Thursday, 16 September 2010

Welcome to England, your Holiness


I am not a Catholic, but I grew up in a Catholic tradition; I grew up in the tradition of High Anglicanism, for which I retain a lingering affection, for the bells and the smells, for certainties presently being undermined by the intellectual confusion and the moral relativism of the leadership of the Church of England.

I went through a particularly pious phase in my mid-teens, a time when my imagination was being stimulated by the moral dilemmas explored in the novels of Graham Greene. It was a time when I seriously considered the possibility of taking that final step, of 'going over to Rome', even discussing the possibility of taking instruction from the priest attached to my school. I was only persuaded against it after some vigorous intervention from my parents, both staunch Anglicans, who even threatened to involve certain bishop, a close friend of the family! It worked, though I have since gone in other spiritual and religious directions, something, when it comes to my family, I rather keep to myself!

I mention this as a preamble to some things I would like to say about the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to this country, the first official visit by the head of the Catholic Church. I personally welcome this, welcome any attempt to heal the fractures in the Catholic tradition brought on by the Reformation. I welcome it all the more because of a ruthless press campaign focusing on the perceived failures of the Catholic Church over the appalling issue of the clerical sexual abuse of children. Yes it is appalling, but it seems to me that the press and television come not as doctors hoping to destroy a cancer but as undertakers hoping to carry off the patient, the patient being the Church itself. It's a campaign that gives solace to militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, heading a new legion of intolerant absolutists, advancing a new religion without meaning or without solace but just as certain in its secular dogmatism.

I have considerable respect for the present Pope, a quiet and reflective man. He does not have the charisma or the air of sanctity of his predecessor but there is so much wisdom to his message, both simple and profound, a message drowned out by the trumpets of misinformation and ignorance. To attempt to portray him as the head of a vast conspiracy of child rapers is malevolent in the extreme. Long before the present media frenzy over this issue he was at the front of a campaign in the Curia to compel the Church to face up to what he called the "filth" of clerical sexual abuse.

But I don't want to focus on this; I want to focus on Benedict as a man of ideas, a man deeply concerned by the growth of forms of relativism, cultural uncertainty and simple bad-faith that threaten not just the Church but the whole of Western civilization. What I propose to draw on here is a super piece in the current issue of Prospect by George Weigel (Britain can benefit from Benedict), in which he touches on some of the arguments the Pope advanced when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. I don't want to overcomplicate matters but Benedict takes a position contrary to that advanced by Oswald Spengler, the grand ayatollah of cultural despair, in The Decline of the West. It really is true: civilizations do not die in a pre-ordained Hegelian path; no, they commit suicide. And that's what we in Europe and the Americas are doing: we are committing suicide.

As Weigel says, the key to grasping Ratzinger's analysis is to see that "he thinks of Europe's contemporary crisis of cultural morale as a matter of self-destruction." In an address to the Italian Senate in 2004 he said with absolute precision, so far as I am concerned, that it is impossible not to notice a self-hatred in the Western world that is strange "and can even considered pathological." While it is praiseworthy to open to foreign values, he continued, the West "sees in itself only what is blameworthy and destructive and is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure."

The problem is that our understanding of European history, of the European mind, is clouded by a kind of blindness or, if you prefer, a cultural amnesia. It’s as if in looking back through the past we can see no further than the eighteenth century Enlightenment, to the so-called Age of Reason. Yes, it's a hugely limiting view, a hyper-secularist reading of the past, as Ratzinger put it, in which black legends of Christian perversity dominate the historical landscape. But at a time when the Classical inheritance was in danger of being lost European civilization was in part saved - as those who watched Dan Snow's documentary on the subject will understand - by Christian monasticism. It was the monks of Ireland, of Iona and of Lindisfarne who were the agents of cultural rebirth, tiny seeds of a mighty tree. I would add that the story of England, English history itself, began with a monk- Bede of Jarrow, to whom I at least cannot be other than hugely grateful. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People remains one of my favourite books.

