Sunday, July 16, 2017

Response to George Weigal in The Tablet

I wrote this in early November 2012 as a guest post on The Tablet's blog. It is no longer available there so I re-post it here.

Weigal had written an article for The Tablet replying to an earlier one by John Haldane. I discuss these articles here.


George Weigal balances his critique of Catholic ‘progressives’ with hard words aimed at Catholic ‘traditionalists’: between us, he says, we represent ‘the tired alternatives of the past 40-plus years [which] have clearly run their course’. Weigal should look in the mirror: his aggressive neo-conservatism (a conservativism without continuity with the past), which he embraced with all the zeal of a convert after his earlier career as a liberal firebrand, has been just as much a fixture of the post-conciliar debate as liberalism and traditionalism. Perhaps neo-conservatism has run its course as well.

Traditionalism has always been the underdog in this debate, and Weigal’s characterisation of ‘nostalgic traditionalism’ in terms of ‘maniples, lace, and Latin liturgies’, wanting to ‘tighten the constraints’ of ‘Counter-Reformation Catholicism’, demonstrates near-perfect ignorance of the movement as well as a lack of charity, both personal and intellectual.

It is not clear what Weigal means by saying that Liberalism and Traditionalism are ‘caught’ in a moment of history, but his own neo-conservatism rejects the conservative voices of the recent past—Ottaviani, Gerrigou-Langrange, Pope Pius XI—just as must as the progressive voices of the present, and is trapped in a narrow range of time as well as of opinion. Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of ‘the hermeneutic of rupture’ was as much a body-blow to them as to progressives. Such is the distaste for the past in this movement that Thomas Aquinas College, described by Weigal as ‘one of the jewels in the crown of higher education in the United States,’[1] actually excludes history from its curriculum. Readers should pause and let that astonishing fact sink in a little.

A knowledge of history, of course, is incompatible with the Ultramontanism, of mid-19th Century vintage, which is a central plank of this neo-conservatism. The rejection of Ultramontanism is something which liberal and traditionalist Catholics can agree upon, and although we may jokingly call it ‘the Spirit of Vatican I’, that Council was a disappointment to the more extreme ultramontanists, today as in 1870, who tend to gloss over the important range of authority attributable to papal pronouncements made ex cathedra, in the exercise of their teaching office, on prudential matters, as private doctors, and over breakfast to their friends.

Bl. John XXIII, Weigal tells us, wanted to establish a ‘new way of being Catholic’. If, as Weigal implies, this included a rejection of the Latin liturgy, he needs to explain away good Pope John’s emphatic insistence on it in his Apostolic Constitution ‘Veterum Sapientia’, promulgated the very year the Second Vatican Council met, 1962. In light of Pope John’s condemnation of those anyone who ‘writes against the use of Latin’ in the liturgy, Weigal’s views might have earned him a spell in the papal dungeon.

Weigal’s phrase ‘evangelical Catholicism’ could be an apt description of what Bl. Pope John XXIII had in mind, but it was not an evangelism in discontinuity with the past. The liturgical concerns of traditionlists are in fact echoed persistently by the post-Conciliar popes. Most obviously, there is the problem that if you condemn the past, including the liturgical past, you implicitly condemn yourself: as Pope Benedict wrote, before his election, by such a policy the Church is ‘calling its very being into question’.

Secondly, the ancient liturgy has positive evangelical value. In 1964 Pope Paul VI warned religious superiors that if they abandoned the sung Latin Office, they would lose vocations,[2] a warning whose prescience is now evident. Why this might be so was explained by Bl. John Paul II, who praised the liturgical continuity preserved in the Eastern churches: ‘Today we often feel ourselves prisoners of the present. It is as though man had lost his perception of belonging to a history which precedes and follows him.’[3] Even more important, the liturgy of the East, like that of the Western past, is something whose appeal goes beyond just the intellect. Bl. John Paul II went on: ‘The lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one’s whole person.’[4]

This point is taken up and applied to liturgy in general by the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam. Words are not enough, particularly today: indeed, as Pope Paul noted, ‘Modern man is sated by talk’[5]

The power of the ancient liturgy to move hearts, as well as minds, is increasingly acknowledged by liberal thinkers, as well as traditionalists, as the recent lecture of Prof. Tina Beattie made clear: she wrote

‘Today, the theology and liturgy of the Catholic Church is less ‘cluttered,’ less mystical, and less comprehensive in its spiritual scope. Its tight, clear focus is far more ‘rational’ but far less whole.’

This is not, in fact, an isolated case. Members of what we might call the ‘Pickstock school’ has combined a recognition of the value of the ancient liturgy with a number of positions more at home in theological liberalism than traditionalism. We can argue about those other positions, naturally: the point here is simply that the traditional liturgy has come back into the debate as a live option.

Again, the division between traditionalists and conservatives, once neuralgic, is being broken down by a new generation of scholars and seminarians who are willing to consider the question of the liturgy, and the associated theological issues, on their merits, particularly in the light of Pope Benedict’s writings. It is George Weigal, in fact, who appears to be stuck in the past, a past in which an attack on traditionalism was a compulsory element in any conservative argument, to avoid accusations of ‘disobedience to Vatican II’.

If Weigal wants to know how far, in fact, we have moved on, he should spend a little time with the seminarians, not only of the Traditional Orders, but of the secular seminaries of England and Wales, and America, and ask them what they think of the Extraordinary Form. He will perhaps be shocked to discover how many are planning to say it themselves when they are ordained. This is the future, Professor Weigal: wake up and smell the coffee.

