A Day of Reckoning in Rome

There are few words that ring more bitter, cold and hollow in the mother tongue of the Church than Sede Vacante.

The Benedict formerly known as the Roman Pontiff has left the ecclesial stage. Having spoken to two separate clerical correspondents in the Vatican who were present around His former Holiness in these last few weeks, one of whom was there at his departure in the helicopter today, Benedict is “startlingly thin”, has lost all vision in one eye and is falling prey to regular dizzy spells. These are all symptoms commensurate with advancing brain cancer.

As was noted earlier, there is little reason for a Pope, or and bishop for that matter, to resign because of failing health unless he fears he may lose mental function and be unable to resign validly.

We have no wish to engage in idle speculation. But it is safe to assume that a man with as great a love for the Church, respect for tradition and knowledge of the law as Benedict had more on his mind when he resigned than a quite beer with his brother.

Having clarified canon law on the conclave, ensuring that the college may meet as soon as they are fully assembled the Vatican and not have to wait 15 days, Benedict has ensured that the period of Sede Vacante will be no longer than it must be.

After the clear consensus before the last conclave, we return to the more traditional ‘anyone’s guess’ ofwho will emerge on the balcony. But what we can predict is that, for the first time in many years, the reform of the Curia is perhaps the most serious and pressing issue they shall have to contend with. The casual practices, questionable networks and lax attitudes of civil Rome have shown themselves to have invasive roots which need aggressive pruning.

Meanwhile, across the Tiber, the secular state of ‘Italy’ has, in a demonstration of mass self awareness, actually voted for a professional comedian, Signore Beppe Grillo, to lead their ‘government’. Because of the unique institutional realities of Roman ‘democracy’, it is not yet clear who will be appointed Prime Minister, nevertheless the current front runner is believed to be Silvio Burlesqueoni, who’s party recievd some 26% of the vote.

On either side of the Eternal City, predicting the outcome of an election is a fool’s game.

Further Canonical Observations on Cardinal O’Brien

Cardinal O’Brien’s situation continues to develop and to raise more questions.

News that his resignation, submitted late last year, has been accepted by Rome and that he will voluntarily remove himself from the conclave confirms the grave seriousness of the allegations made against him.

The speed with which he has departed from office and taken himself out of the conclave (it is unclear as yet whether he will simply not attend or if he is resigning from the College) is remarkable, as is the adherence thus far to canonical process. As was mentioned in an earlier post, the complaint was made privately, through the proper channels, directly to the Holy See and there was no conflation of civil and canonical process, yielding a very quick result indeed.

This contrasts with the increasingly ugly situation in Los Angeles involving the former Archbishop, Cardinal Mahoney, who shielded priests who violated canon 1395 §2 from exposure. Since the release, by his successor Archbishop Gomez, of curial documents showing the scale of his involvement, Cardinal Mahoney has engaged in a very ugly, very public exchange with Archbishop Gomez, who has issued canonically empty (see c.357 §2) decree removing Mahoney from ‘public ministry’. Members of the Archdiocese have organised a petition to bar Mahoney from the conclave while he continues to assert his right to attend and insists he will travel to Rome.

Both situations are extremly regrettable and do horrific damage to the Church and the faith of those involved.

In these situations the Church is often criticized for being insitutional, slow moving and unable to react. Yet, as the situation around Cardinal O’Brien has shown, the truth is that the canonical process can actually proceed remarkably swiftly if used properly. Canon law is the oldest complete legal system in current use, dating back, depending on where you distinguish it from Roman law, at least 1200 years. Frustration, confusion and acrimony usually arrises when the process is ignored or improperly applied, as has happened in Los Angeles.

Notes on the unpleasantness with Cardinal O’Brien

The are few things more dispiriting to members and friends than another round of allegations of impropriety against the clergy.

Suffice to say that of course we all deplore those instances which have come to light, have witnessed the tragic results for the victims, seen the unfair collateral burden of suspicion placed on the majority of loyal servants of the people of God and winced at the further erosion of Mother Church’s due respect to preach the Gospel.

