A snake in the grass

This may prove an interesting week for Catholics. The new film Spotlight is being released in Britain. It is based in 2001 when the Boston Globe began to investigate the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Massachusetts. I have not seen the film and so I rely on an articles published in The Catholic Herald (22 Jan) and The Tablet (23 Jan). Were it a poor film it could be overlooked but it has been nominated for six Academy Awards, and both magazines broadly confirm its approach.

It would seem that there was a conspiracy to manage the whole paedophile issue in this by, for instance, moving priests from one post to another – and avoiding any possibility of the situation being made public. “The film portrays the Church as a powerful, silencing organisation with superficially affable, eloquent enforcers.” One observer, close to the situation, describes it as a “culture of secrecy that tolerates and even protects paedophiles”. He estimates that half of priests are not celibate and that as many as six per cent of all priests may have been at some time involved in sexual activity with minors. It is more than a few bad apples”.

None of this comes as a surprise to us. We have read several accounts – for example, from Ireland – and have been shocked and shamed. But now perhaps we are at a perspective distance which allows us to ask ourselves some important questions.

We find it difficult to get our heads around paedophilia. Like any form of sexual irregularity we cannot understand its attraction if we are not ourselves drawn towards it. But the numbers involved suggest many possible factors: the immaturity of priests who have in some way abstracted themselves from normal life, the huge emphasis on the vileness of sexuality which might in itself be tempting, the attraction of celibacy for certain homosexuals, that strange syndrome whereby people with “virtuous” status rationalise their shortcomings as somehow owed to them to even the balance.

But we might think that the worse sin was not sexual but the abuse of power. A priest is in a position of power – particularly with regard to the young, and they have many possibilities of wheedling and threatening which not only succeed but ensure silence. It is in fact a sort of rape – and all the worse for the young person who happens to get some pleasure. His or her reward is an extra dose of guilt.

Some people will claim that the worst sinners were those in episcopal authority. Whether or not they approved, they were prepared to let it continue and spread. We might excuse them initially because they were naïve: suppose you caught out your brother in such an activity. Would you immediately walk down to the police station and turn him in? Or would you first try to sort it out strictly within the family? After all, if you accept that your brother had been depressed, was terribly repentant and ready to swear not to repeat such an offence, would you not want to believe him? It looks like a better outcome than the shame and scandal brought on him and the family.

But, by the time the bishop is aware that his optimism is unjustified, it may be difficult to reverse gear. Probably there are a number priests in the diocese who have already been moved around to avoid scandal. If it all comes to light he will be held indirectly responsible for each case. The parents will be prowling around your palace and the potential bill for damages is growing larger than the wealth of the diocese. Above all, there will be huge scandal, and you can be sure that headquarters, which has done little enough to help or guide so far, will leave you up the creek without a paddle.

I am told that paedophile situations are by no means unique to the Church. I have no figures but I understand it is as common in school systems and youth organisations. But most cases occur within the family; I could repeat stories from my time as a Catholic marriage counsellor which would make you cry. But I am still left with the question why the Church with its high values, staffed by those who surely intended to devote their life to Christ, should have harboured such vice. Of course in any organisation there will be a few bad apples. But if so many apples are bad, perhaps it’s a bad tree or, at the very least, a potentially good tree which has been cultivated by a careless and ignorant gardener.

Tell me if my analysis needs correcting, and tell us how you analyse the situation.

I drafted this piece for last week, but we were overtaken by the Zika issue. I have now seen the Spotlight film, which is indeed excellent. It is uncomfortable for Catholics to watch, but I would suggest obligatory. You could have heard a pin fall throughout the cinema. The only sound was my adult convert wife spitting blood. Almost the worst moment for me was the end when three screens were needed to list all the places around the world in which the local church had maintained a similar cover up of clergy paedophilia. I was in no doubt that there is something badly wrong in the Church which allows these things to happen. Can we nail it (or them, if there are multiple reasons) down?

Monday this week: I read in Global Pulse an article headed “Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who is president of the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University, says cover-ups and denial are still too prevalent in the Church.” He concludes: “What does it signify for the Church’s self-image, for instance? What is the significance of a priest, a ‘man of God’, who administers the Sacraments but is at the same time a perpetrator?”And so the story is scarcely over…

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

What does the Church do?

