The Death Penalty: ‘You shall have no gods’

It is not quite the case that our age is becoming less religious. Rather religions at once newer and older than the Abrahamic are taking hold of us. Take the religion of America. America is one of the gods, one of the infantile power-brokers from which God has redeemed us (or will redeem us, if we will but let him). America is perforce local. It has its totems and rites – witness the ceremonial around the flag. Crucially, however, and here its idolatrous pseudo-deity is most clearly seen, it demands death. Unlike the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who stays the knife above Isaac, America demands blood sacrifice as the price of social peace: freedom isn’t free, so offer up your young in war; the commandments of America must reign, so the power to kill criminals must be preserved – thus the ritual of capital punishment.

We are told in the Decalogue that we cannot follow the gods, since God has set us free. The death dealing cults that consign us to perpetual bargaining with a volatile deity for control of our little bits of reality are revealed as the sham that they are. We are left face to face with the unconditional Love of the God who wills simply that we flourish. And because we are ashamed we often prefer to run back to the gods. Hence those Catholics who try to sustain a dual allegiance to the God and Father of Jesus and to America. The reaction to the Pope’s clear teaching on capital punishment, taking aim as it does at a cornerstone of the cult of the nation-state, the supposed right to take life, has unsettled this unsustainable dual allegiance. And in so doing he is simply forcing the choice with which God has always presented his people,

 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.



Holy, Holy, Holy, though the darkness hide thee

Herbert McCabe once remarked that we do not have feasts of doctrines (he was talking on this occasion about the feast of the Immaculate Conception). That is worth bearing in mind concerning the feast which began at vespers this evening. This is not the feast of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

This is the day on which we worship the God we always worship, the deeply mysterious creator and redeemer of all that is, but do so particularly attentive to the way in which that God has reached out and saved us, and so revealed something of his mysterious life. Above all on this feast we recognise and give thanks for the missions of the Son and the Spirit in our world – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of Pentecost – and we acknowledge, in awe, that because in these missions God is communicated, and because God is no deceiver,  in how God has made this saving communication of himself to us we must see the truth about how God is in himself.



This, of course, does not make God any less mysterious. It is not as though God was hidden for millenia, but then the Incarnation and Pentecost came along and we got a sneaky look into God’s inner life. We do not, as Thomas insists in introducing the third question of the Summa, know what God is. What we do know is that, whatever God is, that is what we encounter in Jesus and the Spirit, as we are drawn by their work towards the one Jesus called ‘Father’. The mystery remains, but through the Word spoken eternally and uttered in time through Jesus, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, it becomes our mystery.

And that is not some obscure bookish add on to the gospel. It is no excuse for Father to duck out of preaching in favour of the parish deacon. It need not move us to reach for the heretical shamrock metaphor, shamefully attributed to poor old St Patrick. Our participation in the love of God’s utter mystery, flowing from that mystery’s work two thousand years ago in Palestine, and the ongoing sending of the Word and the Spirit in the Church and the world today – that is the gospel. And the proper response is worship

‘Male and Female’ : must do better

Sexual difference, of which the difference between male and female human beings is an instance, is of theological significance, and is not simply a product of social construction or individual choice. I agree with that previous sentence, as do swathes of Catholics across the spectrum of positions ranging from von Balthasaar devotees through to probably most feminist theologians. If it is saying anything important or controversial enough to need ecclesiastical reinforcement, which is to be doubted, the Vatican could have simply have asserted the first sentence of this blogpost (I waive copyright if they want to follow me up on this). As it happens that sentence summarises the coherent content that is to be extracted from “Male and Female: he created them“.

The damage, however, is done by the incoherent bits of the document, by what is hinted at, condemned without being fully understood, asserted on the basis of inadequate justification. And these are not merely intellectual failings. The result is a document that will cause hurt and confusion among some of the Church’s most vulnerable members. It risks, especially in a culture in which the media will amplify and distort the already damaging content, pushing people away from the Church. The whole document deserves the response “Sed contra: ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.’ “


Don’t suppose that I am saying that the Church should conform itself to modish opinion, or that it should never make moral judgements for fear of people walking away. As an orthodox Catholic I take neither of these views, and whilst I wish that these kind of considerations were more often brought to bear on questions of, say, wealth and poverty or war, I think that Christian faith has implications for human sexuality and that it falls within the remit of the magisterium to teach on this. As it happens I think that Male and Female: he created them makes no useful contribution – it is a hasty, ill-argued, under-informed contribution on deep topics a proper ecclesial response to which would require years of prayer, accompaniment, dialogue, and simply living out the life of the Church in a world that poses new questions.