The recent complaints against Cardinal O’Brien are of course totally unproven so far and we must assume the best of a man who has proven a outspoken champion of the truth in his current office.

However, since the matter will no doubt remain in the secular media, we would like to make some canonical observations for the clarification of members.

As far as we can tell, there has been no attempt by the three priests filing the complaints to apply for civil redress. It’s seems that through a “high ranking official” at the archdiocese, whom I would presume to be the judicial vicar, they have applied their case directly to the Papal Nuncio.

Fr. Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, has confirmed that the Holy Father is treating the matter himself.

This would be the appropriate and canonically correct form to take if the complaint concerns a serious delict reserved under canon law to the Holy See. Of particular seriousness is that some of the alleged actions took place with Cardinal O’Brien acting as spiritual director. This is an especially privileged relationship in canon law, not equal to that of the confessional but closely guarded in law and to be held in the highest respect.

Also to be noted is that the complaint was submitted before the Pope announced his intention to resign and without any publicity. It seems that those making the complaint have only become public out of concern that the matter would be dropped during the Sede Vacante.

Very little, if anything, can be said with certainty at this point but what is for sure is that Cardinal O’Brien enjoys the canonical right to a good reputation, not to be impugned without full canonical process. We intend to fully respect this and hope that the matter will be resolved swiftly, with proper attention to the norm of law and due respect for the rights of all parties.

Advice to Cardinals,Bishops and Priests from Edmund Burke

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.


Edmund Burke.  Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Recusant Reviews: BBC Question Time

One of the pleasures of watching Question Time is the consolatory confirmation that anyone who got into Oxford, met all the right people, got on in public life and ended up on the telly was almost certainly an apple-for-teacher creep at school.

You ask how this is confirmed? Simply by observing how mustard keen they are to be picked first for every question. Of course, the statesmanlike veneer reasserts itself pretty quickly, but keep your eyes peeled as Dimbleby barks out the first name. The Hermione Grainger smirk is always there. ‘Expecto Patronum!’, the lucky schoolboy all but ejaculates.

This week, however, wide-eyed panic flashed across the faces of the first-called.

Connoiseurs of the show will recognise this as the once-a-series ‘what if I think the same as Peter Hitchens??’ conundrum. Visibly relieved to be following the Mail columnist’s unremarkable opening salvo on trial by jury, The Reverend Giles Fraser blurted out: ‘I couldn’t disagree with you more Peter! (his zeal was something we have not been accustomed to in the established clergy). A brief silence followed as if anything else was an afterthought.

To be fair to Hitchens, pub bore of the year as he may be, he played a blinder last night and seemed to be toying with the more than usually left-leaning panel (Michael Heseltine was the other purported right winger, joined by Diane Abbot, Vince Cable and the groovy vicar Fraser). With Hitchens at one moment calling for some jurors to be rejected for lack of education, the next denouncing Thatcher’s right to buy and quoting Martin Luther King in support of racial harmony, the rest of the class seemed utterly bewildered by his omnivorous opinions; they resorted to mauling the few little Englanders who emerged from the audience.

A marked tendency amongst audience joiner-inners in recent years became almost a competition in this latest episode, and a highly entertaining one at that. I am speaking of the new fashion by which they announce their link with officialdom before making their contribution. ‘I am a serving police officer’ bellowed one, in a voice that made you sure she was just that;  I am a caseworker’ (a what now?) offered another. ‘I was an Olympic Gamesmaker’, said a scout-master type, before commencing an ode to multiculturalism. 

Heseltine, a man your correspondent assures you he has great sympathy for, seemed confused, even to the point of directly contradicting himself in one answer. Towards the end when his phone rang, cutting short a slightly rambling speech, it seemed a kindly act of the gods. One wonders – harsh as it may sound – if the Papal way out might not recommend itself to this worthy veteran.

And then the evening gradually wore down to the proforma austerity debate, which does so much to keep us from important topics like horse meat and benefit scroungers nowadays. Injury time was being played out and Hitchens had sight of an improbable victory. Not all were ready to lie down though. When one panelist dutifully – listlessly, even – remarked that the coffers were empty and there would need to be cuts, Abbot roused herself for one last hurrah. “Tell it”, she declaimed, her open hand raised in a Ciceronian attitude, “to the people of Lewisham!” The caseworkers seemed to like it.

