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‘3-Parent’ Babies: A Controversy That Shouldn’t Be

ThreeParentBabiesThe New York Times:

A few months ago, after a fertility procedure at a Mexican clinic, a healthy baby boy was born in New York to a couple from Jordan. It was the first live birth of a child who has been called — to the dismay of scientists who say the term is grossly misleading — a three-parent baby.

“This is huge,” said Dr. Richard J. Paulson, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, after the birth was reported on Tuesday.

The method used to help the couple is one that reproductive scientists have been itching to try, but it is enormously controversial because it uses genetic material from a donor in addition to that of the couple trying to conceive. The purpose is to overcome flaws in a parent’s mitochondria that can cause grave illnesses in babies.

And why exactly should this helpful procedure be ‘enormously controversial’?

Part of the answer lies in that term ‘three-parent baby’, rightly described as grossly misleading.

The New York Times:

Mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories, are separate from the DNA that determines a child’s inherited traits. But mutations in these little organelles can be devastating, resulting in fatal diseases involving the nerves, muscles, brain, heart, liver, skeletal muscles, kidney and the endocrine and respiratory systems that often kill babies in the first few years of life.

The technique that led to the healthy birth was to move the DNA from an egg of the mother, who had mutated mitochondria, and place it in the egg of a healthy egg donor — after first removing the healthy donor’s nuclear DNA from her egg cell. Then that egg, with its healthy mitochondria and the mother’s DNA, could be fertilized….

The Guardian:

A small number of children each year are born with faults in their mitochondrial DNA which can cause diseases. Mitochondria are small structures that sit inside our cells and provide them with energy. They have their own set of 37 genes which are separate from the 20,000 or so genes that shape who we are.

… On a genetic level, all of the 20,000 genes on the child’s 23 pairs of chromosomes come from the child’s mother and father. The donor only contributes DNA that sit in the mitochondria, less than 0.2% of the total.

The New York Times:

“Mitochondria,” Dr. Paulson said, “do not define who you are.” The genes for traits that make up a person’s appearance and other characteristics are carried in the nuclear DNA. If a white woman got mitochondria from an Asian woman, for example, her babies would be white, with no traces of the Asian mitochondrial donor. The ban, said Dr. Paulson, “is not scientific, not rational, not evidence-based.”

“Not rational”.

Enter religion.

The Guardian:

The Catholic church opposes one form of mitochondrial transfer, called pronuclear transfer, because a fertilised egg from the mother is destroyed in the process. Catholic ethicists have also complained that mitochondrial transfer introduces a “rupture” between mother and father and “dilutes parenthood”.

Roman Catholic objections to that first form of mitochondrial transfer are consistent with that church’s opposition to abortion, and in that sense are understandable.

But there is a second method, called mitochondrial spindle transfer (MST).

The Guardian explains:

In this, doctors use standard IVF procedures to collect eggs from the mother. They take the nucleus from one of the eggs and drop it into a healthy donor egg that has had its own nucleus removed. The reconstituted egg contains all the normal genes from the mother, but her faulty mitochondria are replaced by those from the healthy donor. The egg is then fertilised with the father’s sperm. The resulting embryo has the usual 23 pairs of chromosomes that hold the mother and father’s DNA, but the 37 mitochondrial genes, about 0.2% of the total, come from a third person, the donor.

So no fertilized egg is destroyed.

Problem! Enter those ‘Catholic ethicists’ talking about  a “rupture” between mother and child as grounds for objecting to all types of mitochondrial transfer. Their evidence for this ‘rupture’ is what exactly?

Let’s not forget that this is a church that, when it’s not opining on the scientific basis for exorcism, is also a church that claims to be a scientific authority on climate change.

It is also a church that likes to proclaim its compassion.

The Guardian:

Mitochondrial diseases tend to strike in childhood and get steadily worse. They often prove fatal before adulthood. The parts of the body that need most energy are worst affected: the brain, muscles, heart and liver. Conditions include Leigh’s disease, progressive infantile poliodystrophy and Barth syndrome. Faulty mitochondria have also been linked to more common medical problems, including Parkinson’s, deafness, failing eyesight, epilepsy and diabetes…There are no cures for mitochondrial disorders.

The New York Times:

When Dr. Zhang [the doctor who led the team that carried out the procedure] told the Jordanian couple about the technique, they hesitated. They already had a child who was terribly ill with Leigh syndrome, a mitochondrial disease, but there was a chance they could have a normal baby on their own — a quarter of the woman’s mitochondria were mutated, but mitochondria are distributed at random in eggs. If an egg with mostly good mitochondria happened to be fertilized, the baby would be fine. They decided to take their chances.

