Canary in the Coal Mine Friday, Nov 23 2012 

So I’ve been watching the fallout from the Church of England General Synod’s vote (by a very close margin) not to ordain women to the episcopate with mixed feelings.  Chief among is, thank God I’m not an Anglican, but not for the reason that would be expected by the Facebook chatter and the circular email from my (male) college chaplain stating that the decision made him ‘feel ashamed to be a Church of England priest this evening’.  To be honest, I don’t really care one way or the other what the Church of England chooses to do about ordaining women.  The CoE doesn’t have valid orders anyway – their continued separation from the Universal Church means that their priests and bishops are, from a Catholic perspective, laymen (and -women).  I don’t buy the Evangelical Protestant readings of St Paul about women keeping quiet during church or not instructing men as being transcendent apostolic truths for all time; I’m not sure St Paul did himself, given the prominent (though not apostolic) role women played in his ministry, not to mention Christ’s.  In that light, the argument that if women can’t be bishops then they are deprived access to the spiritual seats in the House of Lords would seem compelling if the Lords wasn’t already such an emasculated political body that it doesn’t really matter anyway.

The real reason I’m glad to be watching all this from the outside, however, is that I can’t imagine having an ecclesiology that allows the situation to come to such a pass in the first place.  Many of my agnostic or atheist friends have railed against the outcome, which seems silly to me, as it’s not like they’d sign up if the CoE suddenly started ordaining women.  The only people who really seem to have a right to get directly upset about the whole thing are Anglicans (though I suppose an argument might be made for the English taxpayer, but that is a whole other story; one that again makes me thankful to be in a Church that settled it in the eleventh century with the Investiture Controversy).  But this democratic principle itself is what I find hard to swallow.  If one believes that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and that the Spirit has led Her into all Truth, what does that say about voting on an aspect of that revealed truth over and over and over again until you get the answer you want?  The major thing that seems to have come out of this is the feeling that a mistake was made; because of a cumbersome electoral system, because of bigots in the traditionalist and evangelical camps, because canon law prevents another vote for four or five more years.  The Catholic Church of course has it conciliar strand as well, but even œcumenical councils aren’t able to overturn the continuous teaching and practice of the Universal Church.  And the dogmatic conclusions of those councils are binding, whether it’s Nicea or Trent or Vatican II.  It’s not an evolution, it is a development, as Blessed John Henry wrote; the truths don’t change, our understanding of them simply becomes more clear.

So the Roman Catholic Church will never ordain women because She cannot (‘should’ doesn’t even enter into it, because it is wishful thinking).  She cannot say she was wrong, she made a mistake, so let’s start Vatican III and vote until we get the bishops to come round.  Christ’s choice, ‘acting in a free and sovereign manner’ (He is God, after all), fell only on his male followers to be apostles, out of a mixed-sex following.  That does not mean there is no place for women in the Church, even in positions of authority or teaching, but it does mean they cannot be ordained, and however the members of the Church may feel about it, there is nothing they can do.  The development leads only to a clearer understanding of why they cannot be ordained, for instance because of the nuptial symbolism  of the Mass, or because the priest serves as an alter Christus in the celebration of the sacraments.  Other old arguments based on cultural assumptions, like that women are morally or intellectually weaker or that they are unfit to govern because of Eve’s sin, are discarded as our understanding of the Truth becomes clearer.

This comparative theology and ecclesiology is necessary because it comes to my main concern about the blowback following the decision.  Roman Catholics may look at the Church of England with a mixture of envy and bemusement (and if they are historians, perhaps a little bit of resentment), but the reality is that the CoE often serves as a social breakwater: as the dominant and state church in England, all the fury of the progressive reformers is focused primarily (though not exclusively) on her doorstep.  In Catholic circles, it is more common to hear debate about whether priests should be allowed to marry or not (not, incidentally, a dogmatic issue) than about whether women can be ordained.  I think this is for a number of reasons, not least because of the difference in ecclesiology outlined above.  But I think it is also because certain cultural waves are still beating themselves on the CoE: married priests is not an issue for them, so it starts to become one for us; women’s ordination is still an issue for them, so it is not so much for us.  When the CoE does ordain women bishops (which they will, as soon as they can challenge the wrong answer from this Synod in another one; and if not then, at the next one, on and on until they get it ‘right’), then I am willing to bet that the tide might begin to rise around the Catholic Church.

Of course, as the Church, she can’t do what will be increasingly demanded of her (what is being increasingly demanded of the Church of England); so she’ll be increasingly penalised legally.  The right to grant marriage licences will probably be the first to be revoked, and loss of charitable status will probably follow soon after.  That doesn’t sound drastic, especially if one is not a chuchgoer (or if one is French, in relation to the former), but that sidelining, the marginalisation of traditional faith communities only leads to further intolerance of their strange and kooky beliefs.  In the end, they’ll either have to tow the dominant cultural line (which they seem to have given up trying to influence or direct) or go underground.

