Scripture and the Church

I recently wrote a few rough notes for an evangelical about why there is no conflict between following the Church and following the scriptures. These are only in a very rough form, but I would be interested to know whether people think it would be worth developing into a fuller pamphlet pro propaganda fide (‘for the furtherment of the Faith’). What could I treat better? How could I make it more likely to catch the attention of evangelicals and make them think?

If you like, I could give you a précis on one point: why we don’t see any conflict between following scripture and following the teaching of the Church.

The first point to understand is the concordance of the teaching of the New Testament with the teaching of the early Church. For example, Christ commissioned all the apostles to teach. But not all of them wrote letters that were later recognised as divinely inspired. Indeed, John says at the end of his gospel that Christ did many more things than he had written down. And in Revelations John is given a scroll to eat–symbolically showing that he was to preach by mouth, not only to write down. The apostles would have preached and taught Christ’s life and deeds, and not necessarily only the things in scripture. (Scripture no-where tells us that it contains everything the apostles taught).

Indeed, there is no sense in the NT itself of any conflict between the writers’ inspired writings and their ordinary teachings. The prologue to Luke says that it relates what ‘those who were from the first eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed on to us’. ‘Handed on’ here is ‘paredosan’, from the verb ‘paradidomi’; the exact Latin etymological equivalent is ‘trado’. The abstract noun from the same root, ‘paradosis’, ‘traditio’, tradition / a handing-down, also appears in the scriptures. Jesus condemns the ‘paradosis’ of the Pharisees, but other parts of scripture commend the ‘paradosis’ of the Christian community, e.g. 2 Thess 2:15. Paul presupposes a continuity between his teaching in his epistles, and the teaching of the Christian community hitherto.

(This, by the way, raises the issue of why the Catholic Church doesn’t like some translations of the Bible, but prefers others. People like Wycliffe tended misleadingly to translate the same word, ‘paradosis’, as ‘tradition’ when it carried a negative sense, and ‘ordinance’ when it carried a good sense. This isn’t fair to scripture: it is trying to force scripture to say the conclusions you want it to say. With a similar mentality, Luther wanted to delete Revelation and several of the epistles because he didn’t find that they fitted well with his reading of Paul: and those parts of the NT are actually missing in some 17th century Lutheran bibles).

So, then, It is evident that the writers of the NT epistles taught the same doctrine by mouth, and indeed in non-canonical letters, as they did in their inspired letters. Paul didn’t suddenly pick up his pen and write to the Romans and Corinthians with a faith different from that which he had always taught. That would have been so strange and remarkable that we would know about it. Of course, the epistles are divinely inspired, and so are particularly perfect and authoritative expressions of faith, but they don’t clash with the authors’ other teaching.

And of course, this makes sense. All of us, however we understand the word ‘Church’, believe that the apostles belong to the Church, that community of which Christ said ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against her’. The Holy Spirit not only inspired Scripture, but dwells in the Church, leading her in all truth. So it makes sense that the very early Church (again, however we understand ‘Church’) should have taught the same doctrine as the scriptures. After all, the really early Church didn’t have the benefit of the New Testament in the first place! St Stephen, for example, evidently died before it was written, because his death is recorded in Acts; yet we have every reason to think that he was saved!

But here you might raise several objections. First, perhaps you might say that the ‘Church’, which ought to be translated ‘assembly’, is not an institutional, visible community, but the community of all believers. The apostles, you might say, had a temporary authority until the scriptures were complete. Secondly, you might cite 2 Tim 3:16-17, the main basis of the protestant doctrine of scripture, to show that scripture is all we need.

Let’s take the question about the nature of the Church first, because it throws up a point relevant to the second objection too. As I say, some people argue that the word ‘Church’ is a false translation of the Greek ‘ecclesia’. Such people argue that the ‘ecclesia’ is not really an organised, visible body, but is the community of all true believers, in keeping with the original meaning of ‘ecclesia’, ‘assembly’. But this argument makes no sense. One cannot bind scripture to the ordinary, pre-existing senses of words, otherwise it would not be able to describe any new realities. The ‘ecclesia’ of Christians was one such new reality–it is not like any ‘assembly’, any ‘ecclesia’ that had gone before. Other new realities included, for example, justification: clearly, when Paul talks about people becoming ‘dikaios’, literally ‘just’, then he is talking about a justice quite unlike any justice known hitherto.