Ratzinger's argument gets even more subtle, touching on dimensions I had never considered. It was Christianity, he argues, that initially suggested and defended the separation of Church and State, something prized by contemporary secularists. Pope Gregory VII, one of the greatest of the Medieval pontiffs, staked so much on this essential point, refusing to give way to the Emperor Henry IV's attempt to turn the Church into a department of state. So the history of European culture is impossible to contemplate without the church, without the influence of the church, an alternative to naked secular power.

It should not be assumed that his argument is anti-Enlightenment in the way that so much of the Enlightenment argument was anti-religion, far from it. Rather rationalism, on its own, is not enough to sustain confidence in reason, a wonderful paradox. For Ratzinger, Western civilization is sustained by three-legs, legs that might be labelled 'Jerusalem', 'Athens' and 'Rome'; by notions of individual uniqueness and value, of rationality and of law. If Jerusalem goes Athens is uncertain; if Athens goes Rome -the rule of Law- will inevitably follow. Look at Ratzinger's own Germany, the experience of his own life-time, where the Weimar Constitution, constructed on perfectly rational principles, was overwhelmed by atavistic nationalism, a flight from morality, from religion and from reason.

In the same year that he spoke to the Italian senate, Cardinal Ratzinger also took part in a debate with Jurgen Habermas, the doyen of post-war German radical philosophy, in which he argued that the prime cultural imperative of the time was to recognise the necessary relationship "between reason and faith and between reason and religion." It's a way of combating the nihilism, the scepticism and the relativism that have done so much to undermine a proper sense of ourselves, of who we are and where we are going. I agree that, in terms of historical development, we are now at the same stage as the late Roman Empire. Cardinal Ratzinger put it thus;

Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future...There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted.

But there is no inevitability here. As I said, he rejects Spengler's thesis, which always seemed to me to be a form of Marxism for the petty-bourgeois, hardly surprising when he and Marx more or less drew on the same philosophical sources, the same tiresome teleology. Instead the Pope urges that the revitalisation of our culture through creative minorities and exceptional individuals, the very anti-Spenglerian argument put forward by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History. How absolutely delightful to discover that at least one person is reading and drawing inspiration from Toynbee!

For Benedict, as Weigel stresses, the Catholic Church is one of those "creative minorities" in twenty-first century Europe and throughout the West. It has to have a certain sense of what it is, of what its purpose is, what its mission is, of ridding itself of the corruptions against which the Pope has been arguing for so long. It means putting behind the "liberalism" in religion so deplored by John Henry Newman. I simply can't take issue with this, because religion surely is about clarity of direction, of clear and simple messages. After all, just as liberalism eats away at civil society, reducing it to a confusion of relativism, where one idea or practice is as good as another, so liberalism and drift have eaten away so much of the Church of England, leaving a husk, grand and sad at one and the same time.

Yes, we all need faith, faith in ourselves, faith in our culture, faith in our civilization. For all its faults simply cannot imagine Europe without the Catholic Church. Oh, but I can, a Dawkins Europe, a Europe sinking faster into a quicksand of doubt and destruction.

Welcome to England, your Holiness.

85 comments:

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  4. And let me say too, not all social liberals are social relativists. I'm a social liberal(even though I'm an institutional arch-conservative) and I'm anything but a cultural relativity as you know. Frankly aside from a handful of cultures they are all worthless to me.

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  5. Teleology, the art of final causes. I think Spengler fits, no matter the protestations! I don't agree with your assessment, Adam, hardly surprising in view of what I've written! I don't like 'ultimate thinking', that life is all this or all that; that all good is on one side and all bad on the other. I don't think anybody is seriously arguing for a 'Catholic state'; certainly not I. I'm reminded though by a line or two from The Wicker Man, the original version, my favourite pagan movie. Sergeant Howie, the Christian copper, says to the pagan Lord Summerisle, "Sir, may I remind you that you are the subject of a Christian country." The movie was made in 1973. A modern Sergeant Howie would have to say "Sir, may I remind you that you are the subject of a multi-cultural country." England is a 'Protestant state' by convention, nothing more than that. No one is here on religious sufferance.

