Monday, 21 May 2018

Albertus Institute talk 13 June

Slavery in the Classical Age.

18:00, Wed 13th Jun, 2018
The Garden Room of St Albert's Catholic Chaplaincy, 23 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LD. Entrance via George Square Lane.

The Speaker, Dr Ulrike Roth (university homepage here), is Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

The talk will be chaired by Dr Gordon Wyllie.

The talk is free but any voluntary contributions will be gratefully received and can be gift-aided.

For further details and online registration see here.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Albertus Institute Talk: Friday 18 May

What have the early Christians ever done for us? Sex, slavery and social order.

The speaker, Dr Sara Parvis, Senior Lecturer in Patristics at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh (university profile here).

The talk will be chaired by Dr Elizabeth Drummond Young, Open Studies Tutor, University of Edinburgh.

The talk is free but any voluntary contributions will be gratefully received and can be gift-aided.
Please note: Access to the Garden Room is through the garden via the gateway in George Square Lane. The Lane is behind 23 and 24 George Square and runs parallel with Middle Meadow Walk. There is one disabled parking space in the Lane reserved for people coming to St Albert’s.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Catholic Social Teaching at St Albert's: session 3

Final session tonight (Tuesday 24 April 2018) on the individual and God!

Last week I talked about the importance of human nature and especially our social nature: that we naturally lived in a variety of relationships among which the family as the primary vehicle of projecting our earthly lives beyond death into a next generation was of key importance. I also talked of the way that a revival of Aristotelian thought in modern, Anglophone ethics was generally supportive of the basis of Catholic, particularly Thomist thought, in Aristotle.

(For further reading on this you could try Elizabeth Anscombe's classic paper, 'Modern Moral Philosophy' here. This is often regarded as the foundation stone of modern virtue ethics, an article about which can be found here.)

I've also occasionally talked about the slogan 'Don't immanentize the eschaton!', popularized by the American conservative Catholic, William F. Buckley (Wikipedia explanation here.) The broad meaning of this phrase is that much that is wrong in modernity is caused by the desire to make heaven on earth.

This evening, the main emphasis of my talk will be on the correct orientation of society towards heaven in heaven: the supernatural end of human beings. In Catholic piety, part of this is reflected in the sense of earthly life being an exile which pervades the Salve Regina:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us;
And after this our exile,
Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving,
O sweet Virgin Mary.
But this sense of the profound incompleteness of earthly life is also found in pre-Christian, classical philosophy, most obviously in Aristotle's emphasis on the importance of contemplation of divine things in the flourishing human life, and in Plato's emphasis on philosophy as a preparation for death (see here for a relevant excerpt from the Phaedo).

Further reading:

The previous Albertus blog course on Anthony Esolen's book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, reflects his strong emphasis on religion practice as the centre of social life. The course can be followed online beginning with the introduction here and clicking on the 'Esolen' label at the bottom of the page to find the remaining posts.

[Image details: Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean by Gustave Doré. Details here.]

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Catholic Social Teaching at St Albert's: session 2

Tonight's session (17 April) will focus primarily on those units lower than the State: this is roughly the sphere of the individual, the family and civil society. (The individual will be left mostly until the final session.)

Perhaps the key to this session is the view that human beings naturally form relationships for a variety of purposes. In Aristotle's analysis, which is broadly taken over by Aquinas, the key levels of this community building are the family, the village and the polis (the city state). (It's notworthy that Aristotle, like Plato, does not pay much attention to an international order.) In modernity, there is a tendency for the State to take all authority for itself and to diminish the status of these communities. The disruption of this natural pattern of community forming (whether by the State or businesses) is harmful to the natural pattern of human life and thus to our flourishing.

Recommended sources:

Although I wouldn't claim that Edmund Burke's political philosophy is entirely compatible with Catholic social teaching, it does provide an interesting Anglophone comparison with obvious echoes. An article on his thought may be found here. A previous blogcourse (!) on the thought of Russell Kirk -an American Catholic conservative thinker much influenced by Burke- can be found here.

