October 3, 2010

I am going to stop blogging here, at least initially, for this academic year. The pressure is on with my research, and I need to focus my activities, at least for the time being. I will be back in due course. In the meanwhile, I might occasionally say things about philosophy of religion at my philosophy blog.


General Chapter in Rome

September 1, 2010

Yesterday evening the general chapter of the friars preachers gathered for its 290th general chapter in Rome. You can read all about this here.

The chapter will be in session until 21st September. Importantly, a Master will be elected on 5th September, this coming Sunday. Please keep the Dominican family in your prayers in the run-up to this important event.

A pleb writes

August 24, 2010

This weekend, one of Britain’s leading supposedly left-wing blogs carried the following astonishing claim about the social composition of British Catholics:

And as a result, Scotland, Liverpool, Manchester and North London developed a substantial Irish Catholic, population.Which is where the problem lies. If you’re not from those parts of the UK, Catholics are simply crazy posh Evelyn Waugh types, who’ve decided that pointless treachery would be better than just admitting that an evil foreign overlord wasn’t really worth following.

This was supposed to mitigate earlier claims in the liberal blogosphere to the effect that Catholics are generally superstitious and feckless fenian layabouts, which the over-sensitive amongst us may have construed as being racist. Sentimental souls, us Catholics. Thus absolved from the threat of appearing to be a bigot, our author is free to tell us that

On the one hand, the Catholic Church is one of the most revolting institutions ever to have existed, second only to the USSR in terms of ‘well-meaning ideas invented by a nice chap that you could have enjoyed a cup of tea with, taken up by insane evil egomaniacs and turned into an excuse for tyranny and genocide’.

Causing sighs of relief to be breathed throughout the United States of America. How about that? From Jefferson to Gunatanamo, and you still don’t make it into the top two betrayers of founding principles. Nonetheless, I’ll swap you hawking indulgences for Hiroshima.

I digress. Sadly, contra the claim about British Catholics, the closest I get to being an Evelyn Waugh type is having a teddy bear I am rather fond of.  In particular I was denied the benefits of a public school education. Not only does this mean that I am unable to understand what is so palpably clear to my betters: example, how cutting public spending at the present stage in the business cycle is anything other than a very bad idea, it also means that I lack elementary reading comprehension skills. Thus, when Rosamundi wrote the following on her blog:

“Name your three most favourite prayers, and explain why they’re your favourites. Then tag five bloggers – give them a link, and then go and tell them they have been tagged. Finally, tell the person[ahem – people] who tagged you that you’ve completed the meme… The Liturgy and the Sacraments are off limits here. I’m more interested in people’s favourite devotional prayers.”

I completely ignored the bit about excluding the liturgy. The angelus and the rosary stay in. But since I now have a free slot, I’d like to give a mention to the Prayer to the Holy Spirit:

Come Holy Spirit

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
V. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created.
R. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

Let us pray.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

I tend to say it before mass. I’ve always liked it. Scriptural and simple; drawing on the liturgy, yet capable of being made personal.

Incidentally, I doubt that most Guardianista types would have enjoyed having a cup of tea with our Lord. Bringing a sword rather than peace, and declaring the powerful of this earth to be cursed, is hardly the kind of stuff which goes down well over croissants in Hampstead. That, however, is another post. I must away to do the research which you, the long-suffering tax-payer, pay me to do.

Pot pourri

August 22, 2010

Rosamundi has been talking about her three favourite prayers. Apparently this is some kind of Caholic internet memey thing. Ever one to follow trends, unless they involve clothing or Boris Johnson, here are my three favourite prayers:

(1.) The Mass

This might seem either lazy, or pious in a sickly way, or just straight out of Father Ted. But I’ll risk all of those. Strictly speaking, the only Christian prayer is the prayer Christ makes to the Father, expressing that love which we call the Holy Spirit. We participate in that prayer by grace, even as we do not understand it, because we do not understand God. Prayer is emphatically not a matey chat to my best friend, as Christianity lite has it.. As far as this life goes I am, as Thomas puts it, united to God as to one unknown. The danger is not only one of minimising God and denying our creatureliness; there is also the worry that if I think I am in a personal relationship with God qua friend, I might think that I have comprehended her. And then I might be all too confident he is telling me to do daft things (example: invade Iraq). Better to let God be God, and to let ourselves be transformed by God in God’s humanity. The Mass is where the sacrificial prayer of Christ, the human being who is God, is made sacramentally present. It is the Church’s prayer above all else – all other prayers lead to it, and flow from it.