Even if that were wrong, however, tone matters. The Church doesn’t teach things simply to make people better informed. It does so as part of its mission to draw the creation into fellowship with God, in response to God’s love for us. ‘Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’. Truth and love are one for God, and our speaking of the truth must be loving. That means that we do not speak in a way which singles out those who are already vulnerable and persecuted (following Christ in Galilee, they can only be singled out as the privileged recipients of the Kingdom), it means that we don’t adopt a high-minded tone, blustering our way to condemn all of the world’s faults, and it means that we take the views of those with whom we disagree seriously. Compare the care Aquinas takes to answer Jewish, Muslim, and pagan thinkers, as well as his Christian interlocutors, in the Summa with the Vatican’s attitude towards what it calls ‘gender theory’.

Gender Theory

This point really needs emphasising, since the language of gender theory is leaking into some Catholic vernaculars. The Vatican’s use of ‘gender theory’ in Male and Female and elsewhere does not pick out either a consistent doctrine or an idea signed up to by any living human being. At different points gender theory seems to be the idea that:

(a) gender is a property we have in virtue of social structures, in virtue of which we are subject to role expectations on the basis of our sex. Gender ought to be abolished.

elsewhere, it is more like,

(b) gender is a feature all human beings have, it can come apart from our biological sex. Peoples’ gender ought to be affirmed (and each person’s view of their own gender ought to be accepted).

Now (a) and (b) stand in stark practical contradiction, and it is difficult to imagine that anyone who hasn’t lived in a cave without wi-fi for the past decade having not noticed the battles within feminism and elsewhere over which is correct. Nor do (a) and (b) quite exhaust the field of ‘gender theory’. One imagines Judith Butler falling within the Vatican’s intended remit, but she in fact expresses scepticism about the sex-gender distinction. (In a bizarre, and rare, case of horseshoe theory being correct, this in fact is a point of agreement between her and Male and Female).

Bundling all these things together as ‘gender theory’ serves no useful purpose. It is a failure of comprehension of the most basic kind. Amalgamating as it does any view other than a traditional patriarchal one, it looks designed to funnel thought about gender and sexuality down an ultra-conservative path one imagines to be unattractive to the present Pope.

We need to do better on this stuff. And there is a ready resource available. The Catholic Church has thousands of theologians who work on questions around feminism and sexuality. Many of those are women, a group (if one can call half the human race a group) which the Pope has – rightly – spoken about the need to hear. Well, here’s an opportunity.

The Catholic ‘and’

It was Karl Barth‘s birthday last week, and I was reminded (by a Facebook friend) of this passage from Barth:

The greatest obstacle to reunion between Protestants and Catholics is a little word which the Catholic Church adds after nearly every one of our Protestant affirmations. It is the little word ‘and.’ When we say Jesus, Catholics say ‘Jesus and Mary.’ We seek to obey Christ, our only Lord: Catholics obey Christ and his Vicar on earth, the Pope. We believe the Christian is saved through the merits of Jesus Christ. Catholics add, ‘and our own merits,’ that is, because of works. We believe the sole source of Revelation is scripture. Catholics add ‘and Tradition.’ We say knowledge of God is obtained by faith in His word expressed in scripture. Catholics add ‘and by reason.’

