Month: January 2016

Learning to love the new translation


It’s four years now since the new translation of the missal was introduced. I was initially sceptical. This was not because of any folksy, hand-clapping aversion to liturgical solemnity on my part, the kind of thing that often erroneously covers itself with the phrase ‘the spirit of Vatican II’. I had being going to Mass at a church which celebrated the Paul VI rite in Latin with plainsong and incense. My concern was, rather, pragmatic and related to concerns about language and translation. Weren’t we supposed to have a vernacular missal for celebrating the Mass in English? The new words didn’t look very vernacular to me! And wasn’t the idea that we should seek to translate texts, any texts, word for word, simply erroneous? It is, after all, the sentence that is the basic unit of meaning, and in any case languages have their own ways of conveying tone and subtext, making translation more of an art than a science. I wasn’t bothered enough to sign one of the many petitions that were circulating at the time, but I was troubled.

Some years on, and a falling away from the practice of my faith (which had nothing to do with the missal) later, I go to Mass according to the new translation pretty much daily. I’ve learned to love it. I feel as though we are praying when we use it (Herbert McCabe once wrote an excellent piece about the challenge to Catholics of understanding the Mass as a prayer). There is a real sense that something special is happening here, something that doesn’t quite belong to this present world.

Not everyone has shared this journey with me. You still hear grumbles about the new book. A few weeks back, going to Mass back home whilst visiting my parents, someone reflected to me as we were leaving church that the new words were ‘nonsense’. There is a lot to be said for this view. In fact, there is a lot to be said for the view that all our talk about God teeters on the brink of nonsense. McCabe, again, wrote of our words, when used of God, ‘wearing second hand clothes’. The point is that we learn the kind of words scripture and liturgy apply to God through applying them to material beings, limited, and potential objects of our experience: we talk about people as strong, good, or loving, we learn to call things fortresses and rocks. And then, and only then, we apply those words to God. Inevitably they fall short of the reality of God, the creator and sustainer of the worldly realities for which our words are equipped. Even in revelation, even in the sacraments, the nature of God remains beyond our ability to comprehend.

I feel that the new translation acknowledges this. The register of our language is shifted. We can still tell, perhaps with a little effort, what the words mean (or at least, what they would mean we were using them to talk to, or about, worldly realities), but we are unsettled. A certain unfamiliarity remains, even when we know the liturgy off by heart. And this, I claim, is good. We are, if you like, shocked out of complacency, out of the tendency to be too familiar with the divine, to adopt a perpetually matey tone that suggests, idolatrously, that the divine reality is some kind of celestial big buddy.

This doesn’t mean, for one second, that there isn’t room for – or more than that, the need for – the kind of prayer that involves, in St Ignatius’ phrase, speaking “as one friend speaks to another”. Yet we equally need to realise that we are only in a position to do this by grace, participating in the life of the Trinity whilst not understanding it. Surely there is no better time to be reminded of this than when we gather to be immersed intimately in the life of that Trinity, as the Spirit makes present under the sacramental signs Christ’s sacrificial prayer to his Father.

It isn’t only God, as such, that is signified in the liturgy. The Eucharist is, as St Thomas has it, “a promise of future glory”. We anticipate the Kingdom of God. Where one day there will be the heavenly banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb, laid out for all to see in a new heaven and a new earth – whatever we mean by that – right now there is a group of people coming up to eat what, for all the world, looks like bread and drink what, for all the world, looks like wine. In doing this, we believe, we share the life of a Kingdom that does not belong to this present age. At Mass, the future comes to high streets, estates, and shanty towns all over the world. The Kingdom isn’t realised in these places; a cursory glance at a newspaper should convince even the most incurable optimist of this. And yet, here is the future, as already present reality.

This brings me to what I think is an important distinction. Opponents of the new translation often point to the Council’s insistence, of which we were reminded at the Office of Readings this morning, of Christ’s presence in his people, assembled to celebrate the liturgy. The thought then seems to be that this presence should be acknowledged by making the liturgy as user-friendly for the congregation as possible, so that they can feel at home. The problem with this is that it doesn’t recognise what kind of people we are. The Church is not a social club, a special interest group, or even simply a meeting of friends (nor is it an alternative for these kind of things: there’s a certain kind of earnest modern churchiness which looks to me like an attempt to verify the charge that religion is a life substitute). We are instead a people who do not belong to this age, whose fundamental identity is not given by a world that is far from perfect. This being so we should be restless, and unsettled, conscious that we are still a pilgrim people, and precisely as such not entirely at home. The new translation makes this realisation easier.

Related to this is my sense that a certain commonly-made association between the ‘reform of the reform’ and political reaction is mistaken. I write as a throughgoing leftist of the old-school. Drably utilitarian liturgy and words lacking a sense of the otherness of their topic might sit comfortably with a certain kind of lightly baptised social democracy. They hardly speak of a world remade from the very foundations because, having shared the Cross, it now shares the Resurrection. It is the gap between the Kingdom and the injustice and violence of our world, rather than the continuities, that has proved the most effective motivation for Christian radicalism. A liturgy that places this gap in the foreground is no bad thing.

