The Final Days of the UK

We subscribe to only two newspapers here at the monastery, and only to the Economist for other current affairs. The Week is an effective way to catch up on what the media have been saying about the affairs of the day. In the process they include a number of letters from the various papers. This week was this remarkable letter to The Independent.

The Scots will vote yes. And the rest of us will owe them a debt of gratitude. Their vote will send symbolically, in the only effective way our current democratic system permits, these messages to all our politicians:

We want not a change of government, but a change of politics. You lack the competence to run the country, and the vision to lead it. You lied to us and deceived us into an illegal war. You cheated and stole from us. A privileged, privately educated 7 per cent permanently holds up to 73 per cent of positions of power. Our representative democracy entrenches a profoundly unrepresentative power structure. The privileged power elite are not held accountable or punished for their venality, incompetence or mistakes.

We are justly proud of our NHS and the inspirational ideals that underpin it. We want those principles preserved, not undermined by subversive privatisation.

Good luck, Scotland. We respect your courage and admire your confidence.

It is remarkable for at least two things. First, it shows how clueless many people are about the referendum and the campaign for Scottish independence. To claim that a vote for independence will send a message to politicians about the nature of politics or the privitization of the NHS is wishful thinking at best. It is primarily about nationalism and the desire of some Scots to be free of the rest of Britain. It could be portrayed as romantic, though the incidents of intimidation of those speaking for the “No” campaign rather gives the lie to that image. Nationalism, unlike patriotism, is rarely if ever attractive. The twentieth century is nothing if not a memorial to the destructive power of nationalism.

Secondly, even if a “Yes” vote could be read as a cri de coeur about the state of British democratic politics, it is breathtakingly excessive. To the mind come images of sledgehammers cracking, no – crushing, peanuts or babies being thrown out with the bathwater. Because our leaders apparently “lack the competence to run the country”, the solution for this man is to dismantle the nation itself. We can only thank the good Lord that this correspondent is not one of the seven percent which holds 73 percent of power.

If the polls are accurate, Thursday may see the demise of the United Kingdom as it has existed for the last 300 years (well, with Scotland that is. Ireland was not included until 1801). The dismantling of one of the greatest nation-states in history (for better or for worse, or for both) will have been determined by a poll open to only 7% percent of its population. In this, at least, we could agree with the epistolator cited above, that “(o)ur representative democracy entrenches a profoundly unrepresentative power structure”. The decision will be based on a simple majority of those Scots who actually vote. The fate of an immensely important nation is in the hands of a tiny minority. In Australia for any constitutional change to be made a double majority is needed: a majority of voters in a majority of the six states. If the change affects one state in particular then a triple majority is needed: a majority of votes in the relevant state itself is also necessary. It is inherently, but not impossibly, conservative of course: of 44 constitutional referendums in Australia since Federation, only 8 have been passed. It makes for impressive stability and security.

The pro- independence campaign seeks a more prosperous Scotland, blaming Westminster for its woes. But The Economist (September 13-19 2014) puts its claims into question.

Scotland’s relative economic decline is the result not of southern neglect but of the shift of manufacturing and shipping to Asia. If Westminster has not reversed all the deleterious effects of globalisation and technology, that is because to do so is impossible. The nationalists know this, which is why, sotto voce, they would continue many of Westminster’s policies.

We might translate “sotto voce” here as “on the sly”. Westminster’s politicians, our epistolator opined, are not fit to govern, yet the government of a newly-independent Scotland would copy many of their policies. Who then, we might ask, is actually incompetent?

The nationalists make much of Britain getting all her North Sea oil revenue, yet they want to keep the British Pound. The nationalists seek effectively sovereign power over the British Pound and British oil, and sod the rest of us. If even if they had such a right, their economic arguments are equally unconvincing. Again from The Economist:

The nationalists’ economics are also flawed. Scotland would not, in fact, be richer alone. The taxes that would flow from the North Sea would roughly compensate for the extra cost of its lavish state, which would no longer be funded by Westminster (last year spending was some £1,300 per person higher in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain). But oil revenues are erratic. They would have earned Scotland £11.5 billion in 2008-09 but only £5.5 billion in 2012-13. If an independent state were to smooth these fluctuations by setting up an oil fund, it would have less cash to spend now. In any case, the oil is gradually running out. In order to maintain state spending after it is gone, taxes would have to rise. And the crunch might come much sooner. Foreign investors and big businesses that mostly serve English customers could well move south.

