The community of suffering

Good Friday and Easter Sunday are occasions when I become particularly aware of the Church as a community. We come together in front of the mystery of suffering, and the mystery of resurrection. Community carries the meaning of a diversity coming together as one. But it is interesting to consider how this unity is founded on the natural condition of the human race.

First, of course, we are all blood relations. The geneticists tell us that we share the same maternal and paternal inheritance. It is true that their “Adam and Eve” did not live at the same time, but that we are all relations through common ancestry is well established.

We need to go back to Aristotle to see explicit recognition of ourselves as social animals. We are necessarily interdependent, and we need to arrange our affairs in accordance with that if we are to flourish. Indeed we could derive this conclusion from the social commandments, which are in effect a list of instructions on what to avoid in order to live together fruitfully.

This is a deep point of contact for the human race; it shares a broad view not only that there is right and wrong, but also there is a commonality about what constitutes right and wrong. This may not always be apparent. But the sceptical philosophers who set out to deny this – from Hume to Ayer – show sub-cutaneous acceptance in the way they live their own lives. And if we disagree in some instances about our moral conclusions, we are still able to discuss them constructively because we recognise each other’s moral insights.

Our instincts here are supported by inherited characteristics. One of the strongest moral influences on us arises from the culture in which we live. We do not need deep insight to see how our own views have been influenced – by no means always for the best – over a period of time. We must accept that our brains send us warning signals when we go against the crowd. While these signals are broadly necessary for the stability of a society, their arationality requires our rational confirmation or rejection.

Our tendency towards altruism normally provides an important benefit, which is why it has developed through evolution. It is also arational, and so requires our conscious confirmation. But it does in turn lead us to an important human characteristic: theory of mind.

Theory of mind is quite simply our apparent ability to interpret what is going on in other persons’ minds. “Apparent” because it is fallible, but useful as a working hypothesis. Without it, empathy would be impossible and the “golden rule” of do-as-you-would-be-done-by would be nullified. We know that our response to other people’s feelings and actions may be mirrored in our brains. And a recent study shows the wide range of subtle facial expressions which can be accurately recognised.

So, if all the hard evidence shows the unity derived from our creation through the image and likeness of God, how do we understand this in terms of the Church? The answer is wonderful. Paul speaks to us of the mystical body of the Church. It has a variety of members but, like a human body, every member is needed by the whole. And the unity is cemented by love. The briefest reading of his account both inspires and depresses, for few of us live up to it. But Paul has more to say, elsewhere.

“And I live, now not I; but Christ lives in me.” – our unity lies in our real identity in Christ. And I shudder because I doubt how well the outside world sees that in me. He tells us that his sufferings fill up “those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ.” That is a strange statement. But the message is clear: it tells us that our suffering has now become part of the redemption. Not a single pang is wasted, not a single pang is without meaning. The mystery of suffering has foxed many people, but the real mystery lies in how our personal suffering and Christ’s suffering is one entity common to us all. We are there on the cross too. That is the final identity we share.

I recall vividly the occasion when I realised this. I was attending a Requiem Mass for the young wife of a friend of mine. I was trying to understand the meaning of this cruel tragedy. Then, at the Elevation, I saw it. Like so many mysterious things, sometimes only poetry can explain an understanding, and so I wrote this to capture the moment. If you are not sure who is speaking: me, or the husband, or Christ, you are reading it aright.

This is my body, the high priest said,
And my blood, as he proffered the wine;
And I trembled in front of the chalice
For I saw the body was mine.

I had thought the price of my passion
Had satisfied sin and had won,
But the bread on the table was broken
With suffering still to be done.

I had known the scourge and the nailing
I had known the rack of the tree;
And I saw them again in the chalice
Which the high priest offered to me.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy, Spirituality | Tagged | 41 Comments

Right and wrong for all?