Your Guide to the (other) Roman Election

As the College of Cardinals prepares to gather in the Eternal City for their solemn deliberations and the Vatican press office hints at possible last minute changes to the laws governing Sede Vacante, across the Tiber there is another change of Government to be examined. The secular state of ‘Italy’ is currently preparing to hold ‘elections’, and with the return of Silvio Burlesqueoni to the contest it is sure to make for entertaining viewing.

In deference to those whose education was light on the classics, I shall offer a brief resumé of electoral tradition in Rome as a window into current events.

In the glorious days of ancient Rome, the inhabitants of the city, known as ‘citizens’, were organised into geographical constituencies for the systematic distribution of bribes by candidates for public office.

The Senate, which was unelected, functioned as a venue for the coquettishly dressed, metrosexual elite to sit among their peers and read poetry aloud, analogous to our modern Starbucks Coffee shops.

From time to time, retired war heroes, scions of the nobility and winners of a gladiatorial version of Strictly Come Dancing would walk through the streets of Rome attempting to incite riots. The two most successful at this were proclaimed ‘consuls’. The function of the dual-consulship was to ensure administrative paralysis.

Government existed mostly in the form the generals of Rome’s legions of well trained and expertly marshalled soldiers. These were perpetually marched backward and forward across the French to pick fights with the Germans, popping home from time to time to proclaim themselves Supreme Dictator for Life.

Despite the haphazard nature of Government, ancient Rome gave birth to some of the greatest works of literature, architecture and philosophy known to man. Following the decline of the Western Empire, custody of the city passed to the Church, which lovingly preserved the treasures which formed her temporal patrimony.

Modern ‘Italy’ was founded in the late 19th century by a swarthy Lombard freemason named Garibaldi. He, like many modern Italians, was out of work and swanning about Europe with a large pair of sunglasses perched on his head. Through the improbable tightness of his trousers, he persuaded the wives of many an important man to subscribe large sums for him to raise an army to march on Rome.

Today, ‘Italy’ has what we in the trade call a perfectly bicameral system of proportional representation. This means that two legislative bodies, with identical and mutually nullifying powers, are ‘elected’ by a complicated combination of sexual harassment, gerrymandering and Buggin’s turn.

The business of Government is handled by the Prime Minister, also called the President of the Council of Ministers. While often said to be seeking election, candidates for this position are appointed solely by the ‘President of the Italian Republic’; a shadowy figure who, while traditionally unnameable by Italians, is widely believed abroad to be German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

With these details at their fingertips, it is hoped that members and friends will be able to enjoy an informed view of the proceedings.

Some notes from the Archives

This is the first of an occasional series of extracts from the riches of our muniments.

“After all these prophetic and evengelical and apostolic writings which we have set forth above, on which the Catholic Church by the Grace of God is founded, we have thought this fact also ought to be published, namely, that, although the universal Catholic Church spread throughout the world is the one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless the Holy Roman Church has not been preferred to other Churches by reason of synodal decrees, but she has obtained the primacy by the evangelical voice of the Lord and Saviour saying “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against her.  I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

Decretum Gelasium c.520 Pope Gelasius I

Where have all the polymaths gone?

This week it will be Nicolas Copernicus’s 600th birthday. Copernicus belongs to the club of superswots nicolas-copernicusknown as polymaths which, like many membership organizations nowadays, is struggling.

The original polymath was Eratosthenes: pentathlete, librarian of Alexandria, philosopher and founder of Geography (amongst other accomplishments). He had, as our picture shows, an absolutely enormous brain. He was220px-Portrait_of_Eratosthenes a contemporary of another polymath, Archimedes.

In the first millennium AD, the best all-rounders tended to come from the Arab world. We often hear that it was Muslim scholars who kept much of Greece’s accomplishments alive until the Scholastics rediscovered them; to a great extent this was thanks to Al-Kindi, who, though perhaps not much of an innovator, absorbed and re-presented an absolutely vast amount of information, effectively founded The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and popularized the Indian system of numbering which is now used by everyone [which in time led to the widespread misunderstanding that they are Arabic numerals].