[1] Address to Thomas Aquinas College, 2006
[2] Apostolic Letter, ‘Sacrificium Laudis’, 1964.
[3] Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995) 8
[4] Orientale Lumen 11
[5] Evangelii Nuntiandi 42

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Worries about Chesterton

This is a 'book review' I wrote in 2011 for the now-defunct 'Faith in the Home'. Chesterton's influence in the Church continues and I thought it would be good to put this out there somewhere.

‘Orthodoxy’ by G.K. Chesterton (first published 1908; Baronius Press edition, 2006) pp181 
Review by Joseph Shaw

It’s not often I review a book which has been published for more than a century, but at this time of rising Chestertonian revivalism, with Chesterton studies, Chesterton institutes, and reprints and references constantly appearing, it is as well to take stock of what is going on on planet ‘GCK’. Contrary to my own expectations, I am not very enthusiastic about what I see. Rather than trying to give a balanced assessment of GKC’s overall work, which would be a monumental task, let me list some of my misgivings, based on this one work.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Swinburne on sexual morality

The extraordinary and unprofessional reaction to Prof Richard Swinburne's paper at the SCP Midwest conference just over a week ago stimulates me to want to do what a lot of people appear to think should not be done: to engage with the issues Swinburne raises, and the arguments of his paper, philosophically. In a rather brief form, I'm going to do that here.

Swinburne divides moral principles into different categories, which we can call the precepts of Natural Law, and precepts of Divine Law. The latter are only binding because God has commanded them; the former are part of the nature of things, necessary moral truths as they apply to the circumstances of the world we live in. This distinction is common to Aquinas and Scotus, but Scotus puts more of the familiar moral principles of the Decalogue into the category of Divine Law, saying that (a) God had good reason to command what he did, but also that (b) God could have commanded differently, even without changing physical creation. Thus, whereas a Thomist might think that the obligation to honour our parents might work rather differently if human nature was such that we never knew who our parents are (and were born like turtles, out of eggs buried on the beach), a Thomst does not think that God could have told us to ignore our parents given how humans actually grow up. A Scotist thinks that all the precepts of the 'Second Tablet of the Law', from 4th to 10th Commandments (on the Latin/Catholic numbering), could have been different if God had so willed, even given human nature as it is.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review of Francis Kamm, The Moral Target, in the Philosophical Quarterly

In this review I give a brief critique of Frances Kamm's reliance on ethical intuitions in her discussions.

It concludes:

The untangling of such confusions and distortions is not the work of sociologists, but of philosophers. It means that, rather than take for granted each intuition in a train of argument, we must take up the task of analysing, explaining, clarifying and systematizing our moral thinking, and setting our intuitions into some historical context. Given the audience of a piece of work, it can be perfectly reasonable to take certain assumptions for granted. On the other hand, ‘this seems right’ is seldom a sufficient reason to prefer one option to another, when anything important is at stake.
The whole review can be read here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In response to the Beattie petition on the Polish Abortion Law


An ‘Open Letter’ or petition has been publicised calling on the Catholic Bishops of Poland to withdraw their support for a legislative initiative to criminalise all abortion. The signatures are arranged in alphabetical order, but the second name, Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton, is one of the very few which will be widely recognised, and it will be convenient to refer to the document as ‘the Beattie Petition’. The text, purporting to come from signatories who ‘respect the Church’s moral stance against abortion’, is a disgraceful, but wholly unsuccessful, attempt to justify a failure to protect the unborn. It’s central contention, that abortion is not always an act of injustice towards innocent life deserving of legal protection, cannot overcome, and only ignore, Pope St John Paul II’s powerful declaration the Church’s infallible teaching on abortion, in his 1995 Encyclical Evanglium vitae §57:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Nuns in the Congo: non-authoritative, but true

The Pope referred to the famous case of the 'Nuns in the Congo' in the latest aeroplane interview. The case is about nuns who, fearing rape, take some kind of contraceptive pill. Pope Francis' exact purpose in making the reference was unclear, but not nearly unclear enough for the Vatican spokesman Fr Lombardi, who relived his triumphs in obscuring the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI on the dangers of condoms for people with AIDS, and in throwing sand into the eyes of everyone trying to make sense of Pope Benedict's remarks about male prostitutes using condoms.

In the meantime, Sandro Magister seems to have uncovered the history of the 'Nuns in the Congo' discussion, which wasn't what pretty well everyone had assumed up to now, claiming that Pope Paul VI said nothing on the subject. Rather, it had simply been discussed by some theologians under Pope John XXIII.

Being a moral philosopher rather than a historian or, for that matter, a mind-reader, I think the contribution I can best make here is to explain why the Nuns in the Congo case is important, regardless of whether Pope Paul VI or any other pope authorised any ruling about it.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The narrative of victimhood: transsexuality

Fallon Fox, born a man, competes against women in
Mixed Martial Arts, and does pretty well...
I've just noted on my other blog that living as a transsexual has been categorised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as incompatible with the Faith. This is about the argument in favour of tolerating or promoting this lifestyle.

The transsexual phenomenon is not entirely new, but it is taking on a new form and become a cause celebre with astonishing speed. From a common-sense point of view it seems sheer lunacy: people can now simply claim to be the sex opposite to that indicated by their biology, and have this assertion officially recognised, with or without any medical diagnosis or intervention (not that either would make any real difference).