Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Strange Fudge

This article by Msgr Roderick Strange promises much but delivers little. The headline states Newman has the best answer to Blair’s critics but a close examination reveals that Msgr Strange leaves the substantive issue untouched.
In my mind, the key issue concerning Mr Blair is his recent and proactive pursuit of a social agenda expressly contrary to Catholic principles. As Msgr Strange puts it:
Some saw Tony Blair’s gift as a clear sign that he would soon be received as a Catholic himself. And now that he has been, the news has sparked critical comments, especially concerning the way he made allowance for policies as Prime Minister that clashed with Catholic teaching, for example, on abortion, on stem-cell research, and on same-sex unions. His sincerity has been questioned. How could he have supported those policies then, yet become a Catholic so soon after?
There is a prima facie case that Mr Blair should have renounced these policies when converting. Whether this recantation should have been public or private is, perhaps, open to discussion.
Strange makes use of Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk to address these concerns. Or, at least he claims to do so. Firstly, consider his description of the background to Newman's letter:
Gladstone had lost a general election and he attributed his misfortune in part to the influence that he felt the Pope had exercised in Ireland, an influence, he believed, that had undermined his position. He was mistaken. But smarting from his defeat he produced a popular pamphlet attacking the decrees of the first Vatican Council (1869-70), which had defined Papal Infallibility, and claiming that on account of those decrees Roman Catholics had forfeited their moral and mental freedom and placed their civil loyalty and duty under the Pope. As citizens they were no longer to be trusted.
Already we see that the issues that Newman were confronting do not correspond to the concerns that some Catholics have about Tony Blair's acceptance into the Church. However, let us continue reading to see if we can see what Strange is up to:
At the same time Newman also wanted to offer an alternative view to some of the exaggerated claims for papal authority then prevalent among Catholic extremists. He saw Gladstone’s outburst as a chance to set the record straight. By showing the extent of papal claims, he wanted also to show their limits.
Aha! This is more promising. Despite verging on ultramontanism myself, I realise that it's not healthy to expect every detail of Catholic life throughout the world to be hyper-regulated by Rome.
Strange continues:
One of the questions he discussed was that of divided allegiance. Could Catholics be loyal or were they always untrustworthy? First, there was the general matter of the Pope exercising “the supreme direction” of Catholics. Newman pointed out immediately that “supreme” is not “minute”. Papal authority may be supreme, guiding what Catholics are to believe, their faith, and how they are to behave, their morals, but without intruding minutely into the details of their daily lives. By way of contrast, he observed, consider civil law. That is far more intrusive. “There are”, he pointed out, “numberless laws about property, landed and personal, titles, tenures, trusts, wills, covenants, contracts, partnerships, money transactions, life insurances, taxes, trade, navigation, education, sanitary measures, trespasses, nuisances, all in addition to the criminal law.” Yet these laws, he went on, are not regarded as interfering “either with our comfort or our conscience”. He was writing in 1875. Are we as much at ease with our laws today? But certainly the Pope is not interfering with our ordinary daily life.
Fair enough... But we're not dealing with minutiae here. Much of what excites the scruples of those with questions about Blair's reception are not minor matters. We are dealing with some fundamental issues concerning the shape of society and its institutions. What is more, we are dealing with legislation which is unambiguously and gravely evil. Strange, thankfully, doesn't push the envelope and claim that the issues on which Blair was not kosher fall under the heading of minutae.
So, without explaining the significance of this digression, Strange makes another point:
Then there was a second question, touching the imagined clash between papal teaching and parliamentary legislation. Newman struggled to find an example. We may have less difficulty and refer to the very issues for which Tony Blair has been criticised, abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex unions. But Catholic politicians in raising their concerns about these controversial matters are not simply bowing to Rome in blind obedience. A debate needs to continue. It is not obvious that the tragedy of an unwanted pregnancy is best resolved by the further tragedy of termination; that the ethical issues surrounding the use of stem cells are empty of meaning; and that the way legislation is framed for same-sex unions can do no harm to marriage and family life. Catholic politicians should never seek to impose their views on others, but in a free and democratic society they have the right to argue their case and hope to be heard in an honest, open-minded way.
