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Archive for December, 2012

I broke my vow – again. It must be four years since I vowed never, ever to see another 3D film at the cinema; and two or three times I have been lured back by simple curiosity, or by the shallow desire to see the ‘unmissable’ film that everyone else is seeing (a playground fear of being left out), or by the reassurances of a friend that this really is worth it.

There are some beautiful images in Life of Pi. It wasn’t actually the visual effects that struck me most, but the fluid cinematography of the first half hour – India in pastel colours rather than the usual primary ones; and a fairy-tale glow about the zoo, the swimming pool, the family dining table. But as a film, it doesn’t work. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel; some of them fun, some of them deadly dull. The spirituality is too syncretistic to have any bite.

Now and then, when a film is getting high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes (in this case 89%), and in my humble opinion it doesn’t deserve them, I delight in searching through the bad reviews – conveniently flagged up by the splattered green tomatoes – for confirmation of my artistic discernment. Peter Bradshaw says everything that needs saying in a single paragraph:

No one can doubt the technical brilliance of Ang Lee‘s new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel‘s Booker-winning bestseller from 2001, a widely acclaimed book that I should say I have yet to read. The effects are stunning, more impressive than anything in the new hi-tech Hobbit, and on that score, Peter Jackson can eat his heart out. But for the film itself, despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story – and I am bemused by the saucer-eyed critical responses it’s been getting.

The last line of the review is a classic version of ‘damning with clear but carefully targeted praise':

This is an awards-season movie if ever there was one. It deserves every technical prize going.

There was, however, one fascinating theological scene. Pi, from a Hindu family, is dared by his brother to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water from the font by the door. He rushes in, drinks, and then stops and gazes around the interior of the church. We are led to believe that he hasn’t been in a church before, or that he hasn’t ever taken the time to look properly.

When he sees an image of Jesus, he is transfixed. A priest comes through the church and talks to him. Pi asks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Is it true that God became a human being like us? And why? And the priest answers: Yes, he became one like us. He became small so that we would not be frightened by him. He became our brother so that we would be able to approach him. He died for us so that nothing, not even death, would keep us apart from him. Pi, the Hindu boy, announces that he wishes to be baptised.

It’s a simple, un-ironic presentation of the Christian message, and of a child in all innocence discovering a life-changing spiritual truth. It doesn’t happen very often in cinema.

(Then, just a few moments later, he announces that he wants to be a Muslim as well as a Christian, and at the same time to remain a Hindu; it’s very confusing in the film – perhaps it makes more sense in the book, which I haven’t read. This is why I called it syncretistic!)

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This is fantastic. It probably went viral last year and passed me by. Anyway, if you are as out of touch as I am and haven’t seen it before, take a look. And Happy Christmas!

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I preached about prophecy this morning at Mass. I was provoked (I won’t say inspired) by the whole non-Mayan non-apocalypse non-event that was Friday 21 December 2012. It shows how even an urban myth that becomes an uber-trending news story can stimulate some helpful reflection.

the end is not for a while by voteprime

Part of the attraction of the ‘crazy religious people waiting for the end of time’ story is that it seems to pit crazy religious people against un-crazy scientific people. But one of my small points this morning was that the desire to believe in prophecy, at least in its slightly over-simplified meaning of ‘telling you something that is going to happen in the future’, is actually one with the scientific instinct. It’s a longing to believe that everything makes sense, that everything happens for a reason, that the future is (through some very mysterious processes of futurology) pre-determined and knowable.

The belief that the world as a whole and every detail within it is meaningful, and that in theory this meaning can be discovered, is a belief that shapes both the worst excesses of superstition and the best endeavours of science. We don’t want to believe that everything is simply chaos; and in fact we have good reasons to think (if our epistemology is sound) that there is a fundamental order to the universe, and that our minds can gradually discover that order.

This hunger for order drives the scientist and the Mayan apocalypse seeker. It also drives the conspiracy theorist, as portrayed so well by Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld, who can’t conceive that a world-changing event like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana could have been caused by something as banal as a lone gunman or a tragic accident.

Yes, there are crazy prophecies; and there are non-prophecies (it seems that not even the Mayans really believed that this one was coming). But there are true prophecies as well, where God has spoken into history, and promised or predicted (perhaps they mean the same thing from the perspective of eternity) that something would happen in the future.