The couple returned to Jordan and had a baby. But the baby had the same mitochondrial disease, Leigh syndrome. It is a terrible disease, Dr. Zhang said. Babies progressively lose their ability to move and breathe. The baby had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, he said, and the parents had to suction the baby’s lungs every hour.

The first baby died at age 6; the second baby at 8 months.

And so far as the church is concerned, that’s sad, doubtless, but not something that can be helped.

The New York Times:

The couple returned to Dr. Zhang, ready to try the mitochondrial transfer technique. New Hope Fertility Center has a clinic in Mexico, so he suggested doing the procedure there because it is effectively banned in the United States. More than a decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration ordered clinics to file an application to do such work. Later, Congress attached a rider to a bill making it impossible to fund such research.

By six months of pregnancy, the woman said she knew this baby was different. It kicked constantly — the others, affected even in the womb, had hardly moved. Now the boy is 5 months old and healthy, and has normal mitochondria. The birth was first reported on Tuesday by New Scientist magazine.

Reproductive scientists who have been frustrated by the ban were both gratified by Dr. Zhang’s success and angry that it took so long. Britain recently allowed research on mitochondrial transfers to proceed, but nothing has changed in the United States.


· · ·

the-exorcistThe Daily Telegraph:

sharp rise in the number of people dabbling in Satanism and the occult is fueling a growing demand for more exorcists on both sides of the Atlantic. Speaking in tongues, levitating and vomiting nails may seem far-fetched to most people, but experts from the Catholic Church in Italy and the US claim there is an urgent need to recruit more priests as exorcists in order to combat sorcery and black magic.

Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican, described as an “emergency” the lack of priests capable of fighting the forces of evil.

“The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting,” he told La Stampa newspaper.

Dr Cascioli teaches courses in exorcism at the Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum, a Vatican-backed university in Rome. “The number of exorcists has increased in recent years, but there are still not enough to deal with a dramatic situation that affects, above all, young people who use the internet a lot.

The Internet, always guilty….

Back to the Telegraph:

“There is a broad spread of superstitious practices, and with that a growing number of requests for help from people who are directly or indirectly struck by evil.

“It is dangerous to underestimate a phenomenon that is caused by the direct actions of the devil, but also by a decline in faith and values.”

He called for the establishment of a permanent training college or university where Catholic priests would be taught how to counter the malign influence of the Devil. “There doesn’t exist a training institution at university level. We need an interdisciplinary approach in which science collaborates with religion, and psychiatrists work with demonologists and exorcists.”

He said it was important not to confuse cases of diabolical possession with psychiatric illnesses. Only one per cent of people who claim to have problems with demons have real need of an exorcist, he said.

Still, one percent represents, I suspect, quite a number.  Who knew?

Father Gary Thomas, whose training in Rome was chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, and Father Vincent Lampert, whose work has featured on the television show Paranormal Witness, said demonic possessions were the result of an increase in drug and pornography addiction.

That the former can be associated with severe psychological problems is, of course, only a coincidence, while the reference to pornography as, in a real sense, an ‘addiction’ is a sign that we have entered territory where the science is not—rigorous.

The Telegraph:

They also pointed to a rise in the  popularity of “pagan activities”, such as using a Ouija board to summon the dead, the failure of the mental health care system, a spiritual void in the lives of Americans and the diminishing authority of the Church.

It’s worth paying attention to that reference  to the ‘diminishing authority of the church’. There’s some truth to that. The decline of established religion has meant that people are willing to go elsewhere to satisfy their spiritual needs, and on occasion, sadly, to some highly unsavory destinations. But Satanism is not proof of Satan.

What we do see in this  story is the church using the Devil as an argument against behavior, from drugs to porn, to overdoing it on the Internet, of which it disapproves.

And, none too subtly, it is, in a  way, also using the Devil as a recruiting sergeant to fill its own pews.

That’s not to argue that many senior churchmen do not believe in the Devil (some more literally–and, so to speak, frequently–than others) but sometimes all that talk of the threat Old Nick allegedly represents does seem very convenient.

· · ·



A Raid in Argentina

ciliceWe’ll have to see what emerges from the eventual prosecution, but this story (reported in the Daily Telegraph, with my emphasis added) from Argentina may be interesting for the light it casts on the Christian fascination with suffering (discussed here the other day) and also by the claim that the church should be above the law, a claim that also runs through the arguments sometimes made for the absolutist version of ‘religious liberty’ now  being peddled in the US.

