On our way out?

So what has been happening to the Catholic Church in this country and in Western society as a whole? Anecdotally, I encounter a large number of Catholic grandparents who tell me that few of their children, let alone their grandchildren, are regularly practising their religion.

I don’t want to flood you with statistics but I record here a couple of indications which suggest to me that this is widespread. Baptisms per 1000 Catholics in England and Wales have dropped by more than half since the ‘50s and ‘60s. The number of Catholic marriages per 1000 Catholics is four or five times lower than 50 years ago.

In any other context we would see such a collapse as a major disaster. A business which saw such falls in its customer base would know at once that it should take radical action or accept that it was on its way out.

Were we a business we would probably start by opening up two investigations. One of these would be to investigate our customer base and find out what our existing customers see as good or bad in our products and services. The second would be to consult with our own staff with a particular focus on those who deal regularly with customers and potential customers. Knowing that there is often a wide gap between what we believe our business is about and what it is actually doing, we might employ hard headed professionals to help us with this. We would also investigate what other businesses in our field were doing, with an emphasis on the most successful ones.

It may be that such a procedure would not fit the Western Catholic Church. After all, its mission and its values are set by Almighty God and not by the market. But I wonder if a deeper, and thoroughly objective, investigation would reveal some clues. And I wonder if some hardheaded thinking might point to possible solutions.

As far as I know, there are no plans to undertake any such investigation. So I rather fear that we will need to start by asking Secondsight Blog readers to tell us what they think to be the causes of our decline. And perhaps even suggest some remedies. They are a knowledgeable lot, and certainly don’t pull their punches. If they can’t get nearer to the heart of the matter, I wonder who can.

Perhaps we can avoid our hobby horses. (All too often when I see a name I can guess the sort of thing they are about to say.) Here, we must stand back a little, put on our professional hats, and think objectively about what may be wrong and what might be needed to put it right.

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | 83 Comments

Shame on you

“The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence,” read the 1917 Code of Canon Law. But the 1983 Code of Canon Law reads: “[Marriage is] a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”

The dates matter. Between them came Vatican II, the discussion which preceded Humanae Vitae, and then the encyclical itself. A definition once worded in terms of primary and secondary purposes was now expressed as a sacred process in which the unity of marriage is both a good in itself and inseparably connected to procreation and its responsibilities.

It may seem that there is little real difference between the two. After all, the question of the moment – the unlawfulness of contraception – remained. But significantly, the 1917 definition harmonised with a contemporary theological description, by Hieronymus Noldin SJ, of sexual intercourse as res in se foeda – a thing filthy in itself.

Was this theologian a man with a problem? If so, he was not alone. It was common 100 years ago for theologians to categorise the parts of the body as the decent, the less decent and the indecent (partes inhonestae). You can work out which. Edward Genicot, in his moral theology (1931), assured readers that such “shameful” acts were lawful to married people. This oxymoron reads strangely, although we may be helped by Pope St Gregory’s comment that, although these acts are not sinful in themselves, it is in practice not possible to avoid sin as a result of enjoying them.

This preoccupation with shame and the sexual act was established early on. Faulty Aristotelean biology implied that Original Sin was actually transmitted through sexual intercourse. And it was sometimes argued that the apple was a metaphor for the first, forbidden sexual encounter. Canaanite myth associated the serpent with lust, and sexual shame was, of course, Adam and Eve’s first reaction after the Fall. It fitted with Psalm 51: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.” Seminarians were reminded in the 17th century: “For the manner of thy begetting is so foule that the name, nay the lightest thought of it, defileth the purest minde, so that our B. Sauiour refused none of our miseries but onely that [one].” We might no longer see this as sound preparation for pastoral care, although we cheerfully sing: “The one spotless womb in which Jesus was laid.”