We see two of them in the scriptures today. First, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah promising that a leader would be born in Bethlehem; one who would shepherd God’s people, unite and strengthen them, and bring them lasting security and peace. And second, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child in her old age. No wonder she went to visit Elizabeth with such haste; partly to share her joy at the Incarnation, but partly to see with her own eyes a truth she could only hold in faith up to that point.

Prophecy used to be such an important part of the Judeo-Christian imagination. It reminded us that all things – including the course of history – are in God’s providential hands; it showed us his power and his wisdom; it was a sign of his care for us and of our own dignity – that he would speak to us and involve us in the unfolding of his plans; and it was above all a powerful indication of his faithfulness to us, and our need and our duty to trust him because of the objective signs that he has given us in history, as well as the personal signs he has given in our own life story.

I think we have lost our confidence in all this, for all sorts of reasons: historical criticism of the Bible; a loss of the sense of the supernatural; the shift from a historical religion to a personal spirituality, from an objectively founded faith to one based on inner subjective experience; and many others.

Some of the scepticism about prophecy is justified, and it reflects a whole different world view. But some of it is not – it is an unscientific narrowing of the human mind: to think that there is no fundamental order to the universe or to human existence; that God the creator is unable to guide his creation or direct the events of history; that he cannot in his infinite wisdom know what he ‘is’ doing or what he ‘will’ do; or that he cannot share his knowledge of what he will do through revelation in general and through the prophetic word in particular.

This is our faith as Christians, that these things are possible for God. And it’s not just a credulous, superstitious faith; it’s based on our rational understanding of what it means for there to be a universe at all, and our conclusion that some transcendent power and wisdom must lie behind this creation, a power that we have discovered – in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus Christ – to be personal and loving.

Prophecy still matters. The fact that God has spoken through the prophets and fulfilled his promises is one of the factors that allows us to believe with more confidence. It may not provide a proof that what we believe is true, but it is a good stimulus to belief, and an ongoing support.

This is how the First Vatican Council put it, a teaching that is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century (Dei Filius, Chapter 3):

4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.

5. Hence Moses and the prophets, and especially Christ our lord himself, worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached every, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it [18]. Again it is written: We have the prophetic word made more sure; you will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place [19].

6. Now, although the assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind, yet no one can accept the gospel preaching in the way that is necessary for achieving salvation without the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all facility in accepting and believing the truth [20].

7. And so faith in itself, even though it may not work through charity, is a gift of God, and its operation is a work belonging to the order of salvation, in that a person yields true obedience to God himself when he accepts and collaborates with his grace which he could have rejected.

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Stepping away from the politics and polemic surrounding marriage for a moment, how do you actually form children and young people – in an age-appropriate way – to understand the true meaning of love, friendship, sexuality and relationships?

A scene from the Play 'Nine Months' by Ten Ten Theatre

A scene from the Play ‘Nine Months’ by Ten Ten Theatre

 

I happened to see this article by Martin O’Brien that appeared in the Universe this month.

First of all, he recognises the challenges:

Educating children and young people with a sound understanding of Church teaching on relationships, sexual morality, love, marriage and family life remains one of the most challenging issues for any Catholic school.  Problems arise:  How we do we speak to children in their own language and culture but avoid reinforcing it?  Beyond the rules and regulations, what exactly is the Church teaching?  How am I supposed to teach it if my own life and values don’t live up to the ideal?

It was within this environment six years ago that Ten Ten Theatre – an award-winning Catholic theatre company – began devising, writing and producing a programme of Catholic Sex and Relationship Education which has now been established in hundreds of primary schools, secondary schools and parishes throughout the UK.

We take our inspiration from Blessed John Paul II’s teaching known as The Theology of the Body.  It has been our task over the last few years to identify some of the core values of the teaching and write accessible, contemporary stories to explore these ideas.  Karol Wojtyla himself was a keen actor and dramatist who believed passionately in the power of story and character to examine the human person.  At Ten Ten we aim to do the same, encouraging our children and young people to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to understand more deeply their Call to Love.

Then he gives some examples from their work with teenagers:

The play “Chased” for the 13-14 age group follows the story of Scott and Carly who are so confused by the world they inhabit – pressure from friends, influence of the media, physical development – that they almost lose sight of their core dignity.  And yet through the story they begin to understand the deepest longings of the heart: to be honourable, to be cherished, to be loved and to love as Christ loves.

By taking the characters on this journey, and following it up with discussion, sharing, reflection and prayer, the young people understand what it means to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.