This would seem to be a non sequitur. Strange defends the right of Catholic politicians to contribute to the public debate, and insists that doing so according to a conscience formed by Catholic teaching is "not simply bowing to Rome in blind obedience." Fair enough. However, this has nothing to do with the criticisms made of Blair. What does the right of a Catholic politician to argue his case have to do with the fact that whilst an Anglican Mr Blair argued for and promoted some decidedly uncatholic and immoral things?
Strange concludes his non-argument with a final point which does have some relevance:
And then there is that third specific issue. Would Tony Blair as a Catholic have been unable to go to war in Iraq given Pope John Paul’s opposition to it? Would his policy have been controlled by the Vatican? Newman raised the question directly. His answer was plain. He refers to members of the Armed Forces, but the point applies to prime ministers as well: “ . . . were I actually a soldier or a sailor in Her Majesty’s service, and sent to take part in a war which I could not in my conscience see to be unjust, and should the Pope suddenly bid all Catholic soldiers and sailors to retire from the service, here again, taking the advice of others, as best I could, I should not obey him.”
This is a much more interesting case. Newman and Strange do have a decent point here. However, differing with the Pope on the prudential judgement of whether a particular war is unjust or not differs greatly from the promotion of a legislation and a social agenda so wholly contrary to Catholic teaching. Additionally, what is at issue is not the correctness of one particular judgement or the other. No one can say that they make the correct moral judgement all the time. Rather, what is at issue is Mr Blair's moral principles. Up to relatively recently, he seemed to be enthusiastically wedded to a whole host of moral principles which are at odds with the teaching of the Church. That is why so many Catholics look on his reception into the Church with scepticism.
Strange concludes as follows:
In fact Newman regarded the notion of a genuine conflict between obedience to Parliament or obedience to the Pope as unreal. He recognised that some exceptional situation could occur, but were it ever to do so, he argued, the individual case would need to be judged on its merits. The irony of the case of the war in Iraq is that many people wish that Tony Blair had been influenced by the Pope rather more.
I suppose this paragraph highlights the huge difference between the Victorian age and ours. It is a sad fact of history that many states (including the United Kingdom) are pushing an evil agenda which Newman would have found incomprehensible. He saw the Established Church and the more-or-less Christian culture of 19th Century Britain as providing a bulwark which would keep his country respectable, decent and more-or-less moral. I doubt that he'd have been able to believe the realities of modern-day legislation and government policies.
I'm at a loss as to what Msgr Strange intended to prove with this article. I sincerely hope that he wasn't trying to bolster Mr Blair's position by linking his position to that of Cardinal Newman by means of a lot of rhetorical hand-waving. He does deal with the question of the war in Iraq, but despite the gravity of the conflict itself, it is far from being the greatest discrepancy in Mr Blair's position. What he does leave untouched is the great contradiction between Mr Blair's moral principles and actions as Prime Minister. There can be no doubt but that he is morally responsible for his actions whilst in public office and that his recently held principles are gravely at odds with the faith he now publicly professes. That is where the problem is for many Catholics - and that is the issue that Msgr Strange seems to be studiously avoiding.
Many Catholics are also concerned about the wisdom and the integrity of the decision of those clergy who admitted Mr Blair to the faith whilst leaving these issues unresolved. To be honest, I've still not made up my mind about this case. I'm torn between my grave concern surrounding Mr Blair's position and the question of the privacy which should be afforded to a convert in matters of conscience. Given that we know the Profession of Faith that he made on entering the Church, shouldn't we, perhaps, give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him (and the Holy Spirit) to manifest his conversion by his words and deeds in the future. That's one debate that I don't want to get involved in. At this stage, I'm just confused by Msgr Strange's article and what he intended to prove by it.

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