Monday, 25 September 2017

Schönborn: towards a person’s possible good

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5141 words, 26 min read

In July, at Mary Immaculate College’s Irish Institute for Pastoral Studies, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna gave a beautiful, commented reading of some passages of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the family. A video of the whole event has been published recently and, as a sign of gratitude to Cardinal Schönborn, I would here like to share a lightly edited transcript of the majority of his talk. It radiates love and profound care for the family and, by extension, for all of humanity, and benefits from Cardinal Schönborn’s rich gifts and experiences - his having been editor of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, his being archbishop of Vienna, his having been a student of Benedict XVI, his participation in both Synods that lead to Amoris Laetitia and his having been chosen to present Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis when it was published.

Moral Theology stands on two feet: the principles and then the prudential steps to application of the principles to reality. And this is the normal challenge that every parent faces when they have to educate their children. […] This is the classical field of the virtue of prudence. And in moral theology the treatise on prudence has been gravely neglected. There was a great insistence on principles, and that was right, and it’s necessary. Principles must be clear. But then the question is how to come to practical judgment and then practical action. That’s the task of the virtue of prudence. […] For Pope Francis the key question is discernment […] for the right handling of the relation between principles and concrete action.
AL: “325. The teaching of the Master (cf. Mt 22:30) and Saint Paul (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31) on marriage is set – and not by chance – in the context of the ultimate and definitive dimension of our human existence. We urgently need to rediscover the richness of this teaching. By heeding it, married couples will come to see the deeper meaning of their journey through life.”
One of the key words of Pope Francis in the whole document is: marriage is a journey. It’s [a] classical Thomistic approach. It’s the existence “in via” - we are on the way, on the road. There is no family in a static way. Every family is “in via” as each of us is “in via” his whole life.
AL: “325. As this Exhortation has often noted, no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. This is a never-ending vocation born of the full communion of the Trinity, the profound unity between Christ and his Church, the loving community which is the Holy Family of Nazareth, and the pure fraternity existing among the saints of heaven. Our contemplation of the fulfillment which we have yet to attain also allows us to see in proper perspective the historical journey which we make as families, and in this way to stop demanding of our interpersonal relationships a perfection, a purity of intentions and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come.”
Very often Pope Francis remembers that one of the main causes of [difficulties in] marriage is not that we ask too little from marriage, but too much. […]
AL: “325. It also keeps us from judging harshly those who live in situations of frailty. All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse. Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.”
[This] helps us to see that we are all on a journey and imperfection is [an] essential part of our life. […]
AL: “320. There comes a point where a couple’s love attains the height of its freedom and becomes the basis of a healthy autonomy. This happens when each spouse realizes that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord. No one but God can presume to take over the deepest and most personal core of the loved one; he alone can be the ultimate centre of their life. At the same time, the principle of spiritual realism requires that one spouse not presume that the other can completely satisfy his or her needs. The spiritual journey of each – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer nicely put it – needs to help them to a certain “disillusionment” with regard to the other,382 to stop expecting from that person something which is proper to the love of God alone. This demands an interior divestment. The space which each of the spouses makes exclusively for their personal relationship with God not only helps heal the hurts of life in common, but also enables the spouses to find in the love of God the deepest source of meaning in their own lives. Each day we have to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit to make this interior freedom possible.”
It shows that great freedom that is the Christian vocation, which is not an impediment for the donation of each other but the condition of not demanding of each other what only God can give. And, nevertheless, he can affirm in the next point a word I love very much in this document:
AL: “321. “Christian couples are, for each other, for their children and for their relatives, cooperators of grace and witnesses of the faith”. God calls them to bestow life and to care for life. For this reason the family “has always been the nearest ‘hospital’”.”
It’s a beautiful metaphor! […] When my mother had to leave our home in ’45 as a refugee, with me on her arm as a baby, and my elder brother two years old, from Bohemia, from what’s today the Czech Republic, she had to leave the house in half an hour. Where did she go? She looked for the closest point at the Austrian border where she had relatives, family. The family is the nearest hospital. Where do you go? Where do these thousands and thousands of refugees who came through Austria and went all over Europe, where do they go? I have heard so many of them say, “I have family, relatives in Sweden, I want to go to Sweden. I have family in the Netherlands, I want to go there.” Family is the strongest hub, the most protected hub. It’s also the most vulnerable hub. […]

Pope Francis with Amoris Laetitia wants to tell us one key message. […] “Amoris Laetitia: marriage and family are possible.” […]

Before we enter this document, we must look at the Biblical foundations in the first chapter. […] There are some words that show how realistic Pope Francis’ approach is to the question of marriage and family. […]
AL: “19. The idyllic picture presented in Psalm 128 is not at odds with a bitter truth found throughout sacred Scripture, that is, the presence of pain, evil and violence that break up families and their communion of life and love. For good reason Christ’s teaching on marriage (cf. Mt 19:3-9) is inserted within a dispute about divorce. The word of God constantly testifies to that sombre dimension already present at the beginning, when, through sin, the relationship of love and purity between man and woman turns into domination: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16).”
The approach is always realistic. Let’s speak of the families […] as they really are. […] This realism invites us to not idealize the family but to look mercifully on that reality. And I want to show you three methodological texts, numbers 35, 36 and 37, where Pope Francis indicates the main line of his approach.
AL: “35. As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings.”
Sometimes we really feel helpless. I had to speak to the German government and officials. Angela Merkel was sitting there at the front. She is a very impressive lady, and I said, listen, dear politicians, we in the Catholic Church we feel often like against a wall. Whatever difficult question arrises, we are accused of being retrograde, of being conservative, of being out of touch, and it is so hard for us to say that the ideal we present is viable, that it is not impossible. So, Pope Francis encourages us to stand up for the values we [stand] for, not to be ashamed.
AL: “35. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things.”
During the Synod, a Synod Father, he was a cardinal, gave a talk - 3 minutes we were allowed to speak - it was a good decision - he began to describe all the evils of our time: consumerism, materialism, hedonism, “pansexualism” he said, and some other isms I have forgotten, and then I said: but, brethren, with a long list of isms, that we criticize, nobody will be motivated to choose Christian values. And that’s exactly what Pope Francis says:
AL: “35. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.”
[...] The word grace appears so often in this document. Trust in grace. Don’t only repeat the norms, but trust in grace. And the two words: reasons and motivations. We have reasons for our hope. We have reasons for our faith.
AL: “36. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

AL: “37. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
I must say, I was deeply moved when I read this text: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” And do we really trust in the conscience of people who very often respond “as best they can.” The “bonum possibile” in moral theology that has been so neglected. What is the possible good a person can achieve, or a couple can achieve, in difficult circumstances? Often Pope Francis comes back to what he has said in Evangelii Gaudium: “A little step towards the good, done under difficult circumstances, can be more valuable than a moral, solid life under comfortable circumstances.” […] Do we really trust conscience? Of course, dialogue is necessary, deepening the awareness of conscience, but first of all we can trust.