Speaking as a former occupant of a spotted womb, I wonder how this sense of shame, by no means confined to the religious, came about. A possible cause is that the organs of evacuation and generation are closely located. Indeed, the formation of both is triggered by the same genes. The association of evacuation with disgust is encouraged in human young for sanitary reasons, and it may be that this early association contributes. As the old Latin writer remarked: Inter urinas et faeces nascimur omnes. Following Gibbon, I leave this in the decent obscurity of a learned language.

But this does not fully explain a shame that seems to lie at a deeper level than the shame of other passions. The Garden of Eden story suggests that sexual concupiscence best typifies the loss of control brought about by the Fall. It is actually built into the sexual act since the response of the male organ requires the presence of sexual passion to be able to function. Thus passion itself is an arational but fundamental element in the sexual process. It is a lack of control which we are reluctant to broadcast about ourselves. This was Augustine’s view – and he knew about sexual passion.

Against the background and the traditions of the time, the 1917 definition of marriage is understandable. It appeared necessary to give precedence to the one purpose which could excuse such a distasteful activity. Procreation in itself could hardly be faulted. And the patronising claim that an incidental benefit was an allaying of concupiscence suggested only that marriage offered a safer channel for a regrettable tendency.

The 1983 definition recognises that marriage is a fundamental relationship of committed love. For married people, the expression of that love in all its aspects is the most proximate way through which they work out their salvation. We are Christ to each other, night and day. Within that intimacy, sexual passion is a welcome servant to be valued for its capacity to promote closeness – in its spiritual, psychological and biological aspects.

That is the background needed for the awe-inspiring task of sharing in God’s creative powers through the conception of new, immortal life, and in preparing that life “to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next”.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , , | 86 Comments

Adam and Eve and Pinch-me-tight

In discussing Pope for a day our respected contributor, John Candido, started a post with the sentence “The doctrine of original sin has to be removed from the church’s doctrines and replaced with a more realistic understanding of human frailty as it has garnered though evolutionary processes.“ This is a thought which might be fruitfully explored.

If we take ourselves back to primitive times we would expect to find that human nature was fundamentally the same as it is today. But, in the absence of scientific knowledge, the explanations of human nature took the form of stories which were passed on from one generation to another. And, as long as the explanation satisfied and explained, it continued without much change.

Then, as now, our ancestors could recognise the moral law. Sophocles called it “The immutable unwritten laws of heaven, not born today nor yesterday.” And they could witness the fundamental temptation to surrender to the gravity of evil, which appeared to be so much stronger than the aspiration to the good. Their natural response was that something had gone terribly wrong from the beginning – perhaps some deed of extreme wickedness had profoundly damaged our natural propensity to the good and, in doing so, had changed the standing and the direction of the whole human race. We don’t know who first wrote this story down, but the version we have comes from the writers of Genesis. And throughout pre-scientific times it has served us well.

The evolutionary model, to which John Candido alludes, provides a quite different approach. Here we have an account (well evidenced notwithstanding the gaps) of the hominid developing from its predecessor chimpanzee to modern man, via a number of failed experiments. We see the development of the modern human form, but more importantly we can infer the development of the modern human mind. In particular, we discover the faculties necessary for distinguishing right and wrong – the moral sense. That is, the presence of reason, and the presence of free will. These last characteristics, while depending on the sophistication of the brain, cannot be solely the result of material evolution: reason requires the use of abstract concepts, free will requires choice which is not determined by cause. We do not know whether moral choice, and its consequent moral responsibility, started only with home sapiens, or whether it was present in some way in earlier hominids.

So the story changes. Now we see human beings as (from our viewpoint) an awkward mixture. One element of us is brute beast with all its passions for survival and reproduction. But we do not impute moral fault to brute beasts as such, or we only do so by analogy. They are not free to choose, they are determined by genes, habit and experience. The other element of us is the recognition of the moral good, and the obligation to direct our passions in harmony with that good. And as we watch the world go by we see the tension between the gravity of passion and the buoyancy of aspiration. It’s no wonder that we think of man as flawed, and that we imagine how he might have been if all his passions had been under the control of his aspiration, inspired by right reason.

