The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Temporarily Normal

So, while la Caterina and I were visiting her family for Thanksgiving this past week, my brother-in-law, who is an extremely skilled Doctor of Optometry, gave me a very thorough eye exam, with some good news--my myopia is slightly reduced this year. Then we went to find glasses. As he watched me peer with my suit-inch focal length into the mirrors, he had an inspiration. He whisked me to the back, popped two contact lenses in that corrected for my myopia (though not my double vision and astigmatism), and took me back out to look at frames.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, I saw the world in full focus, without an apparatus hanging from my ears and weighing down my face.

What an extraordinary sight! To be so in touch the world without my normal mediating specs and without the normal feeling of vulnerability and disorientation that I take for granted! To see, direct--well, at least it felt direct.

We all see through lenses, after all, if only those of our eyes, our characters, and our preconceptions.

But for just a moment, I was sighted more like than the norm than I have been since I can clearly remember.

How nice to visit that world. And yet how clearly I can see with my apparatus. In another time and place, I would be that disoriented blinking mole all the time.

In short, life, as it is, has much to commend it. Even in all of its imperfections.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Anglocat in the Pulpit Redux: Advent Sermonizing

So, as the new deacon at St Bartholomew's Church, I'm getting two chances to preach in Advent. First, on the Second Sunday of Advent, I'll be preaching at the 9:00 AM (Corrected, thanks to Claude Scales in comments) and the 5:00 pm services.

The readings for that day are a trifle dark, combining anticipation with a little dread: "the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?"

Who indeed?

I have to admit, the minute I was invited to preach and looked up the readings, my favorite passage from Shakespeare popped into my mind:
If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all.
So that will be the leitmotif of my first sermon.

Second, on Christmas Eve, I'll be participating in all the services (!), but preaching at the 12:00 p.m., with my good friend Rev. Lynn Sanders presiding. It's a tremendous honor to preach at the first of St. Barts' Christmas Eve services (followed by the pageant at 4, the Choral Eucharist (the Christ-mass) at 7 and then again, but with incense and extra brio, at 11 pm).

Keep me in your prayers and/or c'mon by!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Cost of Fear

Back in the day when we had aspirations--1883, to be precise--a lady named Emma Lazarus wrote a poem titled "The New Colossus" that you might have seen somewhere:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Well, those were the days.

Look, I get that there are legitimate security concerns that accompany the acceptance of refugees from a horrific civil war caused, in part, by the destabilization of the Middle East that has inexorably spread since we invaded Iraq and let loose long pent-up rivalries and hatreds, despite the efforts of two otherwise diametrically opposed administrations to tamp them back down. We should have a serious, measured discussion about what we can and should do, But let's face facts, folks: the heat and posturing of this debate isn't coming from legitimate security concerns.

It's coming from fear, in the wake of the horrific attacks on Paris last Friday.

Fear of the other, fear of being hurt again, as we were 14 years ago.

I get that last one. Believe me, I do. Two of my closest friends were out and about that day, and I came back to my old neighborhood to see a gigantic hole where a large part of it had once been. I still find reminders--most recently, a cardboard bookmark from the Borders bookshop that had been shattered and shuttered by the fall of the towers fell on my lap as I reread a novel I didn't even remember I had bought there. I'm sure that there are lots of little land mines like that in my library, and that I'll run across them over the years.

So, I get the fear bit. But we have often gone down this road. As long ago as 1927, Louis D. Brandeis had to remind us in the wake of the first Red Scare that "Men feared witches and burnt women." It was fear--fear of security lost at Pearl Harbor, and of the Other--that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans en masse.

We never learn, do we?

We'd better try, though. Because if we're not the new Colossus, we're on our way to becoming Ozymandias.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"There's No point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes."

Ah, well. It's been--hard to believe it--more than 30 years since I attended my one sci-fi convention, back in my high school days.

That is, my one until this past weekend, when I took my nephew and niece to LI Who 3, my second sci-fi convention, but my first Doctor Who convention. Really. Yes, I'm a geek, but until this past weekend, I had been fairly private one. Other than writing periodic posts here, and that sort of thing.

So, what was it like, you ask?

Like family reunion, in a way. We all compared notes, discussed favorite episodes, complimented the cosplayers--a wave of Seventh Doctors (mostly female), a striking Missy, and a Third Doctor who had made himself absolutely stunning replicas of 5 of the 7 Inverness capes worn by Jon Pertwee in his run as the Third Doctor. I mean, professional quality made Inverness capes.