And I want to read with you number 49, which is, as the theologians would say, the hermeneutic key, the key to understanding where Pope Francis comes from. What moves him in speaking as he does.
AL: “49. Here I would also like to mention the situation of families living in dire poverty and great limitations. The problems faced by poor households are often all the more trying.36 For example, if a single mother has to raise a child by herself and needs to leave the child alone at home while she goes to work, the child can grow up exposed to all kind of risks and obstacles to personal growth. In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”.”
I have met Pope Francis for the first time when he was an auxiliary at Buenos Aires in ’97. […] I will never forget the barrio, the quarter where the sisters [I was visiting] were living. It was “un oceano de miseria” - an ocean of misery. Huts and huts and huts as far as you could see. And in the neighboring hut of the Little Sisters, there was a couple, who had a little daughter and a boy - the boy has become a criminal - and the daughter, Roxanne, now has two little children, two boys, and she showed me when I was there three years ago, the little hut she had built herself, with a little garden, all very very poor, but when I read this text I thought, Roxanne - the heroism of these women in such difficult situations. That is the existential place, where Pope Francis comes from and what matters to him. […]
AL: “123. After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship”. It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life. Marriage joins to all this an indissoluble exclusivity expressed in the stable commitment to share and shape together the whole of life. Let us be honest and acknowledge the signs that this is the case. Lovers do not see their relationship as merely temporary. Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade. Those who witness the celebration of a loving union, however fragile, trust that it will pass the test of time. Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together.”
I was asked one day in a school [… by a girl]: “Bishop, what was the most difficult day in your life?” I was surprised by this question and without reflecting, I said: “The moment when I heard that my parents divorced.” There was a great silence. That’s the experience of many young people, and I tried to repair what I had done and said: “But, listen, I can tell you, by experience, there is always a way.” But, this is such a deep truth, and we will see how important this experience is for Pope Francis, in Chapter 8. Before asking the question: are they allowed - yes or no - to receive communion, look at the situation of the family, the children, and so on.
AL: “123. These and similar signs show that it is in the very nature of conjugal love to be definitive. The lasting union expressed by the marriage vows is more than a formality or a traditional formula; it is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.”
We must not be desperate […]. Marriage will last because it is rooted in the deepest inclinations of human nature. The “inclinatio naturalis” was in Thomas Aquinas - this is typically Thomistic - so to say the guideline, the orientation that human nature, that the Creator, has given us. Therefore the best ally of our understanding of marriage and family is human nature. That will last and we shouldn’t be too afraid of the discussions of other forms of relations because fundamentally this natural inclination will always be stronger.
AL: “123. For believers, it is also a covenant before God that calls for fidelity.”
That’s what faith adds to this natural inclination. But all these arguments show that love in itself is inclined to be permanent and faithful and lasting. […]

[Now] we must read number 220 - it’s so funny - it shows the realism of Pope Francis. I think this should be read by a couple, because it is so true for a couple, it is also somewhat true for us who live in celibacy.
AL: “This process [the process of growth] occurs in various stages that call for generosity and sacrifice. The first powerful feelings of attraction give way to the realization that the other is now a part of my life. The pleasure of belonging to one another leads to seeing life as a common project, putting the other’s happiness ahead of my own, and realizing with joy that this marriage enriches society. As love matures, it also learns to “negotiate”. Far from anything selfish or calculating, such negotiation is an exercise of mutual love, an interplay of give and take, for the good of the family. At each new stage of married life, there is a need to sit down and renegotiate agreements, so that there will be no winners and losers, but rather two winners. In the home, decisions cannot be made unilaterally, since each spouse shares responsibility for the family; yet each home is unique and each marriage will find an arrangement that works best.”
There is no general rule. Every marriage synthesis is unique. […] Our former president of Austria, I am good friends with him and his wife, he is an agnostic and she is not baptized, of Jewish origin, but they are a very good couple. An exemplary couple. And one day they spoke about how they work, their strategies in conflicts and they said: we have an agreement that the one of us who more easily gives in does it. “So,” I asked, “but how do you know who of you can give in more easily than the other?” And they smiled and said: “That’s by experience.” No winner, no loser; negotiate.
AL: “221. Each marriage is a kind of “salvation history”, which from fragile beginnings – thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part – grows over time into something precious and enduring. […] Love is thus a kind of craftsmanship.”
[… On homosexuals and homosexuality]
AL: “250. The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception.During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
In all these discussions, it is known through the media that I have had the case of an elected parish councillor who lives in a same-sex union. He is a very fine young man, he works with handicapped children, he is fully engaged in the parish, he leads the parish choir, and he is highly respected by the parish and his friend, his partner, is a good and a fine young man and they are faithful to each other. I had the choice, when he was elected to the parish council - he had the most votes for the parish council - I was confronted with the question: have I to cancel this vote? In the same week we had the media full with a monk, a Benedictine monk, who had abused in the college of his abbey, probably about 100 boys. He ended in prison, but the abbot had covered … The media were full of this and I said, no, I can’t cancel this parish vote. It was not a protest vote against the Church’s teaching. It was for this young man, who is an honest and good Christian, a real believer, and I decided not to cancel that vote. It was discussed all over the globe, in the “blogosphere”, and I think these few words of Amoris Laetitia are sufficient. As we do for marriage crises, as we do for priests in crisis, we have to look at the person first, not the orientation. I have always said in these discussions: I have never met a homosexual, I have always met a person that has also had a homosexual orientation, but that is not all of the person and there are so many good things to look at. So, I think it is good that Pope Francis refused to have a long discussion about the question.
AL: “251. In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.“
[…] In Austria we have a law for same-sex partnership and this is a law with reasonable civil law dispositions for same-sex people living together, sharing their life. It’s questions of inheritance, of rights of visit, of sharing an apartment, and so on - all these legal questions. And from the Church’s side we have not at all objected to this law, because it’s helpful for civil situations which we have not to judge on the personal level. But then, we clearly said we are grateful to the government that they clearly distinguish the legislation on marriage and family from this kind of civil legislation. Of course, some groups were not satisfied, but I think it is a possible way and I think it is also an honest way. […]

