Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Case of the Forgetful Saint

And it shall come to pass after this, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Moreover upon my servants and handmaids in those days I will pour forth my spirit.
Joel 2:28-29

About 20 years or so ago when I was a new Catholic I was more than slightly sceptical about the various stories or legends surrounding many Saints. In particular the miracles and visions which were directly or indirectly associated with them seemed to me for the most part far fetched. This week I have been reading Blessed John Henry Newman's Essays On Miracles and it recalls to my mind how and why my attitude began to change. I haven't yet finished the essays but Newman has made one salient point about the different attitudes towards miracles associated with the Church (Ecclesiastical miracles) which have been expressed on the one hand by Christians of the Reformation traditions (often called Protestants) and on the other by Catholic Christians. Protestants accept the miracles which are recorded in the Scriptures but for the most part deny those associated with the Church in subsequent eras. Catholics not only accept the miracles in the Bible but also believe that in some way the miraculous will always be associated with the Church without denying that in many cases reported miracles are merely legendary or susceptible to non-miraculous explanations. Newman makes the point that the determining factor for belief in this or that miracle is not the evidence adduced for it but the attitude towards the Church which one takes as a starting point.

Protestants do not deny that God may well have worked miracles in this world  since the age of the Apostles. What they deny is that He associates the Church in any special way with this work of His. Indeed, insofar as miracles tend to confirm Catholic doctrines which Protestants reject, such as the invocation of Saints or the special honour accorded to the Blessed Virgin Mary, they must either be spurious or the work of the devil. Miracles are, they suppose, no more common among Catholics than they are among pagans or idolaters. Catholics, on the other hand, would argue that Jesus promised that special powers, particularly healing of the sick and exorcism would always be present with the Church, and that we would anticipate from prophecies like that of Joel that visionaries also would ever be associated with Catholicism. Each person then will evaluate the evidence presented to them in each particular case through the lens of their a priori expectations. Still more of course does this apply to those who deny any Divine agency at all who will simply decline to examine the evidence on the basis that their assumption tells them it must always and everywhere be false or misleading.

Thus far Newman. I think in one way, which I shall come back to, his argument is ultimately decisive but, as it happens, my path towards accepting the reality of a good many reported Ecclesiastical miracles and visions proceeded less from my attitude towards the Church as such and more from the forgetfulness of St Bernadette of Lourdes. Her story is well known to many Catholics but for the benefit of those who are not familiar with it I shall speed-narrate my way through the most important points. In 1858 a poor, sickly and largely uneducated teenage girl, Bernadette Soubirous, reported seeing visions of a beautiful young woman in a small cave (grotto) near her home in Lourdes, a town in the French Pyrenees. On one occasion following the directions of the apparition Bernadette uncovered a spring which was previously unknown to her. On another when asked her name the young woman replied in the local dialect "que soy era Immaculada Councepciou" meaning "I am the Immaculate Conception" a title which the Church had only a few years previously definitively ascribed to Mary the mother of Jesus although, again, it was previously unknown to Bernadette. From within a few hours of its discovery the spring had become associated with inexplicable cures of diseases, taking this together with the honour in which the Catholic world held and holds the Virgin Mary Lourdes very quickly became a major pilgrimage centre. Today, indeed, it receives about seven million pilgrims a year. In the meantime Bernadette ceased having visions after a few short months and subsequently she became a nun in Nevers a French town some hundreds of miles from Lourdes where she died aged 35 in 1879.

I first became interested in our Saint in about 2000 when I heard the book Lourdes. Body and Spirit in the Secular Age by Ruth Harris being read. One of the threads running through it is the way that Bernadette moves from her brief role centre-stage ever more into the shadows symbolised by her departure to distant Nevers and her early death. There is an air of sadness about this, somewhat reminiscent of John the Baptist's comment about Jesus He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30) This admittedly is a sentimental response which perhaps deserves the rebuke which our Lord gave to St Peter thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men (Matthew 16:23) since there is no indication that either the Baptist or our Saint were ever less than joyful at the attention paid, respectively to our Lord or our Lady of Lourdes. Sentimental or not I became interested in Bernadette and subsequently read the scholarly biography by Therese Taylor Bernadette of Lourdes: her life, death and visions It is important, I think, to emphasise that this was an academic exercise and not a hagiography because it has some bearing on what follows.

Apart from my sympathy for the young visionary I approached her story with a number of other pre-conceptions. Firstly, as a Christian I accepted in principle that it was possible that from time to time God does intervene in human history via, among other means, miracles and visions sent by Him. Secondly, I did not feel at all obliged to accept that He actually had done on any particular occasion since the heroic age of the Church. I had, moreover, a frankly elitist approach approach to Lourdes specifically; thinking that the pilgrims and believers in our Lady of Lourdes tended to be either poorly educated or especially credulous or both. As I became immersed in the life of the young visionary I was very forcibly struck by the girl's character. Bernadette was a transparently honest and straightforward person. She was possessed of a lively sense of humour but not of an equally lively imagination. It is important to note that time and again after she had started encountering the apparition she refused, often indignantly, offers of money or other material benefits for herself or her family which poured in to her. At one point her brother ran a stall selling holy memorabilia, a lucrative occupation shared then and now by many Lourdais, and Bernadette absolutely forbade him to operate on a Sunday thus significantly reducing the profitability of the operation. Thus, there could be no reason to suppose that she invented the story in order to profit from it.

Sister Marie Bernard, as she became in the convent, was one of the most examined and prodded about women in France at one point. The unanimous conclusion of all who examined her was that she was of sound mind. no symptoms of mental illness or a propensity to hallucination was ever discovered in her. So there could be no reason to suppose that mental unbalance had led to her to report her visions which were confined to a few weeks of one year of her life. Both in Lourdes and at Nevers she was frequently sought out as the seer of the Mother of God, a distinction which plainly irritated her and which she developed considerable skills in avoiding. So there could be no reason to suppose that a desire for notoriety had prompted her to report her experiences. On the basis of all the evidence about her character the only reasonable conclusion to which a person could come, in my opinion, is that she saw something which nobody else could see and then she reported as honestly as possible what she had seen. The question which remains is did she report accurately or did she cast into a form acceptable to her culture and religion a phenomenon which was not exactly as she described it? Therese Taylor makes the point that in the Pyrenean region there are a number of shrines to our Lady and stories circulating about her appearances which contains many similar elements to those described by Bernadette, a grotto, a spring, miraculous healings and so on. Our Saint's subconsciousness may have processed this material and combined it with whatever phenomenon it was that she saw to produce the story which so electrified Catholic France and scandalised secular France.