(2.) The Divine Office.

Reasons as follows. The corporateness of it all. The richness of scripture. The fact that it can be more or less meditative depending on one’s sate of alertness. And my ability to recite it with a cup of coffee in one hand.

(3.) The Angelus

A tricky one. Like Rosamundi, I’m going to cheat by explaining my deliberation. I nearly went for the rosary, for many of the same reasons as the office, plus a lurking fear that I would be a Bad Dominican if I didn’t mention the beads at some point. However, I’ve gone for the Angelus. It is a simple prayer, profoundly incarnational, and the collect at the end sums up the whole gospel of redemption: incarnation, cross, and resurrection:

The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary:
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of
our death. Amen.

Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to your word.

Hail Mary . . .

And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary . . .

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray:

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, your grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, your Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord.



There is a very interesting piece in today’s Observer by Padraig Reidy, I’m an atheist but this anti-Catholic rhetoric is making me nervous


Last night I went to a vigil and meeting in support of the campaign for justice for Sean Rigg. Sean was a young black man who died in police custody in Brixton two years ago. The dignity and resolve to discover the truth on the part of his family are both moving and inspiring. I’d encourage you to support the campaign in any way you can.

The victory of God in a poor woman’s body

August 15, 2010

My walk to vespers this evening was impeded because Whitehall was blocked. The proximate result of this was that I had a nice walk along the river bank, which is no bad thing. It turns out, though, that the reason it wasn’t possible to go down Whitehall was that there were celebrations of the 65th anniversary of VJ day. Now, I feel a general discomfort about people celebrating victories in war. But this discomfort becomes considerably more marked in the case of a victory brought about by the two single greatest acts of mass murder human beings have ever committed. The burning alive of human bodies is something to which the proper response is repentance; and any supposed victory achieved by that means is so tarnished as to be unworthy of celebration.

Today the Church celebrates a rather different kind of victory, and a rather different view of the human body from that implicit in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. The gospel for mass during the day on the feast of the Assumption is not Luke’s account of the visitation and magnificat simply because, as the vigilant advocate of sola scriptura might imagine, there is no biblical description of Mary’s assumption. Rather, it is chosen because the words of that passage speak vividly of what we are celebrating. Mary’s assumption is precisely the exaltation of the lowly and meek, and so the putting down of the powerful and mighty, in fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham. In the taking up into glory of a peasant woman whose conception of a child was source of scandal, and who is portrayed by Matthew as a refugee – not one who would be loved by the Daily Mail, our Lady – we see the victory of the anawim, the poor of the Lord (or, ‘the scum of the earth’ as Eagleton translates the word in his recent book on religion).; God victorious in and through the poor of the Lord. The doctrinal content of today’s feast is that this victory is ultimate. Mary is not assumed as a one-off, as some kind of divinely orchestrated side-show to bring her life to a nice close. The sharing in Christ’s resurrection which we see first in Mary, the lifting high of the humble, and the fulfilment of God’s promises, is an enduring reality. It is the most enduring human reality. This victory will last when nations and empires have disappeared from the face of the earth, and when the guns have fallen silent. History, through divine grace, is on the side of the woman from Nazareth, not of the men with flags.

Mary’s victory is, of course, bodily because Mary is a human being, and to be human is to be a certain kind of animal, and so to have a body. This is a salutary reminder to be wary of the ubiquitous temptation, which has religious and secular variants, to downplay our embodiment. We are not angelic beings temporarily trapped in a fleshy prison. This prison, so to speak, is me (and, as St Thomas reminds us, ‘my soul is not me’). Our eternal destiny is a bodily one. The human body was not created for death. It is loved by God and belongs to his redemptive plan. That is both a source of hope, and motivation to resist those forces that burn and maim, starve and oppress, human bodies.

Happy St Dominic’s Day!

August 7, 2010

..which began with first vespers this evening.

O lumen Ecclesiae
Doctor veritatis,
Rosa patientiae,
Ebur castitatis,
Aquam sapientiae
propinasti gratis,
Praedicator gratiae,
nos junge beatis.