This begs the question, which O’Brien asks: What about primary school children?  How can we promote these values without corrupting children with sexual imagery and inappropriate information?

tt2

One example is “The Gift”, a lovely play for 7-9 year-olds.  It tells the story of twins Harry and Kate who learn about the preciousness of gifts: Kate’s treasured musical box, given to her by her Auntie who passed away, is accidentally smashed to pieces by Harry.  Harry doesn’t understand why Kate is so upset. “After all,” he says, “you can get another one from the pound shop… for a pound!” Through the story, both Harry and Kate (and the children watching) learn about the true value of gifts, what it means to make a gift of yourself and the importance of forgiveness.

These are precisely the same values we promote through the play “Chased” but at an age-appropriate level.   In the follow-up workshop to “The Gift”, the actors ask the children to think more deeply about the best gift they have ever been given, who gave it to them and why is it so special.  Sometimes the responses are material: Playstations and puppies are always very popular.  Other responses tell of something deeper: my life or my baby brother.

However, a few weeks ago at a school in Merseyside, one particular response really touched us.“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” we asked.   “My mum,” said the boy.   “And why is she so special?”   “Because she adopted me and without her I wouldn’t have been brought up happy,” said the boy.   The boy’s mother, in fact, also taught at the school.  Later that day, when she was told what her adopted son had said, she crumbled into tears.

I can understand why.  This woman has likely given her entire life as a gift to the boy, making a decision to love him, protect him and care for him with all of her heart.  Surely this is one of the greatest gifts that a person could choose to give.  And yet it is a gift that people throughout the world make moment after moment, day after day.  Now, as a result of the visit of Ten Ten, this particular mother knew that her seven-year-old adopted son valued and appreciated the great sacrifice she has made.

You can follow the Ten Ten blog here. For more information see their main website here.

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cv

The Catholic Voices Blog seems to be posting a bit more regularly over the last few weeks. It’s a good source of information and comment on some of the fraught cultural and political issues of the day. You can visit here, and sign up for email feeds in the right-hand column.

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I preached at the First Mass of a dear friend, Fr Robbie Low – a former Anglican clergyman who was ordained a Catholic priest in October. I was just sent a link to the audio of the sermon, so if you want to listen please click here. Of course it is a very personal homily, but there are some bigger thoughts about the meaning of the priesthood and the Year of Faith that might interest others.

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In the category of ‘What is X?’ searches for 2012, Google found that the most most popular search for the year was ‘What is love?’ And after love came: iCloud, 3G and Scientology. It’s fascinating what we seek when the door is closed and the computer switched on.

UK love by @doug88888

The Guardian, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the question “once and for all” (I love the emphatic nature of the quest!), gathered writers from the fields of science, psychotherapy, literature, religion and philosophy to give their definition of the much-pondered word ‘love’. This included the perspective of ‘The Nun’, Sr Catherine Wybourne, a Benedictine sister. You can read the responses here.

The most interesting is from Philippa Perry, ‘The Psychotherapist’, who says – just as Pope Benedict did in Deus Caritas Est – that we simply need more words to describe the stuff we usually put under the crude heading of the word ‘love':

Unlike us, the ancients did not lump all the various emotions that we label “love” under the one word. They had several variations, including:

Philia which they saw as a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle.

Ludus describes a more playful affection found in fooling around or flirting.

Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding.

Agape is a more generalised love, it’s not about exclusivity but about love for all of humanity.

Philautia is self love, which isn’t as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself.

Last, and probably least even though it causes the most trouble, eros is about sexual passion and desire. Unless it morphs into philia and/or pragma, eros will burn itself out.

Love is all of the above. But is it possibly unrealistic to expect to experience all six types with only one person. This is why family and community are important.

And it’s telling that in the Guardian headline to the article (‘What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all’), and in the Perry passage above, the starting assumption is that love is nothing more or less than an emotion. Sr Catherine is brave enough to use the phrase ‘theological virtue’, by which ‘we love God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves for his sake'; but there is not enough space to unpack this in the article, and to explore how love might be much more than simply an emotion.

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wedding rings

Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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There have been lots of reports about the 2011 census statistics for religious affiliation, and how they compare with a decade before.

icons by scjody

Here is the actual summary from the Office for National Statistics:

The question on religious affiliation in the census was introduced in 2001 and is voluntary. The order of the main religion groups by size did not change between 2001 and 2011. Those affiliated with the Christian religion remained the largest group; 59 per cent (33.2 million) of usual residents in England and Wales.

