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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Making the market king

Making the market king. See post at Jericho Tree.

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Pope Francis, his vision of social justice, and what it means for us: See the post at Jericho Tree here.

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I’ve just finished reading Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a sprawling, fascinating, maddening book that is badly in need of a copy-editor. But one of Taleb’s pet hates (he has many) is copy-editors.

antifragile

There is a simple and profound central idea. Think of anything at all: a person, an idea, a relationship, a business, a country, a piece of technology, an ecosystem.

Some things are fragile. When some kind of crisis occurs, an unexpected event, a systemic shock – then they break. It might mean a small bit of damage or the destruction of the entire unit. Fragile things are harmed by crises.

What is the opposite of fragile? Our instinct is to use words like robust, strong, solid, resilient, perhaps flexible or adaptable. Robust and flexible things do not break when a shock comes; they can withstand crises and shocks. That’s true. They are unharmed. But this isn’t the opposite of fragile. The opposite would involve something that positively benefits from a crisis or a shock, that comes out better rather than just the same. We genuinely don’t have a word for this, which is why Taleb invents one: antifragilility.

He gives a neat illustration. If you put something fragile in the post, like a teapot, you pack it carefully and put a big sticker on the outside saying, ‘Fragile: Handle with Care’. What is the ‘opposite’ kind of package? You are tempted to say this would be a robust or strong parcel. But if you send something in the post that is more-or-less unbreakable, like a block of wood or a stone, you don’t put a sticker on the outside saying ‘Unbreakable: Don’t Be Anxious About This’, you just send it without any warning signs. The opposite kind of package, with something antifragile inside, would have a sticker saying something like this: ‘Antifragile: Handle Carelessly, Drop Me, Be Reckless With Me, Try To Damage Me’.

What would go into such a package?

Taleb shows how many things in life and society are antifragile. They actually benefit from crises and shocks, at least within certain limits. The human body is one example, it doesn’t benefit from being pampered, it grows stronger through certain shocks and stresses – within limits. Some ideas only develop through challenges and awkward confrontations. Some businesses are perfectly poised to benefit from difficult and unexpected situations, because they are able to adapt and seize new opportunities. Some relationships are able to discover new depths and different kinds of intimacy through problems and difficulties.

What is it that makes some things fragile, some robust, and some antifragile? You’ll have to read the book yourself!

The other big theme is the nature of rationality: how we try to predict the unpredictable, and when we fail and are caught off guard we try to pretend we knew what was going to happen. It’s much wiser, argues Taleb, to admit that many things, especially future crises and disasters, are completely beyond our powers of reasoning (even though they may be rational in themselves). The trick is not to be ready for a particular unexpected event, which is by its very nature unpredictable, but to be ready for something unexpected and unpredictable to happen, so that when it does happen we are able to react in a creative and intelligent way, bringing an unexpected good out of these unexpected difficult circumstances (antifragility), and to create systems that are resilient to major shocks or at least not set up so that they will shatter when the first unpredictable jolt takes place (a certain kind of flexibility and robustness).

It was the perfect bedtime book for me. Easy to read, full of stories, provocative. And it genuinely made me rethink a lot of things I had taken for granted without question before.

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If you live in Wales there will now be a presumption that you are willing for your organs to be donated, unless you explicitly opt out of the scheme.

broken glass by arnaud...

John Bingham reports on the recent legislation:

The “opt-out” system means organs could be taken from a person who has died unless they or their loved-ones actively object. It would mean that the current voluntary scheme, in which people carry Donor Cards or register their consent online, would no longer operate nationwide. Under the plans, organs taken from bodies in Wales could also be used in other parts of the country where active consent is still required…

The presumed consent system could come into force by 2015. The new consent law would apply to over-18s who die in Wales if they have lived in Wales for more than 12 months. Organs made available under the system would be the same as the “opt-in” method – including kidneys, heart, liver, lungs and pancreas – and would not only go to donor patients in Wales. They could go anywhere in the UK.

Dr Peter Saunders, chief executive of the Christian Medical said the change was “unnecessary and unethical”. He is good for a soundbite:

We strongly support organ donation but so-called presumed consent involves neither consent nor donation – it is neither voluntary nor informed and involves taking organs rather than giving them.

It means effectively that the state will be able to overrule families and there is a very real danger that it could also prove counterproductive and undermine trust leading to fewer rather than more donations.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre submitted evidence against the new legislation. You can read their report here. The main objection is that it turns a gift into an act of theft.

Here are the main points from their report:

THE CATHOLIC VIEW OF ORGAN DONATION: ORGAN DONATION AS A PROFOUND ACT OF HUMAN SOLIDARITY

0.2  This response will first outline a Roman Catholic understanding of organ donation, and how this coheres with a true humanism and helps to reinforce positive attitudes of solidarity within society. It will then turn (in paragraphs 1.1 and following) to the consultation questions.[1]

0.3  Organ transplantation from the dead saves and transforms lives. It offers hope for those with diseases that would otherwise be untreatable, or treatable only by ongoing, imperfect means such as kidney dialysis. Transplantation is, in principle, welcomed by the Catholic Church.

0.4  When solid organ transplants were first being attempted in the 1950s, Pope Pius XII explained to Catholics that this was “not a violation of the reverence due to the dead”. Rather, it was justified because of “the merciful charity shown to some suffering brothers and sisters.”[2] More recently Pope John Paul II said that, “We should rejoice that medicine, in its service of life, has found in organ transplantation a new way of serving humanity”.[3] Far from opposing the use of the dead body in the service of medicine, the Church actively encourages Catholics to offer their organs after death. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity”.[4]

THE NEED FOR CONSENT

0.5  While encouraging Catholics to donate organs, Pope John Paul II emphasised that what justifies the use of the human body is the free act of donation. “Above all, this form of treatment is inseparable from a human act of donation. In effect, transplantation presupposes a prior, explicit, free and conscious decision on the part of the donor or of someone who legitimately represents the donor, generally the closest relatives. It is a decision to offer, without reward, a part of one’s own body for the health and well-being of another person. In this sense, the medical action of transplantation makes possible the donor’s act of self-giving, that sincere gift of self which expresses our constitutive calling to love and communion.”[5]

0.6  If the organs are taken without the consent of the donor, or that of the relatives speaking on behalf of the donor, then this is not an act of “donation”. It is taking without asking. The words of Pope John Paul II regarding donation without consent are very clear: “In such a perspective, organ transplantation and the grafting of tissue would no longer correspond to an act of donation but would amount to the dispossession or plundering of a body.”[6]

0.7  For this reason the Catechism says that organ donation “is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent.”[7] It is not morally acceptable because it fails to respect the human meaning of the human remains. Instead of donation being an expression of solidarity between people, it becomes a violation of the dead.

THE BENEFITS OF A SYSTEM OF TRUE DONATION

0.8  It should not be assumed that undermining the principle of consent will in fact increase the availability of organs. A look at the history of medicine shows that for many centuries there was a stigma attached to dissection. Bodies were taken from the poor and criminals who died in prison, and so people did not want the bodies of their loved-ones handed over to the surgeons. The consequence was a shortage of dead bodies, and this shortage gave rise to widespread grave robbing. This reached a peak in the early nineteenth century when the price for fresh dead bodies induced Burke and Hare to turn from grave robbing to murder. It was in reaction to this that, beginning with the Anatomy Act 1832, there was a concerted attempt to encourage voluntary donation and to remove the stigma associated with dissection.

0.9  The principle of voluntary donation has remedied a problem which had dogged medicine for centuries. The success of voluntary schemes should not be underestimated. According to UK Transplant a total of 17,761,585 people or 28% of the entire population have joined the NHS Organ Donor Register.[8] There are other countries which have still higher numbers of people on the organ donor register. Currently it is not clear whether people are given adequate information prior to signing the ODR, and thus whether it constitutes effective consent. Nevertheless, the success of efforts directed at increasing voluntary participation should be acknowledged as should the ethical importance of personal involvement when the decision pertains to one’s own remains: no decision about me without me. Thus, subject to adequate information, sensitivity to relatives of the dying, and other ethical constraints, it is “opting in” for organ donation that should be encouraged.