This naturalistic explanation is not only plausible but, I suspect, for atheists and hard core anti-Catholics the only possible narrative account if you discount the possibility of Bernadette being a liar or in some way mentally ill. Against it though stands the collateral evidence independent of Bernadette herself, by which I mean the inexplicable cures associated with the spring and the shrine of the grotto. From the beginning doctors, including robust sceptics were all over these claims like a rash and some of them can be discounted as of doubtful veracity or purely psychosomatic. there remains though a definite residuum of purely physical diseases which have been cured immediately. These the rationalists account for by saying either that science cannot explain them yet but one day it will be able to, which is a faith statement if ever I heard one, or that they exhibit a syndrome known as 'spontaneous remission' which is a fancy way of saying 'miraculous.' The combination of Bernadette's testimony and the related emergence of inexplicable cures mutually reinforce each other and lend weight to the likelihood that the Mother of God really did appear to that little girl in Lourdes.

The datum which finally convinced me, however, was the drama of the last few weeks and months of the life of Sister Marie Bernard. From her youth Bernadette had a very poor memory, she had been delayed in her progress through school and catechism classes as a result of this. As it became apparent that her life was soon to end she was constantly badgered by those who planned to write histories of the events and were desperate to get a full account of the story of the apparitions. Again and again she was questioned about them. This was not only a trial to her, as we can well imagine, but they added another dimension to her suffering. "My God", she said to her fellow nuns "what if I should forget?" With most people when they tell a story about their lives find that with each repetition the story grows longer and longer and more details, accurate or not, are added in. This is rarely an outright process of lying usually it is the simple effect of a normal human imagination dwelling upon a sequence of events which we place in the past. Elements that we think should be in it find their way in, things that we ought to have said it turns out that we did say and so on. With Bernadette though her story got shorter and shorter as she just forgot details and was unwilling to fill in the gaps in her memory with any old thing. The concessions she made to her forgetfulness by simply saying "I don't remember" seem to me to be the hallmarks of an honest person trying as hard as possible to recall an actual event and preferring to be thought of as stupid rather than say anything about it which she could not remember.

So, taken together accepting the possibility of a Divine Agency at work in the world,  the character (and memory) of the witness or witnesses, and the existence of collateral evidence could serve to act as persuasive arguments in favour of any claim to the miraculous or the visionary. However, they may be a necessary basis but they are an insufficient one. Which brings us back to Newman's suggestion that our prior attitude to the Church plays a decisive role in the decision we come to about a claim. It is certain that if we look across the history of the world we will see a number of cases where witnesses are unimpeachable and collateral evidence of some kind exists but yet the visionaries or miracle workers say things which are mutually incompatible. For example Baha’u’llah a contemporary of Bernadette's and the founder of the Baha'i faith was clearly an honourable and noble man who reported seeing visions and of whom it was reported that he performed miracles. Yet, despite Baha'i claims to the contrary, his religion is radically incompatible with the Catholic faith. We need therefore a standard by which to judge such things. The Scriptures say believe not every spirit, but try the spirits if they be of God (1 John 4:1) And the highest possible standard by which to judge anything is Jesus, His person and His revelation. Any purported vision or miracle which is compatible with that standard may be worthy of belief (though the Church compels no one to accept any post-Apostolic revelation) and any which is not so compatible cannot be accepted. This implies no dishonesty on the part of visionaries nor even necessarily denies the presence of Divine agency, it merely supposes that at the least they have misunderstood the significance of what they have seen and heard. And the only sure custodian of that revelation is that body to which it was made, the Apostles and their successors, that is to say the Bishops of the Catholic Church united around the See of St Peter the Prince of Apostles and his successor the Bishop of Rome.

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Sunday 27 July 2014

Miley Cyrus & the Bible Scholars

                                               James Tissot 1836 – 1902

                        Michal Despises David

The dead do not praise the Lord,
    nor do any who go down into silence.
18 But we will bless the Lord
    from this time forth and for evermore
Psalm 115(113) 17-18

[NB I start with the scholars and work up to Miley, please be patient]

There is really no limit to the number of different tools we can use to analyse the Bible with. Paramahansa Yogananda, for example, in his Autobiography of a Yogi reads it from his perspective as telling us that Jesus and St Paul were advanced practitioners of Kriya Yoga. Muslims tend to see it as being the prelude to the Quran in the sense that the passages they agree with are inspired and the ones they disagree with are but human inventions. In the West though, since the 19th century the dominant analytical tool favoured by the intellectual classes is the historical-critical method. Essentially this looks at the texts in the context of the history of the societies that produced them. Using archaeological evidence and other artifacts from the same era it produces descriptions and hypotheses which explain the Bible in quite radically different ways from those of traditional Christianity which very often took the Scriptures at face value.

Knowledge is A Good Thing and facts are Good Things but the historical-critical method of the Bible scholars has its limitations. Firstly it is worth noticing the word I just used 'hypotheses.' Many scholars take the facts which they have to hand, weed out the ones they regard as irrelevant or doubtful, and weave around them a narrative which accounts for the facts they have chosen. This is reasonable enough and other scholars challenge these hypotheses posing alternative accounts instead. The problem here is that non-scholarly people, either perfectly ordinary human beings or journalists, can take one or other of these hypotheses as Gospel and assume it must be true because its based on science and science always beats religion. That is, they attribute to it a degree of certainty which the historian advancing it does not herself necessarily claim for it.

Secondly, academics make the prior assumption that all descriptions in Scripture which require Divine intervention or miracles must necessarily be either false or a radical misreading by the Bible authors of perfectly natural phenomena. God is excluded from the Scriptures as an active participant and reduced to the role of an idea which existed in the minds of the Bible characters. Again this is reasonable enough if you happen to be an atheist, agnostic or deist but those who think it plausible or more than plausible that there is a God and that He has intervened in human history will find this approach inadequate.