But my question remains, is this a vernacular? Well, what does that mean? It’s certainly English. Like any other language, English has numerous registers and tones, some appropriate for some purposes, some for others. Anyone who writes to a lover as they would to a bank manager will soon find themselves single. We don’t expect scientific reports to read like novels, nor the latter like poems or political tracts. Nor should we expect the liturgy, a unique action, to be conducted in words that would be at home elsewhere. Wittgenstein once chastised his earlier self for not recognising that there were a ‘multiplicity of.. tools in language and.. ways they are used’. Perhaps our earlier liturgical selves needed similar correction.



Trident and ethics


Last night I watched the film Threads for the first time. A chilling account of a nuclear attack on Sheffield during the Cold War, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The subject matter is topical, because today is Peace Sunday, but also because the subject of Trident renewal is current in British politics.

I oppose Trident absolutely, as I do all nuclear weapons. I most naturally articulate that opposition in terms of my Catholic faith, citing the God-given dignity of the human person created in the imagio dei. However, the debate in Britain will not be won or lost on Christian terrain, but in the largely secular forum of politics. It is vital then that a case against the weapons can be made on the basis of natural reason alone; as will become clear, I think that it can. Before I get to that,  I want to mention one trend in Christian thinking about war that I think is positively unhelpful to our making an effective case against nuclear weapons. This is the growth of a default pacifism in quite a lot of Christian talk about war at every level, regardless of whether that talk is directed ‘inwards’ within the Church or ‘outwards’ to the world. Some years ago the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe made a case that pacifism prevents us from seeing the particular evils of nuclear weapons clearly – if all war is forbidden, yet grimly ever-present, then nuclear war is simply a variation on a theme, and to this extent unremarkable.

On the contrary, in an imperfect world, which falls short of the fullness of God’s Kingdom, the mainstream Christian tradition remains that war, whilst always tragic, is sometimes permissible. Christian pacifism falls into the trap of an overly realised eschatology, a failure to recognise the sense in which the Kingdom is still yet to come. This is not to say that the Church doesn’t have a particular vocation to live peacefully, since we are the sacramental anticipation of the Kingdom. We should be wary of glorifying war, something that has too often been a feature of Christian existence, and it is perfectly legitimate for individual Christians to choose to refrain in principle from all violence. This is very different, however, from demanding pacifism from the world. Doing so blunts the case against nuclear weapons: the problem with them is not that they are weapons of war, but that they are weapons whose purpose is the deliberate killing of the innocent.

This is not the argument that has been most prominent in the current debate. We hear various cases made against Trident: that it is a waste of money, that it is not an effective deterent against the actual threats to the UK in an age of non-state combatants, that spending on nuclear weapons has a low labour-intensity, that the whole project is based on an overestimation of the UK’s military status, that the submarines are effectively under US control, and so on. Now, all of these things are true, and I don’t think there’s any harm in saying them. Yet if the debate is had solely in these terms, a disturbing conclusion follows: perhaps if these matters could be addressed, nuclear weapons would be acceptable. Particularly, Trident’s champions will insist at this point, since we have no intention of actually using the things. They are, as the saying goes, purely deterrents.

This last protestation is nonsense: no deterrent ever succeeded in deterring without a credible threat of use. But even leaving that aside, there is something disturbing about these terms of debate. Elsewhere Anscombe named a current strand of moral thinking consequentialism. For the consequentialist, the only things that make an action right or wrong are its (foreseeable) consequences. In certain circumstances, then, things that might be unthinkable in the ordinary course of events might become permissible: Anscombe uses the example of the judicial punishment of the innocent.

Against consequentialism, Catholic ethics maintains that some types of action are, by their very nature, always and everywhere forbidden. This is not to say that our understanding of ethics is primarily law-based, a matter of command and prohibition. For Aquinas, the subject matter of ethics is human flourishing, and its major concern is with the acquisition of virtue, in the possession of which flourishing consists. It is consistent with this outlook, and has always been maintained by the Church, that there are some things that a virtuous person would never do under any circumstances, actions which are simply incompatible with certain virtues. These actions corrupt, and a society in which they are performed, or for that matter seriously contemplated, is one that will not form flourishing human beings. Importantly, the Catholic tradition also asserts that this outlook does not depend on divine revelation (although is, of course, compatible with, and indeed completed by, it). So in bringing these kind of considerations to the table, we are not giving up on the possibility of debate beyond the boundaries of the Church.