0.10  In contrast, consider the reaction to the Alder Hey scandal and the sight of parents forced to bury parts of their children in three or four ceremonies. This dramatically weakened public trust in the collection and storage of body parts. The same kind of scandal could happen with organ donation if consent is not respected.

0.11  A system of donation, in which people explicitly give permission for their organs to be used after their death, allows the human body to be used while respecting the dead. It is also helps to reinforce positive attitudes of solidarity within society. This is what Pope John Paul II meant when he talked of organ donation as part of the culture of life. An “opt out” or “presumed consent” system of organ donation undermines the principle of consent and effectively, even if not intentionally, violates the reverence due to a dead body. Even in pragmatic terms, there is a serious danger that it would harm transplant medicine because it would erode public support for organ transplantation.

An earlier paper from 2002 raises deeper issues about the ambiguity of brain death and the necessity of explicit consent in order ‘to protect the interests of the donor in avoiding premature retrieval of organs’. In other words, the unintended consequences, the risks, could far outweigh the presumed benefits. [The Linacre Centre later became the Anscombe Bioethics Centre]

Brain death

The Linacre Centre’s own view is that `brain death’ protocols are insufficient for establishing the death of the body: we have become increasingly convinced by evidence suggesting that integrated bodily activity can continue after `brain death’ has been diagnosed. There have been documented cases of `brain dead’ patients maintaining bodily functions for months or even years: pregnant women have gone through pregnancy, children have grown up and passed through puberty, etc. 3Moreover, it is well-known to transplant teams that heartbeating donors move when organs are taken, unless they are paralysed by drugs, and that their blood pressure goes up when the incision is made. It is worth noting that some anaesthetists recommend that the supposed `cadaver’ be anaesthetised when his/her organs are retrieved. Most organ donors are unaware that their hearts may be beating when their organs are taken, and that they may be pink, warm, able to heal wounds, fight infections, respond to stimuli, etc.

We would urge that while the adequacy of brain-related criteria for diagnosing death is fully and fairly investigated, the retrieval of organs from heartbeating donors should be put on hold. Donations from non-heartbeating donors – perhaps after organs have been cooled to preserve them – could continue while this investigation was carried out. At the very least, those who wish to donate their organs should be given the option of being non-heartbeating donors only, and should be fully informed of the state their bodies will be in when their organs are retrieved. Such information requires a proper interview with a medical practitioner who can explain current controversies: simply signing a donor card in no way indicates that the prospective donor understands what organ donation will involve.

Consent

In view of the uncertainties surrounding diagnosis of death, it is all the more important that an `opt out’ system of organ donation be firmly excluded. We welcome the emphasis placed on consent in Human Bodies, Human Choices. Explicit consent by the donor, in addition to consent (or non-objection) by relatives is needed both to safeguard respect for the body, and to protect the interests of the donor in avoiding premature retrieval of organs. We would urge that even if the donor had given fully informed consent to organ donation, objections raised by relatives should be seen as overriding. This is particularly the case with retrieval of organs from heartbeating donors, which can be most distressing for relatives who believe – not without evidence – that their loved one may still be alive.

In the case of non-heartbeating cadavers, we would require consent from the donor him/herself, while relatives should be kept informed and could veto the procedure if they raise strong objections. In the case of children, however, parental consent should be both necessary and sufficient for the retrieval of organs from a non-heartbeating cadaver. Parental consent should also be necessary and sufficient in the case of stillbirth or miscarriage, at whatever stage of pregnancy. Wherever practicable the consent of both parents should be obtained, as generally both will have a legitimate concern for the child, though this will depend on the circumstances of the relationship, contact and custody. However, the deliberate termination of pregnancy and the destruction of human embryos are serious acts of injustice against the child in which the parent or parents are complicit. The use of the body of a child whose life is taken in this way adds insult to injury and is wholly unacceptable.

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Kolbe's gift

Book now for this new production from Ten Ten Theatre. This is from their website:

Kolbe’s Gift is a full-length play written by David Gooderson which tells the story of two men, Fr Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, and Franek Gajowniczec, a Polish soldier, whose lives crossed in the most extraordinary way in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Spanning three decades, Kolbe’s Gift will be produced by Ten Ten Theatre with a cast of seven actors at The Leicester Square Theatre in Central London for one week only in October 2013. With many enriching events surrounding the production, it promises to be a theatrical event not to be missed.

“This place is not simply a concentration camp. It’s a laboratory dedicated to the destruction of human identity. It is the gospel of hate, which can only be defeated by the Gospel of Love.”

In 1941, Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe entered the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.

A gifted man, Kolbe was the founder of monasteries in Poland and Japan, produced a monthly magazine with a circulation of over one million, and formed an international movement to help bring people to the Catholic faith. Then, a chance encounter with an ordinary soldier, Franek Gajowniczec, led Kolbe to an extraordinary act – walking away from all that he had and could have achieved.

David Gooderson’s powerful play tells the true story of these two men. One became feted across the globe. The other faded into obscurity. This is their story.

Tickets priced from £12.50 – £20.00 can be booked through the theatre box office on 08448 733433 or via their website.

There is also a booking page here at the TenTen site.

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I was at the Catholic Medical Association Annual Symposium on Saturday. I heard a talk by the barrister Neil Addison about the recent decision in favour of the Scottish midwives, who argued that their conscientious objection to abortion meant they should not be forced to supervise abortions.

Three points that emerged from the judgment stuck in my mind.

First, that ‘treatment’ includes not just the immediate procedure but the whole ‘support’ that is given to the person before and after the procedure; and that someone can therefore object on grounds of conscience to be involved in this wider aspect of treatment.

Second, that if someone is supervising any treatment then they are medically and morally involved in that treatment, even if they are at one stage removed from it.

Third, that if there is some doubt or disagreement, the law should if possible rule in favour of respecting someone’s conscientious objection, in order to avoid putting citizens in the position of having to choose between loyalty to their faith and the law.

This is my summary from memory. Here is the report from Neil Addison’s own blog about the ruling (sorry the text is messy – it hasn’t copied over very well. At least you can read it…).

As a follow up to my post on 7th march 2012 regarding the case of the Scottish Midwifes who did not want to supervise Abortions the earlier decision has now been overuled and their right to conscientious objection recognised in Doogan & Anor v NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board [2013] ScotCS CSIH_36   
This a unanimous decision by three Judges of the Inner House of the Court of Session (equivalent to the English Court of Appeal) and recognises in clear terms that the Conscientious Objection clause in s4 Abortion Act 1967 allows Medical staff to refuse to participate in ALL aspects of Abortion “treatment”.
The Court rejected the Hospitals suggestion that s4 only covered participation in the immediate act of Abortion  and also rejected arguments based on inconvenience to the Hospital.  The Court recognised that Abortion is a uniquely controversial aspect of Medical practice and that the right of Conscientious Objection is “a right” which Hospitals have to accommodate regardless of any managerial inconvenience it may cause.
This covers a point I have been involved in as Director of the Thomas More Legal Centre where I have had to protect Nurses being pressurised to participate in Abortion especially the administration of Abortion inducing Drugs. Frequently Hospitals have suggested that s4 only applied to the actual giving of the Drugs but did not cover other aspects of Nursing work.  This Judgment vindicates the Nurses I have represented who have refused to participate in any aspect of Abortion “treatment”
Interestingly the Court also endorsed a South African Court decision Christian Education SA v Minister of Education (2001) 9 BHRC53 where the Judge had said
“believers cannot claim an automatic right to be exempted by their beliefs from the laws of the land. At the same time, the state should, wherever reasonably possible, seek to avoid putting believers to extremely painful and intensely burdensome choices of either being true to their faith or else respectful of the law. “
This case could therefore become an important decision in relation to issues of Religious Freedom extending beyond Abortion”
I am also pleased that the Judgment agreed with a criticism I had made of the earlier decision in my Blog last year when I said
“the Judge in what is a rather sparsely reasoned decision decided that what they were doing in supervising the Abortion process did not in law amount to participation in Abortion. She mentions and in large part relies on the wording of the Nurses Contract and the guidelines issued by the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Royal College of Nurses which is somewhat peculiar in view of the clear wording of s4(1) that the right of conscientious objection overrides any “contract or .. any statutory or other legal requirement”, that to my mind means that s4(1) should have been considered without any reference to the views of the NMC or the RCN or their guidance.”

