Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Feast of the Archangels

Sculptor Edward Robinson argues that "demythologisation" was an academic trend which deprived Christianity of its imaginative and creative forms of expression. He argues that we need a "remythologisation" of the Gospels, if faith is once again to become vibrant with a sense of mystery and spirituality. 

Today is the Feast of the Archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. They are the only angels named in the Bible. Michael appears in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, as the one who leads the armies of God against the forces of evil. Devotion to the Archangel Michael and the angels originated in the East in the fourth century and spread to the West in the fifth. Gabriel appears in the Book of Daniel, but he is best known as the angel of the Annunciation, who appeared to both Zechariah and Mary in Luke's Gospel, announcing the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus respectively. The story of the angel Raphael can be found in the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament, but for a truly delightful encounter with Raphael I'd encourage you to read Sally Vickers' novel, Miss Garnet's Angel.

Gregory the Great says of the word "angel" that "it denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message." Like Thomas Aquinas's God then, an angel's being is synonymous with its doing, for just as God's being is the doing of God (and therefore the doing of the world), so an angel's being is to be discovered in what it does. (The sex of angels has been the subject of much serious theological debate, but I like to think of them as occupying the in-between spaces). 

If you Google the word angel together with quantum physics, you'll find there are a lot of people out there speculating about the relationship between the two. Some of it is highly esoteric, and some of it pedantically academic. Yet let me admit that, since reading Aquinas on angels, I find myself more amazed than before at what quantum physics reveals to us about the sensory world. There is something about that shimmering illusion of the density of matter which might just be the message of the angels, communicating not above and beyond the material world but within it and through it. What are they telling us?

The work of the young artist Mila Furstova is very exciting. Here is one of her Annunciations:

Annunciation I (2008), Mila Furstova

You can see more of her work on her website: Mila Furstova Etching.

Here is Hildegard of Bingen's "Antiphon for the Angels":

Spirited light! on the edge
of the Presence your yearning
burns in the secret darkness,
O angels, insatiably
into God's gaze.

could not touch your beauty;
you are essential joy.
But your lost companion,
angel of the crooked
wings - he sought the summit,
shot down the depths of God
and plummeted past Adam -
that a mud-bound spirit might soar.

And here is Maya Angelou's poem, "Touched by an Angel":

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight 
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare to be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Triptych - a harvest of beans

 I've been working on a paper this week which I'm giving at a conference tomorrow. The conference is organised by the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, and it's called Finding God in Holy Places. My paper is called 'Finding God in Empty Spaces - a Visual Theology of the In-Between'. I explore the capacity of art to express our desire for God through our sense of an elusive absence within the materiality of the world. (You can read the paper and see the Powerpoint presentation by following these links).

One of the artists I refer to is the sculptor Edward Robinson, whose work includes a series of carved triptychs. He uses the triptychs to explore themes of concealment and revelation, and to encourage us to reflect on those inner worlds which resist scrutiny and are meant to remain hidden, revealing their mysteries only occasionally to the contemplative gaze. He prefers his triptychs to remain closed most of the time, to remind those who see them of the mystery of God hidden within the world.

I took time out yesterday morning from an intense week of writing the paper and preparing for the start of the new academic year. It was a glorious day - with that early autumnal warmth and soft blue sky which rest like a benediction on the passing of summer. I went up to the allotment to pick the garlands of beans which have appeared in the last few weeks, and I decided to sit up there and shell them in the sunshine. As I worked, I reflected on Robinson's triptychs, and it occurred to me that these beautiful beans communicated the same kind of message. It was the toughest, most unattractive pods which contained a wondrous assortment of colours, gleaming in the sunshine and telling of the unseen beauty hidden within the most ordinary of appearances. What evolutionary grace deemed that these beans should develop in this way? For whose gaze were they intended, hidden away from the eyes of insects and birds? Is it possible that these were made only for God's delight and ours, nature's triptychs opening up to those who have eyes to see?

