Thursday, June 09, 2016

A Rabbit's Lament

Today I am reposting this response of mine from January 2015 to the Pope's notorious aeroplane quip that Catholics need not breed like rabbits. Since this is one of the few times (the only time?) that something looking a bit like a public peddling-back by the Holy Father followed such an airborne remark, I don't want to make a meal of it. But it does serve to illustrate an important point about the presentation of the Faith to outsiders.


Update: at today's (Wednesday 21/1/15) Pope Francis said this at the General Audience: 'It gives comfort and hope to see many families that welcome children as a true gift of God. They know that every child is a blessing.' 

The Pope's remarks on contraception on the aeroplane back from the Philippines were an extreme example of what has become a characteristic of this papacy. Without his words moving one iota from the teaching of the Church, and indeed reaffirming it, what came across was something appearing to undermine the actual living out of that teaching. Contraception is not just bad, it is - says the Holy Father - reminiscent of the ideological endeavours of the Hitler Youth. The example of a mother for whom some kind of ethical avoidance of pregnancy would be sensible is so extreme that it is impossible to argue with it. And yet somehow the take-home message is that large families are a bad thing. 'Catholics need not breed like rabbits.'

It is always good to put things in their context, so let me attempt to do so. For the last half a century or more the rhetoric of many of those charged with proclaiming the Gospel has been directed to the task of distancing the Church from the pious ideal, in order to make the Church more acceptable to those who reject the pious ideal. 'Oh, we don't spend all our time on our knees!' 'We don't believe all that nonsense any more!' You know the kind of thing. This strategy was based on two truths and one falsehood. The two truths are, first, that the pious ideal in the minds of those who reject the Church is generally an amalgam of misunderstandings and anti-Catholic propaganda, and second that the the pious ideal in the minds of those actually trying to lead good lives can itself be immature or unbalanced. The falsehood involved in this strategy is the idea that it is better to join in the attack on the ideal from an anti-Catholic perspective, than to correct, if necessary, and explain and defend the value of the ideal.

The theory is that by joining in the attack, one could wrong-foot the anti-Catholic attackers. Suppose a whole lot of people say that the Church's position on something - the use of lace surplices, Gregorian Chant, the condemnation of pre-marital sex -whatever you like - is silly, old-fashioned, and uncool. Instead of making himself a target of their barbs, a priest might say: 'Oh I agree! What a lot of silly nonsense.' The priest hopes to make the anti-Catholic mob to stop and think: 'Oh, perhaps we were attacking a straw man after all, perhaps the Church isn't so bad.'

They don't, however. They have the feeling that medieval armies must have had when their battering rams brought down a section of the enemy's defensive wall. The euphoric, energised feeling that the remaining defences just need a good bash to bring them down as well.

I remember a old monk talking to a group of adolescent boys about vocations to the religious life. 'It's not the pious ones, you know, the ones always popping in to church, who tend to end up joining the community.' The old monk thought he was opening up the possibility of a vocation to those in the group who didn't think of themselves as 'pious': oh how clever he thought he was being! But the implication was that there was something wrong with the pious ones. Anyone in that group who was in the habit of popping into church to pray or attend the Office was left feeling pretty foolish.

A contrasting case: a young monk, of a different community (in a different country), told me how he had dealt with a group of similar young men. They had told him that one of their number, who was evidently a bit embarrassed about it, might have a vocation. The young monk responded: 'Well, I'm not sure any of you have what it takes to be a monk.' They bridled at this. They immediately switched from regarding a vocation as something a bit sissy, something that one should be embarrassed about, to being something difficult, something one might be proud of.

Can you guess which community has had more vocations?

What the young monk was onto was the value of being counter-cultural. Instead of trying to fit in with a secular ethos which will never accept the Christian religion while it has anything recognisably Christian about it, you stand up against it and say: yes, what we are doing is difficult, it is demanding, and the only explanation for our doing it is that it has value. Those outside the Church may not understand its value - indeed, to a large extent those outside the Church can never understand its value - but our devotion to it is a witness to it. The outsider can, similarly, never feel the adrenaline rush of the extreme rock-climber or the satisfaction of a champion chess-player, but he can at least be intrigued, enough to want to know what the fuss is all about.

It may be that the Holy Father's choice of words should be explained by his Argentinian background or something like that, but the reason it has struck such a chord is that it fits right in with what many Catholics have been saying for 50 years, though less so Popes. The message is that you don't have to be mad to be a Catholic. You can still pretend to your secular friends that you are quite normal. One of the quickest ways to be thought abnormal is to have more than three children, but listen! that's not necessary, that's not even an ideal or an achievement we recognise any more.

This is a tempting approach but in the end it is part of the auto-demolition of the Church. It may be formally consistent with the teaching on contraception, but there is more to the Church's teaching than that, and the rejection of the good of children is in the end a rejection of life.

Of course you can limit your family size by abstinence if there is a serious reason, but what we desperately need as a nation and as a planet is an affirmation that children are not an expensive commodity, but a precious gift from God. If the secularists think we are mad to think that, then we need to show them by our devotion to this ideal, by the sacrifices we are prepared to make for it, that perhaps there is something of value here which they have missed out on.