So then, how do we understand NT words alright, if we can’t just depend on the ordinary, secular senses of the words in the Greek of the day? Well, the only way to know the nature of the Christian ‘ecclesia’, or of Christian righteousness, dikaiosune, is to led to it by the Holy Spirit. That raises the question, where do I look for a true, spiritual reading of the bible?

After all, all Christians learn from bible teachers and commentaries that they trust. No-one actually reads scripture in a bubble. So the question is, which teachers should I trust to provide spiritually-inspired exegesis? Do I have to pick one of 20,000 mutually conflicting Protestant denominations?

Certainly not. God made it simple for us. He commissioned the apostles and their successors to teach us. (Remember Acts shows the apostles appointing a replacement for Judas: the apostolic ministry is ongoing). A little reason shows that the ‘Church’ cannot mean ‘the collection of all true believers’. For if that we so then Christ’s claim that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, would be tautologous: he would just be saying that those who will go to heaven, will go to heaven. Why would he say something so redundant?

Instead, he really meant a Church. The Catholic faith is a tangible faith, in keeping with the whole ethos of the incarnation: there is a real, ongoing community that is the body of Christ. Christ entrusted its earthly governance to Peter. (Some say that ‘You are Peter, and on this rock’ is a pun, because the Greek ‘Peter’ and the Greek ‘rock’ use slightly different forms. They say that therefore the rock is not Peter, but Christ himself. But this is a conjecture at best, not at all a natural reading. And Aramaic, in which our Lord would have spoken the original words recorded in the Gospel, does not have such a subtlety. It is much more plausible that the Greek contains two forms in order to differentiate it from ‘You are Peter, and on this Peter I will build my Church’–i.e. to make it clear that Peter is the *rock*). One can also consider the end of John, where John gets to Jesus’ empty tomb first, but waits for Peter and lets him go in first. And then after the resurrection Christ singles out Peter, asking him three times whether he loves him, and commissioning him to look after his flock.

So then, when we look and see the apostles exercising a doctrinal authority at, say, Acts 15, that was no temporary authority, but a permanent one. Remember in Acts that they lay hands on a successor for Judas: the apostolic ministry was to last for all of this last age.

Now for 2 Tim. This passage in no way proves sola scriptura. Firstly, the opening words, ‘pasa graphe’, mean ‘every scripture considered individually’, not ‘all scripture considered as a whole’–that would be ‘pasa he graphe’. So it is not setting out a doctrine whereby scripture, as a perfect whole, teaches everything: is is simply saying that all scriptures are useful (‘ophelimos’). Furthermore, when we translate the second verse, we tended to say in English that scripture makes people ‘perfect’. But the Greek is more like ‘fully kitted out’: it is the verb one uses of furnishing a chariot. So there is no idea in there of ‘as good as you can possibly be’; it is more like ‘fully equipped’. Thirdly, when Paul was writing to Timothy, most of the NT had not yet been written, so he couldn’t possibly have been telling Timothy that what later became the Bible was all he needed–the Bible wasn’t even available yet! Lastly, look at the verses immediately beforehand. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. I.e., one of the reasons Paul cites to encourage Timothy to stand firm in the faith, is that he learned it from authoritative teachers. Again, then, 2 Tim validates the idea that the Church, thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit in her, has teaching authority.

Lastly: just suppose that scripture were all we had. We would agree that it is a perfect whole; that one could not take anything away from scripture without losing something important. But then, if scripture were all we had, God would have failed us–for the end of Mark’s gospel is missing! Hence it cannot possibly be that God gave us only scripture, a perfect whole, of which nothing could be lost without damage–because then he would be allowing the Christian community to be stuck without part of her only source of doctrine. And he surely wouldn’t do such a thing.