Aristotle's (Nicomachean) Ethics can be found online here. (The most relevant discussion for this session is found in Book VIII on philia (friendship/relationships). Aquinas' commentary on it can be found here.

[Picture credit: The Blind Fiddler (after Sir David Wilkie). From Wikigallery here]

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Catholic Social Teaching Course at St Albert's April 2018

Over the next three weeks, I'm going to be presenting a course on Catholic Social Teaching for the Justice and Peace Group at St Albert's in Edinburgh:


Dr Stephen Watt will give a series of three talks on Catholic Social Teaching. The talks will be on Tuesday 10th April, 17th April and 24th April at 7pm in the Garden Room. The talks are free and there will be opportunity for Q&A. Catholic Social Teaching is a great resource for Catholics and non-Catholics alike and underpins the Church’s response to the J&P issues of our time. All welcome.

[From the St Albert's newsletter w/c 8 April. Website here.]

Although these talks are not under the aegis of the Albertus Institute, both from convenience and because of the close connection between the subject matter of the talks and the primary focus of this blog, I'll be posting here to provide additional commentary on the sessions, as well as links to supplementary resources.

Before the first meeting, I thought I'd try and do a brief sketch of how I see the talks and their progress over the three weeks.

One background assumption is that the talks are going to emphasize intellectual exploration. That's worth highlighting because much exploration of Catholic social teaching has a practical orientation: roughly, once you've been sensitized to some key principles of the teaching, the main aim is to put those principles into action. Although I'd hope that what we do in the coming weeks may well have some effects on how we act in the future, any such practical effects will be the indirect consequence of an improved understanding.

Now I could leave it there merely as an assumption, but let me try to defend it as an approach. There are many things I could say here. I could, for example, simply point to the Church's (and particularly the Dominicans') long tradition of academic study. I could also point to the need, in any society but particularly in democratic ones, to persuade others by argument. But perhaps a more fundamental way of defending the approach is in thinking about the importance of wisdom in Catholicism. In the process of sanctification (ie trying to get as close to God as possible) the development of wisdom is an important element. That doesn't mean necessarily academic study for everyone, but, given the conditions of a modern society, it will do for large numbers of people. So intellectual exploration of important issues is going to be a part of growing closer to God.

A second background assumption is that Catholic social teaching is important because it concerns almost everything about human nature. One of the worries I have about some popular presentations of Catholic social teaching is that they tend to isolate and restrict it. For example, you'll often read that it started in 1891 with the Encyclical Rerum Novarum. You may even get the impression that it simply concerns giving aid to developing countries. But Catholic social teaching (insofar as it means teaching on human beings and society) goes back to Scripture and uses political philosophy that goes back to Plato and Aristotle as developed over the 2000 years of the Church's history. One of the things I'll be trying to do in the coming weeks is to reconnect some of the more recent teachings on social issues with this older inheritance and thereby to understand it better.

A third -and final- assumption results from me and my background. My academic training is predominantly in philosophy and ancient Greek political and moral philosophy. That background undoubtedly affects how I see the subject matter and how I will present the talks. First, as a philosopher, I'm more interested in exploring and arguing about the ideas than in providing clear cut answers. Given the wide nature of the subject matter I emphasized in the second assumption above, I'd expect us to emerge at the other end with a deeper understanding of some key points, but perhaps in some ways even more confused than we were at the beginning! That'd be a good thing: these are often complex issues and a bit of humility about our understanding of them is a key part of wisdom. Secondly, as a philosopher who specializes in Ancient Greek philosophy, I suspect I'm often going to go back to Plato and Aristotle in particular, as well as to how that tradition was developed in Catholic thinkers such as Aquinas. I'd give two justifications for that particular approach. The first is broadly pragmatic. There are any number of approaches you might take to Catholic social teaching. You might, for example, compare it with English language political philosophy such as that of Locke or Hobbes. You might compare it with modern neo-liberal thinkers such as Hayek or Nozick. (And I'm sure I'll be doing some of this!) But since Classical political philosophy is still regarded as an important source for political thinking, it is perfectly reasonable to take an approach which puts that approach and Catholic social teaching into dialogue -and it just so happens that this happens to be the sort of thing that I happen to have the background to do. The second justification rests on the way Classical Greek philosophy has been central to the Catholic intellectual tradition. St Thomas Aquinas has regularly been offered as a model for Catholic thinking -and it is impossible to understand Aquinas without reference to the background of Platonism and Aristotelianism from which he developed much of his theology and philosophy. Moreover, as Pope Benedict argued in his Regensburg address:

I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος [logos] ". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγ [sun logo], with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

To summarize:

a) The course is going to emphasize deepening our understanding of Catholic social teaching rather than providing a recipe for practical action.
b) There's going to be a strong emphasis on developing that understanding through the philosophical and theological tradition of the Church, and through the roots of that tradition in Classical Greek philosophy.

Further reading:

You might find the following helpful:

a) Basic resources for the course:

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (online)
Catechism of the Catholic Church (online)

b) Other material:

i) St John Paul II's Encyclical on the relationship between philosophy and faith: Fides et ratio. Link.

ii) Pope Benedict lecture on the place of reason and Greek thought in understanding God: the Regensburg address. Link.

iii) Stanford Encyclopedia article on St Thomas Aquinas: Link.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Bishop Nolan's Letter on Refugees and Asylum Seekers

 In his letter for Justice and Peace Sunday (7 January 2018), Bishop William Nolan, President of the Justice and Peace Commission reflects on his recent visit to Calais and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We like to think that we are a welcoming people, and indeed we are. Towns and villages throughout Scotland have shown a warm welcome in recent months to asylum seekers and refugees seeking safety and a new life.

But many never get to set foot in our country to experience that welcome. The UK government controls immigration and that control ensures that many who wish to come here are hindered from doing so.

Last month I visited migrants in Calais and met people who have fled war and persecution. They hope for a better life in the UK, but meanwhile they endure harassment from the authorities designed to chase them away. Police remove their tents, confiscate their sleeping bags and move them on during the night as they sleep rough in the woods. There are unaccompanied children among these migrants. Their welfare is of particular concern.

Thankfully there are some who recognize a fellow human being in need and treat migrants with the kindness their human dignity demands. Sécours Catholique and volunteers from a variety of aid agencies supply food and clothing. Many of the volunteers are not Christian, but they certainly act as Christians should.

The number of those in France wanting to get to the UK is not large compared to the great number of refugees in Europe and the vast numbers throughout the world.

There have always been refugees. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were refugees in Egypt. But we have a refugee crisis for our time that is on an unprecedented scale worldwide. Perhaps if we spent less money funding war and more funding peace; perhaps if we put less effort into selling arms and more effort into eradicating poverty; then fewer people would be forced to leave their homeland and their families.

Military spending worldwide is $1.7 trillion annually. If that was reduced by only 10%, and that money spent on development, then the United Nations’ development goals could be reached and poverty and hunger eradicated.

Meanwhile, there are many in our country who would like to welcome refugees. I know of people who, at no cost to the state, would happily house and support refugees while their asylum application was being heard. This is something the Scottish Government should seriously consider.

But it is the UK Government which controls the numbers allowed to enter the country. So far the UK response to the global refugee crisis has been less than generous.

Pope Francis speaks of the world as being our common home, may the part of that common home where we live be a place of welcome for those in need.

May I wish you every blessing as we begin this New Year, and may God bless our efforts as we work and pray for peace and justice for all.

Yours in Christ,

+ William Nolan
President of the Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission

(from Justice and Peace Scotland site)
Stephen Watt writes:

Further material on Catholic views in this area can be found

-on the USCCB site here
-on the Justice and Peace Scotland site here

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from all at the Albertus Institute!

[Details of image: Master of Vyšší Brod, 1350. Full details here.