Christianity is not at war with truth. The historians have done valuable work in recovering data about the ancient world and enhancing our understanding of it. We have much to be grateful for in this, it enables us to understand the context of Scriptural events much more clearly than when we had only the Scriptures themselves to rely upon. We can accept the tools which they use and use them as well, some scholars in this field are also priests, monks or nuns, but this does not prevent us from using other tools as well, those tools provided for us by our faith and by two thousand years of reflection upon the Bible as a spiritual text and a record of God's revelation of Himself to humanity. Being a Christian does not deprive us of the works of scholarship but it enables us to give an extra dimension to them. In this context the historians are like people who cleverly and accurately analyse a photograph of Miley Cyrus. Everything they say about the picture may be true nonetheless they are doing something different from what those who report back on meeting with Miley do. Those who have had a personal encounter can talk about the sound of her voice, whether she is quick to laugh or not, what scent she was wearing and so on. A photograph is an inanimate object, Miley Cyrus is a living, breathing, dancing, singing person. And so it is with Christians and the Scriptures, they are not simply a record of stuff that happened long ago and far away, they are part of a living relationship here and now. The dead-record part of it is helpful so far as our minds go but not necessary to our hearts.

Which brings us to Psalm 115 (numbered as 113 in some Bibles) [NB don't worry I haven't finished with Miley yet] The historians inform us that at the time that this psalm was written the Jews had no notion of a general resurrection. Therefore the only people who could praise the Lord were those who happened to be alive so that this verse represents a straightforward bargain, 'if you want to be praised keep us alive.' The belief was that the dead descended to a dreary underworld, sheol, where they led a shadowy existence but took no thought for God or anything else. Whilst this may be an accurate description of the state of religion in the time of the Temple of Solomon it does not exhaust the possibilities to be found in our psalm.

The psalms are traditionally ascribed to King David. He is a very interesting figure, arguably the Miley Cyrus of his day given his propensity to dance half naked at important ceremonies (2 Samuel 6:14.) Like Miley he provoked severe criticism, in this case from his wife, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (2 Samuel 6:20) To which David replied "I will make merry before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honour.” And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death. (2 Samuel 6:21-23)  

Now, the scholars in telling us about the absence of an ancient Jewish belief in resurrection in relation to our verse in Psalm 115 take as a given that we have a shared understanding of what it means to 'bless the Lord.' But do we? David's understanding of it led him to his near naked dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant and his promise to Michal to do more of the same. The reference to her childlessness gives us the contrast between the life and liveliness of blessing the Lord on the one hand and her dead womb from which no fruit can come on the other. That is, David has found in his personal experience a metaphor which he subsequently worked into his poetry. Poets do not always mean what they appear to mean when they use words and academic historians are not always well qualified to analyse poetry. Incidentally, you might think that it was a mean thing to curse Michal with childlessness just because of this but the Bible doesn't say that that is what happened.

Another contrast between singing and dancing as a form of praise and death as silence is to be found in the figure of Miriam the sister of Aaron and Moses.  Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20-21) This is in the immediate aftermath of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) closing in on the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh after it had opened to allow the Israelites to pass through. There is, perhaps, something gruesome to the modern mind in the sight of women dancing and making merry over so much death and destruction, once cannot imagine Miley doing it for example. However the rejoicing is about life, not death. The army had the objective of annihilating the Israelites, without Divine intervention Miriam and the women around her would have died possibly after being raped. They are celebrating being alive and they are praising their Saviour. At first sight this is a straightforwardly neat fit with psalm 115 as the scholars interpret it but one explanation does not necessarily exclude another. Here it is worth noting that the author of Exodus reminds us that Miriam is a prophetess which invites us to consider her words and actions with more attention. Is there a prophetic dimension to her actions here? From the perspective of the sister of Aaron the priest and Moses the prophet and Lawgiver Miriam is well aware that the value of Israel does not consist of their bare lives as weighed against the lives of any other group of humans. Their extra-value springs from their covenant with the One God, they are the custodians of His revelation, they have a role to play being His ambassadors to the world. Only those within Israel are alive to God all those outside of Israel are dead to Him. Hence her song of triumph is not simply about the survival of her tribe it is also about the survival of the People of God, as long as there is such a People they will live and praise Him and as long as there are those outside this People they will be dead and tongueless before Him.

Christianity has another proposition to make which Bible scholars cannot go along with [NB I'm going to do some Jesus stuff here but more Miley coming up later] It is that the Old Testament should be read by looking through the lens of the New Testament. That is to say, that within the OT we can see in shadowy forms or prototypes the seeds of the revelation which came to full fruition in Jesus. The understanding which we can bring to this or that passage, such as our psalm verse, is based on what we now know and we are not restricted to interpreting it in the light of the beliefs that were held when it was written. Because, Christians would argue, the Bible as a whole was inspired by the Holy Spirit each part of the OT can be thought of as being multilayered. This means that it is possible for us to accept that David really did think that only those alive in the world could praise God and still argue that the Spirit intended us to understand it in a different sense to the way its author understood it.

An alternative explanation would have two parts. So far as the psalm relates to the pre-Gospel times it is strictly accurate. Those who died in the time before Jesus went into a sort of sheol-like limbo. They continued to exist but in a shadowy kind fashion, awaiting the time when Jesus through His Passion, Death and Resurrection would open the gates of heaven and lead the souls of the Just into the Kingdom of God. As things are now our verse acquires a new depth of meaning. Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead" (Luke 9:60) Clearly this means that there are certain ways of being living which do not equate to being alive. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. (Matthew 22:11-12) The psalm links death to silence, here we have someone who is silent before the king. The Christian notion here is that those who refuse the wedding garment offered them have no place at the wedding banquet. They are dead to it although living and they are silent although capable of speech. By contrast, those who accept both the invitation to the wedding and the free gift of a wedding garment are alive and more than alive and they have hearts as well as tongues which both speak and sing.