This, of course, does not guarantee the holiness of all her members–far from it. But it does guarantee that she can’t, as a whole, teach false doctrine–that is the guarantee that the gates of hell will not prevail against her.

On the 92 Excepted Hereditary Peers

It is said that one should never use up political capital on hopeless causes. Well, I have no political capital, so I am free to be as Quixotic as I like. I want to defend the band of hereditary peers that still sits in the House of Lords. Yesterday the Times confirmed its rapid descent into the gutter with a childish, rabble-rousing, hypocritical, badly-reasoned attack on them. This was a full-scale journalistic assault: the front page of the Sunday paper; an editorial; a two page spread with cartoons and Bronwen Maddox. We can omit to mention that it was illiterate (‘They are men because, unlike the royal family… male primogeniture still exists for hereditary peers’). We can pass lightly over the puerile smearing of individual peers (‘the great-grandson of a fascist’; ‘descendent of a slave owner’: so what? lots of people are. These aren’t so muchattacks ad hominem as ad atavos). Let us instead look at Times’ arguments.

These are several. First, peers are ‘unrepresentative’; they ‘do not look like modern Britain’. They are all white and male; most are old; many have very old titles. Almost half went to Eton. Second, they are more expensive than life peers, and on average they speak in the House less often. Third, says the Times, they ‘lobby’ for ‘private interests’: they are sixty per-cent more likely to mention business or personal interests in the Lords than life peers are. Fourth, the system is unfair; it is an ‘absurd anachronism’ and a ‘disgrace’. The Times quotes the Labour life-peer Baroness Hayter: ‘The idea of only having people in because of what an antecedent did, rather than what they themselves did, is not something that would be accepted by the British public today’.

These are bad arguments. Consider first the argument that the hereditaries are unrepresentative because they do not ‘look like’ ‘modern Britain’. The Times seem to mean that modern Britain is less white, less old, less Etonian, and less male than them. However, to ‘represent’ people in parliament is not to look like them; it is to articulate their views and attitudes in the public sphere, and to defend their interests, alongside the national interest; ideally, is to do so better than the average man could do. Representation is not identity: the average uneducated person would do a bad job of representing himself in parliament. So would the average young and inexperienced person. Hence a wise, well-educated old man may be a better representative of the young and uneducated, than the young and uneducated themselves. If there are people in parliament with long experience of life and a first-rate education, then that is a good thing—and an increasingly rare one. Indeed, the revising chambers of many other countries’ legislatures are called ‘senates’, and ‘senate’ derives from the Latin senex, ‘old man’. 

Besides, the Times’ logic is poor here; if they want to claim that representation of ‘modern Britain’–meaning all its people–is important, then they need to make their case more clearly. For if representation so defined is important, then one could argue that parliament is defective because it contains too few idiots, too few madmen, and too few jailbirds. (But–remembering the life peers and the Commons–I sense that is not the best example).

Furthermore, it is not the job of the hereditaries to represent Britain: that is the job of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, of which the hereditaries form a small part. Nor should we assume that the popularly-elected members of parliament, the Commons, are representative of British people in every respect just because they are elected. MPs are disproportionately socially liberal. On the other hand the hereditaries, who make up about 10% of the House of Lords, provide some representation of the remaining patriotic and socially conservative citizens of this country. This, indeed, is the advantage of the hereditaries’ having old titles: they have each imbibed a family tradition of patriotism and public service; in general, they instinctively understand the ‘British way of doing things’; they have an intuition for the subtle balancing of forces that the British constitution—that so delicate and perduring tradition of life—provides.

What about the claim that the hereditaries are expensive? Well, if one reads the inside page of the Times’ assault, one sees that, on average, a hereditary peer costs £2,000 per year more than an a life peer. This makes the total annual premium for the whole complement of hereditary peers about the same as the annual salary of one top civil servant (and a little over 10% of Gary Lineker’s). This modest difference probably arises because fewer hereditaries than life peers have London residences. They are not professional politicians; unlike too many life peers, they are not members of the Westminster bubble. 