A Carmelite mother superior in Argentina faces prosecution for alleged torture after one of her former charges told a TV show that she had gone through “hell” before managing to escape from a convent. The 34-year-old nun, whose face was blacked out during the interview on the channel El Trece, claimed she had endured “physical and psychological” torture during her 10-year period of reclusion in the convent, including enforced self-flagellation, the wearing of a wire garter, being gagged for up to a week and locked up in isolation. “With Mother Superior Isabel I was subjected to the gag. Then there was a whip called discipline which was dipped in molten wax to make it harsher. We performed self-flagellation, beating ourselves on the buttocks, every week as a rule,” the former nun from the Barefoot (or Discalced) Carmelite convent in Nogoyá, northern Argentina said.

The woman, who said she had entered the order at the age of 18, also said they were forced to wear a cilice, a “crown of wires strapped around the leg that draws blood”, three times a week during Lent. But she said the worst torture she endured was psychological, being locked up alone in a cell and hearing voices telling her that others nuns’ illnesses, such as one sister’s tumour, were curses wrought upon the monastery due to her sinful nature.

Two nuns have reported the mother superior, identified by the authorities only as María Isabel, claiming she kept them against their will in the gated convent grounds. In late August police raided the convent, forcing the door open after the mother superior allegedly refused to allow them to enter.

The officers seized instruments of the alleged torture, including whips, cilices and gags. Prosecutors have recommended charges with a penalty of 15 years in prison for the mother superior, who was to face an investigating judge on Wednesday. Church leaders have justified the use of such instruments as penitential aids. “It’s not punishment, but rather discipline,” said Ignacio Patat, spokesman for the Archbishopric of Paraná, which oversees the convent.

“Let’s not forget that monasteries have different rules. This is the law of Saint Teresa, shall we say the old way of life that the Carmelite sisters follow”, Mr Patat told a radio station.

The austere order of the Barefoot Carmelites was founded in 1593 following the teachings of two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Mortification and penance are considered useful as aids to deep prayer.

“The Church has the right to rule itself,” read a statement by Argentina’s Society of Canon Law. “The state should enforce respect for religious freedom and not compromise it because some things seem incomprehensible.”

Crux magazine appears to disapprove of the raid, taking time to defend the use of the cilice:

Although the practice to use the cilice is not as widespread as it once was, some of history’s greatest saints wore them, either in the most common modern form of a spiked chain which irritates the skin or as an undergarment made of hair as it was customary in the past. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them, as well as soon to be declared saint Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI….

The sisters have remained silent, yet the local Catholic hierarchy has expressed its concern over the way the situation was handled. Archbishop Juan Alberto Piuggari of Entre Rios, the diocese where the convent is located, said the papal representative in the country and the bishops conference considered the raid to be disproportionate…Piuggari also denied that the Mother Superior had refused to let them in: “She told them to give her a minute to call the bishop and they broke down the door. Is that refusing [to let them in]?”

The prelate also said that the procedure should have been “different,” and that Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, the papal representative in the country, should have been informed beforehand since the monastery reports directly to the Vatican.


· · ·



Mother Teresa and the Cult of Suffering

TeresaMother Teresa has been canonized today.

The new saint’s record is more complicated than either her critics or her fans like to acknowledge, but this balanced piece by Mari Marcel Thekaekara in the Guardian is worth a look.

Towards the end, Thekaekara, a formerly fierce critic of Mother Teresa, concedes this – and understandably so:

I cannot in conscience criticise a woman who picked people off filthy pavements to allow them to die in dignity.

But it does appear that Mother Teresa was one of those Christians who subscribe to the morbid idea that suffering is some sort of blessing (I’ve posted about this phenomenon here, here, here and here).


Mother Teresa didn’t deserve Christopher Hitchen’s unadulterated, poisonous vitriol. But her vintage, “There’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,” left me fuming too. How dare she trivialise poverty? But she could. She did. And the world lapped it up. She once comforted a sufferer, with the line: “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you.” The infuriated man screamed, “Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me.”

· · ·



Rome, Brussels and Ventotene

Mary and 'European' StarsCross-posted on the Corner:

Writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Ed West reports on the attitude taken by the Vatican to Brexit. I touched on this last week in a discussion on the award to the Pope of the Charlemagne prize, the first political prize to be established in West Germany after the war. The prize was the brainchild of Kurt Pfeifer, an Aachen textile merchant, and a former, if (it is said) reluctant member of the Nazi party. It is awarded every Ascension Day in, appropriately enough, Aachen, Charlemagne’s former capital, ‘for the most valuable contribution to West European understanding.’ This year, however the ceremony took place in Rome.

Ed West (my emphasis added):

The awards ceremony, held in the Vatican, was addressed by Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.

They must have been pleased to hear Francis identify Brussels with “the soul of Europe”. On immigration, the Pope brushed aside the fears of Eurosceptics and even the anxieties of pro-EU national politicians. Tighter border controls were a manifestation of “meanness”, serving “our own selfish interests”. It’s not hard to work out where the Holy Father’s sympathies lie in the British referendum. The Vatican’s “foreign minister”, the Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has said bluntly: “Better in than out.”