Chapter 8. Let’s have a look at number 300. […]
AL: “300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.”
When I received the draft for preparing my presentation in Rome, of course, I admit, I read first Chapter 8, which you shouldn’t do. And, when I read this sentence, I was relieved. I must say, I had a serious fear that the attempt of certain bishops, certain theologians, certain pressure groups, would lead Pope Francis to the attempt of formulating a new canonical disposition applicable for all cases of irregular situations. That’s what the Eastern Orthodox churches do with the canons of 692 where it is generally, canonically established that a second and a third union are possible. Not under certain conditions, but they are possible. And this is a canonical, general rule. Some people wanted such a kind of disposition in canon law for the Catholic Church and I was so relieved, so glad, that Pope Francis stood clear about this. The canonical disposition and the dogmatic grounds for this canonical disposition, are valid and need no supplement, no addition. Does it mean, as some people conclude, from this sentence, that nothing has changed? That nothing is possible? Therefore, lets’ read the second sentence:
AL: “300. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.”
Now, you may say, that’s much too difficult. We need clear rules. How can a couple, a priest, a pastoral personnel, come to such a discernment? Pope John Paul II has said in Familiaris Consortio no 84. - a famous text on divorced remarried - he said “the pastors, the shepherds, by love for truth, are obliged to distinguish the cases, to distinguish the situations” - that’s John Paul! And if you turn back to number 298 you will find a series of quotes of St. John Paul about the distinction of cases, distinction of situations. Pope Francis has enlarged this chapter of 84 of Familiaris Consortio by adding some other cases. I give you just the first case:
AL: “298. The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or t into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”.”
That’s a reality. We do not speak about communion here! We speak about the moral qualification of different situations. Pope Francis said once during the Synod: this question of the communion is a trap because you put away the consideration of the situation. You only want to have a casuistic approach: are they allowed, aren’t they allowed. But, first of all, discern the situations.
AL: “298. There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”.“
When my parents divorced, they knew each other for three days before they got married. It was wartime, my father was at the front, came back to Prague, met my mother at a party, and asked her to marry him the first evening. And then he had to return to the front, they wrote letters, and during the second holiday from the front, they got married. My father then deserted the German army, he was very hostile to the Nazis, escaped and joined the British army. He came back with the British army when I was already born. And they began to live together practically four years after their wedding, and had to discover that they didn’t know each other. So, it’s great that my parents stood together 17 years and they really tried to bring us up but they knew that this marriage … So, as a child already, I had the feeling that if my mother said: “I cannot bring up four children alone,” working hard - she was in business - she brought us up alone, she is still alive - 97! Amazing! But, I would have understood if she had said, “I just can’t do it, bringing up four children alone.” And she had had the possibility for a second marriage, but she didn’t do it, and she always says until today, “He was my husband, yes, he is my husband.” Of course, this marriage could have been dissolved easily, because, they knew each other three days, but nevertheless, the situation addressed here is morally different from destroying an existing marriage through adultery. And we have finally a fifth [and sixth] case:
AL: “298. Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family. The Synod Fathers stated that the discernment of pastors must always take place “by adequately distinguishing”, with an approach which “carefully discerns situations”. We know that no “easy recipes” exist.””
We could say a lot about this discernment. I just want to add one point, which is made in number 300:
AL: “300. Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”
That’s what Pope Francis recommends in this situation, before asking the question of communion. Ask five questions:
AL: “300. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God which is not denied anyone”.”
This is for me the real program for how to accompany divorced remarried in their great variety of situations. These 5 points. And I end with number 245:
AL: “245. The Synod Fathers also pointed to “the consequences of separation or divorce on children, in every case the innocent victims of the situation”. Apart from every other consideration, the good of children should be the primary concern, and not overshadowed by any ulterior interest or objective. I make this appeal to parents who are separated: “Never ever, take your child hostage! You separated for many problems and reasons. Life gave you this trial,”
I find it very impressive. Pope Francis does not judge: “Life gave you this trial” of separation. But:
AL: “245. but your children should not have to bear the burden of this separation or be used as hostages against the other spouse. They should grow up hearing their mother speak well of their father, even though they are not together, and their father speak well of their mother”. It is irresponsible to disparage the other parent as a means of winning a child’s affection, or out of revenge or self-justification. Doing so will affect the child’s interior tranquillity and cause wounds hard to heal.”
This is the attitude of discernment Pope Francis is inviting us to exercise and practice and the question of communion can come after that, when he says: “There may be cases in which the help of the sacraments can be given.” But that needs discernment. And he gave us, and I tried to present in brief, some guidelines for this discernment.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Holy Saturday: the logic of freedom

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1864 words, 10 min read

A highlight of the Easter Triduum has for me always been Holy Saturday, when the tabernacle’s emptiness, the stripped altar and the absence of the Eucharist are all stark reminders of what a world without God’s incarnation as a fellow human would be like. It is, for me, a day for being particularly close to atheists and agnostics and for reflecting on the gift of Jesus’ friendship, whose enormity is heightened by its apparent absence.

I have, for some years now, had a feeling that there is much more to Holy Saturday than I am aware of, that Jesus’ participation in death is saying more than I am hearing. Against this background, I have come across Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter”, whose 4th chapter is dedicated to Holy Saturday, and I would here like to give you a sense of the beautiful line of thought he sets out there.

Von Balthasar starts by tracing the origins of the idea of Jesus’ participation in death to the New Testament and argues for this being a consequence of redemption’s scope extending beyond the living. Jesus’ death here is a “being with” a “solidarity” with death as a human condition:
“‘[G]oing to the dead’, an expression justified, in our opinion, by I Peter 3, 19: ‘he went, poreutheis, and preached to the spirits in prison’—preached, that is, the ‘good news’ as I Peter 4, 6 adds by way of a self-evident clarification. […]

There is no difficulty about understanding this ‘going to the souls in prison’ as, first and foremost, a ‘being with’, and the ‘preaching’ in the same primary fashion as the publication of the ‘redemption’, actively suffered, and brought about by the Cross of the living Jesus—and not as a new activity, distinct from the first. For then the solidarity with the condition of the dead would be the prior condition for the work of redemption, whose effects would be deployed and exercised in the ‘realm’ of the dead, though that work itself would remain fundamentally finished (consummatum est!) on the Cross. In this sense the actively formulated term ‘preaching’ (I Peter 3, 19; in 4, 6 it is passive, evēngelisthē) should be conceived as the efficacious outworking in the world beyond of what was accomplished in the temporality of history.”
More important even than his descent and the being with the departed, is Jesus’ ascent from the dead, as a paving of the way for the resurrection of all:
“It is not the going to the dead which is important here—that is taken for granted, and identified, simply, with what it is to be genuinely dead—but rather the return from that bourn. God has not ‘left’ (or ‘abandoned’) Jesus ‘in Hades’ where he tarried; he has not let his Holy One see corruption. The accent is placed on the whence—the phrase ek nekrōn occurs some fifty times in the New Testament—a whence which implies a point of departure, namely, being with the dead. Death here is characterised by ‘pangs’, by ‘pains’ (?dines), and by its lust to seize and hold (krateisthai): but God is stronger than death. The only thing that matters is the facticity of the ‘being’ of the one who is dead in ‘death’ or—for this amounts to the same thing—in Hades, whose character is (objectively) referred to by the term ‘pains’. It is from thence that Jesus is ‘awoken’. […]

[I]n the Cross the power of Hell is already broken (down), the locked door of the grave is already burst open, yet Christ’s own laying in the tomb and his ‘being with the dead’ is still necessary, so that, on Easter Day, the common resurrection ek tōn nekrōn—with ‘Christ the first-fruits’—can follow.”
Von Balthasar then turns to the motivation for Jesus’ descent and again ascribes it to solidarity with the “unredeemed dead”, relying on St. Augustine who insists that Christ’s descent extended not only to the as-yet-unredeemed, but redemption-worthy, but also to those considered unworthy:
“The fact of being with the unredeemed dead, in the Sheol of the Old Testament, signifies a solidarity in whose absence the condition of standing for sinful man before God would not be complete. This is why Sheol must be understood in the classic Old Testament sense […]

Augustine distinguishes between a lower infernum (where the ‘rich man’ lives) and a higher (where Lazarus dwells, in the bosom of Abraham). The two are separated by a chaos magnum, yet both belong equally to Hades. That Christ descended even to the lower infernum, in order to ‘deliver from their sufferings tortured souls, that is, sinners’ (salvos facere a doloribus) Augustine regards as certain (non dubito). The grace of Christ redeemed all those who tarried there: adhuc requiro1. […]