This also explains why they speak less often, but more often on their own areas of knowledge. Hereditaries tend to take the view that they should only speak when they have something to say. And since most have never won a popular election or otherwise ‘earned’ their way into Parliament, they do not labour under the delusion that they have something to say on every subject. Instead, they contribute genuine knowledge and experience. Indeed the Times actually quotes Lord Waverley on this: he says that he only speaks on subjects on which he has ‘long experience and deep personal knowledge… I am not certain that my contributions on matters in which I had little knowledge would be particularly valuable’. If only all life peers and MPs could be so humble and self-aware!

The Times also complains that Lord Carrington, who has worked in Saudi oil, recently cautioned the Lords that ‘the alternative to the current [Saudi] royal government… could be considerably worse’. To the Times this is shocking, but to be it sounds like good sense. Does anyone remember the ‘Arab Spring’? How foolish ideologues rushed in to prepare the ground for ISIS, labelling any hesitation as racist? The role of any revising chamber is to provide cautious, experienced wisdom, even when it is unpopular. This is what the hereditaries do. 

Nevertheless, this all raises a question: is the hereditary system fair? The Times thinks not; but that is because the Times, like all progressive organizations, identifies fairness with equality, and equality with what it likes. For the left, the system cannot be fair, because not everyone has an equal chance of becoming a peer. How convenient an argument! How useful a logic! We always need to challenge this sneaky reduction of fairness to equality. A parliament half of women would be equal as to sex; a parliament with many Playstation-loving young men would be equal as to age and intelligence; by some magic trick one might make a parliament equal as to everything. (And since only a magic trick would achieve this, the aspiring left-wing rhetorician will always be able to find some inequality to blame for everything). But there is more to fairness than this. To live with badly-made law is unfair. To have inarticulate representatives is unfair. To have foolish, ingenuous foreign policy is unfair. In fact, these are far worse burdens to the citizen than to have a parliament that is unequal as to age and sex and intelligence. Yet politicians always always treat equality as a panacea, contrary to all evidence. I find that unfair.

As for Baroness Hayter’s complaint that hereditaries sit ‘because of what an antecedent did, rather than what they themselves did’, one can only ask exactly what the 50 Liberal Democrat life peers have done for themselves. Most were ennobled under the Cameron-Clegg coalition. Together they repose in the Lords like a tattered yellow life jacket, carried thither on the wave of Cleggmania, and left stranded by the tide of public opinion; a sort of faded ermine flotsam. No-one seems to know what it is for. More seriously, Hayter’s remark is disingenuous. The hereditary system would never have survived this long had not the hereditaries ever been a distinguished body in themselves, formed of sensible, well-educated, professional men with wide interests and life-experience. They do not ‘look like’ the British average because, on the whole, they are above average in education, shrewdness, constitutional awareness, soundness of instinct, and professional experience.

Now, there are valid criticisms of the hereditaries. Under Christendom, there was the ideal—sometimes realized, often not—of the Christian prince. People believed that nobles had a duty to aristuein—to excel—in morals as well as in other qualities. Aristocrats once deferred to these ideals even if they didn’t meet them. One still sees traces of this amongst some Catholic continental aristocrats. Here in Britain, the Church of England inherited the doctrine of the indissolubility of valid sacramental marriage, but never balanced this with a clear and adequate account of marriage-validity and of the sacramental nature of marriage. Hence she was always bound to give succour to divorce in the long run; indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury supported the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which first permitted it. From then on the aristocratic divorce rate rose rapidly, especially in the 20th century, and thus aristocrats lost a sense of their duty and social role, which was fundamentally moral—to set the standards of an advanced Christian civilization. In the end, they lost confidence in themselves.

On the other hand, the hereditaries, ideal upper-house parliamentarians in many ways, do still also have many genuinely noble qualities. For one thing, they know that they owe their seats to quirks of history. This is why they tend to have humility—that noble midwife to wisdom, which is all too rare today. The Times sneeringly quotes Lord Borwick: ‘Do I deserve this place? Absolutely not! Am I grateful that I’ve got it! Absolutely! And I hope that I’ve been working hard enough to reckon that other people might think I deserve it’. Personally, I find Lord Borwick’s words refreshing amidst Westminster’s cloying air of entitlement, pretension and rank pomposity. These are not the words of a Bercow or a Blair. And that’s an argument in itself.

