Showing posts with label brother. Show all posts
Showing posts with label brother. Show all posts

Thursday, 27 March 2014

I Cannot Criticize the Abbott

For St Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, obeying the abbot was pretty important. The monks who chose to live under St Benedict's rule were bound to obey the abbot in his ordinances, at the same time as the abbot was required to care for his monks and serve them in their needs.

I am not a monk, but I do have an Abbott I have to obey, when he gives ordinances relevant to his role as Prime Minister. The reason for the required obedience is simple: as I live in a democratic system under a social contract, by virtue of living on Australia, I am bound to whoever the leader of the country is, in the constitutionally appointed ways. I may not have voted for him (most people did not, since only those in his electoral division even have the opportunity to do so), or the Coalition parties, but because of how our representative democracy works, he is rightfully the leader of Australia.

Whilst the social contract of this representative democracy requires me to recognize him as Prime Minister, and all which that entails in terms of leadership, I do not have to like him, only obey. I would be permitted to criticize him, I would be permitted to tell anyone how horrible I think he might be - but I cannot.

It is not from some sort of patriotism, since we are both English, or love of Oxford University, since he was a Rhodes Scholar. If what I am told about some of his policies is true, particularly the environmental, laboral and asylum seeker ones, then it is far from being because I agree with him. It is both simpler and more complex: I cannot go around criticizing him casually, because he is my brother.

"Your surname is not Abbott!" That is true. We do not share biological parents. He is instead my brother in a way that is at least as real: he and I are both Catholic. As I outlined elsewhere, an important practical consequence of sharing that crucial element in common is that we are brothers, and I must put up with him as a brother.

It could be objected at this point that I am not acting in line with other important Catholics, such as bishops, laypeople and even one of Pope Francis' inner-circle, the highest ranking Catholic in the country (up until very recently), George Cardinal Pell. They have all criticised Tony Abbott for this, that or the other (see here and here, just as examples). Without presuming to judge them for their actions, I still find I cannot go out in public and proclaim distaste. There is nothing in Church teaching that forbids speaking out against a brother in public (indeed, within the confines of the Christian community, it is mandated, after due private rebukes), and yet, I still find that it is not my place.

Jesus is said to be both lion and lamb, and as good rule of thumb for when to imitate him in lion-ness or lamb-ness is whether one is confronting a harmful idea, action or policy (in which case, lion), or a fellow sinner, to which one is like the Agnus Dei (qui tollis peccata mundi - misere nobis). One could quite reasonably say that I should, in fact, speak out against some of his godless policies, the ones that the Church has spoken out against.[1] Part of why I do not is general ignorance: I do not understand the complex political issues of today well enough to deem myself having rid my own eye of the plank, before rebuking my brother's splinter, or as Jesus says:

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye." (Mt. 7)

Ignorance aside, and noting the importance of fighting the inward battle before the outward one, there is another important reason why I find it tough on my conscience to criticize my brother, and here I think much on the political left is to blame. I am generally quite capable of disagreeing with someone's views without attacking them as a person, but the left has confused policy with politician, meaning an attack on one is an attack on the other. I will not attack my brother in public, so I find it difficult to attack any erroneous policies he might have.

So, whenever I complain about Tony Abbott's statement on this or that, and I have done so occasionally, I try and do so to my other brothers and sisters, not in public accusations, and I do so minimally. It is not, at this point in time, my place to criticize the Abbott.

[1] For an overview of the Church's position on social issues from an Australian perspective, see "Lazarus at Our Gates", from the ACBC. The statement can be found here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Practicality of the Church as Mother

[i]When one is little, one sees one’s mother as practically omniscient. It is not out of experimentation that I trusted my mother when she said not to dip my hand in the boiling water, it was because I have always found her to be a reliable source of knowledge. When invariably I tested something my mother had told me, like that the steaming chocolate cake was far too hot to eat, without exception she turned out to be right. Moreover, my mother is a living repository of knowledge: even when my understanding of theoretical physics far surpasses hers, if I want to know what temperature to roast a chicken at, or the smell of cheap hotels in the Soviet Union, I would make haste to ask my mother.

