I could hear my wife’s voice in the kitchen. She was clearly speaking firmly to a neighbour, or perhaps a tradesman. But I was wrong – she was speaking to a cat, and explaining to her with some firmness, the virtue of going outside to relieve herself rather than secretively preferring a corner of the room. The cat knew she had done something wrong, but was indifferent to chapter and verse.

That’s the problem when one’s large family of children have hauled up the anchor, the cats have to take their place. Our pair (brother and sister moggies) are intensely conservative. We are required to be in the same places at the same times, just as we and they need to be sitting in the same chairs. They talk in a stream of miaows and whimpers, and we talk back. The conversations are surprisingly lucid, though somewhat dependent on non-verbal communication – which is well understood by all four of us.

So while my intellect suggests to me that animal have no rights, my emotions tell be that they have. The cats have a right to proper food, reasonably available company, feline freedom, the vet when needed, a merciful death, and a respectful burial. But however closely we may have grown together they must ultimately be treated as cats, not as quasi humans.

Do cats have souls? Yes, but animal souls, taught Aristotle. They are sentient, of course, but we do not see them as reflective and rational. What does it mean to a cat to be conscious? I can’t get my imagination around that. And if they do not make choices through reason, their choices are usually rational. Certainly our cats have achieved safe and comfortable lives for themselves.

I note that animals appear to be acquiring increased rights in the secular world. In some dispensations they can inherit property, and have their own lawyers. Their owners can sue for emotional damages. Vets are vulnerable to malpractice suits. There are growing pressures to defend animals from being used in experiments. There was one owner, I recall, who put his investments in his dog’s name – on the grounds that dogs are not liable to Capital Gains Tax. I don’t think it worked.

The great name in all this is the Australian, Professor Singer, whom I have interviewed in the past. He has no truck with any issue of souls; his fundamental criterion is mental awareness, and conscious investment in one’s own survival. By this measurement, for instance, a mature ape would have a better right to live than a new born human, or than someone with a severe mental disability. And he accepts animal experiments only if we would be prepared to use them on a human of similar or less awareness.

When I was a small boy at boarding school I overheard a friend ask a learned Jesuit whether his dog would get to Heaven. The answer was splendidly jesuitical: “Since you will be completely happy in Heaven, if you are unhappy without your dog, he will be there for you.”

I would like to know about people’s experience with pets – how they feel about them, what value they put on them. Can a non-human creature have rights? Does this cover all manner of pets, or just those with whom a relationship is possible? We have not been taught that the lower animals are immortal, but nor have we been taught that they aren’t. Will they participate in the Resurrection (glorified, perhaps?), or will we live in a petless world? Are we justified in using animals for experiments in developing cures for humans? Do you agree with the Singer views about the rights of animals? I am told that animals are not treated kindly in Catholic countries, as opposed to white, Anglo-Saxon (therefore decent?) countries, Why should this be?

Our cats await your answers.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries | Tagged | 30 Comments

Lust for power

Will Pope Francis be successful in his mission to reform the Church so that it can approach more closely its vocation to be The Mystical Body of Christ? I emphasised, in my last column on this subject, the essential need for communication – which must operate downwards, upwards and laterally. Today I want to look at another essential factor: subsidiarity. It means that authority must be devolved to the maximum practical extent. Higher authority must not arrogate the functions and decisions which can properly be exercised at a lower level.

Subsidiarity is not a covert ploy for wresting power from authority, or a simple management device, it is, in fact, an outcome of Natural Law, and so mandated by human dignity. Its apotheosis is found in God’s gifts of free will and reason. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the concept is strongly emphasised. However, the references here are to secular society. Does subsidiarity also apply to the Church?

Indeed it does, for the Church has all the characteristics of a secular society notwithstanding its sacred mission, just as we individuals retain our all too human characteristics, although we are a redeemed race. And Pius XII confirmed its application to the Church in his “Address to New Cardinals” in 1946.

