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 , | 12 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

An open letter to David and Samantha

Dear David and Samantha Cameron

Your family continues to be an outstanding example of a loving marriage. I am sure it must be an inspiration to many people, as indeed it is to me. And I would like to invite you to think about how you, David, might encourage strong marriages and secure families in Britain. I suggest that the duty you have taken on to govern in the best interests of society includes the duty of promoting the benefits of marriage.

I am not writing specifically as a Christian, and I am confining myself to the facts of the situation. Naturally we would expect many people to reject the promotion of an institution on the basis of religious belief. We are no longer, in any everyday sense, a Christian country.

Since the 1960s, which saw the introduction of the contraceptive pill, there has been a substantial change in attitudes. The integral connection between sexual expression and pregnancy has largely disappeared. Sexual intercourse is treated as a natural way of expressing a heterosexual relationship – whether it be casual or committed. In particular we see the growing phenomenon of cohabitation. While you would certainly be criticised for interfering with sexual practices in general, cohabitation has become a feature of significant social change in society. And it is one that has important consequences for society’s welfare.

I know that you value long-lasting, stable relationships as key to the stability and happiness of society. The breakdown of long-term relationships – whether marriage or cohabitation – is usually a source of tragedy for one or both partners. But even sadder is the experience of breakdown for the children, who undergo the loss of their emotional security and parental care through no fault of their own. You will be aware, since you have to balance the books, that such breakdown is immensely expensive in terms of welfare and support. The annual cost is estimated at £46 billion – not a negligible sum for someone concerned to reduce a deficit.

You should be aware that cohabiting couples make up only 19 per cent of today’s parents yet account for half of all family breakdowns, and that couples who were not married at the time of the child’s birth are more than twice as likely to split up in the following 15 years, even if they married at a later stage. A contributing factor here is that cohabiting couples tend to “get together” at an earlier age than those who commit themselves to marriage, and thus are more vulnerable to making immature choices. You will recall Jack Straw, when he was home secretary, saying that “the most important thing is the quality of the relationship, not the institution in itself”. But experience has taught us that the institution of marriage is more than a piece of paper: it is the protector of families.

So what should you do? May I respectfully make some suggestions. While it might be counter-productive to disapprove of cohabitation, it would be important for you to exercise your leadership by championing the advantages of marriage as the preferred option for the stability of families. No doubt some would criticise you for this, but the evidence is unequivocal. Such a position would undoubtedly bring great benefit to the society whose welfare you have undertaken to promote.

But words alone would not suffice. You would need to back this up by looking for ways in which you could improve the tax situation for marriage. You will be aware that around a quarter of a million cohabiting couples choose to conceal their status, and thus can get (depending on precise circumstances) tax advantages of several thousand pounds a year over an equivalent married couple. Our society is, in effect, rewarding people for avoiding the commitment of marriage through simple tax evasion.

A practical step would be to appoint a Minister for Families. What aspect of society has greater need for the direct attention of a senior minister? It would provide a facility for supporting all families, and have the brief of developing tax and social policies which encourage the most stable relationships, by contrast with the less stable. Such a ministry would supervise prospective policies in terms of its impact on the family, in line with the criteria introduced by the last government.

The remit would include devising ways to encourage larger families. You will be aware that our population is not reproducing itself, and that this will eventually lead to an increasingly disproportionate cost for the care of the elderly. This will be a motive for ensuring that people welcome good-sized families.

I am sure that your ambition is that, by the time you stand down from your post, you will have increased the sum of happiness in our society. The promotion of marriage and the family will surely do that.

Yours sincerely

Quentin de la Bédoyère

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Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment | Tagged , | 164 Comments

Death in Tunis

I write this post with my newspaper in front of me, and the terrible story of the tourists mercilessly murdered on a Tunisian beach. How could anyone, with a sound mind, justify such actions? I notice, however, that the perpetrator died – and must have known that death would be his fate. I am reminded that Blaise Pascal said that he would only believe witnesses who were prepared to have their throats cut. Could he have accepted that these people were acting in good conscience? But it’s an old question: Benedict XVI, while he was still a cardinal, asked himself a similar question about the Nazis active in the persecution of the Jews.

You may be surprised that he accepted that, at the time they acted, they may have genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing in ridding the state of its internal enemies. Their error had started in their failure to come to terms with the deeper levels of their consciences which would revealed to them, as it can reveal to all of us, the good which we must do and the evil which we must avoid. Nevertheless, as Aquinas emphasised, even the faulty conscience binds. (I dealt with this issue at length some time ago. Put Holding out for a Hero into the search box above.)