This ultimate solidarity is the final point and the goal of that first ‘descent’, so clearly described in the Scriptures, into a ‘lower world’.
Looking at what the Early Fathers of the Church have written about Holy Saturday, von Balthasar presents the descent into hell as a matter of logical necessity, following from the incarnation. To become fully human, Christ had to participate in death too. Without this, his incarnation would have been incomplete, as would his redemptive action:
“And so, in order to assume the entire penalty imposed upon sinners, Christ willed not only to die, but to go down, in his soul, ad infernum. As early as the Fathers of the second century, this act of sharing constituted the term and aim of the Incarnation. The ‘terrors of death’ into which Jesus himself falls are only dispelled when the Father raises him again. According to Tertullian, the Son of God adapted himself to the whole law of human death: Huic quoque legi satisfecit, forma humanae mortis apud inferos functus2. The same affirmation is found in Irenaeus: Dominus legem mortuorum servavit, ut fieret primogenitus a mortuis.3 He insists on his own grounding principle, namely, that only what has been endured is healed and saved. Since above all this is a matter of penetrating into the realm of the inferi, so for Ambrosiaster in the Quaestiones ex Novo Testamento, Christ had to die so as to be capable of this step. Christ willed to be like us, says Andrew of Crete, in ‘walking amidst the shadows of death, in that place where souls had been bound with chains unbreakable’. All that only expresses the law of human death, thought through to its logical conclusion.”
Von Balthasar then draws our attention to a seemingly paradoxical aspect of Christ’s being among the dead - i.e., that is was a “solitary [being] with others” that did not come with a subjective experience:
“To the extent that the experience of death was objectively capable of containing an interior victory and thus a triumph over hostile powers, to that extent it was in no way necessary that this triumph be subjectively experienced. For precisely that would have abolished the law of solidarity. Let it not be forgotten: among the dead, there is no living communication. Here solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.”
A further aspect of Christ’s being with the dead is that it is both an act of ultimate obedience and an act of the Trinity, where the self-noughting of its persons is enacted here in creation. This is also reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s concept of God taking into himself the gap that may otherwise be between Him and humanity:
“His being with the dead is an existence at the utmost pitch of obedience, and because the One thus obedient is the dead Christ, it constitutes the ‘obedience of a corpse’ (the phrase is Francis of Assisi’s)4 of a theologically unique kind. By it Christ takes the existential measure of everything that is sheerly contrary to God, of the entire object of the divine eschatological judgment, which here is grasped in that event in which it is ‘cast down’ (hormēmati blēthēsetai, Apocalypse 18, 21; John 12, 31; Matthew 22, 13). But at the same time, this happening gives the measure of the Father’s mission in all its amplitude: the ‘exploration’ of Hell is an event of the (economic) Trinity.”
Finally, von Balthasar brings his line of thought to its pinnacle, by presenting Jesus’ being among the dead as a logical consequence of his having received the power to judge from the Father and from Hell being the “supreme entailment of human liberty”. Without participating in it, and to do so as a human entails death, the transformation he brought about by his resurrection would have been incomplete.
“If the Father must be considered as the Creator of human freedom—with all its foreseeable consequences—then judgment belongs primordially to him, and thereby Hell also; and when he sends the Son into the world to save it instead of judging it, and, to equip him for this function, gives ‘all judgment to the Son’ (John 5, 22), then he must also introduce the Son made man into ‘Hell’ (as the supreme entailment of human liberty). But the Son cannot really be introduced into Hell save as a dead man, on Holy Saturday. This introducing is needful since the dead must ‘hear the voice of the Son of God’, and hearing that voice, ‘live’ (John 5, 15). The Son must ‘take in with his own eyes what in the realm of creation is imperfect, unformed, chaotic’ so as to make it pass over into his own domain as the Redeemer.”
To my mind, von Balthasar presents a beautiful insight into the events of Holy Saturday, whose coverage in Scripture is scant, by returning to a close reading of those passages, by understanding what the Early Church and the saints have written about it and by connecting it with the drama of salvation, which entails a transformation of creation as a whole. Only by being with the dead could Christ’s incarnation be complete and his redeeming power extend to the full scale of the consequences of human freedom.

1 “I yet enquire.”
2 “He also satisfied this law, enduring the form of human death in Hell.” De Anima, Chapter LIV.
3 “The Lord observed the law of the dead, that he would be the first-born from the dead.”
4 This is a reference to the following passage from St. Francis’ The Mirror of Perfection:
““Tell us, Father, what is perfect obedience?” To which he answered, speaking of true and perfect obedience under the figure of a corpse, “ Take a dead body and place it anywhere you please, it will not murmur at being moved, it will not change its position or cry out if you let it go. If you seat it on a throne it will not look up but down, and to clothe it in purple but makes it more pale. This is the type of perfect obedience, that asks not why he is moved, minds not where he is placed, nor insists upon being sent elsewhere. If he be promoted to office he still keeps humble, and the more he is honoured the more he counts himself unworthy.”

Monday, 18 September 2017

I’m with Fr. Martin: respect, compassion, and sensitivity for LGBTs

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2413 words, 12 min read

Jesus’ last will and testament, which he passed on to the apostles at the Last Supper, contains the following exhortation: “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). Here, Jesus explains in the same verse that “one” means to relate to each other “as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” And since “all” means “all,” it falls to every Christian to strive towards building relationships with everyone like those among the persons of the Trinity - i.e., relationships of loving self-noughting and self-othering. This means that there is no more us versus them, only an all-encompassing us.

Now, this “us” undoubtedly also includes those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, and indeed anyone else too, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is therefore essential that we, Christians make everyone, regardless of their sexuality, feel not only welcome but loved and since this has often not been the case, there is a need for a deliberate effort to reach out, which has also been apparent in many things Pope Francis, and many other representatives of the Catholic Church, have said and done recently.

In this context, an important contribution has recently been made by Fr. James Martin SJ, who has for many years ministered to the LGBT community and who has now written an excellent book on how to bring it and the institutional Church closer together. The book is entitled “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” and contains four parts. The first two are built on the metaphor of a bridge between the institutional Church and the LGBT community, where Fr. Martin’s advice for traversing it in both directions is based on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches with regard to LGBT people, which is to treat them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (§2358). The third part comprises a series of scriptural passages that Fr. Martin found helpful in his ministry, each with an introduction and followed by questions suitable for reflection. Finally, the book concludes with a beautiful prayer - “A prayer for when I feel rejected”.

When I first read this book, I found it to be a pure expression of the Gospel desire to share the Good News that Jesus brought to humanity - an invitation to mutual love, to dialogue and to closeness. I also thought that it was highly non-controversial and entirely consistent with the Catholic Church’s teaching and I thought no more about it. During the course of recent days, things have changed though and I have seen a savage and persistent campaign of hate directed at Fr. Martin, who is now being accused of heresy and whose name is being dragged through the mud of social media echo chambers. I am no censor or even theologian, but as a member of the Church’s laity, I have a right and duty to support and defend those who uphold the Gospel, and Fr. Martin certainly does that in spades.

Instead of engaging in a futile rebuttal of his critics, I would just like to share with you some of my favorite passages mostly from the first part of “Building a Bridge,” since it is there that I have most felt spoken to myself.