All this is to say that as Catholics watch the Church of England go into her death spasms, they might do well to think about how they intend to survive in the darkening shaft.  Getting out isn’t an option, so we’d better start trying to improve the air quality.

Feminist Distributism Wednesday, Feb 8 2012 


My girlfriend and I have lately had a number of argum…er, lively discussions over the appropriate and complementary roles of men and women in marriage and society as a whole.  Which is, yes, a big topic, and one that can quickly inflame passions, and not always in a good way.  However, our conversations have actually led me to some very interesting conclusions (or at least musings, I don’t believe I can claim to have all this figured out yet) about the shortcoming of both secular feminism and modern capitalism.

Distributism by and large is not known for engaging with women’s issues, or indeed women at all.  A look at a roster of leading distributists past and present will show a concentration of masculine Christian names.  To be fair, a look at any list of leading capitalist, communist, or socialist thinkers may not paint a drastically different picture, but as distributism is supposed to be a truly humanitarian and family-based approach to economic and social life, I think the question, ‘Where are all the women at?’ is a fair one.

That ‘family-based’ qualifier may be where hackles start to rise.  It quickly conjures up images of women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, their lives ‘put on hold’ to care for children while their husband pursues his own career and engages in a variety of enriching social circles (more on this later).  For this reason, secular feminism, or at least prominent strains of it, have largely rejected the importance of motherhood to womanhood, viewing it as an irrelevant (and often unwelcome) characteristic of the sex.  According to this view, women can have children if they wish, but it is understood that they are letting the sisterhood down if they take too much time away from their careers to get pregnant and care for their offspring.  This is valuable time that should be spent clambering up the career ladder, showing those male representatives of the patriarchy that there is nothing they can do that women can’t do better.

This is a dangerous view of life, not to mention relations between the sexes, and thankfully it appears to be increasingly abandoned by mainstream feminist thought.  Fundamentally, it is dangerous because it is about power: who has it, who exercises it, how other groups can get it.  Historically, power seems to be a masculine obsession, to disastrous results; I don’t see why turning it into a feminine one as well is expected to make things better.  It is precisely the complementary interaction between masculine power and feminine mercy that allows for balance, not only at the societal level, but also at that of the individual.  It is not, of course, surprising or unhealthy that men usually display predominantly masculine traits and women feminine ones; but any healthy person, male or female, must balance both tendencies within themselves in order to avoid becoming a sociopath or a pushover (Virginia Woolf has a good insight on this in A Room of One’s Own).

The other night, my girlfriend (who is not, it must be said, the most ardent of monarchists) and I watched the first part of a wonderful BBC documentary on Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her Diamond Jubilee.  While watching footage of her driving service vehicles during the Second World War, firing a rifle in the prone from a raft, addressing the other children displaced by the Blitz over the radio, and generally carrying herself with more dignity than any other public figure in the world (save perhaps Pope Benedict XVI), we both commented to each at the same time how she is in many ways the perfect feminist role model.  She literally is the United Kingdom personified, but she does not wield power in the common sense; she is the colonel-in-chief of a number of British Army regiments, but she has never fought in a war.  However, she is not merely a figurehead, a pretty ornament while the men go about doing the real work.  The documentary shows how the queen works tirelessly, exercising subtle—but perhaps all the more effective for that—influence on behalf of her realm.  She balances in her female person the masculine and feminine, the active and contemplative, the authoritative and nurturing.  This doesn’t mean that she balances them in the same way a king would, suggesting that her sex is irrelevant, but rather that her particular approach to her office as a woman has both masculine and feminine elements.

The reply quickly comes back that this is all well and good for Her Majesty, who lives a sheltered and coddled life soaked in wealth, but it is far from the experience of the middle classes, to say nothing of the poor.  Her life is completely out of touch with the dog-eat-dog world of everyday life in a professional career, especially in times of economic depression.  For those of us living below the royal orbit, it is essential that we, whether men or women, exercise masculine power in order to get ahead.  This means that women cannot really choose to have both a family (at least if they intend to be intimately involved in the raising of their children) and a significant career (sometimes at all, but at the very least not simultaneously).  Children and the family must therefore take a backseat if a woman is to be fulfilled professionally.