Earlier this week a blog of mine on the Zika crisis in Brazil was published on the Catholic Herald website. Over a couple of days it had attracted 337 comments by the time comments were closed. I am reproducing it here to see what Secondsight readers think. You may like to visit: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2016/02/02/the-zika-outbreak-presents-the-church-with-a-major-dilemma/ and get the flavour of the comments so far. Incidentally, it may introduce you to the CH commentandblogs page, which carries interesting stuff. One question was not discussed here: if the Church allowed couples in Brazil to use artificial contraception to avoid the tragedy of microcephalic babies, what would happen to the authority of Humanae Vitae?

Will the Catholic Church keep quiet?

Humanae Vitae has, in its history, been challenged by events. There have been debates about the use of condoms as prophylactics and the morality of contraception in irregular sexual activity. But the outbreak of Zika in the (southern) Americas presents us with an altogether more direct problem.

Zika is an infection caught from the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It is strongly suspected, though not fully proven, that, in some pregnant women, it causes microcephaly in the foetus. (Microcephaly is a severe shrinkage of the brain, which damages brain function.) The World Health Organisation predicts that some four million people in the Americas will be infected with Zika this year.

And here lies the problem. The obvious and sensible precaution is to avoid pregnancy until the situation is under control. Unlike other attempts to circumnavigate orthodox doctrine, this precaution is explicitly and intentionally contraceptive.

The intention may be benign but the contraceptive action is held to be intrinsically evil. This is emphasised in Humanae Vitae, echoing Casti Connubii, “(It) is absolutely required that any use whatsoever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life.”

Bearing in mind that absolute commands may be hostages to fortune, the Hierarchy face a dilemma. Once it is accepted that artificial contraception is justified by benign intention, we open a gate we cannot close. But the options are not attractive.

Can we imagine the likely effects of proclaiming that married couples should refrain from sexual activity for an indefinite period? Might presenting this on the grounds that no contraceptive method is perfect be seen as disingenuous? Should all couples in the 21 countries at risk immediately master and use natural family planning? Or is it enough to keep quiet, and hope that no one asks any questions?

Posted in Catholic Herald, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , , , | 44 Comments

The glorification of conscience

Today we appear to have two different approaches to morality. One is founded in obedience to the Church’s teaching on moral matters; the other is the absolute requirement to follow our subjective conscience. These two notions appear to stand in opposition to each other. I explore this anomaly with help from Pope Benedict’s address, as Cardinal Ratzinger, to his fellow bishops in 1991. I hope that some will examine his text which, at some 7000 words, is rather too long for this column.

While we are not inclined to doubt the principle that conscience is sovereign, we must be aware of a possible contradiction. The glorifying of conscience can quickly lead to a subjective approach in which the objectivity of the moral tradition becomes no more than material presented to us for consideration. Our grasp of truth becomes subjective, and the only criterion is sincerity. But we know that subjective conclusions vary from one person to another, and may well reflect special circumstances. They cannot be a certain guide to truth.

Subjectivity may lead to some surprising conclusions. We might find ourselves accepting the possibility that a Nazi guard pitchforking a Jew into a gas chamber was obliged to do so in good conscience. And some have even argued that those who have little knowledge of Revelation and the divine law have an advantage since their ignorance allows them a range of behaviour forbidden to us. There is irony in the thought that our faith may condemn us while lack of faith goes free.

We may approach this by considering the need for guilt. Luke describes this in the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. It is the tax collector who goes away justified because he recognises his guilt and his need for mercy. The Pharisee, complacent in his virtue, renders himself impermeable to God. Far from regarding guilt as some kind of weakness, it is our recognition that we continually fall short of the truth within us. Our Nazi guard may not be to blame at the moment of decision. But he is to blame for not recognising the moral truths which lie within him. In a sense, he is sinning against his better self.

Ratzinger uses the word anamnesis, or recollection, in this context. It is exactly described in Romans as “(The Gentiles) show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” It tells us that two elements are involved. The first is our native ability, directly created within us, to recognise the good. The second is the judgment of conscience which is necessarily based on our recognition of the good.