Officially, Britain’s Roman Catholic Church is taking a neutral position on Brexit, but…

West delves into the early history of the EU, going back to the European Coal and Steel Community (1951), the body that launched the process of European integration on its current path:

[The] European Coal and Steel Community [was]formed after the Second World War by Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi. Of these, only Monnet – the French political economist who became the community’s first president – was not a conspicuously devout Catholic. (His private life was complicated: he was married to a woman who left her husband for him and had to travel to Moscow to obtain a divorce; the Monnets could not have a Catholic wedding until the first husband was dead, by which time Jean was 85. The ceremony took place in the basilica at Lourdes.)

Schuman, twice prime minister of France, and De Gasperi, eight times prime minister of Italy and founder of the Christian Democrats, were men of such personal holiness that there have been calls to canonise them. Adenauer, the scheming first Chancellor of West Germany, is not a candidate for sainthood – but he was a trenchantly Catholic statesman during a political career lasting 60 years.

For Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi, the European Economic Community was fundamentally a Catholic project with roots that – in their imaginations, at least – could be traced back to Charlemagne….

In 2008 the Catholic historian Alan Fimister published a book arguing that Schuman’s plans for Europe were “to a remarkable degree, the conscious implementation of the Neo-Thomistic project of Pope Leo XIII”.

Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer all believed that the answer to totalitarian ideologies lay in Leo’s vision of the restoration of “the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society”.

But Schuman went further: he subscribed to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s notion of supranational democracy as the foundation for a new Christendom. “He held fast to the magisterium’s demand that the final destination of Catholic political action must be the recognition by the civil order of the truth of the Faith,” writes Fimister.

Now, I have nothing to say about, good heavens, Neo-Thomistic projects (and I can think of kinder ways to describe Adenauer, a very great German chancellor, than ‘scheming’), but what’s interesting about all this is the way that these statesmen took Roman Catholic notions of Christendom, a Christian ‘ummah’, if you like, and transformed them into the idea of ‘supranational democracy’. Democracy? The idea of a supranational ‘democracy’ was, of course, a nod to the conventional political pieties of the postwar era. But a nod is all that it was, as those founders knew. Without a European ‘demos’, there could be no European democracy. There was no European demos then, and there is no European demos now. What’s left is supranational technocracy, something that’s very different.

West, focused on the Catholic debate (his whole piece is well worth reading) does not mention another of the founding key fathers of the European Union, Altiero Spinelli. Spinelli was no Catholic, but a communist, and then (eventually) a former communist, and thus, critically, someone else susceptible to a universalist creed impatient with borders. Democracy was not so much of a priority for him either.

Here is an extract (via Richard North and Christopher Booker’s The Great Deception) of what Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, a fellow political prisoner under Mussolini, wrote in their Ventotene manifesto (1944) (my emphasis added):

During the revolutionary crisis, this [European] movement will have the task of organising and guiding progressive forces, using all the popular bodies which form spontaneously, incandescent melting pots in which the revolutionary masses are mixed, not for the creation of plebiscites, but rather waiting to be guided.

It derives its vision and certainty of what must be done from the knowledge that it represents the deepest needs of modern society and not from any previous recognition by popular will, as yet non-existent. In this way it issues the basic guidelines of the new order, the first social discipline directed to the unformed masses. By this dictatorship of the revolutionary party a new State will be formed, and around this State new, genuine democracy will grow.

Spinelli died in 1986, after a distinguished career in the politics of the emerging European Union. He remains an honored figure in the EU’s pantheon. The main building in the EU’s (Brussels) parliament is named after him. The Spinelli Group is an initiative launched in 2010 led by the likes of Guy Verfhofstadt, the eurofundamentalist (and former Belgian prime minister) who heads up ALDE, the EU Parliament’s ‘liberal’ family’ and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, ‘Dany le Rouge’ of Paris ’68 infamy.

Ancient history, yes, to a degree, but only to a degree: To understand the EU it is necessary to understand its intellectual and political roots. And to understand the EU and to oppose Brexit is, I would argue, an….interesting choice.


· · · · · ·



The Pope, the EU and the Charlemagne Prize

Pope Merkel CharlemagneCross-posted on the Corner

One thing about this pope: When it comes to political matters, he has an unerring ability to be on the wrong side of the issue.

Vatican Radio:

Pope Francis on Friday received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, Germany, from Marcel Philipp, the Lord Mayor of the German city. The International Charlemagne Prize is awarded for work done in the service of European unification.

The Vatican Radio report includes the full transcript of Francis’ speech.