In the opening pages of the book Fr. Martin sets out the rationale for writing it, which is about breaking down us v. them barriers:
“[T]he work of the Gospel cannot be accomplished if one part of the church is essentially separated from any other part. [...] In these times, the church should be a sign of unity. Frankly, in all times. Yet many people see the church as contributing to division, as some Christian leaders and their congregations mark off boundaries of “us” and “them.” But the church works best when it embodies the virtues of respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Next, he looks at each of respect, compasion and sensitivity in turn, as they apply to the institutional Church’s relationship with LGBT Catholics and the LGBT community in general. Thinking about respect first, Fr. Martin highlights three consequences of it, the first of which is recognition:
“[R]ecognizing that the LGBT community exists, and extending to it the same recognition that any community desires and deserves because of its presence. [...] Jesus recognizes all people, even those who seem invisible in the greater community.”
Throughout the book, Fr. Martin also presents and engages with potential reservations about his proposals. For example, in the case of recognition being misconstrued as blanket approval, he writes:
“Some Catholics have objected to this approach, saying that any outreach implies a tacit agreement with everything that anyone in the LGBT community says or does. This seems an unfair objection, because it is raised with virtually no other group. If a diocese sponsors, for example, an outreach group for Catholic business leaders, it does not mean that the diocese agrees with every value of corporate America.”
The second aspect of respect then is “calling a group what it asks to be called.”:
“[P]eople have a right to name themselves. Using those names is part of respect. And if Pope Francis and several of his cardinals and bishops can use the word gay, as they have done several times during his papacy, so can the rest of the church.”
The third side of respect is to recognise that LGBT Catholics bring many gifts to the Church:
“Respect also means acknowledging that LGBT Catholics bring unique gifts to the church—both as individuals and as a community. [...] Many, if not most, LGBT people have endured, from an early age, misunderstanding, prejudice, hatred, persecution, and even violence, and therefore often feel a natural compassion toward the marginalized. Compassion is a gift. They have often been made to feel unwelcome in their parishes and in their church, but they persevere because of their vigorous faith. Perseverance is a gift. They are often forgiving of clergy and other church employees who treat them like damaged goods. Forgiveness is a gift. Compassion, perseverance, and forgiveness are all gifts.”
In summary, Fr. Martin argues that respect translates to participation in God’s love:
“Seeing, naming, and honoring all these gifts are components of respecting our LGBT brothers and sisters and siblings. So also is accepting them as beloved children of God and letting them know that they are beloved children of God. The church has a special call to proclaim God’s love for a people who are often made to feel, whether by their families, neighbors, or religious leaders, as though they were damaged goods, unworthy of ministry, and even subhuman. The church is invited to both proclaim and demonstrate that LGBT people are beloved children of God.”
Turning to compassion, the model is Jesus’ incarnation itself and the need for listening to and living alongside others:
“The word compassion (from the Greek paschō, “to suffer”) means “to experience with, to suffer with.” So what would it mean for the institutional church not only to respect LGBT Catholics, but to be with them, to experience life with them, and even to suffer with them? [...]

The first and most essential requirement is listening. It is impossible to experience a person’s life, or to be compassionate, if you do not listen to the person or if you do not ask questions. [...]

We need not look far for a model for this. God did this for all of us—in Jesus. The opening lines of the Gospel of John tell us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1: 14). The original Greek is more vivid: “The Word became flesh and pitched its tent among us” (eskēnōsen en hēmin). Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? God entered our world to live among us. This is what Jesus did. He lived alongside us, took our side, even died like us.

We can celebrate and treasure more than simply their gifts. We can celebrate and treasure them. This is a kind of compassion too—to share in the experience of Christian joy that LGBT men and women, young and old, bring to the church.”
Next, sensitivity is presented as a call to closeness, along Pope Francis’ lines of encountering and accompanying and in imitation of Jesus’ reaching out also to those considered on the margins of the People of Israel, in an outside-in motion:
“Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines sensitivity as “an awareness or understanding of the feelings of other people.” That’s related to Pope Francis’s call for the church to be a church of “encounter” and “accompaniment.” To begin with, it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance. You cannot understand the feelings of a community if you don’t know the community. You can’t be sensitive to the LGBT community if you only issue documents about them, preach about them, or tweet about them, without knowing them.[...]

In this, as in all things, Jesus is our model. When Jesus encountered people on the margins, he saw not categories but individuals. To be clear, I am not saying that the LGBT community should be, or should feel, marginalized. Rather, I am saying that within the church many of them do find themselves marginalized. They are seen as “other.” But for Jesus there was no “other.” Jesus saw beyond categories; he met people where they were and accompanied them. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, tells the story of Jesus meeting a Roman centurion who asked for healing for his servant (8: 5–13). Although the man was not Jewish, Jesus saw a man in need and responded to his need. [...]

The movement for Jesus was always from the outside in. His message was always one of inclusion, communicated through speaking to people, healing them, and offering them what biblical scholars call “table fellowship,” that is, dining with them, a sign of welcome and acceptance in first-century Palestine. In fact, Jesus was often criticized for this practice. But Jesus’s movement was about inclusion. He was creating a sense of “us.” For with Jesus, there is no us and them. There is only us.
In this context, Fr. Martin also addresses the potential objection that Jesus also admonished sinners not to sin, arguing that his approach was one of inclusion first and conversion second (a conversion we are all called to and in need of):
“One common objection here is to say, “No, Jesus always told them, first of all, not to sin!” We cannot meet LGBT people because they are sinning, goes the argument, and when we do meet them, the first thing we must say is, “Stop sinning!” But more often than not, this is not Jesus’s way. In the story of the Roman centurion, Jesus doesn’t shout “Pagan!” or scold him for not being Jewish. Instead, he professes amazement at the man’s faith and then heals his servant. Likewise, in the story of Zacchaeus, after spying the tax collector perched in the tree, he doesn’t point to him and shout, “Sinner!” Instead, Jesus says that he will dine at Zacchaeus’s house, a public sign of openness and welcome, before Zacchaeus has said or done anything. Only after Jesus offers him welcome is Zacchaeus moved to conversion, promising to pay back anyone he might have defrauded. For Jesus it is most often community first—meeting, encountering, including—and conversion second. Here I’m talking about the conversion that all of us need, not simply LGBT people (and, incidently, not “conversion therapy”). Pope Francis echoed this approach in an inflight press conference in 2016, on his return to Rome from the countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan. “People must be accompanied, as Jesus accompanied,” he said. “When a person who has this situation comes before Jesus, Jesus will surely not say: ‘Go away because you’re homosexual.’””
At the conclusion of the first half of the book, Fr. Martin spells out a point that forms the bedrock of his approach, which is that:
“[w]e are all on the bridge together. For that bridge is the church. And, ultimately, on the other side of the bridge for each group is welcome, community, and love.”
And, finally, he draws our attention to the sustaining power of the Holy Sprit, to the need of our, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, and to God’s constant accompanying of humanity:
In difficult times you might ask: “What keeps the bridge standing? What keeps it from collapsing onto the sharp rocks? What keeps us from plunging into the dangerous waters below?” The answer is: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, which is supporting the church, is supporting you, for you are beloved children of God who, by virtue of your baptism, have as much right to be in the church as the pope, your local bishop, and me. Of course, that bridge has some loose stones, big bumps, and deep potholes, because the people in our church are not perfect. We never have been—just ask St. Peter. And we never will be. We are all imperfect people, struggling to do our best in the light of our individual vocations. We are all pilgrims on the way, loved sinners following the call we first heard at our baptism and that we continue to hear every day of our lives. In short, you are not alone. Millions of your Catholic brothers and sisters accompany you, as do your bishops, as we journey imperfectly together on this bridge. More important, we are accompanied by God, the reconciler of all men and women as well as the architect, the builder, and the foundation of that bridge.
To my mind, Fr. Martin has written a beautiful treatise on dialogue, openness and love that could just as well be applied to any other group of people who are and/or feel marginalised by the Church. The text could easily be transposed to refugees or atheists or to other groups and communities, whom parts of the Church may not be as welcoming towards as they should1 and I highly recommend the book in its entirety.

1 E.g., see Pope Francis’ words from the press conference during his return from Armenia in June 2016: “I think that the Church not only should apologise … to a gay person whom it offended but it must also apologise to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work. It must apologise for having blessed so many weapons.”

