13 October 2009

Watching from the Touchline

I was glad to see today that Carter-Ruck backed down from their absurd attempt to prevent the Guardian reporting on a parliamentary question. I'm no wiser, though, as to what their ridiculous behaviour was intended to achieve; it was surely contrary to the British Constitution, it clearly wouldn't withstand a legal challenge, the question and answer would be recorded in Hansard no matter what, and this was guaranteed to draw bad publicity to their client Trafigura. And yes, there's such a thing as bad publicity.

Speaking of the Guardian, there's a piece in it today about St Thérèse of Lisieux, by one Sophia Deboick, who is currently conducting research into Thérèse's cult. The article, while not nearly as comprehensive or as fair-minded as Joanna Moorhead's Independent piece of a couple of months back, is well worth pondering. It's quite interesting in its way, though it makes me think of the bit in the introduction to Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, where he says:
'The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts. Their criticism has taken on a curious tone; as of a random and illiterate heckling. Thus they make current and anti-clerical cant as a sort of small-talk. They will complain of parsons dressing like parsons; as if we should be any more free if all the police who shadowed or collared us were plain clothes detectives. Or they will complain that a sermon cannot be interrupted, and call a pulpit a coward's castle; though they do not call an editor's office a coward's castle. It would be unjust both to journalists and priests; but it would be much truer of journalist. The clergyman appears in person and could easily be kicked as he came out of church; the journalist conceals even his name so that nobody can kick him. They write wild and pointless articles and letters in the press about why the churches are empty, without even going there to find out if they are empty, or which of them are empty.


It is well with the boy when he lives on his father's land; and well with him again when he is far enough from it to look back on it and see it as a whole. But these people have got into an intermediate state, have fallen into an intervening valley from which they can see neither the heights beyond them nor the heights behind. They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians and they can not leave off being Anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.'

I'm not saying that Sophia Deboick is theologically illiterate by any means, but it does seem that she comes across as someone studying religion from the doorway, neither in nor out. In amongst the useful historical stuff, explaining the way in which Thérèse's cult was initially fostered by her sisters, you get half-truths like this:
'Named a Doctor of the church on the centenary of her death in 1997, Rome now uses the radical, intellectual Thérèse to pay lip-service to calls for reform in the church's social attitudes. The current pope has made it abundantly clear that, for the church, virginity or motherhood are still the only acceptable states of female existence. While Thérèse represents the former, her own mother, Zélie Martin, who was beatified alongside Thérèse's father in October 2008, has become the church's poster-girl for ideal Catholic motherhood.'
If you think for a moment you'll realise it's nonsense to claim that the Church regards virginity and motherhood as 'the only acceptable states of female existence', let alone that the current Pope said this back in 2004.

One might respond to this, as one of the commenters does, that 'The alternatives are contraception, abortion, or infertility. The first two are sins, the last considered a misfortune rather than something to aspire to. This also applies to men. Men may aspire to be virgins or fathers of families.' These points are all good, albeit somewhat inconvenient for those who are determined to bash the Church, but despite being spot-on, they don't go far enough.

Look at what the article says: for the Catholic Church the only acceptable states of female existence are virginity and motherhood. In other words, if a girl has even once had sex, whether of her volition or not, she has no option, in the eyes of the Church, except to become a mother; once deprived of virginity, failure to achieve motherhood is unacceptable. What's more, by this reading, married women -- even widowed ones -- must become mothers; failure to achieve motherhood is unacceptable. Does anyone really think the Church believes this? Does anyone think it ever believed this?

Sure, Our Lady was both virgin and mother, but think of the popular western picture of St Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles, patron saint of sinners. Despite the fact that in the Bible she is described simply as someone from whom seven demons were cast, from the sixth century on she was conflated in the popular mind with Mary of Bethany and with the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed the feet of Jesus; as such she was regarded and venerated as a former sinner who had changed her ways and adopted a virtuous life, a reformed prostitute who was neither virgin nor mother, like St Paul someone who had gone and sinned no more. The saints are exemplars for us, but for the Church as imagined by Deboinck, such a change would be pointless: to her mind, once virginity is lost there is no salvation outside the maternity ward.