In para 33 of the Judgment the court makes clear that even professional guidelines can be legally wrong and cannot overule statute, it says (my emphasis)” Great respect should be given to the advice provided hitherto by the professional bodies, but prior practice does not necessarily dictate interpretation. Moreover, when the subject of the advice concerns a matter of law, there is always the possibility that the advice from the professional body is incorrect. …….It also proceeds on the basis that a midwife has a duty to be non-judgmental and that to be selective is unacceptable, but this ignores the fact that the Act allows a degree of selectivity to those with a conscientious objection”

Even though the Judgment is from a Scottish Court and Scotland is a different jurisdiction to England and Wales the judgment will apply in England and Wales.  The Abortion Act 1967 applies in England, Wales and Scotland (but not in Northern Ireland) and wherever Scottish Courts have adjudicated on such “cross border” legislation their decisions have been accepted without question in England and Wales and vice versa.

The Inner House of the Court of Session is equivalent in status to the Court of Appeal and therefore this case will be treated south of the border on exactly the same basis as if it had been a decision of the Court of Appeal.In the judgment it is noticeable that much of the case-law referred to was English but was treated as binding in Scotland because the Scottish Court was dealing with the same piece of legislation as the English Courts.

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When the Church, through the election of Pope Francis, seems to be moving west (from Europe to Latin America), it’s interesting to read Simon Scott Plummer on how it might actually be moving east.

map nov 28 by theogeo

In The Middle Kingdom’s Problem with Religion, Plummer writes about the staggering growth of Christianity in China over the last two generations, which some people are calling ‘the greatest revival Christianity has ever known’.

While church attendance continues to fall in the West and Christians are being driven out of the Middle East under Islamist pressure, China is moving in the opposite direction. In 2011 the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think-tank, estimated that there were 67 million Chinese Christians, about 5 per cent of the total population. Of these, 58 million were Protestant and nine million Catholic. Their number exceeds that of members of the Communist Party (CCP). 

A comparison with the situation just before the Communist Revolution — and even more so with that at the end of the Cultural Revolution — reveals the magnitude of change. In 1949 there were about three million Catholics and nearly one million Protestants. By Mao’s death in 1976 religion in China, including Christianity, appeared to have been snuffed out. 

The rise in the number of Protestants, many of them Pentecostals, has been described as the greatest revival Christianity has ever known. There is even talk that by the middle of this century, Chinese Christians could outnumber those in the United States, at present more than 170 million and declining, making China the most populous Christian country on earth. The emergence of the Middle Kingdom as the second largest global economy is not the only story of explosive growth since Deng Xiaoping wrested power from the Maoists.

On the one hand, there is a kind of tolerance of Christianity; on the other hand, continuing repression.

Provided you are not seen by the government as disruptive, being a Christian is not difficult in China today. If you do step over that line, defined by the constitution as making use of religion “to engage in activities that disrupt public order”, the consequences can be harsh. The authorities believe in exemplary punishment, what a Chinese proverb calls “killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys” and, having identified a target, pursue it ferociously.

For example, the Shouwang Church in Beijing, the largest of the unregistered Protestant groups in the city, has been hounded by the police over the past two years. Having been locked out of property it had either rented or bought, its congregation has been forced to hold services in the open air. Members have been arrested, evicted from their homes and jobs or deported to the towns from which they came. Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer, currently imprisoned in north-west China, has been in and out of detention since 2006. After one of his releases, he said he had been tortured and threatened with death if he spoke about what had happened.

Ma Daqin, the Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, has not been seen in public since last July, when he declared at his consecration that he was leaving the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to devote more time to the pastoral needs of the diocese. The CCPA and its associated Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China promptly withdrew recognition from him. The gravity of this case is that Ma’s appointment was approved by both the Chinese government and the Holy See, part of a slow rapprochement between the two sides which has now suffered a severe setback. Reversing it will be one of the toughest diplomatic challenges facing Pope Francis I.

The situation for Chinese Catholics is extremely complex.

The life of Jin Luxian, the 96-year-old Bishop of Shanghai, provides a fascinating insight into the Vatican’s attitude towards China under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A Jesuit, Jin spent 27 years (1955-82) under house arrest, in re-education camps or in prison for being part of a “counter-revolutionary clique”. The devastating experience of the Cultural Revolution convinced him that the interests of Chinese Catholics were best served by co-operating with the government, so he became the CCPA-appointed bishop of China’s most populous city in 1988. The bishop approved by the Vatican, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, who had been consecrated in 1950, found himself powerless in his own diocese after being freed on parole from a life sentence in 1985. He left to receive medical treatment in the United States and never returned. In 1979 John Paul II had secretly created him a cardinal.

However, the same pope tacitly approved the presence of papal representatives at Jin’s consecration as auxiliary bishop in 1985, and his successor, Benedict XVI, invited him to attend a synod in Rome in 2005, only to have the Chinese government turn down the invitation on his behalf. 

The Vatican’s nuanced treatment of Jin recognises his outstanding success in making Shanghai once again the powerhouse of Catholicism in China. He has reopened more than 100 churches in the city, set up the most important seminary in the country, sent seminarians abroad to study, and created a diocesan publishing house and retreat centre. In considering the spiritual wellbeing of Catholic communities around the world, the Holy See thinks long-term and, in the person of Jin, appears to have concluded that his achievements outweigh his apparent disloyalty. 

Nevertheless, the bishop remains a highly controversial figure, both within the Society of Jesus and among Christians in Shanghai. The first volume of hisMemoirs (Hong Kong University Press, 2012) is remarkable for its bitter judgment of Kung as someone who put local Catholics at risk by “mindlessly executing anti-Communist orders” at the instigation of the Holy See. 

Divisions between the registered and unregistered churches are reflected in the Commission for the Catholic Church in China set up by Pope Benedict in 2007. On one hand are those advocating rapprochement with the government on the lines of the Ostpolitik pursued by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli towards the Soviet bloc after the Second Vatican Council; on the other, those who take a harder line. The present Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon, favours the first approach, his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the second. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is likely to give China a high priority.

The most important thing I learnt about the Church in China when I visited the country a couple of years ago, apart from the vibrancy of its faith, is not to make simplistic judgments about the situation there or the incredibly complex decisions of conscience that Chinese Catholics are constantly having to make.

You can read the full article here.

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I just received this information from Comment on Reproductive Ethics about the One of Us campaign, an online petition in defence of the human embryo.

one1

Here is the explanation – it seems well worth supporting.

1.  The campaign idea and name was developed by the Italian Pro-Life Movement under the leadership of MEP Carlo Casini, and specifically as fruit of his lifetime commitment to working towards full protection for the human embryo.

The ‘One of Us’ campaign underlines the moment of conception as the beginning of human life, and aims to prevent any funding of activities which result in the destruction of human embryos, particularly focusing on areas of research, development aid and public health.

The initiative follows a recent European Court of Justice judgment (Brustle vs. Greenpeace (Germany)), which upheld the special nature of the human embryo.

2.  The campaign will be taken forward using the vehicle of a European Citizens’ Initiative which is a newly established legal instrument which allows citizens across the EU to propose legislation if it falls within the scope of EU competency.

Such an initiative must have the support of at least 7 of the 27 member states and each individual state involved must collect a minimum number of signatures based on its overall population.

An overall number of at least one million European citizens must adhere to the proposal.

3.  54,000 signatures are required from the UK to fulfil our quota.

To take part in this campaign you must be resident in a EU State, be 18 or over and eligible to vote in the European Elections.

4.  How to sign on:

We are focusing exclusively on online collection and this can be done easily at: http://www.oneofus.eu

Just click on ‘SIGN’ at the top of the page and follow the instructions, including clicking on the ‘support’  button, and ‘United Kingdom’ of course when asked for your country identification.

It takes 2 minutes from start to finish to register a vote in support of the humanity of the human embryo.

5.  The petition deadline is November 2013 but we need to move very quickly to reach our quota.

See their website here. And especially the FAQs here.

one2

 

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I heard Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna give a talk in London recently. It was part of a promotional event for the International Theological Institute, an English-speaking centre of theology in Austria. See their website here.