Our regular contributor, Nektarios, has made a comment on “Three into one don’t go” which I summarise here:

We have not touched on Christian ethics or the fact that over the last fifty years these have been largely abandoned by the medical profession, and replaced with secular ethics. Most contributors to the Blog respond in terms of Christian ethics but the Church seems reluctant and effete when faced with the secular ethics applied by scientists in the medical and other professions.

And he finishes “We can of course be thankful for the many advances in treatments over the years, but many of them, unethical in my view, have led and continue to lead mankind into moral and destructive behaviour which in some cases threaten the very cohesion and fabric of society.” (His full comment can be found in “Three into one won’t go.”)

This raises in my mind issues which we might usefully discuss.

Are Christian ethics different from secular ethics? One could argue that, since Christian ethics are based on the nature of man (natural law) they should be the same. And that would mean that the rational arguments we use to defend natural law should be acceptable to all.

On the other hand we might expect that since the Christian Church starts from the belief that man is made in the image and likeness of God, and has an eternal destiny, in certain respects its ethics would reflect this. For example, the dignity of man created by God might well inform our attitude towards mitochondrial transfer. However we could not reasonably expect non-believers to accept these assumptions nor the ethics which depend on them.

We might also want to consider the responses to the consultation preparing for the Synod. These show very clearly that, in matters concerning marriage and sexuality, the Catholic Church has failed to convince many of its own members. Can we then expect them to convince non-believers?

This is by no means only concerned with sexual matters. How about our attitudes to war, or to the just distribution of resources in our society? Do our public figures respect the obligation to speak the truth? Are our politicians more concerned with winning elections than the common good? Are the Media casual about destroying reputations? And so on.

Can we give some thought to how Christian ethics might be argued in a way which could make them acceptable to all?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 39 Comments

Three into one won’t go

The idea of children born of three parents smacks of science fiction. We may well feel that, by comparison, minor tweaks in the DNA of the embryo are small beer. Yet it is a real and immediate prospect allowed by an amendment to British law. Currently the Department of Health has issued draft regulations for its introduction and is requesting reviews from “stakeholders” and the wider public. That means us. So what are we going to do about it?

This is an introductory guide which I hope will lead you study the material.I will, of course, be focusing on the questions which interest us as Catholics. As the survey only addresses draft regulations, opportunities to express our views are limited.

The human cell contains two sets of DNA. The first is the DNA which carries our personal characteristics (nuclear DNA). At conception, the mother and father’s DNA combine a new mix of their DNA to be the “blueprint” for the baby. In turn, this blueprint will be inherited. The second is mitochondrial DNA. This does not contain personal characteristics but provides most of the cell’s energy. They are sometimes called the “battery pack”. They represent a 10th of one per cent of the total DNA, and they are believed to be of bacterial origin. Only the mother’s mitochondrial DNA are passed on to the child. Faulty mitochondria can cause widespread damage because they affect cell function. The list of disorders which may be caused is long and frightening. There is no cure. As a parent of 21 healthy descendants, I blanch when I read it.

In some cases the effect can be mitigated by implanting only the healthiest embryos, or by aborting damaged foetuses at a later stage. But, in more complex cases, another solution – still at an experimental stage – may be proposed. It is possible to remove the faulty mitochondria and to replace it with healthy mitochondria from a donor. There is good evidence that this will work well and safely, but ultimately only long-term experience of use will tell. Two processes are envisaged.

The first (maternal spindle transfer) is to take the mother’s personal DNA from her egg, and to insert it into the donor’s egg (from which the donor’s personal DNA has been removed). The egg is then fertilised. The second (pro-nuclear transfer) involves inserting the maternal and paternal elements from a fertilised egg into a healthy donor embryo from which the corresponding elements have been removed. The transfer takes place during the process of fertilisation but before the parental elements have fused. In either case the resulting child will have three DNA sources: mother, father and donor. In both procedures the donor’s mitochondria will enter the germ line: it will be inheritable.