The desire for power is a form of concupiscence; it entered the human race with the Fall. That power can be rational and necessary is undoubted, but the desire for power in itself is destructive. The obvious example is the politician who, convinced of his essential value to society, becomes a stranger to the truth. When Lord Acton famously said that all power had a tendency to corrupt, it was in the context of the Renaissance popes. But it is present at any level, and we are all susceptible to the itch to control – we rarely cede it willingly. It is no coincidence that love of power and lust are connected: Henry Kissinger told us that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac and, at one time, the power of a ruler was defined by the size of his harem.

Unfortunately the Church, even in modern times, does not have a good record on subsidiarity. Cardinal König wrote, for example, “…the curial authorities, working in conjunction with the Pope, have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who carry out almost all of them”. (Tablet, March 27 1990). The bishops’ synods of that era were emasculated by curial authority and the very concept of subsidiarity was forbidden or criticised (in one case, ironically, by a certain Cardinal Bergoglio).

The sad story of how the Congregation for Divine Worship wrested the translation of the liturgy from the English-speaking bishops after their many years of work is well known. Not only was this a direct offence against subsidiarity but it produced a translation unworthy of the language which gave us the King James Bible.

In more general terms we may describe the past model of the Church as subjecting Christian existence to authority, regulating life even into its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempting to maintain control over people’s lives. Too harsh a verdict? I have taken it directly from a 1991 address to bishops by Cardinal Ratzinger. There is hope here. He goes on to say that this “pre-conciliar” model is superseded by the model of freedom, and claims – rightly in my view – that this is the older tradition.

In terms of structural subsidiarity, the appointment of bishops is significant. While the recommendations of relevant persons may well be considered, the choice is reserved to the Holy See. There are historical reasons for this, and there remain some territories in which it is needed, but there is no good reason why, in most cases, a diocesan bishop should not be chosen by the local Church as a whole – with perhaps a final veto for truly exceptional cases. This limits the danger that a pope may, even unconsciously, prefer bishops who conform to his own views, and thus damage the representative quality of the episcopal college. The bishop is not a papal delegate, he is, in his own right, the leader of the Church in his own diocese.

But in the end, the core of subsidiarity does not lie in structures – for these can only follow the fundamental attitude. In eradicating the lust for power – a difficult task indeed once it is indurated – the right kind of structures will follow. The secular term for this is “tight-loose”. In pursuing its objectives the organisation must be firm and executive in those few matters where this is necessary, and allow maximum room for freedom and initiative where it is not.

Pope Francis has already shown by his example that authority exists for its functions of service and not to sustain rank. He is putting together structures which should push power further down towards those who can use it better. The early documentation for the forthcoming Synod on the Family suggests that there will be serious engagement with the issues important to everyone in the Church. We shall see.

But true subsidiarity, like true communication, will not be easily won. There will be hotheads who will damage the cause through their excesses, and conservatives, full of fear, who will desperately batten down the hatches. We saw all of this following Vatican II. Indeed had Vatican II been fully implemented, much of Francis’s work would already have been done.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Pope Francis | Tagged | 71 Comments

St Joseph — our friend

St Joseph has been a contributor to this Blog for most of its life. She has contributed frequently and vigorously – she likes nothing better than a good argument. And throughout she has been an inspiring example of a Catholic life.

Now she has an advanced cancer, and her prospects are not good. This Friday she is going on a brief trip to Lourdes. I have promised her prayers and good wishes from all those who read this Blog – including those who are only passing guests.


Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Faith in the school

I am a champion of Catholic faith schools. My only reservation is that too many of my friends report that so few of their children, or grandchildren, enter their adult lives as believing and practising Catholics. However today I want to try an exercise. A good ploy in an argument is to be well aware of the case which your opponent will make. It prepares you to make the best case in return. So, I have invited our old sparring partner, Advocatus Diaboli, to do his best (or his worst). I hope you will answer him roundly.

Thank you, Quentin. I am, as you know, a liberal. So I am very much in favour of faith schools – provided that the doctrinal content is innocuous (or nearly so). I think that parents have rights here which we must all defend. I would even champion the rights of the Church of Father Christmas if the parents wished it. After all, there is as much evidence for its doctrines as there is for Catholic schools. Perhaps rather more – I still find a stocking at the end of my bed!

