The enemy without

We have read in the newspapers today that a High Court judgment has decided that humanism should be included in religious studies in our schools. At first sight, this looks like cloud-cuckoo land. Humanists are adamant that they are not a religion and directly deny the truths of faith.

What do we think about this?

First we have to make a distinction. Orthodox Christianity is of course humanist to the core. The creation of human nature, the Incarnation, the promise of a redeemed world to come are fundamental to all of us. Our moral teachings are largely based on human nature and focused on enabling it to flourish. So what we are talking about here is secular or atheistic humanism which is based on a denial of faith and the supernatural. It is the declared enemy of religion.

We should not be surprised because we often hear believers pointing out that secular humanism actually requires more faith than religious belief since it asks us to hold that the Universe appeared without a cause, that human life has no meaning beyond itself, that moral choice is no more than utilitarianism. Moreover the proselytisation of secular humanism (See the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association) carries overtones which we associate with the intolerant attitudes that were present in medieval religion. Instead of promoting the diversity of our society, and protecting human rights, it works to quench these.

However it is possible to argue that the outcome may not be all bad. Young people will already have come into contact with humanist values. And they will be surrounded by them in their adult life. It could be an advantage to understand the ungodly, and to have grasped their inadequacies. Know your enemy is often the best first step. Remember that Montgomery hung a picture of Rommel in his caravan. Whose picture would you put up?

However, although this is not clear in the newspaper reports I have seen, this does not affect faith schools which, in this respect, have different provisions.

Tell us what you think. You may find that looking up humanism on Wikipedia is five minutes well spent.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , | 26 Comments

Sauce for the goose

I had taken the children out for a walk when my wife, left on her own, started to miscarry – at 10 weeks. Weak and haemorrhaging, she staggered to the bathroom and baptised our baby, whom one day she will meet face to face. She has allowed me to tell the story. So you may understand why, in my philosophy group, I will not allow discussions on the morality of abortion.

I am unable to understand how decent people, my friends, can maintain that it can be right for one human being to take the life of another human being for their convenience. Yet, increasingly, our society takes abortion, effectively on demand, as routine, and indeed a human right for a woman to have such control of her body. The argument is often couched in terms of hard cases — such as an outcome of rape or a damaged foetus, and so reduces the issue to a matter of emotion. I am old enough to remember when abortion was generally regarded in our society as a great evil. Ironically the Suffragettes condemned abortion outright, claiming that human rights belonged to everyone. Today deaths by abortion grossly outnumber deaths by the Holocaust – and nobody seems to notice.

The tendency to conform to the opinions of the groups within which we move is well documented. One study, for example, described the brain mechanism which signals an error when we disagree with a value held by “people like us”. Others show how interaction, including social media, leads rather quickly to near universal acceptance. The triggers for abortion were The Abortion Act (1967) and the divorce of sexual intercourse from procreation. But if our cultures are naturally prone to such gross changes in public opinion, we would expect historical parallels.

Overlooking the Holocaust as a teutonic aberration, from the 17th century to the 19th the British Empire operated the slave trade. It was argued that it was essential for our economy and, in truth, it enabled the Industrial Revolution and the basis of our modern prosperity. When it was banned the perpetrators were neither punished nor condemned. On the contrary they were compensated. Some £17 billion in today’s money was distributed to 43,000 ex slave owners. Many of these were decent, middle class people; for others the compensation was the basis of family fortunes which exist today.

You will have read about the terrible things which occurred in slavery and you will, with me, wonder how our fellow citizens, in a country which has always valued freedom and the rights of law, could have lived with such evil for so long. You may take consolation from thinking that the Catholic Church was never entangled in such perfidy. But do not be too consoled. The Catholic Church patted the pillows of slavery and enabled it to be seen as an act of Christian virtue. Papal bulls in the 15th century gave the Portuguese the right to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.” This was extended to Africa, and subsequently all of the Americas.

While this was reversed in the following century, the precedent for the slave trade was established. It was all the more effective because, until Vatican II, and confirmation by Pope Paul II, the Church did not accept that slavery was an offence to human dignity, and claimed that it was not prohibited by natural and divine law. Unsurprisingly, the movement for abolition came not from the Church but from the Quakers, with assistance from a handful of liberal Anglicans.