But it seems unfair to excessively criticise women for wanting to ‘have it all,’ when it is taken for granted that men will usually have both a career and a family.  It is true that it is a simple biological fact that men cannot conceive, gestate, give birth, or breastfeed a child.  However, while motherhood is a beautiful gift to womanhood, a true non plus ultra, that does not justify falling back on a conception of women as baby-making machines fit only for the domestic affairs of the household.  And this is where the genius of a distributist system comes in.

The reforms needed for our current way of life depend, in fact, on the rediscovery of the feminine.  At a talk given by Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, (an assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston) in Madrid last August, she discussed the importance of the feminine genius in our approach to agriculture.  Technological masculine advances have been essential (I, for one, am very grateful for the invention of the plough), but are not sufficient in themselves.  We must rediscover the feminine process of agriculture and the attendant ability to be receptive to the natural world; a rediscovery of the gestation of the land, the nurturing of livestock, the very seasons and cycles we have been trying to circumvent with our technologies and our agrobusiness conglomerates in order to provide perpetual access to all sorts of foods with no thought to humane treatment of animals or sustainability of crops.

This does not apply only to farming.  If our economic society as a whole was not dependent upon global corporations, but rested primarily on locally produced goods and locally provided services, there would presumably be less pressure to compete, and thus less strain on the labourer.  It’s worth noting that this lack of competition does not inherently mean a decline in quality; a local businessman or -woman who provides shoddy goods or services will have to answer to his or her neighbours for it, and there is nothing to stop someone else in the locality setting up shop to make up for his or her deficiencies.  Furthermore, if those who work in these businesses are also their owners, either individually or collectively, the need to climb career ladders is diminished considerably.  In this sort of climate, the pace of working life becomes much more managable.  Does it mean doing without certain conveniences and amenities for the consumer?  Yes.  But how much time do we actually save with our microwave dinners and how do we use it?  How much stress is relieved by having 24/7 shops burning neon through the night and what do we do to relax?  How much real happiness do we derive from our year-round supply of nectarines and how grateful are we for them?

On the other hand, with these pressures (of managing continent- and globe-spanning corporations, of providing inessential services every day of the week, or of supplying luxury foods in all seasons and across great distances) relieved, everything slows down.  For example, maternity leave suddenly becomes no big deal.  If the family (there’s that word again) owns its venture outright or has a share in it with other workers, the gap left by the woman moving out of the workplace can be filled, for example, by an apprentice who may hope to acquire his or her own share in the venture alongside the family one day or start a venture of his or her own.  If the family owns its own capital, and provides goods and services only locally, the whole affair becomes much more workable and less risky professionally for the woman.

Which brings us back to the issue of the family basis of the proposal.  Even if the family owns its own capital, thus making it easier for the woman to take leave to care for children, wouldn’t this in practice lead to the (alleged) historical arrangement whereby, in practice, ownership really rests with the husband?  Two answers to this challenge are immediately visible.  First, the historical veracity of this picture has been increasingly questioned.  Of course, in the past as now, women have often been subject to pressures imposed by unbalanced masculinity in culture, but more recent waves of feminist historians have been illuminating the extent to which pre-industrial women really did have a say in the government of family affairs both at home and in the workshop, to say nothing of the temporal and spiritual authority wielded by women religious in the Church.  Second, the ‘barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen’ model doesn’t strike me as a vision of a particularly healthy family, precisely because it seems to be lacking a father.  If the husband and father is never participating in the raising of the children, the entire system of a ‘family-based economy’ surely breaks down.  But in truth, is this not much more the case with modern families living in atomistic capitalist societies?  The absent father (in too many cases mother as well), the alienated and disaffected children, the destruction of community ties, is endemic in the industrialised world.  Owning families, on the other hand, are empowered families, both in their male and female members, and this empowerment extends to the community at large.

Ultimately, it seems that the tension between career and biology for women is a product of modern capitalism rather than something inherent to nature.  And this conflict is not exclusive to women, simply more pronounced; just as the suffocating canary warns the miners that the air is running out, so the frustration of women with finding fulfillment in modern professional structures (as a result of their creative sensitivity to correctly ordered natural processes) is actually a signal to men that those very structures are unsustainable for them as well.  The decline of motherhood, both physically and spiritually, is dangerous for society, but the sublimation of fathers into their careers also poses a dire threat, not only to their own health and happiness, but, more importantly, to the development of future generations.  The frenetic pace of modern business is not sympathetic to women who also (properly and necessarily) wish to be mothers, but it is not sympathetic to men who would be fathers either.  Men must be able to devote time to both their labours and their family, and women must be able to put their talents to use both inside and outside the household.  Everything must slow down and reach a human level, for all our good.