In reviewing the moral aspect of these processes, we must start by accepting that the immediate benefits of successful mitochondrial replacement are potentially large. It is estimated that there would, at least initially, be no more than 10 eligible cases a year, but these could be 10 tragedies averted. But there are alternatives: adoption, donor eggs (with its own moral questions) and simply accepting the vocation of childlessness.

The issue of a child with three parents immediately comes to mind. But it is argued that this reaction is not justified. Since mitochondrial DNA has only mechanical effects and conveys no personal characteristics, the idea of an additional parent is unwarranted. Yet many will be concerned with foreign DNA being introduced into the germ line and remaining there indefinitely. And can we gauge the long-term effects of such a novel and extreme procedure through future generations?

The “slippery slope” argument will certainly be a consideration. While mitochondrial transfer is altogether different from inserting personal DNA, it can be argued that accepting the alteration of the germ line opens the door to unfettered genetic manipulation. Defenders of the procedure are quick to point out that, if it is not available under what will be our carefully considered legislation, it will certainly be available in other countries, and probably in unrestricted and questionable ways.

The procedures themselves raise moral questions. Both require removal of the ova from the reproductive tract and artificial insemination. The pro-nuclear transfer requires the manipulation of a fertilised egg – but one in which the blueprint DNA of the new baby has not yet formed. Thus it would seem that it does not yet constitute a human individual. Thus it would seem that it does not yet constitute a human individual. But the general prohibition of interference with the process of human reproduction would be breached.

You may be helped here by reference to the Catechism, remembering, of course, that this precise procedure was not considered at the time of drafting, nor was a distinction made between the start of the fertilisation process and the point at which the parental DNAs are fused (approximately 24 hours). Paragraphs 2376/7 address the issue of dissociation of the sexual act from the procreative act. This intervention alone may be sufficient to settle the question for many, but others might argue that the therapeutic intention of the procedures provides justification. The fact that the Church’s views on this may not be persuasive in the public forum should not prevent us from expressing them.

The link below will take you to the D of H enquiry. The other link will give you further information, including an excellent discussion of different ethical views.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , | 19 Comments

What really happened…

In July 2008, I interviewed the late Professor John Marshall in the Catholic Herald on his experience as a member of the Papal Commission on Contraception. It was the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

The last 40 years has seen, in western countries, a dramatic decline in
active Catholic membership, marriages and vocations. And many would
attribute in large measure this sorry state of affairs to the publication by
Pope Paul VI of Humanae Vitae on July 25 1968. Its ruling that the
established teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception should remain in
force rejected the firm recommendations of the Papal Commission which had
been studying the issue since it had been appointed by John XXIII. It first
met in October 1963.

Professor John Marshall, a distinguished neurologist who had spent much of
his professional life studying the science behind natural family planning
and working with the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now Marriage Care),
was a founder member of the commission. Now he was digging into his
excellent memory. This could be the last time a founder member would be able
to tell us about a proceeding of deep significance to the Church. I asked
him if the task had been to examine whether the traditional teaching should
be modified.

“On the contrary,” he replied. “The UN was concerned with discussions on
population problems, and our job was to establish the firmest and most
coherent support for Catholic teaching based on good science and
demographics. I don¹t think anyone at that stage thought of any change in
the teaching itself. But our little band of six realised the need for
additional firepower. So when we reconvened we had seven additions.”
Five of these additions were theologians, including Joseph Fuchs and Bernard
Häring theologians of international reputation. How important were the

“Not just important crucial, as it turned out. Pierre de Lochte¹s
contribution proved to be a turning point.”

He continued: “The commission, urged on by the growing scientific knowledge
that only a small minority of acts of intercourse could lead to conception,
had begun to consider whether the issue should change its focus from the old
categories of the primary and secondary ends of marriage and its sexual
expression, to the community of love in the marriage. And the question of
the structure of the marriage act did not of course apply to the Pill. So we
had to dig deeper, and it was de Lochte who clarified that we were now
dealing with questions of fundamental theology.”

I wondered whether that was when the commission realised that the teaching
would have to change.