The nationalists have either failed to think long-term; or they have done so, not liked what they saw, and pretended they did not see it. Oil revenue is wholly dependent on the market price. And there is not that much oil left. The BBC quotes figures that suggest there is only 30-40 years of production remaining, and the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates a fall in oil revenue by 2017-18 of 38%. Moreover, since 1999 production has consistently declined. So who will pick up the tab for an independent Scotland? Not England and Wales and Northern Ireland. No, the Scottish taxpayer and moneylenders.

(Courtesy BBC)

(Courtesy BBC)

It is highly unlikely that Scotland will get to keep the Pound. To get the Euro it will have to apply, and indeed it will have to apply to join the EU itself. Both are very much in question. And to enter the EU a unanimous vote of member countries is required. Even if the remainder of the UK were not to vote against it, Spain probably would. Scottish independence would give heart to Catalan separatists, to the horror of the Spanish government. So Scotland could end being very, very much alone, sinking under debt, and with only themselves to blame; or rather, the slender majority who would have voted for such a state of affairs.

Some heady idealists on Facebook dream aloud (and perhaps mainly tongue in cheek) of the opportunity for an independent Scotland to restore a Catholic monarchy. Not likely! Scotland is a majority Protestant country and sectarianism there lives on. Moreover, Mr Salmond will want all the power and glory for himself.

And here is the rub. The only guaranteed winners of a “Yes” vote would be politicians and civil servants. A new civil service will have to be created to replicate what has hitherto been done by the UK civil service, and it will have to paid for by taxes and volatile oil revenues. And of course Scottish politicians would become leaders with international stature. How proud they will be. Their salaries will go up to reflect this new status, naturally. Then embassies and high commissions (one presumes Scotland will remain in the Commonwealth) will have to be built, and diplomats appointed. More money. From somewhere. Now wonder Scot pollies are so keen!

Truly, it is hard to see how the ordinary Scot will win, other than to have that wonderful frisson that comes from putting two fingers up to England. That frisson will not last long. The English will probably return the gesture, with a more devastating long-term effect on Scotland. While Scottish nationalists, in their triumph at having destroyed the UK, will be singing Scotland the Brave for a few nights, the remaining UK will sing Scotland the Knave for a lot longer.

It is Scotland’s choice, and hers alone. Laddies and lassies, you had better get it right.

A martyr journalist

As you will all know, James Foley, an American journalist captured by jihadists in 2012, was barbarously beheaded on a demonic video by a masked British jihadist. The Catholic Herald informs us that he was Catholic, and he had not lost his faith. After a previous kidnapping in 2011 in Libya, he wrote:

I kept telling (my colleague) Clare my mom had a strong faith. I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her. I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. 
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused. Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energising to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.

The video is something we should not watch; it is enough to know it exists. However there are many stills from the video showing him kneeling before his cowardly-masked murderer, calm and with head held high. It is not too much to believe, surely, that he was again praying the rosary on mental beads. If so, we can be sure Mary was advocate for him at the hour of his death, and can justifiably hope that soon he will be before the throne of the true God, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

On that day, may he pray for us. Until then, we should (rosary in hand) pray for him: requiescat in pace

James Foley

James Foley

And may Satan’s laughter soon be silenced.

Voices Speaking Silence

Back in early July, Fr Ray Blake asked “Where have all the bloggers gone?” In my case, a trip to Australia, for my nephew’s priestly ordination and to give a retreat to his seminary in Perth (more on which another time), was in part responsible for stopping the blog flow here. For sure, my Digg was showing a significantly reduced number of posts from certain corners of the blogosphere, especially clerical corners. Fr Blake contrasted the blossoming of grassroots Catholic opinion in the new media that was fostered in the pontificate of Benedict XVI with the relative silence that had descended in the past year, a silence that grew louder in the wake of the effective suppression of the Protect the Pope blog by the (clerical) author’s bishop. There is probably a more complex web of circumstances surrounding that blog’s closure than we know, but it did not help that a blog devoted to upholding Church teaching had been silenced.