A couple of extracts caught my eye:

[W]e would do well to turn to the founding fathers of Europe.  They were prepared to pursue alternative and innovative paths in a world scarred by war.  Not only did they boldly conceive the idea of Europe, but they dared to change radically the models that had led only to violence and destruction. They dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems.

It is certainly true that these founding fathers did conceive an “idea of Europe”, but it was one with little connection to history, and even less to democracy.

As a reminder of that, the Daily Telegraph reports recent comments from Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s top bureaucrat, one of the apparatchiks present to watch the Pope receive his prize (my emphasis added):

Prime Ministers must stop listening so much to their voters and instead act as “full time Europeans”, according to Jean-Claude Juncker.  Elected leaders are making life “difficult” because they spend too much time thinking about what they can get out of EU and kowtowing to public opinion, rather than working on “historic” projects such as the Euro, he said.

Note that use of “historic”, with its suggestion that there is a “right” side of history, a notion that comes, wrote Robert Conquest, that great historian of Soviet communism, with a “Marxist twang”.

And then there was this from the Pope:

The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures.  The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.

Clearly, that is an indirect reference to the current immigration wave, a wave that Francis has, in his own way, done his bit to encourage, but it is a view difficult to reconcile with historical reality.

Yes, European peoples have enriched their cultures by learning from others, but they have also defended their distinctiveness of their cultures, and, as the years passed and Habsburgs faded, they increasingly did so behind national borders that created a space for a diverse Europe to develop and to flourish, something very different from the multicultural Europe that the Pope appears to be describing.  There was pluribus, but not so much unum.

This process gathered pace as those national borders solidified, hugely accelerated by the manner in which  ‘Christendom’,  the Roman Catholic ummah, already divided by the breach with the East, was further fragmented by the Reformation, a movement that was political as well as religious.

Writing on this topic the (admittedly not uncontroversial) British politician, Enoch Powell, looked at Henry VIII’s break with Rome, arguing in 1972 that:

It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].

And this is not just an English thing. Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser notes that:

Research by social scientist Margarete Scherer from the Goethe University in Frankfurt has demonstrated a considerably higher prevalence of Euroscepticism in traditionally Protestant countries than in traditionally Roman Catholic ones. And this should be entirely unsurprising, given that the Reformation was largely a protest about heteronomous power.



As Cardinal Vincent Nichols said last month: “There is a long tradition in … Catholicism of believing in holding things together. So the Catholic stance towards an effort such as the EU is largely supportive.” Of course, the important question is: who does the “holding things together”? And for the cardinal – theologically, at least – it’s Rome.

Conversely, in Protestant countries, the EU still feels a little like some semi-secular echo of the Holy Roman Empire, a bureaucratic monster that, through the imposition of canon law, swallows up difference and seeks after doctrinal uniformity. This was precisely the sort of centralisation that Luther challenged, and resistance to it is deep in the Protestant consciousness…

Writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Ed West questions the Pope’s decision to accept the Charlemagne prize:

Francis is a great advocate of peace and brotherly love, but it is surprising that he has accepted an award that is so nakedly political, especially as the EU faces next month the first vote by a member state on leaving. It is one thing to promote “European unity” in the abstract, but this award explicitly promotes the cause of the EU, as can be shown by its recent winners, among them Donald Tusk, Herman Van Rompuy, Angela Merkel and, in 2002, “the euro”. Sure, from deep within Charlemagne’s empire the euro might have appeared to have promoted unity, but for Greece’s huge numbers of unemployed youths it probably does not seem that way.

Many, many British Catholics oppose our membership of what strikes us as a hugely risky attempt to create a superstate, despite such ventures normally ending in disaster; we know that the bishops both on the continent and in this country overwhelmingly support this venture, but it seems odd that the Holy Father should so openly take one side in a controversial political matter.

Not so much, I reckon.

· ·

ShermanNational Catholic Reporter:

VATICAN CITY The participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.

Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.

“There is no ‘just war,'” the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.

“Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war,” they continue. “Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

….Just war theory is a tradition that uses a series of criteria to evaluate whether use of violence can be considered morally justifiable. First referred to by fourth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, it was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and is today outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Rome conference, held Monday through Wednesday, brought experts engaged in global nonviolent struggles to reconsider the theory for the first time under the aegis of the Vatican.

It comes after a number of theologians have criticized continued use of the theory in modern times, saying that both the powerful capabilities of modern weapons and evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns make it outdated.

Yes, of course, non-violent campaigns can (mercifully) work, but they work most effectively within a society – and usually a society where the ground rules of dispute resolution are already broadly agreed.

Thus in the West, non-violent protest can be very effective. In, say, the China of Tiananmen Square that was not so true.