Not to mention the original Tenth Planet Cybermen, a quite convincing Ten, a near-perfect Inqusitor, a brace of Two, and a stylish First Doctor.

Oh, and this chap:

I met Charlene, the woman who made him, just as I came in. He's made the rounds and is showing it a bit, but the level of detail and the love that went into his creation is touching--especially if you saw Charlene operating the controls and making the Dalek speak as children clustered around--well, they loved the Dalekk, even the younger ones who were a bit scared, and Charlene knew just when to surprise them.

The fan-led panels were fun--my favorite was "The People v. Steven Moffat" led by the afore-mentioned missy (so say something nice!) where Moffat was "indicted" for bad writing (acquitted), sexism (convicted, with a recommendation for clemency based on the prisoner's efforts to reform in recent years), and disrespect for canon (appropriately enough, the Scottish verdict: Not Proven).

But, of course, the guests. Ian McNeice complimented my watch chain (no, I wasn't cosplaying, as McNeice guessed, I just generally wear a pocket watch), and gave me his favorite Churchillian encouragement: "KBO--means keep buggering on..."

Let me tell you, running into an elegant Janet Fielding, and hearing about her career as an agent (she was at the Oscars when Peter Capaldi won), was an experience. Brisk, friendly, a bit sly in her humor. I later attended an interview with her, and she talked about the show, her career both behind and in front of the camera, and about Project Motorhouse, her charity which aims to buy "Ramsgate’s derelict West Cliff Hall and Gardens (aka the old motor museum). . . to transform the site overlooking Ramsgate port into three state of the art cinemas, a flexible theatre, an outdoor theatre/cinema, a restaurant/bar, a cafĂ©, a gallery, a function room and offices." She smiled slyly when she acknowledged using her illness several years ago to get the Doctor Who family to throw two conventions to raise funds for the project, noting that "cancer makes for good emotional blackmail" (told you she was a high-powered agent!). But she was visibly moved when she told how the cast, crew and fans rallied to the cause; "Doctor Who really came through for me then," she said. Being Janet Fielding, when a questioner from the asked her about A Fix With Sontarans, she explained the Jimmy Saville scandal, and described her horror when she found out about it. When I watched the show as it aired in the 1980s, my favorite companion of the Baker-Davison-Baker-McCoy eras was Tegan; Janet Fielding more than lives up to her "Brave heart" character.

Katy Manning, likewise, is charming, warm and deceptively ditzy on the surface. She's not, in fact, ditzy at all, as far as I can tell. She's enthusiastic, fizzes like champagne, and a marvelous storyteller of the David Niven style, regaling the audience with a shaggy dog story based on her extreme myopia and her never wearing her glasses for public appearances when she was a young actress. I can't do justice in print, but it involved her needing to fix her makeup, darting too a series of arch-framed mirrors, and getting closer and closer--only to touch noses with a diner at a fashionable hotel in which the event she was attending was held.

I went to meet Katy--if she can take a liberty, so can I--and her warmth and kindness to this superannuated fan attending his first proper convention were notable. We chatted, she teased, we talked (she passionately defending Jo Grant as a character), and we took a picture together. As she was leaving, she made sure to thank all the convention staff in the room. Not perfunctorily, but at length. She had raised the emotional temperature in the room appreciably.

I've left the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, and Daphne Ashbrook for last. On the two panels I saw him do, McGann was wryly funny, charming, self-deprecating, and frank. I met him very briefly at the very beginning of the convention, and he was friendly, welcoming, and kind. At the end, after his final interview, he tapped my nephew on the shoulder in a friendly manner as he walked by.

"Hey," Paul McGann greeted my awestruck nephew, with an infectious grin.


So what was it like, overall? In a way,a bit much. Excessive, surely? Grown ups in costume over an extended weekend? Passionate debates over TV trivia--do not confuse your Inquisitor with Chancellor Flavia, I advise you.

But it's a bit much in a really good way. On a weekend that was torn by violence in Paris, I spent some time among people devoted to a program whose ethos is "Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in." And that had, just the week before, devoted its climax to revealing the weakness that underlies the very thinking that fuels the monstrous acts we human beings commit in the name of the highest causes we can find:

My time was not wasted. I was, with my nephew and niece, celebrating the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.

Next year, Sylvester McCoy will be the guest of honor. And McGann hinted he might come back. Hmmm....

