Thursday, 21 November 2013

God's gift and Man's best friend

Last month I sadly lost one of my best friends. We'd been inseparable since I was 16, regularly going for walks in the parks and on the beaches around Swansea, playing in the garden after school or work, staying up late to watch Match of the Day or to pray the rosary. He was often the first to greet me in the morning and the last to say good night before I went to bed. When I was sad, he cheered me up. When I was stressed he helped me to relax. When I was in pain, he helped me bear the burden. When I was happy, he shared my joy. When he passed away, I sobbed for a good hour and though I have nothing but happy memories of our time together, I feel the loss most acutely in the little things. I can no longer expect to see him strolling up the drive to meet me after work or to literally chew the bacon on a Saturday morning nor can I pay him a visit when I'm troubled and can't sleep. His name was Buzz and he was the best of buddies.

Buzz in his prime
I get an immense amount of spiritual consolation from the natural world, be it in marvelling at the grandeur of the cosmos, the intricacies of the laws of physics, a beautiful panorama or amazing animal. This appreciation is so strong that for me, it is an irrefutable proof of God's existence. It is a grace which is not given to all but without which I may have struggled in my Faith. "Credo ut intelligam",  "I believe that I may understand", as St Anselm says.

Some of my favourite stories about the saints include their interaction with animals. St Francis is well known for his great love for nature and this love was expressed most beautifully in his Canticle of Creation, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Saint Francis' inspiration for the canticle was undoubtedly Daniel 3:57-88, one of my favourite bible passages, where creation itself is called upon to worship the creator:

And you, sun and moon, O bless The Lord,
And you, the stars of the heavens, O bless The Lord,
And you, showers and rain, O bless The Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise forever.

The "Fioretti" or "little flowers" of Saint Francis, a collection of hagiographical stories on the life of the saint, are filled with anecdotes of his interaction with creation. My  favourite tales include the story of the Wolf of Gubbio who Francis convinced to protect rather than terrorise the local village by shaking its paw, a dance to music supplied by crickets and a sermon to the birds. The Franciscans have retained Francis' fascination with nature in their art and culture and I am reminded of a beautiful Franciscan Church in Rome (the name escapes me, as do the pictures I took of it) which has frescoes of the Stations of the Cross which depict animals tending to the wounds of Christ as he moves towards Cavalry. I like to think that we were originally designed to have a far deeper relationship with nature and creation but that bond has been damaged by the spiritual turmoil which ensued after The Fall. Saints like Francis offer us a glimpse of how we might have been, better able to interpret the natural world and act accordingly.

Buzz and Brother Snarf
One of the first things I remember studying as part of my Theology & Philosophy A-Level was St Thomas Aquinas' teachings on matter and form. We looked at the difference between anima or spirit and a rational soul and marvelled at the vagarious implications for the created order. For example, plants have spirits (which maybe why my father talks to his tomatoes and why children play with food) and each angel is effectively its own species. Contrary to received wisdom and with great concern, we learned that according to Aquinas, All Dogs Do Not Go to Heaven as this was the dwelling place of rational souls worthy of the beatific vision.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that "the seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity." [1] To put it briefly, the whole of creation is designed to give glory to God and serve mankind in its earthly existence. Man's dominion over nature is evidenced in the Genesis creation stories where each animal is brought forth to be named by Adam but this dominion is not inalienable - creation belongs first and foremost to God and Man's dominion therefore includes a duty of stewardship. The Catechism tells us that "God surrounds animals with his providential care" and that by their mere existence, they are able to bless and give Him glory. A dog can be no more or less a dog; it fulfills its nature of doginess perfectly. We therefore "owe animals our kindness" and it is "contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly". [2] It is however possible to anthropomorphise animals to such a degree that it undermines both human dignity and the dignity of animals within the created order. It is truly exasperating to see people treating animals like human babies or children. It is certainly possible to love animals without directing the kind of affection which is properly due to people.

So where does this leave Buzz? We do not know what the New Heaven and the New Earth will look like but we do know that the bodily resurrection applies only to those rational souls who have died in Christ. I like to think however that in the resurrection, we shall take with us all that is good in this life, having shed all that is bad. This would certainly include my memories of Buzz and the "good" of creation itself. Perhaps there is hope too from the Book of Revelation which describes the heavenly liturgy where "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...", cries out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour, glory and power, forever and ever"[3] Maybe Buzz is sharing a truce with the glorious postmen of heaven, praising God before his throne. Failing that, I'll just imagine he is happy chasing squirrels in Elysium. I wonder what he will do if he ever catches one?

Buzz enjoying the snow

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Catholic Church, 2415
[2] ibid, 2416-2417
[3] Revelation 5:13

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The "New" Rite Mass: The Source of all evils?

Fellow compatriot Ragazza Gallese's most recent blog post [1] offers a lot of food for thought regarding the the relationship between good theology, catechisis and liturgical practice. In it, she exasperates that she is "sick to the back teeth of hearing people complain about clergy who turned (and continue to turn) a blind eye to abortion, contraception, cohabitation, divorce" but still "still regularly (and freely) attend a mass where [there] is ... clapping, ... singing of various dodgy hymns, Communion on the hand, immodest clothing worn by young (and some not so young) girls, ... no catechesis, where the priest celebrates mass with his back to the Blessed Sacrament, .. where lay people distribute Holy Communion as if they were themselves priests, where said lay people then stand around a table and drink what is left of the Precious Blood as if they were finishing off the last dregs of a pint, where confession is rarely available and where the Sanctuary (and indeed the whole church) has been stripped bare of anything that might remind you of the Holy Sacrifice".

I sympathise with much of what she has to say post but am alarmed by the prospect of creating a two tier church of "us and them", a profoundly un-Catholic concept for a Universal Church. I am well aware that there is a de facto split in the Church, largely centred around issues of morality, but allowing these differences to be entrenched in parish life will eventually lead to schism. I could never be an Anglican because accepting diametrically opposed theology makes absolutely no sense.