What a pity that their colours disappear when they're cooked, and yesterday's miracle is tomorrow's meal. But I hope you enjoy sharing them in all their ephemeral glory.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Execution of Teresa Lewis

I was one of many thousands of people around the world who e-mailed Governor Bob McDonnell in a last-minute appeal for clemency for Teresa Lewis. Our appeals were in vain:

Wearing prison-issue denim trousers and shirt, she walked the 10 steps from her cell to the execution chamber, where five warders strapped her to a hospital trolley. Witnesses said she looked terrified.

Kathy Clifton, Lewis's stepdaughter, was in an adjoining witness room, blocked from view by a two-way mirror. The families of the victims were also present.

A prison warder held up a phone to the governor's office, in case of a last-minute decision to offer clemency.

Asked if she wanted to make a last statement, Lewis said: "I want Kathy to know I love you and I am very sorry." The executioners, dressed in black, with all identifying tags removed and hidden behind a curtain, released a sedative and a lethal dose.

Lewis was pronounced dead within six minutes of delivering her final statement.
(You can read the rest of that article here).

Here are the texts of the messages I sent to Governor McDonnell:

Thursday, 23rd September
Dear Governor McDonnell,

I can understand that people are gravely concerned about the murder of Teresa Lewis's husband and stepson by Matthew Shallenberger and his associate. However, many of us following this case find it impossible to understand how this damaged and confused woman will be put to death for a crime for which it seems she is incapable of bearing full responsibility. The eyes of the world are on you today. I urge you Governor McDonnell, to show yourself a man who understands mercy as well as justice, and who even at this late hour is willing to ensure that a most grave injustice is not carried out in the state of Virginia. Many of us look to the United States as an example to inspire others. Please do not let us down. It is not too late.
Friday, 24th September
Like Teresa Lewis, you too will one day stand before the throne of judgement. I hope that God shows greater mercy than you yourself have done. In the meantime, the state of Virginia has brought shame on your country. Those of us who would never otherwise have heard of you at all, will now always remember you for this one thing. I pity you more than Lewis, for she has peace. I wonder if you will ever have real peace again?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Poetry and Prayer

I have just come across this reflection on the relationship between poetry and prayer. I much appreciated it. I hope you do too:
Image ◊ Good Letters: The IMAGE Blog ◊ Is Poetry Prayer?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Celibacy Debate in Central London

Conspiracy of Silence - Directed by John Deery - Brenda Fricker - Hugh Bonneville - John Lynch - Sean McGinley - Jonathan Forbes and Jim Norton

This is a link to a website which gives more information about an event taking place in London at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, on Tuesday, 14th September. After a screening of John Deery's film, Conspiracy of Silence, there will be a debate on the motion 'Celibacy should no longer be a compulsory requirement for the Roman Catholic priesthood'. Those debating for the motion will be Helena Kennedy QC, Fr. John McGowan and myself. Those debating against it will be Bishop Malcolm McMahon, Frank Skinner, Jack Valero and Fr. Stephen Wang. The debate will be chaired by Ernie Rea.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Understanding Pope Benedict XVI

I'm posting Rupert Shortt's interesting review of Tracey Rowland's book on Benedict XVI. It offers excellent insights as to how we might understand more about this enigmatic churchman as we await his arrival in Britain.


September 8, 2010

A layman's guide to the Pope

Help and hindrance to understanding Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain