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Abortion revisited


2310 words, 12 min read

Of all moral questions, abortion has for a long time been of very little interest to me, primarily because it just looked like such an open and shut case. A fetus is a human being and killing it is intrinsically evil,1 just like the killing of any other human. Since the fetus is furthermore defenseless and voiceless, its murder is even more reprehensible and unjustifiable. This, complemented by a strong sense of the need for mercy and compassion for all involved, regardless of their views or actions, is pretty much where I stood in 2013, when I last wrote about this subject, reflecting also on Pope Francis’ words about it at the time.

As far as the fetus is concerned, nothing has changed and I stand by what I wrote some four years ago. But, what about the mother? Where does the fetus’ right to life and the absolute evil of his or her murder heave her? What if she herself is a victim and feels coerced to abort? And why is it that abortion is promoted by clearly rational, well-meaning people and presented as intrinsic to curbing the injustice of gender-based discrimination? Yes, there may also be ulterior motives behind a promotion of abortion, but I find it increasingly hard to believe that that is all there is to it. As a result, I have set out to look into what motivates the promoters of abortion, with a desire to discover what good I may find.2

Let me start with philosophy, where my enquiry into abortion has lead me to the work of Judith Jarvis Thomson, who wrote “A Defense of Abortion” in 1971. Unlike the customary discussions about the human personhood or otherwise of the fetus, where abortion opponents affirm it and proponents deny it, Thomson asks the question of whether the inadmissibility of abortion can be taken for granted even if the fetus is taken to be a human person. With that starting point, she proposes the following thought experiment to test whether the fetus’ human personhood, and the right to life derived from it, necessarily lead to a prohibition of abortion:
“[I]magine this: You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.”
In the process of developing this initial thought experiment, which I think is ingenious and a great tool for digging deeper into what is involved when considering the rights and relationship of a mother and her unborn child, Thomson argues that unplugging the violinist would not be unjust since “you gave him no right to use your kidneys, and no one else can have given him any such right.” She then goes on to suggesting that a key difference between the thought experiment and the mother-fetus relationship is that the “fetus is dependent on the mother, [...] that she has a special kind of responsibility for it, a responsibility that gives it rights against her which are not possessed by any independent person--such as an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her.” Thomson argues though that this special relationship “would give the unborn person a right to its mother’s body only if her pregnancy resulted from a voluntary act, undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result from it. It would leave out entirely the unborn person whose existence is due to rape.”

What Thomson’s clever thought experiment and in-depth analysis of its variants and consequences have done for me is first of all make me realize that there are relevant questions to consider here and that dialogue with those who support at least some forms of abortion (since Thomson herself is not in favor of blanket, indiscriminate use) could be possible. Secondly, it has shown me more clearly that my own convictions derive from considering the right to life and its value to be unconditional, since, if it were not, then, rationally, Thomson’s conclusions do follow.

Let me now turn to abortion as a phenomenon today, where even just a cursory glance quickly leads to some horrifying statistics. According to a paper provided by the World Health Organization, the annual worldwide rate of abortion in 1995 was 46 million, of which 26 million were legal and 20 million were not. Looking into the reasons behind abortion, a 1998 study, analyzing data from 27 countries (developing countries from Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa, Latin America, Asia + Czech Republic, Japan and US), presents the following sequence. In around half of the over 64 000 cases in question, the main reason for a mother to abort was “to postpone their next birth or to stop childbearing.” Second were economic reasons and poverty, which were cited as the main reason in around one fifth of cases, and as one of the deciding factors between a third and two thirds of the time, depending on geography. In third place were relationship problems, including “the partner’s objection to carrying the pregnancy to term,” which were a factor in between 10 and 40% of the cases. Being too young and unmarried had a similar frequency, although in some countries (e.g., Honduras and Mexico) it accounted for around a third of abortions. Finally, the risk to maternal health was also given as the main reason for abortion by 5-10% in seven countries and by 20-38% in three others (Kenya, Bangladesh, India) with the possibility of fetal defects playing a negligible role overall. Then there are even harsher cases, like those of rape and incest, whose occurrence in the US alone is a staggering 1% of the former and under 0.5% of the latter, i.e., 8000 and below 4000 at a US annual rate of abortion of around 800 000.

Turning to illegal abortions, it can be seen that 97% of them take place in developing countries (~10M in Asia and around ~4M each in Africa and Latin America), where these illegal abortions are unsafe, since they are performed “by individuals without the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimum medical standards, or both.” As a result, 68 000 women die annually due to the unsafe abortions performed on their fetuses by others or themselves - a mortality rate hundreds of times higher than for safe abortions (i.e., 367 versus less than one deaths per 100 000). This makes abortion be the cause of 13% of all maternal deaths, in 4th place after haemorrhage (25%), indirect causes (20%) and infection (15%). In some regions, such as parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe, abortion related deaths are the cause of as much as 30% of maternal deaths. Beside the scale of maternal mortality from unsafe abortions, their means too are bone-chilling and range from the ingestion of turpentine or laundry bleach, via the insertion of foreign bodies, such as knitting needles, sticks, coat hangers, ballpoint pens etc., into the uterus through the cervix, to the self-infliction of physical trauma, e.g., by jumping from the top of stairs or a roof.

Why is it that a woman would subject herself to such horrors to kill her own child? Again, remaining with the intrinsic evil of the fetus’ murder is not enough and a deeper understanding of the mother is needed.

It is not hard to see from the above that there is a clear element of violence, abuse, poverty, exclusion and discrimination here and that the disregard for the life of the fetus extends to that of its mother. The victims of abortion, on the part of the mothers include girls and women who are driven to abort by their environment and to do so in ways that are gruesome and potentially lethal to themselves. And there is no shortage of girls and women with names and surnames here who have suffered greatly before, during and after abortion. A high profile case here is that of the nearly 300 Nigerian high school girls - as young as nine years old! - kidnapped by Boko Haram in a single day, who were subsequently raped and impregnated “to create a new generation of fighters.”

Most of the time though, the trauma of sexual abuse and rape does not make the news, and the victims remain nameless. Had it not been for investigative journalism, that would have also been the case for Consolatta Wafula,3 who was raped by a local farmer and politician, a friend of her father and uncle, when she was a teenager. Her rapist arranged for an illegal abortion to be performed, which left Consolatta fighting for her life when she developed sepsis in response to an infection cause by the botched procedure. Subsequently she was arrested for having had an illegal abortion. To pay for bail and continuing medical bills, her family had to sell several of the cows that were their livelihood, as a result of which three out of six of of the family’s children had to stop attending school. Yes, I still believe that the murder of Consolatta’s fetus is inexcusable, but it is part of a much greater tragedy of exploitation, violence and evil, where it is Consolatta and her family who need to be mourned too included among the victims alongside her aborted child.

Looking at all of the above, I can understand why the United Nations speak about abortion in the context of human rights and women’s rights. Its Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women holds that “laws that criminalize medical procedures only needed by women and that punish women who undergo those procedures” are a barrier to women’s access to health care and discriminate against women. The Committee has also asked for “decriminalizing abortion when the pregnancy results from rape or sexual abuse,” which was further extended by the Maputo protocol’s Article 14 to cover “incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus.”

I still can’t think how aborting a fetus could be justified, but I see how it is morally a far less open and shut case than I thought before, when abortion takes place in a landscape of discrimination, violence, abuse, poverty and a disregard for all human life.