From my experience, orthodoxy and reverence are in no way intrinsically opposed to Mass in the New Rite. I accept that liturgical malpractice has proliferated under the reformed liturgy but it is disingenuous to suggest that they never occurred under the Old Rite. It is not beyond the realms of plausibility to suggest that it is the lack of belief and true understanding of the Mass that is responsible for the liturgical abuses - I'm quite sure if Rome decreed that every Mass should take place under the Old Rite then liturgical abuse would continue to take place.

One's own soul must take precedence in matters of salvation as one is unlikely to effect the salvation of others if one is in danger of losing Faith. If such a scenario were to arise over the type of Mass at one's local parish then finding a new parish would certainly be warranted. For those of us not in such a situation, if we want to effect change in the Church and promote a more appropriate liturgy which greater reflects the splendour and glory of what actually takes places at every Mass (reverent or irreverent thank God! [2]), then we need to be in our parishes, working for change. 

I suspect that poor catechesis for both priest and laity alike are at the root of these liturgical abuses. It would be impossible to perform poor liturgy if one has a true understanding of what take place at every Mass and this is where those who have received such a grace can help their fellow parishioners. After all, deliberate liturgical abuse is tantamount to "eating the bread", or "drinking the chalice of the Lord" unworthily, a sin which incurs the most grievous guilt of the body and of the blood of the Lord. To be truly culpable of such a sin is grave indeed. Without wishing to be condescending, those with greater depth of understanding regarding the Mass have a duty to help those who do not. If you are interested in developing your understanding of the Mass, I recommend starting with "What Happens at Mass" by Jeremy Driscoll OSB [3]. It's a short and very readable book, which is quite profound in its simplicity.

Speaking mainly as a thirty-something-singleton, I don't know where Ragazza Gallese's opinions on liturgy have been formed but perhaps she too feels left rather bereft by life as a Catholic in Wales. I regularly attend Mass in either one of two local parishes and, while I am thankful for two priests of excellent but different charisms, I cannot shake the feeling that we are rather impoverished in terms of cultural life when compared to some of the parishes I have attending when visiting friends in England. In this however I truly am to blame because I am not making any effort to affect change, nor have I gone out of my way to look for opportunities to support my Faith. Perhaps it's time I made a start...

In thinking more about the issues raised here, I was reminded of letter XVI in C.S. Lewis's Screwtape letters. There the erstwhile demon writes to his diabolical nephew:

Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that "suits" him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

... The parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

I have already written a little about my university experiences and how liturgy became a divisive topic in Oxford [4] and the final statement from Screwtape describes the results perfectly - certain individuals used the Church and the liturgy to develop their own exclusive club from which they could condescendingly regard those who were not part of it. I am not suggesting that this is the ultimate end for all those who start down the path but it is at least a possible destination. It is a temptation to which I have been guilty of indulging in the past, as I felt a certain superiority to liberal Catholics or Protestants. Thankfully, my University experience forced me to venture outside of the artificial bubble of orthodoxy to which I belonged and I met individuals in whom the Holy Spirit was clearly at work, even though I sometimes  had profound disagreements with their opinions on particular issues. I hope those experiences have remedied that fault in my character - one down and many more to go!


Monday, 18 November 2013

Red Card: The Tablet

It has long been known that The Tablet has been a mouth piece for dissent but it's most recent editorial appears to have broken new ground in relativism [1]. Having read it, words failed me so I looked for images to express how I felt:

The Picard Facepalm: Good, but not quite enough

The Triple Facepalm: Better, but still not suitably grace
The Ultimate Facepalm: Just right
Tablet bashing is a rather easy sport if one is so inclined but it is difficult to envisage how dialogue is possible with a publication which seems to delight in furthering dissent. We are all in need of salvation and the Church was made for sinners but to suggest that it change its teaching to match the majority view in the pews is profoundly un-Catholic. Christ meets us sinners with open arms, as he met the woman caught in adultery, and he addresses us in the same way :"I do not condemn thee: go, and sin no more." [2] The writers of the Tablet seem to revel in the former but refuse to accept the latter, the true hallmark of a Christian. They dress their rhetoric up in appeals to conscience and the primacy of social justice but they refuse to accept the heaviest burden of the cross, namely interior change and the moulding of the will to that of Christ. 

Jesus encountered many who found his teachings "intolerable language" but they at least had the grace to walk away, hopefully to return less hard of heart. The Tablet however, has committed a grave act of hubris in claiming the voice of dissent as Christ's own. It is difficult to view The Tablet, a true wolf in sheep's clothing with a fleece as woolly as its theology, as accepting "all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization" united "by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion". Indeed, "even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not... persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart.'"[4] Actively seeking out and promoting dissent is not the hallmark of an "International Catholic Weekly": it is time The Tablet had the grace to "walk away" and stop claiming to be a part of the Universal Church which it so clearly holds in disdain.

[2] John 8:11
[3] John 6:60-71
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 837

Friday, 4 October 2013

Window of Salvation

After reading a recent Twitter exchange which began by discussing indulgences, the issue of the difference between temporal and external punishment was raised. When we sin, we incur two liabilities - that of guilt and that of punishment. "When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain". [1] Christ paid the price for our sins before God but did not relieve us of the obligation to atone for them.

According to Catholic teaching, those who die who are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully accounted for their transgressions must undergo temporal purification in Purgatory because no soul would be able to stand in the glorious presence of God with any taint of sin. This contrasts with the Eternal punishment of Hell, permanent separation from God, for those unrepentant of sin. [2] When we first receive God's forgiveness, especially at our Baptism, we are forgiven. When we subsequently sin and receive forgiveness, we are likewise forgiven. This forgiveness however does not free us from the penalty of physical death, a temporal penalty as Christ has promised us resurrection.

