Wednesday 23 July 2014

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

                        Image: Gustave Doré - '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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  1. I think your image of the liberal itself may be a little retro - it's got more than a whiff of Soviet posters, comrade, announcing that the People's Grain Mountain is getting inexorably higher, or even of 70s activists who envisaged a dismantling of social structures to an extent that now seems unwise (you think of the dubious fallouts from porn and page 3). But in a way, liberalism has been a bit like the Lib Dems - out of power for as long as anyone can remember, - millennia, in fact - and then - whoosh - a sudden burst of power, which has also brought with it some of the more brutal realities. I think it's pretty clear to everyone now that, freed of hierarchical power structures, humankind really does not default to peace and love, at least for not longer than a weekend at Glastonbury.

    That said, where liberalism has been more successful is in gradually expanding the pool of people who are worthy to be treated with respect - not just mere chattels at the mercy of how reasonable or sadistic their own particular paterfamilias turned out to be. Slaves, women, children, gay people - each in turn has moved from a position where they are officially regarded as too stupid/depraved/deluded to have a voice, to one where they too are heard. Whether you think that's an inevitability depends how much history you've read. Slavery is still among us in different, hidden forms. Queer identities were fine in traditional cultures from Japan to Polynesia and North America before the arrival of certain missionaries. Or if you're interested in a different kind of freedom of identity, you could also reflect that Christianity was stamped out in about 800AD in China, and took a millennia to return. So there are arguable cyclical as well as progressive patterns in the freeing and enslaving of different groups. I think your average well-informed liberal now will *hope* that this sort of liberation carries its own momentum - and it's true that we're used to it and therefore pretty much expect it - but I don't think your average [atheist] liberal thinks there's some magic god making it so.

    I like the Macaulay quote at the beginning, but in some ways you are just perfectly illustrating the error that you rightly point out later in the blog. Yes, when Soviet Russia existed, it did indeed seem like it would never end. But similarly in the timescale of religions, Catholicism isn't *that* old. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar/Innana was worshipped for something like 3,000 years - now she mainly remains as the name of some Turkish restaurants. Obviously for religious reasons, you believe that Catholicism will be more permanent, but if you detach yourself for a second, you'll presumably agree that just because a faith has been dominant for a couple of millennia, that doesn't mean it can't die out.

    I tend to agree with you that human capacity for behaving really badly probably hasn't changed. But I do subscribe to the liberal idea that you can educate and build social structures that will tend to encourage people towards more constructive behaviour, and that these are to be valued and worked towards. There is a train station called Justice, but we have to fight to keep it up and running (with a fitful train service under heavy bombardment).

  2. I do, by the way, completely agree with your analysis of how social change gets pushed through by activists. I also think that at a lot of the media hype about what 'society' thinks about X and Y is also a bit fake, and masks a pretty extensive, protective field of indifference. A gay activist I know (now 70) encountered a young black man in Brixton market, who had fairly recently immigrated from a fiercely anti-gay culture in Africa. He said that the young man wasn't at all homophobic in his views - he'd simply shed all that and got on with adapting himself to the society he now found himself in. I suspect most people are actually like that about most things, unless it's something that affects their own lives, or unless they start to feel frightened that their character will have no coherence unless they cling to particular structures. As Rowan Williams says 'most people have no idea what their motives are, most of the time'.