We might imagine a jihadist’s train of thought. We may suppose that he is a young, but perhaps well educated, person. He believes that the world, particularly Western society, is continually trying to persecute Muslims. And he has good historical evidence that this is so. He is quite certain that the message of God to Mohammed expressed an imperative that Islam should spread and develop this new revelation to the world. Part of that message clearly states that Muslims are entitled to defend themselves, even in extreme ways, against the non-believers who seek to destroy Islam. Thus he concludes that God’s will trumps other, human, values – so that, if killing representatives of Western society promotes Islam, it is not only justified but perhaps a divine imperative. And indeed, in losing his temporary human life, he gains eternity as his reward. ‘Greater love hath no man…’

You might want to argue every item of the jihadist’ss analysis. But you may agree that, even in matters of much lesser moment, we too may come to faulty conclusions and so do wrong when we sincerely believe that we are doing good. All of us are old enough to remember a traditional form of Catholic moral education which required us to be guided in moral matters by the Church – whether or not our reason supported the ruling. And many of us would still argue that, once we reject the rule of law, ultimately anything goes. There’s good evidence of this, too. Perhaps the trend really started with questions on contraception. But it has moved on to sex outside marriage, active homosexuality, abortion in hard cases, in vitro conception, assisted dying, and the rest. The Church’s rules remain but there appears to be an increasing proportion of Catholics who either question some of these issues, or actively disagree with so-called orthodoxy.

So there are a number of issues here. While we believe in the evil of the jihadist’s actions, do we have to condemn the individual jihadist as evil? Has the Church’s historical moral teaching, expressed either in word or in policy, ever led to evil? Is morality a matter of obedience or a matter of personal decision in which the Church rules should be considered a guide rather than the last word? Do we think that the highlighting of the responsibility of conscience in Vatican II has brought more good than evil, or more evil than good?

If you’re going to solve all those, you’ll have a busy week!

Posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 147 Comments

Thinking sideways

Edward de Bono – the champion of lateral thinking. Every so often, when I am giving my brain a quick routine service, I ask myself how my skills of lateral thinking are working. I am cheating today by writing about it; it will force me to look at the issues.

De Bono once impressed me with a mental experiment. He said, imagine that you are drawing a squiggly circle on paper. Then go over it, again and again. With each drawing, following the line gets easier and easier. And that’s because the furrow made by your pencil gets deeper and deeper – making a convenient channel.

Our neurons work in much the same way. They learn the pattern of our thinking, and the more we follow the same path, the easier it becomes. And that’s very useful because it enables us to do our thinking quickly and easily by going the way we did before. But it does have a disadvantage: it makes it less and less likely that we get out of the furrow, and so less and less likely that we do original thinking.

De Bono fully accepted the value of ordinary thinking; it was necessary for most of the time. But he advocated lateral thinking as an important skill for all of us to use on a regular basis. Here are some of the techniques that I have found useful. You will see that they are designed to force the mind out of routine thinking.

Never take the first conclusion. When we face, say, a knotty practical problem we may well arrive at the solution. But put that solution on one side, and think of a second answer – and a third. Now you can choose the best of the solutions. Often you will find that it was not the first one you reached.

There is power in the use of absurdity. Suppose that you are thinking about parenthood. ‘Mothers love their children’ comes to mind. That’s straight thinking but it leads to nothing new. The lateral thinker might choose ‘mothers hate their children’ instead. Now all sorts of new ideas can come into mind: do they hate their children?, is it permanent or temporary?, what can trigger the feeling? – and so on. Now we are exploring some interesting properties of motherhood. The statement ‘God is a figment of the imagination’ might seem an odd place to start. But then it could occur to you that our concept of God is largely a figment of our imagination – so we’re already learning something new – about what we don’t know.

When I was teaching my young granddaughter and her best friend how to debate, we would settle on a subject first; for example: ‘The throwaway society is a good thing’, and they would prepare it for the next week. But they wouldn’t know whether they were going to be for or against – that would be decided by a toss before the debate started. So they had to prepare both sides. It was a splendid intellectual discipline. We have recently had much debate on the subject of climate change. I wonder how many of us took time to devise the arguments we might use to oppose the position we favour. I suggest that it was those who did this who thought much more deeply about the question.

