recurs predictably on appropriate occasions is that the Church should keep out of politics. Like many loosely-worded statements, analysis can demolish it, but perhaps most people are not natural analysts. It amounts, however, to saying that God’s law does not apply to subjects (selected by ‘keep religion out of it’ people) with which politicians have decided to concern themselves. On the contrary: the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” declares the crucial principles that there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion and that the Catholic Church does have inherent authority to make judgments on political matters. One of the more general such judgments is that those who govern human communities should behave as ministers of divine providence. The “Catechism” makes clear also that all human authority is subordinate to the authority of God (as Our Lord pointed out to Pontius Pilate), and explains authority and the participation by the public in social and political life. Other, particularly important, points are that diversity of political systems is morally acceptable, provided that they serve the legitimate good of the communities who adopt them, and that unjust or otherwise-immoral laws and policies are not binding on citizens’ consciences.
Ten years after the publication of the “Catechism,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that the emergence of ambiguities or questionable positions in recent times, often because of the pressure of world events, had made it necessary to clarify some important elements of Church teaching in this area. Among the clarifications was the recognition that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person, and that Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent (no prizes for identifying examples proving the truth of that).
Democracy is, therefore, intrinsically neither wrong (as David Cameron says ISIL believe) nor right (as Mr. Cameron may believe, and – which was confirmed in the CDF’s above-mentioned announcement – as the Church believes in the sense that democracy is the best form of direct public participation in politics). The correct moral judgment of democracy, and of democracy’s specific results, depends on a correct application of Catholic moral principles.
Mr. Cameron, and many others, would think that the previous paragraph is uncomfortably close to the third of his above-quoted criticisms of ISIL – the belief that “religious doctrine trumps the rule of law.” The “Catechism” makes clear that true religion does take precedence over human law when the latter exceeds its relevant moral limits. Politicians commonly portray ‘the rule of law’ as an absolute duty to obey the law of the land. The true meaning of the expression is, however, different: according to the “Catechism,” the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign, denotes a legal and/or administrative arrangement derived from a preference that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. In other words, the rule of law (understood correctly) is a mechanism for ensuring governance by power kept within proper bounds instead of by what the “Catechism” describes as “the arbitrary will of men.”
In “Evangelium Vitae,” Pope John Paul the Great gave some specific examples:
(i) “… by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. … Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action…”
(ii) “Abortion [is a crime] which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them … In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion…, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it"; “This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).”
(iii) “… no one can ever renounce this responsibility, especially when he or she has a legislative or decision-making mandate… Although laws are not the only means of protecting human life, nevertheless they do play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behaviour.
I repeat once more that a law which violates an innocent person's natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law.”
Legislatures everywhere, and even their avowedly-Catholic members, contravene such statements. Even if a Catholic votes the right way (and the votes are what, in practice, determine the outcome), background comments can display wayward thinking and strange priorities. For example, an English Catholic, despite both speaking against and voting against a vast extension of legal abortion, congratulated its proposer for having introduced it “with extraordinary moderation and skill.” He said also:
“I do not seek to build my case against the Bill on [my personal religious commitments]. In our contemporary pluralist society, … the voice of theology can be raised, although I should be the first to agree that it should not be imposed.
… [I]t would be a fair balance for the extension” [i.e. legalised murder might be tolerated] if “under no circumstances would [doctors and nurses] be compelled to take part in abortions which were against their conscientious convictions [the subsequently-enacted exemption was far more limited than that, and in 2014 – in the Glasgow midwives’ case – the Supreme Court interpreted its scope even more narrowly].
… [A]bortion is a necessary evil; that is the most that one can say for it. …
… I would not submit my views or conscience on an issue of this kind… to a Church…
… [I]f the Bill has the support of the majority of hon. Members here, it is right that it should pass and I hope that there will be no attempt to talk it out.”
It did, of course, pass, so (negating his own arguments against the Bill) this prominent Catholic’s prioritisation of Parliamentary democracy was implemented. Probably it was “our contemporary pluralist society’s” first legislative demonstration that “personal views or conscience” should take precedence over the teaching of the Church because “the voice of theology…should not be imposed.”
Legislative defiance of Catholic principle is always on the basis of warped versions of tolerance and choice (whereas St. Peter said “Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil”: 1 Peter 2:16). In a 2002 Doctrinal Note on the participation of Catholics in political life, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote that “it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value. At the same time, the value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a large number of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to base their contribution to society and political life – through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy – on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good.” Alas, the “understanding of the human person and the common good” on which they base their judgments and actions is often a false one (e.g. the corner-stone of permissiveness, ‘we must not impose our views on other people’). Christians must, continued the CDF, reject…a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, and fundamental and inalienable ethical demands; “a well-formed Christian conscience” [which, the “Catechism” points out, “should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church”] “does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” To David Cameron, and probably many others, that would stand condemned as an ‘extreme’ principle because it conflicts with the dominant secular notion of ‘the rule of law.’