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  8. I don't think I've 'heaped praise' on him, Adam, it's not my style to 'heap praise,' more to examine things, people and ideas critically. I offer critical support to a reflective and sober argument, an argument which focuses on the sources of our present cultural malaise. I do not believe that Benedict ‘loathes’ or ‘hates’ anyone. It's contrary to Catholic teaching to 'loath' or 'hate’.

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  11. For me, Adam, the life of the mind is like some grand buffet; I pick and chose according to taste, and even Toynbee has tasty parts! I have my passions, too, but when I allow my critical faculties to be overtaken by partiality and subjectivity then I know I really have reached the limits of personal and intellectual development. Times that are ‘too critical’ to be objective are not my times. I look over the past century and see again and again times that were ‘too critical’ for objectivity. It’s not a happy vision. I belong to no gang, neither to ‘us’ or to ‘them’; for, you see, I do believe in concepts of right and of wrong.

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  13. The Catholic church has lost much credability by protecting the pedophiles in the organization, this has gone on for decades.They just took turns forgiving each others sins. I went through 13 years of Catholic schooling and it never made sense to me .I have come to the conclusion that all organized religion is the invention of man. Spirituality however is very real,it is ones connection with all things seen and unseen in the natural world.

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  14. Nice post to England travel.United Kingdom is a Protestant state. All others, including atheists like me are guests. It is not and never shall be a Catholic state.
    station car

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  16. Anthony, as far as your final point is concerned you and I are are in total agreement.

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  17. Adam, once again the plaintive numbers are flowing for old, unhappy, far off things and battles long ago. Yes, I'm sure that you and Dr Paisley would get on famously! I'm only going to offer a touch of balance to your historical observations. Protestant heads of state were no less keen on absolutism in the seventeeth century than Catholics; in fact they were much better at it, judging by the Prussian example. Your reference to the Bourbons being overthrown is to France, I assume, to the French revolution? A nation discarded a gentle, latitudinarian religion, along with with a gentle king only to descend into the worst forms of barbarism in the name of 'Reason.' You hate the Pope, you hate the Pope, you hate the Pope. I will take take as read. You are far, far too impassioned for me.

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  19. High priest!, yes, a highly apt description of Spengler, given the forms of eschatological and mystical language he uses! I did not call him a petty-bourgeois Marx; I said that his thinking was the Marxism of the petty-bourgeoisie. :-)

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  22. 'Let us not forget, the United Kingdom is a Protestant state. All others, including atheists like me are guests.'

    I don't like to be rude, but this really is the most appalling rubbish on Adam's part.

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  23. I assume you mean Louis XIV? His 'crime' was financial profligacy in pursuit of imperial power, not a charge that could be levelled uniquely at him, I think. Adam, if you think that the Bourbon regime was 'as violent' as that of the Revolution you really need to deepen your understanding of French history. One might as easily make the same point about the Russian and Chinese imperial regimes and the communists.

    Yes, I have no argument with that. :-))

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  24. I'd also get on with him better than anyone at the Bishops Broadcasting Corporation, who insult atheists by portraying us all as petty copies of Dawkins--something we are most certainly not. And when it comes to balance, the insulting tones they've used about Protestantism all week, have made one think they were once again salivating over the carnage of an IRA bomb, as the organisation the majority of news people at the BEEB hold that gang in a similar light to that of Ken Linvingston...ironic that both he and the Real IRA are trying to ruin London again. Couldn't make that one up.

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  25. Yes, sorry, slip of the finger--Louis XIV. Just because the Revolutionaries were violent in different ways and directed some of their violence against different victims, doesn't make them any more violent than the repressive Bourbons. People could say that about Russia and China and they'd have some ground to stand on--it is however a contention I'd disagree with rather firmly though.

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  27. Adam, but it also makes him a sloppy, ill-organised and ultimately unconvincing thinker, full of worst-kind of German bombast with none of Nietzsche's economy of words and ideas.

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  28. Adam, it does; they were. This is not speculation on my part; it's an empirical statement. One would have to look at executions in Royal France over a period of hundreds of years to match the intensity of the Terror.