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Let Zygons Be Zygons": The Light and the Dark

"Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder."

--The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, by John Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class)

Jack Tanner is, of course, fictitious. But his creator, G. Bernard Shaw was no fool, and was a dedicated Socialist; his pragmatism and gradualist socialism pervades the manifesto he wrote for Tanner. Unlike the fictional Jack Tanner, however, Jack Grahamis a tad more utopian, resulting in a sweeping condemnation of Doctor Who's handling of the The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, more in ideological grounds than on aesthetic:
The story is as thematically unstable as a Zygon. It declares itself to be about ISIS. Then declares itself to be about ‘immigration’. The story also brings in the issue of revolution. This is entirely extraneous and unforced, and a matter of ideological choice. There was no need to bring in this topic. Consciously or not, the concept/theme of revolution was imported into the story and associated with ISIS.

“We have a Zygon revolution on our hands” someone says. Naturally, a revolution is portrayed as about the worst thing imaginable. And, also naturally, a revolution is the action of a minority. Even as the story falls over itself to disavow any possible Islamophobic interpretation, as it goes to great pains to make all the right noises about how the extremists are in a minority, it also therefore paints revolution as the fanatical, illegitimate actions of an unrepresentative clique.. . .

“Then we will die in the fire rather than living in chains,” says Bonnie. This is supposed to terrify us. These are the words of a fanatic. The story takes it for granted that such rhetoric is insincere and chilling. I find it wonderful. This is the kind of political statement almost designed to make me cheer… except that, in this context, it has been given to the standard villainous revolutionary of bourgeois ideology: cynical, nihilistic, cruel, callous, fanatical.


Thus, as always, the collective mind of bourgeois civilisation forgets its own crimes and congratulates itself (inaccurately) on solving the very problems it caused in the first place.

All the same, I refuse to disapprove of, or disavow, anyone who says “we will die in the fire rather than living in chains”. Never.

People have praised the Doctor’s great speech at the end of the second episode. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever hated the Doctor more than at that moment. Reject the cycle of violence, says he, in favour of ‘forgiveness’. It is, of course, for the revolutionary to stop the cycle… the established power doesn’t have to because they want peace and forgiveness by definition. It is for the oppressed to forgive. The onus is on them. They must bear the burden of the greater moral responsibility. They must be the ones to prove their good intent, etc. Reluctance to do so is to be mocked as childishness, as a tantrum. As is the dream of Utopia (explicitly raised in order to be knocked down). It’s a childish dream because you haven’t got a plan. You need to have minutely detailed schematics and blueprints for the new society drawn up in advance before you can be taken seriously, before you can challenge the existence of the old – even if the old is killing you. Because the bourgeois imagination cannot handle the idea of actual freedom. Freedom, to bourgeois culture, is the freedom to be an atomised individual, a shopper, a voter, a taxpayer, a law-abiding citizen, one of the Zygons who just wants to live here and be left alone, etc. That’s the best there is in the impoverished, philistine bourgeois imagination. It can’t handle the idea of real freedom, radical freedom, freedom that doesn’t work like an RPG, freedom that’s more than the structurally circumscribed licence to move around inside pre-set limits. Even as it eternally chides the revolutionary for wanting just this, this is all it offers. Unless the revolutionary has those detailed schematics, then she is not to be taken seriously. She is just a dreamer, a utopian, a head-in-the-clouds fantasist, playing around with people’s lives for cynical, self-serving, self-deluding reasons. Of course, if the revolutionist does present you with the plans you demanded to see, you can then denounce her as wanting to force everyone to live the way she wants them to live.

“Sit down and talk,” says the Doctor. Oh marvellous. Why didn’t the Palestinians think of that!? Or the blacks in apartheid South Africa? Or the Kikuyu in British-dominated Kenya? Or the Herero and Namaqua in German-dominated Namibia? Or the Native Americans? Or the Congolese in Belgian-dominated Congo? Or the slaves in San Domingue? (I could go on.) Don’t fight! Don’t try to overthrow and chuck out your oppressors – just be reasonable, sit down and talk. After all, all ‘we’ ever want is a reasonable negotiating partner, right? ‘We’ always mean well and want peace, by definition. If only these truculent, trouble-making, zealous, fanatical rebels would calm down, stop causing the problems, and talk to us. I’m sure we could thrash out an equitable arrangement. A nice compromise – between the powerless and their oppressors.

