14 February 2013

Trains, and using your energy wisely...

We got a great game a gift from my eldest sister, the Christmas before last at home. Called Ticket to Ride: Europe, it was kind of a hybrid between Risk and card games like Poker. The basic idea is that you’ve a map of Europe with train routes marked on it, and that you’ve to build tracks along routes, connecting cities and facilitating journeys as you go.

You keep a running score through the game, based on the tracks you’ve built between individual cities, but your running score may not reflect your eventual score in any meaningful way, as you gain bonus points for journeys you’ve facilitated across the map, and nobody else knows what journeys you’ve been tasked with fulfilling.

It might not sound like fun, but it really is; I can’t think of a game we’ve played as a family that we’ve all enjoyed quite so much. It can be instructive too.

It’s a bit like the cheese, but that’s another story...
The last game we played over the Christmas just gone had a very different pattern to previous ones. Hitherto, along with building tracks and trying to develop our own secret journeys, we also tried to work out what our opponents’ objectives were, and sought to frustrate them, to some degree anyway. But in our final game, we all took a fresh approach, not worrying about what everyone was doing and just concentrating on what our own special jobs were.

My younger sister won by a huge amount, comfortably getting the highest score we’d ever managed. I came second, some way behind her but still, I think, with the second-highest score we’d seen in our games. Those behind me had achieved what would have been winning scores in plenty of other games.

And it left me thinking, reminding me of other things, and the more it’s sat with me, the less inclined I’ve been to get involved with spats online or elsewhere. Why bother arguing with people when they’re wrong? People so rarely change their minds, after all; time and again I’ve argued with people on issues of politics or religion or whatever and produced solid facts that refuted what they were saying only to see them days or weeks later spilling out the same old nonsense. And, to be fair, I probably do the same myself.

Better, surely, at least with people who don’t engage honestly, and who aren’t willing to listen, just to shake the dust off your feet and do something more productive. To build your own train tracks, regardless of their nonsense. And sometimes, in building those train tracks, you’ll refute the nonsense anyway. It’s a matter of just sticking to your job, and not fretting about other people’s.

I’m getting better at this, but have a long way to go. I still cut in too often, and respond to readily, and the other night, cranky from tiredness and a lack of tea, I was pretty snide with someone when I started off; and, of course, predictably, when I cut in this way I change nobody’s mind. Better to listen, and to write my blogs, and to build my train tracks.

The Irish Times isn’t the only paper that doesn’t refuse ink
Sometimes, though, it’s hard. Last night, for instance, I saw an article by the Irish columnist Colette Browne that left me rolling my eyes back so far I almost sprained them. A litany of ill-informed clichés entitled ‘It’ll be a miracle if a new pope ushers in real change in a decaying Church,’ I sent links to a couple of friends, asking what they thought.

‘I’d love to know how many errors, misconceptions, and falsehoods you could count in Colette Browne’s piece today,’ I said to one.
‘I ran out of fingers,’ he replied a few minutes later. And he trained as an actuary.

The headline’s the first problem, of course, as the Church is far from decaying: numbers of Catholics of all sorts are growing globally, with numbers of priests and seminarians keeping pace. It’s only here, in the western bit of the Northern Hemisphere, among people who Jonathan Haidt calls WEIRD, that the Church is in decline. Still, Colette can hardly be blamed for the headline, although she does point to it when she talks of the “increasing marginalisation of religion in society” and speaks of the Church as “decaying institution”.

It’s true to say that religion is being increasingly marginalised here in the west, but it’s profoundly untrue to suggest that it’s being marginalised globally; that distinction really matters, unless by ‘society’ what Colette means is ‘the bit of the world that I think counts’.

Still, Colette raises an important when she describes as incomprehensible the behaviour of “à la carte Catholics determined to remain part of an organisation with core teachings many find offensive or, frankly, ridiculous.” She’s not alone in that view, though I think she misses how it’s long been a staple of sociology and anthropology that religion is less about what we believe that what we do, who we are, and how we see ourselves in our society. We rarely reject our families, for instance, even when we disagree with our parents. And often, as we grow up, we realise how often our parents were right.