360px-Schoenborn-Altoetting1

He was speaking about the role of the Church in a Western culture that is increasingly secularised. He was somehow pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I didn’t take detailed notes, so some of this might have my gloss on it.

The pessimism went like this, and he acknowledged that he was simply repeating themes elaborated by Pope-Emeritus Benedict over many years: There is no doubt that the cultural landscape in the West has become more secularised over the past fifty years or so. The Church seems to have less influence as a cultural and political force; and it has lost or is in the process of losing the big moral battles of the last two generations (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, traditional marriage, etc).

On top of this, the Church itself has in many ways become more secularised. The ethos of many Christians (their attitudes and behaviour) is often not dissimilar from the ethos of the secular world around them. So the Church is both marginalised for being at odds with the culture, and ignored for having nothing significant to offer to the culture; it is both counter-cultural (in a way that is incomprehensible to most people), and yet too influenced by the culture to give a distinctive voice.

The optimism came as a result of the pessimism. Because the Church, in this analysis, has more or less failed in the mighty cultural struggles of the last fifty years, this failure gives it a new freedom to stop worrying about how influential it is on society and concentrate on just being itself and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Instead of trying to win a political argument, and putting all its energy and anxiety into resisting political and cultural change, it can choose to witness to the truth of Christian values on their own terms.

It’s as if we have been gripping the wheel too tightly, judging our worth by the measure of how effective our campaigns have been in particular ethical issues, of how many people we have managed to convince to change their views. Perhaps this is all misguided. Perhaps we should concentrate on purifying ourselves, and the witness we are giving, and leave the results to God. If the Church becomes less concerned about convincing the secular world, and at the same time less worldly herself, she will actually have more to offer the world in an authentic way.

Cardinal Schönborn quoted St Bernadette of Lourdes, when she was interrogated by the clergy and police after her visions, and one of them said to her, ‘You are not convincing us’. And she replied, ‘My job is not to convince you, but just to tell you’. It’s like Peter and John speaking to the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 4: ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard’.

I’m not 100% sure about all this! Yes, Christians need to have the confidence to witness to their faith, without over-worrying about how this witness is being received. Yes, the Church needs to be purified, converted, and each individual Christian needs to become less worldly and more focussed on Christ and his teaching. Yes, if we fail to convince or even challenge the culture, we shouldn’t give up. This is all true, and makes sense to Catholics who are confident in their faith, and have the support of a strong Christian community.

But there are other concerns too. When the Church loses its influence in society, this effects in a negative way especially the many ordinary Catholics whose faith is perhaps less strong, who don’t yet have the inner spiritual resources to self-identify as a confident and creative minority: those on the edges; the lapsed; those without the energy or time to engage in questions about Catholic identity. When the Church is no longer a strong cultural presence, and when Christian institutions are not nurturing the faith of ordinary people in quiet but significant ways, then the moral and spiritual lives of many people suffer.

And I’m also concerned about this apparent failure to engage constructively with the culture. If we do have something to say, shouldn’t it make sense to at least some people? And if it isn’t making sense, shouldn’t we find better ways of saying what needs saying? It’s about the continuing importance of dialogue and cultural engagement.

To be fair to Cardinal Schönborn, he was not suggesting that we should give up on dialogue and retreat into a self-justifying mode of ‘witness’. Quite the opposite. He explicitly said that the Church should step out more freely to engage with the world, with a new confidence. That was his point. If we worry less about results and influence, if we are less afraid of being a misunderstood minority, we can be more truly ourselves, more faithful to the gospel, more creative, more engaged, and more interesting to those who are genuinely searching for an alternative to the worldliness around then.

I agree. Catholics sometimes need to be counter-cultural, in a joyful and confident way; as long as we remember that we are part of the culture as well, and we need to use as effectively as possible all the opportunities that we have to influence that culture, opportunities that come to us precisely because we do still belong to it in so many ways. Let’s not use the category of ‘witness’ as an excuse to opt-out or as a defence if our appeal to reason seems incomprehensible. We need to continue in the struggle to make the Christian message comprehensible – which it is.

It was interesting that the very last comment from the floor was about the fall of communism. It wasn’t really a question, just a statement that we should really be more optimistic, because the greatest threat to faith in God and Christian freedom of the last century has actually been overcome: communism. We forget, said the member of the audience, what a terrifying foe this was in Europe and throughout the world, how much harm it did to the Church and to Christian culture, and how much worse things could have become. And yet it did not prevail, in part because of the struggles of Christian men and women.

Cardinal Schönborn agreed, and thanked this person for ending on a note of hope. As if to say: yes, let’s be a creative minority on the ‘outside’ of the secular culture, but let’s not give up on using the influence we still have through our historical Christian presence and trying to transform the culture from within. Which is exactly what Pope-Emeritus Benedict said in his speech at Westminster Hall.

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This just came in from Ten Ten Theatre, as part of their preparation for the staging of Kolbe’s Gift in London in October.

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Saturday 20th April, 12.00 pm to 3.30 pm
Notre Dame de France church, off Leicester Square, WC2H 7BX

• Would you like to play a vital part in a unique event during the Year of Faith?
• Do you want to find new ways to communicate matters of faith in a relevant, dynamic way?
• Do you want to engage in the New Evangelisation in a practical way?
• Do you want to meet other young people committed in their faith and passionate about communicating it to others?

You are warmly invited to an exciting, one-off event with the Catholic, professional theatre company, Ten Ten Theatre on the afternoon of Saturday 20th April 2013.

We are delighted to be staging a brand new production of `Kolbe’s Gift’ – a thought-provoking and inspiring play by David Gooderson about the life of St Maximilian Kolbe.  The play will be performed at the Leicester Square Theatre in October 2013.

We need dynamic, outgoing, passionate people who can communicate the vision for this play to others – if you think this is for you, then please get in touch with us about coming along on Saturday 20th April for a training day.  You will then go out to the world and give a two-minute talk about the production in churches, prayer groups and other gatherings throughout London and the South-East.

On the training day on 20 April, you will discover more about Kolbe’s Gift and be trained in giving a short presentation about the play in parishes across the South East between April and July. You will have the chance to meet with other people excited about faith, the arts and evangelisation and have a free lunch!!

In return for speaking at ALL masses in at least one parish, you will be given a free ticket to a performance of `Kolbe’s Gift’ at The Leicester Square Theatre in October.

To register or for more information, contact:
office@tententheatre.co.uk or phone 0845 388 3162

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I’ve written a short piece about Pope Francis and the Priesthood for the commemorative edition of Faith Today that has just come out.

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I won’t copy the whole article here – you can order the special edition of Faith Today online -  but this is what struck me about Pope Francis’s approach to ethics and life issues (in so far as I could draw any hesitant conclusions from some of his words and actions as Cardinal Bergoglio):

Pope Francis has given witness to ‘a consistent ethic of life’. This phrase was coined by Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996. It can be applied to Pope Francis in his approach to justice and life issues over the last few years.

In Buenos Aires he stood firmly against abortion, euthanasia, human trafficking, and all forms of violence against the human person. He criticised ‘the culture of death’ that influenced so much of society. He said, ‘The right to life is the first among human rights. To abort a child is to kill someone who cannot defend himself’.

At the same time, he fought for social and economic justice, and was always on the side of the poor. He said, ‘The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers’.

His ethical approach was entirely consistent. He believed in the fundamental dignity of every human person, not excluding those who are sick, elderly, poor, oppressed, powerless or unborn.

He did not fit into the categories of secular politics because he was both ‘conservative’ (pro-life, pro-family, against same-sex marriage) and ‘progressive’ (fighting for social justice and for the poor).

Priests are called to have this same passion for life, and this same consistency. Not to be single-issue campaigners, but to speak out courageously whenever human dignity is threatened. Yes, we must be gentle, compassionate and forgiving to everyone we meet. But if we meet injustice in any form, it is our particular vocation to take a stand and be on the side of the poorest and most vulnerable.