Deliberately killing the innocent is one such impermissible action, as therefore is threatening to kill the innocent. A certain kind of comformist casuistry might propose at this stage that killing the innocent is merely a consequence of the action of dropping a nuclear bomb, and on this basis argue that the principle of double effect is applicable. I’m reminded of the rhyme:

Say I’m awfully aggressed:
I’ll pull the trigger – well I’m blessed!
He hit the bullet with his chest!
I’m glad I did my morals

Killing the innocent isn’t the consequence of the action of dropping a nuclear bomb, it is the action. One thing Catholics can usefully do at the present moment, with respect to nuclear weapons and other things beside, is remind the world that there are some things we should just never do, regardless of the consequences. This view, although in principle available to people of all faiths and none, has fallen out of favour for reasons whose intellectual and social roots it would be interesting and investigate. In this context, the Church remains an important custodian of an important insight for all of humanity, and it is one of which we can remind others without forcing the debate onto specifically Christian terrain.



The end of Christmastide

…so says the breviary at the end of Evening Prayer today. It seems an apt occasion to share a poem for the season:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot – The Journey of the Magi
It may be that Eliot’s poem is overdone these days, finding itself into carol services and the like. But it is so much more than a bit of festive literary chintz. I love, in particular, the closing lines: “Birth or Death?”, “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation”. There’s something here about the restlessness that Christ brings to those who encounter him, a discontentment with what St Paul calls ‘the old order’. It’s a timely reminder that our baptismal calling is not simply to comfort but also to be, like the son of Mary, ‘a sign of contradiction’. We should not be at ease.

…was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man

Today’s feast seems a good time to say something about the minor furore that has followed Giles Fraser’s comment piece about what people insist on calling ‘the virgin birth’, but which I am going to call ‘the virginal conception’, which makes clearer what is actually at issue. As a Catholic I of course disagree with Fraser and affirm the doctrine, but his contribution is thoughtful and doesn’t deserve the opprobium that has been heaped upon it. Moreover, if his central claim is correct – that the doctrine of the virginal conception is incompatible with an affirmation of the value of human sexuality, and of female sexuality in particular – then there is a major problem for orthodox belief. Such a devaluation of the sexual would be flatly incompatible with our profession of the goodness of Creation. So I think it is vital that Fraser can be answered, as I trust he can.

First, however, a word about the line of many of his opponents. There is a curious confusion apparent in the bulk of the blogposts and commentaries that have appeared in response to Fraser. It’s clear that many people think that the doctrine of the Incarnation stands or falls with that of the virginal conception, that it is simply impossible that Christ be the Word made flesh if he were conceived sexually. This seems to me to imply a far more serious break with Christian tradition than anything Fraser wrote. It would have been perfectly possible for the Incarnate Word to have  been conceived through sex. The alternative view really only makes sense if your view of the ‘Incarnation’ is not really of God being incarnate at all, but rather of the bringing into being of some kind of divine-human hybrid, with God taking the place of a human father. This kind of position is ruled out by Chalcedon‘s insistence that Christ’s two natures undergo ‘no confusion, no change, no division’. The doctrine of the virginal conception is not that the Father is Christ’s father, in a sense of the word ‘father’ identical to that in which David Beckham is Brooklyn’s father, but rather than Christ has no father (when he speaks of his Father he is describing the life of the Trinity, the mystery of God which is beyond our power to comprehend but which we share through grace. He is not explaining his biological origins.). The conception is a miracle.

Why does that miracle occur? Not because it is necessary, but because it is appropriate. It is a sign of that reality of which Christ himself is the perfect sign, the sacrament, the breaking through of God’s Kingdom into human history. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds”. Something new has happened here, and it is fitting that it takes place in a way that makes that novelty apparent.

As such, the conception of Jesus is without a fully sufficient natural cause. However, something within the world is required for it to take place, and that is Mary’s assent: note, by the way, the free, autonomous, assent of a woman quite apart from  any male approval or oversight. It is at this point that the talk of Mary’s purity, to which Fraser takes such exception, becomes relevant. Now I think the word is probably sullied beyond redemption with a twee Daily Mailesque colouring and needs to be jettisoned. But it’s important at least to grasp that the thought that purity is all about sex, or rather lack of sex, is a hangover from Victorian moralism and that the word can mean other things. The Beatitude declaring the pure in heart to be blessed is not a christological imprimatur for prudes. Rather what is being talked about is moral integrity, the unity of heart and actions.

It is in this expansive, ethical, sense that Mary needs to be pure for Jesus’ conception to take place. Nothing but a wholehearted ‘yes’ would suffice for the God who works with, rather than against, human freedom. Nothing else could signify the culmination of the prayers and longings of Israel. It had to issue from the depth of her being, without mixed motive or evasion. That is what was necessary. This is what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, much confused with Fraser’s topic, claims was supplied by divine grace throughout Mary’s life, not to the injury but to the completion of her human freedom. Those two themes, divine grace and human freedom, in fact run through the story of Mary’s life, because the God who comes to us at Christmas is the God who wills us to love him in perfect freedom.