Thursday, October 24

The peril inherent in procrastinations.

I noticed a recent tribute in relation to the canonization on the 13th October this year of Cardinal John Henry in the Tablet. 

But I found the following of interest in relation to his views on slavery.  In  'A Church That Can and Cannot Change' - By JOHN T. NOONAN, JR. - Published: May 22, 2005  the author notes  that on October 26, 1863, Thomas William Allies, a lecturer on history at Oxford University and a convert to the Catholic Church, sent Newman the draft of a lecture in which he pronounced slavery to be intrinsically evil. He wanted his friend's opinion. Newman replied cautiously: "I do not materially differ from you, though I do still startle at some of the sentences of your Lecture." The source of his startle was St. Paul.   

The reply by Newman was as follows: :

"That which is intrinsically and per se evil, we cannot give way to for an hour. That which is only accidentally evil, we can meet according to what is expedient, giving different rules, according to the particular case. St. Paul would have got rid of despotism if he could. He could not, he left the desirable object to the slow working of Christian principles. So he would have got rid of slavery, if he could. He did not, because he could not, but had it been intrinsically evil, had it been in se a sin, it must have been said to Philemon, liberate all your slaves at once."
The author Noonan then notes that Newman appears to let his imagination wander from the slaveowner to the slave, declaring:

"I had rather have been a slave in the Holy Land, than a courtier of Xerxes or a solider of Zingis Khan." This fantasy is not a digression. In putting himself in the place of a slave, Newman is following a classic pattern.

He supposes his soul to be unaffected by the body's servile state. Imagined in this way, slavery does not destroy or even impair the essential self. Newman's vision of slavery is the antithesis of an account of slavery that sees it as an assault upon the person.

The dualism implicit in this view is a prime reason why slavery was so long seen as acceptable.

Another perspective is the conclusion of scholar Professor Gerard Magill of Duquesne University-in his book ‘Religious Morality in John Henry Newman”, Gerald Magill, Springer International Publishing, taken from page 121.  

What I find interesting in the defence by Magill(  if you can call it that ) of Newman, since it is rests on 2 claims. He references St Paul- whereas I think it very likely St Paul would have condemned slavery it if he could, but at that time he would have faced the wrath of the authorities. For he never comes out and endorses it either or seeks to uphold the practice of slavery. St Paul aims to steer an impossible middle course to try and take way the resentment of the slave but at the same time also rally against any brutality and abuse by the owners. Calling on slaves to be obedient to their masters, was interrupted as slavery was to be accepted since ‘liberty could only be expected in the next world’.  That doesn’t endorse it, nor could it provide any moral justification.     
The other defence is that things were moving slowly in the church, so it was only just coming to grips with the immorality of slavery.      

But previous Popes had condemned slavery, inclusive of Gregory XIV – 1639 and Benedict - 1741. The fact that these concerns never filtered down into official teachings is yet another story.   

Hence I think Magill is being a bit magnanimous.

"What is shocking for readers today is he [Newman] did not recognize slavery as a “natural perception” of wrong that is “absolutely immoral.”

 First, it is astounding that he wrote his comments long after slavery had been abolished across the British Empire – the Slavery Abolition Act occurred in 1833. Second, his remark about the “slow working of Christian principles” appears to reflect his principle of economy about the progressive unfolding of truth. In reality, it took until the late nineteenth century and beyond for the modern world to recognize the abhorrence of slavery. Newman also recognized that point (“to enslave is a horrible sin”), but seemed oblivious to viewing slavery as being intrinsically wrong. In fairness, two points can be made to explain his stance, On the one hand, the evangelical strain in his thought perhaps found it too difficult to take a position that was not consistent with that of St. Paul in Scripture. After all, biblical hermeneutics, especially in Catholicism, developed in a very sophisticated manner after Newman’s time. On the other hand, official Catholic teaching seems to have taken another 100 years to condemn slavery, not occurring effectively until Vatican II. 19 19 Pastoral constitution (1966), number 27.


Sunday, October 20

Evil and Religion

My inclination is to say we perceive something is intrinsically wrong or evil because we believe it’s unequivocally known to be harmful or wrong. But the question of what role religion plays is a worthy discussion point because it raises the question of evil and how it arises. The biblical texts give us rich history over thousands of years of good and evil, from which we can understand our roots. What is evident is the changing circumstances and how the expanded ideas on morality developed over time. In the Judeo/Christian tradition is has certainly shaped our democracies far more than is oft realised.  
Of course at various times in history and in our lives certain things were not known that were clearly wrong. That is inevitable, but turning a blind eye subsequently because there are practical difficulties or saying it was accidental, doesn’t excuse us taking any remedial action.   

Professor Raymond Tallis (‘Philosophy Now’) has a mixture of interesting thoughts.    
This is his summary.  

We need to preserve the vast, rich cultural legacy owing to, or inspired by, religious belief. We cannot forget or actively reject this without losing something irreplaceably precious in ourselves. The legacy is not simply out there in the public realm as a collective heritage of art, literature, architecture, and music. It is in the very fibre of our individual and social being. The atheist, existentialist, Marxist, Maoist, Jean-Paul Sartre highlighted this in L’Idiot de la Famille, cited and translated by Robert Cumming in Starting Point (1979, p.225):

“We are all Christians, even today; the most radical disbelief is still Christian atheism. In other words, it retains, in spite of its destructive power, schemata which are controlling – very slightly for our thinking, more for our imagination, above all for our sensibility. And the origins of these schemata are to be sought in centuries of Christianity of which we are the heirs whether we like it or not.”

At the very least, humanist philosophers should spend less time brooding on the wickedness seemingly inspired by religious belief, and more on what religion tells us about our nature. Most importantly, we should consider what we can learn from the history of religions, how a sense of the transcendent – what theologian Hans Kung characterised as “a particular social realisation of a relationship to an absolute ground of meaning”, answering an existential hunger experienced by all humans – can play into our lives for good or ill. In particular, how we can avoid the path that leads from beatific visions to thuggery – a question that is as much a challenge for secular humanism as it is for religious believers.