Similarly between states, non-violent campaigns are only effective if those states have already agreed that the issues over which they are disagreeing are not the sort of issues over which nations go to war.  Many states disagree with Japanese whaling, but they are not going to fight Japan over it. Instead they apply moral pressure.

But there are cases in which there is no agreed ‘non-violent’ mechanism to bring about (or halt) the change that one state (or para-state) wants to see. Non-violence, in the form of appeasement, was tried against the Third Reich. It didn’t work out.  Neither the Northern nor the Southern States of the antebellum US wanted to go to war, but, in the end, war was all that was left.

Scroll forward a century and a half. Will ISIS really be stopped by a campaign of non-violence?

National Catholic Reporter:

At a press event launching the conference’s final appeal document — given the title “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” — several of the event’s participants said the church should simply no longer teach the just war theory.

“I came a long distance for this conference, with a very clear mind that violence is outlived,” said Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda. “It is out of date for our world of today.”

No, Archbishop, it is not ‘outlived’.  And for a man from Uganda, a land ravaged by the horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army, to say that is disgusting.

And do the Yezidi believe that violence is outlived?

Do Odama’s fellow Christians, martyred in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and too many other places besides, believe that violence is outlived?

“We have to sound this with a strong voice,” said the archbishop. “Any war is a destruction. There is no justice in destruction. … It is outdated.”

Did the liberated peoples of Europe in 1945 feel that way?

Or read Sherman, that most eloquent, most reluctant warrior of genius:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”


“We can make war so terrible and make [the South] so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it.”

Back to the conference:

Marie Dennis, an American who serves as a co-president of Pax Christi International, said she and the conference group “believe that it is time for the church to speak another word into the global reality.”

“When we look at the reality of war, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, we’re asking what is the responsibility of the church,” she said. “And it is, we believe, a responsibility to promote nonviolence.”

Dennis also said she understands that people may raise concerns in rejecting the just war theory over needing to stop unjust aggressors. Her group, she said, agrees that violent aggressors have to be stopped.

“The question is how,” said Dennis. “Our belief would be that as long as we keep saying we can do it with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that actually could make a difference.”

“As long as we say that dropping bombs will solve the problem we won’t find other solutions and I think that’s feeling more and more clear to us,” he said….

Even if we accept unchallenged her assumptions about what Jesus actually said (ancient hearsay, after all), there is a certain presumption (a presumption rooted in a sense of moral superiority) running through Dennis’ comments, the presumption that nations rush into war. That’s rarely true. Man is a violent animal, but he knows what war means too. If a country can get what it wants without violence, for the most part, it will. War is generally not the first resort.

And as for combating ISIS with deep thinking….

There is something rather sickening about the spectacle that this conference represents. The priests, nuns and theologians will preen, and lay their virtue out for all to see, but they do so safe in the knowledge that most people disagree with what they have to say.

To preach non-violence while safe behind the defenses that others will man is the behavior of a hypocrite and, worse than that, a hypocrite who freeloads of the sacrifices of those who he or she condemns.

And finally:

Ken Butigan, a lecturer at DePaul University in Chicago and executive director of the non-profit group Pace e Bene, said: “We have gotten a green light for months that this is something that Pope Francis is excited about moving forward on.”

“We are determined to support that momentum at this historical moment,” he said. “We know Pope Francis has a vision and we’re here to support that vision.”

The same Pope Francis, who just last June said this:

“The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to the concentration camps, like Auschwitz, to kill the Jews, and also the Christians, and also the Roma, also the homosexuals,” Francis said, citing the death camp in Poland. “Tell me, why didn’t they bomb” those railroad routes?

Well, no one ever accused Francis of intellectual coherence.

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The Vatican and Brexit

henry-viiiThe Roman Catholic Church has always been somewhat suspicious of the nation-state, an institution it regards as an obstacle to its own claims of universal authority, so this story from the Daily Telegraph comes as no surprise:

The Vatican wants Britain to stay in the European Union, the Pope’s foreign secretary has declared.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See, suggested “Brexit” could weaken Europe.

In an interview with ITV, the English cleric who has a weekly meeting with Pope Francis, gave a clear signal of Rome’s view of the best outcome of the forthcoming in/out referendum on continued EU membership.

“The Holy See respects the ultimate decision of the British people – that’s for the British electorate to decide,” he said.

“But I think we would see it as being something that is not going to make a stronger Europe.”

No, Brexit would not weaken ‘Europe’, and, if it dealt a blow to the EU (which is something very different), it might well even strengthen it. The EU, based on post-democracy and an ideology imposed from the top, may appeal to the Vatican, but it has evolved into a catastrophe for the peoples of Europe. Under the circumstances, anything that might ‘weaken’ it (and, regrettably, Brexit could easily have the opposite effect) is only to be welcomed.