In the later Middle Ages, and you'll get this from even a cursory reading of The Canterbury Tales, it was clear that the Church back then tended to think of women as, in the main, virgins, wives, or widows. This was a bit of a caricature, but as a crude summary it has some merit. When I was an undergrad we used to make much of this, noting that medieval women were largely defined by what they were, whereas medieval men tended to be defined by what they did, though by Chaucer's day the classic division of men into oratores, bellatores, and laboratores had long faded into obsolescence, if it had ever been valid. Now, does anyone seriously think it's likely that the modern Church has an understanding of women that is markedly less nuanced than that of the medieval one?

The Guardian article had linked to a 2004 letter by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that he had made it abundantly clear that virginity and motherhood were the only acceptable states of female existence. It's worth reading the letter, in which he says nothing of the sort. In the letter he expressly states that the 'feminine' values discussed in the letters are all, ultimately, human values, since the human condition of man and woman as created by God is one and indivisible. This means that both motherhood -- yes, motherhood -- and virginity are universal values, rather than exclusively female ones. How can this be?
'Although motherhood is a key element of women's identity, this does not mean that women should be considered from the sole perspective of physical procreation. In this area, there can be serious distortions, which extol biological fecundity in purely quantitative terms and are often accompanied by dangerous disrespect for women. The existence of the Christian vocation of virginity, radical with regard to both the Old Testament tradition and the demands made by many societies, is of the greatest importance in this regard.Virginity refutes any attempt to enclose women in mere biological destiny. Just as virginity receives from physical motherhood the insight that there is no Christian vocation except in the concrete gift of oneself to the other, so physical motherhood receives from virginity an insight into its fundamentally spiritual dimension: it is in not being content only to give physical life that the other truly comes into existence. This means that motherhood can find forms of full realization also where there is no physical procreation.'
I think this is one of those things we're meant to ponder and meditate upon, rather than to simply read and react to. The letter as a whole indeed sees motherhood -- or perhaps more importantly, the capacity for motherhood -- as the defining attribute of feminity, but uses both 'motherhood' and 'feminity' as codewords for 'the fundamental human value to live for the other and because of the other'. As for virginity, this is surely meant here not as a physical state which can be lost forever, but rather -- though it includes that -- as a synonym for celibacy, and thus as an ardent refusal to be defined purely by our bodies, a passionate determination to rise above our biological destiny. Heady stuff, you might think, and certainly not what might immediately grab you about it.

In thinking about this letter, it's important to remember to whom it was addressed: it was addressed to the bishops of the Church, who were probably assumed to be fairly clued in to the biblical and theological ideas underpinning the letter. If it might seem opaque to us, we shouldn't get annoyed; would we really expect a conference paper on astrophysics to be easily accessible to anybody who had just done science in school? Complex questions often require complex answers, after all.

Deboick's closing paragraph is a bit dodgy:
'The pilgrimage site of Lisieux is second only to Lourdes in terms of visitor numbers and many will feel they have derived genuine benefit from visiting the relics during this tour, but we must recognise this event as part of the agenda of a Catholic church whose social proscriptions have become obsolete and for whom political expediency comes before popular opinion.'
I had to go a-googling to decipher the first part of this: Lisieux is the second most popular pilgrimage site in France, receiving more than two million pilgrims every year. The rest of it is baffling, though, since although Deboick says we must recognise this, she never really says why. After all, all she has to say about the supposed political agenda of the Church in this affair is the unsubstantiated claim that the Church 'uses the radical, intellectual Thérèse to pay lip-service to calls for reform in the church's social attitudes'. Given that Deboick seems convinced that the supposedly obsolete social proscriptions of the Church include the belief that the only acceptable states of feminine existence are virginity and motherhood, which we know isn't true and has never been so, I think we should take her 'must' with a rather liberal dose of salt.

I was going to talk briefly about relics, and got sidetracked. Hmmm. Maybe tomorrow. Some more work now, though, and then bed.

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