~Rupert Shortt
Joseph Ratzinger was born in 1927, the son of a policeman stationed in rural Bavaria. A priestly calling took root in him before he was out of short trousers: Catholicism ministered to the boy’s intellect and emotions in equal measure. The other core impulse that shaped Ratzinger during his childhood was a horror of extremism. Press-ganged into the Hitler Youth, he later joined the Wehrmacht on reaching call-up age in 1944. But both the reluctant conscript and other members of his family had long feared that the Nazis were taking Germany over a precipice.
The story is engagingly told by the future Pope in his memoir Milestones (2000), an account of the first five decades of his life that ends with his appointment as Archbishop of Munich in 1977. This book leaves a sour taste in the mouth all the same, because it fails to mention either the Jews or the Holocaust a single time. Given an ideal chance to deplore a catastrophe in which he had been a blameless bystander, the then Cardinal chose instead to emphasize Hitler’s persecution of Catholics. Ratzinger compounded his error in at least two respects. In the first place, his discussion ignored the largely supine response to the Nazis of both clergy and laity. Secondly, he drew the highly contentious lesson that the Church can only resist dictatorships effectively when run as a very tight ship. Alert reviewers of Milestones pointed out that on the contrary, German Catholics were hamstrung by a tradition of docile obedience to authority during the 1930s, and that only Protestant Denmark provided a largely unsullied record of anti-Nazi resistance.
The unintended impression given by Milestones is that its author, though urbane and intelligent, still lacks common sense. The book also tells us much about Benedict XVI’s agenda. He was elected to the most influential post on earth three days after his seventy-eighth birthday. No one of his age (or perhaps of any age) in their right mind could welcome the colossal burdens of papal office. In that sense the man who emerged victorious from the conclave of 2005 was not personally ambitious. But he is nevertheless a very ambitious promoter of his own model for church government. Milestones goes on to give a partisan reading of Catholic history during the second half of the twentieth century, and draws a veil over the dissenting impulses that the author displayed as a reform-minded young theologian. His attempt to present his thinking as a seamless garment probably constitutes the greatest piece of legerdemain in the memoir. It also forms the background against which Tracey Rowland’s portrait of the Pope should be judged – and found wanting.
Benedict XVI: A guide for the perplexed does not include a detailed discussion of Milestones. Rowland, a conservative Melbourne-based theologian, also subscribes to the fantasy that her subject has been fully consistent. This feeds the impression that she is more cheerleader than analyst. Not that she is a lightweight: it is her erudition that makes her project a missed opportunity.
The author’s knowledge of intellectual history gives her book – the latest in T&T Clark’s series on individual figures and major religious themes – at least one solid foundation. The same could be said for Ratzinger’s Faith (2008), Rowland’s other study of the Pope’s thought, which covers similar ground. Anyone who has advanced beyond the hackneyed view of Benedict XVI as a latter-day Grand Inquisitor will know that he is the first pope in centuries to be a thinker of the first rank. A summary of his intellectual importance might begin with the age-old question encapsulating the tension between philosophy and theology – “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” – cited as much by Christians protective of their faith-based turf as by unbelievers who see religion as a matter of wish fulfilment or worse.
Ratzinger would query the terms in which the question is usually framed. Significant parts of his large oeuvre are premissed on a sense that ancient Athens and Jerusalem were different zones within an intellectual ellipse, and thus that reason and faith are complementary strands in our mental make-ups. He would justify this claim by arguing that secular reason is not wholly reasonable, because it fails to reckon with the fundamental and inclusive context of meaning that only religion supplies. He would add that no naturalistic framework of explanation can do justice to the full range of our experience as beings motivated by conscience, intuition and a vision of the good, as well as by analytic reason. Ratzinger’s bestselling Introduction to Christianity (1969), written in his intellectual prime, is studded with gnomic insights into what might be termed the phenomenology of faith. We are told that belief in God has much in common with love: if you never give yourself to it, you will never understand it. If we do embrace the Christian creed, though, then we shall encounter a new dimension of reality not available to others. Ratzinger moves from an efficient attack on the invalidity of crude scientism (“knowledge of the functional aspect of the world, as procured for us so splendidly by present-day . . . scientific thinking, brings with it no understanding of the world and of being. Understanding grows only out of belief”) to insist on the unavoidable character of spiritual questing: “Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident”.