So we might look at two Christians considering these accounts. The first, who takes the Genesis story literally, accepts that he has inherited a condition damaged by sin, and prone to further sin. Fortunately he has a champion who, by taking on our human nature, has redeemed it, and has promised us the grace we need to triumph over our own sinful inclinations.

The second, who prefers the evolutionary model, accepts that he has inherited a condition which is oriented to evil resulting from his passions, and prone to give way to them rather than to follow his aspirations. Fortunately he has a champion who, by taking on our human nature, has redeemed it, and has promised us the grace we need to triumph over our own sinful inclinations.

Since either approach fits in with the history of salvation we might be tempted to discard the Genesis account. But that would be a mistake because it contains important truths. This is not the place for me to identify them, but deep thought about what God is telling us through this inspired story gives us insights we could not get in other ways. Just contemplate the serpent’s words “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You could perhaps spend many hours of your life plumbing the depth of those 28 words.

A note on exegesis. Our acceptance that Scripture is inspired does not mean that the words of Scripture all convey truth in the same way. The various authors are writing in terms of their own culture, and the understanding of their readers. They do not even need to know that they are inspired. Thus, to take the simplest example, the creation of the world in six days contains the truth of God’s omnipotent creation, but not the literal account – which would have been incomprehensible to its first readers. Contrast this with the Koran which is seen as inspired directly, and word for word, by God.

This is why we need exegetists who can use their science to explore the Scriptures – from establishing the most accurate texts to deciding what is literal and what is symbolic. It needs great skills and background knowledge, and it is progressive in the sense that understanding may develop over time. So, when an amateur like me essays an interpretation, it must be treated as speculation, and judged on its merits. Ultimately, the Church owns Scripture, and so has the last word.

Posted in evolution, Quentin queries, Scripture | Tagged , | 130 Comments

Pope for a day

I run a philosophy group (under the auspices of the University of the Third Age) which meets fortnightly. The majority of its 10 members are best described as agnostic. Last year I posed for them this question: If you were God, in what way would you have chosen to create the world? The discussion, for an hour and a half, was vigorous – and the conclusion was interesting. They decided that there was really nothing they would want to do differently.

What happened most frequently in the discussion was that someone would put forward a candidate for change – for example, not permitting natural disasters – and someone else would respond by pointing out all the disadvantages which would result from this. Gradually the group began to discover that all human phenomena were interlocked – and every change brought with it unintended consequences.

I propose that this week we should try a similar exercise. If we were in a position to alter some aspect of the Church what would we choose? I am assuming here, from our past conversations, that many of us believe that the present Church is far from doing as well as it might. And certainly, in Western societies, the figures show long term declines under many important headings.

For any suggestion to be helpful it needs to be concrete and practical. Airy fairy ideas don’t help. I can’t give an exhaustive list of topics but it could touch on organisation, provision of priests, liturgy, a new, internal reformation, better leadership, moral teaching, doctrinal teaching, women, good public relations, promotion of meditation, internal communication, ecclesiastical authority, catechetics, promotion of Scripture, formation of conscience, Vatican III… and so on.

If we are able to put together a good list, it might be possible to use it as a basis for a column published in the Catholic Herald. I think that a college of cardinals consisting only of contributors to Secondsightblog would be an excellent thing. Many of us would be too long in the tooth to be elected pope but I have in mind one or two candidates who would be splendid – and that could of course include the first female pope.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Scripture, Spirituality | Tagged | 194 Comments

Faith schools under siege

Abortion, homosexual marriage, assisted suicide – the secular society encroaches every day. But I keep my focus on faith schools because this battle is not yet lost. While politicians for the most part support the existing arrangements, the campaign to eradicate religious schools from the public education system in the UK is so well managed and so vocal that we may soon discover that that it has become a vote-winning issue.

The National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association and the Accord Coalition (distinguished by its figurehead being a rabbi) are extremely active. Announcements and news stories are frequently well publicised, and there is no shortage of newspapers only too pleased to cry scandal. The term “faith schools” is easily extended to include all denominational schools, and then judged by the most extreme examples.