What Fr Blake diplomatically avoids stating is that there is another factor probably at play. Pope Francis does not have the disciplined, delicately nuanced and balanced rhetorical style of his recent predecessors on the papal cathedra. This pope is a structural reformer, not a theologian, philosopher or liturgist. He seeks to engage the mainstream media directly and this has meant that some of the things he has said, especially after often problematic translations, have sometimes caused confusion, if not alarm. The Vatican media office has had to face up quickly to the craft of advanced damage control. Bloggers have been quick to help, but the task has been overwhelming at times, and often vain.

Thus Fr Blake’s conclusion becomes a little clearer and more acute:

Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church, today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.

Silence is not without virtue in the Christian life. Silence in the liturgy enriches our experience of the mysteries, helping God’s word and the great Sacrament to bear fruit in our hearts. Silence in our daily lives gives our psyches rest and nurtures growth in personality and wisdom. The silence of the individual in the face of injustice done to him or her can be a more powerful riposte than any words of recrimination or acts of retaliation: Christ himself exemplified this noble silence.

oil-painting-marcus-vincent_1163864_inl

However, silence is not always a virtue. Silence can become a vice, a passive collusion with evil. Silence in the face of injustice or evil done to others is just such a vice and collusion with evil.

For weeks the mainstream media was silent about the atrocities, indeed the nascent genocide, that marked the advance of ISIL (or ISIS, or now, Islamic State [IS]). It was non-mainstream outlets using the internet and social media who were revealing the scale of the horror IS was wreaking, especially on Christian minorities. There were a few red herrings (unsurprising in a relatively unregulated forum), and the constant stream of videos and pictures of hundreds, even thousands, of Christians daily being beheaded, crucified, tortured and otherwise horribly abused was in danger of breeding a macabre addiction in some people as it sometimes descended into something approaching “atrocity porn”.

Though the risk of desensitization to atrocity is real and not to be ignored, the stream of horrific content on blog and Facebook feeds was still necessary. The mainstream media was steadfastly refusing to report it, preferring to focus on the smaller, more complex, more politically chic conflict in Gaza. Their silence was giving our governments a green light to look the other way. In fact, both media and governments became obviously concerned when it emerged that the Yazidi minority was also being targeted. Make no mistake, that small, peaceable and inoffensive minority does not deserve any of the horrors IS has begun inflicting on it. The Yazidis deserve western protection and aid. The point is that only when this obscure and tiny minority (ie perfect material for a ‘story’) was under threat did the mainstream media start reporting in any depth on the IS caliphate-calamity in Iraq and Syria. The Christians in those lands also deserve western protection.

Thankfully some Muslims are finally expressing their horror. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has called IS “enemy number one” of Islam. Muslim commentators on Iraqi television have wept over the cruel destruction of the minorities that traditionally make up Iraq, likening them to petals of an Iraqi rose. While one might question how truly unrepresentative of Islam the Islamic State jihadists actually are, it is good to see that parts of the Muslim world are waking to the implications of the rise of IS. To be fair, when one sees photos of jihadists slitting people’s throats with glee, or joyfully parading with severed heads in their hands, one sees not so much the works of Islam as of Satan.

Christians crucified by IS jihadists

Christians crucified by IS jihadists

Catholics of the west would do better to forego any obsession with the latest antics of the leaders of America’s religious sisters, or with the non-news of the Vatican’s reaffirmation of previous instructions and rubrics about the exchange of peace at Mass, or even with the complex drama of Gaza (where the only indisputably innocent parties are the children). Instead we should be on our knees praying, and fasting, and giving alms, in solidarity with our persecuted brethren in the biblical lands.

An excellent form of solidarity would be to reflect in our personal lives the witness (martyria in Greek) being given by the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. What small suffering could we embrace for their sake? Even better perhaps, what small (or large) vice in our lives could we make a concerted effort to escape, for their sake as much as for our own. If the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, it can also be the seed of our holiness.