I have learnt to trust my mother, because even when her answers seem perfectly counter-intuitive (indeed, never surprisingly in such cases) her responses to my questions are dependable. These experiences, at least, I share with the great G.K. Chesterton, who shares similar stories in the last chapter of Orthodoxy. After reviewing all sorts of odd doctrines the Church has and finding them to align, upon reflection, most markedly with reality, he draws the point that:

This… is my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.[1]

If you want to know what insights and facts he found that the Church had revealed to him and had turned out to be true against all odds, you ought to read the book – I have never met anyone who has lamented reading Orthodoxy. It is not my task at present to describe his points in summary, but instead to explain my own relationship to the Church as Mother.

I have learnt to trust Mother Church for precisely the same reason I trust my biological mother: both turn out to be right whenever they speak about their area of expertise. For this reason, I have learnt to trust the Church even when she appears to be in doctrinal error, because it always turns out that she is right and I am wrong.[2] Just like my own mother and the warnings about the cake being too hot to eat, I ignore the Church’s teaching more at my own peril than at hers. It certainly may seem that I am correct in opposing her, but indubitably there comes the time when I realize my error. Rhetorically brilliant counters to her teaching often overlook some crucial piece of data which, when considered, either produces repentance or increased bitterness. The former is appropriate; the latter is dangerous and unfortunately far more common.

Though I have much faith in the teachings of the Church, just like I can have confidence in my mother’s advice, the Church-as-Mother view has recently made me realize something far more interesting: from the fact that I am a child of the Church, and that the Church has other children, it follows that I have siblings – and one thing I have been taught by growing up with a brother is that such a conclusion is as inescapable as it can be unfortunate.

Much as I appreciate my brother most of the time, like any other human, he has faults. He sometimes snores. He wants to play this or that. He acts like he is six even though he is almost sixteen. He shouts across the whole house with no regard to the sleep of others. He is nonetheless my brother, and any plea to deny it would result simply in contradicting reality: I am stuck with him.

In the same way, I am stuck with other annoying Catholics. Were I to be Protestant, I could simply deny the familial bond to anyone outside my church, but if the Church is universal, that is, if the Church is Catholic, her children’s faults are my own family’s faults. Being almost-Catholic for a few months has taught me at the very least that I will not get along very well with a lot of my family – but unlike more fluid churches, in the Catholic Church that means I will have to put up with it. I cannot leave her, because at the end of it all, she is still my Mother.

What conclusion may I draw from this consideration? I must remember the inevitability and finality inherent in the word “brother” and “sister” – they are not terms that I can assign to some people but not to others at whim. Much like biological siblings, the other children of the Church are my own brothers and sisters. I am obliged to recognize this and so treat them accordingly. In fact, just like being true children of Abraham has less to do with the flesh and more to do with imitating his faith, my brothers and sisters in the Church are similarly more my siblings for being in Christ than they ever could be by having inhabited the same womb. This bond is what moves Jesus to say:

            “As you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

[1] Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Dover Publications, New York, 2004, p. 150.

[2] Doctrinal and moral errors are very distinct – the Church is pure in her teaching, but she is certainly not without sin as a corporate People of God, in her members or in her more structured positions. Indeed, it is the essence of the doctrine of Original Sin that these two are distinct categories: if humans were not sinful, we would not by hypocritical either.

[i] Similar considerations to the ones in this blog post probably apply (in modified form) to God as Father. I have chosen to express it instead in terms of Mother, both to emphasize my relationship with the Magisterial teaching of the Church, in addition to making a more marked point about how even the peskiest member of the Church, even when that member is the priest, bishop or Pope, is not and cannot be grounds for leaving the Church.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Concerning Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)

The Mathean antitheses form the backbone of Jesus as New Moses in the sermon on the mount. The original Moses on Mt Sinai gave the Law which was to essentially be the legislation of the nation of Israel. It dealt a great deal with outward righteousness because Israel was meant to be an example to all the nations.