It shouldn’t really be that surprising that the sceptical, the disaffected, and the apathetic nonetheless believe themselves to be, in some sense, Catholic, and will tell people they are such. Doubt and difficulty are a normal aspect of faith, in any case; the then Father Joseph Ratzinger said something rather memorable to that effect in his 1968 Introduction to Christianity, and Timothy Radcliffe had it spot on in last year’s Take the Plunge, writing:
“Christianity will flourish in the twenty-first century if we grasp that the Church is above all the community of the baptized... the baptized are members of the Church, even if they keep far away. Even if we are filled with doubts and hesitations, we share dimly in the faith of the Church so long as we do not explicitly reject it. The doubters, the questioners, even the lapsed, belong in the spacious household of faith.”

Trope Central
Onward Colette blunders, brandishing the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons as evidence of the Church’s deep antipathy towards gay people, but without showing a shred of understanding of who the document was for – something utterly necessary even for beginning to understand it. Michael Merrick, a blogger rather more thoughtful than most, nailed the media’s perverse and clueless fascination with this letter in a post he wrote the other day:
“The comment of the Pope on an ‘intrinsic moral evil’ comes from a single letter, written in 1986, immediately after re-affirming that the inclination is not a sin. To be properly understood the terms used, ‘evil’ and ‘disorder’, must be grasped in their theological context, not accessed simply through colloquial understandings of those terms – as anybody who has ever tried to teach the privatio boni argument to children will understand.”
The letter, as Michael points out, was written for bishops in the language of bishops and presumed the advanced theological knowledge – and indeed the teleological worldview – that ought to be typical of the Church’s local leadership. Their job – and I'm not saying they did it well – would have been to apply and explain that letter in everyday pastoral language. It’s at best foolish and at worst downright disingenuous to quote from it as though its meaning is clear in an everyday context.

And, of course, not a word is said about how gay people must be accepted with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”, just as must everyone else: we are all made in God’s image, after all, and called towards union with him. No, instead we get another quote out of context and then this bizarre pseudo-paraphrase, which Colette casts as a choice between abstinence and damnation: “In short, you can spend your life as a self-hating homosexual, tormented with the knowledge that God instilled in you such disgusting urges as a sort of bizarre penance, or you can simply ignore all of that guff and get on with your life.”

This is merely how Colette reads Church teaching; it bears no resemblance to what the Church teaches, not least because the Church does not teach that God installs homosexual passions in people. He may well play a part in this – most sensible people think sexuality is due to a combination of nature and nurture – but we just don’t know, and the Catechism is clear that “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained”.

So we can forget the notion that same-sex attraction is installed in gay people as a “bizarre penance”, so, and about the Church wanting gay people to be “self-hating homosexuals”. Rot. If the Church says that gay people – like everyone else – are called to chastity, it does so not as an imposition, but as an invitation to choose for themselves how they want to live, and to what ends. Suffice to say that the motivation for this – at least nowadays, in the modern Church – s not fear or hatred or self-loathing; it’s love, hope, and faith, and the acceptance of such an invitation is made in a spirit of profound freedom. You won't find many adults nowadays who are forced to say they're Catholic. People don't have to believe unless they want to.

A Battery of Balderdash
“The stark choice between abstinence and damnation is something of a recurring theme when it comes to much Church teaching,” Colette says, except it’s not, and is only ever believed to be by people who don’t understand what the Church teaches about salvation and damnation.

“Couples wishing to plan their families were told to roll the dice and rely on the rhythm method,” she says, talking about Humanae Vitae, except they’re told nothing of the sort.

The only softening on the Church’s line on contraception, Colette claims, was “an admission by Pope Benedict, two years ago, that the use of contraceptives was acceptable ‘in certain cases’, for example by gay prostitutes to reduce the risk of HIV.”

And this, as you’ll have guessed, wasn’t true either, as all he’d said – in a personal capacity – was that it was conceivable that there could be circumstances where the use of condoms might represent a step in the right direction for somebody. He never said they would be acceptable, or anything of the sort; just a possible indication of a moral awakening. It was never the big deal people made it out to be.

The statement that “it goes without saying that those unmarried people living in sin — with contraceptives or without — are hopeless cases whose eternal reward will likely be a fiery affair,” is yet another of those tropes typical among us generations of Irish Catholics who were deprived a proper religious education in our teenage years; when I was younger and thicker I too assumed this was the Church’s line. The reality is rather more nuanced, as you’d expect from a Church where a cardinal could not long ago have drily observed that we’re obliged to believe that Hell exists; we’re not obliged to believe there’s anybody there. All else aside, it takes real effort to sin mortally.