While I was thinking about this blog I went for a walk and found myself wandering through the very large cemetery here in Exeter in the South West of England. It was a sunny day and I walked slowly past old barely legible gravestones from the century before last and recent memorials to those who have died in the last few years. My mind turned, as it often does, to my parents who are also numbered among the dead. It occurred to me then that there is yet another way to understand this psalm. Whenever I recall my parents, pretty much a daily event, I never fail to feel grateful that I knew them and loved them and was loved by them. They continue, in a sense, to be present to me as a blessing, a praise, to that source of life from which they came and to which they have returned. Only the beloved can live in this way. Those who go down into silence are those whose memories have no resonance of praise and thanksgiving. Those whom we forget or recall only with hatred are truly dead but the loved live for as long as we do which is, for us, forever. And it applies not only to parents of course. It may be that 70 or 80 years from now there will be no one living who recalls seeing a picture of Miley Cyrus but she will still live on in the faithful heart of a teenager of today who saw her, met her, encountered her, heard the sound of her laughter and the song of her voice. Death cannot eclipse a life in which love is present.

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Wednesday 23 July 2014

Gays, Abortion, Women's Rights- Is the Church Out of Touch?

                        Image: Gustave DorĂ© - 'The New Zealander' illustration from 'London: a Pilgrimage' by Blanchard Jerrold

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable....Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.
Thomas Babington Macaulay 

The position of the Catholic Church on many of the more contentious issues of our time is very clearly laid out and easily accessible. Notwithstanding which most of her critics seem to rely upon second- or third- hand summaries of them provided by enemies of the Church whenever they decide to comment upon them. I do not propose here to enter directly upon a discussion of the merits of the Catholic point of view, instead I will focus on a secondary argument which is often deployed. This is to the effect that by taking the stands which she does the Church is rendering herself out of touch and irrelevant in the eyes of the public and above all those of the youth. The customary counter-argument is to point out that those Christian communities which have taken on board the opinions of the age in matters like LGBT rights are declining at at least the same rate as those which reject them. Even if this is true it is insufficient since it places too much reliance upon passing events which might after all change in the future. Instead I will suggest that this charge against the Church rests upon a number of assumptions which are inherently false. Specifically I mean:
-Ascribing too much importance to the Zeitgeist.
-Subscribing to the notion of inevitable and irreversible progress.
-The illusion of permanence
-A misunderstanding of the nature of truth.

Firstly, by zeitgeist is meant "the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time."
It seems to be the case that this defining spirit in most Western countries and in the chattering classes of other countries includes a commitment to a whole canon of issues such as free access to abortion, ordination of women, the idea that same-sex relationships are more or less identical to heterosexual ones and so on. The Church by taking a distinctive stand on such matters stands accused, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, of failing to "get with the programme." I think it is quite accurate to say that Catholicism is out of sympathy with the zeitgeist in some parts of the world but that is less of a problem than her opponents imagine.

Except in quite exceptional circumstances history is made by activist minorities. Most people most of the time are intensely absorbed in their own concerns. They tend to express opinions on broader matters about which they care little through the simple process of repeating what others have said. As an example I will look at the change in reported social attitudes towards same-sex relationships which has occurred in the UK during the course of my lifetime. When I was younger the prevailing feeling was that these were, on the whole, A Bad Thing and people tended to feel mildly hostile to them. Within that consensus was a minority who were very strongly hostile and another minority who were either homosexual themselves or very strongly supportive of homosexuals. Today the prevailing feeling is that these relationships are A Good Thing and that people tend to feel mildly positive about them. Two different cohorts of the population here are worth thinking about. Those of my generation (I admit to being 51 at time of writing) have mostly got with the programme. However, even the most committed liberal optimist would probably not suggest that in each of the several million people in question this 180 degree change was effected after a period of soul searching and deep thought. In most instances they have simply trimmed their sails to the wind on a subject that doesn't deeply interest them. The cohort of the young, as you would expect, is thoroughly imbued with the zeitgeist. However there is little doubt that in most case they hold as firmly to it as my generation held to theirs which is to say hardly at all. What has happened over the course of some three or four decades is that power and influence has slipped out of the hands of one activist minority and fallen into the hands of another. That is how history happens. To rest any kind of prediction about social attitudes going forward, however, on the zeitgeist is simply to mistake a possibly temporary victory for a fundamental change of some kind.

The idea of 'Progress' is itself part of the zeitgeist in much of the world. It rest also on the more secure foundation of being a philosophical conviction which is at the heart of the Left, Social Liberal weltanschauung. Briefly the idea is this; civilization progresses from a lower state to a higher one over time. This does not just mean that it's technological level continually rises, it means that its core values undergo a continual evolution towards ever more perfect expressions of the human spirit. The perfectibility of Man is an article of faith of this creed. Since Man can become perfect it follows that human societies can become perfect and that, led by wise liberals, it definitely shall become perfect. History becomes an unfolding map recording humanity's gradual progress towards its final goal. Since Progress has its enemies, reactionaries who cling to the old ways for self-interested motives, its advance takes the form of a series of battles some bloody, some in the realm of ideas. Despite the odd defeat along the way the line of march is inevitable and irresistible. This set of ideas, this sunny optimism, was the openly expressed view of many, such as the Science Fiction author H.G. Wells, at the beginning of the 20th century. The events of those troubled hundred years and since have rather silenced these transports of delight. Probably most contemporary Social Liberals if challenged would state that victories were neither inevitable nor irresistible. Nonetheless the notion that they actually are both is a deep rooted emotional truth for the Left. Ask them to envisage the world in a couple of centuries from now and they will reproduce a version of today's Sweden or Holland only more so. Societies where old folk hold leaving parties before visiting the neighbourhood euthanasiast, where promiscuous sex without biological or emotional consequences happens all the time and (more commendably perhaps) where healthcare is free and first class at the time of need, where poverty, unemployment and wars are things of the distant past as is religious belief in all its forms. Essentially it is a working out to the end of the impulse which was commenced by the the French Revolution in 1789.