The first lesson to be learned from this bleak history is that such depraved values may not be seen as depraved by good people, or, if regrettable, are justified by perceived necessity. It challenges us to stand back from the values of our society and to review them with the same care which we might apply in a decision of conscience. Should we find that our resulting judgment is unpopular with general opinion – and perhaps causes us to lose friends — we may well be on the right track.

There are plenty of examples to consider, from the actions of government and opposition, to criminal law, to economic justice, to immigration, to the treatment of marriage, to the management of population growth. Make your own long list. Closer to home we might review the assumptions of Catholics like us on a number of issues. And, at a time when the Church itself is discussing important questions of possible development, we must consider for ourselves what we think is right. If we meet opposition, it is worth remembering that we can learn much from those who disagree with us and little from those who agree.

(published 13 November 2015)

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 51 Comments

Better dead than red

So Jeremy Corbyn has said that he would never press the nuclear button. I leave for others the political problems which might arise were he to become prime minister, but I think about the moral position. I use my imagination to try to understand. I am now prime minister and I have been reliably told that Russian nuclear missiles are on their way. (replace Russia with any large power you choose) While our defences are good, there is a high chance that one or two will land on the UK. And since the Russian armoury is huge there are plenty more to follow if the first fusillade fails. I realise that these bombs make Hiroshima no more than a firecracker by comparison – we are talking about virtually the whole of London, and many other large cities, being destroyed, and casualties in several millions.

Should I press the button? The result will be to add to our deaths the deaths of people like us in Russia. Could that ever be justified? Of course I can create a quick moral argument: I am acting in self defence against a great evil. I do not intend their deaths directly. Only a defence in kind has a chance of stopping the attack and disabling the Russian armoury. But I know that, in practice, there will be a tit for tat nuclear duel which must end in no victory – only a desert of smoking flesh. The survivors will be me, in my protected bunker, and my Russian counterparts in theirs. I remember that Catholic teaching on these matters requires a reasonable prospect that commensurably good outcomes will be achieved. I am far from convinced that they would be.

General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the outgoing chief of the defence staff, leapt up and down in rage, claiming that the purpose of nuclear armaments was deterrence, and that they had already kept the world safer by their existence and their potential use. A prime minister who would refuse to use them would put us all into hazard. The argument is a strong one, yet it seem extraordinary that we can only preserve peace by threatening the destruction of the human race.

And there is a flaw in this. What defence do we have against rogue states who already have nuclear capability, and those who might acquire this – perhaps with the help of self-serving allies? The Iranian nuclear programme brought about a dozen years of argument with the US, and many would claim that the current settlement could easily be breached in the right circumstances. How about Israel, thought to be the sixth largest nuclear power, with about 100 warheads and ability to build atomic, neutron and hydrogen bombs? What trust do you put in North Korea with Kim Jong-un in charge? It only requires a smaller state with no other means of defence to turn to nuclear protection for its own survival to set the unstoppable ball rolling. Remember the Cuban missile crisis.

I am a fan of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because they keep alive warnings of the hazards involved, but in practical reality I see such movements as only chipping away at the edges. The idea that one might persuade every state in the world to destroy the nuclear weapons and the capacity to make them is in cloud cuckoo land. As long as one state retains them so will the others.

You may convince me otherwise, but I think my imaginary course as prime minister would be to resolve not to press the button, but, unlike Corbyn, to keep quiet about my intentions. What do you think?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , , , | 52 Comments

The day Macpherson died

I will always remember the day Macpherson was drowned. I was 15 when it happened, and Macpherson (name changed) would have been a year or so older. He was in a single skull on the Thames nearby and apparently he capsized, was caught up in the toggle, and died. It was a shock for us all, and it raised a momentous question: had Macpherson been seen at Communion that morning?

