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

The miraculous homily

The website/blog Eye of the Tiber is, for want of a better description, a Catholic satire site. From a Catholic perspective it satirizes topical issues and events in the life of the Church and beyond. Occasionally it keeps such a straight face that one takes a second or two to realize it is not wholly serious.

Today’s post there made me laugh, though it was a wry laugh. I have never preached such a miraculous homily. What am I talking about? Better go and read it there: it is not long.

Without spoiling the punchline, the post ends with this gem:

Although the parish where the homily was given has since lost more than 50% of their parishioners, for some, it has become a pilgrimage site, with hundreds flocking to the site every year to kiss the lectern where the homily was given.

Of course, like all good satire, it has a serious point. You’ll know what it is.

Not the miraculous ambo, as far as we know.

Not the miraculous ambo, as far as we know.

Eccles and Bosco do a similarly satirical treatment of a BBC man who dared to use the S-word (it rhymes with “dinner”).

Pax.

Ratzinger 1966 – An Unexpected Prophet, Part 2 Act I (!): Liturgical Reform

Following on from an earlier post dealing with the introductory remarks in then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger’s prescient 1966 article,  “Catholicism after the Council”, it is time to move to the next part of that article, Liturgical Reform. Here again we see that even before the watershed year of 1968 Ratzinger was questioning the implementation of the decrees of the Council in which he played such a major rôle.

(NB By way of experiment Ratzinger’s own words not already blockquoted will be in a different colour to give them their due prominence.)

At the outset of this section of the article, Fr Ratzinger acknowledges a real problem regarding the post-conciliar liturgical reform:

But this very reform, so eagerly longed for and so joyfully welcomed, has become for many people “a sign of contradiction”.

He asserts straight way that “something really great and important” has been achieved in the reform, and introduces the two most common objections being then raised against it. The first is “ the movement towards the vernacular“, which was being lamented by many as denying to “the element of mystery in religion… a language all its own“, and also removing from the unity of the Church’s members across the globe its “linguistic extension… in the language of their worship” and their unity across time in those “who have praised and will praise God in the same way and in the very same language“.

The second feature being lamented was “the movement towards the community and communal worship” which eliminates “a sacred silence which is more suited to the mystery in religious worship than loud speech, a silence in which God can speak more audibly and in which the individual can really encounter his Lord…“, an encounter that suffers in the

uninterrupted succession of praying aloud, singing, standing, sitting, kneeling and so on. Liturgy then degenerates into movement and activity for its own sake, and this takes the place of the one thing that is vital in worship, namely the encounter between the individual soul and God.

Ratzinger has given a remarkably even-handed description of these objections given that he prefaced them by asserting that there would be “no difficulty in dismissing as superficial and unjustified the[se] two objections“. To them he briefly adds a third, “an iconoclastic strain in present-day communal worship” which replaces “artistic treasures of music and song” with

mob declamations which, in their want of taste and dignity, are neither suited to the greatness of the mystery being celebrated nor calculated to attract people to worship – if anything, they have rather the effect of repelling them.

It is worth pausing here to re-read what Ratzinger has just written. He is directly quoting no-one, but presenting in his own words the primary objections to the post-conciliar liturgical reforms as they were already manifesting themselves in Europe in 1966. Even though he feels they can be dismissed, his refusal to caricature or ridicule them suggests already to the alert reader a certain, if incipient, degree of sympathy. Perhaps he is beginning to feel torn.

ratzinger_1960s

 

Professor Ratzinger now sets out to deal with the matters raised by these objections by employing two categories: theory and practice. On the level of theory he seeks to show how untenable he believes these objections are, and how valid are the conciliar principles of liturgical reform. For this post we shall look at his comments regarding the theory; the next post will address his commentary on the practice.

THEORY

Ratzinger has little time for the general tenor of the appeal to mystery:

We can easily prove that the argument about the element of mystery in religion is not a valid one, anymore than is the argument about retreat into the silence of individual piety, not to be disturbed by the community at worship; in fact, both these arguments stem from a basic failure to understand the essence of Christian worship.

He then proposes a more adequate understanding:

The essence of Christian worship is that it is the announcement of the Glad Tidings of God to the congregation bodily present, the answering acceptance by the congregation of this acceptance, and the whole Church talking together to God… Thus the liturgy, viewed solely from its linguistic structure, is built on an intermingling of the “I” and the “ye”, which are then being continually being united in the “we” of the whole Church speaking to God through Christ.

It is important to keep in mind he is speaking of the liturgy through the logic of its verbal structure, how it reveals itself in the language it employs. In a sense, it is to see how the liturgy understands itself through what it reveals of itself in its own language. So in liturgy,

language is not for the purpose of concealment but for the purpose of revealing, it is not meant to allow each one to retreat into the stillness of his own little island of prayer but rather to lead all together into the single “we” of the children of God, who say all together : Our Father.

