People like us

I imagine that most of us in our youth were taught that we should keep in good company. The reason was clear: good company would influence us towards virtue, bad company would do the opposite.

But the company we keep is not restricted to our family or our immediate circle, we also live in society – and society may or may not be good company for us. We can test the influence of society by thinking about the ways in which our moral values have changed during our lives. Take some possible values: the rights of women, what constitutes racism, conscientious objection, the gravity of paedophilia, social class privilege, prudent family size, attitudes towards homosexuals, the acceptance of abortion. These are areas where our society has developed its views – sometime for good, sometimes for ill. But have they changed our own thinking?

We should expect it to be so. For societies to flourish there is a broad need for conformity. (The claim at the moment is that we should conform to ‘British values’ – whatever those might be, while Libya, for example, is currently a failed society because conformity has broken down.) The tendency to conformity is an outcome of evolution. Not surprisingly, we have an error-monitoring activity in our brains which warns us when we are out of line with ‘people like us’. So we would expect the influence of society to have its effects on us too. A minority of people are able to resist this warning: some may be naturally anti-social, while others may become the leaders and pioneers. But the majority conform.

Religion is another instrument of conformity. Some anthropologists argue that its origin lay in its power to impose conformity on the public and private behaviour of its members. We can see historically how religions can promote good and bad behaviour or attitudes among their members.

So it would be interesting to examine how this affects us. We might start by thinking of the moral values we held, say, a generation or two ago. Have any of these altered or at least been modified since then? What has influenced such changes? Of course causes may be multiple, but can we put any down to the influence of secular society? I think we can assume that anyone whose moral views have never changed, at least to some degree, must have either have had very quiet lives or rejoice in a limited self-awareness.

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 66 Comments

On your knees

When was your last Confession? We are all aware that the habit of regular Confession has much reduced over the last forty years or so. At one time it was common for active Catholics to go to Confession frequently. Like a motorcar, we did not wait until the engine clattered to a halt, we carried out our service schedule regularly.

We may remember that individual, private, confession was not a feature of the Church in the first millennium. There was of course public Confession for serious public sins, followed by stiff penances – which would often have to be completed before absolution. And, although private sins could be confessed privately, the regular habit which most of us were taught in our youth belongs to a later date.

So do we think that this decrease in Confessions is a good or bad thing? And, if we think it to be bad, what do we do about it? As a starting point, I list a few possible reasons for reduction in regular Confession. You may like to disagree, or add reasons of your own.

Shortage of priests leads to fewer opportunities, and often inconvenient times.

If we are not in mortal sin, it is not really necessary.

I know I have a besetting sin, and I feel a hypocrite confessing it again and again. My firm purpose of amendment is hollow.

I commit acts which the Church regards as sinful, but which I don’t.

I am a shy person. Confessing to a priest is agonisingly embarrassing for me.

I am afraid that the priest will interrogate me.

Hard as I try, I find Confession is too automatic. I’d rather repent to God on my own.

I don’t find the priest helpful. He either doesn’t give me advice, or tries to do so like an amateur psychologist with insufficient information.

Posted in Quentin queries | 92 Comments

Rhyme or Reason

“Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” said Lord Macaulay. He was right. The sound mind is concerned with common-sense, logic, empirical facts and calculated probabilities. It has no truck with wandering imagination, insights, feelings and the perception of truths which are glimpsed but not captured. The essential quality of poetry is to take us through the physical into the metaphysical by the use of the word.

We might make the same claim mutatis mutandis of all the arts – which are often the only contact with the spiritual that the modern man can bear. But poetry is the most immediate and the most accessible; it does not need an orchestra or an easel – a scrap of paper and a pencil stub will do.

Ultimately poetry has no rules. It stretches the use of language to its limits. Rhyme, half rhyme, rhythm and metre, neologism; alliteration, onomatopoeia, and line shape can all play their part. Of course there are fads. Some will claim that blank verse, often seen today, is not poetry, but both Milton and Dryden cursed the “modern bondage of rhyming” which interfered with purity of expression. In the end the test lies in the effect. Arguably, only the poet can judge how perfectly his poem expresses his meaning.