Elsewhere, the book presents a detailed genealogy chronicling the birth of empiricism – Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) is named as chief midwife – and a resulting contraction of intellectually acceptable fields of discourse during the Enlightenment. Rowland is a reliable guide to Ratzinger’s work in this field, as well as to his theories about the false theological turns during the late Renaissance and early modern periods which he holds to have sown some of modern atheism’s most fertile seeds. In our own time, the attenuated character of much analytic philosophy suggests that the greater gulf lies between Athens and Oxford. There is no shortage of other scholars sharing Ratzinger’s conviction that Plato and the authors of the Bible were advancing along parallel tracks after all, even if, from a Christian standpoint, the former was guided by the moon rather than by full sunlight.
As a student of outstanding ability, Ratzinger showed a strong interest in ancient Greek philosophy, Plato especially, but his first loyalty was to St Augustine, who transposed Platonic ideas into a Christian key by insisting on the beauty and goodness of creation, and on the Church’s role in making available to all such Platonic goals as the purification of the soul. Rowland also locates Ratzinger in the context of the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, a strategy with much to commend it. Tübingen University in Swabia (where Ratzinger went on to teach in the late 1960s) formed one of the foremost centres of Catholic engagement with Romanticism. The main figures in this loose school of thought rejected Kant’s bid to strip Christianity of its very concrete historical claims, and present the faith instead as a timeless matter of reason and ethics. To Romantically minded Catholics, Kant and his armies of nineteenth-century followers peddled far too arid a conception of the human person. German theologians such as Johann Sebastian Drey, Johann Adam Möhler and Johannes Evangelist von Kuhn drew inspiration from across the Channel – from Blake, Wordsworth and especially from John Henry Newman.
Ratzinger would be among the first to argue that “Romantic” Catholicism was no nineteenth-century innovation, but simply a local tributary of theology’s largest river. This was always clear to those with a sure grasp of history. Coleridge, for example, was not only speaking as a Romantic, but also echoing Augustine, when he declared that Christianity is “the substantiating principle of all true wisdom, the satisfactory solution of all the contradictions of human nature, of the whole riddle of the world. This alone belongs to and speaks intelligibly to all alike, the learned and the ignorant, if but the heart listens”.
The key point, though, is that those ignorant of the classical Christian tradition included many senior nineteenth- and early twentieth-century clerics. It is well known that the Catholic Church pulled up its drawbridge on the world for 200 years after the Enlightenment, condemning democracy, feminism, biblical scholarship and scientific developments. (This contrasted with the much greater levels of intellectual openness often displayed by Catholic leaders of earlier eras.) A less familiar calamity unfolded internally, with the imposition of tight boundaries on theological study. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) designated the work of St Thomas Aquinas, read in one tight-reined way, as the chief intellectual weapon in the battle against the Church’s enemies. As Rowland explains, Enlightenment rationalism was now to be answered with a Catholic counter-rationalism.
This was the world that Joseph Ratzinger entered as he embarked on priestly training in 1945, and it turned him into a rebel. The first version of his Habilitationsschrift, or post-doctoral thesis, a word Rowland has misspelt in more than one way, was a study of St Bonaventure’s ecclesiology. Alarmed by the supposedly novel, “French” influence in this dissertation, the examiners failed it. Had they not later accepted a revised script, Ratzinger’s academic career would have been killed off at birth. And his rebellion was far from being purely intellectual. As a budding scholar, he famously complained that “what the Church needs today as always are not adulators to extol the status quo, but men whose humility and obedience are not less than their passion for the truth”. Instead, he went on, a monolithic institution was “entrenching herself behind exterior safeguards”.
These words reflect a thirst for structural reform. Ratzigner’s dream was realized at the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), the event at which the Catholic Church opened itself to the modern world, among other things acknowledging for the first time the sovereignty of conscience, the need for a more hospitable attitude to other Christians, and, on paper, a view of the Church as a community of pilgrims, rather than a pyramid dominated by the clerical establishment. Though still in his mid-thirties, Ratzinger played an important part in helping galvanize the forces of reform against the wrecking tactics of certain Vatican officials, because he served as aide and adviser to the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Josef Frings.