This is a decrease of 13 percentage points since 2001 when 72 per cent (37.3 million) of usual residents stated their religion as Christian. It is the only group to have experienced a decrease in numbers between 2001 and 2011 despite population growth.

The second largest response category in 2011 was no religion. This increased 10 percentage points from 15 per cent (7.7 million) of usual residents in 2001, to 25 per cent (14.1 million) in 2011.

The next most stated religion in England and Wales was Muslim with five per cent (2.7 million) of usual residents stating their religion as Muslim in the 2011 Census; an increase of two percentage points since 2001 when three per cent (1.5 million) of usual residents stated that they were Muslim.

And the table:

England and Wales, 2001 and 2011, all usual residents

Thousand, per cent
Religion 2001 2011 Change
Number Per cent Number Per cent Number Percentage point
Christian 37,338 71.7 33,243 59.3 -4,095 -12.4
No religion 7,709 14.8 14,097 25.1 6,388 10.3
Muslim 1,547 3.0 2,706 4.8 1,159 1.8
Hindu 552 1.1 817 1.5 264 0.4
Sikh 329 0.6 423 0.8 94 0.2
Jewish 260 0.5 263 0.5 3 0.0
Buddhist 144 0.3 248 0.4 103 0.1
Other religion 151 0.3 241 0.4 90 0.1
Religion not stated 4,011 7.7 4,038 7.2 27 -0.5

The report goes on to look at the regional variations.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of residents affiliating themselves with the Christian religion declined in all England regions and Wales.

The highest percentage, 68 per cent (1.8 million) of people who responded that their religion was Christian was in the North East. This represents a 12 percentage point decrease on 2001, when this region also had the highest percentage of people who stated that their religion was Christian. London had the lowest percentage of usual residents stating their religion as Christian in both 2011 (48 per cent, 4.0 million) and 2001 (58 per cent, 4.2 million).

London had the highest percentage of all other religious affiliations except Sikh; Muslim (12 per cent, 1.0 million), Hindu (five per cent, 411,000), Jewish (two per cent, 149,000), Buddhist (one per cent, 82,000), and other religion (less than one per cent, 48,000). The West Midlands had the highest percentage of people who responded that their religion was Sikh (two per cent, 30,000).

These are huge changes. How does one react? For a completely unrepresentative but still interesting range of reactions see the Telegraph blog page, where Damian Thompson is depressed (‘It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism‘ – his emphasis!); Christina Odone still manages to find hope (Headline: ‘2011 census shock revelation: Christianity is still the majority religion, and Britain is still a God-fearing country’); and atheist Tom Chivers wonders what it means for the nation’s ‘moral capital':

What’s worth saying, though, is that as well as the (in many people’s opinion) negative social attitudes it [religion] can entrench, it also has clear and well-documented social benefits. Communities based around a local church (or mosque, or synagogue) are more likely to know each other, more likely to help each other in times of crisis, generally more likely to behave in socially positive ways.Religion, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, builds up “moral capital“: norms and practices that encourage cooperation within groups, by making people think of themselves as part of that group, rather than an individual. Some of those norms and practices (avoiding pork, or eating a biscuit that represents the Son of God) might seem bizarre to outsiders, but they bring the group closer together. It’s the flip-side of the us-and-them attitude; religion might or might not be bad for your attitude towards “them”, but it’s generally good for your attitude towards “us”.

Not that it’s exclusive to religion, of course. Regular social contact with your neighbours, the building of social and moral capital, the creation of a group in which you subsume your individuality and can work for a common good, can all be achieved in other means: it might sound a bit flippant, but football supporters might feel something similar. The British Humanist Association, which runs church-like regular meetings for humanists, and groups like the Quakers, with their emphasis on community rather than the “religious” side of religion, could build social and moral capital without the need for God or the supernatural. But the point is that right now, as Haidt says, that “religious believers … are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people” (in the United States, at least). This needs to be acknowledged. If religion really is waning in this country (and it seems to be: the number of Muslims is growing, but nowhere near fast enough to replace Christianity), then the challenge for atheists, humanists and others who think it’s possible to be good without God is to build a way of bringing communities together as Christianity has in Britain for centuries.