1 St. John Paul II sets out what is meant by “intrinsically evil” in the context of Catholic moral theology in Veritatis Splendor (§80), saying that such acts “are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.”
2A corollary of my method is that I will not seek out opinions that I consider to derive from contemptible motives, for the sake of the sport of attacking them, and that I will also apply the principle of charity to the material I do reflect on here.
3 Shown at the top of this post.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Echoes of Jesus’ forsakenness in secular thought

Tracey emin man with child

1127 words, 6 min read

A central aspect of Christianity is Jesus’ suffering on the cross, to the point of calling out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) shortly before his death. This moment of utter abandonment shows God making himself one with each one of us even in our darkest, loneliest, most desperate moments - a realization that gives us a glimpse of the extent of his love. It also invites us to look for him and encounter him in the suffering of others and ourselves, in the hope of joining him in the resurrection that follows.

Since this belief is in God’s presence in suffering being universal, it raises the doubt of whether those who do not share that belief nonetheless experience what Christian’s would recognize as a relationship with the forsaken Jesus. In fact, my own experience has been very much one of a resoundingly positive answer to this question. As I read the writings of agnostic or atheist thinkers, or those who follow other religions or philosophies, I keep coming across passages in which echoes of Jesus’ cry of abandonment can be heard. By this I certainly don’t mean to ascribe beliefs to their authors that they do not hold, but simply to say that their accounts are like those I would give of my relationship with the forsaken Christ.

Instead of an annotated reading, I would just like to offer a selection of my favourite such “echoes” next.

Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise, XXXI: 108:
“We have lost those features,  just as a magic number made up of ordinary figures can be lost;  just as an image in a kaleidoscope is lost for ever. We may come across the features and not know them. The profile of a Jew on an underground train may be that of Christ; the hands that give us our  change over a counter may echo those that some soldiers once nailed to the cross. Perhaps some feature  of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face  died and was erased so that God could be everyone.” 
Ted Hughes, letter to his 24 year old son:
“It’s something people don’t discuss, because [they] are aware of [it] only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, […] or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them.

Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable […] eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances.

And when we meet people, this is what we usually meet [and we] end up making ‘no contact.’ But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.”
Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain:
“The crucial problem is how to think the link between the two “alienations” — the one of modern man from God (who is reduced to an unknowable In-itself, absent from the world subjected to mechanical laws), the other of God from himself (in Christ, in the incarnation) — they are the same, although not symmetrically, but as subject and object. In order for (human) subjectivity to emerge out of the substantial personality of the human animal, cutting links with it and positing itself as the I = I dispossessed of all substantial content, as the self-relating negativity of an empty singularity, God himself, the universal Substance, has to “humiliate” himself, to fall into his own creation, “objectivize” himself, to appear as a singular miserable human individual, in all its abjection, i.e., abandoned by God. The distance of man from God is thus the distance of God from himself. […]

In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” in the figure of Christ as god-man, but only in the most tense moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”): in this moment, the gap is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God the Father; the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.”
Marina Abramović, Tate Talk (25:47 - 27:19):
“We are always afraid of pain, of dying, of suffering. They are the main concerns of human beings. Many artists deal with these themes in different ways. I was always interested in how the different ancient people work with ceremonies and with the ritualization of inflicting very large amounts of pain on their bodies, even to the stage of clinical death. And the reason for this is not any kind of masochistic reason. The reason is very simple: to confront yourself with the pain, to confront taking this kind of risk, in order to liberate yourself from fear, to jump to another state of consciousness by doing it. I could never do this with my own private life, but if I stage the situation where it is painful, in front of the audience, the stage situation is dangerous in front of the audience, I take the energy of the audience and I can use it to give me strength to go through that experience. So, I become like your mirror. If I can do this in my life, you can do it in yours.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love:
“In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one. […]

In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.””
Tracey Emin, Serpentine Gallery Poetry Marathon 2009:
“To sleep

To sleep
not sleeping
To wake
not wanting
Night time comes
with feelings mixed
I want to drown myself
in my pillow
Force myself
through another world
I want to wake up
feeling love”

Friday, 31 March 2017

You have made my Father’s house a museum

Francis open for repairs

1260 words, 6 min read

The Codex of Canon Law presents the salvation of souls as the supreme law of the Church (cf. Canon 1752), a principle that has its roots in the Roman law: “Salus populi suprema lex esto” (Cicero, De Legibus, Book III, Part III, Sub. VIII). As such, this law is designed to be invoked when choices are to be made about conflicting alternatives, as happens almost universally in the life not only of each individual, family, society but also of the Church. Does A contribute to the salvation of souls more or is it B? What is the objective of a project in terms of its impact on the salvation of souls? What role does some object, process, practice, building, etc. play from this perspective?

Before getting to the events that lead me to reflecting on this topic, it might be worth spelling out what constitutes the “salvation of souls” that ought to be the first priority. Here the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks very plainly: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship [...] are indeed assured of their eternal salvation.” (§1030). Making the “salvation of souls” the “supreme law” therefore ought to be about inviting, encouraging, supporting God’s friendship. But, I hear you ask, what is it that merits God’s friendship? Like all good friendship, it is, in fact, unmerited and offered gratuitously. God does not have favourites or a predilection for certain “types” of people - put even better, and in the beautiful words of Patriarch Athenagoras: “God loves everyone equally, but secretly each one of us is his favourite.” However, like all friendship, friendship with God too requires work and a desire to please and bring joy to my friend. If I know that a friend likes the Big Lebowski, I quote from it to delight them (and myself), if they are into football, I show interest (even if my own is limited). So, the obvious question is: what is it that my friend, God, delights in and is passionate about? Again, like with all friends, it pays to listen closely, since they do drop hints here and there or even say outright what they like (marmalade, chocolate with hazelnuts, Camus and Hesse, walking, ...). God is no different. He tells us that he likes it when we offer drinks to the thirsty, food to the hungry, to welcome strangers, clothe the naked and visit prisoners (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). He also has a preference for mercifulness, peace-making, meekness, justice and accepting unpleasantness for his sake (cf. Matthew 5:1-12), for not judging (cf. Matthew 7:1), for not returning violence with violence (cf. Matthew 5:39) and he is keen to have children be close to him (cf. Matthew 19:14). My reading of the “supreme law” therefore is that it calls for the Church to prioritise inviting, facilitating, supporting everybody’s friendship with God.

Against this, at the time implicit, background, I set out to mass in Milan’s cathedral on Tuesday morning, since I am at a conference here during these days. As I walked out of the Duomo underground station, I entered a square jam-packed with people behind whom the magnificent structure of the Cathedral’s pentagonal shape protruded into a dazzling blue sky. An ideal setting for friendship, no doubt. Getting closer to the church, I saw the first warning signs that the lex suprema might not be in force: a board displaying a complex, multi-SKU product portfolio of entrance fees and multi-destination ticket packages that offer access to the Cathedral for between 12 and 16 Euros (as it turns out, on the website there is a 3 Euro alternative, but this was not apparent from the information on display). Since I was on my way to mass first, I looked for a way to join it without paying for a ticket, since paying for mass is about as acceptable as paying my own children for a hug.

Sure enough, in one corner of the Cathedral’s facade, there was a barrier with a sign saying “confessione” with an official standing next to it and only letting those who say the right things join that queue. Past the barrier, a soldier with a machine gun across his back stops me and searches me with a hand-held metal detector, from the front and from the back. He wants to see the phone in my pocket and then waves me past. Next, still before entering the church, I have to open my bag and have its compartments reviewed by two more armed soldiers. Now I am ready to enter the Father’s house. Before reaching the holy water font at the entrance, I am welcomed by a sign reminding me that there is to be strictly no photography in this part of the church, reserved to those who have not paid for a ticket. Just in case those pesky faithful were to dilute the value offered to paying customers, I presume.