Why, then, has Benedict XVI long been a prime exhibit in the liberal Chamber of Horrors? The short answer is that although there are many continuities in his thought across the decades, he still changed his spots to a remarkable extent in mid-career. During the late 1960s, he decided that the Church had opened up to the world just as the world was heading in a very different direction. Outside Catholic ranks, les événements and other cases of student unrest were apparently demonstrating that Marxism now posed a chronic threat to Western civilization; while inside the Church, disagreement over official teaching on faith and morals was proving hugely divisive. His conclusion was that the liberal genie needed returning to the bottle. The faithful must pull together, shun the luxury of free thinking, and never forget that authentic Christianity is supposed to entail costly witness against what John’s Gospel terms the standards of “this world”.
Professor Ratzinger’s volte-face was matched by what struck many observers as a shift in his character. An earlier openness was supplanted by intolerance and gloom. The psychological element, wholly overlooked by Rowland, is revealing. While researching my biography of the Pope, I interviewed a Tübingen theologian who described the change that came about Ratzinger as follows:
"A young, friendly, communicative scholar turned in on himself and became very dogmatic. Some people, of course, continued to see him as a model of courtesy. This is because he seems to be the kind of person who will really open up to others if he feels they are on his wavelength, but finds it harder to get on with a larger range of characters."
Elements of Ratzinger’s new outlook were shared by Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II. Shortly after his own election in 1978, John Paul asked his ally to become Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, and thus to join his inner circle of advisers. Ratzinger rarely if ever behaved like the “God’s Rottweiler” of popular mythology after his move to the Vatican. On the contrary, he often displayed patience, charm and a sense of humour while investigating the work of theologians suspected of not toeing the line. Yet the Cardinal was high-handed on enough occasions to give ammunition to his critics. Fair-minded fellow clerics concluded that he was torn between two versions of himself. As Prefect, he should have exercised a quasi-judicial role, but more often acted like a player than a referee. Theologians supporting greater democracy in the Church, or a relaxation of teaching on sexual morality, faced especially tight curbs. Good men were denied preferment, and episcopal candidates often selected for their loyalty to the centre, rather than their pastoral and intellectual records.
The infamous conflict over liberation theology during the 1980s is harder to assess. Some leading members of this school of thought such as the Brazilian ex-Franciscan Leonardo Boff, over-indebted to Marxism and far more privileged than he cared to admit, were skilled at creating the impression that scarlet-clad prelates in Rome were stamping on innocent servants of the poor. Many such accusations were unfair, yet saintly figures like Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Recife, who lived in a slum and was guilty of nothing more than taking the gospel seriously, were certainly treated with disdain. Ratzinger bears heavy responsibility for this.
Other developments for which the Cardinal was directly or indirectly responsible included a hardline, plainly hypocritical attitude towards gay Catholics, and a tendency by Rome to micro-manage the delicate business of liturgical translation. Bishops in the anglophone world faced a particularly high level of interference by officials who rejected the use of inclusive language in principle, and did not understand the distinctive challenges of rendering Latin into idiomatic English. Benedict’s motu proprio (a special kind of papal document) of 2007, which authorized a greater use of the Tridentine rite, is symptomatic of his broader impulse to return Catholics to preconciliar times. The Church he leads is growing strongly in Asia and Africa, where it is a massive source of social capital, but has suffered steep decline in Europe, and a particularly heavy blow to its credibility in North America. Debate persists on Ratzinger’s role during the child abuse scandals of recent decades. Whatever the truth of this, it seems clear that the Vatican today still fails to address the subject with a due sense of contrition and urgency.
Supporters of the status quo regularly complain that the church authorities are portrayed in the worst possible light by a hostile media. The comment is not groundless, but it also reflects epic levels of self-deception. As recently as July of this year, the Vatican left “its goalmouth wide open, with its goalkeeper nowhere to be seen”, as one commentator put it, by issuing a statement detailing some changes in canon law that managed to connect in the public mind clerical paedophilia and the ordination of women as priests. This sort of example could be multiplied a hundredfold, and points towards an underlying malaise. The Church is damaged by rickety structures in general, and by its leader’s lack of savvy in particular. German-speaking observers have long complained that Ratzinger lacks Menschenkenntnis – the capacity to size people up.
Tracey Rowland ignores this sort of argument, because she lacks critical distance between herself and her subject. The unevenness of her prose also gives proof of carelessness or hurry: sometimes the book reads as though badly translated from German. Insofar as exposition leads to evaluation in her discussion, her verdicts are always positive, and further seasoned with idiosyncratic comments of her own. Early on, for instance, she writes that