Why momentous? Quite simply, if he had received Communion we could be confident that he was in a ‘state of ‘grace’ and, perhaps after a bout of Purgatory, he was in line for eternal bliss. If he hadn’t, it could be assumed that he had been guilty of solitary vice. He had not gone to Confession (along with the queue of penitents on the same quest present every night in the school chapel) and so was destined to the eternal torture of Hell. And eternity didn’t just mean for, say, the equivalent of the 13.8 billion years since the universe began, it would be forever. So the answer was really quite important – to Macpherson and indeed, potentially to us.

You may say that we had a grotesque, distorted, view of death, judgment, hell and heaven. Maybe so, but we were bright boys benefiting from the best Jesuit Catholic education. And that is what we thought we had been taught. When I read Professor Dawkins suggesting that early religious teaching could be a form of abuse, he may have a point. Had some Middle Eastern tyranny imposed a punishment like that for an equivalent crime, we would have been demonstrating in Trafalgar Square at the grossest breach of human rights known to man. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild!

Not that I blame the Jesuits. It was how they were brought up too. The equation runs: solitary vice = grave matter; grave matter committed with full knowledge (we all knew the law) and full consent (we had free will and sufficient grace) = mortal sin; dying in unforgiven mortal sin = hell for eternity. QED.

My wife giggles at this, but then she was an adult convert, and so missed the advantage of an early Catholic education, and the atrophied conscience which this might have induced. She remains the best spiritual adviser I know. (Convenient, too. I would never have to confess my sins, she points them out to me even before I have committed them!)

Why do I write about this, at this point? First of all, the equation I cite above remains in the Catechism. Secondly, the tension in the Synod lay very much between those who argued that any weakening or softening in Catholic moral teaching would lead down a slippery slope to a religion of no more than vague good will, and those who argued that she must understand people as they are in the circumstances of their lives. The wind must be tempered to the shorn lamb. Both positions are strong, but – as yet – we have not found a way we can reconcile them. Perhaps a Second Sight Blog discussion would help.

And, in case you were worrying, several people remembered that Macpherson had been to Communion that morning. Phew!

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment | 36 Comments

Listen to your priest

It is of course right that we should be a ‘listening Church’. We think of ourselves as a communion or a community – and that means communication. How, we married people may ask, can the hierarchy command and advise when they have no experience of marriage and the upbringing of children? Quite right! They should listen to us, and respect our situation, before they open their mouths.

But this goes both ways. Do we listen and respect those who have other offices in the Church? So I am proposing today that we should look at parish priests, and try – as best we can – to see what it looks like from behind the roman collar. So I have taken an extract from an article I wrote for the Catholic Herald, in 2007. It gives us a picture, from a fine priest, of what his life is about.

“I worked with Fr Mike O’C some years ago (name altered at my initiative) and he has been parish priest for several years of an urban, multiethnic parish with more than its share of the elderly and unemployed. A comprehensive video system in his presbytery, covers his frontage; it is essential for security.

Mike agreed to keep a diary, and the two weeks he has carefully recorded immediately removed any easy assumption that a priest does his work on a Sunday, and spends the rest of the week at the races. I am surprised at the variety of tasks ranging from the staples of baptism and funerals, “My life is in extremities: birth and baptism at one end of the road, death and tragedy at the other.” to complex administration “at the expense of my pastoral time”.

There is a myriad of meetings: some related to groups such as RCIA, or the pastoral council, others on an individual basis: “In marriage matters, whole lives can depend on the decision of some canon lawyer.” I inferred that his fixed points, besides the church itself, “the liturgy remains at the centre of all we do”, are his beloved parish hall, “a sacred space where so much happens”, the primary school, “a constant source of new life”, and his parish visiting team – some 30 people who work in pairs, for security. Mike is a natural delegator, and, without abrogating his canonical responsibilities, he leaves the chairing of these enterprises to effective lay people. The gentle steer rather than executive command is his natural way.

But in his diary reflections, fleshed out in our lengthy conversations, there are concerns. In deanery discussions he finds morale lowered by dwindling numbers, fewer priests and escalating tasks. And I have seen similar comments in other deanery reports, which sometimes question whether such discussions will actually result in any change. There are still a few priests around who fear a laity takeover, but Mike believes that an “exchange of gifts” is the way forward.