I think this is basically right, and captures something important about what it is to be a Christian in the Catholic tradition. Of course there are things the Catholic can, and should, say in response to Barth, by way of narrowing the ground which causes the ongoing scandal of Christian disunity – we do not look to Christ and Mary in a way which nullifies the distinction between the redeemer and the redeemed; we do not value faith and reason as though they were somehow on a par (we can believe by faith what we could have known by reason; there is no converse), and so on. Nevertheless there is something about the Catholic tradition which refuses false dichotomies. Our instinct is to say ‘both… and… ‘


Or rather, ‘yes but’. A way of looking at the Catholic and is to see us as having a vocation to ask awkward questions, to push humankind past half truths, towards the fullness of vision. The ultimate false dichotomy, we might say, is that between humanity and God: God’s own ‘yes, but..’ to this was the Incarnation. More generally, our insistent ‘yes buts’ are grounded in a recognition that humankind and God are not in competition, since God is not a creature and cannot exclude our agency or freedom. So, we think, our rational minds working their hardest to arrive at truth are in no way threatened by God’s having spoken God’s word in history. We think similarly that our own actions being good in their own terms, and freely willed by us, is perfectly compatible with them being the occasions of divine grace. And so on.

Because of this, we find ourselves saying ‘yes, but…’ a lot. The fundamentalist who tells us that the Bible is God’s word is met with ‘yes, but, there are other ways of arriving at truth, and they are all gifts of the same God’. The secular activist who tells us of the importance of making the world better might hear a Catholic saying ‘yes (and we applaud that), but there is even more to God’s Kingdom than the most just society we can imagine’.

There is, of course, a danger here. There is the world of difference between the Catholic position and the perpetual deferring of opinion characteristic of both mediocre academics and the English middle class. ‘Yes, we have to displace an entire population from their ancestral home, but on the other hand there is a plentiful oil supply under that home’. A disgraceful example of this genre was provided by the Dean of Westminster Abbey who, in a sermon at a service to ‘acknowledge’ fifty years of Britain’s possessing weapons of mass destruction’ treated the supposedly Christian congregation to a public school style debate, agonising about the complex ethical issues. Reader, there are no complex ethical issues here – threatening to murder the innocent is a grave sin, and the only job of any Christian preacher in this context is to echo Sinai ‘you shall not kill’.

A difference between the Catholic and and the ‘on the other hand’ of the cynic or the pragmatist is that our qualifications and interjections are in the cause of truth, in particular that Truth concerning God which we believe to have been definitively revealed to Israel and in Christ. So there is an accountability to our questioning, an honesty. To the extent that we want to keep questions open (and sometimes we don’t – nuclear weapons are just wrong), this is not because we think there are nothing but grey areas, but rather because we are forced to admit that some truths can only be received as a gift, and that in God’s good time. Still, because we want to acknowledge God as God, and humanity as humanity, and respect the integrity of each, there are plenty of conversations in which we will find ourselves saying ‘yes, but…’






The kindness of God: the Petrine ministry and the Church’s neocons

It is the Easter season, so I might as well start by quoting John’s gospel,

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Here, in embryo, is the doctrine of the Petrine ministry, Christ’s gift to the Church of Peter and his successors. That doctrine needs reaffirming in the face of those theologians who have taken it upon themselves to suggest that Pope Francis is a heretic. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say how angry I am at this. Another version of this blog post would have begun with another quote from the Fourth Gospel, ‘The thief comes only to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. I’ll come back to the Open Letter signatories in a moment.


At this point in the gospel story, Peter is a mess.  He has shown himself to be utterly useless, and has betrayed Christ. This alone is enough to caution us against a kind of idolatry of the papacy. And yet, as is the way with God’s grace given in Christ, this pathetic specimen of a man is taken and used. The purpose for which he will be used is, in John’s richly textured language, to feed Christ’s sheep. Feeding is both what a parent does to a child, a tender, caring action. It is also feeding with the bread that is the Word of God, sharing that which was in the beginning with the Father, but has come to us as the Truth that sets us free. Now, in the usual course of things there might seem to be a tension between caring and teaching, between mercy and truth – certainly so-called ‘conservatives’ have accused Pope Francis of erring towards the former at the expense of the latter. Yet, the Church teaches as part of the faith, God is simple: there is no distinction between God’s mercy and God’s truth (which is just God’s knowledge of God’s self). And Jesus, the perfect self-communication of God in history, therefore reveals a truth which can only be manifest as love.