"The emergence of a wealthy Catholic middle class in the US and the countries of the British Commonwealth, desperate for acceptance by Protestant elites and wanting to accommodate its faith to the culture of modernity, including the adoption of a decidedly modern attitude to sexuality, created numerous intellectual and pastoral challenges which were simply beyond the capacities of many of the clergy to address."
These comments deserve serious attention. Christians do often lack the fibre to swim against the tide. The Church teaches that real freedom is based on the education of desire. Liberalism, on this view, should not be based on the ability to do what you want, but on the right to do what you ought. In that sense the thoughtful believer will always be counter-cultural. One has only to look at corners of the Church of England, where the trendy vicar has long been a figure of fun and church attendance has declined in parallel with the sapping of Catholic congregations, to see that it is self-defeating to offer secular society less and less in which to disbelieve. Add together convictions about the truth of Christianity and the concealment of this truth by sin, and it is not hard to see the inference many might draw: that discipleship is more about duties than rights, and a global Church must be subject to strong central controls. Benedict’s views are buttressed by his longstanding worries about a cocktail of ills, including relativism, family breakdown, over-consumption and violence, which he sees as assorted manifestations of “neo-paganism”. The vocabulary may be different from that of secular political parties, but the sentiment is of course familiar. David Cameron’s Big Society idea, for example, owes a clear debt to Catholic Social Teaching.
The problem with the Pope’s one-sided condemnations is that they beg the question. A century ago, most women did not have the vote. Two centuries ago, four-fifths of humanity lived in dire poverty. There is no sense in denying that great material and moral strides have been made, or that many goods in the contemporary world derive from the Enlightenment, as well as from Judaeo-Christianity.
The irony, as we have seen, is that the Pope once saw things rather differently. Rowland rightly tells us that Catholic Romantics – including the younger Ratzinger – were fighting against a world-denying strand in their own tradition that was particularly evident in Ireland and the Irish diaspora during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which derives from Jansenism. The French have a phrase (as they often do) for this cast of mind and its effects: la maladie Catholique. Benedict now suffers from the disease he once sought to cure.
His sombre outlook bodes ill for various forms of bridge-building – intellectual, social and above all interfaith, at a time when relations between Christians and Muslims look pivotal to world stability. Some of the Pope’s pronouncements (he once declared that non-Christians and even non-Catholics are in grave spiritual peril) feed the impulse to remind him of what the Bible itself teaches: that all – including, by implication, Muslims, Hindus and atheists – are made in the image of God.
Battles among Christians, or between Christians and others, on topics ranging from interreligious dialogue to gay marriage ultimately hinge on the status of conscience and of those outside the visible Church, which is in turn a variation on the Athens–Jerusalem conundrum. Most people have never heard the Christian message, and many who have done so cannot accept it for well-considered reasons. Religious exclusivists have little to offer those outside their own loop. Christians with a more open sense of the Holy Spirit’s mission will see the subject in a broader light. Like their more conservative fellow believers, they believe that God not only made us, but has “spoken” to us as well. They are simply warier about spelling out what is Christian in the lives and attitudes of those who do not bear the name of Christ.
In her purplest passage of all, Rowland salutes Benedict and his predecessor for representing “a double act of Divine Providence, with a Pole being chosen to see off European Communism and a German succeeding him to begin healing the fractures of the sixteenth century and offer a sustained intellectual response to the nihilist wing of nineteenth-century Romanticism which reached its extreme in the Nazi death camps”.
Benedict rarely endears himself to Protestants, but he has certainly done much to see off the ghost of Nietzsche. His response to the father of contemporary atheism is easily summed up. Nietzsche’s descriptions of the human condition are basically right, but the inferences he draws from his data are fundamentally wrong. Either everything means something or nothing means anything. It is the first of these propositions that is correct.
The substance of this argument will seem convincing to many; the tone in which Benedict delivers it is too often rebarbative. A recent comment from a journalist with far less theology than Tracey Rowland, but a much clearer eye, brings us back down to earth. “Joseph Ratzinger may be behind his times or ahead of his times, but he is certainly not of them.” I don’t suppose the Pope could imagine a higher compliment. That is the problem shirked by this “guide for the perplexed”.
Tracey Rowland
A guide for the perplexed
202pp. T&T Clark. £14.99 (US $19.95).
978 0 567 03437 3