That temporal punishment is a result of the fall is evidenced in scripture and the whole economy of Salvation. Wisdom 10:2, where man is condemned "to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow" despite being led out of his original disobedience and Numbers 20:12, where God forgives the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but still keeps them from the promised land is often given in support of this teaching. In addition, throughout Salvation History, those who receive forgiveness bear fruit in their repentance in further acts of penitence - alms giving, prayer, fasting and good works. As the nature of indulgences (and their abuse) and the role of temporal punishment were major contributors to the theology of the reformation, the Council of Trent addressed the issue in depth, proclaiming that satisfaction for sins, is made to God through "the merits of Christ by the punishments inflicted by Him and patiently borne", the imposition of the church, and "voluntarily undertaken works of fasting, prayer, almsgiving" [and] other works of piety". [3]

I often think of these things with the analogy of a broken window. If I break a window with a football (sin), I incur the penalties of guilt before the owner of the window (God) and punishment (I must pay to have the window repaired). Even if the window is repaired, the memory of it being shattered still remains. Every time the owner, I or the neighbours look at the repaired the window, they may remember the shards of glass flying in all directions. I therefore give a bunch of flowers to the owner of the window (Christ's sacrifice on the cross) so that now, when the window is considered, it is the flowers that are remembered, rather than the shards of glass. All analogies break down at some point and this one may fail on some important theological
point (please point it out if it does!) but it may be useful in trying to explain what can be a difficult concept for non-Catholics to understand.


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Liturgical Wars

It's all just a little bit of history repeating...

One of the most common themes which crops up in Catholic Blogs and on Twitter is that of Liturgy. As with most inter-ecclesiastical strife, the battleground is demarcated by the interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the fault line between protagonists is invariably drawn along liberal and traditional axioms. If Sacrosanctum Concilium was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio on the Use of the Roman Liturgy was the Treaty of Versaille, we find ourselves living in the uneasy peace of the Weimar Republic as Pope Francis' ability to escape pigeon-holing leads to rumour and intrigue over the direction of his predecessor's reforms.

It is to be expected that any discussion of liturgical practice will evoke strong passions. Mass is after all a celebration which transcends space and time, making present to us Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the heavenly worship of God as glimpsed by St John in the Book of Revelation. Though an "action of the whole Christ" and an expression of the unity of the body of Christ, as liturgy touches on man's capacity for art and expression, it necessarily embodies a profoundly personal experience, subject to an individual's own tastes and preferences. As the Catechism states, "integrated into the world of faith and taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit, these cosmic elements, human rituals, and gestures of remembrance of God become bearers of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ." [1] Liturgy actually contributes to our salvation, acting as a conduit of grace:

You have no need of our praise,
yet our desire to thank You is itself Your gift.
Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness,
but makes us grow in Your grace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. [2]

Colours of Swansea Bay

Before attending University, I had never really given the liturgy much thought, largely because most of the Masses I attended in Wales were rather generic. To this day, my experiences lead me to believe that there is no discernible Catholic liturgical tradition in Wales - when juxtaposed with my attendance of Mass in England, I am often left feeling spiritual impoverished. I suspect that the overwhelming success of the Reformation in Wales together with English determination to suppress Welsh culture is largely responsible for this phenomenon. Lacking metropolitan centres of ecclesiastical influence, Wales relied heavily on its monasteries for its Catholic identity and their utter destruction forever shaped our spiritual destiny. English Catholicism can freely peruse the back-catalogue of her High-Anglican sister for inspiration but the triumph of  Non-Conformism in Wales perhaps makes liturgical borrowing theologically onerous. It was only on leaving Wales to attend youth conferences or to go to University that I was exposed to the broad tradition of Catholic liturgy, including fundamentally basic practices such as the Divine Office.

This is not to say however I had no opinions on liturgy and music at Mass. As an alter server, I noted that our Parish priest was adamant that the defining characteristics of Mass liturgy should be dignity and appropriateness to the current season. The Easter and Christmas celebrations always filled me with wonder and awe and as I grew older, I began to appreciate how essential it was for liturgy, particularly with regards to music, to reflect the reality of the Mass. I had quite an eclectic taste in music which covered a wide spectrum of styles from rock to opera (excluding rap and R&B) but recognised that what I enjoyed listening to in my spare time would not always be appropriate at Mass. As for the form of Mass, I may have had a vague understanding that an "Old Rite" had preceded the existing form but I had no knowledge of how it differed other than the priest facing the altar rather (a fact gleaned from old prayer cards) and the language being Latin. I can't recall when I first attended an ordinary form Mass in Latin - it may have been arranged as part of my Latin studies when I was fifteen - but I do remember that I very much enjoyed the experience. Up until that point I was rather sceptical of the notion because virtually everyone I met who professed an affinity for the Latin Mass was either a schismatic or, quite frankly, rather odd.

Perhaps the single most informative liturgical experience of my teenage years came via a week long mission which the Headmaster had invited to our school. I'm not sure if the energetic mission team was Catholic or not but their razzmatazz, rock star presentation was everything I had come to loathe in "Catholic Youth Ministry". I felt rather than attempting to stimulate Faith, they fed us emotion and I am firmly convinced that is poor soil for spiritual growth. This was evidenced in the feedback session at the end of the mission - the Sixth Form complained the team were attempting to brainwash the younger pupils who in turn enthused that they thoroughly enjoyed the "performances" but wished there was less religion involved. The "show piece" Mass left me incredulous and deeply hurt as a priest who later claimed to be an expert in "liturgy for children" broke every rule in the book as he neglected set prayers, invented rites and gave the missionary team carte blanche in asserting themselves over the Mass. The recollection of  liturgical dance from the leotarded GCSE drama troupe, the rendition of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (one of my favourite songs) and the third Offertory prayer beseeching God to "Bless this money" still makes me cringe. I left school with the conviction that guitars, tambourines, drum kits, beanbags and gaudy posters had no place in the celebration of Mass.