To be a Catholic, to be part of Christ’s flock in communion with Peter’s successor, is to be journeying into the fullness of truth, guided by the Spirit, pastored by Peter. No matter how clever one might be, as most of the signatories undoubtedly are, no matter how many books one has written, or how many honorary degrees one has acquired, the truth of God given in Jesus Christ, which is always a truth in the service of love and mercy, is always just that – a gift – and our preparedness to be taught by the fisherman is a sign of that. A sign, if you like, that we are not God, and that no matter how much von Balthasaar we have read, we can no more build a tower to heaven to bring the truth down to earth than could the people of Babel.

None of this means a Pope can’t be seriously wrong about the content of the faith. Perhaps the most famous example is John XXII, who denied that the human soul exists between death and the Final Resurrection. At the Church’s beginnings, Peter had contended with Paul about circumcision. The Church went with Paul. “When Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him”. And, against the lazy anti-Catholic prejudice which would have us all as automata, of course individual Catholics have particular opinions about and preferences concerning papacies: as it happens I an enthusiastic about both the present Pope and the Pope Emeritus, who I think in different but complimentary ways have spoken to the needs of the Church in a uniquely difficult context. I was far less keen on the showmanship and theology of John Paul II. Still, all of these are popes, and all of them have a particular role in the Church.

What is disgraceful about the Open Letter is that it invites its readers to a systematic suspicion of the Petrine ministry. In doing so, it not only encourages individual schism, it more generally promotes a way of being against what is part and parcel of being Catholic – listening to Peter, even when Peter is not to one’s taste, even when he is the ecclesiastical equivalent of an annoying relative at Christmas dinner. One sometimes, in the service of truth, has to disagree with the Pope. That can be done without playing ecclesiastical politics, without quite deliberately and publicly turning people against the occupant of Peter’s Chair, without telling people not to trust him. And certainly without calling him a heretic. There is an excellent take down of that outrageous claim here.

I also think it matters that the issue is marriage. The Pope, aware of the complexities of pastoral reality in a way the signatories of the Letter give no impression of being, quite obviously believes the Church’s teaching that marriage is a lifelong bond. He also believes that God’s universal love for all people constantly calls them into communion with him and one another. He understands that exclusion from the eucharist is hurtful (and against the kind of ecclesiastical neo-conservatism which might see this as a concession to ‘snowflakes’, we ought to insist that this hurt is real and ought to be taken with theological seriousness – it is born from a desire for the eucharist; in any case God wills to heal the whole human person, our feelings included). He is also aware of the elephant in the sacramental room – that it is probable that swathes of marriages celebrated in the modern West are capable of being declared null: how hard is it to intend to do what the Church does when it celebrates marriage in an age of pre-nuptial contracts? Now all of this is intensely difficult stuff. There is more than one way in which a pastoral response could be made. Reasonable and faithful Catholics disagree about what the best one might be. It is, however, not only slanderous to suggest that the Pope’s response in Amoris Laetitia is heretical, it is to not take seriously that the Petrine ministry, like all Christian ministry is one to be undertaken in the light of the Lord’s deep love for every human being.

That is, I think, why I am so angry. Love, in its human form, is often manifest as kindness, as a certain kind of mercy. The Pope is under fire for being kind. Those attacking him claim to serve truth. But no such distinction will be allowed at the Throne of the One for whom Love and Truth are one.

Ecce Agnus Dei: on the Blessed Sacrament being saved

One on the most remarkable stories around the tragic fire at Notre Dame is that of Pere Jean-Marc Fournier. Already a hero of the Bataclan massacre, the fire brigade chaplain entered the burning cathedral and rescued the relic of the Crown of Thorns. And the Blessed Sacrament.


In the reporting of Fr Fournier’s rescue, it is the relic that has been emphasised. This remains the case, perhaps surprisingly, in the Catholic Press. But I doubt this reflects how the priest himself sees things: the relic is a reminder of the Lord’s passion, the Sacrament is the Lord himself, present as our food. The one merely points to what the other is.

Already there’s a certain lesson: things are not always as they seem – against a certain horizon, what appear to be small pieces of bread matter infinitely more than priceless relics. Here in microcosm is the gospel which values the widow’s meager offering over the extravagances of the rich. The world is turned upside down, and God views history from the underside.