He is much concerned by the child abuse crisis (and strongly affected by the gross damage that this has done to his native Church). He will only hear a child’s confession on the sanctuary, in full view. “Suffer little children” he says ironically. They are more like unexploded bombs. But at least they go to confession: adults, except for the older generations, rarely use this sacrament; it is seen as irrelevant or obsolete. He hears more confessions in informal meetings.

Mike, who is 57, believes that in many ways he was ill prepared for parish life by his Irish seminary. “I was taught an idealised model of the Catholic parish; it bore little resemblance to experience. Just last week I presided over a wedding of a couple who already had three children. That’s reality.” He was grateful that his first curacy had been with a fine parish priest – old in years, young in mind.

He expressed what I sensed to be a deep concern. “You” he said, “have a wife and family. You know that there will always be people close to you, right up to your deathbed. Me, ultimately I am alone.” This aloneness (not, he stresses, loneliness) afflicts him during his rest times. He sees celibacy as a “strange animal”. No talk here of sexual need, but of the intimacy of an interdependent life. I note that his close support friends tend to be women, including his sister. Perhaps he is redressing his need for female qualities. I thought of Jesus and his valuing of women in his life.

But withal he is happy as a parish priest; he does not regret his vocation. “Yet” he tells me ‘I would never suggest priesthood as a vocation to others. I would support anyone who expressed an interest, but it would be his initiative, not mine.’”

Fr Mike did not raise with me another factor which I imagine to be important. A parish priest is an example of ‘middle management’. That is, he has a bishop to the north – perhaps bearing down, and the laity to the south pressing up – with a whole range of demands. He is squeezed in the middle. I suggest this because, generally, it is middle management in the secular world who are under the greatest stress.

I wonder, too, whether the paedophile scandals have lowered the public status of the clergy. I haven’t noticed many roman collars around lately. To feel that your vocation is suspect in many eyes must be a heavy burden to bear.

The only extensive survey of parish priests which I know is The Naked Parish Priest Louden & Francis, 2003. While I would not rely too greatly on the results – getting a truly random survey was difficult – it does suggest that a significant proportion of respondents are not in full agreement with the Church on some matters of consequence. Since they are obliged, under oath, to defend Catholic doctrines of substance, they may face a difficulty here.

All of us have different experiences of parish priests – and some, because of their office, work on both sides of the altar rails. But I think it would be useful to share our experiences, bad and good – and consider what it must really be like to fulfill that vocation.

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | Tagged | 37 Comments

But is it art?

“And the first rude sketch that the world had seen brought joy to his mighty heart, Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art?’”

Kipling’s reflection on Adam’s first drawing goes to the heart of the matter: what are the criteria which distinguish art from other human endeavour? It came to the fore in the Royal Opera House’s recent production of Guillaume Tell, where a gang rape was portrayed so realistically that the audience booed. No doubt the director, Damiano Michieletto, believed that the graphic representation of obscenity contributed to the work; on the contrary, it showed only that he did not understand the nature of art. Let me illustrate.

The National Theatre production of War Horse did not figure an actual horse but a puppet horse played by two actors — as in pantomime. Yet it was deeply moving because it obliged us to step over the footlights and to use our imaginations to conceive the reality of the horse alive in our minds. Contrast that with Spielberg’s high budget film of War Horse where the horse was a mere photographic image. It is the nature of art to pull us through the threshold of the literal and into our internal worlds. Art only happens when the vision of the artist connects with the mind of his audience, and the circuit closes. At night the Mona Lisa is no more than a concoction of poplar board and paint. But when the first morning visitor responds to it, art happens.

For many, the opera, notwithstanding its apparently absurd conventions, is the peak of artistic experience. You only need to hear the tense silence at a moment when 2000 people, holding their breath, come together as one person joined in a shared emotion. Monteverdi, in Orfeo, the earliest extant opera, chose music to tell his story because its beauty would bring his listeners closer to God. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro tells us as much as we need to know about the simmering of its contemporary society; it predated the French Revolution by only three years. Beethoven’s Fidelio captures the political injustices in Europe a generation later. Or, as an alternative, try Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by MacMillan. If you don’t emerge wrung out by emotion you have no soul.

