Christmas past

The end of Christmas. In the continuity of life we come across occasions which mark more radical changes. This will be the first year in six decades when my wife and I do not celebrate the family Christmas in our own home. It had been a set ritual lasting from Christmas Eve to when we all retired, exhausted, at the end of Christmas Day. This year, both days will be celebrated at our children’s homes. We are relieved because we escape the work, and saddened because it is, at least, the waiting room for our final exit. We will become anecdotes.

So I muse on Christmases past. I hold a memory from the 1930s of a figure in red and white costume working his way from room to room in the middle of the night. This was the editor of the Catholic Herald, no less – playing out our family conspiracy, to act as if Father Christmas existed. Does his successor do the same? But clearer in my memory is my Christmas of shame and my Christmas of fear.

The Christmas of shame was in the 1940s. Edenbridge, in Kent, had then no Catholic church, so our congregation met in Fr O’Kane’s front room. O’Kane was somewhat different from the Jesuits I knew at school. Fiery, witty, even occasionally uncouth, he was a man of God, as his congregation recognised. For Midnight Mass, my father organised the liturgy. He and I served on the altar.

That evening the place was full and there was a long queue of parishioners waiting for Confession. For younger readers, I must explain that in those days Catholics actually used the confessional as a matter of course. O’Kane moved swiftly. Going by the time intervals, the penitent got little further than “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned” before he found himself ushered out with absolution and three Hail Marys. One could no doubt have confessed to assassinating the Pope – with just a decade of the rosary for one’s pains.

But the queue was growing, so O’Kane left the confessional and commanded the penitents: “On yer knees.” His ego vos absolvo covered them all. Back in the sacristy, he muttered to my father: “An emergency, don’t tell the bishop.” There was no danger, the Catholic Herald, as an independent newspaper, did not always see eye to eye with the bishops.

We had a cut-down sung Mass, and I was given the privileged post of being thurifer. Manoeuvring between the rickety altar and the pressing congregation was tricky, but all went well until the high point of my duties: thurifying the people. The charcoal was glowing, the incense smoke was billowing and with my first great swing I struck the foremost member of the congregation in the face with my enthusiastic salutation. A rustle which sounded like giggling ran through the congregation. I do not need to describe my mortification. It is enough to say that the moment of contact between thurible and chin pinned that Christmas in my memory – where it has remained over some seven decades.

My Christmas of fear was 1954. Instead of Midnight Mass I found myself on my own in a three-ton truck on the top of an Austrian mountain at many degrees below zero. Although inexperienced, I was the senior Catholic officer in the barracks and so charged with getting the Catholic families to the monastery of Sekau by midnight.

We had started out quite well but as the cold came down the truck began to slip and slide. I asked Corporal Anderson, our driver, to get out the chains for the wheels. Anderson, not the brightest card in the deck, had failed to bring chains. We continued until it was manifestly too dangerous. By then we were not far from Sekau below us in the valley, so I sent the party off on foot.

As I sat in the lorry, occasionally running the engine for warmth, there were moments of beauty: a starred night sky, the fresh, hard frozen snow and the sound of sacred music wafting up to me from below. Spiritual communion on a mountainside has much to commend it.

The fear started on the party’s return. Anderson refused to drive and, facing the prospect of Catholics frozen to death, I, with little experience of trucks, took the wheel. Army lorries of that vintage were crude: no four-wheel drive, unsubtle brakes and double declutching to change gear – now a lost art. Hills had to be taken at speed for a stall meant a slip into the abyss. Tight bends, often bordered by chasms, needed control through engine speed – brakes were lethal. I drove from fear to fear, from hill to valley – prayers to St Christopher punctuated by oaths. And when we finally reached barracks, my sustained fear had left me sweating profusely in the cold. At least Anderson seemed impressed. Happy Christmas.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns | 11 Comments

Synod matters

The ‘ordinary’ synod on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World” will start on 4th October, 2015. Bishops are currently being circulated with a summary of the 2014 synod, together with some 46 questions which should be a basis of discussion not only among bishops but by the faithful in general. Presumably the bishops will be preparing documents to reflect some or all of these questions, and, we may hope, will circulate them in a convenient, professional, format.