It leads, surely (?), to the third of Mr. Cameron’s three politically-focused criticisms – that ISIL believe that “Caliphate trumps nation state.” The question seems to lack practical significance in regard to Christianity, because there is no visible sign of efforts to ensure that any nation is governed according to Christianity. Even if the will existed, it would be unachievable, because there is inadequate agreement about the contents and requirements of Christianity. As a matter of ‘academic’ interest, however, would it be true that Christianity “trumps nation state”? There seem to be people who believe that the European Union trumps nation States, and who continue to pursue “ever closer union” in as many forms as are achievable (such as introduction of the single currency, which Romano Prodi – a former head of the EU’s executive branch – declared to be a political decision rather than an economic one) and at every opportunity (such as the financial plight of Greece, prompting a former official of the European Central Bank to suggest that it shows a need for countries to become more integrated with each other). David Cameron cannot be included among such people, so to him must be attributed the opinion that ‘nation state trumps European Union, Caliphate, and any other prospective superior force.’ Intellectually, is loyalty to Catholicism more important than loyalty to one’s nation? Much depends on what each loyalty requires. Bearing in mind, however, that nations are human collectivities, transient in the journey towards eternity, and that salvation of souls depends on holiness rather than on patriotism, the obvious conclusion seems to be that if there were a clear and inescapable choice to be made between obeying a requirement of the faith and a requirement of nationality, the faith should come first. A few centuries ago, such choices faced British Catholics. Many chose nationality. Today’s politicians urge us, also, to prioritise nationality, and portray the other option as unacceptably ‘extreme’.
That leads conveniently to the last of David Cameron’s quoted four examples of ‘extremism’ – the opinion “that homosexuality is evil.” As with every public reference to homosexuality, its meaning was left undefined. It could be a reference to the tendency or to the characteristic sexual acts. The “Catechism” focuses on the acts. It makes clear that although someone’s blameworthiness is for God to judge, such acts between same-gender participants are intrinsically gravely depraved and never to be approved. Comments on the subject by Church representatives tend to be noticeably equivocal and (by saying as little as possible about the intrinsic character of acts) to highlight the need to avoid ‘judging’. Equivocation and such a ‘one-eye-on-the-reaction-which-this-will-get’ misleading portrayal of ‘non-judgmentalism’ are, of course, helpful to the world-wide ‘celebrate homosexuality’ campaign. Quotation of what the “Catechism” says about homosexual acts seems now to be ‘taboo’. Apparently influenced by secular society’s energetically-assertive positive attitude to homosexuality and any other such deviance by consenting adults, the Church presents not a sign of contradiction but a sign of the tolerance which less-ambitious advocates of licentiousness used to request. In a 1986 letter to bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticised what had become an “overly benign interpretation” of homosexuality, and the portrayal of it as “neutral, or even good.” The letter affirmed that homosexual inclination is a “tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and therefore “itself must be seen as an objective disorder,” and that people who have this condition must not “be led to believe that the living out of this orientation…is a morally acceptable option. It is not.” Rejection of that has acquired such public force that voices in the Church now display what the CDF’s letter called “studied ambiguity,” dovetailing with “deceitful propaganda.” Our Lord forgave and said “sin no more” (John 8:11), but today’s avoidance of any statement which would incur displeasure from the wayward looks like a tactic to disguise retreat. Whereas the “people who have this condition” show, by blatant expressions of pride in it (cf. Philippians 3:19), that as far as they are concerned “living [it] out” certainly is “a morally acceptable option,” the Church fails to proclaim on an equivalent scale both that “it is not” and that even the inclination towards homosexual acts is “itself an objective disorder” which should be resisted.
By those failures, the Church reduces its risk of falling into David Cameron’s category of ‘extremist’ organisations who are going to be crushed. Whether there will be attempts to enforce a withdrawal of ‘extreme’ statements remains to be seen. Probably it will be sufficient that they are buried as deeply as “Humanae Vitae” has been. Meanwhile, the de facto policy of equivocation and discreet silence will continue to hold the door open for the “overly benign interpretation” of homosexuality, and the portrayal of it as “neutral, or even good.” Media reports have suggested that outside the Catholic Church (most noticeably, in Anglicanism) there is widespread support for the view that homosexuality is pleasing to God. Some say that it is a genetic phenomenon, that therefore ‘they can’t help it,’ and that God must have intended them to be ‘born like that’. If that line of thought ‘catches on’ among Catholics, there cannot be much likelihood of the Church pointing out loudly that it is theologically insane to believe that “an intrinsic moral evil” or “an objective disorder” is a gift from God. The “Catechism” declares that He does not give that which offends Him, but tolerates it to overpower it with grace, as He did with “the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only Son,” but that nevertheless “evil never becomes a good.”
So much for David Cameron’s above-mentioned examples of ‘extremism’. Incidentally, although he gave examples he did not give a definition of the word. What is ‘an extremist’? Someone who holds or displays ‘extreme’ attitudes. A High Court judge once wrote that “an extremist opinion is one which admits of no exceptions.” If so, politics and religion include many extremists and hypocritical ‘moderates’.
An ‘extremity’ is ‘the farthest possible point’. Identification of that depends on using true measurement, but relativism asks ‘Who is to say what is true?’ Many people surrender the answer to majority opinion. During his visit to Britain, Pope Benedict said that “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident.”
There are good ‘extreme’ principles (e.g. the Ten Commandments). David Cameron seems to espouse some, however vague they are. What counts in practice is not only correct statements of the principles, but also who has (a) the power to enforce them and (b) the will to do so.