Of course such a proposed transformation of the economy to benefit women and families could not happen smoothly overnight, requiring as it does enormous investment in changing attitudes toward the sexes, the economy, and the family.  But that is not to say it is impossible.  Indeed, the deteriorating economic situation and mounting scarcity of natural resources may mean it is necessary if we are to successfully adapt to our changing social and physical environment.  And even if the crisis were not imminent, true freedom (with its attendant responsibilities), harmony, and justice (not only for women, but for all who labour) are aims that should be pursued together, even if it calls for the sacrifice of our luxuries and conveniences.  Finally, all of this must be placed under the rule of charity, yet one more area where our overly masculinsed society could stand to benefit from the influence of the feminine genius.

Beautiful and True Tuesday, Dec 6 2011 

I try to avoid simple cross-posting, but this is so much better expressed than I would be able to do, and so in need of expression.

The conclusion puts it perfectly:

For those of us worried about the character of our time and our people, slow conversion to the loveliness of things is the task at hand. So much to do, so many bad ideas, so many neglected fences and overgrown windbreaks, so much overgrazed pasture, so many used and discarded persons. Each idea needs replacing, each fence mending, each windbreak pruning, each pasture fallowing, each person restoring, but we’re in it for the long game, we need to think in terms of centuries, not years; of cathedral (re)building, not petition signing. And the long game ahead needs the conversion of our loves, our advertence to the loveliness of the real.

Thanks very much, Mr Snell.

The Lovely Real and the Long Game

Christ the King Sunday, Nov 20 2011 

I once heard a Tridentinist priest give a lecture complaining about how the 1969 revisions to the liturgical calendar had moved the Solemnity of Christ the King from the last Sunday before All Saints’ to the last Sunday of the entire liturgical year, just before the beginning of Advent.  He lamented the fact that such an important feast had been relegated to the end of the year, as if the divine kingship it celebrates was of as much importance as a footnote.

This struck me at the time as a good example of Catholic traditionalism picking a fight for its own sake, and further reflection on the issue has convinced me just how wrong he was.  His argument about the ultimate significance of this solemnity was absolutely correct; but it is that very significance that makes it so appropriate to observe it on the ultimate Sunday of the ecclesiastical year.

Here we stand, just before Advent and the return of the eternal promise (both fulfilled and expected) of the Incarnation, celebrating the eschatological wonder of the Kingdom of Heaven, among us now as the Church and awaiting us in the New Jerusalem.  This is apocalyptic stuff, and it is celebrated at the end of every year because all those doomsaying monks, prophets, and old men of every generation were right, in a way: we are constantly living at the end of time.  We have a responsibility to usher in the promise of the end times, to fight against the corrupting trends that reject the dominion of God-on-Earth.  In modern times, the Vendeans in France and the Cristeros in Mexico seized upon this idea in their struggles for the Faith in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.  But our call in the West of the twenty-first century is not a literal call to arms, but a call to recognise, as Christ says in the Gospel of Saint Luke, that ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’  This does not mean quiescence, doing the best we can as individuals, but rather a recognition that the kingship of Christ depends upon our own morals choices lived out in community.  We must accept the difficult challenge of balancing the need for justice made real in our governments, our markets, and, most importantly, our homes and neighbourhoods with the reality of a fallen world where perfect justice will never be completely achieved until the sheep are separated from the goats.  Christ’s kingship does not and cannot rest on human power, but God does choose to use human beings to accomplish His divine designs.  We must live in the world, empowered by the spirit of baptism, as bailiffs (to use a medieval analogy) of Christ the King, while remembering that sinful men, ourselves included, will fail in our pursuit of the good.  But this must not discourage us from the chase, as we, with our neighbours, Christian or non-Christian alike, work together in our quest for our heavenly homeland.

Babel vs Pentecost: The question of a global political authority Wednesday, Nov 2 2011 

The recent document published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace concerning the global economy and calling for the creation of a ‘global public authority’ has already attracted considerable attention in a variety of fora, including First Things, The American Conservative, A View from the Right, and Front Porch Republic.  It is certainly not a play by Antichrist for world domination, as anti-Catholic bigots may claim (how could the Vatican not have seen that one coming?), but it is still very problematic.  While the document contains a largely accurate outline of the history of the current economic crisis and the reasons for the collapse, as well as some worthwhile specific proposals for amending the practice of the global financial markets, it nearly goes without saying that the overall aim of the publication has deeply troubling ramifications.  Others have written at length about the dangers inherent in any global political authority: the fact that all examples of international authority thus far have often been limited to the point of inefficiency or, when efficient, have used their power with regrettable, though perhaps unintended, consequences; the inevitable threat of corruption and abuse of power; the imposition of universal principles that ignore the validity of particular cultural systems and structures; the failure to recognise that the centralising impulses of statification and globalisation were major contributors to the current problems in the first place; and perhaps most surprisingly, despite the lip service paid to the principle, that such an Authority (written throughout the document with a sinister capital ‘A’) intrinsically contradicts the consistent Church teaching of subsidiarity.  These problems all seem self-evident enough that I do not feel the need to spend further time on them (though we can debate them in the comments if someone feels so inclined).

