The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thomas a Becket

Today, December 29, is the anniversary of the murder of Thomas a Becket, perhaps at the orders of King Henry II, certainly to the great relief of that most protean and impetuous of Kings. As I wrote two years ago (crikey!):
Imagine my surprise when, years later, I found out that one of the most pressing grounds for the conflict between Becket and Henrywas the treatment of "criminous clergy" who committed offenses against the laity; in the face of years of inaction by the ecclesiastical authorities, Henry wanted the right to try such clerics in the secular courts.

There was much more to it than that, of course. The real Thomas Becket may have been headstrong and arrogant, but he was also seeking to preserve the institution of the Church as it was entrusted to him, and to resist a King who was re-making the political institutions of his day and centralizing power in the King's person.

As to Becket's murder, the King's role in it has always been sharply disputed--the authenticity and meaning of the infamous quotation, "will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" have been debated for centuries. (An excellent account is contained in W.L. Warren's biography, Henry II).

Regardless of the merits of their dispute, there's no denying that the story of Becket has given rise to much great art. My personal favorite is the admittedly ahistorical play by Jean Anouilh, brilliantly filmed with Richard Burton as Becket, and Peter O'Toole as Henry:

Great though the movie is, it does considerably less than justice to either Henry (who fought a civil war to a standstill to become King) and Becket himself.

And, of course, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is a great favorite of mine since Fordham College (thanks, Dr. Antush!), and one which combined great insight into human nature and into theology. For me, the lines that hit home most are the scenes between Becket and his Tempters. So, the Fourth Tempter offers him the power of martyrdom:
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose : bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:
Becket sees this trap, and responds:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance?

This Times Magazine profile of Catholic Natural Law expert Robert P. George highlights my fundamental inability to understand relate to much of conservative Christian thought. George, widely regarded as " the reigning brain of the Christian right," (it took, of course, the rise of women's rights and the concomitant legalization of abortion to overcome the distaste many evangelicals have long held for "popery"), has successfully urged that fellow conservatives, especially RC bishops should narrow their focus:
He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.
Or in other words, fulminate, enact moral standards into law, but on poverty and justice issues--just empathize. This is utterly opposed to what a good friend of mine, a Deacon in the Episcopal Church calls "trench theology." And he has pretty good warrant for it, too. The Daily Office reading for Saturday, the same day I get the NYT Magazine? Matthew 25: 31-46:
31 'When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." 37Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" 40And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."a 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." 44Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" 45Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.'
The moral disjunction here seems pretty straightforward to me. George seems all too eager to focus attention that matters onto policing the morals not just of his co-religionists, but of his fellow citizens.

And George, who is a follower in his Natural Law beliefs of Aristotle and Aquinas, surely knows that Aristotle believed abortion to be permissible in the first three months of pregnancy and that Aquinas did not believe abortion was homicide until "ensoulment," post-conception, and that indeed the Roman Catholic Church itself did not hold his position until the early 19th Century. Thus, George is in the somewhat odd position of arguing that his position is the universal objective truth to be obtained by reason, despite the fact that neither of his two leading lights of Natural Law reasoning held the same position. Thus, we should adopt Aristotle and Aquinas's philosophical framework, but their specific failure to reach objective truth as George would have it does not undermine its universal quality. Yep. All clear and self evident. Meanwhile, on the actual Gospel imperatives? Nothing. Or rather, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Back to Barchester

The summer before I started college, I first read Anthony Trollope's The Warden and its sequel, Barchester Towers. Its depiction of Nineteenth Century clerical life was a delight to me, and the depth of the character-drawing made me a fan for life. (Still am!)

At the time, I somehow missed the BBC's adaptation of the two novels. Viewing it now, it holds up quite well--Donald Pleasence captures the goodness and naive quality of the Rev. Septimus Harding,and endows him with a gentle, pawky sense of humor; Nigel Hawthorne is funny and credible as his choleric son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, and a young Alan Rickman is superb as the slippery Mr. Slope. The women are excellent, too; Susan Hampshire is positively delicious as the charming but naughty Signorina Madeline Vesey Nata Stanhope, and And Geraldine McEwan shines as Mrs. Proudie, the bishop's domineering wife.