There are several drawbacks to this vision. The most important one is this idea of the perfectibility of Man. It is in some ways a mutation of the Christian idea of the redeemability of Man. This holds that each person without exception is capable of being redeemed by the saving power of God and transformed into a new creature, a saint, who then, among other things, contributes to society in a generous and self-sacrificing spirit. The necessary corollary to this belief is that each person stands in need of redemption, that without such a transformation Man, wounded by the effects of Original Sin constantly yields to temptation and sins most grievously against their neighbours and themselves. The Liberal idea decouples Man from personal, internally experienced, concupiscence and lays the blame for imperfections in individuals primarily on external pressures usually caused by reactionaries. Remove the imperfections from society and you will remove the imperfections from man. This contributes to inevitable and irresistible progress because as each generation has one or more shackle removed from it its successors born into the new more perfect world and no longer subject to the external pressures of reactionaries on this or that issue as it is removed will no longer act imperfectly with regard to, say, race, sex, sexuality or the like. They will then resist any attempt to rollback history and the world can prepare to move on to the next level up by defeating the next enemy along in the chain of progress. In this scenario the Church, it is argued, so long as it remains attached to the values of a previous epoch will be left behind in the slipstream of progress and disappear altogether. Only if it attaches itself to the chariot of Progress does it have any prospect of survival.

The basic problem with this theory is the inadmissibility of it's central premise. Man is not perfectible. However society is ordered, whatever institutions are created or destroyed, however many reactionaries are defeated and despatched to the archives each individual human person from the moment of birth will be subject to the power of temptation. Selfishness, self-centeredness and narrowness of perspective are not impositions laid upon people by their environment, they are an inescapable part of human nature. They can only be defeated by a conscious personal act of the will prompted by the grace of God. That means, for the purposes of this discussion, that no political victory is ever final no triumph is irreversible. 'Progress' is a chimera which is every bit as likely to vanish away to the same place that the 'Divine Right of Kings' has already gone to. The failure of the Church to jump into the progressive bandwagon is not the one thing guaranteed to ensure it vanishing into oblivion, it is rather one of the things ensuring that it will do no such thing whatever may happen to that set of French Revolutionary ideas which are not even three centuries old yet.

The illusion of permanence. Another facet of the human personality is the persistent illusion that the way things are is the way that things will be. In the middle of summer it is difficult to imagine winter and vice versa. The 51 years which I admit to have been tumultuous ones in the history of humanity. I grew up in a world in which the Soviet Union and its allies were seemingly a permanent feature of the world and it seemed likely that their number would grow rather than diminish. A world where South Africa was ruled by only whites, where Israel was at war with its neighbours, where telephones were immobile, computers filled large sized buildings, Popes were always Italian, televisions were black and white, India and China were minor regional powers with small economies and so on and so forth. All but one of these things has changed beyond recognition. But where the map of the world has changed the map of the mind remains the same. We still expect tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today unless we are unfortunate enough to be in a war zone or fortunate enough to be about to give birth for the first time. One of the more powerful forces preventing people from turning to the spiritual is the illusion that what visibly surrounds us, the things of time, really matters and that what is invisible, the things of eternity, doesn't. We seek to transform the place in which we find ourselves into a permanent home and invest all that we have into making it perfect, believing that perfectibility is both possible and desirable. This is a transposition of the error of liberalism into private life. It is the fruit of an earthbound hope this earnest striving to make the space we inhabit into a paradise because we believe it possible to do so because we think we can make the transient permanent. One of the products of this illusion is that our vision of the world going forward is that it should and will contain the elements of the world as it now is. And to those who support the ideals of 'progress' or who accept the current zeitgeist the future, in the West at least, is one that contains free abortion on demand, artificial contraception, 'equal marriage' and so on for no more powerfully cogent reason than that that is what the present contains. And since the Church does not accept these things she will not be part of the future unless or until she 'gets with the programme.' I feel here that simply to state the case is to undermine it. Nothing is permanent, all things must pass. The programme can be interrupted.

The nature of truth. I never tire of restating this proposition- the Church is not the advocate of a philosophy, she is the steward of a Divine Revelation. What she proposes for belief is the truth about God and the things of God which she has received from God Himself most fully and completely in the person of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. Jesus Christ, yesterday, and to day; and the same for ever. (Hebrews 13:8) That being so her propositions though they may vary in form as the centuries roll by cannot, will not and should not vary in content. The world may believe what it will but where the beliefs of the world contradict the truths of Revelation then the world is wrong and the Church is right. It would be a grave dereliction of duty for the Church to turn aside from the straight path to pursue the world through its twists and turns of fashionable belief and practice. More than that it would be a great act of folly. If the truth is indeed truthful then it will, in the end, always prevail. To attach herself to a chariot heading for the cliffs is no act of wisdom. There have been many epoch's in human history when the Church has been marginalised or subject to sustained assault. It is another cherished illusion of the Liberal Left to think that the history of the West consists of a period of unbroken dominion by Catholicism or its variants over society from the time of Constantine until the advent of universal education, the advance of science and the first triumphs of the spirit of the storming of the Bastille began to undermine her. Far from it, the Church has weathered stormier times than this without the opposition of these factors which are neither necessarily enemies of Christianity (education and science are positive goods) or of enduring significance (other -isms than liberalism once seemed unstoppable.) No, the Church has this promise behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28;20) and this I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18.) As long as the Church is in touch with the faith of the Apostles and true to her Divine Master then she is on the course marked out for her from the foundation of the world. She will neither disappear nor become irrelevant because Christ will do neither of these things and the Church is the Bride of Christ, His destiny is her destiny, thanks be to God.

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Monday 21 July 2014

Unbridled Lust

am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt:
open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.
11 But my people would not hearken to my voice;
and Israel would none of me.
12 So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust:
and they walked in their own counsels.
13 Oh that my people had hearkened unto me,
and Israel had walked in my ways!
14 I should soon have subdued their enemies,
and turned my hand against their adversaries.
Psalm 81(80) 10-14

Blood, vengeance, hatred, war, cursing and much more to the same effect seem to form the staple content of many of the psalms. Indeed The Young Person (in the Podsnappery sense) whose only acquaintance with the scriptures was the Book of the Gospel and the Book of Psalms might be forgiven for thinking that they referred to two different deities and two different spiritual paths. Such a Young Person would be surprised and probably discomfited  to discover that the psalms form the very heart of the corporate worship of the Church and the private devotions of many Christians. Surely some mistake they might think what has 'gentle Jesus meek and mild' got to do with all this dashing of children against rocks? [Psalm 137(136)] To descend to the particular, I was that Young Person dear reader. It struck me that this ancient practice of the Divine Office which gave so central a part to Hebrew poetry was a legacy from a more barbarous past with which the Church was now saddled but which could profitably be sidelined by individual believers. Eventually, though, it came into my mind that perhaps in such matters the Church possessed better judgement and greater wisdom than I did. So, in a modified version of Pascal's Wager, I essayed the experiment of making the psalms part of my daily prayer life. Over the course of time, day after day, year after year, I began in a sense to sink through the bony surface of them and enter into their marrow, discovering great underlying themes and ideas which can only be seen from the inside looking out never from the outside looking in. I fell in love with them because in them I discovered love.