“Certainly not. There was strong opposition to any change from some, and
even those who were prepared to contemplate it were initially very uncertain
and alive to the momentous consequences of change. I would describe it as a
gradual realisation by the majority over periods of long discussion and
thought. You must remember that by the time of the final general meeting in
1965, there were 58 members, and now included Catholic married couples.”

I asked him to summarise the outcome of these considerations.
“Do you want the short answer or the long answer?” But he did not need my
reply; he is a succinct man with a brain like a scalpel blade. “The short
answer is that we concluded that the foundation is married love which
expresses itself ideally and most fully in the generous procreation of
children, both in their conception and continued care. Taken within this
perspective the need for every marriage act to maintain its structural
openness to conception is not necessary and may, in many circumstances, run
counter to the virtue of prudence.”

I asked whether natural planning would not have offered a satisfactory
method of achieving these objectives without interfering with the structure
of sexual intercourse. He took the view that it was man’s vocation to invent
or discover ways of bringing order to creation. The use of the safe period
was just such a control of nature, as were barrier contraceptives or the
temporary suspension of fertility through the Pill. All such methods reduced
the fullness of the sexual gift in a sense but, used responsibly, served the
higher end of marital love.

Although he and others were well aware that natural family planning, as used
at that time, could be a problem for many, the presentation by the late
Patty Crowley (who co-founded with her husband the Catholic Family Movement in America) of a survey she had been asked to conduct brought, he said, a taste of reality to those who had little pastoral experience.

It brought home the fact that well-motivated, active, Catholic couples had
on the whole valued the method but that a large majority had also found it
had harmed their relationship in various ways. It broadly concluded that the
method was not suitable for all couples and probably unsuitable for almost
any couple throughout the whole of their married lives. It would be
difficult to repeat such a survey now in the light of improved methods,
since practising Catholic married couples who use natural family planning
exclusively are no longer representative of the general population.

It was Patty who was later to reply to Fr Marcelino Zalba’s question: “What
then with the millions we have sent to hell, if the rules are relaxed?” She
responded “Fr Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your

“Perhaps,” Professor Marshall said, “the real turning point came in April
1965 when the four theologians who were opposed to change admitted that they
could not demonstrate the intrinsic evil of contraception through natural
law. They based their case on the tradition of the Church, and the moral
laxity which contraception would introduce. Interestingly, the Pope cited
the natural law in support of his final judgment but without giving any
further reasoning. And none has been forthcoming.”

The additional select group appointed for the final meeting to consider the
Majority Report consisted of six cardinals, 13 archbishops, one bishop and
the Pope’s theologian. The report was approved following preliminary voting
by the bishops on specific questions: was contraception intrinsically evil?
By a substantial majority the answer was no. Was the recommendation on
contraception in the report in basic continuity with tradition and the
teaching the Magisterium? By a substantial majority the answer was yes.
Subsequently, representations contrary to the Majority Report were made
privately to the Pope by those who believed that the doctrine could not, or
should not, be changed.

In view of the ultimate decision, I asked Professor Marshall whether he
thought that the Pope was determined from the first to reject any
recommendation for change.

“No, I believe it was an agonising decision for him. He was consistently
encouraging us to debate freely even when the developing trend of our
thought was reported to him. He was a man who was open to persuasion, and it
seems that in the end he was persuaded, by the so-called Holy Office, that the maintaining of the Church’s consistent authority was more important than the insights of the commission.”

“But might he not have been right in thinking that a change in such a firm
teaching would have been scandalous to many people, and eroded the Church¹s
authority?” I asked.

“Certainly there would have been many distressed people particularly those
who were not aware that such changes in non-infallible teachings have
occurred in the past. As an example, the Council’s change in the Church¹s
teaching on freedom of conscience in matters of religion was even more
radical but did not attract popular attention. And the inevitable fuss would
have been as nothing compared with the long term effects of maintaining the

I wondered whether he was referring to the very substantial drop in Catholic
practice, marriages and vocations since then.