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  31. I love words, I even enjoy words in German when they are not too horribly compound! I can find inspiration in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, none at all in Kant and Spengler. I'll publish any further comments on Sunday, when I shall ask of the Pope's visit, Went the Day Well? :-)

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  33. A very interesting post, Ana, and I agree with much of it. I dislike the sectarian attacks on Benedict and Catholicism. I was raised a Catholic in a Catholic country, and Catholicism has many very good points. I enjoy singing in a Church choir (something I went back to only in recent years). I feel that Catholicism can give a higher level of spiritual nourishment than the Protestant churches can, because the ritual and 'smells and bells' are more in tune with the workings and deep needs of the human psyche. I think C. G. Jung, for example, took this position.

    At the same time, I think you're giving Benedict too much credit. I think the organization serves the organization and its minions, not the people. The reaction to the child-abuse scandals has been minimalist and self-serving ... there appears to have been no horror in the higher levels at the wrongdoing itself, but only at the detrimental effect this might have on the Church. A dose of humility is urgently required.

    I have seen the unsavoury side of the Church ... high-handed, controlling, demanding. That is what we fought against in Ireland ... the Church's arrogant lust for power, which warped the country for around 150 years (from post-Famine demoralization to recent times). I realize of course that Ireland is a small and untypical corner of the world.

    There is also the whole matter of the Church's attitude to women. As you know, the feminine principle has been grossly undervalued (not just in Catholicism, in fairness) as compared to, say, paganism. There is some tokenism now, but it's really not enough. Elderly men still say what goes. (In 1980 or so, in the course of an interview for a teaching job, a prominent bishop asked a young woman I knew whether she was a virgin!) This is psychologically unhealthy ... there needs to be balance, and the feminine principle needs to be brought forward. The Virgin Mary is not enough.

    Catholics need to demand ... not to acquiesce. The institution needs to be re-energized if it is to survive ... without, of course, losing what made it great in the first place. (The Church of England is fine for organizing garden fetes, but if you're going to have a religion you may as well have a proper one. :-))

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  34. Good morning, Ana and Adam. Adam, I don't think I have ever mentioned 1707 in my life. Did something happen then?

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  35. Ana, speaking not least as someone who has very recently "gone over to Rome" (after many years of procrastinating about it: GK Chesterton, and indeed Newman, and Georges Bernanos, and indeed the current Pope all proved more convincing that Greene or even Waugh...), I can't overstate how much I appreciate this post.

    I only wish more people (whether they agree with him or not, or share his religion or not) would take the trouble to engage with the ideas of Benedict: he really is a first-class thinker - and his concern about cultural decline, and "the dictatorship of relativism" is, well, very pertinent to the current situation in which we, in Britain and in much of Europe, now, regrettably, find outselves.

    Adam, we will have to agree to differ, not least on Spengler...

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  38. "... It was Christianity, he argues, that initially suggested and defended the separation of Church and State, something prized by contemporary secularists. ..."
    this is a twisted statement by my point. it is like to say, it was christianity who contributed to science progress because most scientists earlier were all christians. my point is, a rational action made by a cathlic pope still represented rationalism, not catholicism.
    but i do agree that it is impossible to understand the whole history of europe without her christian(or catholic) asset. there are so much good things in religions we should keep, instead of action of "curing cancer killing patients".
    i thought europe is in great shape. how come she suddenly wants to committ suicide? hey ana, by what i know you from this blog, you would not like this pope for long. but i could be wrong. let's see:-)

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  39. It's interesting that you can write great articles about history and then spout this pile of crap. But it's just my opinion.

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  40. All that was then this is now , The demographics of wesrern Europe and the UK are changing rapidly. In a few decades there may not be a Protestant majority. And by the way, no holy man can forgive your wrongdoings.One must live out the consequences of your actions.

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  41. Brendano, thanks. You speak from a depth of experience that I simply don't have. I am aware of some of the malpractices of the Church in Ireland, not just the recent sexual scandals but some of the other things you allude to. I saw the Magdalene Sisters a couple of years ago and found it quite sickening that women could ever have been treated so badly.

