Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Distant Mirror, An Approaching Drum

I feel strongly called to the Cornerstone Forum work that awaits, but for the time being I only seem able to move in the direction of that work in company with Liz, who is these days ever on my mind and in my heart. It is now clear to me that Liz will be as much a part of my work in the future as she has been in the past. Again -- with apologies for an analogue that is both overworked and utterly presumptuous -- I think of Dante and Beatrice. I am certainly no Dante (you may have noticed), but Beatrice Portinari was almost certainly no Liz Bailie either; so it works out ... sort of.

By Easter I hope to have recovered from Liz's death enough to limit to a bare minimum the highly personal entries to this weblog that I posted during the last weeks of her life and since her death. In the "meantime," however, I ask your indulgence. This weblog entry represents a movement in that direction, albeit one that began with a reminiscence about my life with Liz and only became a more typical "reflection on faith and culture" almost by accident.

I was recently looking through some photographs, and I came upon a few from a trip Liz and I took to Ireland a few years ago. While we were there we visited the ruins of the great Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise, a monastery which was founded in the 6th century and survived repeated attacks until it was finally destroyed in the 16th century. It was a poignant visit, not least because, for some odd reason, we were virtually alone that day. We had the place largely to ourselves.

The ruins of the ancient monastery of Clonmacnoise
with the River Shannon in the background

Here's Liz, a monastic at heart,
trying to imagine monastic life a thousand years ago

Here's how one source summarizes the long history of Clonmacnoise:
The monastic settlement has seen many violent and destructive periods in its history and was destroyed by fire at least 13 times. It was attacked approximately 40 times from the 8th. to the 12th. century . . . 8 times by the Vikings; 6 times by the Anglo Normans and 26 times by the Irish. Each time the Monks rebuilt.

In 1552 it was finally reduced to ruin by the English garrison in Athlone and from that time onwards there were no monasteries in Ireland for almost 300 hundred years.
One thinks of the lines from Philip Larkin's Church Going:
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky . . .
Today there are powerful forces at work -- internal and external to Western culture -- which would do to Christianity's cultural foothold in the West what the successive waves of barbarians tried to do to Clonmacnoise, and what the English armies finally succeeded in doing in the mid-16th century. It is worth noting that what the barbarians were unable to do to Western monasticism, the Westerners themselves accomplished. In 16th century Ireland and in the contemporary West, it may be that the gravest threat to Christianity comes from its antagonists within Western culture. The overt violence which destroyed the monasteries on the British isles in the 16th century is still in use by fanatical jihadists, but their hyper-modern secular counterparts in the West have yet to work themselves up into a comparable frenzy. (They eventually may.) For the time being at least, they employ a more subtle but so far extremely effective method.

It was purely coincidental that as I was reminiscing about our visit to Clonmacnoise (the photos are on the hard drive of my computer), a story from Ireland and England dropped into my in-box.

The story concerned a report just issued by the British Joint Committee on Human Rights urging that the Sexual Orientation Regulations now in force in Northern Ireland be adopted for England, Wales and Scotland. In recommending the extension of the SOR, the Joint Committee acknowledged that under the regulations Christian schools would no longer be allowed to teach children that the Christian view on human sexuality is "objectively true."

Hum ...

Pontius Pilate became the patron saint of postmodernity by cynically asking, "What is truth?" Fretting about "objective truth" has certainly not been postmodern secularism's strong suit. Why the sudden interest in it?

Is it "objectively true" that abortion is a moral evil? Is it "objectively true" that adultery is a sin? Is it "objectively true" that Christ rose from the dead? Is it "objectively true" that postmodern relativism is becoming dictatorial? Is it "objectively true" that the nuptial embrace and this or that form of homosexual coupling are morally indistinguishable?

The real question is: Can Christians continue to teach Christian morality or not? If not, why not? The "objectively true" business is a ruse.

If asked for "objective" data, the Christian view of human sexuality can appeal to a massive mountain of biological, psychological, anatomical, physiological and anthropological corroboration. On the other side of the scale ... what? Twenty-five years or so of ideologically tainted wishful thinking. "Objectively true" indeed.

The relevant portion of the JCHR report reads as follows:
Regulations prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination should clearly apply to the curriculum, so that homosexual pupils are not subjected to teaching, as part of the religious education or other curriculum, that their sexual orientation is sinful or morally wrong.
This last comment is either dishonest or the product of culpable ignorance. I can't say what others teach, but the Catholic Church does not teach that sexual "orientation is sinful or morally wrong," however rhetorically dubious and philosophically slippery the term "orientation" might be. On the contrary, the Catholic Catechism makes the distinction between impulses and acts perfectly clear:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. [§2358]
But it would be a grave mistake to think that this proposed regulation is simply about homosexuality. It may well be a striking example of the growing intolerance of those who rode into town on the (Trojan) horse of tolerance and diversity, but it is far more than that. It is perhaps the most serious erosion to date of the principle of religious freedom, which is arguably the political centerpiece of Western culture.

"The British example is not a special case," writes David Frum. "What is being done there today will be demanded here tomorrow."

If and when it is, then the Christians who send their children to Christian schools will be legally forbidden to have their children instructed in the traditional Christian moral principles, the inculcation of which may well have been their reason for sending them to these schools in the first place. This is what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called the "dictatorship of relativism" a few weeks before he was elected pope.

"When you decide to extend your nondiscrimination principles to behavior condemned by your society's majority religion," writes Frum, "you are embarking on a course that will sooner or later require the state to police, control, and punish adherents of that religion."

The squeeze is on.

G. K. Chesterton:
The one argument that used to be urged for our creedless vagueness was that at least it saved us from fanaticism. But it does not even do that. On the contrary, it creates and renews fanaticism with a force quite peculiar to itself.

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