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  1. Argentinian? Maybe; but it could it not be the lower level of oxygen available in a pressurised airplance?

  2. THE

    The Bishop of Rome
    He lives not at home
    I’m sorry
    I have to say

    He’s here and he’s there
    He’s up in the air
    Flying this
    And that way

    He gets on the phone
    Waits for dial tone
    To comfort a man
    In his sins

    But mothers of seven
    Who put faith in Heaven
    “Don’t breed like a rabbit”
    He grins

    And how the boys chuckle
    And how the girls laugh
    And gender-benders
    Can trust this man’s staff

    But only the mothers,
    The big family breed,
    Deserve condescension…
    From this Bishop’s clichéd creed.

  3. First it was those priests who had long resisted the post-conciliar pew-clamour for the Mandatum rite to include women, children, even non-Christians, who were finally made to feel stupid by a Pope who performed the act in a prison, on young men and women, some of whom were Muslim. “See, Father, even the Pope is ahead of you.”

    Then it was the army of "Rosary Counters” who’d given up many hours to pray for the new pontiff, who were called out by that very same Pope and were left feeling stupid. “See, even the Pope isn’t impressed with your prayers.”

    Then it was the turn of those Catholics who, tested by same-sex attractions, strive every day to lead chaste lives but were left to feel stupid in the eyes of the world for doing so thanks to a grossly ill-thought papal soundbite that is still hard to believe. “See, even the Pope doesn’t judge you and thinks you should accept who and what you are. LOL!!”

    Now it’s the turn of all those Catholic parents who dare to ignore the sterility of the world at large and instead raise large families of happy children (some of whom may even go on to have a vocation!) who have been soundbitten where it hurts by the Holy Father.

    Have I missed anything or anyone? Probably. Not to worry, there’ll be another episode along soon.

    Nah, time to face facts. Nothing to do with him being Argentinean, or the altitude on board the papal plane. His Holiness knows exactly what he’s doing and saying and what messages he intends to convey - balanced by just the right amount of ambiguity and plausible deniability. He has since “Habemus Papam”.

    But hey, he’s smart enough to know to say something spot-on tomorrow, something really orthodox and, erm, Catholic.

    Just you watch. He will. Quicker than you can say Patheos!

    And then the whole mess-mop-and-clean-up cycle will start again.

    Tired of it all. So very, very tired.

    Gregory W.A. Murphy

  4. What an excellent commentary. Thank you!

  5. This is one of your best pieces in recent memory, Joseph. Well said.

  6. I, too, am weary of the ambiguous ramblings of this jesuitical mind from the riddle-land of Borges.

  7. There's something wrong happening when a Catholic looks for ways to avoid finding out "what the Pope said on the plane" because he knows it will have been expressed naively enough (charitable) to be twisted and spun out of a Catholic framework.

  8. Thanks for this post Dr. Shaw and I am with Gregory.

  9. Those mealy-mouthed protagonists for the faith think that if you take the Cross out of Christianity, you will make it attractive to people. What they don't realize is that Christianity without the Cross is a pathetic joke and attracts nobody. St Paul learned his lesson at the Areopagus, after which he resolved to preach only Christ, and Him crucified.

  10. There has, I agree, been a definite attempt in the last fifty years to, while maintaining doctrine, or at least not denying it, to allow and even encourage a change of practise such that the meaning of doctrine changes in the minds of many of the Faithful. This has been the policy of the liberal/Relativist factions in the Church. Now these factions are small but energetic and effective. The bulk of the faithful, and somewhat puzzlingly of the clergy, have gone along with this.

    The result has been confusion, liturgical disarray, heterodoxy, silent schism and a collapse in Mass attendance.

    I hope we are not in line for more of this.

    The second session of the Synod on the Family will be a test case. If, in October we are, then Heavens help us - and the Church!

  11. I thought your example with the monks was perfect :)

    This is my personal opinion, but I think all this weird language could probably be grouped together with all the other problems in the Church as "lack of prudence". There is no prudence when it comes to speaking (flaunting sinful activity, criticizing those who try to reject the world) or acting (ecumenism, liturgical reform etc.)

    There is rampant imprudence everywhere. Back in the day, I think most of the stuff would be condemned as "offensive to pious ears". But since there are not that many pious ears anymore, maybe the idea seems to be that it is OK to offend.....

  12. Quips. What about “good afternoon” ?

    Tell people what they want to hear, not the Truth now seems established by a whole generation of post-Vatican II clergy and theologians. And you are right that the atheist attack simply gains energy at each apparent concession to their viewpoints.

    The Church has always stood up to the World. To do otherwise is to surrender to the world. In comment elsewhere, the issue of the Crucifixion has come up attracting the usual scornful assaults from the worldly. It will be interesting to see how many Catholics, informed or even theologians, join in defending this essence of Christianity.

    Two things we must keep in mind. We need a reproduction rate of 2.1 to maintain a population and it is probably 1.8 amongst Mass attending Catholics, but much less amongst others. Secondly NFP is acceptable to Catholics and is claimed to be more secure than contraceptives.