But I can see no credible reason why I should pay for Father Christmas schools through taxation. If they want a specialist education suited to their idiosyncrasies they must pay for it like anyone else. And so must Catholics. I know we call ourselves a Christian country (though if we remembered our own history of internecine religious squabbles, we might hesitate to broadcast that) but in fact we are now a secular society in which the butt ends of the Christian denominations are a shrinking and irrelevant minority.

And that brings me to a further liberal point. We have a very mixed society in class terms, intellectual terms, racial terms and religious terms. While I rejoice in variety, it is essential that we all meld as a community, understanding each other and working together for the good of all. Yet what do we do? We encourage schools in which we can keep our children in comfortable denominational ghettoes, finally launching them into the world with all their prejudices uncontaminated by the rest of our society. It’s potentially disastrous for society – and even more so for the children who have to face adult life without any living experience of the sincere views and beliefs of others. This is surely folly. But I certainly favour the teaching of comparative religion: this is the best way to learn how little any religion depends on evidence – allowing almost any kind of belief that happens to take your fancy.

It is, of course, said that Catholic schools tend to get better results than the average. But that’s not surprising is it? You would imagine that parents who have a religion and are prepared to dodge and weave in order to get their children into a favoured school are likely to have a higher IQ than average. And that’s borne out by the fact that Catholic schools have a smaller proportion of children who qualify for free school meals. And, while I am on that point, just think how a parent would feel if a child were refused a place in a Catholic school which was in the next road simply because the little mite wasn’t a god-botherer!

And that, Quentin, brings me back to your point about Catholic schools not even achieving their end as brain-washers. You know as well as I do that Catholic teachers are like everyone else – as few of them believe in Catholic teaching on sex issues as the rest of the Catholic population. How do you inspire people to follow what you don’t believe yourself? The children are too young to be exposed to intellectual dishonesty. They may get away with it at primary school – at the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ level but their chances at secondary are nil. That’s a good thing, by the way – the children won’t be tricked into not using contraception, they won’t deny women their rights to abortion, and they won’t despise Gays as given to “disordered” unnatural activities.

So when I recommend that you ditch faith schools I am doing you a favour. If you think highly of Catholic teachers, then get them into secular schools and benefit everyone. And of course you can give all the Catholic indoctrination you like after hours. Make it voluntary and you won’t find the numbers a burden. And you might even end up with more practising Catholic adults than you do today.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 23 Comments

The thin black snake that heals

“May I have a look at your groin?” The question was disconcerting – especially since I was in bed, and it was asked by a comely young lady. But I allowed immediate access, you don’t fool about with the femoral artery. I had meant to write this week about Pope Francis and subsidiarity, but nature intervened. Here is the timetable.

Monday 1am. Woken from sleep by intense and rising angina across my chest. 5am, a doctor at St George’s Hospital doesn’t do platitudes, I am a heart attack waiting to happen. The rest of Monday is boredom and tests. Tuesday, I am lying on a bed of pain while Doctor Jacques begins his work. Wednesday, I am driven home by a Somali cab driver, still in my pyjamas – and here I am, faced by pages of emails, almost as if it never happened.

It was very different from my last experience of the condition, some 17 years ago. That meant open chest surgery, a machine to stand in for my heart, and months of convalescence. Things have moved on from then.

The principle of angioplasty is quite simple, if not the practice. The surgeon inserts a catheter into an artery and, using a dye, explores the arteries of the heart. He identifies obstructions to the blood flow and, where necessary, inserts stents to keep the artery permanently open. It is fascinating to watch the screen and to see what looks like a thin black snake searching, probing and healing.

Hospital gives you time for thought. I know nothing of Dr Jacques’ personal life but, being something of a solipsist, I saw his apotheosis as the point where he worked away on me, quietly telling his team where he was and what he proposed to do next. It was the culmination of a skill that started at school, followed by medical school, then specialist qualifications, and then developing the great skill which enabled him to work in the very heart of life. I know, because I have read the thoughts of surgeons, that they are troubled by the heavy responsibility they sustain but which they have to control lest it interferes with their work. They do it day by day and the result is a restored life, and, very probably in my case, defeat of the Grim Reaper.

A miracle? Not by technical standards, but surely a miracle that a man may devote his life to the loving service of others. I know that the grace of God was in my surgeon’s hands. It is a mystery that God and man do not supplement each other; in loving action they are the same.