(You might object that the extremist Zygon faction in the story doesn’t fit this model… they’re not particularly oppressed, they’re not natives, they’re ISIS in disguise, etc. But ‘The Zygon Inv’ chooses to tell this story that way. It chooses to invoke revolution against oppression and associate it with a thoroughly unsympathetic ISIS analogue who have no real claim to the moral high ground.)

Of course, in turns out that all revolutionaries need is a good talking to from a nice, liberal compromiser. Stand your revolution down, says the Doctor. And then he forgives them. I’m sorry but just who the hell is he to forgive them? Are we really so arrogant in our culture that we think it is for us to claim the role of father confessor to the rest of the world? Just how sick and twisted is it that an imperialist culture, drastically culpable in creating the turmoil that created ISIS, thinks it has the right to produce morality fables about war? Morality fables which, moreover, accord to us the moral high ground and the right to arbitrate, the right to preach about forgiveness, about the need to sit down and talk? Who the hell do we think we are that we get to absolve anyone?
This is the kind go polemic that gives leftism a bad name. Not because it takes Doctor Who seriously--I think the episode is trying to make a serious point, as I wrote yesterday, and a serious critique is an appropriate response. But it's a terrible critique, because it basically indicts the storyteller for not telling the story that the critic wants to hear, not for any falls in the story. Yes, Harness and Moffatt are using tropes to make the viewer uneasy--Kate Lethbridge Stewart has never been more like her father (She even preens a little while using his famous "Five rounds rapid" line), and never more dangerously wrong. She's the one who must have her memory wiped at the end, because Kate, for all of her wonderful qualities, can't be trusted with the knowledge that the Osgood boxes are dummies. Even Bonnie is more worthy of trust, the story tells us, than Kaye. Dear, funny, lovely Kate, who originally combined the best of her father and of Liz Shaw, but who in Death in Heaven tossed a Cyberman head at the Cyberleader, stood toe to toe with Missy, shanghaied the Doctor--hey, that wasn't very nice, was it? She coerced the Doctor into falling in her schemes, and, in defending the earth in each case, was more than prepared to commit genocide.

Just like her dear old Dad.

Don't be fooled by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, or by the revered and (rightly!) loved Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. They're not white hats; they're gray hats, willing to go to extremities to save the earth. They're Torchwood without the sex pests and with a lot more charm. And, it should be said, they are both incarnated by two fine actors who make you love the characters they play--but you don't have to, you know, and there's a strong case to be made against the Brigadier and his daughter if you take off the Sonic Rose Colored Glasses.

There's a reason Kate apologizes to the Doctor after she comes her Osgood Box. She's let him down, just as the Brig often did. Unlike her father, though, she was a scientist before she was a leader. Her failure to understand is more culpable, as Liz Shaw's would have been.

Bonnie's redemption is slower, but more complete. But again, here, Harness and Moffat complicate the story; the Zygons (unlike the Silurians) weren't an oppressed indigenous people; they were refugees, it is true, but refugees who decided to conquer a less advanced civilization and live off its remnants. They were the aggressors.

The people of earth, represented by Kate, responded with generosity on the Day of the Doctor, largely because Kate (but not Osgood) was plunged into a Rawlsian position behind the veil of ignorance. The Zygons, also behind the veil, settled for half a loaf, and peace broke out. A peace that the Zygons could end, but not without a terrible slaughter that they would almost certainly lose--there 20 million Zygons were slightly more than half the population of Tokyo alone. Bonnie was leading a suicide mission to start a suicide war, out of anger because her people were not dominant a planet that was not theirs alone. No, that swings too far against her; they wanted to live openly, she said, not assimilate. There was some traction to her claim, though not the imperative she felt, as witness the Zygon who had found his new home to be just that, home.

(The affinity Zygons seem to feel for the world views of those they "borrow"from may play a role here; Bonnie transitions easily into becoming Osgood, and shows a ruthlessness in Clara's body that Clara herself sometimes displays).

TL; DR: This is not a depiction of ISIS, or of the consequences of the Iraq War II; it's a parable. About peaceful revolution, about the horrors of war, about that marvelous exchange from C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark that I quoted a while back. Snow's stand-in Lewis Eliot, debates the balance of power in 1937 with a young Nazi:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
The Light and the Dark (first ed.), at pp. 148-149.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Doctor's Defining Moment

I know that writing about an episode of Doctor Who on Veteran's Day may seem a bit flip, but The Zygon Inversion has some important things to say about war, and the costs it exacts--costs that, in my lifetime, are normally borne by the veterans and their families and friends. The rest of us let them bear that burden for us. So, tangentially, the episode relates to the day.