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This is very interesting. It’s easy to complain about moral standards collapsing and young people becoming more reckless and hedonistic. But is it true? Not according to Department of Health statistics.

drinks by foilman

Take this one factoid: “the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011″. Early teens, in other words, are drinking far less than they did ten years ago.

Here is the article from Tracy McVeigh and Gemma O’Neill:

Young Britons, widely portrayed as binge-drinking hedonists, are turning into the new puritans, according to official figures and reports from student bars across the country.

Statistics showing a continuing decline in alcohol intake, especially among students, suggest they are increasingly rejecting the drinking and drug-taking culture of their parents’ generation and reversing the excesses of the late 1990s, said Professor Fiona Measham, a criminologist at Durham University, who has been studying drinking patterns for more than two decades.

Measham attacked health professionals for being unwilling to recognise the shifting patterns of behaviour, and for persisting with “shock tactics” designed to scare young people.

Department of Health statistics show a fall since 2001 in the numbers of under-16s in England who are drinking. The latest DoH report, Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England, reveals that the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011.

There has been a drop in the proportion of this age group who think drinking is acceptable for someone of their age. In 2010, 55% had never tasted alcohol (39% in 2001), while 32% thought it was acceptable for someone of their age to drink once a week, compared with 46% in 2003. Similarly, 11% of pupils thought that it was OK for someone of their age to get drunk once a week, compared with 20% who thought that in 2003.

Levels of binge-drinking among young people have also fallen sharply. In 2010, only 17% of 16-24-year-old women drank more than six units on their heaviest day of drinking, compared with 27% in 2005, and 24% of young men drank more than eight units, compared with 32% in 2005.

Measham puts this in plain language, without the raw statistics:

The trends are clear. From about 2002 onwards, the tide turned. I’ve seen it in my students and I’ve seen it when I do my research in pubs and clubs. Something is changing, a cultural shift, there is no longer the desire to go out and get completely obliterated. It’s true of drugs also – use peaked in 2002 and there has been a slow decline.

Each generation wants to be different from the one before. The 1990s saw the cafe bars and an end to pubs being male-dominated. The drinks industry targeted women who were caught up in the glamour of Sex and the City-style cosmopolitan drinking, and of ‘me time’ and drinking with the girls and there was a complete revolution in consumption patterns. But for this generation that’s all a bit passé and they are more responsible. Increasingly, it’s the older generation setting a bad example and teenagers are quite disparaging of that.

One of the trends I’m seeing is students spending more on one occasion, rather than going out all the time. When I’m out doing research in clubs, young people will be paying large amounts to get in, but you don’t see huge queues at the bar. Another factor is that the worst excesses of the drinks industry have been curtailed by legislation – the free drinks and happy hours and irresponsible promotion of drinking.

It’s partly to do with ID schemes, debt, and unemployment. But it’s also simply that students have discovered more interesting things to do than drink themselves silly. At Leeds University, Antony Haddley, union affairs officer, said:

Interestingly, although night-time drinking may be less popular, we have seen a significant interest in membership to our clubs and societies, so students participating in a massive range of activities with their friends from skydiving to equestrianism and everything in between. So students are not suddenly turning into recluses who don’t go out; they are still having a good time, without alcohol.

And, of course, it’s the effect of social media…

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I gave a talk about the YouCat last week. It was not so much about the history or content of the book, but more about Pope Benedict’s short letter to young Catholics that’s printed at the beginning as an introduction.

youcat_lg

There are some beautiful images used to explain why it’s so important for young people to know their faith. Pope Benedict is both affirming (“The youth of today are not as superficial as some think…”), and challenging:

This Catechism was not written to please you. It will not make life easy for you, because it demands of you a new life. It places before you the Gospel message as the “pearl of great value” (Mt 13:46) for which you must give everything. So I beg you: Study this Catechism with passion and perseverance.

You can listen to my talk here.

And here is the final part of Pope Benedict’s letter:

In the World Youth Days since the introduction of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—Rome, Toronto, Cologne, Sydney—young people from all over the world have come together, young people who want to believe, who are seeking God, who love Christ, and who want fellowship on their journey. In this context the question arose: Should we not attempt to translate the Catechism of the Catholic Church into the language of young people? Should we not bring its great riches into the world of today’s youth? Of course, there are many differences even among the youth of today’s world. And so now, under the capable direction of the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, YOUCAT has been produced for young people. I hope that many young people will let themselves be fascinated by this book.