But more needs to be said. Because perhaps it is not obvious after all why the Blessed Sacrament ought to be rescued from a fire. It would be a superstitious view of the eucharist which worried that Jesus might somehow be harmed by damage to the Hosts. On the contrary, Aquinas’ sequence for the feast of Corpus Christi is clear:

They, who of Him here partake,
Sever not, nor rend, nor break:
But, entire, their Lord receive.

St Thomas has in mind here those partaking of Christ in communion – the Host being broken, individual Hosts being chewed. But the point transfers to burning Hosts. In no way is Christ, risen and glorified in heaven, sacramentally present on the Altar, diminished if the media of his sacramental presence are destroyed. His mode of presence in the sacrament just isn’t like that.

So why rescue the Blessed Sacrament? Out go all pragmatic and calculating considerations, out goes any thought of keeping Jesus safe (the risen Jesus does not need us to keep him safe – noli me tangere). The act can only be a superfluous one, performed out of sheer devotion, of witness to the Lord present in the eucharist. And that is why, I think, it deserves more attention than it has been getting. At a point of radical choice, faced with the threat of death, not subject to any need or obligation, this man declared himself for the eucharist and all that is contained in it – a life of divine love and service, culminating in the Cross, glorified in the Resurrection. That is as good an example of what evangelisation in the 21st century might look like as any that comes to my mind. Not least because, if the story of Fr Fournier’s rescue is told with proper emphasis, it is likely to invite the question ‘why?’

‘The vanished power of the usual reign’

Today Christians gather and remind ourselves of two things, that we are going to die and that we are sinners. “To dust you will return”, “turn away from sin”. There is a popular misconception about the Church, that it is a collection of people who think they are better than everyone else, superior and righteous. Of course Christians do often behave as though this were the case, but just to that extent they are failing to be the Church.

The truth is almost exactly the opposite, the Church is not a club for the sinless (there have only ever been two sinless human beings, and each of their relationships to the Church is unique). The starting point of Christian life is a recognition that one is a sinner amongst sinners, and that in spite of this, in divine indifference to it, we are loved by God. The imposition of ashes is witness to this shared reality of sin – we are all together caught up in the world’s falling short of God. The theme of solidarity in sin, that there is something corporate about our plight, is – I think – important. It was important to Paul, ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’. It is evident in the corporate reading of the Passion on Good Friday, where all present take the part of the jeering crowd, symbolically participating in the great sign of the world’s sin, Jesus’ crucifixion.

There is nothing remarkable about sin; all of us are in the same boat. Recognition of this shared reality etches away at the glamour of sin, whilst also pushing back against our self-hatred, our fear that we are somehow so much worse than anyone else. The truth is much more mundane, the whole human race is systematically in rebellion against God: this can manifest itself in grotesque ways, more often than not it works itself out tediously in our petty resentments and envies. Either way, God cannot be harmed or swayed from his eternal love by our wrongdoing. It is only our own rebellion which makes it seem as though we are unforgivable. God offers us not only forgiveness but a share in God’s life, freely and out of sheer love, quite apart from anything we do or deserve. Indeed so free is this gift that even our ability to accept it is God’s gracious gift (it’s a mistake of course to think that God’s grace makes something less free from our perspective).

If sin is corporate, then so is our redemption. I cannot be redeemed privately. To be forgiven by God is to become part of the story of humankind’s rejection of God and redemption in Jesus Christ. To recognise that I am a sinner along with everyone else is to recognise also that I hope to share the life of the Kingdom along with everyone else: we who once belonged to the kingdoms of the world, to the ways of being less than human which mean oppression, injustice, small-minded humanity turned in on itself, we now belong, already as a free gift, to the coming reign of God. And it is precisely because this is the story of everyone, the story of every human being, caught up in war with themselves in a world of injustice and hatred (as well as, of course, a world of great love and joy), that it is appropriate that the beginnings of redemption be lived out corporately, in the Catholic Church – which just is the sacrament of humankind on its way to God – in her ashes, and especially in the sacrament of reconciliation


Breaking the cycle of revenge

I think it’s a pretty sure that a good proposition of people who warmed to last week’s gospel didn’t like this week’s and vice versa. There is a temptation for people who warm to the social aspects of the gospel (in that horrible modern phrase, as though the gospel writers separated the social and, say, the theological) to like Luke’s Beatitudes, but to be put off by all this stuff about loving one’s enemies, and worse still, forgiving those who hurt us. Isn’t this a call to be reconciled over and above seeking justice? Haven’t the oppressed been called to forgive their oppressors?