We must not separate the two. By doing so, we find ourselves with a wholly subjective judgment of conscience. This is what leads us to decisions which are grounded in our inadequacies, in immediate circumstances, in the fashions of our culture. Precisely because it is our own we give it a superiority which smacks of the Pharisee. But when it is grounded in the law in our hearts it is a decision made in humility. The Council does not speak of our subjective decisions but of a conscience which “is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” We do not pick and choose the voice of God, we listen, we recollect. You can’t get more objective than that.

The Church is the witness of the moral good – a compendium of Christian understanding, developed and refined over the centuries. While it is authoritative to us as Catholics by Christ’s commission, its expression does not trump our recognition of the good as it applies in our own decision. We remain responsible. It is not a burden, rather it lifts the burden by helping to clarify the demands of the good within us. It is not a law which requires reactive obedience. On the contrary we must, as far as possible understand how it leads towards, or possibly detracts from, the good we recognise. We are responsible, too, when our uncertainty properly requires us to defer to the Church’s teaching — much as we might responsibly rely on an expert in other contexts.

For the Pharisee, compliance with the law was the objective since salvation came through the law. Our understanding is different. Christ is the harbour light and the laws are the buoys which mark the entrance to the channel. As a distinguished theologian put it: “The ten commandments protect the outer periphery in which Christ will be formed in us.” We come back, as always, to our growth in Christian virtue. It is through this that we see more clearly, and choose more freely, the good implanted within us.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s address is at http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/ratzcons.htm .

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, virtue ethics | Tagged , , | 75 Comments

Who’s who & what’s what?

Some of you will know that I run a philosophy group. I am not a philosopher nor do I teach philosophy, but I provide a fortnightly opportunity for about a dozen people to discuss philosophy and philosophers. Surprisingly often the material from this group finds it way to this Blog, and vice versa. Some years ago I noted an interesting question which concerns the nature of identity. Here was what I wrote:

“My friend Joe is a skilled carpenter and boat builder. Some years ago he built a small rowing boat. Being a perfectionist his habit was to replace any part of the boat which was in the slightest damaged or worn. The first two or three planks he replaced gave me no philosophical difficulty – it was clearly Joe’s old boat with a few repairs.

But the day came when he had in fact replaced every single part of the boat. When I suggested that he had made a new boat with a different identity he denied this, saying: “The shape and length of every replacement piece has been dictated by the form of the boat so there has clearly been a continuity of identity because of the continuity of the form.”

But I had a better idea. Joe never throws anything away. When I looked under the tarpaulin at the back of the shed I found all the pieces and planks he had removed. So I put the old boat together again. Every part had to be put into the only place it could fit – the form was preserved. And I asked him to tell me whether the two boats shared the same identity. Joe is still scratching his head.

This is an old problem – it was originally Theseus’s boat, and the story comes to us through Plutarch. Nor is it academic, for the meaning of identity is important to us. I am told that throughout our lives the cells in our body, except in the neural cortex, die and are replaced – just like Joe and his boat. But if the body I have now has been replaced, cell by cell, a number of times, am I the same person? You might argue that the new cells, nevertheless inherit the same information. I hold in my memory the experience of being a child even if that memory is held in replacement cells.

Imagine that Hitler did not die in his bunker. He survived. But a nearby explosion permanently removed his memory from the age of 10 onwards. At his Nuremberg trial, the prosecution argued that he was clearly the same person who could properly be tried and punished. But the defence argued that it was plainly unjust to punish him for crimes of which he could have no knowledge. What would you decide?

And of course there is the knotty Catholic problem. In the matter of the real presence in the Eucharist we accept that the wafer before consecration has the identity of bread. The theologian distinguishes between substance – what it really is – and the accidents of that substance which we recognise through our senses. After consecration its substance, and therefore its identity, is radically changed but its accidents remain. No wonder that some theologians have looked for solutions in the concepts of symbol or sign. And the Lutherans hold that bread and wine body and blood coexist with each other. Yet such approaches do not appear to be an adequate response to Christ’s own description which emphasises the literality of the doctrine. Indeed, in John 6, he presents it as a challenge of faith to his listeners. It remains a challenge to us.

Posted in Neuroscience, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged , , , | 50 Comments

RU corrupt?

Corruption everywhere! But what does corruption mean? Its root is in ‘rupt’ meaning a breakdown as in ‘rupture’. So I take it to mean the breakdown of something that ought to be different. We use it appropriately when a person or an organisation which has power and privilege abuses the very purpose for which they have these advantages. There are many examples, some of which I list.