This has made me want to go back and look more closely about what Cardinal Bernardin said about this ‘consistent ethic of life’. I know this approach was sometimes criticised, as if it were a way of watering down the core life issues, by suggesting that all social justice issues were equally important. But it seems to me to be a very straightforward point that shouts out from bible, the Christian tradition, and the Catechism: the need to defend human dignity against any and every threat, and to stand on the side of whoever is most vulnerable in society.

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Evgeny Morozov writes about recent advances in ‘predictive policing’. This is not the telepathy of Minority Report. It’s designing algorithms to analyse the ‘big data’ that is now available to police forces, so that hitherto unrecognised patterns and probabilities can help you guess the places where crime is more likely to take place, and the people who are more likely to be criminals.

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This is a section from his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist.

The police have a very bright future ahead of them – and not just because they can now look up potential suspects on Google. As they embrace the latest technologies, their work is bound to become easier and more effective, raising thorny questions about privacy, civil liberties, and due process.

For one, policing is in a good position to profit from “big data“. As the costs of recording devices keep falling, it’s now possible to spot and react to crimes in real time. Consider a city like Oakland in California. Like many other American cities, today it is covered with hundreds of hidden microphones and sensors, part of a system known as ShotSpotter, which not only alerts the police to the sound of gunshots but also triangulates their location. On verifying that the noises are actual gunshots, a human operator then informs the police.

It’s not hard to imagine ways to improve a system like ShotSpotter. Gunshot-detection systems are, in principle, reactive; they might help to thwart or quickly respond to crime, but they won’t root it out. The decreasing costs of computing, considerable advances in sensor technology, and the ability to tap into vast online databases allow us to move from identifying crime as it happens – which is what the ShotSpotter does now – to predicting it before it happens.

Instead of detecting gunshots, new and smarter systems can focus on detecting the sounds that have preceded gunshots in the past. This is where the techniques and ideologies of big data make another appearance, promising that a greater, deeper analysis of data about past crimes, combined with sophisticated algorithms, can predict – and prevent – future ones. This is a practice known as “predictive policing”, and even though it’s just a few years old, many tout it as a revolution in how police work is done. It’s the epitome of solutionism; there is hardly a better example of how technology and big data can be put to work to solve the problem of crime by simply eliminating crime altogether. It all seems too easy and logical; who wouldn’t want to prevent crime before it happens?

Police in America are particularly excited about what predictive policing – one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2011 – has to offer; Europeans are slowly catching up as well, with Britain in the lead. Take the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which is using software called PredPol. The software analyses years of previously published statistics about property crimes such as burglary and automobile theft, breaks the patrol map into 500 sq ft zones, calculates the historical distribution and frequency of actual crimes across them, and then tells officers which zones to police more vigorously.

It’s much better – and potentially cheaper – to prevent a crime before it happens than to come late and investigate it. So while patrolling officers might not catch a criminal in action, their presence in the right place at the right time still helps to deter criminal activity. Occasionally, though, the police might indeed disrupt an ongoing crime. In June 2012 the Associated Press reported on an LAPD captain who wasn’t so sure that sending officers into a grid zone on the edge of his coverage area – following PredPol’s recommendation – was such a good idea. His officers, as the captain expected, found nothing; however, when they returned several nights later, they caught someone breaking a window. Score one for PredPol?

Click here if you want to read more, especially about the privacy issues, the dangers of reductive or inaccurate algorithms, and widening the scope of the personal data that might be available for analysis:

An apt illustration of how such a system can be abused comes from The Silicon Jungle, ostensibly a work of fiction written by a Google data-mining engineer and published by Princeton University Press – not usually a fiction publisher – in 2010. The novel is set in the data-mining operation of Ubatoo – a search engine that bears a striking resemblance to Google – where a summer intern develops Terrorist-o-Meter, a sort of universal score of terrorism aptitude that the company could assign to all its users. Those unhappy with their scores would, of course, get a chance to correct them – by submitting even more details about themselves. This might seem like a crazy idea but – in perhaps another allusion to Google – Ubatoo’s corporate culture is so obsessed with innovation that its interns are allowed to roam free, so the project goes ahead.

To build Terrorist-o-Meter, the intern takes a list of “interesting” books that indicate a potential interest in subversive activities and looks up the names of the customers who have bought them from one of Ubatoo’s online shops. Then he finds the websites that those customers frequent and uses the URLs to find even more people – and so on until he hits the magic number of 5,000. The intern soon finds himself pursued by both an al-Qaida-like terrorist group that wants those 5,000 names to boost its recruitment campaign, as well as various defence and intelligence agencies that can’t wait to preemptively ship those 5,000 people to Guantánamo…

Given enough data and the right algorithms, all of us are bound to look suspicious. What happens, then, when Facebook turns us – before we have committed any crimes – over to the police? Will we, like characters in a Kafka novel, struggle to understand what our crime really is and spend the rest of our lives clearing our names? Will Facebook perhaps also offer us a way to pay a fee to have our reputations restored? What if its algorithms are wrong?

The promise of predictive policing might be real, but so are its dangers. The solutionist impulse needs to be restrained. Police need to subject their algorithms to external scrutiny and address their biases. Social networking sites need to establish clear standards for how much predictive self-policing they’ll actually do and how far they will go in profiling their users and sharing this data with police. While Facebook might be more effective than police in predicting crime, it cannot be allowed to take on these policing functions without also adhering to the same rules and regulations that spell out what police can and cannot do in a democracy. We cannot circumvent legal procedures and subvert democratic norms in the name of efficiency alone.

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They really are tracking you. It’s not just the information that you knowingly put on the internet. It’s also the information that your friends knowingly put there; and all the other embedded information that neither you nor your friends realise is being shared. See this video (sorry about the advert…)

The simplest example, which I had no idea about, is the global positioning info that is automatically uploaded from a digital camera with some photographs. So if you are tagged by someone else on a photo, your time (to the second) at a particular location (to within three metres) is there for everyone to see. Then it just needs the analytics to bring all this data together, and work out what it says about known past behaviour and probable future behaviour. Put this together with your Tesco Club-Card and Amazon buying history and the Google analytics on your recent searches, and they know more about you than you know about yourself.

I’m not exaggerating. When did you ever really reflect on what your movements and searches and purchases say about yourself? Do you even remember what you bought or searched for last month or last year? Well Tesco and Amazon and Google and now apparently Raytheon certainly do.

Ryan Gallagher explains:

A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

A video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare…

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

In the video obtained by the Guardian, it is explained by Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch that photographs users post on social networks sometimes contain latitude and longitude details – automatically embedded by smartphones within “exif header data.”

Riot pulls out this information, showing not only the photographs posted onto social networks by individuals, but also the location at which the photographs were taken…

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.

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Here is some information about the Speakers’ Training Programme for Catholic Voices that begins in September. See their website here.

Catholic Voices was originally created for the 2010 papal visit, when 23 ‘ordinary’ Catholics received training in communications techniques and media skills, as well as in-depth briefings on the neuralgic issues behind most news stories concerning the Church. Since then, the project has led to books, the Catholic Voices ‘Academy’, similar groups abroad, regular communications workshops and talks, an authoritative blog and the enthusiastic backing of bishops and broadcasters. To find out more about how we have developed, have a read through our brochure

In the UK, the heart of the project remains our ambition to create, each year, a growing number of trained Catholic Voices (CVs) who, together with the existing teams, make themselves available to comment on radio and television. Last year, 2012, CVs did 93 radio and TV interviews on a huge range of topics (many of which are recorded and uploaded to this website). This year, we expect to do more, as more media come to us.

The fourth National Speakers’ Training will be held, following the same three-weekend format, in the north-west (Hawkstone Hall plus studios in Manchester). We particularly hope to receive applications from the dioceses of Liverpool, Salford, Lancaster, Shrewsbury but we welcome applications from anywhere in England and Wales. The training is free, but we ask participants to pay for their travel and accommodation costs if they are able (if not, we will subsidise).

We welcome applications from any practising, committed Catholics of all ages and walks of life; who are available on all three training weekends and one of the interview dates; who believe they may have a calling as a Catholic Voice; and who will offer themselves after the training for interviews on a variety of topics.  (There are more details about this in our ‘Notes for Applicants’ sheet).

Interviews will be on 26th and 27th April in Manchester, and 29th April in London.

