Thursday 28 December 2017

On whose authority?

Like some of you, I don't find this particular pontificate easy, and I have really tried (see earlier posts). I have been rebuked on Facebook by some (and one in particular) who say that since the Holy Father is chosen by the Holy Spirit, reluctance to embrace all the teaching of the present Pope suggests direct resistance to the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot one can say about that: for a start, if the Holy Father is always the candidate of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must have been somewhat distracted, let us say, in the tenth century. Cardinal Hume famously said in 1978 that Pope John Paul I was plainly the candidate of the Holy Spirit—that same Holy Spirit who presumably changed his mind 33 days later.

On other people's part, there is also a temptation to identify authority's embrace of their own opinions as 'the work of the Holy Spirit.' We have seen plenty of that at work in the General Synod of the Church of England when one or other item of traditional doctrine has been shelved 'by the Holy Spirit'. All that means is simply that someone thinks the right decision has been made and wants to claim Divine approval.

For some people the unfamiliar path marked out by Pope Francis is a strong test of faith, as, no doubt, were the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for those of a more liberal persuasion. Does God continue to guide his Church or not? And if so, how?

A parishioner in her very early twenties texted me, distraught, when that letter clarifying what claimed to be the correct interpretation of that footnote in Amoris Lætitia made it to the Acta Apostolicæ Sedis. To her and others it seemed to shake their faith in the Church. I had to reply with a kind of 'calm down, dear'. Frankly, the publication in AAS didn't shake me so much as annoy me. It was irresponsible, not a catastrophe.

What is unthinkable is that Divine Providence would simply have abandoned the Church and left her to her own devices. Perhaps what we need to do is to look at our own presuppositions and ask whether we have got it right. What really is the Holy Spirit trying to teach us in (and perhaps by) this pontificate?

Put simply, I think what is happening is that Ultramontanism is now finally being put into its coffin. It's been a long time a-coming, and its demise was delayed far beyond its normal sell-by date due to the abnormally high quality of most of the various incumbents who have filled the shoes of the fisherman since the mid-nineteenth century. They have led us to expect high-quality teaching that did indeed seem to come straight from the mouth of God.

Truly it seemed as if the Pope's job was to tell us what to believe. He was the earthly shepherd of Christ's flock, striding out while we followed along behind. Or, to change the metaphor, he taught the faith to the bishops, who taught it to the priests, who taught it to the laity who took it to their friends and colleagues. It is as if the Pope was the locus wherein lay the fulness of God's active Word, the fons et origo (on earth, anyway) of Divine truth.

Back in the 1970s, despite a decade of Papal indecision and inaction, Ultramontanism was still alive and well. I stopped believing in it in the mid-eighties. Pope John Paul seems to have believed strongly in it—a cardinal is supposed to have gently suggested abdication once he (JP) was no longer able to walk. The Pope replied firmly 'I don't need two functioning legs to rule the Church!' That made me very uncomfortable, that he saw his role as 'ruling' the Church in that very positive way. I can see why the system might appeal to some from the United States, where strong personal rule is valued in a president (an American friend of mine didn't take to the gentler Benedict: 'John Paul, now, he really kicked ass!') and now we have become accustomed to it.

But is it right? Is that what Christ intended for his Church? I rather suspect that the answer is no, and that we can be grateful to Pope Francis for helping us to see that. I wish I could think of a kinder way of putting this, but it seems as if we have now the reductio ad absurdum of Ultramontanism. You have to believe X because this particular pope teaches X.

It begs the question, though, about what is the locus, the earthly fons et origo of the truth into which our Lord promised that we should be guided by the Holy Spirit?

I'll discuss that in another post.

Monday 7 August 2017

Augustine and Beards

There seems to be quite a row blazing about whether St Augustine was black or not. Does it actually matter? The proposition was first made to me some thirty years ago, and even then I thought it odd, but not in any way objectionable. Some (including Brown, Augustine's most prestigious biographer) have thought that Monica was a Berber name (for those who don't know, that was St Augustine's persistent Mum), but Patricius (his Dad) has a Latin name—though perhaps a rather noveau-riche Latin name (effectively meaning Posh Guy). One thinks of people who call their sons Duke or Lord. This might suggest a lower-middle-class aspiring to poshness. But it says nothing about skin-colour.