There can be silence no longer about this atrocity. Silence implies consent; and, at the very least, evil prospers when the just do, and say, nothing. This does concern us. IS has set its sights on the west, not least on Rome, and on Washington. And IS means business, as their genocidal and demonic acts clearly show.

Father in Heaven, you make your sun shine
on good and bad alike.
Your Son Jesus Christ died for us all
and in his glorious Resurrection
He still retains the five wounds of his Passion.
With his divine power he now sustains
all those who suffer persecution and martyrdom
for the sake of their fidelity
to the faith of the Church.
Merciful and mighty Father,
do not allow Cain to return again to murder
helpless Abel, innocent Abel.
May persecuted Christians around the world
remain, like Mary, their Mother,
together at the foot of the cross
of Christ the Martyr.
Comfort those menaced by violence
and those oppressed by uncertainty.
May your Holy Spirit of love
make fruitful the witness and the blood
of those who die forgiving.

Amen.

From Aid to the Church in Need.

Even more good news

Further to the previous post, it has just been announced that the Sudanese government is to free Meriam Ibrahim, the Christian woman sentenced to death for apostasy under Sharia law because her father is Muslim, though she has never been.

Thanks be to God! But let’s not kid ourselves. Sudan’s expressed desire to be a civilized nation probably would not have come without the international outrage that met the news of Meriam’s death sentence and the degrading conditions under which she gave birth to her child.

And prayer…

Some good news for a change

It is increasingly hard to find good news about Islam. The two most recent examples are the Muslim extremists Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnapping scores of Christian girls, forcibly converting them and enslaving them; and Meriam, the woman in Sudan raised a Christian by her mother and who married a Christian, condemned to death by hanging for apostasy because her father is Muslim, and who was forced to give birth in shackles. It is truly horrific some of the things done in the name of Islam.

So, in the spirit of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, we can take some heart from the news that Shia Muslim scholars in Iran have translated the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Persian. They teach at the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, which seeks to understand other faiths and will translate their literature in order to do so. One of the scholars, Professor Meftah, offered some reflection on Christinanity in Iran, which if a little simplistic and idealistic, must surely reflect the prevailing attitude of the government in Iran at this time.

The relationship between Islam and Christianity in Iran cannot be compared with the situations of other Islamic countries,” he explained. Christians in Iran are safe (from attacks) and we can share a common purpose. If we look at each other as friends, we will not have problems. But if we look at each other as enemies, with suspicion or indifference, if we compete, trying to steal something, it will be like in other countries, including terrorism. Treating each other as friends eliminates terrorism, and makes us take steps towards peace.

Every little bit helps.

(l-r) Professors Sulemaniye, Meftah & Ghanbari

(l-r) Professors Sulemaniye, Meftah & Ghanbari in Qom

 

The Isla Vista tragedy

The facts are now beginning to emerge about the actions of Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista yesterday in murdering 6 people. There is much to break the heart in this story.

The immediate circumstances are disturbing enough. The day before the carnage, in which Elliot stabbed his three flatmates to death before driving around shooting several others, the young man uploaded a video, Elliot Rodger’s Retribution, to Youtube in which he detailed his plans for the next day and the reason he was doing them. It has now been removed from his channel (by Youtube?) but is easily found by Google search. Watching it one sees a young man filled with resentment and bitterness at his rejection by women, lamenting his still being a virgin at 22. The fact that he was not unattractive and from a well-to-do background would make one wonder why he was apparently rejected by women. The video itself gives the answer: the boy is horribly egocentric to the point of narcissism. So we might conclude he was the ultimate spoilt brat.

A screenshot from Elliot Rodger's video announcing his murderous plans.

A screenshot from Elliot Rodger’s video announcing his murderous plans.

Well, before we all condemn him to hell, a few more facts are worth considering. Elliot had Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a form of autism and affects the way a person experiences the world. While it can manifest itself in anti-social outbursts, it is generally hidden from casual view in most sufferers. The condition affects particularly sufferers’ social interaction, social communication, and social imagination. To put it crudely, it makes them social misfits to a greater or lesser degree, despite their desire to be socially integrated. There is no known cure and no specific treatment for Asperger’s. It is an insidious disability.