The three residential weekends, each lasting from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, will be: 20-22 September, 18-20 October, and 15-17 November.

Read more from past participants here!

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Richard Ben Cramer died this week, author of the magisterial What It Takes, about the 1988 US Presidential campaign. It’s a must-read book for anyone fascinated by American politics: over a thousand small-print pages about the Primaries and then the Presidential campaign itself.

what-it-takes-book

I devoured it about three years ago, and even at a great pace it took me nearly a month of reading into the early hours of each morning.

It’s not really about an ephemeral moment in US politics; it’s about character – what makes people tick, what forces influence them, what strange combination of personality, circumstance, chance, choice and fate conspires to guide some people through to the very end. It’s really six heavyweight political biographies woven together into an epic drama. If you have enjoyed even a single episode of The West Wing, you will love this.

Joe Klein pays tribute to Cramer and to his masterpiece:

Beautifully written, precisely observed–and with a larger point that beggared the cheap cynicism that had become, and remains, the default position for so many political journalists. Cramer actually dared to appreciate the incredible intelligence, hard work, courage and, yes, character that went into running for President. At a time when most of his colleagues were calling the Democratic candidates for president “the seven dwarfs,” he found a blissfully compelling Irish champion in Joe Biden and reported the anguish of the impassive midwesterner, Dick Gephardt, as the Congressman and his wife struggled with their son’s cancer.

But it was on the Republican side that Cramer found his two classic heroes–George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Both of them combat-scarred veterans of World War II, both dedicated to service, both easy to weep, both open to making political judgments that might harm their careers. Cramer’s account of Dole’s remarkable recovery from a grievous wound and the post-traumatic stress that accompanied it was the heart of the book. (I’ll never forget one precious detail: As he struggled to rebuild muscle strength, Dole listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over and over again.)

Cramer defiantly became friendly with his subjects, especially Biden, Bush and Dole. That may have been a bridge too far for those of who of us don’t dive in, as Richard did, and then leave the political scene. It’s hard to criticize politicians who are also friends (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan became for me). But Cramer’s appreciation of these politicians’ skill and humanity became an example I tried to follow in subsequent campaigns, a crucial antidote to the wall-to-wall ugly that corrodes the political process. (Thus, in 2012, it was  important for me to write about the incredible strength of Rick Santorum’s family, even if I disagreed with him on almost everything.)

Cramer’s clear-eyed fairness is a quality badly needed now. A new generation of journalists, without the time or budgets to get to know the people who would lead us–and a new generation of politicians, burned by the gotcha TV reporting  and tweeting of the moment (and over-protected by their handlers)–have taken the juice and joy, and a larger accuracy, out of political journalism. There are exceptions. But if you don’t know Mitt Romney, and all he’s willing to say in public is pablum and baloney, it is extremely easy to assume the worst. The hardest story for any young political journalist to write is a positive one about a politician.

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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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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.

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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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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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I was delighted to hear that Dorothy Day took a further step towards being declared a saint recently, when the US bishops engaged in a formal consultation about her cause for canonisation at their annual general assembly.

She is already a ‘Servant of God’, which means that the Vatican has agreed that there are no objections to her cause moving forward; and the unanimous vote of the American bishops in her favour gives this movement even greater momentum.

Fr Thomas Rosica, of Salt and Light, writes about her life:

Dorothy Day’s story captivated me as a young high school student and I have never forgotten her. I met her once at a rally in Rochester, New York, along with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. She is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times. She transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words.

Born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, Dorothy was neither baptized nor raised in the church. After dropping out of college in 1916, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labour unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes in the values and institutions of society, Dorothy converted to the Catholic Church and the radicalism of Christian love.

Her life was filled with friendships with famous artists and writers. At the same time she experienced failed love affairs, a marriage and a suicide attempt. The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter, Tamar in 1926. After an earlier abortion, Dorothy had desperately wanted to get pregnant. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God.

For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper, all dependent entirely upon donations. She dedicated her life fighting for justice for the homeless in New York City and was co-founder the Catholic Worker Movement. Seventy-five houses of hospitality were established during her lifetime, where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, the sick cared for, and the dead buried.

She was put in jail, for the first time, at the age of 20 while marching in support of women’s suffrage. She was put in jail, for the last time, at the age of 75 while marching in support of the United Farm Workers. She was an avid peacemaker and a prolific author. Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, thirty-two years ago at Maryhouse in New York City, where she spent her final months among the poor. She was an average person who read her bible and tried to live and to love like Jesus. She challenges each of us to take seriously the message of the gospel.

In March 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York City, formally announced the opening of the Beatification Process for this great woman of faith, calling Dorothy a Servant of God. In his letter, he wrote: ‘It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint – not a ‘gingerbread’ saint or a ‘holy card’ saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.

Rosica makes a special point about the particular way that Day’s life speaks to us today.

First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. Her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.

Dorothy Day’s life is a model for each one of us who seeks to understand, love, teach and defend the Catholic faith in our day. She procured an abortion before her conversion to the faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life.

May this prophetic woman of our own time give us courage to defend our Catholic faith, especially to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb.

DorothyDay, please continue to inspire us. Teach us to love the Word of God and live by it. Move us. Shake us up. Show us how to cherish the gift of human life. May we never forget that we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us. Lead us to love the poor in our midst. Pray for us!

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I’m near the end of Robert Harris’s early novel Enigmaabout the World War II code breaking operation at Bletchley Park. I’ve stayed with it, but it’s not one of his best. As a thriller, it’s too clunky; the romance is unbelievable; and he doesn’t give you enough geeky detail about the machines or the codes to make them half-comprehensible without doing some extra research. So if you want a historical thriller by Harris I’d recommend Fatherland or Archangel, both of which play with counter-factual history: what if Hitler had won the war, what if Stalin…I won’t say any more!

And this morning I read that they have just discovered a coded message in a Surrey fireplace that was probably on its way to Bletchley Park but never got delivered. It was filed in a small red capsule and attached to a carrier pigeon, sent from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasions. The poor bird possibly got lost or disoriented and stuck in the chimney. You can read the full report by Hannah Furness.

Here is the code, which hasn’t yet been broken:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ

WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

Isn’t it amazing that pigeons were a key part of the war efforts, in this case because there was a radio blackout for the D-Day invasions.

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believe the bird probably either got lost, disoriented in bad weather, or was simply exhausted after its trip across the Channel.

Due to Winston Churchill’s radio blackout, homing pigeons were taken on the D-Day invasion and released by Allied Forces to inform military Generals back on English soil how the operation was going.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “It’s a real mystery and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded. It really is unbelievable.”

It is thought that the bird was destined for the top-secret Bletchley Park, which was just 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home.

The message was sent to XO2 at 16:45. The destination X02 was believed to be Bomber Command, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

Experts said the spelling of Serjeant was significant, because the RAF used J, while the Army used G.

Pigeon enthusiasts – commonly known as “fanciers” – have called for Mr Martin’s mysterious military bird to be posthumously decorated with the Dickin Medal; the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

The dead pigeon was likely to be a member of the secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during the Second World War.

They can reach speeds of 80mph, cover distances of more than 1,000 miles and are thought to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.

Secret messages, unbreakable codes, privacy, encryption – it’s all as relevant today as it was in 1944.

As a child I used to love stories about messages being put into bottles on desert islands, cast onto the oceans, and picked up hundreds of miles away. It’s incredible that you make this connection instantaneously now with billions of people through an internet site, a blog post or a Facebook update. A tweet, in effect, is just a message scrawled on a desert island only without the bottle.

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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Following on from the Evian pro-life campaign in May, I saw an astonishing poster at Leicester Square tube this afternoon. In a single image, it manages to proclaim the humanity of the unborn child, the vulnerability of this child, and its utter dependence on the goodness of those adults in whose care it finds itself – and on the rest of society.

So there is the tag-line, superimposed on the pregnant mother’s tummy: “Her baby can’t ask you for help, but we can”. A pro-life charity couldn’t have designed a more effective advert.

I wonder if in some small way this will help to change people’s perceptions of the unborn child, to raise consciousness; or at least prod people to join the dots in their moral thinking: Why, as a society, do we want to put money and resources into helping vulnerable children in the womb, when at the same time we are taking away their lives through abortion? Whatever your moral view, it doesn’t make logical sense.