I think this is one of the defining moments of Peter Capaldi's time as the Doctor, however long his run may be--and I hope for a long run, with this level of quality. That's because this speech is one that only Capaldi could do. Oh, we've seen moments last season and this that called on his talent--a flash of Malcolm Tucker in Time Heist, the epic speech in "Flatline", the reaction to Clara's betrayal of him in Dark Water, his searing encounters with Julian Bleach's Davros--but this is the first time Capaldi had to leave it all on the field. This is the first time they've called on the man who played Randall Brown, or Dr. Pete in The Field of Blood:

But back to The Zygon Inversion. Watch it again Look how many efforts he makes to reach Bonnie and Kate--he mocks them, American huckster-style, he roars, he pleads (sounding for a moment like Sylvester McCoy trying to reason with the Master in Survival), he shares his own pain and self-loathing--and here we get a flash of Tucker again--not the "Iago with a Blackberry" we all laugh with or at, but the exhausted, drained man, who denounces the hypocrisy of the system that served him up as a scapegoat in just the same way he has served so many others.

Without any disrespect for the remarkable actors who have played the Doctor, this scene is written for Capaldi's range, his passion, his fire--and his weariness. I genuinely cannot see any other actor who ever played the part doing this speech anywhere near as well.

And I want more of this. The Capaldi Era is in full swing now; he, Moffat, Peter Harness--and, let's add, Jenna Coleman and Jemma Redgrave--have raised the bar very high indeed.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Help the Anglocat: A Question of Ecclesiology

Right, dear friends and readers, I'm going to ask for some clarification, especially from the Roman Catholics among you. Now, as a former member of the Roman Catholic Church ("RCC" for short here), I had a pretty good grounding in the Church: Four years with the Marianists, three with the Jesuits, and having read both the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917 and the Code of Canon Law (1983) to write a peer-reviewed article on the role of canon law in the RCC sex abuse crisis, I don't think I'm a dunce on these matters.

But--that doesn't mean I know it all. So, let me ask you to be my reality check. In an echo of this post, I expressed surprise at the ease with which SoCon members of the RCC felt free to dismiss the very pope they demanded liberals obey a few years back, only to receive the reply, "For the eleventy-billionth time, Popes are themselves bound by Tradition and Canon Law."

Now, I have to admit, i don't believe this to be correct as a matter of Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges that precedes the 1983 Code of Canon Law describes the promulgation of Code itself as “an expression pontifical authority, and is therefore invested with a primatial character.” The Code itself states that it abrogates customs (traditions) that are contrary to its terms unless they are immemorial *and* tolerable in the judgment of the ordinary *and* cannot be removed due to circumstances. (Canon 5.) Section 331 of the Code states that "The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely." Succeeding canons (332-335) make clear that the Pope has power “not only over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular groups of churches and groups of them.” (Canon 333 S 1). He is in communionn with bishops, but he has the right to determine how to exercise his office. (Id., S 2) “No appeal or recourse is permitted over a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.” (Id., S 3). The next section provides that "Bishops assist the Roman Pontiff in exercising his office. They are able to render him cooperative assistance in various ways, among which is the synod of bishops. The cardinals also assist him, as do other persons and various institutes according to the needs of the times. In his name and by his authority, all these persons and institutes fulfill the function entrusted to them for the good of all the churches, according to the norms defined by law."