“Certainly that. Every survey has shown that around 90 per cent of Catholic
couples ignore the unqualified teaching of Humanae Vitae. And the most
recent widespread survey of parochial clergy showed that fewer than half
supported the total ban. We have the unusual but very destructive dilemma of
the Magisterium teaching a doctrine under authority and that doctrine not
being ‘received’ by the Church as a community. Perversely, the perceived
irrelevance of the Magisterium¹s teaching on marriage may have contributed
to the growth of the contraceptive mentality which is now so evident in
countries we think of as Catholic.”

I thought that the distinction between a doctrine being taught and a
doctrine being received had deep theological significance for the nature of
the Church. But that was for another occasion, so I asked Professor Marshall
to sum up.

“The papal commission could be described as an aberration. Asking experts
from relevant disciplines to study a doctrinal question and make
recommendations had never happened before and it’s unlikely to happen
again. Yet there are so many problems. For instance, we are asked to tackle the shortage of vocations through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Excellent in itself, but it should be
complemented by a full-scale commission, making use of the Church¹s full
resources clerical and lay. But I doubt if it will be.

“Frankly I am gloomy about the present prospects for the Church. The only
bright light is the growth of Eucharistic communities led by good priests.
That may be the future of the Church, as Karl Rahner suggested.”

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 86 Comments

The sovereign conscience

Last week I wrote of the elephant in the room: the gulf, revealed in the analyses of responses to the synod questionnaire on marriage and family, between the moral belief of many of the laity and the teaching of the Magisterium. While I can offer no simple solutions I believe that considering the question of the formation of conscience may shed some light.

 I come from a generation in which the formation of conscience was only too simple. You had to do no more than to look at the relevant moral teaching and examine whether it applied to the activity in question. End of conscience formation. The supplementary issue was whether the activity was a grave matter. For example, I was taught that, for theft £5 was sufficient to qualify. Adjusted for current value, that would be £183 today. In sexuality everything was apparently grave – from entertaining an impure thought to goodness knows what. Of course, full knowledge and consent were required. But since the teaching was clear, and we were assured that sufficient grace was always available, even looking at an airbrushed nude in Lilliput carried a penalty which made the medieval torture chamber seem appealing. No wonder that nowadays in moral matters I often consult my wife. Being a convert, her conscience is still intact.

The response of the bishops in general to the publication of Humanae Vitae was to give loyal support to the teaching, while pointing out the need to respect the consciences of those unable to agree. Unfortunately there has been little real guidance on the process of forming the conscience. While this is, in fact, explained in the Catechism, it is not presented in a form which is easily comprehended.

In my generation it seemed very simple. You formed your conscience by applying the moral law as set out by the Church, and you obeyed it. In today’s generation forming your conscience appears very largely to be deciding what you would like to be true and supposing that to be a decision of conscience. I suggest that neither of these explanations serve. 

 The first issue arises from a paragraph in Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour.” Too often this is interpreted as merely a statement of the sovereignty of conscience. What may be overlooked is that this sovereignty requires that we are alone with God. Put in simple terms, that means that we must be open to God. Inclinations, instincts, emotions, pressures are all false friends here. We may not be able to eradicate them, but we must be aware of how they can deceive our fallen natures. 

We are asked to make a decision based on what we really think in the depths of the heart. And that’s difficult. It cannot be done without the action of the Holy Spirit. It is true that our conscience ultimately trumps the Church’s teaching – even if that obliges us to leave the Church. But the next step is to acknowledge the Church’s authority to teach the moral law. For some, this may be the point when they judge that the Church must be followed simply because of its deeper understanding, but even those who feel confident to decide are under obligation as Catholics to discover what the Church says and the reasons for this. The intention is not to discover why the Church is wrong, but to discover why it is right. Dignitatis Humanae, in speaking of conscience, does not require us to obey blindly but to “attend” to her teaching. This serious attention is not optional for the Catholic. It is only following this that one may claim a decision of conscience. And whatever that may be, it is sovereign, though it must remain open to new insights.