We do indeed look for patterns in a poem if only because our poor brains need pattern for understanding, completeness and memorability. But the forms of pattern can be achieved in manifold ways. And there are conventional verse forms, such as sonnet, haiku or villanelle (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dylan Thomas) which a poet may choose as a framework for his expression, finding that this discipline forces him to explore his thoughts more widely and deeply.

Three powerful characteristics stand out: metre, simile and metaphor. Metre reminds us that poetry and song are cousins. It can establish the whole thrust of the poem. Compare “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” (Swinburne) with “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” (Tennyson), and with “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?/Do you remember an inn? (Belloc). And if some contemporary poetry eschews obvious metre, it can often be found in another balance, like this little poem about the Bible:

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute, words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

The Highwayman (Noyes) presents us with metaphor and simile within a line: “His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay “. The simile is vivid, but it is the metaphor which carries the power. No eye is actually a hollow of madness, but the phrase leads beyond itself. And we must travel alone to find our understanding. We should be accustomed to metaphor because much of Scripture is extended metaphor, and so is theology – though often stifled by the cold hand of use. What does time in Purgatory mean where time does not exist and the conditions in Purgatory mere speculation?

Shakespeare gives us a powerful example: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.” Two strong metaphors there – and the whole is wrapped in metaphor for the speaker himself is a “poor player” and a metaphor for Macbeth. Most of us know those lines by heart, and have thought upon them.

Which brings me to the memorable line. Poetry can get away with words which would be pretentious in prose. We each have our favourites, but surely all lists must include “A rose red city half as old as time”. John Burgon’s poem about Petra is indifferent, but that line won him the Newdigate Prize and put him among the immortals. I shall resist the temptation to give a longer list – you will know them all.

I say that confidently because a philosophy group I attend on a fortnightly basis finishes the term with a meeting in which each member reads a piece of poetry, and then tells us why. It is a great treat, and it often leads to the best discussions of the term. We are very ordinary people from different backgrounds, and yet all have poetry which has accompanied us through life. And important enough that, for some, reading their choice can move them too deeply to continue.

All of us who have poetry threaded into our lives share Macaulay’s unsound mind. And why not? We believe in a God whose name is a metaphor for his nature and a son who offers himself as a metaphor for his father. Before the altar we are all poets.

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The best of intentions

Let me tell you a story. I have been a lifetime smoker. Occasionally I tried to cut down, or to take smoking breaks for a period, but basically I wanted to smoke and – despite all the evidence – I was going to continue. That is, until about four years ago when my wife had a sudden and quite serious drop in health. She had to stop her own smoking habit immediately and conclusively.

Although she made no request I saw immediately that the best help I could give her was to cease my own habit. So I stopped. Strangely I had no sense of tobacco deprivation and I have not had the slightest temptation to smoke again. How did this happen?

To me, the reason was clear. When the motivation was for my own benefit it was simply never strong enough. When I attempted a break I allowed myself to pine for the blessed tobacco and inevitably some incident or occasion led me back to the weed. But when my motivation was quite simply love for the person I care about most, it was instantly and irrevocably game set and match. And painless to boot.

So I was interested to read a study which was published by the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday this week. It concerned the likelihood of people responding to health advice – such as the need for greater exercise – which might be unwelcome. The participants were divided into two groups. One group was simply given the advice, another group was given the advice in combination with self-affirming reflection on their own values. That is, they were invited to looked at their own relevant qualities and potential.

The results were significant: not only was the second group more likely to put the health advice into action but the part of the brain used for recognising the relevance of new information was actively engaged. This has a known association between good intentions and resulting action.

What has this to do with us? We are not short of advice from Scripture, from the Catechism, from the clergy – let alone from our friends on this Blog — on how we should behave in order to ‘become perfect as our heavenly father is perfect’. It is not always easy to take – our basic will is there but our sluggish response holds us back. What we resolve in our morning prayers is forgotten by breakfast.

So the lesson is clear: a straightforward resolution is good, rational and practical. But it is unlikely to persist unless we think about how the resolution relates to the deeper Christian values we hold. And this thought is not nominal, it requires us to see clearly how it is relevant to what we hold dear. In doing that we are understanding that our resolution is motivated by our Christian commitment to love.

So virtue ethics comes to the fore again. It teaches us that our moral lives must depend primarily on the kind of person we are, and only secondarily on what we do. We must avoid concentrating on actions but instead on valuing and developing our virtues. Just as the fruit is the gift of the tree, loving actions are the fruit of the loving person.