A government which makes legislation with the intention of gaining electoral advantage at the expense of the common good. MPs who do not respect their expense allowances and use them as an indirect source of income. Police who get their way by threats which their victims cannot evaluate.

The alleged corruption of international sports authorities, leading to the wealth of officials and the placing of events as a result of bribes. In many countries, not only in the Third World, general corruption runs through the whole system – and, being difficult to eradicate, becomes taken for granted. Samuel Pepys, as Secretary to the Admiralty, admitted to taking bribes – indeed it was seen as part of his emolument. He claimed that he never allowed this to affect his judgment – and no doubt believed himself.

Nearer to home we might think of supermarkets. They work hard to gain our trust, yet they are capable of raising prices through reducing the contents of familiar packages, and hoping that we won’t notice. Newspapers, often holier than thou, are not above distorting news stories in various ways in order to attract readers. And if you think they are not concerned about offending their big advertisers by selection and treatment of stories, you are an innocent abroad. Many newspapers pay their journalists lower salaries, but unofficially expect them to use their expense accounts freely. (These may be the same papers who accuse companies of paying insufficient corporation tax.) A friend of mine who was a senior executive in the newspaper business tried to stop the practice, Six months later he was out of a job. You would be surprised if I told you the name of the newspaper,

In the Catholic community we are only too well aware of clerical sexual corruption – from cardinals down to the lowest ranks. Here we have double corruption: first because the clergy are assumed to be virtuous by their rôle, and second because they use their power over the weak and defenceless. We remember the Latin tag corruptio optimi pessima – “the corruption of the best is the worst.”

But we cannot afford to deplore this widespread corruption without examining whether we may sometimes slide into corruption ourselves. Have we never smiled at someone in order to get a favour in return? Have we never bribed a child to change his or her behaviour? Have we never used our authority at work to gain our own advantage? Imagine a case where our nephew is applying for a popular job, and we find that the interviewer happens to be a friend. Might we just mention our nephew to him – in the hope that he will have corrupt advantage over the other applicants?

It seems to be a feature of corruption that it is very much easier to spot it in others than it is to spot it in ourselves.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 117 Comments

Inoculate the young

Mr Justice Warby fired a shot across the bows in a High Court judgment in November when he said that schools should put secular humanism and other non-religious beliefs into the Religious Studies curriculum. This, unsurprisingly, caused a fuss. But the ruling did not apply to faith schools. Sigh of relief? No, of course not. Catholic schools should study non-religious beliefs, and in some detail. Secular humanism as presented by the British Humanist Association, or its informal counterparts, surrounds us in our society. Indeed, in 2008 the Catholic Herald gave Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, a feature page to express his uncensored views.

It is really a matter of conscience. The philosopher John Stuart Mill tells us that the best title to maintain an opinion is that it has been exposed to every objection that can be thrown at it, and survived. But there are practical reasons too. Until we have listened to the best case from those who disagree, we will always be vulnerable to our secular culture. It means that considering and discussing these questions at secondary school is an important part of Catholic education. In that way we may hope to promote our moral grasp from obedience to an internal understanding of the good.

I recall a conversation with a young lady in Year 10 (14 to 15 years old) at an excellent convent school. She was bright, and she had a good grasp of Catholic moral teaching. But she appeared to keep this in a mental box. Outside was real life – and that was what she was living. She had not had the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of morality under the guidance of a teacher. She knew what the Church taught. She could even trot out the reasons. But she had never internalised them.

I am not naïve about this. I remember, back in 1972, when my wife and I wrote a little book titled Choices in Sex. It was born from our experience of working with young people. It had been no surprise to us that laying down the law to adolescents, pulsating with new hormones, was received with mute indifference. But they did react positively to discussion that looked at all the issues in a thoughtful and constructive way. Although the book was very well received, and sold out speedily, we ended up being accused of forging the imprimatur, and were styled as “corrupters of youth”. Our critics made no bones about quoting out of context, or inventing a quotation when necessary. The Catholic Herald carried the story, from accusations to retractions, over three issues.

I choose abortion as an example of a subject that might be studied at secondary level, since it is a relatively clear-cut issue and because various surveys tell us that a substantial minority of Catholics do not support the orthodox doctrine. The Church’s teaching is clear but, in view of my last paragraph, I should say that I accept it wholeheartedly. Yet there are issues to consider.