 If I take the vexed question of artificial contraception as an example, it is important to note that dissent in no way affects the status of the individual as a member of the Church. It is clear from different episcopal documents that this most serious outcome is compatible with the continued use of the sacraments. And the confessor who attempts to unsettle a formed conscience exceeds his brief. Yet, another temptation remains. The Catholic who has imbibed the principle that the Church is always right may well be left with a nagging sense of infidelity as a result of his decision. But this is another false friend. In truth, the infidelity would lie in following Catholic teaching rather his own moral decision. No one can hide behind the Church’s skirts on the Day of Judgment.

Moreover, it does not follow that dissent on one issue should lead to dissent on others. A decision of conscience, Newman pointed out, applies to us personally and in the particular circumstance of the decision we have to take. “Conscience (says St Thomas) is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what here and now is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil.” Discussion about whether this or that moral principle should be held by the Church may well be interesting and important, but it has no direct bearing on our decision of conscience. The bar may be high, but once we are confident we have made a decision according to our best understanding, we have nothing to fear.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment | 43 Comments

Beware of the elephant

For 45 years the Catholic Church has had an elephant in the room. When it was young it trumpeted a good deal but, after a while, we decided to let it be, hoping that it would go away. But it stayed and it grew, and we can ignore it no longer. 

 We now have a deep rift in the Church. On one side we have the teaching arm. It puts its full authority behind a range of commands concerning personal behaviour which apply primarily to the laity. It insists that these are grave matters, allowing of no exceptions. The sanctions for wilful disobedience are eternal despair and eternal punishment. On the other, we have the laity, and the laity have, by and large, said no.

 The elephant stands in full daylight because the laity were consulted in preparation for the family synod in October. The results so far analysed indicate rejection on contraception, approval of pre-marital unions, doubts concerning re-marriage outside the Church, acceptance of homosexual relationships, and rejection of an unconditional prohibition of abortion.

 None of this comes as a surprise. In 2013, the religious sociologist Linda Woodhead summed up the position from her research: “What these findings show is that most Catholics under 40 now have a very different sexual ethic from their leaders… Taking into account the age trend, support for Catholic teaching is declining rapidly.” This, she commented, was not a dispute between the faithful and the unfaithful but between those who share the same fundamental faith.

One may suppose that there have been a number of contributing factors, such as the allegedly liberal reforms of Vatican II, the emphasis on personal conscience, the general lowering of moral tone in society, the child abuse scandal and dilution of doctrine in the schools. Be that as it may, I date the crucial change to July 29 1968 when, passing through Marble Arch, I picked up an Evening News. Its headline read “The Pope bans Pill”, and the strap said “Decision ‘certain to cause a major crisis’”. This was not an overstatement.

 The story of the fuss which ensued is for another occasion, but the various national hierarchies were faced with a challenge. How would it be possible to remain loyal to the teaching of Pope Paul’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, without causing a mass flight from the Church, or at the least putting millions of serious Catholics into bad faith? For several hierarchies, the chosen method was to insert a paragraph which said (I quote from the German bishops): “[A] responsible decision made in conscience must be respected by all.” And the continued use of the sacraments was encouraged. So the idea was born that it was possible to subscribe notionally to the teaching while deciding in practice to ignore it.

 While this convenient principle at first applied only to a single issue, it was noted correctly at the time that authority is indivisible. The body of dissenters simply believed that the pope had got it wrong. Once that was tolerated, it followed that any other moral teachings, judged by conscience, might be disregarded. Conscience in many cases meant no more than opinion. Thus the way was open to question similar issues, now extended to abortion (which is a different matter altogether). The new approach has had 45 years to spread its influence. The damage has been tremendous. The bishops have been solid in their orthodoxy – indeed, anyone hoping for a crozier, or to retain one, had to toe the line. 