As an aside it occurs to me that something similar could be said of the Quran. Non-Muslims who have never read it in its entirety or only read it once or twice in a lifetime will understand it in radically different ways from those within Islam who read from it and think about it every day. They will discern things in it from the inside looking out which are truly there for them though they do not appear to be so for those on the outside looking in. Of course the parallel is not exact since, from a Christian point of view, I do not suppose that the Quran is Divinely inspired in the same way that the Bible is. However, many of the Surahs, perhaps those especially written during the Meccan period while Khadija, the first wife of the founder of Islam, was alive, clearly proceed from a more or less accurate apprehension of the Unity of God and the relationship that man should have towards Him. This means that a person with right intentions looking for right meanings within the book has a good chance of finding them though they may find other things besides. Anyway, I digress and probably offend large numbers of both Christians and Muslims in the process.

Psalm 81 (numbered as 80 in some Bibles) is in some ways representative of the 'difficult' Psalms. The verses under consideration represent a summary from God's perspective of the Book of Exodus or more paradigmatically of God's relationship with His people Israel over all of history. It seems to suggest that if they do what He tells them they will receive in return substantial material rewards and their enemies (and Israel never runs out of enemies) will get a sound spanking. On the other hand if they don't do what they are told suffering will ensue. It is plausible, even likely, that the psalmist (traditionally King David) understood the psalm to mean what it appears to mean. It is certain that many generations of Israelites understood it in that way. However people can be unconscious agents of a deeper wisdom than they themselves possess and Christians would argue that the Holy Spirit inspired David to write (and sing) something which has an altogether more universal and less materialistic meaning.

We should in some measure approach the psalms in the same way that Sherlock Holmes approached a crime scene. The available data can easily and quickly be assembled to put together a satisfactory narrative which explains meaning and motive. But the official narrative is invariably wrong and like Holmes we should be alert for the single thread in the tangled skein, the one clue that enables us to unravel the mystery, put the unimaginative literally minded Scotland Yarders to shame and discover that important truth which will serve the good cause. Here the clue is in that passage which gives this blog its (slightly mischievous) title So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels. The enemy who defeats Israel is Israel itself.

The guidance which God proffered to the nation resolves itself into His presence dwelling in the hearts and minds of individual Israelites. This would be understood to be especially present in some individuals more than others, Moses, Aaron, the Prophets the Davidic Kings, but nonetheless present in all. Or, at least, in all who were willing to accept that gift, to "open wide their mouths."  When the gift was refused then the situation that our Lord later described became true For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29) Those who found even the nominal acceptance of the Law and the restriction of worship to one God too onerous to observe were granted their desire to be freed from the lightest touch of Divine grace. Without this presence people wander bewildered in a material world which can only be understood in terms of material desires and passions. The purpose of this kind of life lacks any ethical base and consists of a cycle of trying to fulfill desires whose outcome is invariably unsatisfactory leading to continuous repetition often in ever more extreme variations. As another aside it is worth pointing out that by absence of grace I do not simply mean absence of an explicit religious faith. An ethical life can be lived apart from faith but not apart from grace which is the invisible action which prompts ethical choices in all who make such whether they are aware of its presence or not.

Using this clue we can recast and reshape the narrative present in the psalm in spiritual terms which harmonise very well with the Gospel. The Lord appears as a lover urging His beloved to accept His gifts of grace, His agape-

We have seen that God's eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God's love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love.
Deus Caritas Est 10- Pope Benedict XVI             

David moves on to tell us that Israel, the beloved rejected their Divine lover and would not listen to Him. Which is, of course, a generalisation on his part by which he means that the overwhelming mass of Israelites rejected God although a faithful remnant ever remained, as it ever shall. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18) Left without the guidance of pure love Israelites, and you and me, act in ways which are guided by its opposite. Love is always about others, about giving, about service. Self-centredness is about Me, about taking, about reaping what we do not sow and letting the devil take the hindmost.

The Almighty, who has voluntarily limited His own power to grant His people freedom, then laments that He has been abandoned. This lament springs not from a sense of what He has lost, what can God lose, but what we have lost by relying upon ourselves alone, by trying to be as gods ourselves. And what have we lost? His aid in our battles against those powerful enemies who kill our souls (and often our bodies too) here in time and also in eternity. The enemies whose names are  wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Without His help they rule over us, the lesser has power over the greater, the body over the mind and spirit. With Him we can vanquish them and be as we should be, as Mary the mother of Jesus was.

It was not intuition that moved Sherlock Holmes to single out this or that fact from the mass and fashion his theory around it. He had a method, the science of detection. Christians looking at the psalms also have a method, the science of love. More specifically the lens through which we examine David, and all of the Old Testament, is the New Testament, is the figure of Jesus. By interpreting scripture that foreshadows the fulness of Divine revelation with the tools that that fulness gives us we can understand them as they are intended to be understood without pretending that they were so comprehended at the time they were written. Even so we can find that some psalms can range from 'difficult' to 'very difficult.' Holmes was an expert also on the history of crime. He was frequently led into the solution of a case by his previous knowledge of numerous similar cases. Likewise we have before us the history of 2000 years of Christian reflection upon the psalms. If we ourselves struggle to reconcile David with the Gospel then the fault lies not with the Holy Spirit who inspired both but with our own inadequate grasp of it. We should therefore turn to the commentaries upon those texts and their spiritual meaning which numerous saints and good Christians have written precisely for our benefit. There are also, incidentally, some modern commentaries based upon historical and textual criticism which seek to describe the psalms in purely mechanical ways as fitting into this or that cultic practice or crisis in Israel. These can usefully add to our knowledge of the history of the biblical epoch but serve no useful spiritual function. When we pray the psalms with the mind of the Church, which is the mind of Christ we can enter into them spiritually and the Spirit through them can enter into us and lead us into the Divine presence there to be fed with the finest wheat which is the Bread of Heaven, Jesus our Eucharist. He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat:
and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee. Psalm 80(81)    
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Tuesday 15 July 2014