Attack of the Drones

One of great advantages of being a Catholic in Oxford is that Mass is readily available throughout the day, every day. I could attend Littlemore, Greyfriars, Blackfriars, St Aloysius Gonzaga (The Oratory), Holy Rood, Grandpont House or The Catholic Chaplaincy. During the week, I attended Mass where ever best fitted in with my studies but I had a preference for the Oratory because of the style of the Church and the opportunity to hear Mass in Latin. Aesthetically, the worst place to attend Mass was The Catholic Chaplaincy (the main hall is used for well attended Masses and it is a concrete structure more suited to a car park or aircraft hanger) but I always attended Mass there on a Sunday as it was the centre of Catholic Student life and where I met all my best University friends. The Chaplaincy could never compete with the grandeur of the Oxford College Chapels but the liturgy there was dignified whilst the chapel was also very peaceful, prayerful and perfect for post study adoration. Oxford also gave me the opportunity to attend Mass according to the Old Roman and Byzantine Rites, both of which I found intriguing, mysterious and beautiful.

It was within this environment that I first experienced the true vitriol and snobbery that can accompany liturgical preference. There was a not inconsequential group of students who attended The Oratory who would refuse to attend Mass at the Chaplaincy or be part of the Catholic Society. That was of course their prerogative but during meetings of overlapping societies such as the Newman Society which was often held in The Old Palace which adjoins the Catholic Chaplaincy, some would routinely disparage anyone associated with the Chaplaincy. Mass at the Chaplaincy they claimed was "barely valid" and anyone who attended it was clearly a "liberal". I suspect that for the most vociferous of this group, attending Mass at the Oratory had little to do with Faith - it was rather an extension of their class pretensions. Exclusivity is an extremely sought after commodity in Oxford and the Oratory, with its collection of academics, intellectuals, barristers and corporates and Catholicism in general created yet another clique for them to invest in.

Though it might be claimed that Oxford is microcosm and that these traits do not extended to the rest of the country, my experiences since suggest otherwise. A summary of the worst of these idiosyncrasies include:

1) Liturgical Fetishism - A concern for vestments and liturgical aids which borders on the profane
2) Determining Orthodoxy by liturgical preference
3) Questioning the validity of Novus Ordo Masses
4) Snobbish dismissal of the Faith of others
5) Hypersensitivity to poor liturgical practice
6) A propensity to judge spiritual progress on how Mass makes one feel
7) A tendency to link the Usus Antiquior and High Novus Order Masses with the concept of being English

In highlighting these idiosyncrasies, I do not mean to imply that everyone who attends an Old Rite Mass shares in them. The vast majority of people I converse with on Twitter who attend an Usus Antiquior Mass are thoroughly reasonable folk who do so for their own spiritual nourishment. Indeed, I sympathise greatly with their claims that a return to the Usus Antiquior eradicates the worst of the horrific liturgical abuses which occur under the novus ordo and that certain signs and symbols such as the ad orientem aspect of the priest better present the mysteries of the Mass to the congregation. Whatever the reasons behind a preference for a certain type of liturgy, the upshot is that protagonists are effectively creating a "church within a church", where local parishes are abandoned in favour of one where Mass is said "properly", thus polarising opinion and practice even further.

Gentlemen prefer Lauds

Throughout these musings, I have frequently used the term "liturgical preference" but I'm not sure this is useful terminology. Preference involves a subjective choice and though everyone is bound to find certain liturgical practices appealing or not, there should be a certain level of objectivity in all liturgy. Mass has an objective basis in the Sacrifice of Christ and takes its form from the events of Last Supper to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday together with what has been revealed to us in the Book of Revelation:

"A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne": "the Lord God." It then shows the Lamb, "standing, as though it had been slain": Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one "who offers and is offered, who gives and is given." [3]

St John goes on to describe this liturgy in great detail complete with explanations of signs and symbols and accompanying prayers. The result is an act of worship which has been imparted to us by Divine Revelation, the prototype for every Mass.

I believe that there is objective line that can be drawn which determines if a Mass is dignified and appropriate or not; I'm just not sure how that line can be drawn and how relevant cultural norms are to the decision. I can say that I have a preference for the novus ordo Mass in Latin, with the readings in the vernacular accompanied by traditional hymns and the priest facing ad orientam but to what extent can I say that any of these things would be objectively good for the whole of the Faithful?

Out of Africa

I have already described my intense dislike of the guitar and drums at Mass and for a long time I thought there should be a universal moritorium in their use at Mass. My opinions however changed after attending a few Masses for African and Asian Communities and seeing how the expression of their culture in their liturgy was an immense outpouring of their Faith. I am sure they felt as bemused at what must seem very sombre Mass in Britain as I did at their energetic and lively Masses but at least we share the same conviction that no matter the circumstances, Mass is Mass, recognisable the world over. I'm not sure how these communities celebrated Mass before the novus ordo but I think it would be quite an injustice if the usus antiquior was forced upon them or if they were judged by British standards of appropriateness. 

Question Time

I suppose my views on the liturgy, shaped as they are by past experience, lead to more questions that answers. I believe that there should be an objective norm for liturgical practice at Mass but that it is culturally specific. Who is responsible for deciding where that norm lies and how do they justify their decision? Is it logically impossible for me to insist that what I consider to be cheesy pop music has no place in Mass but accept that the use of the guitar and folk songs is perfectly legitimate practice for different cultures? Should people who are irked by a particular liturgy just grin and bear it or are they justified in nomadic Mass attendance for greater spiritual benefit? Whatever the answer to these questions (please chip in if you have some!), I am convinced that good liturgy is of great importance and that the fault in the life of the Church along liturgical lines is a poor evangelical witness.