Impressive Pro-Life Testimonies at the Republican National Convention

Pro-life testimonies at the Republican National ConventionThe recent Republican National Convention featured some extremely impressive anti-abortion testimonies, three of which I want to share with you today. In the first, Abby Johnson, former clinic director and employee of the year at the major abortion provider Planned Parenthood, relates her experiences. As her superior told her: ‘abortion is how we make our money’. 

In the second, Tera Myers, whose son has Down’s Syndrome, describes the anti-life medical community’s attitude to disability. She quotes her doctor’s advice to abort her son: ‘If you do not, you will be burdening your life, your family and your community’.

In the third, Sr Dede Byrne, M.D., a former colonel of the US Army Medical Corps, and now a religious sister of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, reminds us that the Biden-Harris presidential ticket is the most anti-life ever. As she says: ‘The largest marginalized group in the world can be found here in the United States: they are the unborn’.

With her excellent line ‘I’m saying [this] not just because I am pro-life, but becauseI am pro-eternal life’, Sr Byrne also neatly indicates why the Church opposes abortion so vigorously. It is not because she is a mere moral pressure group, but because she is (in her view) the ordinary human instrument of God’s preparing people for heaven. However, God has given man free will: man can turn himself away from God by sin, and so frustrate the Church’s mission. The Church therefore opposes political policies that abet sin: and ‘pro-choice’ policies, more than any others, directly facilitate sins—namely the sins of performing, procuring, or choosing to have, abortions. This (as I would put it) is why the Church speaks against ‘Pro-Choice’ policies so insistently.

The real Hallowe’en

As many have observed, Hallowe’en seems a tiresome prospect this year, because most people have been wearing scary masks for months. I for one shall certainly be glad if fewer American-style trick-or-treaters roam the streets; for as most British people lose the last vestiges of cultural Christianity, one feels that they are beginning to celebrate the dark the powers that their expensive Hallowe’en costumes depict, rather than warding them off, and trick-or-treating itself takes on a more menacing tone. But what is the alternative?

Here we need to look to the past. We Northern Europeans have long seen Hallowe’en as a night of spiritual significance. Gaelic pagans regarded Hallowe’en night as the end of the harvest season, and as the beginning of the festival day of Samhain, which for them was a liminal time—a time to be on one’s guard against ill forces. By the eighth century, under the Church, Hallowe’en had become the day before All Hallows’ Day, or, in modern English, All Saints’ Day; which began with first vespers on Hallowe’en night itself. According to the popular belief of the late Middle Ages, those dead Christians who were unready for heaven (the Church Penitent) became restless on this night. Many people imagined that they rose from graveyards to perform a consoling ‘danse macabre’, depictions of which were common in churches—a kind of Christian memento mori. In some places, poor children went ‘souling’: they knocked on doors to ask for specially-baked ‘soul cakes’, and in return they would pray for the bakers’ dead relatives. After the Reformation, many Protestants taught that the saved were ready for heaven immediately they died, but the custom of ‘souling’ survived in many Protestant places—though the souls of Purgatory were transformed into less definable spirits, perhaps malign.

But the Hallowe’en of Christendom was never a celebration of death and dark powers; it was never an acknowledgement of their mastery over us. For, as I have said, it was really the vigil of All Saints’ Day, the great celebration not only of saints but of God-given sainthood itself. On this day, Western Christians honoured—and still honour—the saints in heaven (the ChurchTriumphant), and thus praise and glorify God for his sanctifying work in them. So doing, we also declare our wish to be as open as them to God’s grace: to that shared divine life God offers to the faithful.
It is this ideal, I think, that can tell us how to celebrate Hallowe’en today: so to speak, we need once more to plant our pumpkins in Christian soil. At the Christian Hallowe’en, Christians acknowledge the darkness of sin within man, and its consequence, death; but we do so only to prepare for the great feast of the triumph of the Church, the great reminder that the darkness within us need not have the last word in our lives—and that therefore it need not have the last word within our societies either. In the struggles of mortal life in this ‘vale of tears’, the Church knows well by experience that the prayers of those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) help those of us alive today (the Church Militant). The whole Church is one great family of prayer.