    But things change, things have changed, things are changing. I really don't want to overdo a 'pro-Benedict' message, that was not my purpose, merely asking for little more sympathy, a little more understanding on the occasion of this historic visit. I actually do think that the Pope has shown humility and genuine concern over the scandals that are besetting the church, but I really wanted to stress his general message, the way he has focused on things that are undermining faith in ourselves and faith in our culture. We have, despite any residual differences in point of religion and belief a common interest here. Oh, and the Church of England does not do God. You should know that. :-)

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  42. Dominic, thanks so much: you have grasped the point exactly. I'm really fed up with prejudice, and I use that word in the proper sense of leaping to conclusions without listening and without understanding. The Pope's address to the Italian Senate and to the Munich forum are both available in print, if anyone wants reach a more complete understanding of what he has to say. I believe him to be one of the most important thinkers of our time, a theologian who also happens to be a Pope.

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  43. Adam, pre-ordained and inevitable, tomaaato and tomAto; let's call the whole thing off! If it looks like teleology, it it moves like teleology, if it acts like teleology then it is teleology! Sorry, let's drop that word. Since we are on the subject of religion let's say that Spengler is a philosophical Calvin - it's all about predestination, old bean :-))


    As far as Gibbon on the impact of Christianity on the decline of Rome is concerned that's about as useful as those who put the whole thing down to orgies and sexual decadence! Gibbon's conceptual limitations are such that he is obliged to sustain his thesis right into the post-Classical period, which means that he completely misunderstand and misinterpreted of the growing strength and vigour of the Byzantine Empire, by the early eleventh century the closest Europe possessed to a super state at the time.

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  44. Yun yi, thanks. It's less a question of liking than understanding, or at least trying to understand.

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  45. Duot, and one you are fully entitled to. I've accepted your praise so I must also accept your disapproval. You are under no obligation to agree with what I write. I just wish you had expressed your disgreement a little more elegantly.

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  46. Anthony, you have come a long way from your Catholic upbringing! The forgivness, of course, is supplied by God, not by a 'holy man'. :-)

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  47. In anyone is interested I'm going to add a postscript to this in a day or so, touching on aspects of the history of Catholicism in England. Thanks for the inspiration. :-)

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  49. Miss Ana I have to say you ae a constant surprise to me, the freshness, strngth and vigour of your argument is a constant surprise to me, especially in someone so young. I get so much pleasure in coming to your blog.There is always something new and different. Please do keep up such excellent work.

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  50. Ana, I've posted something on my blog that might interest you.

    http://brendano7.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/the-spirit-of-mother-jones/

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  51. i understand ana. you are so young and trying to embrace everything. good for you!

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  52. No,eventually you forgive yourself. The years of attempted indoctrination never took .I have my own path to follow ,I pretty much walk alone.

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  53. Anastasia

    I pray that you may return to the Church.

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  54. Ana
    Read the blog earlier but somehow did not leave a comment. Well done for writing it. And yes, Brendnao's comment is very interesting indeed.

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  55. Having read through all this stuff, I thought I might as well say something. I particularly like Yun Yi's comments. And I like Ana's attempt to be fair-minded and look at the big, background issues. But the Pope's fatal problem is that he is a Catholic! In my view the doctrines of the church (even if you take a theologically liberal line) are just silly. How can one take seriously the words of someone who professes to believe those things? Certainly Europe needs to reassert its values, but I think that has to be done in a more - how shall I put it? - doctrinally unencumbered context.

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  56. Hello Ana,

    I read the post but not the comments. Sorry if you have already answered.

    So what do you predict?

    And I think media cannot follow all. ;)

    I was surprised to learn a high ranking (and I mean high)cleric from Vatican is in touch with some people I know periodically, from Turkey.

    Two years ago he had a strange train accident and was saved. When he was visited by the "friends" at the hospital he showed the muslims prayer book in his book and said he was saved by the prayers of msulim brothers.

    You might think this is an urban legend. But I listened to this from second mouth.

    Another point you say "the Catholic Church is one of those "creative minorities" in twenty-first century Europe and throughout the West.". I didn't know that. And I'm curious what makes yo usay that.