The arguments are powerful. The major claim is their insistence that there is no reason why religious schools should be funded by the general taxpayer. If we want to have specialist schools we should be prepared to fund them ourselves. Next, they address the issue of selective entry. Why should a child be unable to attend their local school which happens to be Catholic, but be obliged to travel afar for education? Thirdly, they argue that the segregation of groups by religion damages the cohesion of society. This is aggravated by social selection since, by the measurement of free schools meals, Catholic schools attract more prosperous children. It is easy to understand why the unwary reader is likely to accept that the case is made.

A trifle more wariness might suggest that Catholics pay for education through taxation like everyone else and, if Catholic parents are prosperous, they will in fact be paying higher taxes. Add to that the ten per cent of capital costs charged to voluntary aided schools and one might conclude that we subsidise public education rather than the other way around. In fact, in Catholic schools, the percentage of children qualifying for free meals is only fractionally lower than the average, while the proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities and deprived areas is higher. The larger catchment areas of Catholic schools are a positive contribution to the cohesion of society.

The issue of selective entry will always be a tricky one while the public believe that Catholic schools provide a better education than secular schools. Any filter chosen to distinguish genuine Catholic households from the pretenders, can be represented as bias in one direction or another. But an absence of filters would be an invitation to all the free riders who know a good thing when they see it. We need to choose our filters carefully so that they can be recognised as fair.

Catholic social teaching on the duties of parents and education is detailed, explicit and well worth reading. Notwithstanding their primary responsibility, parents must work in concert with the civil agents of education. In practice this means that parents should ensure that children receive satisfactory religious and moral education within the national curriculum required by the civil state. Thus the interests of both the parents and society are addressed. Normally the two are complementary, but the trends in civil society today suggest that we should be watchful.

It is inevitable that those who seek to engineer society to accord with their own agenda will recognise that the control of education is an important weapon. Karl Marx knew that when he proposed that the young should be taught from the earliest age how to be conforming units in a collective society. So we must accept that the secularists will lose no opportunity to imitate his approach. Under the banner of human rights we already see attacks on Catholic moral and social teaching. A useful word is “indoctrinate”. It applies to any teaching which is deplored by the secularist, but not to teaching which the secularist wishes to inculcate.

Another useful target is the facility of voluntary aided faith schools to discriminate between staff on religious grounds, although it seems reasonable that the qualification of teachers responsible directly, or indirectly, for moral and religious education should be a factor in their selection. The National Secular Society claims that “With the long term decline in Christian observance in the UK forecast to continue, the special privileges granted to religious organisations in selecting teachers on religious grounds become more unreasonable and unsustainable.” We have been warned.

So it is important that the Catholic community as a whole — and not just those connected directly with education – should be aware that Catholic education is under sustained siege by those who would like to eradicate religious faith from our society. The prospect of the elimination of faith schools may, as yet, seem remote. But recent history has shown us how quickly the remote can become proximate, and the proximate become fact – and enshrined in statute.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society | Tagged , | 91 Comments

The breath of life

From time to time I read about the grand mystics like Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. And I have a picture in my mind of these great souls sitting quietly while the Holy Spirit fills them. The are no words, no prayers – just an openness to the divine presence. But I am a poor meditator and so I need help. I would like you very much to share your experiences of meditation on the Blog – whether you are an incompetent like me, or whether you have made some real progress.

The matter is in my mind because the Radio 4 programme ‘Something Understood’ discussed the question of breath last Sunday. You may have heard it, and it is still available on the Internet. The concept of breath is relevant because it is really the same word as spirit or ghost, and so has at least a verbal connection with the Holy Spirit. And maybe a deeper connection than that.

An expert in probability (John Allen Paulos) calculated that the odds of us inhaling molecules of the last breath of Julius Caesar, when he was assassinated, are better than 99 percent. So breath is something that literally connects us to each other, and all the time.