I’d never heard of Sparks, which is running the campaign. So I guess that makes it a successful campaign! It’s a charity ‘For children’s health’, and the vision statement at the top of the website reads, ‘Help more babies be born healthy’. Yes indeed!

You can see their website here. The Bump Campaign page is here. And all the other bump posters of pregnant mothers are here.

I’m not promoting the charity, because I don’t know what its attitude to abortion and selective screening is, or where the money actually goes. Here are the aims from the ‘about’ page:

As a leading children’s medical research charity we are dedicated to funding and championing pioneering research into a range of conditions affecting babies, children and mums-to-be.

Since 1991, we have committed over £23 million into pioneering research projects across a wide spectrum of medical conditions including childhood cancers, cerebral palsy, premature birth and spina bifida. In total, the charity has funded 233 research projects in more than 80 hospitals and universities across the UK.

Through the research we fund, we aim to improve the quality of life for children and families affected by serious illness or disability today, whilst seeking ways to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future.

The medical breakthroughs we make possible, make a difference not only across the UK but for thousands of children and families around the world.

The key phrase is: seeking “to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future”. Prevention, for many in the UK, means selective termination or embryo screening that results in the destruction of discarded embryos.

If anyone from Sparks ever reads this and can reassure me that the goals of the charity are strictly to help children with medical conditions and not to screen out unhealthy children, then I will be very happy to endorse them! I’m just being cautious because there is so much moral ambiguity in a lot of medical research today.

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I’d heard rumours about this, and it turns out it’s true: Buzz Aldrin celebrated a service of Holy Communion in the lunar module on 20th July 1969, before he and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon.

Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston. He received permission from the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly to administer Holy Communion to himself. I presume he took the ‘consecrated elements’ of bread and wine from a Communion service back home (and you can see that I am not sure about the Eucharistic terminology or theology of Webster Presbyterian Church!).

This is the message that he radioed to Nasa, as recorded in his book Magnificent Desolation:

I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.

And in an article for Guideposts magazine, he described what happened:

I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.

I take all this from a piece by Matthew Cresswell, who goes on to explain the fraught politics of the situation.

The story of the secret communion service only emerged after the mission. Aldrin had originally planned to share the event with the world over the radio. However, at the time Nasa was still reeling from a lawsuit filed by the firebrand atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, resulting in the ceremony never being broadcast. The founder of American Atheists and self-titled “most hated woman in America” had taken on Nasa, as well as many other public organisation. Most famously, she successfully fought mandatory school prayer and bible recitation in US public schools.

After the Apollo 8 crew had read out the Genesis creation account in orbit, O’Hair wanted a ban on Nasa astronauts practising religion on earth, in space or “around and about the moon” while on duty. She believed it violated the constitutional separation between church and state. In Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin explains how astronaut Deke Slayton, who ran the Apollo 11 flight crew operations, told him to tone down his lunar communiqué. “Go ahead and have communion, but keep your comments more general,” he advised [...]

O’Hair’s case against Nasa eventually fizzled out, but it dramatically changed the tone of the Apollo 11 landing. Aldrin had originally intended a much more pioneering Christopher Columbus-style ceremony on the moon. That was never to be.

But at Webster Presbyterian church – the spiritual home of many astronauts – Aldrin’s communion service is still celebrated every July, known as Lunar Communion Sunday. Pastor Helen DeLeon told me how they replay the tape of Aldrin on the moon and recite Psalm eight, which he had quoted on his return trip to Earth (“… what is man that thou art mindful of him”). The church still holds the chalice that Aldrin brought back with him. Judy Allton, a geologist and historian of Webster Presbyterian church, produced a paper, presented at a Nasa conference, arguing that communion could be an essential part of future manned space travel. She claims that rituals such as Aldrin’s communion “reinforce the homelink”.

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I was searching for information about the ‘population explosion’ and came across the Spiked campaign entitled “No to Neo-Malthusianism: Why We Oppose Population Control”. There is a string of articles exposing the prejudices and undermining the arguments of contemporary neo-Malthusians, many of them occasioned by the celebration at Spiked of the birth of Baby Seven Billion last year.

This article here by Brendan O’Neill is already three years old, but it’s a good summary of the alarmist arguments put forward by those who fear for the future of the planet and the future of humanity because of the population growth. And then, as you expect from O’Neill, a trenchant critique of their position.

First of all the facts (as they were in November 2009):

In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180 million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’ In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.

Well today, nearly 180 million people live in the Eastern Half of the United States alone, in the 26 states that lie to the east of the Mississippi River. And far from facing hunger or destitution, many of these people – especially the 1.7million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have quite nice lives.

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980 million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then ‘premature death would visit mankind’ – there would be food shortages, ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’, which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.

Well today, more than the entire world population of Malthus’s era now lives in China alone: there are 1.3billion human beings in China. And far from facing pestilence, plagues and starvation, the living standards of many Chinese have improved immensely over the past few decades. In 1949 life expectancy in China was 36.5 years; today it is 73.4 years. In 1978 China had 193 cities; today it has 655 cities. Over the past 30 years, China has raised a further 235 million of its citizens out of absolute poverty – a remarkable historic leap forward for humanity.

Then the general critique:

What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.

The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people’s living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement – not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.

Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’

There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn’t because they’re stupid… well, it might be a little bit because they’re stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind’s ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.

Then the analysis:

The first mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate how society can change to embrace more and more people. They make the schoolboy scientific error of imagining that population is the only variable, the only thing that grows and grows, while everything else – including society, progress and discovery – stays roughly the same. That is why Malthus was wrong: he thought an overpopulated planet would run out of food because he could not foresee how the industrial revolution would massively transform society and have an historic impact on how we produce and transport food and many other things. Population is not the only variable – mankind’s vision, growth, his ability to rethink and tackle problems: they are variables, too.

The second mistake Malthusians always make is to imagine that resources are fixed, finite things that will inevitably run out. They don’t recognise that what we consider to be a resource changes over time, depending on how advanced society is. That is why the Christian Tertullian was wrong in 200 AD when he said ‘the resources are scarcely adequate for us’. Because back then pretty much the only resources were animals, plants and various metals. Tertullian could not imagine that, in the future, the oceans, oil and uranium would become resources, too. The nature of resources changes as society changes – what we consider to be a resource today might not be one in the future, because other, better, more easily-exploited resources will hopefully be discovered or created. Today’s cult of the finite, the discussion of the planet as a larder of scarce resources that human beings are using up, really speaks to finite thinking, to a lack of future-oriented imagination.

And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.

So the population panic is rooted in bad sociology, bad science, and bad anthropology. And this is leaving aside the question of whether the world’s population will, in fact, keep increasing, or whether we are more likely to face a crisis of an imploding population over the next hundred years (e.g. see this article by David Brooks).

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Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton was on Desert Island Discs recently. You can listen here.

She was born with a degenerative condition and her parents were told she would not survive infancy. Now in her mid-fifties and a cross-bench peer, she’s spent her adult life campaigning for equality for disabled people and was one of the leading voices behind the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

There were some fascinating insights about living with a serious disability, and what it means for her as a person, and for society.

She was asked about the loss of privacy that comes through needing the help of a carer for everyday life. She said (I’m paraphrasing, and writing from memory) that privacy is not just about physical space, but much more about preserving your interior privacy – keeping that inner space you need for yourself, one that can never be taken from you, whatever is happening on the outside.

And then this got her speaking more generally about the experience of having a number of people over many years help her and care for her. It gives you an insight, she said, into what people are really like, much more than if you were on ‘equal’ terms with them in your physical abilities. You are ‘being cared for’, and someone is coming into your private space, but being in a position of ‘carer’ exposes not just you to them but also them to you in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in everyday society. You see the reality of the person they are through the way they treat you.

I’m reading into her comments a little more than she actually said, but I think it is justified. She was saying, in effect, that your lack of autonomy, which might seem to isolate you and put you at a distance from the autonomous development of relationships that usually takes place, in fact allows a degree of communion between persons, of vulnerability, insight and even intimacy, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You see more and share more because of the relationship of need and dependence. Autonomy isn’t the only way in which people can freely share their lives with each other and be brought into a profound relationship. Autonomy, in other words, doesn’t define you as a person.