However, the conclusion of the document (according to a provisional translation) raises an interesting question of biblical exegesis:

Through the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the Bible warns us how the “diversity” of peoples can turn into a vehicle for selfishness and an instrument of division. In humanity there is a real risk that peoples will end up not understanding each other and that cultural diversities will lead to irremediable oppositions. The image of the Tower of Babel also warns us that we must avoid a “unity” that is only apparent, where selfishness and divisions endure because the foundations of the society are not stable. In both cases, Babel is the image of what peoples and individuals can become when they do not recognize their intrinsic transcendent dignity and brotherhood.
The spirit of Babel is the antithesis of the Spirit of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12), of God’s design for the whole of humanity: that is, unity in truth. Only a spirit of concord that rises above divisions and conflicts will allow humanity to be authentically one family and to conceive of a new world with the creation of a world public Authority at the service of the common good.

There are several problems with this interpretation.  The First Things article that I linked above points out that Babel did not start off as a praiseworthy goal, frustrated by selfish ambitions and unwillingness to cooperate.  Instead, it was a project begun in a spirit of cooperation, intending to pursue the common good so that mankind would not ‘be scattered abroad in all the lands.’  It was not their own diversity which prevented this, but rather a diversity given to them by God, to show them that such a monumental project lies beyond the grasp of man.  If anything, the story of Babel should illustrate why (from a mythological point of view) reliance on a global political Authority to save us from or prevent financial crises is fundamentally misplaced.  Babel was an attempt to centralise and unify all of humanity, thus creating a temporal power which would seek to eliminate man’s need for dependence on any Authority other than its own.  It is hard to see how any modern manifestation of global political power would do otherwise.

Therefore the comparison with Pentecost is deeply misleading.  Babel and Pentecost are not equivalent projects pursued in different spirits.  Babel is the ultimate temporal project; Pentecost the ultimate spiritual one.  The creation of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church at Pentecost was the beginning of the first truly universal endeavour for humanity, a unification of the diversity of mankind within the catholic family of God.  But this catholicity is only made possible through the person of Jesus Christ.  Christ combines the universality of God with the particularity of Man, and therefore only a body in touch with Him can achieve harmony on a global scale.  And this harmony is an ecclesiastical one, not a political one; the times in which the representatives of the Church have been most culpable of wrongdoing have been when She has held the most temporal authority.  This is not to say that the Church plays no role in politics; our Faith is sacramental, and therefore calls for interaction with real practical issues.  However, while the Church has universal jurisdiction in spiritual matters, including how those inform political issues (economic morality, rights of minorities, etc.), it cannot hold such jurisdiction in temporal matters.  The ecclesiastical and political, while interrelated, remain separate; simply because the one can manifest unity in communion with Christ does not suggest that such unity is possible through the mechanisms of human government on a global scale.

Runciman’s Glimpse of Ecumenical Unity Saturday, Oct 22 2011 

I am currently reading the late Sir Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople, which, like all of his books, is fascinating.  Granted, Runciman was always much more of a writer than a historian, and he was notorious for liberally imagining some of the scenes in his books, but I found his description of 28 May 1453, the day before the final and successful Turkish assault on the Imperial city, extremely moving.

The years preceding 1453 had been marked by inconclusive attempts to end the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church, culminating in official reunion at the Council of Florence in 1439.  The act of union was agreed to by Emperor John VIII Palæologus and Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople but rejected by many of the clergy and laity under their jurisdiction.  Two successive pro-union patriarchs eventually fled to Rome, and attempts by Emperor Constantine XI to enforce the union only created deep resentment among those opposed to it; but the superficial reconciliation may have facilitated the sharing in the defence of the city by Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans.  At any rate, with Sultan Mehmet II outside the walls, the Turkish troops preparing to breach the walls and sack the city, priorities among the defenders soon changed:

The day was nearly over. Already crowds were moving towards the great Church of the Holy Wisdom.  For the past five months no pious Greek had stepped through its portals to hear the Sacred Liturgy defiled by Latins and by renegades.  But on that evening the bitterness was ended.  Barely a citizen, except for the soldiers on the walls, stayed away from this desperate service of intercession.  Priests who held union with Rome to be a mortal sin now came to the altar to serve with their Unionist brothers.  The Cardinal was there, and beside him bishops who would never acknowledge his authority; and all the people came to make confession and take communion, not caring whether Orthodox or Catholic administered it.  There were Italians and Catalans along with the Greeks.  The golden mosaics, studded with the images of Christ and His Saints and the Emperors and Empresses of Byzantium, glimmered in the light of a thousand lamps and candles; and beneath them for the last time the priests in their splendid vestments moved in the solemn rhythm  of the Liturgy.  At this moment there was union in the Church of Constantinople.