The graphic arts have changed mightily since the 19th century. The role of recording scenes and faces has largely transferred to photography, imposing on the artist a greater obligation to point to inner meanings. So, from Impressionism to the fully abstract, by way of Hirst and Emin, we get to the Turner Prize, and many of us find ourselves stumped.

Visiting a Newbury Street gallery in Boston, a lady asked me to explain the pictures of the abstract artist being exhibited there. As I rose to the challenge one or two others joined us. By the final room my audience had multiplied. I think that my English accent must have given authority to my hastily invented analysis. As I was commenting on the supposed phallic overtones of the last picture I noticed that the artist himself had joined the little crowd. His expression was quizzical. On our way home I asked the gallery owner how he evaluated the artist. “At thirty thousand dollars a picture” he replied.

Literary fiction creates new worlds. For some years I had a long commute to work, and it was a joy. My railway carriage became Barchester or St Petersburg. My travelling companions were Anna Karenina or Heathcliff. The scenery was no longer Clapham Junction but Hardy’s Wessex. I remember an occasion when the late, great, Dr Jack Dominian was speaking to an audience of marriage counsellors. He announced his new discovery which he wished us all to heed: that reading fiction was not a waste of time, it could actually tell us about human nature. We all nodded gravely.

Nowadays he might have spoken of art as a form of play. Science is beginning to understand how the free flow of imaginative exploration in situations which only picture reality, thus constituting play, are a balm to the soul. “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression” says Doctor Stuart Brown of the Californian National Institute of Play. Art is never wasted.

Many of our contemporaries of a secular mind recognise its spiritual nature. Their experience releases them from the mundane and takes them into a higher world of beauty and imagination. It does not necessarily take them to God. But it does take me. There are moments in great art when, with Miranda in The Tempest, I find myself saying “How many goodly creatures are there here! O brave new world that has such people in it.” And I wonder at the greatness of God who created them and, through them, such art.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 26 Comments

Tie a yellow ribbon…

Perhaps some of you watched Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor in the last fortnight. It was a fascinating story of a year in the life of a four hundred year old tree, using the most modern methods of analysis. I found it riveting.

We saw the acorn springing into life, for all the world like an embryo, following the ingenious plan which ensured a new, unique, pattern of genes each time. We studied the root pattern with all its flexibility needed to ensure the right nutrients, and the right support for the great mass of the tree. At each change of the seasons we saw how the tree recognised the changes and produced the various hormones required to prepare for coming conditions.

Strictly, one cannot refer to an intelligent tree, but certainly we are looking at a highly complex, flexible and intelligent system – one good enough to keep the tree in good fettle since it was born at the time of the Civil War. And I rejoiced in it because God was right at its heart. Through his wonderful idea of evolution, this marvel was made. And, if I had to discern God’s major characteristic, without any other evidence, I would say that he is in love with, besotted with, life.

Of course many of a scientific mind would laugh at my credulity. Everything, they would say, can be explained though cause and effect – even if we don’t yet have all the answers. They would call me superstitious, and I am glad of that because the word literally means ‘to stand above’. I do not believe that the oak tree explains itself. I do not believe that the natural world explains itself. I do not believe that human life explains itself. I do believe that the world has meaning precisely because there is an infinite power which ‘stands above’.

I am reminded of the late Frank Sheed, the great lay Catholic theologian. He taught that every atom of the universe is a sign of God’s presence because it is held in existence by his active creative will. Were he to withdraw his will that atom would revert to its previous condition – nothingness.

Nowadays I see the beginnings of a change in the scientific mind. I am not thinking of the troll-like undergrowth whose instinctive reaction to belief is mockery. It is the thinkers I have in mind. They may not know the answers, and some may wish to avoid the answers. But the questions still come. Is there a purpose to my life? Why do I know that I must achieve good and avoid the evil? What is love? What does choice mean in a world of cause and effect? Science is good at finding out facts, but it cannot address the big questions. And, in the end, it is the big questions which matter.

Oak Tree is on Iplayer, available until 22 October, at:

Posted in evolution, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 47 Comments