On this understanding, the subject in the liturgy is not the individual but the Church, in particular the Church as embodied in the congregation gathered for worship. This authentic view is fostered by the conciliar releasing “of the word from the fetters of ritual… [to give] it back its original significance as a word”. He gives a particularly sharply-edged illustration:

We are gradually becoming aware today of how meaningless it was, in fact, of how unworthy and dishonest it was, when the priest prayed before the Gospel that God might purify his heart and lips… so that he might worthily and in a becoming manner proclaim the Word of God, when he knew very well that he was about to murmur this Word of God softly to himself just as he had done with the prayer, without any thought of proclaiming it… The word has lost its meaning and had become an empty ritual, and what the liturgical reform has done here was simply to restore meaning and validity to the word and to the Church’s worship which was enshrined in it.

Ratzinger here touches on a subject that I am yet to see satisfactorily dealt with by more exclusivist proponents of the Extraordinary Form. Silence does indeed have a place in the liturgy, but its true value comes from its contrast to the ritual language and action. Silence allows the word to echo, or resound, in our minds and hearts, to implant itself more deeply within us. This process is short-circuited when there is nothing but word and action. Yet it can never begin unless there are words actually proclaimed in the first place that can then echo in our hearts.

gospel proclamation

Naturally, the words in question are generally those addressed to the people, though it can be argued the the collects and prayers offered on behalf of the people by the priest should be heard by those very same people: it is their prayer too. The silent canon, however, is more easily justified since the words are changeless, needing no fresh proclamation in the ears of the people. It is a most intimate moment of Christ addressing his Father, an intimacy heightened by the inaudibility of its words.

This example from Ratzinger is, I presume, the sort of thing that the Council Fathers had in mind for the liturgical reform: that the ritual words and the ritual action should be more clearly in harmony, and make sense of each other. The attendant danger, of course, is to over-rationalize liturgy, to subject it to the efficiencies of time-and-motion experts, which would be to make it more and more exclusively a work of man. Nor does this mean that the whole of the liturgy was in need of such refinement. It is still totally beyond me why the Eucharistic Canon had to be changed, and even others added. I can find so conciliar justification, however oblique, for this unnecessary tampering.

Ratzinger now moves, reversing the order of the objections, from the matter of the communal nature of the liturgy to the matter of its language, which is to say, its tongue. The argument that the Latin liturgy must be retained so “that the Catholic should be able to find it wherever he goes, even on Mars or the moon…” (NB Ratzinger is not being sarcastic; he is referring explicitly to Friedrich Heer’s critique.) This, says Ratzinger, “would amount to making the liturgy a museum piece, an artistic and aesthetic treasure from the past”. He makes a more positive argument in favour of the vernacular by referring to St Paul’s assertion that he would rather speak 5 intelligible words than 10,000 in a tongue (I Cor 14:19). Though St Paul had in his sights the practice of ecstatic speaking in tongues or glossolalia, nevertheless it is on the basis of this Pauline teaching that “the Greek liturgy, which by this time had become unintelligible, was translated into Latin in Rome in the fourth century, in other words, it was made available again in the vernacular of the time”. Ratzinger cites liturgical historian Theodore Klauser in agreement that the Roman liturgists in the fourth century were confusing the unintelligibility of glossolalia with the incomprehensibility of a foreign language. Nevertheless,

St Paul would have had no objection whatever to this interpretation of his pronouncements; even if he was referring to glossolalic utterances rather than foreign languages, the one was just as much at variance with his idea of liturgy as the other.

Ratzinger dismisses the idea of a language of mystery for the liturgy, as if the veiling of the liturgy in words not understood by the majority somehow safeguards, or even enhances, the mystery embodied in the Sacred Mysteries. The text of the Mass details an engagement, and even a dialogue, at the appropriate times, between priest and people which does not sit harmoniously with the employment of a mystery language. For “it is not the purpose of liturgy to fill us with awe and terror in the presence of sacred things… [nor] to provide a festive and richly-adorned setting for silent meditation and communion of the soul with itself, but rather to incorporate us into the ‘we’ of the children of God”.

That said, there are still compelling arguments for the retention of Latin as the universal language of the liturgy. Its use would eliminate the divisive debates about vernacular translations especially in such political languages as English. Moreover, in a word growing smaller yet more divided the use of Latin would circumvent ethnic and national tensions and provide a point of unity. How tragically absurd it was, for example, that in the wake of the Council the great Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain in Belgium was split in two between Flemish and Walloons, as indeed were some Belgian monasteries.

It is very much a 1960s theologian speaking here. That said, Ratzinger raises issues that still demand the attention of those whose preference is for the pre-conciliar Mass, especially those who would prefer to restore it as the sole liturgical form for the western Church. These issues do seem to be faced in the liturgies of 1964-67, even if by 1967 the observant could see where it would all end in 1970. Ratzinger appears to be one of them, to judge by his critique of the post-conciliar liturgical practice as it was rapidly developing. That critique is for the next post, act II of Part 2!