It seems his parents did everything right. Elliot had been treated by several therapists, and his social worker had been worried enough to contact police a few days before the shootings. It is hard to determine at this point what action the police took, but probably there was not much they could have done, given certain aspects of American law.

One aspect of concern is the cherished American right to bear arms. Even otherwise good Catholics can reveal an almost pathological devotion to guns, and any mention of gun control to some Americans is tantamount to treason. The National Rifle Association is well-funded and exerts immense influence, enough to stifle most legislation seeking gun control. They even object to background checks for gun licences. In American you can own assault rifles, and in some places wear your weapon openly. Many (most?) will tell you that it is essential to prevent oppression by their government – a government they freely and regularly elect. It is no wonder that there are sections of American society that are effectively in a state of war with government and law enforcement. Another argument is that armed citizens can protect other citizens from criminals. It didn’t work yesterday. Moreover, it carries the danger of making citizens into self-appointed vigilantes with often tragic consequences (eg George Zimmerman). It also leads to a civil arms race, with people owning more and more powerful weapons.

While self-defence can be defended on biblical and magisterial lines, the active promotion of unrestricted ownership of firearms cannot. Even self-defence has its limitations in light of our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek, and to lay down one’s life for one’s friends as the highest form of love. The Christian right to self-defence is not unlimited.

So one is left asking how a young man, mentally ill and in ongoing treatment and who had manifested enough signs of impending disaster for the police to be alerted in advance – how could he own not just one but several guns, and have them at hand when he reached crisis point, a crisis point that was recognized in advance? This is a question not just for American society but for us all: how do we deal with the mentally ill who show the signs of becoming dangerous? In the UK they can be sectioned by a doctor under the Mental Health Act, usually a temporary measure that allows the troubled to be assessed and treated over a period of time. This would prevent them having access to weapons, although access to firearms is much more difficult in Britain anyway. There is no right to bear arms, and every right to expect not to have to face them. Even most police are unarmed, and armed police work under strict rules, which work well. It means that there is a lower incidence, and a much lower tolerance, of gun crime here than in the US. Australia enacted tough gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 which saw 35 shot dead at a popular tourist spot. There have been no mass shootings since then in Australia. No one can argue that Australia is not only immensely free, but politically stable and with strong legal checks and balances that keep governments under control. Australians do not need guns to protect themselves against their own elected government.

So we can now but pray for the 6 victims of the shooting who died, the 7 who were wounded, and their families as they face the trauma of lives changed so brutally. Let us also pray for Elliot and his family. He was a mentally ill young man whom society failed to help. Indeed, society allowed him to have the guns that made his outburst so deadly. That, at least, society could have reasonably prevented.

This not intended as an American-bash. The Church in the States is a vibrant one, full of exciting prospects. No one can deny the American contribution to the world, but there is also a negative contribution, as with most countries. Its guns mania is a social sickness that the rest of the world does well to immunize itself against. John Oliver has an interesting take on the American mania for guns. Being English but living in the States, he has a distance informed by familiarity that makes his commentary worth noting. There are three short videos, listed in order.

[I realize this will upset many American Catholics, but I ask them to think carefully about the subject, and to pray about it. Comments that make a reasoned contribution to the debate will be welcomed; those that are abusive, insulting or mere banner waving will not.]

Yet another religious bishop

Earlier here we touched on the fact that so many of the episcopal appointments for England, and Australia, under Pope Francis have been of members of religious congregations (or, in the case of the Oratorians, quasi-religious). Today it was announced that the Bishop of Gibraltar, Ralph Heskett CSsR, a Redemptorist, has been translated to the diocese of Hallam, which covers Sheffield. He is unknown to me, but we can pray him Godspeed in his new office. The Catholic Herald adds a few more details.

In the eastern Church it is monks who become bishops. Pope Francis seems to find much to approve in this practice. No doubt there will be many attempts at explaining this emerging (though not exclusive) policy of his. Is it an attempt to strike down any vestiges of careerism in the ranks of the diocesan clergy? Is it preparing the ground for making celibacy optional and so reserving the episcopal office to religious, as in the east? Is it just a coincidence?

Time will tell…

Bishop Ralph Heskett CSsR

Bishop Ralph Heskett CSsR