[2] Preface of Weekdays in Ordinary Time IV

Monday, 30 September 2013

Red Card: ACTA

Red Card: ACTA (Simulation)
UK Catholic Twittersphere is awash with tales of "A Call to Action", a group of Catholics loosely following the principles of the Excommunicated American organisation "Call to Action" which in 1972 called for the Church to "reevaluate its positions on issues like celibacy for priests, the male-only clergy, homosexuality, birth control, and the involvement of every level of the church in important decisions". [1]

A visit to the "A Call to Action" website leaves one rather confused as to its actual purpose. Aside from a rather non-committal mission statement

"We are a group of Catholics, some of whom are ordained, brought together by our love of Christ's church and our anxiety about its future. Still inspired by the Second Vatican Council we want to contribute fully to the life of our church so that we may be a more effective sign of the Kingdom of God. To do this, we believe that an atmosphere of openness and dialogue both with each other and with our bishops needs developing. We desire to help create a climate of trust and respect for all where this dialogue may be fostered."

there is nothing which resolutely defines their principles. Take a visit to their forums however and the subsection headings tells one everything one needs to know:

"Married Priests"
"Women's Ordination"
"Divorce and Remarriage"
"Family Planning"

Add to this list subsections calling for democracy in Church Governance and the acceptance of homosexual relationships and you have a comprehensive liberal manifesto, backed up with the usual misguided and inauthentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

I suspect that the impetus for ACTA's disgruntlement is born of genuine failings within the Church. Any Catholic who has invested deeply in their Faith cannot fail to be wounded when the Church's reputation is dragged through the mud by the failings of its members. The Church and the Sacraments were instituted because God knew that the wound of sin would leave us so debilitated. Without structure to the spiritual life and the conduit of Grace the Sacraments make present to us, who can be saved? In governance too the Church needs structure but this aspect of its dual nature is subject to the worthiness of its officers and the whole community of the faithful. Rather than seeking a genuine renewal born in repentance, ACTA is effectively attempting to throw the baby out with the bath water in seeking to alter the Divine Commission of the Church when the focus needs to be on the unworthiness of its officers, clergy and laity alike.

A Call to Action is predominantly a work of hubris. The church it seeks to create is one fashioned in its own image - an idol to human weakness and capriciousness. It already exists in a myriad forms, stripped of communion with Rome. It is a vision for the church which they claim with make it more relevant to the modern mindset but which will in essence erode its great commission to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. "To reject the Church is, like a soldier in the Praetorium, to give Jesus a slap in the face". [2]


Friday, 19 July 2013

Red Card: BBC

For Media Bias: The BBC
So, World Youth Day, an international event, organized by the Catholic Church and presided over by the Pope, which regularly brings together millions of Catholic youth from all around the world, is almost upon us. How does the BBC chose to report the event? With the headline "Masks banned from Pope Francis's Mass in Rio de Janeiro". [1]


Ultimate Facepalm
To get more information on World Youth Day from the BBC, you'll have to wait until 10 or more protesters with a vaguely liberal agenda (Catholic Church discriminates against naturalists in Church perhaps) cause a fuss. Until then, take a look at


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the CDF!

Whilst whiling away Sunday evenings at the CathSoc bar at University, one our favourite games was choosing look-a-likes for our peers. Some were admittedly way off the mark but it was great fun, especially come Freshers week when Robbie Fowler (Blackfriars) and Farrokh Bulsara (Queen's) would sign up for CathSoc Football.

On a recent trip to Dublin, I met up with "Robbie Fowler", who is now a Dominican Friar and to my great amusement found that he had been joined in Holy Orders by a Dirk Kuyt who was conveniently from the Netherlands.

To continue this theme, I noted with glee that upon reading an article on the Catholic Herald Website that Archbishop Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, bears a passing resemblance to John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), master of disguise, from the A-Team.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the CDF!

It is now my goal in life to find an Archbishop or Cardinal that looks like B.A. Baracus.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Man of Steel

Today, after a good feed at the Westbourne (Steak Fajitas* in a Tortilla basket and a pint of Gower Gold Ale) and a mandatory Joe's Ice-Cream (Strawberry Marshmallow Sundae), I had the pleasure of watching Man of Steel, the latest re-incarnation on the Superman franchise. It was film which I thoroughly enjoyed.

*See Mack's comment below!

I am not a comic aficionado and what little I know about Superman or any super hero is largely garnered from film or the odd visit to Wikipedia. I appreciate that to many, what I have to say about the film is largely irrelevant because I don't have the depth of character knowledge required to make a judgement so I offer my opinions as a casual observer. 

Without apology, My reaction to Man of Steel is largely predetermined by my childhood memories of the original Superman films with Christopher Reeve. I'm sure it's true for every generation but there are certain films which I remember watching in my youth with have stayed with me. When I watch films like Star Wars, Back to the Future, E.T. and The Goonies, it's like reliving the past, as they evoke memories of good times, family and friends. 

The Good

Man of Steel is a good film which is easy to watch and it runs along at a pace appropriate to the super hero genre. The running times feels just about right and a clever use of flashbacks at appropriate times creates a smooth and flowing narrative. Thanks to CGI, there is a far greater dichotomy between the scenes on Krypton than those on Earth compared to the previous films but I found the iconography and landscape of the former to be quite appealing. The plot is fairly simple and will be familiar to anyone who has watched the original films but it works as a tool for Clark Kent as he discovers his place in the universe as Kal-El. With that said, I do feel that as franchise starter, the plot is fundamentally flawed (A little about that later).

The casting, on the whole, seems to have been a success with particular success in the titular role as played by Henry Cavill, that of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and their antagonist General Zod (Michael Shannon). The acting likewise is of a good standard with few superfluous characters but I feel the dialogue could have been more polished, particular in the interactions between Amy Adam's Lois Lane and Superman. I got the impression that Cavill took his role extremely seriously and was trying to squeeze everything out of the role he was given. I gained most satisfaction from the scenes between Kal-El, Jor-El and General Zog as they argue over Krypton's past, present and legacy.