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  58. Adam, of course I don't mind. I wasn't aware that there was a problem with the term Byzantine Empire, though I'm aware that it's a modern invention. The Empire itself to the end was still officially the Roman Empire - though so much had changed-, never the Greek Empire, and the Greek East simply does not cut it. What's the alternative? Besides Byzantium appeals to my romantic vision. :-)


    Once out of nature I shall never take
    My bodily form from any natural thing,
    But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
    Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
    To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
    Or set upon a golden bough to sing
    To lords and ladies of Byzantium
    Of what is past, or passing, or to come

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  59. RCP, you are tremendously kind. I shall do my best. :-)

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  60. David, who can say what will happen in the flow of time?

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  61. Thanks, Brendano. I'll come and have a look as soon as I can.

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  62. Mark, the next thing you will be telling me is that a bear really dies shit in the woods! Yes, he's a Catholic and Catholicism, in all its absurdity, is part of our civilization. People shall not live by reason alone, and in all it's irrationality the Christian and Catholic story has been a magnificent one. There is an early Anglo-Saxon poem, really just a few fragments, where the author wanders among the ruins of Roman bath full of wonder, believing this could not possibly be the work of any human agency but some divine process, 'weird' as he puts it. If our civilization collapsed like the late Roman Empire, if records and literacy all but disappeared, I can imagine some future poet wandering among the ruins of Saint Peter's in Rome with the same sense of wonder. A perfectly rational world, a perfectly atheist world, seems to me to be not quite human. It's faith, not reason, that moves mountains.

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  63. Levent, I try to avoid predictions because I'm invariably right! I agree with your sentiments about the media. Rudyard Kipling wrote that the press had the prerogative of the harlot throughout history - power without responsibility, something I completely agree with! No, I would not dismiss your story. I know from my own family history just how important Muslims have been, both in prayer and practical action. My grandfather's life was saved by a Muslim soldier with whom he served during the Second World War. Creative minorities was a point made by Benedict himself, drawing on the work of Arnold Toynbee. We are all minorities in one way or another, some creative, others destructive. The Pope was simply saying that the Church had a role to play in the continuing advance of civilization, a creative minority, in other words.

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  64. Adam, I think it best if I write a personal critique of Spengler. So, look to the future!

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  65. Anthony, we must do as we must. I think it best, though, never to walk alone.

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  66. Regarding 'creative minority', I quoted something from the Irish Times on MyT earlier, by the psychologist Maureen Gaffney:

    'We look to the church to be a life-enhancing community of equals, to make life better, nobler, more dignified, more full of meaning and love. Instead, what we are offered is an elite, remote hierarchy and a diet of dogma, restrictions and petty institutional rules.'

    I agree. I think 'creative minority' is a nice idea, but saying it is not enough.

    Spirituality is available for everyone, with or without a church, though the church may help. A church's role ought to be to lead us to water and help us to enjoy drinking it.

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  69. Ana
    I remember you once mentioned your grandfather fought in the Far East during WWII. That is where my dearest dad was as well. A young Muslim officer fighting for the Empire. Who knows, they may have met :)

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  70. Brendano, I agree, saying is not enough. I also believe that Benedict means what he says. Still, we shall see.

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  71. Shermeen, was he in Burma in 1945, specifically on the advance to Mandalay? Thousands were, I know, but still!

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  73. You have a said beautifully what I had wished to say to a friend but couldn't quite discover in myself, how to say it. I shall forward this to him.

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  74. Ana I think maybe you missed my subtle humour! At least I appreciate it. :)

    Or am I missing your subtle humour?

    I guess I'm a bit fixated on true and false - but what's so bad about that? Right and wrong you mentioned. True and false is important too.

    Seriously, I understand what you are saying, but part of it just makes me a bit uneasy. Like Tertullian's I believe because it is absurd.

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  75. Mark, I think you and I would get on famously, apart from the fact that when I was your age I used to believe in as many as, oh, six absurd things before breakfast. :-))

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  76. Now I see. (My English) Thanks Brendan and Ana.

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  77. Levent, it's a lot better than my Turkish. :-)

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