(I am hoping before long to write at greater length on the part our material bodies play in our salvation – so this is just a taster. But it would be interesting in our discussion to exchange practical and down to earth ways which have helped us towards holiness.)

Posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality | 32 Comments


Humility, as we all know, is a Christian virtue and one which we should try continually to develop. Even Jesus described himself as “meek and humble of heart”.

But I wonder whether it is overrated. If we pull ourselves away from Scripture and look at our experience, we may find that estimating ourselves too lowly leads to poorer performance. When I had charge of the training of a very large and successful sales force (many years ago) I discovered that the best sales branches were those which had the highest opinion of themselves. That high opinion may have been bolstered by success, but that success depended in its turn on the high opinion.

So I developed my theory of LIPS. The mnemonic stood for Limited Image Performance Syndrome. Its meaning was simple: we behave in line with the way in which we assess ourselves. It works both ways because it enables us to raise our game in line with our opinion and, on the other hand it inhibits us from performing above our opinion.

The most successful sales managers were those skilled in raising the LIPS of the sales force. They did this in several ways: for example, by publicising individual success, or by giving visible privileges for achievement. Although the sales people received financial rewards related to performance, the privilege of being given a special tie appeared to be the higher motivation. Throughout my management career I had the habit of writing a handwritten note to any of my staff who had carried out a function with particular success. I only discovered the importance of this when I forgot to do so on one occasion: I quickly learnt how highly this tiny gesture was valued.

If I apply LIPS in a Christian context, I have to distinguish between Protestant and Catholic (including Orthodox). Classical Protestantism holds that we are corrupted by the Fall, and remain so. We are saved only by the merits of Christ – which we receive through our faith. It is, so to speak, a kind of whitewash which covers our corruption. Catholicism teaches that, although our virtues are acquired through grace, we really become holier persons. Our sanctity (such as it is) is not a cloak, it is a fundamental change of heart which relates us to Christ. Thus, while we deplore our vices, we should notice, and rejoice in, our virtues – they are a stepping stone to the next challenge.

How do we square this with Christ’s claim to humility? The key to that lies in the passage with precedes his claim. (Matthew 11) he tells us that everything he has comes from his father. The claim: “I and the Father are one” does not suggest a low LIPS level to me. So the essence of humility does not lie in bad-mouthing ourselves but in acknowledging the source of such goodness as we find in ourselves, and rejoicing in it.

Posted in Moral judgment, Spirituality, virtue ethics | Tagged | 71 Comments

With added ‘Holy Spirit’

No one has greater need of the help of the Holy Spirit than I, and it is help which I often feel I have received. But I do not justify my decisions on the grounds of his inspiration – I need to justify them through my natural faculties. I accept that the Church is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error in infallible matters and that his general guidance supports the Church. But when he is invoked as support for specific non-infallible matters I demur. Was the Spirit there when John XXIII was elected? But how about Alexander VI? As Cardinal Ratzinger said on Bavarian television “It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.” He said the Spirit leaves considerable room for the free exercise of human judgment, probably guaranteeing only that, in the end, the church will not be ruined.

The good priests of my parish were no doubt called by the Spirit but how about the paedophile priest? Was the Spirit behind the Inquisition, and also behind the Council declaration on religious liberty? Was the Spirit behind Pope St Gregory the Great when he said that married sexual intercourse could not in practice be performed without sin or behind the Council’s statement that it must be honoured with great reverence? Since on some occasions he may be present and on others he is apparently not, and we have no way of knowing which, there is a problem.

Until some good evidence can be produced of his presence in a specific matter it seems to be no more than a kind of superstitious magic to bolster a case by claiming his support. Like me the Magisterium has to go through the ordinary processes of judgment, and then observe the fruits. Claiming a further buttress in the Holy Spirit suggests a lack of confidence in the evidence for the teaching. It might be better to employ the humility Bernard Shaw put into Joan of Arc’s mouth (mutatis mutandis) when she was asked if she were in a state of grace: “If I do not have the Holy Spirit may God bring him to me: if I have, may God keep him with me.”