Now, the fact that something has been misused is no good reason to reject it: a point which is often missed in the moralistic frenzy of contemporary social action is that the vulnerability  to misuse of something is indicative that there is something worthwhile about it. Evil, Thomas insists, is always parasitic upon some good.

Moralism, the way of life which consists in taking umbrage and dealing out petty punishments, shows us exactly why forgiveness has to be central to the kind of life which makes the Kingdom of God present even in this mess of a world. If one is always on the look out to accuse, always bearing grudges, the possibility of genuine shared living with others vanishes. Moreover, if one cannot look at others, in all their sinful inadequacy, and see them as beings who could be shown mercy, then one cannot do the same about oneself. The neurotic attempt to enforce codes, whether conservative or liberal, comes from a deep suspicion that one is not, oneself loveable. The life of the moralist, in other words, is just the life of Hell on earth. The good news is that this life is based on a lie, we are loveable, because one of us is God, loved with the eternal love with which the Father loves his only Son.

Still, we find forgiveness hard. At least part of this is that we have a mistaken picture of forgiveness, founded on a mistake picture of ourselves. We tend to think that forgiveness is first and foremost something that happens inside of us, a matter of feeling. (Even worse, we sometimes think that forgiveness must always involve a restoration of relationship – this idea really can be used to keep the abused with abusers etc.: theologically it represents the naively mistaken view that the reconciliation of the End Times can be a full reality here and now – it is so obviously harmful and wrong that I won’t bother saying more here).

We are afraid that we might be hypocrites if we speak words of forgiveness but don’t feel warm and fuzzy towards those who have hurt us. We worry that our heart might never quite be where our mouth is. Immediately, of course, we become sceptical about all forgiveness. Did so and so really forgive me? How do I know she meant it? Forgiveness, according to the compendium of wrongheadedness that is Wikipedia, involves ‘letting go of negative emotions’. What was, for the gospel writers, a sign of the coming of God’s Reign has become a form of DIY psychotherapy.

jesus forgiveness icon

The mistake here is one about meaning. Meaning is not something that happens inside my head, in some private place: as though words have to have meaning bestowed on them by some kind of mental magic. It is not the case that the authenticity of my words of forgiveness is contingent on me feeling the right way (a similar mistake about the words ‘I love you’ has caused a lot of misery). When the father of Stephen Lawrence forgave his son’s killers he did it just by saying the words ‘I forgive you’. Those words were public, observable, and contained in themselves the act of forgiveness. There could be no doubt about what had just happened, a man had forgiven his son’s killers. This, spoken words of forgiveness, and withdrawing from any attempt at retribution, is what forgiveness looks like. Feelings most often follow words, but some scars run too deep to be healed in this life. Still, that has nothing to do with forgiveness. The person who cannot bear the thought of, say, ever meeting their friend’s attacker again, is filled with disgust at the sight of seeing him, is not necessarily unforgiving. They are someone who loves their friend deeply, who is distraught at what happened, and is trying to live through the consequences as the kind of fragile, feeling, creature that we are.

We are called to forgive. I don’t think I’m particularly good at this myself. But there’s no use pretending that we’re called to anything other than radical forgiveness, forgiveness of the worst and most contemptible human beings, forgiveness of those who have caused us the deepest hurt, as we ourselves have been forgiven by the Father. Anything else is not the gospel. This would be a cause for despair if it wasn’t the case that our ability to forgive others, such as it is, is already the gift of God, the effect of charity poured out by the Father who comes out to meet his wayward children even as they seek to return to him.

