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.