Indeed, for that very reason, the Christian season of Allhallowstide, which begins on Hallowe’en, has one third and final day. On the second of November, the Church celebrates All Souls’ Day: the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Christian liturgy on this day resembles that of a funeral; the day is especially comforting for those in mourning, who can unite their pains of bereavement to those of the whole Church Militant, as everywhere she dons black vestments and commemorates the dead. No-one need feel alone in grief on this day.

Allhallowstide thus takes us from a reminder of darkness, to a glorious glimpse of our future hope and the ongoing triumph of the Church, and takes us back again to an honest acknowledgement of the pains of this mortal life; but an acknowledgement filled with the renewed hope of faith. It is through just such a season, developed by many generations of the faithful, that society can again find a rational, hopeful, faithful response to the increasingly satanic tenor of the de-christianized Hallowe’en. This Hallowe’en night, then, why not observe Allhallowstide, starting with the first vespers or evensong of All Saints?

POSTSCRIPT. There is one common Christian objection to Allhallowstide, which sadly keeps many from enjoying its benefits. For it has always been a human religious instinct to honour distinguished creatures as well as God: the classical cult of heroes shows us this, as does the recent cult of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But some Christian men (and it is almost always men) think that Christian practices that satisfy pre-theoretical human religious or aesthetic instincts distract Christians from a pure intellectual awareness of the Gospel, and are ‘pagan’ and ‘religious’ (a pejorative term for them). They therefore object to the veneration of saints, adding that it cheats God of the love and reverence due to him alone. However, this objection is easily answered. The instinct of veneration is no more peculiarly pagan than the instinct of prayer to God. The Faith is that to which all human religious instincts, all our mental striving, and our very nature points; the cross is written through all the substance of the world. Fittingly, therefore, the Faith reconciles, perfects and fulfils our religious instincts; it does not simply deny or suppress them. Indeed Christians’ love of the saints, like our love of our families, in no way conflicts with our love of God: love is not a zero-sum game. 

Catholics, voting, abortion and social justice.

Why is society imperfect? Why is there war and crime and social injustice? The answer, for Catholics, is clear: man is fallen. Therefore, if Americans want to make their society and country better, their first task is to help themselves and others to let in God’s grace, to reject sin, and to grow in holiness. In that way alone can man produce a glimmer of the heavenly city on earth. This first task–the sanctification and salvation of souls–is the true purpose of the Church; it is what she is made for. A more just society is a side-effect of the Church’s work, but not her primary goal. Indeed she forsakes her unique purpose if she tries to pursue social justice as her primary end.

This shows why those Catholics who would put other social justice issues above abortion, and vote for Biden–Harris, are so muddled in their thinking. True social justice emerges when individuals reject sin; and only then. But no political policies promote sins–and very serious sins–more effectively than pro-choice ones: the materially grave sins of abortionists, women, and others involved.

Other social justice questions leave far less sin at stake. Under Bush, pro-Democrat Catholics equated deaths by abortion with deaths by war; under Trump they weigh abortion against unjust immigration policies. But death in war often involves no serious sin on either side of the conflict; and it is far from obvious that an American’s voting for or implementing a questionable immigration policy is a grave sin (in the latter case, it might depend partly on his ranking and station within immigration enforcement).

In terms of promotion of sin then, there is simply no comparison between ‘pro-choice’ policies and (let us say) socially unjust Republican ones. By equating these putative Republican injustices with abortion, and so ignoring the question of sin, pro-Biden Catholics are pursuing a mere effect of the Church’s sanctifying work, namely social justice, as if it were the primary goal of the Church in itself. But this makes no theological sense, and is doomed to failure: society cannot enjoy the effects of grace if it closes itself to grace by embracing sin-promoting policies.