As we both now face a cultural enemy more pervasive than the Turks in the form of material secularism, may God grant us the grace to find such a real unity among the Eastern and Western halves of the Church.  May Rome and Constantinople (and Antioch and Alexandria) commune once more in the full beauty and harmony of their traditions, free from angry recriminations and petty accusations, motivated first and foremost not from fear, but by a spirit of true Christian charity.

The Ecology of Man Thursday, Oct 13 2011 

I am a bit late on the ball with this (by three weeks, in fact) but the busyness of life has made me keep putting off reading the speech that Pope Benedict XVI delivered at Berlin in September.  It is a momentous lecture, in the tradition of his Regensburg address (please read the entire speech before dismissing it as anti-Muslim; such comments ignore the text and miss the real point of the lecture, which is about the intrinsic importance of Greco-Roman philosophy to the Christian tradition), an extremely relevant discussion of the importance of natural law and the Christian cultural heritage to European policy.  His essential point is that our rejection of legal imperatives based on naturally revealed truth—our increasing acceptance of positivist descriptions of the universe that, paradoxically, allow for a relativist attitude toward human behaviour—goes hand-in-hand with our treatment of the physical natural world.  Rather than viewing ourselves as complete masters of nature, both in the environment and in law, we must acknowledge the importance of a creative force (God) that has constructed the temporal and spiritual (and therefore ethical) environment within which we exist.  This fact (this ‘is’) requires responsibility (an ‘ought’) in our personal and political behaviour.  Very interestingly, the Holy Father connects the current crisis with a loss of an understanding of European culture.  He says it better than I can:

The positivist approach to nature and reason, the positivist world view in general, is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with. But in and of itself it is not a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition. Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity.

I say this with Europe specifically in mind, where there are concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for law-making, so that all the other insights and values of our culture are reduced to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum. In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.

I highly recommend reading the entire speech.  It is a fantastic example of the way in which this pope is tackling the crises (environmental, economic, political) facing Europe (and, in slightly different ways, the United States) today.  His reputation may have been built as a brilliant theologian, but his understanding of the interaction between theology, philosophy, and temporal matters is superb, and very much underreported.  The problems facing modern Western society are all linked in ways that are not immediately obvious to those of us trained to look at them from a materialistic perspective, but Benedict has here, as elsewhere, done a wonderful job of bringing to light the interconnectedness of today’s greatest challenges.

Distributism Occupies Wall Street Tuesday, Oct 11 2011 

The folks over at The Distributist Review have put together a wonderful flyer for distribution (sorry) at the Occupy Wall Street protests.  Unfortunately the Atlantic Ocean is a bit wide for me to make it myself, but in case anyone attending stumbles across this blog, I figured I would post a link to the flyer (just for clarity, it is not the same as the Adbusters image below).  Please print it out and share it.

Current dissatisfaction with the system is great, but it has to offer something positive as well as negative.  Hopefully change will come, but we need to encourage that change in the direction of truly humane economics, not another oversized and impersonal solution, whether corporatist or statist.

Schumacher, Part III Friday, Sep 23 2011 

This final post in my Schumacher series is based on the talk given at the seminar at Rhodes House by Ann Pettifor.  Ms Pettifor is an analyst for the Global Financial Initiative, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation, and the director of Advocacy International, as well as a co-founder of the Jubilee 2000 Project. She also correctly predicted the economic crisis brought on by the market collapse of 2008.

Her talk began with an anecdote that reinforced the disconnect between labour and purpose which Simon Trace’s Practical Action works to combat.  However, Ms Pettifor’s example came not from somewhere in the developing world.  Rather, she described the conditions of working in the Australian coal and iron pits.  These pits are made not by creating old fashioned shafts (which have a smaller environmental impact) but are rather large open gashes which are accessed by enormous trucks.  These trucks are sealed and operated by workers who do little more than oversee largely automated processes.  They also operate on a ‘fly-in-fly-out’ basis, meaning that their time in the towns surrounding the pits is limited to the work week, from which they are shuttled back to their homes elsewhere in Australia.  All these factors combine to create a labour population completely alienated from the communities in which it works, and work which is alienated from the labourers who perform it.  Not to mention the environmental damage that is done by such frequent shuttle flights and such large-scale mining operations.