Woe to the rich


Luke is my favourite gospel, not least because of the theme of justice for the poor and hungry which runs through its telling of the story of Jesus’ life (and continues into the story of the newborn church in Acts). It is Luke who has Mary sing about the hungry being fed and the mighty put down. It is Luke who has shepherds worship the newborn Jesus (the pious description ‘humble’ of these shepherds doesn’t really cut it in terms of the impoverished, unclean and uncouth outcasts the evangelist has in mind).

There is a great temptation to ‘spiritualise’ biblical passages dealing with poverty and riches, as though God were concerned solely with some ‘inner’ part of me (the part which will survive my death), but had delegated less sublime matters to Donald Trump and the FTSE100. This is a travesty of the Catholic faith and antithetical to biblical religion. The temptation to think this way, however, runs deep and is fed from central aspects of modern living. So think about the Beatitudes. Luke’s version was read at mass today. But what most people think of when they hear talk of the Beatitudes is Matthew’s version (from Ch. 5 of his gospel):

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

There is no real sense of the gospel involving conflict on the part of its followers here (admittedly they are going to be reviled and persecuted). Instead the ‘peacemakers’ are declared blessed. Crucially it is the ‘poor in spirit’, rather than ‘the poor’, who get a positive mention here. It is easy  for modern readers to hear these Beatitudes as communicating a depoliticised gospel, concerned with the inner and ‘spiritual’, and perhaps with being nice, making up with people (peacemaking). Nobody need feel threatened by such a gospel. Nor does this passage from Matthew condemn anyone. Were Matthew writing today, he would probably not have much to fear from the government’s Prevent strategy against religious extremism.

I ought to say, it is not Matthew’s fault that we moderns are so prone to read him in this way. No good Jew, as Matthew was, would have had any time for a division between the secular and spiritual. The ‘poor in spirit’ are the anawim of the Old Testament, the poor who wait for the Lord, who own their poverty as indicating their dependence on the God of Israel, continuing to hope for their coming redemption. But though their poverty is understood in relation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is real material poverty, the stuff of empty bellies and dashed hopes, for all that. Similarly, Matthew would have understood that God’s coming Kingdom, the reality of the ‘righteousness’ for which many hunger, was a this-worldly business. Nor is ‘peacemaking’ a woolly matter of shaking hands and agreeing to differ. It involves the radical transformation of the whole creation, such that the child may safely play in the adders’ nest, to use Isaiah’s image.

Still, we have to work to bring Matthew’s vision concerning poverty and peace back to this world from the ‘spiritual’ place to which modernity consigns religion. Luke is more blunt (in Ch. 6),

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

It is the poor (those in poverty) who get the Kingdom and the hungry (those with empty stomachs) who get fed. You have to try to spiritualise this passage (and of course people have tried). The meaning is plain: the Kingdom of God is coming among us when poverty is done away with, and when hunger is abolished. Worse still for the spiritualisers, we get woes. Luke, who also tells us the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a parable which promises damnation to those who oppress the poor, has Jesus curse the rich and the well-fed. Just as in the Magnificat, the world is to be turned upside down. And, with worldly pragmatism, Luke’s Jesus is aware that poverty and hunger are social phenomena based on exploitation – things cannot go better for their victims unless things go worse for those who benefit from them. Good news for the poor is bad news for the rich. (Of course, Catholic tradition would want to add – but people can repent of their past exploiting of others and receive the good news as genuinely that. This is right, but we shouldn’t add it too quickly. The discomforting of the comfortable is central to the message of Jesus, and of the prophets before him).

Luke and Matthew almost certainly had a shared source, a collection of Jesus’ sayings known by modern scholars as Q. It’s a interesting question whose Beatitudes are closer to that source, and whether each evangelist modified their source, and why. From a Catholic perspective, however, both sets of Beatitudes are canonical scripture, and in each of them we encounter the teaching of the Lord, now risen from the dead. At the present time, with the temptation for the Church to fit neatly into an unthreatening slot in the world very real, we have a particular need for Luke’s Beatitudes . The Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, growing in the world and made sacramentally present in the Church is good news for the poor. And that comes with a warning for those who benefit from the poor being poor.