This confusion about the Church’s purpose sadly seems to have reached the episcopate. Consider Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a specialist in Catholic social teaching, who questioned the United States Bishops’ Conference recent description of abortion as its ‘pre-eminent’ social justice concern; he wanted similar weight to be given to other social justice issues.

We can infer that the bishop was making the same mistake that I have imputed to pro-Biden Catholics if we consider other statements of his. In his own diocese, he has defended a parish’s employment of an openly practicing homosexual, arguing that ‘if the Church eliminated all employees who are not living out the teachings of the Church in its fulness, we would be employing only angels’. The bishop’s logic here seems to be that almost none of us perfectly realise Catholic social teaching—almost none of us identify ourselves with the poor as St Francis did—and therefore none of us can be said to be any more compliant with Church teaching than said homosexual. This reasoning ignores questions of intention, deliberation, and obligation, and so conflates the world’s evils with imputable personal sin (formal sin). It looks more like late Protestantism’s sin-minimising take on the doctrine of total depravity (which labelled all our actions sinful, and so made the concept of personal sin meaningless) than it does anything Catholic. 

Though I should acknowledge that I cannot prove that the bishop has been making this mistake, nevertheless I have reason to suspect so: for if one loses the distinction between evil and imputable personal sin, then one will indeed think that the Church’s primary mission can and should be to reduce evils like social injustice, and one will be unable to understand that societies best curtail the proliferation of evil by resisting and discouraging personal sin. This mistake—the final consequence of which would be that the Church think and act like just another NGO—is not one that senior churchmen should be making.

Perhaps, then, it would be good if those Catholics who would conflate abortion with other social justice issues reflected carefully on the end of man, the nature of sin, and the purpose of the Church. Let us hope and pray that they do so in the next couple of weeks.

Our Lady of Aberdeen

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Aberdeen, as celebrated in the Diocese of Aberdeen. Here is the old hymn for Our Lady under this title, which my source tells me was composed by Mother Francis Forbes R.S.C.J.

Our Lady of Good Succour,
In the city by the sea,
Where the Don flows down the valley
To greet the silver Dee,
The ashes of faith still smoulder
Where the fire of the faith has been:
Bring the old faith back to Scotland
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Our Lady of Good Succour,
In the country saints have trod,
*Martyrs and brave confessors
Who gave their lives for God,
O hear the prayer of Columba,
Of Margaret, Saint and Queen:
Bring the old faith back to Scotland
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Our Lady of Good Succour,
The love of God grows cold
In a country that has forgotten
The saving truths of old;
But a brighter dawn is breaking
And a fairer hope is seen:
Bring the old faith back to Scotland
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Our Lady of Good succour,
In the happy days of old
Men deck’d thy gracious image
With silver and with gold;
Though darker days succeeded
Thou still art Scotland’s Queen,
Come back, come back to Scotland,
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Sadly the diocese replaced this hymn with a ecumenicalized version in the 1980’s, but it still speaks powerfully today.

*My source has ‘while’ before this word, but that makes no sense.

The Meerkat and the Lemmings

Suppose your London home was subject to daily harassment and brutish intimidation, far from anyone you could really trust. Suppose you lived there with your wife and four-year old child. Suppose you thought you very likely had coronavirus, and suppose your wife had just become very sick. Suppose you could drive your wife and child somewhere else, without stopping; somewhere where young adult relatives could care for your child if you and your wife became incapacitated; a place where you could, however, keep your family isolated if that didn’t happen. What would you do?

Suppose that you then had a nasty bout of probable coronavirus, recovered, still felt strange, and wanted to get back to London to help coordinate national government. Might you not take a brief test-drive, stopping nowhere special, and then drive back to work?  

            Those are the questions that our media do not want to ask. Why? Because they hate Dominic Cummings. He’s a maverick, an outsider—just look at his dress sense—; he’s a game-changer; and—quelle horreur— he’s a Brexiteer. Therefore, it seems, he’s also fair game for a witch-hunt.