The responsibility for such alienated labour Ms Pettifor placed at the feet of current economic models, particularly for their reliance of consumption on vast scales.  The problem, she claimed, is largely due to our current models’ need for continued consumption on credit, and the excessive faith placed by many policy makers in the Invisible Hand of the market.  Massive consumption creates the licence and need for production on a correspondingly massive scale.  Such production is harmful both to the environment and to people as individuals and in communities.  However, the only way to curb consumption is some form of regulation.

Unfortunately, the panel was running short on time at this point, as I would have liked to have heard Ms Pettifor’s proposals for specific market regulation which would discourage consumption.  When I have time, I intend to thoroughly explore her blogs at Green New Deal Group, Debtonation, and Prime Economics (all of which are also in the links on the left).

The one possibility for establishing moral regulation of the rhythms of the market that she did mention was connected with her work at Jubilee 2000.  Drawing on social codes outlined in the Mosaic Law in Exodus xx 8-10 and Leviticus xxv, she proposed for pauses in our schedule of labour and retail.  First, we might return to forbidding all nonessential work one day of the week.  There really isn’t any need for most 24/7 services, and far from creating more freedom, they often increase the hectic pace of our lives.  Second, we could allow the land to lie fallow for one year out of every seven.  In addition to making agrobusiness unprofitable, this would have incredibly beneficial results for the environment, first and foremost for the replenishment of the nutrients found in the soil.  And finally, every fiftieth year, all debts would be cancelled.  This would prevent the creation of systems of usury that are based on selling packages of debt around the market (such as led to the 2008 collapse).  It would also introduce a higher level of fiscal responsibility at the national level, discouraging situations such as the one in which the United States has found itself recently.  After outlining her Jubilee system, Ms Pettifor remarked, ‘The Sabbath is market regulation; we deregulated the Sabbath.’  Now that’s market regulation that even Bible-thumping Tea Partiers should be able to get behind.

Schumacher, Part II Thursday, Sep 22 2011 

The second session at the E.F. Schumacher seminar was given by Simon Trace, CEO of Practical Action.  First, Mr Trace outlined the ideas that guided Schumacher to found the Intermediate Technology Development Group (as Practical Action was originally named).  Schumacher’s experience studying economics and working as an economic advisor in a number of countries including the United Kingdom, West Germany, Burma, and India led him to discover several unrecognised but related truths.

First, the sort of perpetual growth that many economists throughout the latter half of the twentieth century believed would result from classical liberal market models was impossible.  You simply cannot have infinite growth in a finite system.

This is in large part due to the second truth: that many natural resources are fixed (in practical terms), and our attitude toward them should reflect this.  This is the idea of ‘natural capital.’  Natural resources like fossil fuels must be consumed at rates that are higher than the rate at which they can be replaced.  Therefore we must treat them not as ends to be consumed themselves, but as the source for consumable goods and services.  Natural resources must therefore be cultivated, rather than depleted, in order to continue to supply the economy.

The third truth follows of the preceding two.  The consumption patterns currently exhibited by the United States and Europe may be viable in the short-term, regardless of their long-term inability to be sustainable. However, even in the immediate future, they are completely unsustainable on a global scale.  If our goal is truly to bring the same standard of living that we enjoy in the West to the rest of the world, we will quickly find that the world’s resources cannot carry the weight.  Thus our remaining options are to consign the rest of the world to massive inequality and an even greater burden of poverty as we live luxuriously off of the resources we draw from their societies (the rising tide does not apparently lift all boats; it swamps quite a few) or to bring our own consumption to a sustainable level so we can maintain an acceptable standard of living (a receding tide of material prosperity in the most affluent parts of the world may bring us all to sea level while keeping us off the bottom).  This last point is even more pressing now than it was in Schumacher’s day as we prepare to deal with the rising economic power (and therefore desire for luxuries dependent on scarce natural resources) of societies with massive populations like China and India.

These realisations led Schumacher to a conclusion that remains revolutionary: simple growth as the aim of economic activity is fundamentally wrong.  Instead, our economic, political, and social structures must tackle the person as a whole, including, first and foremost, his spirituality.  This does not mean his creed, but rather the purpose of his life, particularly in this case as it regards labour.

The consequences of this approach to Western aid for the developing world are immense.  In addition to the practical concerns about compatibility with existing infrastructure and sensitivity to alien cultural priorities, this focus on the process in addition to the ends of economic activity challenges the very desirability of introducing highly sophisticated Western labour-saving technologies in order to alleviate global poverty and suffering.  Schumacher instead proposes what he calls ‘intermediate technology,’ though the term ‘appropriate technology’ better reflects his meaning and is now more widely used.  The term is highly adaptable, which is part of the purpose of the idea.  It encompasses three principles: it should be low in cost so as to be affordable to virtually everyone in the societies which it serves; it should be human in scale, rather than requiring enormous amounts of automated labour; and it must accommodate man’s inherent need for creativity.  This is the antidote to the soul-numbing mass-production line.