Maqamat_haririAl-Kindi’s contemporaries at the House of Wisdom, the barnstorming Buna Musa brothers, Ahmad, Muhammad and Hasan, translated classical works from Greek, Latin and Chinese, took great strides in Geometry and produced the Book of Ingenious Devices, essentially a bunch of designs for really cool toys. Their father had been a highwayman who became a court astronomer, which was fine during the Islamic Golden Age.

With the beginning of the second millennium, the archipelago of Great Minds (or at least the ones we know about) arcs gracefully north-west, via Maimonides and Averroes, to revered churchmen (and at least one churchwoman) in Northern Europe: Albert the Great, Hildegard, Roger Bacon and then the brainy Pole Copernicus.

So what happened to the polymaths? I suppose the obvious answer is that with academic disciplines becoming a lot more advanced than they once were, you would go mad if you tried to excel in more than one field. There are fewer things left to discover; the game has changed.

Another might be that truly great minds can only flourish in truly great eras, and we don’t live in one of those. Depressing but there it is. The golden age of Islam ended centuries before Islamic culture actually realised it was going backward. Al-Kindi’s omnivorous reading was possible thanks to the enlightened Mutazillite philosophy which dominated in the early years. After its defeat by the anti-intellectual Asharites, the greatest Islamic learning was pushed to the fringes of the Empire and was to be found in Andalusia, and then, eventually, nowhere at all.

Ratzinger the Radical – Kueng the Conformist

ratzAt about 2pm on the day the Pope made his announcement, I switched on BBC news and was delighted to witness the following:

ANCHORMAN: And we can now go over live to Munich, Benedict’s hometown (sic) where our correspondent has been assessing the Pope’s legacy.

CORRESPONDENT: Thanks Jim. The theologian Hans Ku…

ANCHORMAN: We seem to be having some technical difficulties here… we’ll try and get back to Munich as soon as we can. Now with all the business news…

Divine intervention? Who knows, but sadly it was merely a stay of execution.

The Kuengian criticism of Benedict is this: that Ratzinger, the sometime enfant terrible, was  scared by the fallout from Humanae Vitae. That he was horrified by the upheavals of 1968. That this experience turned a radical young priest into a reactionary “panzerkardinal” and a bitter, misanthropic Pope. It is, if not the most widespread, certainly the most annoying of all the shallow punditry of the past week.

Most annoying because the opposite is true. Most annoying because not Ratzinger but Kueng, and many like him are the ones who couldn’t read the signs of the times in 1968.

Most annoying because if we are asked ‘what is the legacy?’ and we allow ourselves to be drawn into this Blairite silliness of a question, the best answer we can give is to say: “this man is a  radical thinker in the very best sense; he is a radical, and this radicalism has been played out in front of you though you can’t see it, and the reason you can’t see it is because you imagine yourselves to be radicals when in fact you are conformists.”

The problem surely is that Kueng et al embraced ‘radicalism’ for its own sake. They lived in a ‘radical’ decade and they wanted to fit in, and therefore jumped on every hippie charabanc that would take them. Theirs was a false radicalism because ‘radical’, literally, means ‘to do with the roots’, the radix . But they had, and have, little interest in roots.

Benedict’s radicalism is true radicalism. By insisting that we recover our ‘patrimony’, as he did in his pontificate-defining address to the Curia in 2005, he calls us to a much stronger, more sensible starting point for a dialogue with modernity. Stronger because it strips away the stridency and the triumphal shell which built around the Church during the age of Christendom, and exposes the teaching of Jesus in all its simplicity and purity.

In particular, it is his teaching on relations between the Church and the modern state, enunciated with such clarity and reasonableness in Westminster Hall in 2010 and the Bundestag in 2011 (and indeed before his election in his famous debate with Juergen Habermas),  which I believe we will remember him by. It is the fruit of a radical, imaginative way of thinking and it gives us a basis for a dialogue we need urgently to pursue. Perhaps we will talk in the future, if you will excuse the pun, about Benedict’s Theology of the Body Politic as reverently as we talk today about John Paul’s Theology of the Body.