Rupert Shortt is Religion editor of the TLS. His books include Benedict XVI: Commander of the faith, 2005, and Rowan’s Rule: The biography of the Archbishop, 2008.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Boycott Mass - or wear a rainbow ribbon?

I've borrowed a photograph of a rainbow over Bristol from Mary Colwell's blog, Reflections of a Curlew. Read on to find out why.

Jennifer Sleeman, an Irish grandmother, has called on Catholic women to boycott Mass on 26th September and to stay at home and pray for change instead. (She suggests that men who are sympathetic to the cause should also join the boycott). The call is receiving widespread publicity and support from around the world. Click here for Rose Marie Berger's blog which gives links to a number of others.

I must admit, I have mixed feelings about this and I wonder what other people think. I'm deeply sympathetic but also unconvinced. Let me try to explain why.

There is a deep and growing sense of frustration among many of us - not just women (and of course, not all women), about what's happening in the Church today. The refusal to allow women any meaningful recognition or role within church institutions, the creeping authoritarianism which leaves ever smaller spaces for informed, loyal and conscientious debate, the imposition of the  new translation of the liturgy in a way which violates the most fundamental Vatican II principles of collegiality and subsidiarity, and of course the handling of the sex abuse crisis, are all symptoms of a deep malaise which needs more than policy statements, punitive actions and good intentions. It calls for the most profound process of examination of conscience, repentance and transformation at all levels of the Church's institutional and sacramental life. If the world's women boycotted Mass on 26th September that would be a form of protest which would be hard to ignore, for we continue to make up the majority of faithful Mass goers, and without the active support of lay and religious women in all walks of Catholic life (except of course the hierarchy), one wonders what would be left of the vitality and dynamism of the Church. If even a small minority of Catholics responded to Sleeman's call, that would be a most eloquent absence.

But sympathetic though I am to the proposal, I find myself concerned about the further politicisation of the Mass and its use as a means to an end. Many in the hierarchy and among conservative Catholics already try to use the Mass to defend ideological positions which have little to do with the dynamic and mystical love of Christ unfolding among us in time and space, and most particularly in the sacraments. There is a whole range of ways in which the Mass has become a way of policing Catholic life, rather than a way of celebrating the unfathomable mystery of God which reaches into all our human darkness, hunger and failure with an unconditional love, an unquenchable hope and a transforming grace. Don't we risk contributing towards this if we too begin to use the Mass as a way of imposing our own agendas on the life of the Church?

What I most love about the Church - and what feels most under threat today - is its abundant and irreducible plurality. The capacity of Catholicism to survive has always been largely thanks to its ability to accommodate  a vast spectrum of human cultures, identities and beliefs within an organic form of sacramental life which pulses through history and is as vigorous and diverse today as it ever has been. With the tunnel vision of the contemporary Church and the closing down of its creative and imaginative horizons, the sacramental roots of Catholic life risk being destroyed, at a time when Catholic diversity is flourishing as never before.