Trollope is unique in English literature, in that he can make the goodness and gentle good humor of Mr. Harding credible, and not cloying. (CP Snow thought that only Dostoevsky made goodness more believable). Admirable though Rev. Harding is, I regret that I often am more like the Archdeacon--quick-tempered if well meaning.

Enjoy, but be careful--one trip to Barchester is never enough, and there are four more novels after these. And, then, of course, there are the the Pallisers:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Abp. Williams and the Untempered Schism

I think Cantaur is lining up with the traditionalists. At least, unless the Telegraph has it seriously wrong:
Dr Williams has admonished the Episcopal Church (again) for another provocative act in deepening Anglican schism. “It confirms the feeling that they’re moving further from the Anglican consensus,” he tells me. Can there ever be a consensus in which biblical traditionalists can be in communion with homosexual bishops? The man who has committed his archbishopric to unity pauses: “I’m not holding my breath.”
However, he does, if tepidly, finally get around to condemning the Ugandan legislation:
And there are those who seek to make a moral equivalence between Los Angeles and Kampala, asking why the Archbishop upbraids the Episcopalians while failing to condemn the Ugandans. Added to which, some American traditionalists have markedly failed to condemn the Ugandan proposals.

“Overall, the proposed legislation is of shocking severity and I can’t see how it could be supported by any Anglican who is committed to what the Communion has said in recent decades,” says Dr Williams. “Apart from invoking the death penalty, it makes pastoral care impossible – it seeks to turn pastors into informers.” He adds that the Anglican Church in Uganda opposes the death penalty but, tellingly, he notes that its archbishop, Henry Orombi, who boycotted the Lambeth Conference last year, “has not taken a position on this bill”.
Not much in the way of comfort here on the part of TEC and our sympathizers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pockets, E.D. Just Pockets

"Most of Jesus's parables were free market parables...:

As E.D. Kain writes (linked above):
It just strikes me as a remarkable example of how absurd the conservative movement really has become. (There are so many examples but this brings them all under one roof.)

….or has it always been this way?  Have the intellectual pockets of conservatism always been just that – merely pockets?

Watching Schlafly try to reconcile free markets and Christianity is just sad. It’s exactly why thoughtful proponents of free markets run into such jaded and hostile reactions from people on the other side of the fence. I think Christianity and free markets are reconcilable but only with the addition of some form of safety-net-state. The Christian Democrats understand this concept over in Europe.  Americans like Schlafly think Jesus was the first coming of Milton Friedman.

It just makes me throw my hands up in the air. I try too hard to retain the word “conservative” – to hold on to some other sense of its meaning, some other definition that the American right has no hold over. I have great admiration for the paleocons, but I would never really fit in even with that idiosyncratic bunch. I’ve tried to come to terms with the idea that the movement can be changed for the better but I’m beginning to doubt myself even there. The invention of the modern Tea Party only reveals how deep the fraud runs.

Or, tp put it more succinctly, this is not a faithful adaptation of the Gospels, although the denouement captures the GOP view of Christianity pretty neatly:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Curse of the Grand Tufti

Well, here we go again. After persistently holding only one side--the Episcopal Church--accountable in the widening schism, even though we are in fact the only "side" that has observed the moratoria requested until now--Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is threatening consequences to TEC if it approves the Diocese of Los Angeles' selection of Mary Glaspool as Suffragen Bishop. Williams' comment:"The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold."

Meanwhile, Archbishop Williams remains utterly silent on the violations of the moratoria by more conservative provinces making geographical incursions into TEC's jurisdiction and on the utter failure of these churches to participate in the so-called "listening process" to hear the concerns of gays and lesbians. (It's all here). Moreover, Williams has been for two months silent on the ghastly proposed Ugandan legislation which seeks a death sentence for "aggravated homosexuality," and prison sentences for all--parents and priests included--who become aware of a person's homosexuality, and fail to expeditiously report it to the government. Notably, this legislation is fostered by American right-wingers, a fact noted by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in her denunciation of the legislation.

Abp. Williams managed to denounce the selection of a lesbian suffragen within a day; the persecution of gays and lesbians with support (albeit equivocal) from the Anglican Church of Uganda does not rate a mention. Sadly, this is typical of Rowan, as I observed in the links at the beginning of the post. He should remember that for the bonds of mutual affection to hold, he needs to be seen as someone worthy of our affection. I for one doubt this proposition, and am more and more inclining to welcome the impending schism.