I don't personally think Augustine would have very likely been black, any more than most Tunisians and Algerians today are black, if what you mean by black is sub-Saharan black. But of course it isn't impossible, because the Roman Empire mixed all sorts of people up. It placed soldiers all over the Empire in different places from where they were born precisely to provide a genetic or rather ethnic mix in which people would identify as 'Roman' rather than as Palmyran, or Egyptian, or British. The Roman Empire didn't spread into sub-Saharan territory, but it certainly captured slaves and employed mercenaries from there, who would have spread throughout the territories. Unlike slaves in the Southern States of the US, Roman slaves could be, and frequently were, freed, and were then able to set themselves up as businessmen, their descendants becoming citizens, often wealthy and influential ones. The issue was your willingness to buy into the Roman thing, not the colour of your skin. So Patricius could well have been the son of a freed slave, sub-saharan or not. But the probability is against it, I think. Yet why on earth would it worry anybody at all if it were to be found so? A Roman would have had far more problems with me, a descendent of the extra-terratorial, therefore barbarian, Irish, than with a black Augustine.

Here I want to stand up on my hind legs and come to the defence of Professor Mary Beard. In my view she is one of the most illuminating and intelligent teachers of Roman History around these days. As some of you may know, I teach early Church History in a seminary, to trainee priests, and I start the course by asking my students to watch her BBC series on Roman History; the fact that the BBC Store no longer will allow us access to the items we have purchased is deeply distressing, because her course on Rome without Limits was the most wonderful introduction to a Church History course. There are other people around (I won't name names!) who start with their conclusions and then go in search of the evidence, ignoring anything contrary. Television abounds with them. Mary Beard is not one of them. She is not only amazingly erudite, she has the ability to teach, too, without patronising her audience. She doesn't try to bolster a weak argument by provocative dress (or lack thereof), or hop on right-on bandwagons. She is an honest and amazing historian, who deserves our profound respect even if we don't agree with everything she says. Nuff said.

Sunday 30 July 2017


Cardinal Sarah's comments on the convergence of the two forms of the Roman Rite have drawn much comment around the Interweb, not least on the subject of the Lectionary. It goes without saying that I believe the OF can be much improved by the EF; how about the other way around?

I am not one of those who is an 'immobilist', in Fr Mark Drew's memorable word, meaning those who think that there can be no improvement whatever to the traditional rites. But I have a deep reluctance to start tinkering under the bonnet: that has been tried and found to be not particularly successful, not least in my own lifetime. Our Church is a 'we' Church, and that 'we' embraces not only those alive today, but those in Purgatory and in Heaven. Our liturgy has to embrace that 'we-ness', and a liturgy designed only for those of one particular age risks cutting adrift from its moorings. Our liturgy expresses the unity of the Church across space and across time. It is the cry of the whole people of God to its maker, the nuptial song of the Bride to her Groom. It is fundamentally transcendent, going beyond itself, focussing not on pleasing itself, but on pleasing its Spouse.

So making things more entertaining, if I can put it like that, needn't, perhaps shouldn't, be part of the recipe.

Let's consider the Lectionary. A lot of erudite stuff has been floating around recently: Cardinal Sarah's proposal hasn't been received very favourably. At root is the fact that we see the purpose of the Lectionary differently these days. Now we consider it didactic, an opportunity for people to learn from the Word of God Itself. The homily is intended to reinforce that lesson. Yet the more ancient liturgies don't use the Scriptures like that in the Liturgy; many of them have very restricted Lectionaries indeed. The Ethiopian, for instance, confines itself to a handful of Gospel passages and a few bits of St Paul, among which the priest selects whatever he likes. This is because the purpose of the readings is not didactic, but is instead considered an Epiphany of God the Word, a precursor to the coming of God the Bread of Life later in the celebration. Teaching about what the Scriptures contain takes place outside the Eucharist. It's a different mindset.
Certainly other rites had a much richer Lectionary than the Ethiopic, not least the Roman. But teaching was not considered part of the function of the Lectionary really until the Reformation. The Mediæval lectionary was richer simply because the Mediæval liturgy was richer; they thought that richness was a good thing in itself.
When Cyril and Methodius sought a Slavonic liturgy, Rome granted permission as long as the Scriptures continued to be read only in Hebrew, Latin or Greek—precisely the inverse of what we might have thought today. Then, it was considered that the Scriptures should be read only in the three languages which appeared on the titulus of the Cross. A vernacular liturgy was thought less inappropriate than vernacular scriptures.
It is generally acknowledged that parts of the Roman Lectionary are very ancient indeed. Catacomb ancient, in fact. Even the new Lectionary acknowledges this in part, preserving carefully the early Lenten cycle of readings.
Arguments can be made about content: the new Lectionary appears to skirt around difficult passages, for instance, but to my mind this is less important than the change to a didactic purpose to the readings. It goes hand in hand with an insistence on preaching on every possible occasion. Priests really shouldn't be forced to preach; very few of us can do it at all well! I try to avoid preaching whenever I can, because I think that actually bad preaching does more harm than no preaching. I suspect that we are loading far too much onto the Mass right now, which should be simply the worship of God; our small space where we can allow Him to Be in our lives, without being distracted (or possibly bored) by lesser matters such as Fr X's latest twenty-minute variation on 'God is Love' and How Awful Everything Used To Be Before the Nineteen-Sixties (something utterly foreign to anyone born before 1970).
I would resent a full rewrite of the EF Missal lectionary, still less would I welcome an uncritical adoption of the current OF lectionary. But I would not resent an optional widening of the traditional lectionary: what I mean is a provision of a weekday selection of readings, so that one would not be obliged to read the same readings several times on successive days. In fact, such an arrangement was made in the 1960s for a few years; I even have a copy of the lectionary. It isn't perfect, but it's pretty good.
I might come back to this, but I wanted to jam down some preliminary thoughts.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