So, I’m in, but where is the mass? The vast central nave of the cathedral is reserved for visitors (not worshipers) and, with the exception of three people, is empty. Jam-packed square outside, empty cathedral inside. Revenue stream inside, potential friends outside. Lex suprema?

Asking two more officials along the way, I finally arrive in the space behind the main altar, originally designed for the choir, where a small contemporary-looking altar, lectern and tabernacle are tacked onto the back of the beautifully and ornately decorated main altar, of which we only see the (surprisingly detailed) backs of the saints adorning it. I am the third person to arrive for mass in a congregation that at its peak hits around 35 souls. The mass is beautiful in its intimacy and by virtue of the, to me, novelty of the Ambrosian rite. Nonetheless, I feel like we are tolerated instead of being at home, like we are allowed to share a museum’s facilities, out of the way of the revenue-generating visitor flow. How does this let us, the Church, be the salt and leaven that Jesus calls us to be (cf. Matthew 5:13, 13:33)? How is this choice of access to and utilisation of the cathedral a consequence of a preference for the salvation of all? What would Jesus say if he turned up here today? Would he calmly proceed through the security checks, or would he reach for a length or rope? (cf. John 2:13-16)

As you can tell, I wasn’t best pleased. I have to say though that my main reason for writing this is not to have a go at Milan cathedral or to suggest that the above is an insurmountable obstacle. Certainly, my issue here is not exclusively with the Archdiocese of Milan - this approach to managing church buildings is, sadly, pretty wide-spread (with differing degrees of objectionability), and I am also aware of the financial challenges and responsibilities of maintaining such buildings. Most importantly though, I also believe that the above is not an inhibitor to being Church, but rather a - in my opinion unnecessary - obstacle. In spite of such a presentation of a museum-management face of the Church, I and my fellow Church members are still free to invite others to friendship with God by how we relate to those who throng outside our cathedrals. While unpleasant, this experience has also been a wake-up call for me to look at those I walk past in this great city as brothers and sisters rather than as an anonymous mass, and with that disposition to be open to discerning God’s will in every present moment.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Míla and the most beautiful king

Mila vlk

1188 words, 6 min read

His Eminence Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, archbishop emeritus of Prague and former President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, died five days ago on 18th March. He was a giant of 20th century Christianity by the very simplicity with which he lived out the Gospel under the intrusive eye of an oppressive Communist regime. While having the permit to exercise his priestly ministry withheld and being forced to earn a living as a cleaner of shop windows, he shone as a genuine follower of Jesus and a faithful successor to the apostles.

It was during this period, as a child in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that I first met Míla, as we all called him at the time. Míla would appear out of the blue at clandestine gatherings of the underground Church that my parents took me to and would mostly remain in the background. Already then, at the age of around 5-6, it was clear to me that he was different. I’d spot him on the periphery of a meeting held in a forest (where we could pretend that we were just on a hike if the secret police turned up), deep in conversation with one person or another, and I’d be struck by a sense of witnessing an inexplicable closeness. A closeness that I would also experience first-hand on the few occasions when he spoke to me and that to this day remain etched in my mind.

Instead of telling you more about his life, I would here like to offer translations of a couple of passages from Míla’s talks and sermons as archbishop of Prague, from which his love for all radiates with great clarity.

First, in 2000 Míla spoke about the universality of our call to love and the importance of inclusion:
“Let us seek the lowest common denominator of the global age, which is one person’s love for another, put in secular terms: mutual solidarity. This value can truly be called global, because every human heart is directed towards it, created for it. [...] First of all it is possible to testify to love by not excluding anyone from it. In all religions love is understood as universal, as love towards all, without distinction or discrimination. Furthermore, it is also in the nature of God’s love to take the initiative, because God always loves us first and takes his love to the extreme. We too, if we want to be witnesses, must not wait, but take the initiative in love. We were created as a gift for one another and we become fulfilled only by placing our capacity to love at the disposal of our neighbors.”
During the Advent of 2008, Míla addressed the Czech Parliament with a reflection on the need to be open towards others, which echoed St. Irenaeus’ famous “The glory of God is man fully alive”:
“The good news of Advent consists in God knowing us, our fates, our steps, in him being open to us. Jesus reminded us that we as creatures is similar to God and has in his genes an essential openness towards others. To live this openness in practice in his life - that is the message and challenge of Advent. If it is so, then the person can reach their identity, to reach their peak, full of success, to develop their powers only in dialogue, in communication with another person. [...] During Advent, the basic statement of the Gospel about God is that God is love and and that he himself brought love into our lives, so that we may build our lives on its basis.”
In 2009, Míla started one of his talks with a warning that sadly has a heightened degree of relevance in today’s delusion of “alternative facts”:
“It is necessary to realize one extremely fundamental thing, which is the experience of the last century: Most disaster was brought into the world by ideologies, which had lies and hatred as their basis. Whether it was communism throughout that long line of the decades or Nazism, their basis were lies, untruth and hatred. The only thing built on this basis is misfortune.”
Later that same year, Míla spoke about our fraternity being rooted in God’s paternity and lined the idea to the call to an “ecstatic” life:
“We live, are destined to live “ecstatically”, not closed into ourselves, in ourselves, but to live for others and in the other. “Ex-stare” means to step out of oneself, not to live closed in only oneself. There our destiny, our lives’ calling is fulfilled - a call to existential exchange, to dialogue. For their own life the person needs to love and also to be loved! Being destined for love is being destined for community. That is the identity of every person. A person feels fulfilment, satisfaction, realization, if they find and live their identity with another.”
In 2010, during a visit to Reykjavik, Míla spoke about who God is and how he desires our closeness:
“Our God is an infinite God who loves us immensely. He is omnipresent, but he came even closer to us, so that we could be close to him, so that we could touch him. He took on a human body, entered our world as a human, became man, was born of the Virgin Mary. At the end of his life, after his death, he rose from the dead with his transformed body (which is not subject to time and space), so that he could then be in every place in the world, so that we may experience that he is close to us. After his death he said with these words: “I (the resurrected) am with you always, until the end of the world.” [cf. Matthew 28:20] In the Old Testament there is one very important sentence: My delight is to dwell with the sons of men. (cf. Proverbs [8:31]). Our God yearns to be with us.”
Míla returned to these thoughts on God’s closeness with heightened intensity when he spoke with his friend, Fr. Hubertus Blaumeiser, some weeks before his death:
“God is Father, he is close. In the past God was often seen as being far away. He was worshiped, adored, but as one who is distant. Even the liturgy was celebrated with this sense of the infinite distance between us and God. Instead, Scripture tells us that God is near. “It is my delight to be with the children of men,” we read in the Book of Proverbs. And Matthew’s Gospel ends with this assurance: “I am with you always, until the end of the world” (28, 20). We must help others to discover the God who is near!”
This closeness to God apparent also from some of Míla’s last words, spoken with great effort, which were reported as follows:
“During the last days, he did not have much strength to speak anymore. However, only hours before his death, according to his caregivers, he uttered the words “The most beautiful king”. When the doctor asked him whom he meant, Cardinal Vlk replied: “Jesus on the cross”.”
Thank you, dear Míla, for your closeness.