And we ought to expect to meet confrontation when we say that. It would be strange if the powerful looked with nonchalance on their coming downfall. Just look at the present Pope, whose articulation of this theme has won him some vocal enemies from the White House to the college of cardinals (to avoid the blog equivalent of vaguebooking: the neo-Protestant Cardinal Mueller, who is presently placing his own conservative understanding of the faith over his communio in life and teaching with Peter’s successor is a prime example).

No abiding city

Theresa May once remarked that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere. Unlike those liberal commentators who reacted to this with outrage, I think that she was right. I cannot be committed to the kind of living together as a shared project which a philosopher like Aristotle would have had in mind when he talked about citizenship of a polis along with every human being on the face of the planet if I also owe my loyalty to a modern nation-state. The loyalty demanded by modern nation-states is ultimately absolute, it is loyalty-unto-death in war, which makes nationalism seem very much like a form of religion. Be that as it may, Theresa May is right. It’s just that I’d take the other fork of the dilemma: if I cannot serve both Britain and humankind, so much the worse for Britain. I don’t think that I have any choice in this matter as a Catholic. I belong, by my baptism, to a worldwide communion which anticipates sacramentally the coming Kingdom, the new Heaven and new Earth, in which people called ‘out of every nation’ live and worship in peace.

Something like this lay behind my astonished anger as I walked towards Westminster Cathedral this morning,


A Catholic cathedral flying the Union Flag! One of the great gifts of English Catholicism in recent centuries has been the un-English feel of the whole business. Pushed to the margins, perpetually under suspicion of being somehow foreign or disreputable, the English Church has been better placed to emulate the Galilean itinerant preacher than it would have been were it more acceptable in polite society. Invitations to society events and civic chaplaincies could be left to the Anglicans.

Not everybody is happy with this state of affairs. Whether rooted in romantic fantasies about the conversion of England (don’t get me wrong, I think the conversion of English people is an excellent thing, but countries cannot be converted, and when people talk as though this is otherwise, they are invariably talking about converting the ruling class of any given country – which evangelistic mission invariably turns out to involve dining with them) or in a nationalism absorbed from the wider culture, there have always been people who wanted to make the Church more English, more accessible, less alien. Two thousand years ago you can imagine a similar refrain, “do we really need to always bring along the tax collectors and prostitutes, there are lots of good people in the synagogue who agree with us in principle”. The life of the Church should be alien in a homely way for all of us, since the Church is the place where we journey in (international) communion towards that which we see “as through a glass darkly”. One of the worst ideas floating around Vatican II was inculturation, the idea that the gospel ought to find particular cultural expression. If by this is meant the banal observation that we always speak of divine things in, historically conditioned, socially located, human words, then that is OK (but hardly needs saying). If it is meant that there are different ways of being the Church for different national and ethnic groups then that is, however well-intentioned, ecclesially sanctioned racism, and flies in the face of catholicity. In our buildings, our liturgy, our traditions we show what the Church is. And the Church is universal.

The Church, it seems to me, understands something of this when it insists, in the Order of Christian Funerals, that national flags be removed from coffins before they are brought into churches. We belong, ultimately to God and his Kingdom, not to nation-states. And our churches, above all our cathedrals, are signs of that Kingdom. They are not, cannot be, British in anything other than a geographical sense.

There are specific features of the Union Flag, of course, which make flying it from Catholic churches in Britain questionable from a pastoral perspective. It is the flag which flew across an Empire which killed, enslaved, and wounded the ancestors of a good proportion of the people who attend those churches. In its present form it issues from a union between Britain and Ireland whose effect on Irish Catholics is too recent and devastating to need repeating here.

But I don’t want to dwell on that aspect of the flag. Because whatever the national flag, it doesn’t belong on or in our churches. The idolatrous attempt to ally Catholicism to national projects has a sinister past, the proper response to which is repentance: Franco’s Spain represents its gruesome extreme. Similar tendencies are apparent in Poland and, in a different way, in the United States. In the face of all of these, there needs to be a clear reassertion of the universality of the Church. From what I saw today, that work needs to begin at home.