History is studded with examples of men ascribing their triumphs or defeats to the will of God. The Elizabethans put the defeat of the Armada down to the will of God; the Puritans under Cromwell similarly recognized his hand in the winning the battle of Marston Moor. The will of God has frequently been used as an excuse both by Christianity and other religions for committing atrocities.

The thoughts above are extracted from my book Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (T&T Clarke 2002). But my interest here is more personal: how do we in practice relate to the Holy Spirit? That raises a number of questions:

o Do we habitually relate to the Holy Spirit in prayer, or is he the forgotten member of the Trinity?

o Have we ever experienced his help – directly or indirectly?

o Is there a danger that we attribute our choices to the Holy Spirit when they are merely our own choices?

o What rôle does the Holy Spirit play in the Trinity?

Posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , | 90 Comments

11 billion — and counting

What are the disasters which face the human race? I imagine that many would put climate change first. Others would choose increasing resistance to antibiotics. But I put population growth ahead of both, and, in this matter, the Church has not yet faced up to important issues.

Toward the end of last year the UN published its revised population figures. The revisions were frankly dramatic. The old projection to the year 2100 of 8.5 billion is now 11 billion. Many regions have remained stable, and even Asia’s high projections are lowering somewhat. Africa is the problem: its projection has risen from under 2 billion to over 4 billion. African fertility rates are high and the mortality rates from AIDS have lowered. Combine that with improvement in infant mortality and care for the aged and you have a recipe for huge population increases in countries which are in no condition to cope. Many Africans are ready to risk their lives to get into Europe today; what will they do with swollen populations and the advent of climate change? Get your imagination around that. (Gender selection in favour of males is a growing issue, especially in the East. A surplus of young immigrants soaked in testosterone is not a positive factor.)

The simple long term solution is to have a total fertility rate which reproduces the population plus manageable increase. In developed countries today this would be a little higher than two children per woman on average. (In many African countries the number is currently over five.)

Unfortunately this solution is more complex in the short term. The lowering of the fertility rate leads to a disproportionately high aged population compared to the economically active. To give you a flavour, by 2100 the ratio of workers to retired in the US will drop from 4.6 to 1.9; in China, from 7.8 to 1.8; in Nigeria, from 15.8 to 5.4. We are already seeing the effect of this in the UK. While these dramatic falls will stabilise when the correct fertility rate is established throughout all generations, it won’t be in our time. In our rich country, we already fail the aged poor.

So what is the Church offering? At one level it is heroic. It is the largest non-governmental provider of health care services in the world. Two thirds of its hospitals are in developing countries, and it manages over a quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. But where population control is concerned she finds herself in a position where her options are limited. Leaving aside doctrinal questions, the idea that natural family planning has a prospect of becoming sufficiently widespread to match population need is simply unrealistic. And the effect of this limitation reduces the possibility of the Church influencing family planning projects both in the protection of human rights and in the sad matter of abortion. She will be ignored as irrelevant.

The Church is the champion of openness to life, and we will be discussing just how this should be expressed in its fullest sense as we approach the Synod in October. There are certainly obstacles to be overcome. The crass use of abortion is favoured even by the great and the good; the preference for small families which ironically we see in countries we once thought to be Catholic such as Poland and Italy; and, more fundamentally, the separation of marriage from its procreative purpose.

Yet openness to life dares not be profligate. The natural fertility rate was set by blind evolution to counter the high infant mortality which preceded the 20th century. It stands at over 6 live births per woman – that is, around three times too high for current conditions. Compound tripling of the population would have staggered even Malthus. Do the maths! What are our responsibilities when a change in environment turns an evolutionary benefit into a threat? So one challenge for the Synod will be to show how this mismatch, brought about through improved living standards, should be corrected. Idealistic answers will not do; nor, I think, will we be happy to leave the solution, as we have done in many developing countries, to methodologies which we condemn – particularly when abortion will inevitably play a large part.

Leaving aside Jonathan Swift’s teasing solution to overpopulation and hunger in Ireland (they should eat their babies), it is essential to lower the fertility rate in poor countries, while encouraging a higher rate in developed countries. And, for the next century or two, we must accept the huge burden of caring for the elderly. These three challenges are interdependent. The Church will instinctively address two of them, but a reluctance to address the adjustment of fertility effectively, where this is needed, will make her appear to be the enemy of life rather than its defender.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Synod | Tagged , | 57 Comments