And now for something completely different

Over at the admirable blog That the Bones You have Crushed may Thrill, I was intrigued to see mention made of Pharrell Williams’ pleasing song Happy. It is a song I only recently discovered. So it was a happy surprise for me to read there that,

… you hear this song quite a lot in Brighton from car stereos and the like. It always makes me think of B[enedict]XVI. I do quite like that Mr Williams’s song subscribes to the Catholic vision of  ‘the truth’ rather than the societal trend to promote subjective and competing notions based on ‘my truth’. The truth, of course, if not embraced, can be a cause for unhappiness…

The song never fails to life my spirits. So it was an even greater, and pleasant, surprise to find that this song is the subject of the world’s first 24-hour music video! What a clever concept it is. If you go to the site (it can take a while to load initially – be patient. If it stalls, press F5) you will find that you can match the time of day to the video. It is a remarkable feat. It is a series of seemingly ordinary people (and occasionally the singer) dancing here, there and everywhere to the song. It breathes a joyful spirit, and is good clean entertainment (unless there is something hidden at 3am!). Go have a look, and you can check in there when you need a pick-me-up.

happy

 

Missing the real point: the debate on Communion for remarried divorcees

Most Catholics will be aware of the recent, vigorous debate that has emerged the last few months on the subject of whether remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion. The debate was given impetus by the desire of German bishops to change the immemorial teaching of the Church. Following the explicit and unequivocal teaching of Christ, the Church does not recognize the possibility of divorce. Spouses can separate without any canonical consequence. Any civil divorce has only civil effect, and does not affect the sacramental bond which endures. The problem comes if a civilly-divorced spouse re-marries. It would have to be a civil wedding, naturally. In the eyes of the Church, with the original marriage bond intact, that spouse is now officially and publicly committing adultery. Adultery is a grave sin that precludes one from receiving Holy Communion.

As any sensible pastor, like our own Bishop Philip Egan, will tell you, this canonical consequence is not an act of retribution but is, in fact, medicinal. On the one hand, it reminds the erring spouse that Eucharist is the highest of gifts, and that it is a gift that can be lost by our own actions. On the other hand, scripture and Church teaching are consistent in holding that receiving the Eucharist when in a state of grave sin will have no good effect on the soul of the grave and un-absolved sinner, but in fact will only harm the sinner, as s/he will be bringing judgment down upon them. Eucharist received by grave sinners who remain un-absolved is poison to their souls, not balm. So to deny them Communion is an act of charity.

The counter argument usually rests on the purpose of the Eucharist in the lives of Christians. As medicine, it is precisely the grave sinner who needs it, the argument maintains. What is more, some divorces come about due to situations of irreconcilable difference, or even abuse. The Church already allows separation on these grounds, but cannot permit divorce because she has no power to grant a divorce. She may determine that the marriage itself was not validly contracted, and so annul what had been thought a marriage. But a valid marriage endures till death.

However, there is an underlying point in this debate that is, by and large, not being addressed, and if it were it might take the sting out of the question. The point is this: that for the vast majority of Catholics (and even non-Catholics, God help us) the reception of Communion is just another part of the ritual, an instance of their “active participation”, and indeed, a habit. St Pius X may have been right to remind the Church that receiving Holy Communion is saving food to our souls, and so we should receive it more than once a year. But frequent Communion has, in the modern Church, become regular Communion, habitual Communion, and for many, unthinking Communion. Which raises the question: how many Catholics receiving Communion every Sunday are actually free from grave sin? This question is all the more moot given the decline in recourse to the sacrament of Confession. Have Catholics really become so holy on such a widespread scale? Or are many regularly receiving the Eucharist unworthily, and not just profaning the Sacrament but poisoning their souls? Are our parishes in fact largely administering poison to a disturbing number of those who present themselves for Communion?

Those in grave sin have no right to receive Communion at all. None. At. All. Thus, remarried divorcees have no right to receive Communion, and in fact have the right to be denied Communion for their own spiritual well-being. Reception of Holy Communion must not be reduced to a mere act of belonging the local group, of exterior participation and inclusion stripped of its supernatural reality and purpose. It is primarily a spiritual event, with spiritual consequences, and eternal ones at that. It is not a sacrament of social inclusion.

Our Sunday obligation is not to receive Holy Communion. Our obligation is to attend Mass every Sunday. Have many Catholics lost sight of this fact?

Or perhaps individuals judge for themselves and decide that they can receive despite Church teaching? Perhaps they would call this an act of conscience. While we cannot read people’s consciences, we can safely say that anyone who makes a judgment against Church teaching does so without any objective authority. It is the same for priests who unilaterally decide to offer Communion to those who are impeded by means of publicly-known grave sin or who are non-Catholics. In this case, those priests are exercising an authority they do not have. This makes them dangerous men indeed from a spiritual point of view.

So the question of Communion for remarried divorcees needs to be re-focused. The burning question really is: how many who present themselves for Communion are actually in communion with Christ and His Church and not impeded by grave sin? Another question presents itself in consequence: how many see Communion merely as an act of exterior participation rather than an essentially spiritual act with effects not only for now but for eternity?

If you are in a state of grave sin, Holy Communion is not your remedy. Confession and penance: that is your remedy. Only then will Holy Communion do you any good. Only then will Holy Communion not bring you spiritual woe. What we need now is not a campaign for frequent Communion, but one for frequent Confession. Dare we say it: Holy Communion can be dangerous – it is not for the unready.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

(1 Corinthians 11:23-30 ESV)