The film is truly epic in scale and the action scenes are gloriously played out with the full grunt of CGI behind most scenes. For that reason, some of the fight scenes appear Playstation-esque - this is most evident in the personal combat scenes. With that flaw aside, the scale of Superman's powers is more evident because of what can be achieved with modern filmography.

The soundtrack Is suitably epic but it unsurprisingly can't live up to the original John William's score. Though the themes are not particularly memorable, I will be giving the soundtrack a second hearing on Spotify.

The Bad

Man of Steel is one of those films which, though you come away from the cinema satisfied, you are instantly aware of its flaws. This often leads to a harsher than necessary final analysis, but I think I have managed to set that aside for this film.

As I watched the film, two problems instantly came to mind. The first was the wanton destruction that Superman engaged in as he battled his nemesis (Christopher Reeve never indulged in a spot of collateral damage) and the second was very little time was devoted to why Clark Kent felt so attached to the Earth and it's inhabitants. Aside, from his parents, pretty much every other human being treats the six foot plus good looking hulk with contempt. When we finally get to see Clark Kent in glasses at The Daily Planet, he's squeezed into an ill-fitting shirt and jacket - there's no way he could be the nerdish nobody that everyone likes but largely ignores played to perfection by Christopher Reeve.

As the film ended, I found that though I had thoroughly enjoyed the epic nature of the film, I missed the playfulness of the original films. This leads me to the fundamental flaw in the film as a franchise starter - it's too epic! For me, the charm of the original films is that Superman is operating in the world in which we live. Even when his fellow Kryptonians arrive and duke it out, the world in which Christopher Reeve lives is not fundamentally altered. By the time the credits role, the Earth upon which Cavill's Superman resides is fundamentally altered, on Independence Day proportions. How can Lex Luther possibly live up to that?

Had the film been less epic, we would have had more time for Clark to develop a camaraderie with his fellow human beings thus creating a greater bond between Superman and the world he has placed under his protection. Though I didn't appreciate it at the time (typical bloke reaction, I know), there is very little chemistry between Superman and Lois Lane. For my money, Lois finds out Clark Kent's true identity far too early and this spoils the opportunity to have fun with the meme as the original films did to aplomb.

The Ugly

Thankfully, aside from the odd canine in peril (he survives), there aren't any truly ugly scenes in the film. I do question Kal-El's judgement on kissing a girl with which he has little chemistry on what is effectively their first date however. The violence in the film does mean it's not suitable for younger Superman fans which will greatly disappoint my three year old nephew.

The Lens of Faith

Action films aren't known for their fine theological nuances but Man of Steel has one scene dedicated to the exploration of faith whilst the structure of Krypton society offers ample material for debate. As Kal-El is debating whether or not to turn himself over to the authorities and from there into the hands of his enemies, he seeks the advice of a priest. The priest, tending to an empty church seemingly devoid of faith, counsels a conflicted Kal-El, who sits in front of a stained glass window of Christ in the garden of Gethsemene. As Kal-El leaves, the priest advises him that sometimes a leap of faith is necessary before trust is established. As Christ, the only Son of God was delivered into the hands of death so save us all from sin and death, so Kal-El, the only son of Jor-El, is delivered into the hands of General Zod to save the Earth.

The primary issue that a cursory analysis of Kryptonian society unveils is that of freewill. At a crucial stage of its development, Krypton introduces artificial population control - as a result, all Kryptonian children are artificially conceived according to a grand "codex" which produces the right balance of scientists, warriors, governors etc to optimise Kryptonian society.  As such, they are predetermined creatures, so that when the last vestiges of Krypton are seemingly lost, General Zod, whose sole purpose as a warrior was to protect Krypton, accuses Kal-El of taking his soul. This naturally raises the question - to what degree is Zod culpable for his actions? Is he a victim of his own society? By contrast, Kal-El, as the first child born naturally on Krypton for tens of thousands of years, is in full possession of freewill. He can choose whether to be a force for good or for evil and his decision to choose good is therefore of greater merit.


Man of Steel is a well worth a cinema visit. It is suitably epic and entertaining but lacks the true depth of character and humour which made the originals a childhood favourite. Cavill is an able Superman but judgement has to be reserved on his Clark Kent credentials.

Rating 75/100

Scale of Ali-G to Star Wars: X-Men 2

Monday, 17 June 2013

Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned....

Though each of the Sacraments can be said to equal in value, sharing as they do in the unity of God's plan of salvation for mankind, it is recognised that primary of place is to be given to the Eucharist which is after all the source and summit of the Church's mission. With that said, it is still possible for believers to have favourite Sacraments, often corresponding with different stages of the Spiritual Life. Since my teenage years, I have always had a particular appreciation for the Sacrament of Confession, which, over the years, has becoming an increasing source of consolation for me as I make my pilgrim way through this life.

Give a Little Whistle

One of the great graces I appear to have had bestowed on me, whether I like it or not, is a well informed conscience (plus I suspect a rather busy guardian angel). In the western world where recognising the existence of sin has become unfashionable, the concept of guilt has become a modern pariah. Much is made of the damage that guilt does to the human psyche with special vehemence and ridicule reserved for "Catholic Guilt", that unique brand of guilt fostered by repressive Church teachings and sadistic nuns. Some catechists may over emphasise the terrors of the Fires of Hell and relish describing the horrific torments that await the unrepentant sinner to their own detriment but authentic Christian teaching on sin and guilt should fill us with hope.

For me, the ability to discern right from wrong is one of the defining characteristics of the human person and it is a life's work. "The education of the conscience is a lifelong task... prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency... The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart". [1] True freedom exists not in licentiousness and doing whatever one wants but rather being unfettered in doing what is right. The fact that we sin shows that we are not truly free because if we were, we would always choose to do good. In essence, we are "slaves to sin". [2]

Far from being an agent of repression, guilt serves an essential role - it is part of the feedback mechanism which helps us recognise that we have fallen and that we need to get back up. True, if left unchecked, guilt can destroy the human spirit but we have not been abandoned to guilt by God. Rather, through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the Sacrament of Confession, we have been given a remedy which far surpasses our fall. Indeed, the Easter Exultet goes so far as to proclaim :

"O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!"

whilst in "Praise to the Holiest in the height",  John Henry Newman as saw fit to write :

"O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came."