As to the Vatican and specific question of Brexit (the UK’s departure from the EU), perhaps it’s appropriate to revisit yet again what the British politician Enoch Powell had to say  back in 1972 about Henry VIII’s assertion of English independence from Rome:

The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.

The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].

Britain did, of course, go on to join that ‘Common Market’, not least because most Britons did not understand that ‘ever closer Europe’ meant what it said.

It’s time to reverse that now.

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The Political Religion of Jorge Mario Bergoglio

descamisadosThis intriguing piece by Claudio Ivan Remeseira is a (very) long read, but (very) well worth it. It underlines yet again how much Pope Francis remains shaped by the intellectual and religious traditions of his homeland. That might be disappointing for anyone who wants to slot him into the neat categories of the American political debate (Francis is neither liberal nor conservative) and it will disappoint anyone who might have hoped that a pope might be a little less, well, parochial, but there we are.

An extract:

During the first decades of the 20th century, after the so-called Modernist crisis and the battles against secularism and its offspring — unfettered capitalism on the socio-economic side, liberal democracy and communism on the political one — , the Papacy devised a strategy to regain center stage in world affairs. In Argentina, this political-religious creed took the form of what Italian historian Loris Zanatta called “the myth of the Catholic nation”.

…In this theology, the People are defined in a narrow sense as the poor and the dispossessed. Yet in contrast with the Marxist analysis of economic inequities deployed by Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff and other stalwarts of Liberation Theology, the Argentine theologians emphasized the study of national history. Their interpretation of Argentina’s past, however, was also polemical. It was a rebuttal of the mainstream storyline that celebrated Argentina’s progress as a triumph of the Liberal elite that had ruled the country from the second half of the 19th century to the rise of populism in the 20th century. Starting in the 1920s, anti-liberal intellectuals who called themselves Revisionists turned that narrative on its head. Their hero was the bête noir of Liberal historians, Juan Manuel de Rosas, a governor of Buenos Aires who exerted his power over the whole country from 1829 to 1852, when he was deposed by a former loyalist.

As a young priest close to the Iron Guard, a right-wing Peronist group, Bergoglio absorbed those ideas, which have stuck with him to this day. According to fellow Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone, Bergoglio’s “four principles” of good governance (Time is greater than space; Unity prevails over conflict; Realities are more important than ideas; The whole is greater than the part), were extrapolated by him from a letter Rosas wrote in 1835 to Facundo Quiroga, another powerful Argentine caudillo, explaining why he opposed the drafting of a national Constitution. Those principles are constantly invoked by Francis and constitute the mainstay of the fourth chapter (“The Social Dimension of Evangelization”) of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

In 1960 and 70s Argentina, the Rosas-Perón parallels were a truism of political debate — a popular leader who fought for the country’s wellbeing against all-powerful foreign interests and their treacherous local representatives. For Revisionists, the antithesis People vs. Anti-people is indeed the driving force of national history. The Anti-people encompasses all historical and present-day forces that thwart the People’s way to its Liberation: the political and corporate establishment, the anti-Peronist middle class, and an old enemy of Catholicism: the culture of the Enlightenment, the uprooted intellectualism of those who worship abstractions such as Liberty and Democracy and are always looking abroad for inspiration instead of embracing the originality of their own national experience.

The theologians of the People added to the mix a few more elements of the zeitgeist — anti-Imperialism, anti-colonialism, dependency theory and its center-periphery dualism — and wrapped it all up in the revolutionary language of the era. But their most lasting contribution was the justification of popular faith, another of Francis’ recurrent themes.

And (my emphasis added):

For all the efforts made after Vatican II to find an accommodation with contemporary world, there is something at the core of this world that rejects those efforts, a radical incompatibility. In the last analysis, the issue continues to be secularization. The challenge for the Catholic Church is how to accommodate to today’s world without being assimilated into its secular values.

Francis’ mindset straddles this divide. One Anti-Modern trait of his thinking is his mistrust of Liberalism. Despite his constant appeals to political tolerance, Francis’ political thought is rooted in a pre-modern, organicist view of the community as foundation of social and political life. Liberal democracy and the modern doctrine of human rights are the antithesis of that view. In Evangelii gaudium, the word “people” appears 164 times; the word “democracy”, not once.

Another trait is his hostility toward capitalism. Far for being inspired in any left-wing or Marxist philosophy, Francis’ anti-capitalism comes down from the European right-wing writers of the early 20th century, who in turn found their source of inspiration in the Middle Ages. At the final stage of the Cold War, John Paul II made a timid move towards accepting the market as an autonomous social force. In the age of the anti-globalization movement, Francis would have none of it. His critique of capitalism seems to go even further than the objections traditionally made by Catholic Social Teaching since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. It is when indicting the world’s economic woes that Francis strikes his most prophetic tone (which, by the way, is another characteristic of Argentinian theology). The encyclical Laudato si, his great jeremiad against the evils of capitalism, has established Francis as one of the world’s foremost critics of Neoliberalism….