Women Bishops & Catholicism

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.
Inter Insigniores

Normally this blog avoids current controversies. Partly this is because controversy gives rise to partisan spirit. People moved by an ardent enthusiasm for their party, faction or group are too prone to fall into the trap of thinking that it is more important to be right than it is to be kind. Any truth which relies upon unkindness to advance its cause is no truth at all. Partly also it is because being controversial is a great way of alienating people. The readership of this blog is perfectly formed in the sense that each person reading this is a uniquely wise and gentle individual. It is also, however, small and I have no great desire to make it smaller by leaping into a here-today-gone-tomorrow argument when the main purpose of this blog is about the deep love to be found in a close relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Nevertheless because I live in England the almost universal applause which greeted the recent decision by the local Anglican ecclesial community (the CofE) to 'ordain' women to the role of 'bishop' reminded me how little known and understood are the Catholic reasons for not applauding. I feel moved then to do my little bit to redress the balance. If it so happens that you in your turn feel moved to stop reading my blog because you fundamentally disagree with me then let me take this opportunity to thank you for your patience thus far and prayerfully wish you all the best for your future journey.

Many arguments cannot be characterised as debates in any meaningful sense of the word. The participants talk past each other because they are really talking about different things. In this case the advocates of women's ordination tend to advance their case on the grounds of equality and justice, the Catholic opponents advance theirs on the basis of authority and its limitations. I will come to equality later but will begin with the limits of authority because I suspect it is the least known and least understood category in the whole dispute.

In his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacredotalis Pope St John Paul II made this definitive statement  I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.  You might think 'he's the Pope, he has the authority to do whatever he likes.' but you would be wrong. The Catholic Church is the steward of a gift which she has received, she is not the author and mistress of a philosophy of her own devising. In the Nicene Creed she proclaims her belief that the Church is, among other things, Apostolic. This means that what the Church believes to be true about the revelation of God to man in the person of Jesus Christ are those things, and only those things which she received from the Apostles who were the companions of Jesus on His mission. Many of the doctrines which the Church proclaims and teaches to be true, such as the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary are only implicit in the deposit of faith. Centuries of reflection upon and debate about this deposit has led to the implications being drawn out ever more fully and expressed ever more clearly. Blessed John Henry Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine compares this process to a seed which grows into a tree, all the elements of the tree are present in the seed but many lifetimes may pass before the tree reaches the fullest extent of its development. Part of the stewardship role of the Church then consists in cultivating the Apostolic faith because it is a living thing rather than in preserving it unchanged as if it was a mere museum piece. But what the Church cannot, must not, do is introduce new doctrines which do not have their origin in that initial deposit of faith.

You might think 'why not? The world changes and the Church should change with it.' To which the answer is, and not for the first time on this blog, Yes and No. The world does change and since Christians have an obligation to evangelise the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ then they must always so far adapt themselves so as to make it possible for each new generation to hear, understand and accept that Gospel. God, however, does not change. The final word which He spoke in universal revelation to all humankind was contained in the person of Jesus. Nothing exists to be added to or taken away from that word, nothing can be more true, more sublime or more relevant. The Church, therefore, while always seeking to present that word as effectively as possible must be absolutely, unequivocally and unwaveringly faithful to it whatever the cost may be. The fullness of that revelation was summarised in the faith of the Apostles which the Catholic Church holds in the form of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Moreover our Lord gave this promise to the Apostles and implicitly to their successors the Bishops, behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:20) Which is understood to mean that the Saviour did not simply leave a set of teachings and a stellar example to His followers before disappearing off to heaven, His promise includes the continued presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the counsels of the Church. That is to say, whenever the Church is definitive about a subject concerning the faith which she has received, whether that be through an Ecumenical Council, an ex cathedra statement by the Pope or through the universal, unanimous,  unbroken and continuous teaching of the Church (the Magisterium,)  then the protection of the Spirit has the effect of ensuring that that teaching is infallibly a true and accurate understanding of the faith.

So what has this got to do with the ordination of women? Well, we know that Jesus only chose men to be Apostles but this is not crucial to the argument, His mission was very specifically to the Jewish community. However, the Apostles appointed successors to themselves, bishops, wherever they established Christian communities and their successors appointed successors and so on. There is no evidence that in the century or so after the first Pentecost that any of these bishops were women. And it is certainly the case that it has never been the universal practice of the church to appoint women as either bishops or priests. Given the wide geographic spread of Christianity even in its early days and the accompanying wide variety of cultures in which it operated there is no argument that in every case the idea of women priests was locally unacceptable as it would have been in Judea. In places where inhabitants were familiar with the idea of priestesses because the indigenous pagan cults had them Christians could have ordained their own women priests but did not do so. Despite the best efforts of advocates for women's ordination to prove otherwise there are no grounds for supposing that the Church at any point in its history would have countenanced such a practice had it been considered by an Ecumenical Council, a Pope or the Magisterium. Which brings us back to the limits of authority. If the deposit of faith had included an implicit notion that the priesthood and episcopate was open to both men and women then the Holy Spirit which guides the Church in such matters would have facilitated an expression of that notion somewhere within the practice of the Church at some point prior to the 20th century. That He has not done so leads us to conclude that the notion is not present and that therefore the Church does not have the authority to introduce it as if it had been.