(Those lines always gives me goosebumps)

I always remember being told that a good rule of thumb was to go to confession once a month but I now tend to go whenever I feel I need to. Sometimes, there can be several months between visits, sometimes only a few days. I have made a habit of going to confession before making a long journey - it's the best form of travel insurance on the market and can't be found on any comparison websites, even those operated by Meerkats.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The tricky thing about conscience is that the better informed it is, the more responsible the individual becomes for the consequences of their actions. The greater one grows in knowledge and understanding and the deeper one's love of God becomes, the graver the effects of one's sins, both in guilt and consequence. Ignorance is certainly not bliss in this regard but planks and splinters often come to my mind when I am tempted to pour invective onto behaviour which displeases me amongst the public at large. 

Of all the Sacraments of the Church, Confession appears to be the most underused. This may be a reflection of the general shying away from recognising the existence of sin in society in general but I suspect it also has much to do with the unavailability of priests, a paucity of good catechesis and a fear of what the priest may think of the penitent (itself a result of poor catechesis). We need a new generation of great confessors like St Jean Vianny and St Padre Pio to rectify this grave shortcoming in the spiritual life of so many. Confession, like Mass, should be available daily in every deanery in the morning and evening, in every diocese in the world. If you want to know more about Confession, try and get hold of a copy of Confession: The Forgotten Sacrament, or check out some of the material available from CTS.

Yo! Adrian, We Did It

The church teaches us that the Sacrament of Confession obtains forgiveness from God and achieves reconciliation with with the Church and society. Its benefits are not limited to the spiritual domain, extending as it does to individual psychological and emotional wellbeing and personal relationships. I was once told by an Psychologist who was consulting on a court case that though he had no spiritual convictions whatsoever, he thought confession was a practice which the whole of society could benefit from, if only for it's cathartic value. It really is a wonderful feeling as you emerge from the confessional having removed the monkey (or meerkat) from your shoulder.

One of the greatest spiritual difficulties I have to admit to facing is dealing with habitual sins - those sins so long entrenched that they have become fixed behaviours. With Saint Paul I have to admit, sometimes in anguish, that the things I do not wish to do I always end up doing. [3] Much is made of the fact that God will never tire of forgiving us and for this we must be extremely grateful. The problem for many however is not that God will tire of forgiving our sins but that we will tire of asking for forgiveness. The soul who reaches this state is in great peril indeed. It is all too easy to wallow in our sin and think about throwing in the towel but as Rocky says,  "it ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! [4]

Act of Contrition

O Lord, upon Your altar of expiation, I offer You all the sins and offenses I have committed in Your presence and in the presence of Your holy angels, from the day when I first could sin until this hour, that You may burn and consume them all in the fire of Your love, that You may wipe away their every stain, cleanse my conscience of every fault, and restore to me Your grace which I lost in sin by granting full pardon for all and receiving me mercifully with the kiss of peace. [5]

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1784 
[2] Romans, 7:14
[3] Romans, 7:15
[4] Rocky Balboa
[5] The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Cause I Gotta Have Faith (Schools)

Stephen Fry Up

Following Stephen Fry on Twitter can be quite exasperating. Most of his Tweets either ridicule my beliefs or take positions diametrically opposed to my own. Why then do I continue to follow him? I think it's because If you stop engaging with people with different views to yourself, you stop growing as a person and you may find that the ultimate casualty is your own beliefs as they decay through atrophy. That, and I do like his sense of humour.

Faithless Admissions

One of Mr Fry's most recent wind up tweets was his support for the "Fair Admissions" Campaign [1] which aims to "open up all state-funded schools to all children, without regard to religion", asking the following questions:

"Are you facing the prospect of your child being unable to gain admittance to your local school, because of religious selection?"
"Or have you had to game the system in order to get them in?"
"Are you happy to live in a society in which children are discriminated against on these grounds, while parents feel compelled to behave in this manner?"

The campaign is supported by the usual suspects like The British Humanist Society but is also curiously endorsed by Rt Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, The Diocese of London and The Methodist Church of Great Britain.

The Fair Admissions websites suggests that it is not the religious "ethos" which makes some faith schools perform better, but their selectivity, which is taken advantage of by more articulate, better off, parents. I have little doubt that this does take place but it is fallacious to suggest that the problem is is limited to Faith schools. Indeed, a purely secular state system of education will effectively discriminate against less affluent families who cannot afford to send their children to private schools.

The campaign "Faith Admissions" is misnomer- if it succeeds, by processes of attrition and dilution, Faith schools will cease to exist because they will be populated by children whose parents will unsympathetic to the original ethos. One of the main reasons parents want to enrol their children into these schools is that they have good reputations and there is much to suggest that the unifying characteristics of a shared Faith creates an environment in which children feel valued,confident and able to succeed. If this ethos is eroded then they risk lowering standards. As a friend has suggested, the banner of "fair admissions" hides the true agenda, which is to drive religion out of public life entirely.

Render Under to Caesar

Those who support the campaign (especially those of a religious disposition) may genuinely believe that a Faith school education does more harm than good, perhaps on the grounds that a mix of opinions will foster greater debate and more tolerance. Of course, others will go further and suggest that Faith Schools are breeding grounds for intolerant brain washing.

During an exchange on Facebook, one keen observer suggested that the state had the right and duty to decide the rules and conditions under which public funds are given out and used, and it had been doing so for schools ever since it started funding them in the nineteenth century. This may be so but the right and duty of the state to educate is only afforded because the state represents the people and can arrange education with public funds. Parents have a right and duty to educate their children as they see fit and it is not the state's place to interfere with that right. As tax payers, they also have the right to have the type of schools that they want for their children. The state establishes schools to facilitate and vindicate the rights of parents, not to abrogate them.

