Sunday, 29 May 2011

The bleedin' obvious

Just about the oldest joke in the book is about the little Catholic boy and the little Protestant girl who took their clothes off and went for a swim. Both of them went to their mothers afterwards and said, worried, 'Mummy; I didn't know there was such a difference between Catholics and Protestants!'

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, I was struck yet again the other day at what a difference there is. From time to time I have a look at the Ugley Vicar's blog: he's usually got something interesting to say from a different perspective to mine. The particular post that interested me was one on the 1975 decision of General Synod that 'there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood', which he describes as 'perhaps the most stupid thing General Synod has ever done'.

Well of course it would be impertinent of me to comment on General Synod's decisions, though as an outsider it looks to me to have had pretty catastrophic consequences. (Sorry if that's impertinent!) The Ugley Vicar comments, rightly, that to say that there are no fundamental objections is simply wrong. One might say that there are fundamental objections and they are wrong objections, and anathematize them, as a General Council might, but to say that they do not exist is simply untrue. Well, quite. It suggests that any objections that exist are merely shallow, unworthy of consideration.

The whole Evangelical method of reasoning, however, is fundamentally different to the Catholic one. For our friend the Ugley Vicar, the matter is a moral one. One should obey God's will, and one derives one's knowledge of God's will from God' Word; which is to say, from the Bible. Whether a woman can be a priest or a bishop is a matter of right and wrong; of fidelity or infidelity to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. Since most Evangelicals take a symbolic view of the sacraments, (many indeed would favour 'lay presidency' at the Eucharist), the question of whether a woman might preside at such a celebration would be a moral one; ought she to do so? Is she being disobedient to God's Word, and is the Church of England being disobedient to God's word in permitting a woman to exercise headship in the Church? The successive Synod votes on the subject of women's orders since 1975, then, have been successive mistakes, but mistakes can be put right again. All you have to do is wait things out, keep the pressure on, and get the decisions reversed in due course.

To a Catholic mind, the question is not just a moral one, but an ontological one. Priesthood and a fortiori Episcopacy are about more than just headship or leadership. This is because we believe that sacraments actually do what they say on the tin, and we ask not just 'may' or 'should' somebody do it, but 'can' they do it? To make a priest you have to do more than simply putting a vestment on and calling them a priest; a bishop is more than a pointy hat and a curly stick.

As a sort of reductio ad absurdum, I remember going to the plumbing-in of Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as the Archbishop of Westminster. There were present several leaders from Pentecostal communions, and some of them had clearly felt that on such an occasion they ought to dress appropriately, to fit in, I suppose. There were about three or four, men and women, who had clearly gone to Vanpoulles or somewhere, and, basically, bought various bits of liturgical bling which they draped about their persons and greeted the new Archbishop as equals. If cucullus non fecit monachum, then mitra non fecit episcopum either.

I think that it was Ronald Knox, when an Anglican, who believed that Anglican orders must be valid, because God would surely not have left the Church of England so long without the comfort of the sacraments. That too is a moral argument not an ontological one. If God the Son regularly obeys the words of the priest to substantially make Himself present under the forms of bread and wine because He is faithful to His promises, then is it not reasonable to assume that He does not dispense with His own laws simply because human beings have shifted the goalposts?

If we cannot (rather than should not) modify our celebration of the Eucharist with bread and wine, then we cannot make changes to the sacrament of Order without seriously worrying whether we have moved the goalposts on God's promises.

This ontological view is all of a piece with our view of the world. Some years ago, when I was, for some eighteen months, a priest in Oxford, I was privileged to attend a course of lectures given by the eminent physicist and daily Massgoer, Dr Peter Hodgson. A remarkable man, he was never afraid to nail his colours to the mast even when this courted unpopularity; at the height of the arguments against nuclear power, he was a passionate advocate—I think he even wrote a CTS pamplet on the subject—demonstrating how the arguments against nuclear power caused (appropriately) more heat than light. Hodgson was long on the lecture circuit; I discovered in the course of the preparation of my book that he had visited St John’s Seminary to lecture on ‘Science and the Priest’ as far back as 1955 or 6, I forget which, and he was already described as ‘eminent’ then.