This is consistent with the old (but well researched) Catholic Encyclopedia, which describes the authority as “plenary” allowing him to bind and loose in individual cases or in general, annulling his own laws or those of his predecessors, with or without the assistance of a council:
Whatsoever thou shalt bind . . . Whatsoever thou shalt loose"; nothing is withheld. Further, Peter's authority is subordinated to no earthly superior. The sentences which he gives are to be forthwith ratified in heaven. They do not need the antecedent approval of any other tribunal. He is independent of all save the Master who appointed him. The words as to the power of binding and loosing are, therefore, elucidatory of the promise of the keys which immediately precedes. They explain in what sense Peter is governor and head of Christ's kingdom, the Church, by promising him legislative and judicial authority in the fullest sense. In other words, Peter and his successors have power to impose laws both preceptive and prohibitive, power likewise to grant dispensation from these laws, and, when needful, to annul them. It is theirs to judge offences against the laws, to impose and to remit penalties. This judicial authority will even include the power to pardon sin. For sin is a breach of the laws of the supernatural kingdom, and falls under the cognizance of its constituted judges. The gift of this particular power, however, is not expressed with full clearness in this passage. It needed Christ's words (John 20:23) to remove all ambiguity. Further, since the Church is the kingdom of the truth, so that an essential note in all her members is the act of submission by which they accept the doctrine of Christ in its entirety, supreme power in this kingdom carries with it a supreme magisterium — authority to declare that doctrine and to prescribe a rule of faith obligatory on all. Here, too, Peter is subordinated to none save his Master alone; he is the supreme teacher as he is the supreme ruler. However, the tremendous powers thus conferred are limited in their scope by their reference to the ends of the kingdom and to them only. The authority of Peter and his successors does not extend beyond this sphere. With matters that are altogether extrinsic to the Church they are not concerned.


As the supreme teacher of the Church, whose it is to prescribe what is to be believed by all the faithful, and to take measures for the preservation and the propagation of the faith, the following are the rights which pertain to the pope:

it is his to set forth creeds, and to determine when and by whom an explicit profession of faith shall be made (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. 24, cc. 1 and 12);
it is his to prescribe and to command books for the religious instruction of the faithful; thus, for example, Clement XIII has recommended the Roman Catechism to all the bishops.
The pope alone can establish a university, possessing the status and privileges of a canonically erected Catholic university;
to him also belongs the direction of Catholic missions throughout the world; this charge is fulfilled through the Congregation of the Propaganda.
It is his to prohibit the reading of such books as are injurious to faith or morals, and to determine the conditions on which certain classes of books may be issued by Catholics;
his is the condemnation of given propositions as being either heretical or deserving of some minor degree of censure, and lastly
he has the right to interpret authentically the natural law. Thus, it is his to say what is lawful or unlawful in regard to social and family life, in regard to the practice of usury, etc.


The legislative power of the pope carries with it the following rights:

he can legislate for the whole Church, with or without the assistance of a general council;
if he legislates with the aid of a council it is his to convoke it, to preside, to direct its deliberations, to confirm its acts.
He has full authority to interpret, alter, and abrogate both his own laws and those established by his predecessors. He has the same plenitude of power as they enjoyed, and stands in the same relation to their laws as to those which he himself has decreed;
he can dispense individuals from the obligation of all purely ecclesiastical laws, and can grant privileges and exemptions in their regard.
In this connection may be mentioned his power to dispense from vows where the greater glory of God renders it desirable. Considerable powers of dispensation are granted to bishops, and, in a restricted measure, also to priests; but there are some vows reserved altogether to the Holy See.
Now, leave aside whether you, gentle readers, or I, agree with this model of the papacy or not. It certainly accords with the medieval research I did, and with the Code as quoted above. But is there something I've missed, some limitation that curbs the powers of the Pope?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Richard Hooker's Day