Many people say to me: The youth of today are not interested in this. I disagree, and I am certain that I am right. The youth of today are not as superficial as some think. They want to know what life is really all about. A detective story is exciting because it draws us into the destiny of other men, a destiny that could be ours. This book is exciting because it speaks of our own destiny and so deeply engages every one of us.

This Catechism was not written to please you. It will not make life easy for you, because it demands of you a new life. It places before you the Gospel message as the “pearl of great value” (Mt 13:46) for which you must give everything. So I beg you: Study this Catechism with passion and perseverance. Make a sacrifice of your time for it! Study it in the quiet of your room; read it with a friend; form study groups and networks; share with each other on the Internet. By all means continue to talk with each other about your faith.

You need to know what you believe. You need to know your faith with that same precision with which an IT specialist knows the inner workings of a computer. You need to understand it like a good musician knows the piece he is playing. Yes, you need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents so that you can engage the challenges and temptations of this time with strength and determination. You need God’s help if your faith is not going to dry up like a dewdrop in the sun, if you want to resist the blandishments of consumerism, if your love is not to drown in pornography, if you are not going to betray the weak and leave the vulnerable helpless.

If you are now going to apply yourselves zealously to the study of the Catechism, I want to give you one last thing to accompany you: You all know how deeply the community of faith has been wounded recently through the attacks of the evil one, through the penetration of sin itself into the interior, yes, into the heart of the Church. Do not make that an excuse to flee from the face of God! You yourselves are the Body of Christ, the Church! Bring the undiminished fire of your love into this Church whose countenance has so often been disfigured by man. “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord!” (Rom 12:11). When Israel was at the lowest point in her history, God called for help, not from the great and honored ones of Israel, but from a young man by the name of Jeremiah. Jeremiah felt overwhelmed: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jer 1:6). But God was not to be deterred : “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak” (Jer 1:7).

I bless you and pray each day for all of you.

Benedictus P.P. XVI

You can thank me that I resisted calling this post ‘YouSing the YouCat’, even though I quite like it as a title…

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Thanks to Lazarus for putting a link to this 2009 article in St. Anthony Messenger about Dave Brubeck’s conversion to Catholicism in his later years.

To Hope! A Celebration was Brubeck’s first encounter with the Roman Catholic Mass, written at a time when he belonged to no denomination or faith community. It was commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor editor Ed Murray, who wanted a serious piece on the revised Roman ritual, not a pop or jazz Mass, but one that reflected the American Catholic experience.

The writing was to have a profound effect on Brubeck’s life. A short time before its premiere in 1980 a priest asked why there was no Our Father section of the Mass. Brubeck recalls first inquiring, “What’s the Our Father?” (he knew it as The Lord’s Prayer) and saying, “They didn’t ask me to do that.”

He resolved not to make the addition that, in his mind, would wreak havoc with the composition as he had created it. He told the priest, “No, I’m going on vacation and I’ve taken a lot of time from my wife and family. I want to be with them and not worry about music.”

“So the first night we were in the Caribbean, I dreamt the Our Father,” Brubeck says, recalling that he hopped out of bed to write down as much as he could remember from his dream state. At that moment he decided to add that piece to the Mass and to become a Catholic.

He has adamantly asserted for years that he is not a convert, saying to be a convert you needed to be something first. He continues to define himself as being “nothing” before being welcomed into the Church.

His Mass has been performed throughout the world, including in the former Soviet Union in 1997 (when Russia was considering adopting a state religion) and for Pope John Paul II in San Francisco during the pontiff’s 1987 pilgrimage to the United States.

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Dave Brubeck has died. His recordings were the first jazz I ever listened to, on a scratchy LP from my dad’s collection; and Paul Desmond’s lyrical playing on Take Five was one of the main reasons I took up alto sax as a teenager.

Here it is, on the original studio version:

And here is John Fordham’s short obituary:

The jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, whose pioneering style in pieces such as Take Five caught listeners’ ears with exotic, challenging rhythms, has died. He was 91.

Californian-born, Brubeck had a career that spanned almost all of American jazz since the second world war. He formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951, and his hypnotically catchy Take Five – written by his gifted saxophonist Paul Desmond in 1959 – was the first jazz instrumental to sell 1m copies.

Brubeck was the first modern jazz musician to be pictured on the cover of Time magazine, on 8 November 1954, and helped define the swinging, smoky rhythms of 1950s and 60s club jazz. The seminal album Time Out, which the quartet released in 1959, is still among the bestselling jazz albums of all time.