            Unfortunately for the media, though, at yesterday’s press conference Cummings was the witch that wouldn’t float. Politically dangerous but personally quiet and sincere, Cummings offered a reasonable account of his movements, quoting the government guidelines, which tell us to use our grown-up judgement if we have young children. Beth Rigby of Sky suggested to him that he had ‘badly misjudged the public mood on this’. In reply, Cummings explained that any public anger was largely due to misinformation (he was too polite to say ‘fake news’). As he quietly insisted over the course of the interview, stories that he had stayed with his parents, that his parents had looked after his children, that he’d had a jolly at Barnard Castle, and that he’d gone back to Durham after his return to London, were all false. One’s overall impression was that the mad-but-loveable inventor Sergei the Meerkat had accidentally teleported himself into Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. But it took courage for Cummings to hold his line as he did, and one couldn’t but conclude that that courage came from his conviction that he’d done right by his family.

The media were really contemptible. One journalist suggested that, in using his discretion regarding his young child, Cummings had used a ‘legal nicety’, adding “there may be some legal loophole, but you’ve broken the spirit of it” [sic]. (Laura Kuenssberg would later write that Cummings ‘at the very least broke the spirit of the lockdown rules’[1]). The concept of ‘breaking the spirit of the rules’ of course makes no sense when the rules allow discretion, and in any case suggests a worrying conflation between the Coronavirus guidelines and actual law. Indeed, ‘loopholes’ are things one finds in complicated statute laws that judges must apply strictly—not in guidance that’s supposed to be followed and enforced with good sense. (I.e.: if the letter of the law says ‘use good sense’, then it’s impossible to break the spirit of the law without breaking the letter, and so the concept ‘the spirit of the law’ is redundant). The media’s use of such terms for the coronavirus guidelines is Orwellian and dangerous.

Another hack tried to magic up some mud, trying to suggest that Boris Johnson took no interest in Cummings’ movements until the issue had become publicly damaging. But as Cummings explained, his movements were hardly a natural priority for the PM, and, when they had discussed them after Cummings’ return to London, they had both still been feeling pretty strange.

Robert Peston said “your own scientists are worried that, by introducing some element of personal discretion into the rules, you are putting lives at risk”, his tone suggesting that ‘personal discretion’ was an inherently repellent notion. But of course that discretion was always there, even if the public didn’t perceive it to be. Technocratic Peston came across as inhumane.  

One Guardian woman then suggested that Cummings ought not to have made use of his parents’ spare cottage; for most people don’t have access to a spare house. He should have suffered like everyone else, she suggested. Well, I suppose that that idea accords with the Guardian’s blinkered notion of ‘fairness’, but what’s fair about putting your child, and anyone who might have had to care for him, at unreasonable risk? The same journalist also asked a typical barrister’s question: ‘you also just mentioned that you have made other mistakes…can you point us to any more of them?’, thus implying that Cummings had conceded that his travelling was a mistake (he hadn’t).

            If this sorry episode has taught us anything, it’s that the broadcast media think they can destroy anyone who lies outside the acceptable range of political thought, by manipulating the opinion of a seemingly credulous public. I sincerely hope they don’t succeed.

            Yet none of this unedifying furore could have arisen if it weren’t for our absurd sensitivity about ‘protecting the NHS’. As Kathy Gyngell has rightly said, Cummings—however unjustly—has suffered from the oppressive ‘lockdown’ culture that his government has created, and the media hysteria around it. The problem isn’t just that the media hate him; it’s also that, lemming-like, they are willingly acceding to a dangerous mentality, almost a dangerous new legal culture. Perhaps you will recall the old joke: in England, everything is allowed that is not expressly forbidden; in Germany, everything is forbidden that is not expressly allowed; in France, everything is allowed that is expressly forbidden. Britain seems to be slipping uncritically, almost unconsciously, into the second model.    


[1] Laura Kuenssberg, ‘Dominic Cummings’ press conference did not answer fundamental question’, BBC News, 26th May 2020, available athttps://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52802703