Before looking at the question of equality and the idea that ordaining women is A Good Thing regardless of obscure theological quibbling I will touch on what all this has to do with the CofE. It is popularly supposed that at the time of the 'Reformation' a new religion was established in England which ousted the old religion of Catholicism and replaced it with a new body called the CofE. Anglicans however do not, at least officially, see it that way. They define their faith as Catholic and Reformed and affirm that they believe essentially the same things that the Church believed prior to the 'Reformation,' they are not a new body but a continuation of the old one purged of irrelevant accretions, superstitions and distortions. Their website says this-

"The religious settlement that eventually emerged in the reign of Elizabeth I gave the Church of England the distinctive identity that it has retained to this day. It resulted in a Church that consciously retained a large amount of continuity with the Church of the Patristic and Medieval periods in terms of its use of the catholic creeds, its pattern of ministry, its buildings and aspects of its liturgy, but which also embodied Protestant insights in its theology and in the overall shape of its liturgical practice"            
Anglicans claim to hold to the faith of the undivided Catholic Church as it existed prior to the schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, it proclaims that the CofE is part of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Which means, among other things, that part of its mission is to establish unity between the sundered members of the Christian family. And also, crucially, that the formulae of faith (the creeds) which emerged from the Ecumenical Councils were accurate because the Councils were guided by the Holy Spirit. Now, it is clear that part of the deposit of faith which the CofE received was that priestly ordination was reserved to men. In its own practices it upheld this up until the late 20th century. Now it does not and by extending the concept of women's ordination to include the office which they call bishop, successor to the Apostles, then they are either innovating, introducing a new doctrine not included in the original deposit of faith, or asserting that this doctrine was always present but only implicit. In the first instance they would be immediately departing from the catholic faith by any reasonable definition of the concept. In the second then they are using a provincial council to change the doctrines of a universal Church, something which only an Ecumenical Council can do. That is, despairing of the prospect of persuading the Catholic and Orthodox Churches they have unilaterally established a new position. In both cases the CofE has decisively moved itself from the position it claimed as a member of the Catholic body and into a new role as just another Protestant sect.

And so, equality. Let me make my personal position clear; if the Church had the authority to ordain women few people would welcome that more than I would. I have spent most of my working life in overwhelmingly female workplaces and am well aware of the talent, abilities, strengths and enthusiasm that women can bring to the many roles which they fill. It is not here a question of competence to fulfil certain defined tasks. For reasons about which we can only speculate God has appointed that the role of sacerdotal priest is reserved to men. Why that might be so we do not know for certain that it is so we can be sure or else He would have included it in the Apostolic faith which He revealed to the world. In the New Testament there are a number of statements by Jesus known as 'hard sayings,' like for example he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin. (Mark 3:29) which Christians may not fully understand but do fully accept because they have the authority of our Lord behind them. The Church is, in a manner of speaking, a continuation of Jesus by other means and this doctrine about women's ordination is one of her hard sayings and Christians should accept it in the same spirit and for the same reasons.

It is argued that on this issue, and on a number of others, the Church is making herself increasingly look outdated, out of touch, old fashioned and misogynistic (misogyny means having at least an ingrained prejudice against women.)  That may indeed be how she is perceived by many people especially in the West and especially among the young. Well, let it be so. The Church always has to pay a price for her fidelity to the faith, in the past it paid other prices in the future it will pay still other ones. It is not the job of Christianity to conform itself to popular taste. She has no choice in this matter, she cannot ordain women whatever else may happen. What she can do, must do and to a certain extent has been doing is to proclaim by both word and deed her absolute commitment to the fact that not only are women and men equally beloved by God but that neither sex is superior to the other on the grounds of intelligence, ability, talent, commitment or any other good quality you care to name including, crucially, leadership ability.

We can, I think, deduce from the New Testament and the entire history of the Church including the Apostolic era that the correct Christian approach to what are now called gender issues is to be found in the ideas of balance and harmony. In the context of people 'equal' does not mean 'identical.' Women and men are different from each other and these differences, hard to pin down precisely as they may be, should not be ignored. They do not provide any valid excuse for the exercise of oppressive power. What they provide are fields of opportunity. It should not be the function of the Church to demand that women behave like men or that men behave like women. There is a considerable overlap, areas where both men and women can operate alongside each other in identical roles each producing equally satisfactory outcomes. But there remains a residue of areas where persons are better qualified to function by virtue of their sex than other equally talented persons of the opposite sex. In the context of the Church for mysterious reasons God appears to uniquely qualify some men, but only men, for the role of priest however He also seems to exercise a preferential option for women when it comes to the handing out of charismatic gifts (something I touched on in my earlier Girl Power post.)

We can see some evidence for this in the category known as Doctors of the Church. These are people whom the Church recognises as having made particularly important contributions to developing ever more fully our understanding of the faith. Much has been made of the fact that the list of Doctors is overwhelmingly male. But this is exactly what you would expect in a 2000 year old institution. It is in the nature of such things that those most qualified to teach would first of all have learnt and until relatively recently higher education, within and without the Christian world, was almost exclusively reserved to men and so men would have the greatest opportunity to explore the intellectual realm. It is to be hoped and indeed can be confidently expected that future Doctors of the Church will be as likely to be female as male so long as higher education remains equally accessible to both sexes. For our purposes, however, it is interesting to note that 3 out of the 4 women Doctors had little education. That is St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena and St Therese of Lisieux, indeed St Catherine may well have been illiterate until quite late on in her mission. What they possessed was the authority of charisma, a technical word in this context which means a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift enabled each of them in very different ways to instruct the Church and indeed to act as leaders to groups of disciples often including priests and bishops. St Catherine of Siena, like her near contemporary St Bridget of Sweden, practically bullied several Popes. And what these women did in their way many hundreds of others like St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St Bernadette of Lourdes, St Faustina Kowalska and Chiara Lubich did as they had been guided to by the Spirit guiding in their turn many others both male and female.

The model for the balance and harmony I suggested earlier can be glimpsed in the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Our Lady is the mother of all charismatics, she was and is the spouse of the Holy Spirit, through their fruitful collaboration salvation came into the world. Whatever power Jesus had by virtue of His role as priest, prophet and king He voluntarily submitted to the authority of Mary, her requests are never unanswered. He performed His first public miracle in response to her prayers. She in her turn voluntarily submitted to Him because of the roles He filled. Mutual submission and a complementarity of functions in those instances where they do not overlap is a rule with them and so also with the Church, yesterday, today and forever.

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