Today the Episcopal Church celebrates Richard Hooker, who did so much to theologize the Elizabethan Settlement--proving that good policy can make good (canon) law. I think it safe to say that much Anglican theology is explicating the themes of Hooker's writing--the defense of variety in political and ecclesiastical structures as "things indifferent" to the Faith, but rather dependent on local need and culture, is the dawn of the local episcopate central to world-wide Anglicanism to this day. His classic Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity were directed at refuting the Puritans who would disrupt the Elizabethan Settlement, and tried to point out to them the fact that the reason holds its place in assenting to the structure of the church, but that the issues that cause division are seldom those upon which the Faith depends:
The first mean whereby nature teacheth men to judge good from evil, as well in laws as in other things, is the force of their own discretion. Hereunto therefore St. Paul referreth oftentimes his own speech, to be considered of by them that heard him.By what means so many of the people are trained unto the liking of that discipline. “I speak as to them which have understanding, judge ye what I say1.” Again afterward, “Judge in yourselves, is it comely that a woman pray uncovered2?” The exercise of this kind of judgment our Saviour requireth in the Jews3. In them of Berea the Scripture commendeth it4. Finally, whatsoever we do, if our own secret judgment consent not unto it as fit and good to be done, the doing of it to us is sin, although the thing itself be allowable. St. Paul’s rule therefore generally is, “Let every man in his own mind be fully persuaded of that thing which he either alloweth or doth5.”
[2.]Some things are so familiar and plain, that truth from falsehood, and good from evil, is most easily discerned in them, even by men of no deep capacity. And of that nature, for the most part, are things absolutely unto all men’s salvation recessary, either to be held or denied, either to be done or avoided. For which cause St. Augustine6 acknowledgeth, that they are not only set down, but also plainly set down in Scripture; so that he which heareth or readeth may without any great difficulty understand. Other things also there are belonging (though in a lower degree of importance) unto the offices of Christian men: which, because they are more obscure, more intricate and hard to be judged of, therefore God hath appointed some to spend their whole time principally in the study of things divine, to the end that in these more doubtful cases their understanding might be a light to direct others. “If the understanding power or faculty of the soul be” (saith the [144] grand physician1) “like unto bodily sight, not of equal sharpness in all, what can be more convenient than that, even as the dark-sighted man is directed by the clear about things visible;Preface, Ch. iii. 3. so likewise in matters of deeper discourse the wise in heart do shew the simple where his way lieth?” In our doubtful cases of law, what man is there who seeth not how requisite it is that professors of skill in that faculty be our directors? So it is in all other kinds of knowledge. And even in this kind likewise the Lord hath himself appointed, that “the priest’s lips should preserve knowledge, and that other men should seek the truth at his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts2.” Gregory Nazianzen, offended at the people’s too great presumption in controlling the judgment of them to whom in such cases they should have rather submitted their own, seeketh by earnest entreaty to stay them within their bounds: “Presume not ye that are sheep to make yourselves guides of them that should guide you; neither seek ye to overskip the fold which they about you have pitched. It sufficeth for your part, if ye can well frame yourselves to be ordered. Take not upon you to judge your judges, nor to make them subject to your laws who should be a law to you; for God is not a God of sedition and confusion, but of order and of peace3.”
Now, note that this is not, taken in context, a counsel of blind obedience, but rather of humility--do we know enough to be the judge in a recondite or difficult matter? Or are we, with only fitful attention, setting up ourselves as higher authority than our knowledge can bear, and thereby rending the fabric of the Church on "things indifferent" to salvation?

Hooker's tone is gentle, for the most part but he has shafts of insight that are not just illuminating; they can be a trifle barbed. Here he is describing the certitude of the puritan that Scripture must bear the meaning for which they contend:
These are the paths wherein ye have walked that are of the ordinary sort of men; these are the very steps ye have trodden, and the manifest degrees whereby ye are of your guides and directors trained up in that school: a custom of inuring your ears with reproof of faults especially in your governors; an use to attribute those faults to the kind of spiritual regiment under which ye live; boldness in warranting the force of their discipline for the cure of all such evils; a slight of framing your conceits to imagine that Scripture every where favoureth that discipline; persuasion that the cause why ye find it in Scripture is the illumination of the Spirit, that the same Spirit is a seal unto you of your nearness unto God, that ye are by all means to nourish and witness it in yourselves, and to strengthen on every side your minds against whatsoever might be of force to withdraw you from it.
Hooker's work is important for both theology and jurisprudence, and, although a definitive modern edition has been been published, I still use my old 1875 copy of John Keble's edition--with a smattering of clippings about Hooker and other works pasted into the volume by a prior owner. I love the connection of Hooker and Keble, and honor them both. The Folger Books are expensive, but I have got a copy of the commentary volumes.

I hope to study Hooker in greater depth in 2016 (was 2015--I'd like to write something about his presence in the DNA of Anglicanism that won't be a cliche, if I can.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The SoCon Inquisition

Yeah, I had to. Sorry. But, c'mon, Ross Douthat's pompously titled "Letter to the Catholic Academy"begs for it:
MY dear professors!
I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.

I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke.


So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church, over whether to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion and what that change would mean. In this division, the pope clearly inclines toward the liberalizing view and has consistently maneuvered to advance it. At the recent synod, he was dealt a modest but genuine setback by conservatives.

And then to this description, I’ve added my own provoking view: Within the framework of Catholic tradition, the conservatives have by far the better of the argument.

First, because if the church admits the remarried to communion without an annulment — while also instituting an expedited, no-fault process for getting an annulment, as the pope is poised to do — the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is “indissoluble” would become an empty signifier.

Second, because changing the church’s teaching on marriage in this way would unweave the larger Catholic view of sexuality, sin and the sacraments — severing confession’s relationship to communion, and giving cohabitation, same-sex unions and polygamy entirely reasonable claims to be accepted by the church.