The programme discussed breath as the taking inside of something from the outside, holding it inside to take life from it, and then returning it to the outside. Our first breath is when we are born, and our last is as we die. A Yoga instructor described it as a sort of cleansing process: yoga breathing helps us to recognise how we are conditioned and so enables us to see how we really are. We, so to speak, come to terms with ourselves. He suggested that the common emphasis in Yoga on physical movement and postures was really beside the point; breathing is at the centre. And, even more importantly, the pauses between breathing – through which we exercise control, and so deepen our awareness.

I have never practised Yoga but this does make sense to me because I regularly use ‘mindfulness meditation’ which puts emphasis on breathing as the quiet place which gives us refuge from our whirling minds. I am confident that these periods during which I become more fully aware of myself are very beneficial, and certainly help to control worries and regrets which might otherwise invade my psyche.

But there is nothing spiritual about these; they appear to me to be only psychological. I am by nature a very verbal person and I cannot see a connection between the necessary silence of such meditation and God. I realise that I must be mistaken about this, but I need an explanation. Or is there no explanation?

So if you are able to use spiritual meditation I would like to know about it. Equally, I would like to know about those who share my problems. I would even like to hear from those who think the whole thing to be a waste of time.

Posted in Philosophy, Quentin queries, Scripture, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 91 Comments

Absolutely no exceptions

When we consider the differences between right and wrong we naturally go to the Commandments – and in most instances to the “social” commandments. But we are aware that they need some interpretation. For example, we understand immediately the value being protected in “Honour thy father and thy mother’. But in practice we have to consider what this requires in the precise circumstances we find ourselves. “Thou shalt not kill” is definite enough, but how about self defence, or just war? “Keep thou holy the Sabbath Day” requires interpretation. Maybe I shouldn’t be ploughing a field on a Sunday, but is it OK for me to compose a post for this Blog? (I hasten to say that I am drafting this on a Wednesday, so there is no danger of association in you reading it.)

But here is another category to consider. Let me call it “God’s law expressed in the structure of creation”. A straightforward example of this is homosexual activity. It is immediately clear that this involves a mismatch between gender and sexual expression — a simple matter of plumbing. So we instantly recognise an action which goes against our created nature. Thus it is a perversion – that is a “turning away” from proper purpose.

Similarly, of course, barrier contraception artificially removes from sexual intercourse the inherent characteristic of openness to conception. Another perversion. Here we can see the structural nature with clarity because the intention alone, as in the use of the safe period, is, by contrast, innocent and often meritorious.

The same approach applies outside the sexual sphere. For example the moral assessment of telling a lie is not confined to the harm it might do; its root morality lies in the fact that we were given by God the power of communication in order to convey the truth. A lie – however small or however motivated – is intrinsically a defiance of God’s intentions. In a situation where the truth must be concealed, we are allowed to deceive through using “discreet” language; but we may never lie. (CCC 2482-2489)

And “never” is the word. Unlike the commandments, the moral conclusion from “God’s law expressed in the structure of creation” allows of absolutely no exceptions. It is God speaking to us. The rather forbidding phrase “intrinsically evil” – which is perhaps less threateningly described as “wrong by virtue of its own nature” – is used.

Yet I can easily understand a homosexual saying “No matter what might be generally true of human nature, my own nature (God-given) is different. I find the prospect of heterosexual activity quite revolting, whereas homosexual activity is not only acceptable but supports my close relationships.” Or a married person who claims that contraceptive intercourse gives the peace of mind needed for the close bonding of marriage. Or the individual, while not given to lying, who can sometimes judge that a lie is the only practical answer in a particular case.

So perhaps an initial question to consider is why we are not permitted to recognise exceptions to “God’s law expressed in the structure of creation” in appropriate cases – as we can in the matter of the Commandments. This does not mean that we disregard such laws but that they are not absolutes which forbid us to take into account particular circumstances.

It is possible that I will return to this topic for a full column in the Catholic Herald. So I have an extra reason for valuing the views of contributors on this subject.

Posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 128 Comments