The first is to establish at what point the conceptus becomes human. Is it at the moment of DNA exchange or at some future point of development? A second would be the rights of the mother over her own body. Then come issues such as rape or a damaged foetus. And there are cases when the presence or position of the foetus endangers the mother’s life. I am not going to discuss these here, but we know that our young people will meet such issues in the public forum, so it is better that they think these things through with teachers who are ready to listen, and know their stuff. Even if pupils do not accept the teaching at that time, they will hold in their minds the possibility of a better way.

So I return to secular humanism. In looking at the best case, pupils will recognise many excellent values, and they will understand how these were inherited from centuries of Christian humanistic culture. The similarities and differences in Catholic social teaching can be examined. They will spot some misunderstandings of religion, as well as criticisms which may have weight. They might perhaps debate whether such values are on the brink of a slippery slope in a wholly secular society, and attempt to visualise what effects the removal of religious values from public life would have on freedoms of religion and conscience. Examples might be Catholic adoption societies, and the increasing campaign against faith schools.

An analogy with inoculation is pertinent here. Inoculation introduces infection at a reduced level which stimulates the immune system to recognise the attacker and to strengthen defences against a more dangerous version. Helping the young to explore moral issues critically, and against a background of facts and opposing views, protects them from the idle thinking and the self-serving influences they meet everywhere today.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 84 Comments

Expect the unexpected

Before Christmas we discussed John Rawls’s idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’. He argued that social rules should be seen from the several points of view held by the different categories potentially affected. Apart from other advantages, it can be a valuable way of identifying what would otherwise be unintended consequences. As it happens, there is a flurry of recent examples – enough to make us wonder if the Government is particularly bad at thinking things through.

The first example is the ‘bedroom tax’. The intentions were excellent: why should some people get subsidised housing for properties too large for their needs, while other, larger, families cannot get adequate housing? The unintended consequence was that, since enough smaller accommodation was often not available, many had no realistic opportunity to size down. In effect their income was reduced without the opportunity to evade the loss. Another consequence was that society as a whole, including natural Tory voters, saw this as an injustice.

A further example was the proposal to remove tax credits before higher minimum rates of pay had been achieved. We all remember the unintended consequences of that. Did Tory headquarters ever think of the effect of that before announcing a policy which had, in the end – and after a lots of worry for the potentially affected – to be withdrawn?

A strong hike in stamp duty for more expensive properties would bring greatly increased revenue – and, by definition, the buyers had more than enough money to meet the bill. But did the Government realise that this tax would reduce the value of high end properties, and thus reduce the revenue? Did they understand that stamp duty revenue is a result of value multiplied by the number of transactions? Of course the market has slowed, and the rate of transactions at that level have dampened down. I don’t know the figures, but I suspect they may collect less revenue than before the hike – and certainly less than they expected.

Bright idea? Several entrepreneurial people decided to build up capital for the future – particularly for retirement – through investing in buy to let properties. So let’s reduce tax relief on their mortgages interest – it’s a goldmine! Unfortunately that catches all the people who made their calculations on the normal basis of full tax relief on business expenses. But since mortgages are long term they are stuck. Their original equations no longer work. Two problems here: first, at the next opportunity rents will be increased so it will be the tenants who pay the difference; second, potential entrepreneurs will know that we have a government which is not above making what are in effect retrospective changes when they spot an opportunity to grab revenue.

The latest little adventure is to increase stamp duty levels for second properties. Of course, if you can afford a second property, you can afford to pay extra for it. But the fact that two people who cohabit can own two properties in their two different names without this extra charge, while a married couple cannot, will discourage marriage – and will bring all the extra costs which ultimately arise because of the instability of cohabitation. It’s not long since I wrote an open letter to David Cameron on the social benefits of encouraging marriage. Although it was forwarded to him by my MP, I have received no reply. Had he read it, and thought about it, he might have paused before allowing yet another unintended consequence of a decision which gains revenue today at the expense of unaccountable social costs tomorrow.

I am often asked my opinion about Jeremy Corbyn. And I always reply that there are few things more damaging than a government, whether leaning left or right, which does not have a strong and credible opposition. So whatever Corbyn’s merits or demerits may be, his presence and his position, is a disaster.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 21 Comments