Seen from this perspective, the fact that capitalism has done so much for so many counts for very little with a pope who continually–and with somewhat unbecoming ostentation–humblebrags that he is a pope for the poor, heading a church for the poor. And that church needs the poor to remain poor if they are to continue to be its foot-soldiers in the long war against modernity.


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Pope Francis in Bolivia: The ‘Dung of the Devil’ and Other Matters

PeronistPopeCross-posted on the Corner.

Even by the standards of this pontiff, Pope Francis’s speech yesterday in Bolivia to a crowd that included the country’s president wearing a jacket emblazoned with the face of a mass-murderer (Che Guevara, in case you needed to ask: we can at least be sure that Speaker Boehner won’t do that when he introduces Francis to a joint session of Congress), was a doozy.

The Guardian exults (of course it does), quoting this amongst other delights:

“The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”

Not for the first time with Pope Francis, we see traces of conspiracism (a demagogic standard, I’m afraid to say) in his use of the phrase ‘anonymous influence’ and the suggestion of dark works by ‘corporations’ and ‘loan agencies’. The distaste for ‘free trade’, complete with scare quotes of course, harks back to the Peronist preference for economic autarchy that marked the Argentina of his youth. And so does another extract from the same speech in which the Pope seems to call what he refers to as a “truly communitarian” economy, often a buzz word for those, such as Perón, who claimed or claim to be looking for a ‘third way’ between communism and capitalism, a third way that, in Argentina’s case, ultimately led to disaster.

Turn now to a 2013 blog post from Jacob Lederman reacting to posters that appeared across Buenos Aires after Francis’s election, posters that read, “Francisco I, Argentino y Peronista”:

The fall of the first peronist government is said to have been precipitated by Peron’s break with the church but in fact I have always thought that the two shared many common attributes: top down structures, a measure of paternalism which can be discursively rendered a form of communitarianism, and a strong inclination toward the mystical. Look at the speech, and we see that Francis has no time for what he refers to as “the bondage of individualism”.

And he seems unimpressed by the remarkable (and, of course, incomplete) achievements of the free market (however approximate, however imperfect) in not only coping with a vastly expanded global population (ahem) but in pulling so many out of poverty across the world. All that appears to count for little with a figure who, economically and politically speaking, appears to view much of the modern world through the lens of the exhausted ideologies of the mid-20th Century.

Let us say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.

To him this is the system (“a subtle dictatorship”, apparently, a description which left me wondering how he would describe Cuba) that has “irresponsibly” (an interesting word to use, in this context: some sort of central planning, I suppose, is to decide what is or is not “responsible”) accelerated “the pace of production, while using industrial and agricultural methods which damage Mother Earth in the name of “productivity”….

The Green Revolution was bad?

This Pope’s vision is dark, with more than a touch of the millenialist about it, complete, even, with reference to Old Nick.

Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.

Quite where this “unfettered pursuit of money rules” escapes me, but then straw men are a Pope Francis staple. After reading the Pope’s speech, I returned to Joel Kotkin’s thought-provoking Daily Beast article on the eco-encyclical.

Here’s an extract:

What we seem to have forgotten is the historic ability of our species—and particularly the urbanized portion of it—to adjust to change, and overcome obstacles while improving life for the residents. After all, the earliest cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt arose, in part, from a change in climate that turned marshes into solid land, which could then be used for intensive, irrigated agriculture. Similarly, pollution and haze that covered most cities in the high income world—St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Dusseldorf, Osaka, Los Angeles—only a few decades ago has greatly improved, mostly through the introduction of new technology and, to some extent, deindustrialization. In recent decades, many waterways, dumping grounds for manufacturers since the onset of the industrial revolution and once considered hopelessly polluted, have come back to life. This notion that people can indeed address the most serious environmental issues is critical. We should not take, as Francis does, every claim of the climate lobby, or follow their prescriptions without considerations of impacts on people or alternative ways to address these issues….


Ultimately the green platform seeks not to increase living standards as we currently understand them (particularly in high income countries) but to purposely lower them. This can be seen in the calls for “de-development,” a phrase employed by President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren for all “overdeveloped” advanced countries, in part to discourage developing countries from following a similar path. This way of thinking is more mainstream among European activists who seek to promote what is called “de-growth,” which seeks to limit fossil fuels, suburban development, and replace the current capitalist system with a highly regulated economy that would make up for less wealth through redistribution.

We know how that ends.

Links (I still cannot link directly)

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