Brubeck first learned classical piano from his mother, and later studied with the composer Darius Milhaud. His classical leanings gave him a taste for irregular time signatures, such as 5/4 and 9/8, and structures including rondos and fugues, which are not usually used in jazz.

“When you start out with goals – mine were to play polytonally and polyrhythmically – you never exhaust that,” Brubeck said in 1995. “I started doing that in the 1940s. It’s still a challenge to discover what can be done with just those two elements.”

The rarest of phenomena in the jazz world, a household name, Brubeck enjoyed a six-decade career of astonishing productivity. He died on Wednesday morning of heart failure after being taken ill on his way to a cardiology appointment with his son Darius, according to his manager, Russell Gloyd.

His death comes two days before what would have been his 92nd birthday.

And of course without Paul Desmond and Take Five we wouldn’t have “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness”!

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Seminarians and staff from the Venerable English College in Rome had an audience with Pope Benedict on Monday. I’m sure he intends to invite Allen Hall Seminary out soon…

In case you didn’t see the wonderful address he gave, take a look at the text copied below. It’s nice to hear the Pope say that he owes his faith to the English (through St Boniface coming to evangelise Germany); but he can’t help adding that we English owe our faith to his predecessor, Pope Gregory!

Your Eminence,

Dear Brother Bishops, Monsignor Hudson,

Students and Staff of the Venerable English College,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you today to the Apostolic Palace, the House of Peter. I greet my Venerable brother, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a former Rector of the College, and I thank Archbishop Vincent Nichols for his kind words, spoken on behalf of all present. I too look back with great thanksgiving in my heart to the days that I spent in your country in September 2010. Indeed, I was pleased to see some of you at Oscott College on that occasion, and I pray that the Lord will continue to call forth many saintly vocations to the priesthood and the religious life from your homeland.

Through God’s grace, the Catholic community of England and Wales is blessed with a long tradition of zeal for the faith and loyalty to the Apostolic See. At much the same time as your Saxon forebears were building the Schola Saxonum, establishing a presence in Rome close to the tomb of Peter, Saint Boniface was at work evangelizing the peoples of Germany. So as a former priest and Archbishop of the See of Munich and Freising, which owes its foundation to that great English missionary, I am conscious that my spiritual ancestry is linked with yours.

Earlier still, of course, my predecessor Pope Gregory the Great was moved to send Augustine of Canterbury to your shores, to plant the seeds of Christian faith on Anglo-Saxon soil. The fruits of that missionary endeavour are only too evident in the six-hundred-and-fifty-year history of faith and martyrdom that distinguishes the English Hospice of Saint Thomas à Becket and the Venerable English College that grew out of it.

Potius hodie quam cras, as Saint Ralph Sherwin said when asked to take the missionary oath, “rather today than tomorrow”. These words aptly convey his burning desire to keep the flame of faith alive in England, at whatever personal cost. Those who have truly encountered Christ are unable to keep silent about him. As Saint Peter himself said to the elders and scribes of Jerusalem, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Saint Boniface, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Saint Francis Xavier, whose feast we keep today, and so many other missionary saints show us how a deep love for the Lord calls forth a deep desire to bring others to know him. You too, as you follow in the footsteps of the College Martyrs, are the men God has chosen to spread the message of the Gospel today, in England and Wales, in Canada, in Scandinavia. Your forebears faced a real possibility of martyrdom, and it is right and just that you venerate the glorious memory of those forty-four alumni of your College who shed their blood for Christ. You are called to imitate their love for the Lord and their zeal to make him known, potius hodie quam cras. The consequences, the fruits, you may confidently entrust into God’s hands.

Your first task, then, is to come to know Christ yourselves, and the time you spend in seminary provides you with a privileged opportunity to do so. Learn to pray daily, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, listening attentively to the word of God and allowing heart to speak to heart, as Blessed John Henry Newman would say. Remember the two disciples from the first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, who followed Jesus and asked to know where he was staying, and, like them, respond eagerly to his invitation to “come and see” (1:37-39). Allow the fascination of his person to capture your imagination and warm your heart. He has chosen you to be his friends, not his servants, and he invites you to share in his priestly work of bringing about the salvation of the world. Place yourselves completely at his disposal and allow him to form you for whatever task it may be that he has in mind for you.