“The Church is happy to see women barefoot and pregnant” Colette goes on, which is an odd statement to make of an organisation that runs more than 135,000 schools around the world, thus almost certainly empowering more women than any organisation has ever done in history. They’re nearly all free, and they cater to the poorest of the poor all across the world.

People on the ground in places like Africa and south-east Asia will testify to how the Church is transforming women’s lives for the better across the world. It’s the second-largest relief agency and the second-largest development agency in the world, and helps improve women’s lives everywhere – and does it on their terms, operating in accord with local knowledge and local culture, rather than imposing things upon them with a “Europe knows best” attitude. But maybe they don't matter.

What did Bill Hicks say about women priests?
And then we have a wonderful section on women priests where Colette declares that in the eyes of the Church, “a penis is the most important qualification when becoming a priest”, before recognising, in however cock-eyed a way, that the reason the Church believes only men can be priests is a mystery rooted in Christ and his selection of the apostles.

So far so goodish, but then she goes on to say that in 2010 the Vatican decreed the ordination of women to be a crime on a par with child abuse, except – as you’ll by now expect – it didn’t really say that at all. For a more intelligent, more informed, and flat-out fairer take on this you might look at Andrew Brown’s observation in the Guardian that, although the new 2010 norms were a PR disaster, it’s easy to see why they were published as they were:
“Obviously, if what you are trying to do is to maintain a functioning priesthood, then ritual or sacramental crimes are just as capable of destroying it as moral ones. So from that perspective it is makes perfect sense to have a list which combines the two, and I don’t think (though I may be wrong) that any official Catholic would maintain that assisting at the ordination service of a woman is morally comparable to child abuse. It’s just that both are absolutely incompatible with the Catholic priesthood.”
A bit of a backtrack then to Christ only having appointed men as apostles, in order to issue this howler: “Strangely, the fact that there were no female apostles is reason enough to debar women from ever being ordained, but the fact that the same apostles were married is not seen as convincing evidence that priests should also be allowed to marry.”

Now, you’d think to write anything on the Church with any pretense at authority you’d want to be able to distinguish between doctrine and discipline, but evidently not. Here’s the thing: priests can marry. Or, rather, priests can be married, and the Church has always recognised this: that’s why Anglican priests can become Catholic ones, even if they’re married, and why Orthodox priests, even if married, are always recognised as full priests. And I think the priests of the Catholic churches of the east are often married too. That Latin rite priests can’t marry is a mere matter of discipline – discipline with serious scriptural and traditional foundations, but discipline for all that. The Church could allow all priests to marry tomorrow.

Experts found no evidence? Of course they didn’t, Colette, of course they didn't...
And then, as though it weren’t bad enough, Colette comes out with this:
“Meanwhile, a recent discovery by a Harvard professor, who has found a scrap of 4th-century papyrus that indicates early Christians believed that Jesus was married and his wife was an apostle, could prove most inconvenient for the Church.

While the scrap of papyrus is still undergoing tests to prove its authenticity, a number of preliminary examinations by experts have found no evidence of any forgery — a minor detail that has not stopped the Vatican from claiming that it is a dud in order to avoid any awkward questions.”
Now, as a certain former newspaperman used to say, “comment is free, but facts are sacred”. It really wouldn’t have been hard for Colette to have checked this. The so-called Gospel of Jesus' Wife was one of those Dan Brown moments, where a Harvard scholar got excited by a papyrus of unknown provenance and arranged for her findings to be published in the January issue of the Harvard Theological Review, before the publication was shelved to allow for further study.

Several academics had taken issue with it – and the dubious manner of its being publicised – but the crucial factor in its shelved seems to have been its demolition by Durham’s Frances Watson, who showed that the so-called Gospel was stitched together from phrases in the extant Gospel of Thomas, with one word in particular showing a distinctive tell-tale line break. How on earth could Colette have missed this dismantling of the inconvenient text? It’s not as if it wasn’t reported in the mainstream media, after all.

And then, nicely, Colette wraps up by talking about the inexorable decline of the Church in the west; when it comes to admitting that that’s all you’ve been interested in, better late than never, I suppose.

Thing is, I could do this sort of thing dozens of times a day. Does it do any good? I doubt it. Better just to stick to find out the facts, be honest, and trust that the truth will out eventually.

Time to start building more train tracks.

1 comment:

Recusant said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I agree that building train tracks is a much better use of time than taking other people's apart, but occasionally it is as well to point out that their train tracks are full of holes. If you catch my drift. This is very clear and very welcome.