Interesting stuff

July 28, 2010

This is excellent. As my posts hitherto will betray, I find myself stuck in a rather unstable oscillation between the kind of politics described here and a leftism which is neither anarchist nor pacifist (see McCabe’s The Class Struggle and Christian Love). I am certainly convinced, though, that the Church should make no claim to state power, should avoid co-option, and should make no attempt to enforce distinctively Christian norms by force of law. And there is much more food for thought here besides. Ciaron’s comments on contemporary US ‘spirituality’, in particular, are spot on.

Bourgeois atheism redux

July 25, 2010

A constant, and thoroughly unoriginal, theme in my take on the new atheism is that it has an ideological role, deflecting concern from real social conflicts. My last post said something along these lines against the background of the commentariat’s tantrums over the papal visit. Much the same thing could be said about the urge on the part of a section of liberal Britain to tell Muslim women what they can, or can’t, wear in public. Without a hint of irony, by the way, this latest advocacy of the state forcibly undressing women, is in the name of womens’ liberation**.

The best example of the phenomenon I have seen for some time, however, is courtesy of the clever-than-thou blogosphere. The ‘Atheist Missionary‘ (“atheists don’t proselytize”) finally asks the question which has been on everybody’s lips for ages – why are atheists smarter than theists? S/he writes:

I am sure that most readers will be aware of the remarkable difference in incarceration rates between atheists and those who profess to have religious beliefs. Many will also be aware that over 90% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a “personal God” (Sam Harris actually pegged the percentage at 93% in 2006 but the precise figure doesn’t matter). The upshot of statistics like these lead to a very simple but puzzling question: Why are Atheists smarter than Theists?

Leaving aside the fact that we have here a textbook example of invalid reasoning, why is there a ‘remarkable difference’ in incaceration rates between us deluded Godbotherers and the freethinkers? Perhaps it is because we are all stupid*. Alternatively, it could be because professing atheism is a predominantly middle class affair, that explicit religious allegiance is more common in minority ethnic groups in the West, and that working class and black people are grossly over-represented in the prison population. The latter answer should prompt us to think about, and maybe even challenge, systematic structural injustice. Blaming the foolish sky-worshippers lets the world carry on as usual.

*The small worry here that, even were that true, it doesn’t explain the data – are criminality and stupidity especially correlated? – can be overlooked for present purposes.

**I have a vested interest in this debate of a somewhat specialist sort. One of the hurried justifications offered for the dinner-table racism of banning the burqa is that facial expressions and eye-contact are essential to human communication. The very fact that I am communicating with you right now via. the internet suffices to refute this. However, there is a real neurodiversity issue here. Plenty of us don’t communicate very much using these kind of non-verbal methods. What is being said about us?

In other news, which will no doubt transform the outcome of the forthcoming Labour leadership election, this blog declares itself for Diane Abbott, and heartily commends Red Maria’s thoughts on the matter.

More opium

July 16, 2010

A couple of days ago I managed to collapse as a result of panic and exhaustion, and was discharged from hospital under strict instructions to rest. I tell you this not to court sympathy, but rather to explain why I have spent the past couple of days doing pretty mindless things on the internet rather than undertaking the research which you, the increasingly burdened taxpayer, pay me to do. One of the less mindless things I came across was Jeremy Hardy’s speech to the nation on faith (if you’re quick, you’ll be able to catch this here.) If demonstration were needed that atheists can be subtle in their approach to religion, sympathethic to some of the values us God-botherers hold dear, and unimpressed with the provisional wing of atheism a la Dawkins, Hardy provides it. And is very funny at the same time.