In his old age, he turned his mind to another problem he saw emerging; the Church being perceived as the enemy of science. That is still, of course, a challenge, with the old chestnut of Galileo being trotted out regularly as it if proves the point without further need of discussion.

Hodgson’s point was that, precisely, the development of science as we know it would not have been possible without the Catholic Church. There were many strands to this, but one is, of course, the development of the Aristotelian method beginning with Albert the Great, and continuing. Secularists are quick to point out, quite correctly, that the Church got that from the Moslems, but they do not then go on to show how the Church developed it over the ages. It is all about understanding how reality works; about categories, and about how one thing observably and regularly leads to another. Whether in physics or metaphysics, things happen regularly and one can therefore deduce that they will continue to do so. As Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, the fact that the sun rises regularly each day is a recurring miracle; the point is that it does so faithfully because all the universe is subject to regular laws of behaviour, because there is a Lawgiver. This regularity makes science possible. Even particle physics which seems to reveal a certain antinomianism may well have laws which we do not yet understand.

A couple of years ago, Gem of the Ocean put on her blog a list of the eminent scientists who ‘just happened’ to be Catholic priests. I wish she would repost it, because it was very interesting. I remember that I added Gregor Mendel, the father (as it were) of genetics, to the list. Galileo is embarrassing, I suppose, but for every Galileo there must be twenty, fifty, a hundred, eminent Catholics who see no contradiction between their science and their faith.

For a Catholic, as for a scientist, we need to know whether if I do x, y will follow. We know a male priest can do the biz: why introduce variables that we cannot be assured will work at all? When I die, I want to be properly absolved, not simply to be comforted by somebody (of either sex)  saying that surely God wouldn’t (read ‘oughtn’t’) to send me to hell. I want assurance that my sins are forgiven, not warm words and a comforting opinion that just might be rubbish, and dangerous rubbish.

‘If I were God, I would organize things this way rather than that way’ is not a meaningful principle of action in either theology or science. We struggle to understand a fact (we are not omniscient) but do not deny its status as a fact. Somebody may well know why copper sulphate is blue and not pink; I don’t, but I accept that it is so, that all my wishing won’t change it, and get on with my life.

Some of this, I suppose, must go back to old William of Ockham; a thing is what I say it is. I say it is a baseball bat, you say it is a club. I suppose it’s Berkeley, too, trees falling in woods making no noise and all that. When Ronald Knox answered that amusing limerick about the tree that continued to be when there is no-one around in the quad, he said something very important. For the Catholic, and, indeed, for the theist, the fact is that things have their ontological nature not because you, or I, or Parliament, or a General Synod say so, but because God says so. This is what gives stability to human thought and society; and to science too. It assures me that the cosmos is a unity subject to ‘laws’, that its functioning is not an accident, but is both observable and reliable. This makes science possible, and makes theology something equally stable that I can have a growing relationship with.

The Catholic point is that you cannot hive off part of reality and make it subject to a vote. Phrases such as ‘it’s my truth’ are meaningless.


Fr William said...

"Last time round", as we A-Cs say (i.e. 1992 And All That), one recurrent "argument" by the proponents of the novelty was that Article XXVI ("Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament") ought to prevent us from supposing that any aspect of the person of the Minister might have a detrimental, much less invalidatory, effect upon the sacramental life of the Church. In vain did we protest that the moral status – the worthiness or unworthiness – of women ministers was neither in principle germane nor in practice under question.

You express well (sadly, nineteen years too late!) the extent to which we were arguing at cross-purposes with our opponents, and too often (and too easily) allowing our "is"s to be confused with their "ought"s. In the present stage of the long-running controversy, it would be useful to be able to make common cause with the Ugley Vicar and his Evangelical colleagues, but I do wonder if they realise how attempting to deal with the issue at the prescriptive level renders unstable and interpretatively subjective the case that we both (A-Cs and Conservative Evangelicals alike) are seeking to make.

Anonymous said...

Galileo's not embarrassing.

Wrong is what he is - it's simply not possible to prove heliocentrism empirically. It's not the sort of thing susceptible to empiricle demonstration.