We are Church

I've been turning over in my mind the proposition that Pope Francis may have some providential role to play in the Church's life. I have to come clean and say that I cannot warm to the man. But in the Scriptures, and in the Church's history, many times have uncongenial people performed unpleasant but necessary tasks which in the long run have benefitted the People of God.

This morning I saw on Facebook a page alleging that Pope Francis had decried the idea that a Christian might have a personal relationship with Jesus. To underline the point, the poster had included a short video clip from a public audience where indeed Pope Francis did say just that…but went on immediately to add 'in private, without also being a member of the Church, the people of God'. In other words, he was exactly right, and the person who had created that post had done a wicked thing, twisting the Pope's words to make him appear to say something very different.

For a long time (maybe mid-nineteenth century on) we have had a very top-down style of leadership. The Pope gives instructions to the bishops, who give instructions to the priests, who give instructions to the laity. I think it was Wilfrid Ward who longed to have a papal encyclical on his breakfast table every morning. Popes became charismatic figures who taught authoritatively on every subject (one thinks of those thousands [well it seems that way] of allocutions to midwives that Pope Pius XII was so fond of making).

The sixties changed all that; 'I've gotta be me, I've gotta do my thing!' People ceased to listen to the distressed bleats of Pope Paul VI and worked things out, each man (or woman) for him (or her) self. As St Paul warned, they wandered about with itching ears, finding teachers to suit their fancy.

Pope John Paul II changed this to some degree, largely by his own overwhelming personality. Once more, the Pope led the Church personally and in his case forcefully. It is said that when he lost the use of his legs the question was asked whether he was now capable of leading the Church. 'I don't need two functioning legs to rule the Church', he is supposed to have growled. At the time this comment struck me as worrying, but it has taken until now for things to gel in my mind.

Are Popes supposed to be absolute monarchs who rule by force of will and personality? I think that maybe American presidents do, for the years of their office, and that is why so many Americans warmed to John Paul II.

The other day I had a pub lunch with one of my Anglican opposite numbers. He is married to a Catholic, and has a woman assistant priest. I like him. He gently sounded me out about intercommunion and about women's orders, as I guessed he would. Fortunately, I had prepared my answer. I knew it couldn't be a hard answer, for that would close the issue off in his mind. So I simply said 'what I personally think about the subject doesn't matter, because in the Catholic Church theology isn't something *I* do, but something *we* do." And that *I* excludes every *I*, from the Pope down to the latest neophyte, whereas the *we* encompasses *every* Catholic Christian; not just those alive now, but those in Purgatory and those in Heaven. Chesterton called this the 'democracy of the dead'.

That gives nobody the right to innovate in his *own* name, except, perhaps, the theoretical right possessed by the Pope to teach infallibly in certain very circumscribed circumstances. Even the famous proclamations of our Lady's Immaculate Conception and Assumption were acts of the *whole* Church: the belief of the living Church was assessed, and the discussions of the past were investigated.

I think this is why Pope Benedict tried to change the character of the papacy. He was never a man for outward show, and I rather suspect that the red shoes and mozzettas were more of a penance to him than anything else. But he saw that he could never dominate the Church like his predecessor: a young American friend of mine didn't really think much of that: he once commented approvingly 'Pope John Paul really kicked ass!' That wasn't Benedict's way; he reminded us that a pope is supposed to be a gardener, rather than an engineer. He has a hieratic function at the centre of the family; he has a particular role, outwardly expressed by liturgical rite and particular dress. But he is not an absolute monarch, even an enlightened one.

Pope Francis sees it differently; he has something personally authoritative to say on practically every subject. Is that really his job? Is that really any Pope's job? This is why I get so uncomfortable when I hear people say things like 'you've got to get with the Pope's programme: he's the Pope, after all, and if you don't do what he says, you're disobeying Christ!' Maybe this is why we have Pope Francis: I hesitate to write this, but maybe he is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the notion of a monarchical papacy.†

Not even the Pope can do theology alone. After all, *WE are Church*.

† just as there are those who consider that Donald Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a monarchical presidency.