Pope John Paul II touched on these questions in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[There is a] mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is “not to be used”? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others.

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection [...].

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. [Para 19]

And in the following paragraph [20] he continues:

This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.

Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.

In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

I’m not saying that Baroness Campbell would agree with all this – I’m just following my own train of thought from Desert Island Discs to Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely story that came across later in the programme was this: She said that as a child with a severe disability, nevertheless her parents loved her with an unconditional love, and never tired of telling her that she was beautiful; and this knowledge of their love and of her beauty has sustained her throughout her life and given her the courage and confidence to overcome the huge difficulties she has faced. I like the two sides of this, equally important but sometimes separated from each other: being loved by another – a subjective reality; and being beautiful – an objective or a transcendent reality. Your dignity, your worth, your goodness, your beauty: in the eyes of another (because they happen to be there), and in the eyes of God (because he made you to be who you are). For the common good, and for the rights of each individual, society needs both the subjective and the objective affirmations of human worth.

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People are still arguing about the root causes of the riots last summer, but no-one seems to deny that they reflect some kind of profound dysfunction or social malaise. You don’t loot a sports shop or set fire to a furniture warehouse just because you are bored or want a pair of new trainers.

I’ve just finished reading Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat. I found it terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure. Terror at the realisation that this violent underworld is an ordinary part of so much contemporary urban life. Heartache at the suffering and alienation of the teenagers whose lives are documented here.

It reads like a thriller, and it’s packaged under the label ‘True Crime’, but it’s really a piece of investigative journalism. Knight spent two years ‘embedded’ with the police, talking to social workers, interviewing gang members and disaffected teenagers – slowly building up a picture of life on the margins of British society. The book is written as a non-fiction novel. It speaks about real experiences and real people, in their own voices; although many names have been changed, and one or two characters are cleverly created composites.

Here is the blurb:

In Moss Side, Manchester, detective Anders Svensson is on the trail of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow, a man so dangerous his type is said to appear only once in a decade. Among the bleak housing estates of Glasgow, where teenage boys engage in deadly territorial knife fights every Saturday night, police analyst Karen McCluskey is on a mission to bring a new understanding to the most violent city in Europe. And in Hackney, 19-year-old Pilgrim has made himself one of the most feared gang-members in East London, wanted for attempted murder and seemingly condemned to a life of crime – until he starts to help kids like Troll, a Somali child-soldier turned enforcer, who runs drugs through the Havelock Estate in Southall . . .

In Hood Rat these narratives interlock to create a fast-moving experience of a contemporary British underworld that ranks with Roberto Saviano’s bestselling Gomorrah. Gavin Knight was embedded with frontline police units and has spent years with his contacts; here he tells their stories with sharp observation and empathy.

Knight has been criticised for his style (present tense narrative; short sentences; jumping between viewpoints), for the lack of social context, and for the fact that this kind of ‘factional’ documentary writing is more fictional than it cares to admit (the composite characters, etc) – see these thoughtful reviews from the Guardian and the Scotsman. None of this ruins it for me: I like the urgency of the style; I think the aim is not first of all social context but seeing the reality of individual lives, and then drawing some wider conclusions from that; and he is honest about the creative element in the writing. It doesn’t take away from the authenticity.

It’s been more than a good read or an eye opener for me; it’s disturbed something deeper inside me. It’s made me see how naive I am about the reality of day-to-day life for many young people and families in my own city, and in other cities around the country. And it’s made me wonder what on earth can heal this kind of social disintegration, and what can help the ordinary families trapped in these cycles of dysfunction and despair. There is very little hope in the book, despite the last chapter about pioneering work from Boston to help deal with gang crime in Glasgow.

Andrew Anthony gives you a taste of what the book is about:

Throughout history, young men have fought senseless territorial battles, but over the past two decades Britain has seen an alarming growth in lethal youth gang violence. Stories of drive-by shootings and teen killings, once thought of as distantly American, now arrive with dispiriting regularity from our own inner cities.

In the majority of cases the perpetrators are male and black (as are their victims) and almost without exception they are products of dysfunctional backgrounds with poor expectations and limited education. Often the most reliable employment for young urban Britons is the illicit drug economy, with all its inflationary brutality and social corrosion.

But once these bald facts have been established, where can the story go? There are arguments to be made about reforming drug laws, improving housing, raising educational standards and fostering a stronger sense of social inclusion. But what can be said of the gang members themselves, their core values and codes of behaviour, that doesn’t simply rehash gangsta rap cliches?

Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat is an unflinching account of life and death in the sink estates of Britain. It penetrates environments that most of us only glimpse in local news reports, and addresses the kind of people that we fear encountering on a dark night or, indeed, a bright afternoon. The question is, does it amount to genuine insight?

The book contains plenty of shocking anecdotes but few if any surprises. Anyone, for example, who followed the recent case of Santra Gayle, the north London 15-year-old who was hired to kill a stranger for £200, will be aware of the phenomenon of teenage hitmen. That’s no reason not to look deeper into the circumstances and motivations that lead adolescents to become assassins, but Knight seems less concerned with depth than focus.

He writes in an elliptical, impressionistic style, jumping around, stealing into the minds of young men and their police pursuers (we’re given access to a drug dealer’s concerns, a hitman’s internal monologue, a cop’s marital crisis). The book strives for a kind of urgent authenticity. The sentences are short and simple and framed in a relentless present tense that makes few compromises to chronology.

Knight is at his strongest in offering a gang member’s eye-view of the world, the sense of danger a street in the wrong postcode represents, the need to present a confident front, and the self-glorifying yet self-nullifying acceptance that career prospects are a choice between prison and death.

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Since my previous post about China, this came in from John Allen about the ‘war on religion’ that is underway in many countries. HIs first two examples are Chinese:

  • Fr. Joseph Zhao Hongchun, apostolic administrator of the Chinese diocese of Harbin, was taken into police custody July 4 to prevent him from galvanizing opposition to the illicit ordination of a new Harbin bishop orchestrated by the government. He was detained for three days and released only after the ordination took place.
  • New auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai was placed under house arrest in a seminary after he publicly resigned from the government-controlled “Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics” during his ordination Mass on July 7, which took place with the pope’s blessing.
  • Rev. Kantharaj Hanumanthappa, a Pentecostal pastor in the Indian state of Karnataka, was leading a prayer service July 4 when 20 radical Hindus stormed in to accuse the Christians of proselytizing, threatening them if they didn’t leave. A police complaint was filed, but no action has been taken.
  • The private home of Pastor Ramgopal, a Pentecostal minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was raided by police allied with the Hindu radicals. The pastor was reportedly told, “Either you go away and never come back or we’ll arrest you.” He was released only after signing a statement promising not to lead any more prayer services in the area.
  • A Catholic priest in Vietnam, Fr. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc, was attacked by plainclothes police and thugs reportedly paid $25 a head to raid a missionary chapel in a rural area July 1. Their aim was to prevent the celebration of a Mass, part of what local Catholics describe as a policy of “religious cleansing” imposed by Hanoi. When the priest tried to make his way through the mob, he was beaten up, along with several laity who came to his rescue. Maria Thi Than Ngho, one of those laity, suffered a fractured skull in the melee. As of this writing, she remains in critical condition.
  • Abdubannob Ahmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Uzbekistan, saw his four-year prison term for “illegal religious activities” extended for another 30 months for alleged violations of prison rules.
  • Yelena Kim, a Baptist in Uzbekistan arrested in late June for “illegally teaching religion,” is now looking at three years behind bars after police raided her home and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and other religious materials.
  • Ghulam Abbas, a mentally disabled man in a region of Punjab under Pakistani control, was thrown into jail July 3 after rumors spread that he had burned some pages from a Quran. Before any investigation or trial could take place, a Muslim extremist mob stormed the jail, dragged Abbas from his cell and burned him alive. According to local observers, it’s at least the 35th extra-judicial murder to take place following an arrest under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws since 1986.

Deep thanks go to the Asia News service for bringing us these stories, which otherwise would be almost totally overlooked.

See the Asia News site here.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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