Mr Trace then proceeded to outline the practical reasons for why the need for such technology was so urgent in the developing world, where Practical Action focuses its energies.  Many areas have little or no access to the most basic services, such as clean water or electricity.  There is little opportunity for the establishment of sustainable livelihoods in much of the developing world, where supposed economic opportunities in the cities depopulate the countryside, only to fill the cities with a surplus of unskilled labourers who suffer from unemployment on a massive scale.  Finally, the frequent scarce availability of food, brought on by droughts, floods, wars, or poor ecological and agricultural practice (often encouraged by Western interests) creates famines that further retard the ability to create sustainable livelihoods.

The solution of appropriate technology is designed to counter these problems by meeting the needs of areas in crisis where they are.  It does not require massive outlays of capital, it does not overrun traditional practices thereby alienating those who do and should remain attached to their native culture, and it orients labour toward human ends rather than humans toward the ends of labour.

Mr Trace concluded with a discussion of what Practical Action calls ‘technology justice.’  The principle behind the introduction of technology should not be the growth of consumption but rather the growth in human well-being.  Furthermore, the choices we make regarding technology shape the societies in which we live (we need only look at our own obsession with social networking sites and ‘smart’ mobile devices for evidence of this).  Recognising these two truths, ‘justice’ concerning technology is found, according to Mr Trace, in the right to the use of technology that allows societies to live the life they value, so long as it does not compromise other contemporary or future societies’ ability to do the same.

For the most part, I find this a compelling principle.  However, I do have reservations about definitions of justice that make cavalier rights claims.  Do any of us have a ‘right to technology’ (of any sort) in the same way that we have a right to the freedom of conscience?  Perhaps the bigger issue is how one determines what sort of technology it is that allows a society to live the life that it values.  Thankfully, traditional elements are sometimes strong enough in foreign cultures to attempt to resist the influence of Western priorities.  But the deluge of Western advertising as Western companies try to make inroads into foreign markets undermines this conservatism, and the lure of iPhones and plasma televisions can blot out ancestral heritage and wisdom, as it has largely done in the West.  I’m not sure that I trust purely democratic processes to protect the interests of their societies when sexy advertising backed by American dollars is thrown into the equation.

This flows into my second concern about Mr Trace’s talk.  As Mr Trace acknowledged, Schumacher intended appropriate technology to be a principle applied not only in the developing world, but also in Europe and the United States.  Mr Trace made a very compelling case for the urgency with which the solutions offered by appropriate technology are needed in the developing world.  People are suffering and dying without them.  But so long as all of our energy and resources are being dedicated to implementing appropriate technology in the developing world, it seems to me that we are trying to build the sand castle on the same spot in between each wave of the incoming tide.  Surely so long as the West continues to live in the material luxury that we now enjoy and broadcast it to the rest of the world through television sitcoms and Coca-Cola advertisements, the rest of the world will continue to think of appropriate technologies as stopgap measures that are either a rung on the ladder to the American lifestyle or an appeasement measure intended to keep them from climbing that ladder.  We are basking in comfort and convenience, occasionally thinking it’s a pity that others can’t live like this, while selling the appeal of our material prosperity to who cannot afford it.  But even if (or even when) they could (or can), such a strain on the limited resources that make such prosperity possible (if only for a small percentage of the world for a short period of time) will bring the entire house of cards crashing down.  Therefore, doesn’t there need to be at least equal energy devoted toward implementing appropriate technological solution in the West?  Certainly, it is a more challenging and thankless task; who wants to give up on cheap Wal-Mart or Primark goods that wear out within the year for more expensive, but higher quality and more durable goods made by artisans?  However, I do believe that encouraging and implementing appropriate technology here in Europe and the United States (particularly in the realm of agriculture and encouraging small-holding farms, the need for which is especially dire in the U.S.) is the only way to make appropriate technology sustainable as a philosophy.

When I asked Mr Trace about this concern, he directed me toward several organisations at work in the United Kingdom: the Soil Association, the Centre for Alternative Technology, and the New Economics Foundation.  There is also the E.F. Schumacher Society, and for those interested in work in the developing world, Practical Action. These are all also in the links to the left.

Tomorrow will be a summary of the talk by Ann Pettifor on the imminent relevance of the work and ideas of E.F. Schumacher in light of the current economic crisis.

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