Now, Jesus says that our righteousness must surpass that if we are ever to enter the kingdom of heaven. What will that involve? It is very simple really: what previously applied to actions, now applies also to the heart. Without more delay, the words of Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (vv. 21-22)

Jesus reiterates that killing is unlawful, but that's not enough. The new righteousness goes beyond that to say that whoever is angry with his brother sins also ("shall be liable to judgement"). Let me side track for a moment to give a very important comment: "brother" corresponds always in the gospel according to St Matthew, as far as I can tell, to fellow members of the Church, fellow Christians. This is perhaps unfortunate for those who want to use the very strong words of Jesus in chapter 25 to be about general social justice, and I count myself among them (though this is hardly the only text that makes this point), but it does lead to an interesting issue: if this is the case, then St Matthew is portraying Jesus as somewhat anachronistic, saying things that do not yet make sense. Very well, since Jesus is aware of what will happen after his resurrection, and knows that he will found the Church, it is not in the slightest unreasonable to suggest that Jesus can speak beforehand what will soon be in effect. The interesting part is that the idea that "all this stuff is essentially pre-cross and corresponds to the Old Testament" also has to be denied, because that is an appeal to the timing of his words, and yet we have just granted that Jesus speaks of post-cross events in talking of the Church. Even chapter 25 itself will make this point, whether you think brother is Christian or not, but I think it should be outlined first here.

Back to the passage, Jesus speaks about degree of consequences: liability to judgement of some sort for anger at a brother, liability to a council for insulting him, and liability to the fires of hell for saying, "You fool!" What does this hierarchy imply if not that some sins are worse than others, and hence carry larger consequences than others? We should therefore treat the hierarchy properly.

It is interesting to note that hell and council judgement have a very similar antecedent: I have heard that saying "you fool" was far worse then than it is now, and that seems to fit this, so due to lack of knowledge, I will have to defer to others.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  (vv. 23-25)

There's an issue that Jesus addresses here in the first antithesis, and that is, what if we do anger or insult our brother? What then? The Mosaic Law had very specific guidelines for what to do in cases of each sin. He does not propose another sacrifice of a lamb or turtle dove - the sacrifice he requires is much greater. We are to swallow any pride and go reconcile ourselves to our brother, and then come and give our offering. The offering we give nowadays could be understood sort of symbolically as the living sacrifice that we offer to God, as seen in Romans 12, but more concretely it refers to the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Eucharist we offer up Christ, and I think Jesus instructs us to reconcile ourselves to our brethren before thence. Beyond that though, in partaking directly of the Eucharist, we participate most prominently in the offering, and in doing so in such a state (more generally and commonly known as "state of mortal sin") we run the risk of what Jesus says next:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. (v. 25)

So what consequences could come? In a word, judgement. That judgement will be just, for Jesus says that ever last penny shall be paid - there is no longer any leeway once the matter is taken to the judge and the guard. Far better then to settle the matter quickly with one's brother before things escalate out of proportion.

I mentioned the liturgy once, let me do it once again, because it is one of the most beautifully rich things the Church offers. Here Jesus calls for reconciliation before the offering, and this is what is represented in the liturgy with the penitential rite, the offering of the sign of peace and the Our Father. First, we confess our sins to God "and to you my brothers and sisters." This is the first step in reconciliation. Later, we offer each other the sign of peace, which is both a real desire for peace with the other, but also a sort of peace treaty, in that we extend the invitation for reconciliation. Later still we pray the Our Father, which I will comment on soon, but it suffices to remind that one of the lines is "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" - either we are asking to be set as the standard for forgiveness, or we are actually acknowledging the fact of the matter which is that we have already forgiven those who sin against us. Then comes the Eucharist.