Now this is, as you note, merely a columnist’s opinion. So I have listened carefully when credentialed theologians make the liberalizing case. What I have heard are three main claims. The first is that the changes being debated would be merely “pastoral” rather than “doctrinal,” and that so long as the church continues to say that marriage is indissoluble, nothing revolutionary will have transpired.

But this seems rather like claiming that China has not, in fact, undergone a market revolution because it’s still governed by self-described Marxists. No: In politics and religion alike, a doctrine emptied in practice is actually emptied, whatever official rhetoric suggests.

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.


So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.
Um, where to start? Well, let's begin with the substance, taking the high ground for once.

Douthat's claim that the allowing of divorced Catholics to reunion with the Church would strip the doctrine of the indissoluble nature of marriage of all content, and empty it doctrinally? As a threshold matter, this observation is made in ignorance of the boom in both numbers of annulments petitioned for and percentage granted after the enactment of the 1984 Code of Canon Law--according to Dr. Edward Peters, a first-rate scholar who deplores the trend, in 1996 95% of applications for annulments that reached tribunals were granted. Dr. Peters notes that, when you correct for those cases that never reach a tribunal, for one reason or another, 80% is the more globally correct figure. Dr. Peters notes that the grounds for annulments burgeoned in the 1983 Code promulgated under John Paul II in comparison to the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code, which facilitated the expansion (which was, he notes, already under way.) Still, it seems fair to say that the "indissolubility of marriage" is not all too difficult to address in the Roman Catholic Church--good standing is a matter of using the Church's legal system, not that of secular society. (A familiar theme, no?)

And Douthat's notion that the "reformers" are "effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality" which "certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift," is likewise counterfactual. Let's consult the Gospel According to St. Matthew, in the Douay-Rheims American version, a Roman Catholic translation, in which Jesus says: "And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery." Jesus's teaching in Luke is stricter tan that in Matthew, and he was, it is well understood, rebuking a tradition of allowing divorce for trivial reasons that left women vulnerable. My point is not to argue that the Roman Catholic Church has no grounds to argue that divorce is not a sin, a "missing of the mark," a failure of a commitment from which much was hoped. My point is that the Gospel's are not univocal on the subject, and that Douthat's blithe assumption that it is does not comport with either scripture or the practice of his own Church.

More to the point, the notion that unless a sin is unforgivable--that is, there is no path back to good standing within the community and reception of the sacraments--the prohibition is "emptied" of content is both spectacularly unscriptural and places marital breakdown as a sin worse than all other sins, absent any compelling justification.

To scripture first. Jesus says, in Matthew 12:31: "Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." So, no, we have no scriptural warrant for declaring that marital breakdown is the unforgivable sin. Lots of other sinful behavior that cannot be undone is nonetheless absolved, and the offender reconciled--the Church's mercy can extend, should it choose, to the divorced, without changing the doctrine. Indeed, that's the basis for the Orthodox Church's teaching, in which remarriage after divorce is permitted. (In a rather bizarre bit of tribal over theological loyalty, here's Rod Dreher, himself a convert from Catholicism, cheering on Douthat, for vowing a civil war to prevent Dreher's former church from adapting the position of his current church. Even ecumenicism must fall before the great maxim of SoCons" Liberals must lose. Seriously--unless Dreher feels his new church is wrong on the issue, and is looking for somewhere else to go.)

I won't, having belabored the matter at such length, spend much time on the condescending tone--My dear professors," indeed. I will only allude briefly to the grandiosity--a "Letter to the Catholic Academy"--I hope he doesn't expect this to be read along with King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but I'm not taking any bets. No, what I'll point out is that this young Catholic convert only believes in papal authority--after all, it was the pope he named as the lead "plotter"--when he agrees with the decision at hand. He has no interest in a hierarchical church that isn't enforcing his, Ross Douthat's, personal vision of the faith. Which, effectively, boils down to a sexual purity code, with no room for mercy or the redemptive love of Christ. Note that Douthat at no time names what the heresy he deplores is--he cries "heresy" without identification of a doctrine denied, or of a creedal statement contradicted.

Douthat isn't a Catholic. He's a Puritan iconoclast, looking for a high-level heretic to hunt (and who higher than the Pope himself?), and, if he's really lucky, a witch to burn.

How perfect that his mewling little battle cry was published on Halloween.