You have heard much talk about the new evangelization, the proclamation of Christ in those parts of the world where the Gospel has already been preached, but where to a greater or lesser degree the embers of faith have grown cold and now need to be fanned once more into a flame. Your College motto speaks of Christ’s desire to bring fire to the earth, and your mission is to serve as his instruments in the work of rekindling the faith in your respective homelands. Fire in sacred Scripture frequently serves to indicate the divine presence, whether it be the burning bush from which God revealed his name to Moses, the pillar of fire that guided the people of Israel on their journey from slavery to freedom, or the tongues of fire that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost, enabling them to go forth in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Just as a small fire can set a whole forest ablaze (cf. Jas 3:5), so the faithful testimony of a few can release the purifying and transforming power of God’s love so that it spreads like wildfire throughout a community or a nation. Like the martyrs of England and Wales, then, let your hearts burn with love for Christ, for the Church and for the Mass.

When I visited the United Kingdom, I saw for myself that there is a great spiritual hunger among the people. Bring them the true nourishment that comes from knowing, loving and serving Christ. Speak the truth of the Gospel to them with love. Offer them the living water of the Christian faith and point them towards the bread of life, so that their hunger and thirst may be satisfied. Above all, however, let the light of Christ shine through you by living lives of holiness, following in the footsteps of the many great saints of England and Wales, the holy men and women who bore witness to God’s love, even at the cost of their lives. The College to which you belong, the neighbourhood in which you live and study, the tradition of faith and Christian witness that has formed you: all these are hallowed by the presence of many saints. Make it your aspiration to be counted among their number.

Please be assured of an affectionate remembrance in my prayers for yourselves and for all the alumni of the Venerable English College. I make my own the greeting so often heard on the lips of a great friend and neighbour of the College, Saint Philip Neri, Salvete, flores martyrum! Commending you, and all to whom the Lord sends you, to the loving intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, I gladly impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of peace and joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you.

There is a link to the audio here.

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I saw this on Facebook at the weekend, in a shortened version. Then I hunted down the original set of rules, apparently written by Frank L. Visco and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ digest.

writing by AJ Cann

Here they are:

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

And this second set of rules is derived from William Safire’s Rules for Writers:

  1. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
  2. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
  3. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
  4. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  5. Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.
  6. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
  7. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
  8. Subject and verb always has to agree.
  9. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
  10. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
  11. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  12. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
  13. Don’t never use no double negatives.
  14. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  15. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
  16. Eschew obfuscation.
  17. No sentence fragments.
  18. Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
  19. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  20. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
  21. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  22. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  23. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  25. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
  26. Always pick on the correct idiom.
  27. The adverb always follows the verb.
  28. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  29. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
  30. And always be sure to finish what

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With the Leveson Report just out, and the Year of Faith ongoing, I went back to the document Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Double Octuple Newspaper Press  by Sue Clarke

It has to be said that this is not the most celebrated of the documents from Vatican II. Many commentators think that it was not creative enough, not sensitive to the moment, not aware of the need for the Church to open out to the world. But it’s interesting to read – fifty years later – the two main paragraphs that concern what we would now call ‘media ethics’ (see paragraphs 5 and 12 copied below).

The primary concern is to protect the freedom of the press, and to highlight the importance of a free media for the common good. I don’t know the background to the document well, but one of the defining features of the political landscape will have been the Cold War, and the multiple threats to freedom that were emerging in Eastern Bloc countries. The main worry for the Council fathers was not press intrusion but state intrusion. So they assert the ‘right to information’.

Nevertheless, this right is not absolute. It requires truth, justice, charity; respect for the laws of morality and the rights and dignity of individuals; and the manner of communication should be ‘proper and decent’. Public authority should protect this freedom of information, but it is also obliged ‘to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media’. The language is almost archaic; the meaning is clear.

So you can’t move from Inter Mirifica to a concrete conclusion about which recommendations in the Leveson report to implement, but there are some helpful principles here which seem as relevant as they were fifty years ago.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

5. It is, however, especially necessary that all parties concerned should adopt for themselves a proper moral outlook on the use of these media, especially with respect to certain questions that have been vigorously aired in our day.

The first question has to do with “information,” as it is called, or the search for and reporting of the news. Now clearly this has become most useful and very often necessary for the progress of contemporary society and for achieving closer links among men. The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. For not all knowledge is helpful, but “it is charity that edifies.”

12. The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

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