And I do not forget his team and the nurses who looked after me during my brief stay. They were models of human kindness and professional care. Many of them were immigrants, or daughters of immigrants. I heard a view on the radio that the public’s main concerns were getting the NHS right, and reducing immigration. Believe me, you can have one or the other, you can’t have both.

What I remember most vividly was pain. I had been warned of discomfort during the process of angioplasty but in my case, as I lay motionless on my narrow table for well over an hour, the pain was intense. It varied like the surface of a troubled sea, and I began to learn which activities I saw on the screen accompanied the ebbs and flows. Painkillers were offered, but I declined. My wife interprets this as machismo: I saw it as discovering myself. But wives have babies and pain is no stranger.

I have read of the particular pains of crucifixion. The body slumps into asphyxiation. But as the victim pulls himself up to relieve the agony, it is the feet and hands which suffer, until exhaustion takes over. The cruel cycle is repeated again and again. You may see the effect on the Shroud, where the separate blood flows from the hand register this terrible sequence.

Of course my pain was nothing by comparison, but I saw that the pain in my chest bore some remote similarity. It must at least have been present in the pain Christ suffered in his chest. And, when I accepted that I was asked to be part of that, a strange thing happened. The pain did not go away, but I did. The pain was happening in my body, but was no longer happening in me; it ceased to matter. I can think of neat psychological explanations, I’m good at that sort of thing. But I can also recognise digitus dei when it touches me.

Nor will I easily forget the people. The incoherent nurse who got confused by the wiring of my monitor – we ended up in a giggling hug. The nurse who, finishing her last session, came over to thank me for my company. Becky – busy, busy,busy. Large Mathilde, a senior nurse, who just simply sorted things out for everyone.

And the patients. Giacomo, the Italian window cleaner, lying there leaking abdominal fluid into a container. Always cheerful – the prettiest nurses attracted to his bed like flies to fly paper. Denzil, who communicated with shouts and grunts, and watched much football. He seemed well suited to that. And Pip who looked as though he was about to die, and very nearly did – panic button and all. It was a microcosm of human nature at its extremities. It was a privilege.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Obedience? Forget it.

We have, from time to time, reviewed the question of conscience, but I wonder whether we have fully taken in a momentous change ushered in by Vatican II.

We are all aware of the words of Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God …Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.“ Thinking of myself, I felt that I was always aware of that. But further consideration leads me to suspect that I had underestimated its force.

Look at the words of Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) “’The pre-conciliar’ model which subjects Christian existence to authority, regulating life even into its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempts to maintain control over people’s lives …is superseded. “

Superseded? Yes, this is a change – not a development but a realisation that the idea that morality lies in obedience to the Church’s moral teaching, and that immorality lies in disobedience, was simply wrong. It would be a reversal of a position which has been maintained at least since Trent – when the pressures of the Reformation induced the Church to strong arm the Catholic body. He goes on to tell us that the new position refers to an older tradition of freedom.

For that, we need to go back to Aquinas. He teaches that reason is the instrument of conscience. In that regard, he is loyal to Aristotle, who taught that the predominant characteristic of our species is reason, and that it is through reason that we recognise our moral duties.

He then faces up to the question: What if a man, using his reason, arrives at an objectively wrong answer? His verdict is clear: the conclusion remains wrong, but the man is still obliged to obey his reason. And Aquinas uses a test case – quite remarkable in view of the culture of the time — if a man’s reason guides him to reject faith in Christ then he is obliged to reject him.

Thus a Catholic who divorces his spouse, and remarries, may be objectively wrong, but he is bound to do so if his reason concludes that that is the right course. This is why confessors are instructed not to probe the conscience of penitents on matters such as contraception unless the issue is raised by the penitent. A question to consider here is what right we have to use any pressure on someone whose reason leads her to bring about abortion.