This contrasts markedly with another Thing On The Internet I encountered, namely the reaction of swathes of my liberal left* social networking acquaintances to yesterday’s news that the Vatican was to consider extra-canonical ordinations of women a ‘grave crime’. Now, I have no desire to defend this decision, although it is worth pointing out that it is not supposed to represent an assessment of the relative moral gravity of these ordinations – the media have tended to present the announcement as being to the effect that ordaining women is ‘as bad as’ child abuse. What I do have a desire to do is comment on how weird the response from those I know from the Dawkins-Hitchens tendency was. Immediately Facebook statuses and tweets denounced the Vatican in the most vehement terms. This is weird for at least two reasons. First, the angry brigade seemed to think that it was an injustice not to ordain women. It quite possibly is, but then I can say that because I actually believe that it is good that people be ordained; and that ordination confers an objective character on its recipients, and isn’t simply a ritual gone through by deluded clerics playing dressing up. For people who usually think that the very existence of organised religious ministry is a great evil, whose purpose is to deceive and control, it seems odd to think that there is any injustice involved in barring some section of the human race from engaging in that ministry. It is rather as though someone vouchsafed the opinion that the real problem with the Taliban is their lack of a decent equal opportunities policy. The second weirdness is apparent when you look at the news from yesterday. To refresh your memories: yesterday the coalition government announced one of the most wide-ranging alterations in higher education funding for decades (imposing a graduate tax, and making not very veiled threats to the humanities), oil continued to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, there was ongoing carnage in the middle east, and – a development which raises all sorts of interesting questions – Derry was declared (UK) capital of culture. Amidst all of this, what did most of the self-proclaimed left think it a priority to comment on, in the most fervent terms? Answer: the news that the Vatican is not keen on the ordination of women. In other news, bears, woods…

Part of what is going on here is good old-fashioned anti-Catholic prejudice. If you want to see another example of this, look at the protests over the forthcoming papal visit. In both cases, the prejudice – which is deeply ingrained in British culture for complicated historical reasons – is accentuated by an utterly distorted view of the social and political importance of religious institutions and beliefs in the contemporary world. This is a characteristic of the new atheism: days after 9/11, Richard Dawkins told us that it was ‘religion’ which had caused carnage in New York, a view which removes middle eastern politics, the struggle for oil resources, and the personal responsibility of the killers from the picture in one fell swoop. Likewise, whilst I have no time for the Church’s possession of state trappings, the response to the papal visit issues in part from a misrepresentation of social reality. In the past decade, I have protested against a Saudi state visit to Britain and against George W. Bush whilst he was in London. In neither case were any of those prominent in the anti-papal visit movement present, with the honourable exception of Peter Tatchell. Surely, even by the most belligerently no-popery reckoning, both regimes have been responsible for more recent human suffering than the papacy. Why was the response from those whose supposed passion for justice makes them so angry at the appearance on British shores of an ageing German bishop so muted? In part, it is the legacy of prejudice. In part, however, it is that blaming religion for the world’s evils is an easy answer, and once which doesn’t involve any challenge to those who are actually in positions of economic and political power. In particular, the very middle class constituency which is the backbone of militant secularist atheism is absolved from any responsibility for the state of the world. In the best Marxist terms, Dawkinsim is ideological: a distorted picture of reality, arising from definite social circumstances, and serving to perpetuate a particular form of society. The opium of the bourgeoisie.

*For readers unfamiliar with my political views, the modification of ‘left’ with ‘liberal’ does not, to my mind, signify an improvement.

Trouble across the Tiber

July 10, 2010

Today the General Synod of the Church of England voted to reject an amendment to the women bishops legislation tabled by the archbishops of Canterbury and York which would have offered a certain level of safeguard to opponents of the move. Under the amendment a female bishop would “in practice refrain from exercising” her episcopal ministry in parishes which had declared their opposition to the consecration of women to the episcopate.

It really is none of my business what the Church of England does, yet I cannot help feeling that the synod has made the right decision here. It is an ecclesiological nonsense to ask a bishop to systematically refrain from exercising a characteristic episcopal ministry within parts of her own diocese. It is also deeply unfair to the women concerned, giving as it does the distinct impression that whilst they can be bishops, they can’t be *proper* bishops.

Of more immediate interest to me, however, is the effect this development is likely to have on the Catholic Church in England. It is inevitable that there will be people who consider becoming Catholics because of today’s events, and they make more likely some kind of corporate move on the part of a group of Anglicans. I feel a little bit ambivalent about this. Having self-consciously moved on from Anglo-Catholicism myself, I would be very worried were some kind of conservative ghetto to be established within the English Catholic Church. The danger needs to be acknowledged by people on both sides of the Tiber, and avoided. Crucially, any ordinariate set up for former Anglicans needs to enjoy a good relationship with the Catholic dioceses; this will take effort from both sides, and shouldn’t be a purely clerical affair.

On the other hand, I know from first hand experience that there are some great people, clerical and lay, who are presently in the Church of England who must be considering their position at the moment. The Catholic Church could gain a lot from the pastoral insight and experience of Anglicans. Whatever happens, we should pray for our sisters and brothers in the Church of England right now.