Truth, what is truth?

By far the most irritating part of a pending papal election is the increased coverage the Church receives in the editorial pages of the newspapers and on evening news programmes.

Those who at all other times positively revel in their profound ignorance of the Church’s teaching suddenly begin opining with pontifical authority on ‘the challenges facing the Church’ or, more often, ‘what the next pope must do’ to stave off ecclesial cataclysm.

When a token effort is made to bring in someone with some actual learning on the subject, inevitably they trot out the same ‘progressive voices’ from schismatic universities; a chorus line of feminists and failed priests, of mad hair and bad teeth, of eccentric knitwear and disappointing breasts.

The same hackneyed themes are canted over and again: the next pope must engage with the issue of “wimin’s ordination” and at last repeal the absurd teachings on homosexuality. Diarmaid McCullough, offering to meet reality halfway, has predicted one more ‘traditionalist pope’ before an ‘explosion’ in the Church.

The shrewish insistence on what the Church must do is enough to drive one mad.

Refreshingly, this time around there have been some voices on sanity and orthodoxy trying to make themselves heard. Brave souls like Tim Stanley at the Telegraph and Ashley McGuire at the Washington Post have both posted coherent rebuttals to the nonsense hogging the print pages. It’s a nice by product of the ‘e-‘ era that people like them can offer some counterpoint under their paper’s banner head.

They offer a patient, if justifiably annoyed, explanation that the teaching of the Church, and the election of Peter’s successor, cannot be viewed, dissected and discussed through the prism of politics; the only mindset secular commentators can think to use. They lay out the basic differences between political theory and social philosophy on the one hand, and faith, revelation and Divine Law on the other. Both give an excellent beginner’s guide to engaging with Catholic issues at this time but I fear both will fall on deaf ears.

From what I have observed over the years when speaking to atheists, agnostics, well meaning Protestants and even (Lord preserve us) Guardian journalists, it’s not that they don’t understand the role of objective, unchanging truth in Catholic teaching – that is the very thing that upsets them.

In a culture which has broken free of any anchoring principles, religious or other, all that is left is an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” comparison of truths. But these ‘truths’ are, as the (still current) pope has demonstrated, relative and shifting. Those who still claim for themselves the fruit of the tree of knowledge internalise every discernment of right and wrong. Human discernment alone is a judgement on incomplete knowledge. As a result, moral relativists (no pejorative intended) have to shift their footing in the face of changing circumstances, experience and the competing truths of those around them, ending up in a complicated bull fight with the realities of life.

Their best defences against getting caught on the horns are the secular mottos of ‘dialogue’ and ‘mutual respect’, but the former is disingenuous and the later a sham.

Two opposed points of view cannot be equally true and, if you actually hold to your own ‘truth’ with any kind of sincerity, you can never truly respect another’s falsehood or error. In the light of this, dialogue is the mechanism by which you either begin to try to dismantle the other’s ‘truth’ under a flag of truce or engage in mutual disarmament until neither of you really believe in anything.

This is why the Church inspires such rage. By asserting the reality of the Truth, which exists outside us, it rejects the premise of hypocrisy implied by ‘mutual respect’ and, by refusing to engage in ‘dialogue’ on issues which it holds as settled and certain, it denies those outside the Truth the opportunity to diffuse its importance or reverse its implications. Instead of a bull which can be danced around in different directions to suit the need, truth becomes a brick wall which there is no getting past.

I have have seen this illustrated throughout my education. As an undergraduate studying under the much quoted Dr Tina Beattie, the teaching of John Paul the Great that priestly ordination was reserved by Divine Law to men alone (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) was spoken of with especial bitterness not because of the teaching itself but because it was declared definitive and not open to question or discussion, slamming the door on a cultural war of attrition from within the Church.

It is a great shame that the source of serenity in faith, the certain nature of truth, the rock we cling to in times of trouble and confusion, is encountered by others only as the solid surface against they collide in their disorientation.