Freedom is always welcome – but be careful what you wish for. No longer can we use the excuse “the Church told me to” on the Day of Judgment. The best we can do is to say “I listened to the Church and I endorsed its teaching with my reason (or not, as the case may be)” Or perhaps to follow the Church because you judge it more likely to be true than you are – just as you might prefer a doctor’s expert opinion over your own, uncertain, opinion. And of course reason instructs a Catholic in matters of doubt to refer to the Church’s moral teaching and to try to see how it may be true, and thus receive endorsement or otherwise. Freedom is not a free pass, it is extended responsibility.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 34 Comments

Talk to me

Some years ago I visited a very successful company, which was a competitor of mine. My object was to talk to the top man to discover what he was getting right. But I had my answer from the commissionaire before I had even entered the lift to the executive floor. Being a few minutes early I had asked this gentlemen about the company, and I received an enthusiastic account of its aims and values; it was identical to the message I was to receive from the top man some minutes later. Commissionaires are usually on the fringes of an organisation, a kind of servant class, but I realised immediately that this was a shared community which thrived on internal communication and respect.

I should not have been surprised. Work has been done, in hospitals for example, showing that internal communication is so often the key to success. In these, the internal communication goes upwards as well as downwards. And it goes sideways — so that different disciplines work together in common cause. The staff stay, and only the patients leave – since they tend to heal quicker in the benign environment.

In my last column, I identified communication as one of the two major factors which have to be got right in order for the Church to develop its culture in tune with Pope Francis’s vision. We should not be surprised that the Church is bad at communication; its history and structure puts it at immediate disadvantage. For most of its existence it has consisted of powerful top layers looking down on a large and uneducated laity. And even its relations with the educated, and thus powerful, have been tense and competitive. Real communication has been pointless or dangerous.

Of course there has been a great deal of downward communication. We should expect that. But upward communication has been distinguished by its absence. Really listening to the body of the Church, and understanding how people feel, and the needs they express, is hazardous. There is a danger that one might have to face up to truths which are best ignored – there is even the possibility of mutiny. At the very least it involves acceptance that the Spirit which bloweth where it listeth may not always confine itself to the mitred head.

Changing the nature of communication in an organisation depends on its leadership; it is unlikely to come from below. And here Francis has started off in the right way. He has been prepared to give informal, perhaps even spontaneous, messages. We are not expected to salute them as settled doctrine but as thoughts on which we are commended to reflect. The light touch sets us free to respond.

Some have suggested that his readiness to pick up a telephone and reply to “inconsequential” members of the laity is no more than a stunt. He can’t reply to every caller. On the contrary, it is a gesture full of meaning. It tells us, loud and clear, that the thoughts of every one are important, and that every one needs to be listened to. Christian concern is best expressed in individual encounter rather than in a general cloud of goodwill.

The survey of opinion on the Church and the family, in preparation for the Synod, provides an historic example. Leaving aside its incompetent drafting (evidence of the Church’s inexperience of consultation), it is a truly hopeful sign. And the response of some hierarchies in summarising the answers complements this. But from the heights of the Vatican down to the parish priest’s listening ear, two-way communication and two-way listening is the essential first factor in building community.

But we must be wary. There are problems to face. Opening the floodgates to communication releases many years of built up frustration. From those who have thought long and hard, to those for whom contention with authority has become a way of life, to those (whose fervent messages often find their way into my mailbox) who are distinctly odd, the new opportunity will be one they seize. It would be a pity if such an initial maelstrom simply confirmed to authority that listening is a dangerous waste of time. Yes, time is spent – and it always will be; listening takes time, and humility – but it is rarely wasted.

Many were, I’m sure, shocked by the widespread disconnection in the matter of the Church’s attitudes towards sexuality and the family, as expressed in the Synod survey responses. They may even feel that the Church has been pushed up against the wall by allowing such views to be publicised, since they cannot now be ignored. But all would be lost if such fears inhibited other areas of investigation. We should remember that, whenever a person knows he has really been listened to, he becomes more open to listening in turn to the response.

There are of course other obstacles to be encountered in enabling Francis’s leadership to be incarnated in permanent change – notably the issue of subsidiarity. I will look at this in my next column. But I have started with communication because, without this, nothing further can happen. In a successful hospital, management, consultants, doctors, nurses, skivvies and patients all need to communicate and listen in order to share the joint enterprise of healing. In a successful Church, pope, Vatican, cardinals, bishops, priests and lay folk all need to communicate and listen in order to share the joint enterprise of salvation. There is no other way.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Pope Francis | 31 Comments