The blank mind is often a problem. You want to choose a birthday present for a special person. Your mind is completely blank. I need to write a post for this blog. My mind is completely blank. So I will pick up a book, virtually any book, open it on any page and touch a random word. Surprisingly often that word, or something associated with that word, will trigger an idea. I tried that an hour ago. My pencil hit the word ‘ordinary’. Hopeless, I thought – but I played around with it: ‘extraordinary, everyday, not ordinary’ and then it clicked: ‘not ordinary thinking’ led me straight into ‘lateral thinking’. So that’s why you are getting this post!

So come and contribute your ideas and tips about thinking. That way we will all raise our game.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged , | 77 Comments

Man, proud man

Three million years before the first homo sapiens appeared our ancestors were making stone tools with multiple uses. These were not just opportunistic broken flints but tools which had been knapped for the purpose. A recent find pushes back the record of such tools by some 700,000 years. It challenges us to consider the characteristics of the earlier members of our line.

Strictly speaking, Kenyanthropus, the possible toolmaker, may not have been an ancestor. It has only been in recent years that the experts have realised that there were many different members of the hominin group, the majority of whom must be regarded as cousins rather than ancestors. It would appear that evolution was exploring a wide range of progressive types before one of them survived to lead eventually to our own species.

Kenyanthropus platyops was a small brained hominin, with a mixture of modern and primitive features, in some ways less advanced than the famous “Lucy”. The skill needed to construct tools with sharp edges had previously been dated to a much later development in the hominin line, and represents a step change in human cognition.

Palaeoanthropologists have a difficult task. While they have developed sophisticated methods of measuring, dating and identifying, they can only work with the fossils and other evidence which happen to be available. Consequently new finds bring change – sometimes, major change — and many conclusions should be regarded as both provisional and arguable.

Our interest here is to consider whether there is earlier evidence of the characteristics which we are accustomed to regarding as unique to our own species. I think of a capacity for abstract reason and free will. Both are necessary to create a moral person. Free will may not help for we are unable demonstrate freedom in terms of hard evidence even in modern man. So we must look to abstract reasoning, and perhaps the possibility of art.

A clue may come from brain capacity which doubles, and doubles again, in the evolution of hominins. And size not only increases brain cells, it allows for increased connections between them. It is probable that living in society enabled humans to develop the first expressions of a modern mind, though it may have taken 100,000 years to achieve this. Sharing skills with our peers and building on accumulated knowledge enabled us to develop and refine our neural capacity. We had started to ask questions and to develop ways, in concert with others, to find the answers.

And this requires speech. Here, it appears, we have continuous development from the sophisticated but restricted communication of the chimpanzee to our full scale of settled syntax and vocabulary. The immediate predecessors of sapienshabilis and erectus – may well have developed a rudimentary “proto-language”. We, too, may have started with proto-language, which developed into modern speech by perhaps 70,000 years ago in tandem with our social progress.

And speech is important for our purpose. It requires abstraction. We must abstract from the particular and convert it to a concept both to talk about it and to think about it. Adam could not talk about the animals until he had named them. Nor could we. Speech, I would argue, is clear evidence of abstract reasoning. Did any other hominin use speech? The best candidate is the Neanderthal. It appears about 100,000 years before we arrived. Could Neanderthals speak?

We have no direct evidence. But both sapiens and neanderthalensis inherited from their immediate common ancestor the gene FOXP2 which is specific to speech. And the experts generally agree that both had the detailed anatomy required. If we grant to the Neanderthal a brain as large as ours, burial of their dead – possibly with grave goods, care for the sick and injured, decorative shells and ornaments, control of fire and small family groups, we are looking at a primitive, but undoubtedly human, culture, not essentially different from early sapiens. A strong case may be made that neanderthalensis was equipped, as we are, with reason and reflective consciousness. And this would imply the presence of morality.

Would we regard decorative shells and ornaments as art? They certainly approach it. But another clue, recently recognised, may be helpful. It is a deliberately engraved zigzag on a mussel shell. It is dated to 450,000 years ago, and was the work of our ancestor H. erectus. Whatever the scriber had in mind, he or she worked with meticulous care and proportion. We do not need to accept, as many do, that this qualifies as art, but we may agree with an expert from the archaeological team who reflected on “the growing realization that abilities such as abstract thinking, once ascribed to only H. sapiens, were present in other archaic humans, including, now, their ancestors.” If and how this relates to the history of salvation I leave you to speculate.

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Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Neuroscience, Philosophy | 41 Comments