The Church is a new creation, not in the sense of being divorced from or other than what God's creation has always been, but in the sense of a renewal of our human capacity to taste and see that the Lord is good. When our human vision is renewed, everything in the cosmos is renewed by the awakening of consciousness to the grace of creation and by our ability to stand in awe before its infinite diversity. Today, I'm sitting in my London flat looking out through a swirling shimmer of sunlit leaves, and as I focus my gaze I see that the air is alive with tiny flying creatures, and a fat contented pigeon struts proudly across the grass. I know that if I sit here a little longer a squirrel will shimmy down the ivy clad tree trunk, a blackbird will come singing outside the window, and a small, mangy fox will make her daily appearance. I love Annie Dillard's paean to the eternal within the material:
It is a fault of infinity to be too small to find. It is a fault of eternity to be crowded out by time. Before our eyes we see an unbroken sheath of colors. We live over a bulk of things. We walk amid a congeries of colored things that part before our steps to reveal more colored things. Above us hurtle more things, which fill the universe. There is no crack. Unbreakable seas lie flush on their beds. Under the Greenland icecap lies not so much as a bubble. Mountains and hills, lakes, deserts, forests, and plans fully occupy their continents. Where, then, is the gap through which eternity streams? (Annie Dillard, The Book of Luke)
The Mass is like that too, isn't it? Its revelatory wonder is not in its capacity to transcend who and what we are, but in the capacity of eternity to stream through the solid density of life in all its diversity. Black, white, yellow and brown, male and female, children, teenagers, the fertile young and the fragile old and the middle-aged in-betweens, 'liberals' and 'conservatives' and the middle-of-the-road in-betweens, married, single, widowed and divorced, gay and straight, lay and religious, priests and people, healthy and sick, rich and poor - no wonder James Joyce's cryptic allusion to 'here comes everybody' is often taken to refer to the Catholic Church. This is what the Church is - a community whose human diversity and creativity is an expression of the diversity and creativity of God's world. Maybe it's no coincidence that our destruction of biodiversity is finding an echo in the destruction of the biodiversity of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI links the earth's ecology to our human ecology, but if that's true, surely we should see our diversity as a mark of strength and sustainability and not as a symptom of 'relativism' which must be stamped out at all costs?

What does all this have to do with boycotting the Mass? Well, if that boycott really works, what a depleted Church it would be on 26th September - a Church lacking in so much of its sustaining life. But it would also mean that the Mass would not be what it should be - not a means to an end, not a political act, not an ideological statement, but a human community at play before our creator and redeemer with all the intensity of children at play. Play is an end in itself. It's what happens when we shake off our commitments and agendas and anxieties and politics, simply to revel in being. And in that letting go, we discover again the creative love which in every milli-second renews and sustains the creation of which we are a part.

Of course, for many of us the Mass isn't like that most of the time, which is why I'm sympathetic to the boycott. The use of exclusive language, the failure of imagination which makes so many homilies as tedious as they are insipid, the feeling of always being on the margins, sometimes being tolerated but never really being welcomed and wanted, is common to many, many Catholics who still try, week after week, to keep faith. This is more than simply the apathy and indifference which makes us all (or me at least) rather half-hearted in our participation sometimes. It's a dreary dampening down of something vital, week after week, year after year, which depletes the quiet passion of mystery and wonder which has through the centuries made the Mass a source of inspiration for some of the greatest art, architecture, poetry and music ever produced.That's why I hesitate to participate in yet a further narrowing down of its expressive possibilities, and I ask if we might find a way to participate differently, rather than to exclude ourselves voluntarily?

So, I have a suggestion. If you're sympathetic to the causes which the boycott wants to promote, but don't want to boycott Mass as a way of expressing that sympathy, why not pin a rainbow-coloured bunch of ribbons to your clothes that day? It would be a way of celebrating God's rainbow-coloured Church, a way of protesting against the spreading conformity and of showing to everyone around us that we're glad they are there, not because they think like us or look like us or agree with us, but because we are humans made in the image of God in whose diversity and difference all of creation is reflected and renewed, and we lament and protest the attempt to deny or close down that spacious sense of belonging by power masquerading as authority and fear masquerading as care.

Some of us long for the day when our human diversity is as present on the altar as it is among the people, and we may fear that a darkness is descending which makes that ever less likely. But let's not go gentle into that good night. Let's be the rainbow people of God, who wear a sign of hope that all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well (Julian of Norwich).

This posting isn't intended to deter anyone who has already decided to boycott Mass. It's rather intended to suggest an alternative for those who share my reservations but want to express support for the causes which the boycott seeks to promote.