 What happened to the successors of the nine cardinals and bishops on the papal commission (a substantial majority) who decided that contraception was not intrinsically evil? Have they changed their minds? We do not know. But we do know that the Magisterium’s witness to the good of marriage and sexuality is seen as largely irrelevant both within and without the Church. Who would have the ill manners to ask a member of the clergy for his personal opinion on the question, when he has taken a solemn oath to uphold the formal teaching? We are aware, from such scant evidence as exists, that a majority of the parish clergy in this country is at least equivocal.

And the lay person? Even those who have dismissed the teaching, following a serious application of conscience, do not rid themselves of a background guilt arising from their differences with the Church they love. That the confessor is under guidance not to disturb the settled conscience of the penitent does not remove the sense of alienation. I believe that the sorry decline in Catholic practice, which I recorded in this column on December 7, owes much to this. To which I would add the disappearance of Confession as a common feature of a devout life. This is a strong indication of the abandonment of the relevance of the Church to the moral life of its members.

I have not debated the merits of the teaching here, But I will ask readers to consider the future of this clumsy elephant. Will it still be there in 100 years? Perhaps we will continue limping along with an awkward abyss between the teaching Church and the practising Church. What sort of Church would that be? Will the current teaching on sexual morals have slipped into desuetude, regarded by then as an historical curiosity? Will some of the teaching have been abandoned and credibility perhaps regained? Will the leash have been tightened so that a much smaller Church, to which all conform, has developed? But perhaps you have a better answer.

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The unexamined life

Walking on Wimbledon Common last Monday, eying the gathering clouds, I was listening to an old programme from the In our Time series. These 40 minute discussion programmes conducted by Melvin Bragg provide a comprehensive education in historical, scientific, religious and philosophical culture. I thoroughly recommend them.

This one was called “The Examined Life”, and its starting point was Socrates’ phrase “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The panel were Anthony Grayling, Janet Richards and Julian Baggini. I give you their names because it is relevant that they are all highly cultured luminaries in fields related to philosophy.

I am not going to describe the discussion, fascinating though it was, because you can listen to it for yourselves  (below). But, after having spoken about the ancient Greek pioneer work into the meaning and ends of life as understood through philosophical reasoning, Bragg asked them about Christianity. They initially responded with such a collective snigger and rolling of the eyes that Bragg said he wished that he had had a television camera to catch their expressions. He put up a brief, and quite good, challenge from the Christian angle, but they would have none of it. Christianity, they believed, had been the enemy of philosophy because it had exchanged reason for diktat, and moral investigation for legal imposition. Far from increasing our understanding of the meaning of life, Christianity had brought a foreign, in fact oriental, world view which it proceeded to impose on society.

Now I am accustomed to half-baked pseudo intellectuals who attack Christianity through some kind of instinctive reaction – I encounter them all the time, but I had supposed that the luminaries on the panel, as alleged experts in such matters, would at least have picked up some level of understanding of the history and the approach of Christianity, before they criticised it.

The first thought which came to my mind was Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark that Socrates was in some way a prophet of Christ through his claim that man possessed the capacity for understanding truth. And, at Regensburg (which postdated this discussion), he insisted on the essential connection between reason and faith in the history of Christianity – ironically quoting Socrates himself.

They appeared to know nothing of the influence that Stoicism had on the development of the Church’s understanding of natural law, and its relationship to the divine law. The whole movement of Neoplatonism seems to have passed them by. Aquinas, whose introduction of Aristotle into the debate changed the direction of Western philosophy, was apparently unknown to them – to say nothing of the whole corpus of medieval philosophy. Neither Descartes nor Pascal need to have written a word. Elizabeth Anscombe’s damning critique of agnostic approaches to moral philosophy had passed them by.

There is plenty to criticise about the Church’s development of philosophical enquiry –  indeed often expressed on this Blog. But if those whose profession it is to understand the history of ideas are capable of sniggering at Christianity without bothering to understand it, what hope is there for the common man?

The discussion referred to here is at

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 46 Comments