The Faithful Remnant 

Like many of the issues affecting the Faith today, this issue has only developed any momentum because common religious ground is being removed from the public sphere. One the one hand, the inexorable juggernaut of aggressive secularism continues to progress unabated and on the other, the number of practising faithful continues to decline. In this, we really are reaping what we sow. Still, even the faithful remnant have a right to educate their children as they see fit.


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

On the quality of the paving slabs of the Red Light District of Amsterdam

Whenever I am thrust into new friendship groups for any length of time, the nature of my Faith is usually one of the first topics which attracts a lengthy discussion. Though I may dare to hope that this is due to the excellent character of my witness, I suspect it is more to do with the novelty of the answers I give to everyday questions and scenarios. The topic which sparks off the most interest, particularly and perhaps predictably amongst men, is sex. Having recently survived two stag parties and several interrogations, I have recently been given plenty of opportunities to express my opinions.

Sex Bomb

The nature of the discussion (at least with men), usually follows a predictable pattern. I decline to acquiesce to what has become an acceptable norm for the modern man (commenting on a particular woman in a sexual manner, looking at page three, discussing pornography or sexual exploits etc) and am then subjected to an interrogation regarding my views on sex and on my sexual experience and activity, largely from a derisive point of view. The ultimate conclusion invariably is that I must be gay.

Some commentators may understand the concept of saving sex until marriage [1] (though dismiss it as a quaint Christian practice) but few are able to contemplate a single life without compensating sexual practices such viewing pornography or masterbation. After enduring many of these these discussions, I have come to the realisation that modern man is actually a slave to what is he is told is the sexual norm - sexuality is to be expressed where and when desired, subject only to the law of "consenting adults".

Image and Likeness

Sexual identity and the sexual appetite are undeniable facets of human existence. Indeed, the Church teaches that they are good, even great things. "Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity... The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out." [2] Indeed, in a mysterious way, in the division of humanity into male and female we are made in the image of God and given a unique vocation with the capacity and responsibility for love and communion which is itself a reflection of the personal loving communion which exists between the three persons of the Trinity. "The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity". [3]

Masturbation, viewing pornography and engaging in other sexual practices cannot therefore be a natural end point of this appetite because they do not promote a communion of love - they are inherently selfish acts. In reality, they are addictive, acquired behaviours which become habitual to such a degree that it seems impossible for some to live without them. Though differing wildly in degree, masterbation is akin to biting one's nails, though I suspect the former has greater spiritual consequences than the latter.

Control, control! You must learn control!

A useful angle on the topic was afforded to me as I read "Difficulties in Mental Prayer" by Fr Eugene Boyle. In discussing prayer, Fr Boyle makes a distinction between feelings which arise out of the senses (sorrow, joy, elation etc) perhaps provoked by a beautiful church or a picture of the crucified Christ and those which arise from the intellect and the will. Man possess a sense appetite which desires any good or attractive object set before the senses, either in reality or through imagination. This facility is automatic and is traditionally referred to as a passion by philosophers. This desire is outside of the will and it is only when the will recognises the object and chooses to desire it that a moral choice is made. In other words, temptation is not a sin, nor does it demand that man give into it. The intellect and the will have the final say.

Some of my closer non-Catholic friends have told me that they admire my "control" with regards to not indulging in any sexual activity. Chastity is regarded by the Church both as a moral virtue, the mastery of the senses by the intellect and will, and a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. [4] This certainly has a massive part to play in what is rightly regarded as a position of temptation but I suspect that my burden is far less than their own simply because I am not weighted by their habitual behaviours. Indeed, pastoral guidelines on offenses against chastity recognises this fact. [5]

Things to do in Amsterdam when you're Catholic

Paradoxically, it is often the most overt temptation that is easier to resist. I found it a lot easier to acquaint myself with the excellent paving slabs of the Red Light District of Amsterdam when walking between pubs than I find it to guard my thoughts on a particularly nice summer's day. I am often asked "How I do it?", namely not lust after women and the answer I give is "I try and follow the advice of a good priest - 'Whenever I see a beautiful lady, I thank God for his creation, and move on'". In essence, the sense appetite is presented by a good (an attractive lady), the will consents to the goodness of this thing in the created order but declines the opportunity to regard and internalise it in a sexual manner.

Chastity has real benefits and perhaps the most obvious is friendship. I suspect many of my friends are unable to have meaningful, non-sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex largely because they are preconditioned to regard them in a sexual manner. Again, the Church teaches that "chastity blossoms in friendships", allowing us to imitate Christ who has chosen us as his friends. [6]

A failure to communicate

This leads me onto the final fallacy of the conversation, a classic false dichotomy, that failure to express the normative sexual behaviour for a heterosexual man must necessitate what is regarded as its opposite - homosexual behaviour. Though one mighty churlishly suggest that such an attitude is indicative of a mindset which fails to understand a concept, preferring to ascribes a derisory antithesis to it in order to maintain a particular world view, it demonstrates that the notion of chastity really has lost all resonance with the society in which we live.

Of course, none of this suggests that chastity it easy. It is a life's work which must constantly be reinforced with self-renewal, dedication and prayer. Contrary to modern thinking, it is not however impossible and certainly not irrelevant.

Prayer for Chastity

O my God, teach me to love others with the purity of Your holy Mother. Give me the grace to resist firmly every temptation to impure thoughts, words or actions. Teach me always to love with generosity and goodness, to respect myself and others in the way I act and to reverence the way that You have given us for the creation of new life

[1] Reducing the Church's teaching on human sexuality to the concept of "saving sex until marriage" does it a terrible disservice. The focus should not be on abstinence but rather on living a continually chaste life. Arleen Spenceley writes very well on the topic at and specifically at

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2333

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2335

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2345

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2352

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2347