This will lead, in time, to the working document (Instrumentum Laboris) for the coming synod.

We need, I think, to study and discuss the various key issues. So I have taken some of these from the material already available. Those who would like to know more about the material given to the bishops, should visit:

“Is the Christian community in a position to undertake the care of all wounded families so that they can experience the Father’s mercy? How does the Christian community engage in removing the social and economic factors that often determine this situation? What steps have been taken and what can be done to increase this activity and the sense of mission which sustains it?

“The Pastors at the Synod asked themselves — in an open and courageous manner but not without concern and caution — how the Church is to regard Catholics who are united in a civil bond, those who simply live together and those who, after a valid marriage, are divorced and remarried civilly.”

“With regard to the divorced and remarried, pastoral practice concerning the sacraments needs to be further studied, including assessment of the Orthodox practice and taking into account ‘the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances. What is possible? What suggestions can be offered to resolve forms of undue or unnecessary impediments?”

“The pastoral care of persons with homosexual tendencies poses new challenges today, due to the manner in which their rights are proposed in society,” How can the Christian community give pastoral attention to families with persons with homosexual tendencies? What are the responses that, in light of cultural sensitivities, are considered to be most appropriate?

“What are the most significant steps that have been taken to announce and effectively promote the beauty and dignity of becoming a mother or father, in light, for example, of Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI? How can dialogue be promoted with sciences and biomedical technologies in a way that respects the human ecology of reproduction?”

“What initiatives in catechesis can be developed and fostered to make known and offer assistance to persons in living the Church’s teaching on the family, above all in surmounting any possible discrepancy between what is lived and what is professed and in leading to a process of conversion? What is being done to demonstrate the greatness and beauty of the gift of indissolubility so as to prompt a desire to live it and strengthen it more and more?”

“How can people be made to understand that Christian marriage corresponds to the original plan of God and, thus, one of fulfilment and not confinement?”

We have often complained that the faithful are not consulted on matters which concern them intimately. So how are we going to respond?

Posted in Church and Society, Pope Francis, Quentin queries, Synod | 108 Comments

The death of debate

I reproduce here, with permission, the main leader from the last edition of the Catholic Herald. It raises some important points for discussion.

David Cameron has recently described British values as: “a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.” We agree, but behind such a general statement lie many traps. In recent times there has been a growing pattern of discrimination against moral and religious opinions and practice. We may think of Catholic adoption societies, attacks on faith schools in the public sector or nurses being required to supervise abortion administration in hospitals.

Now, it would appear, attacks against freedom of debate and discussion are appearing in the universities – the very institutions which assume, and have assumed since the days of Plato, that rational and free debate is at the heart of the discovery of truth. We have in mind here Cardiff University where the student union is intent on converting the University to a pro-abortion stance. This follows a decision to baulk a debate on the damage of abortion culture to our society by Christ Church, Oxford.

We need to see these serious incidents against a background of growing secularism. The philosophy here is plain: secularity is essentially neutral and any religious belief, or morality related to such belief, is grounded in superstition. We may be allowed to maintain and even to act upon such values provided we do so in private, but any manifestation in public life must be taken as a form of intolerance to be condemned or even directly punished. Organisations, such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, are skilled in public relations and their secularist propaganda addresses the passive agnosticism of our society.

So we all have to decide what kind of society we wish to be. The history of England and the British Empire shows us many attitudes and policies which it shames us to remember. But, at least eventually, the freedoms of opinion sustained by the freedom of democracy have won through. But if we allow ourselves to become a society with an inherent tendency towards control we will have destroyed the very instrument of our freedom. Of course free speech itself has its necessary limits which have been established over the centuries, but our history should lead us to champion a free and diverse society with an instinctive abhorrence for any controls which are not clearly proven to be necessary for the common good.

The rights to life, to religious belief and practice and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the United Nations. Perhaps university students have forgotten the sacrifices their forebears made to achieve the freedom which they enjoy. They will learn that the preservation of these rights, even to their own disadvantage, is the price of such freedom.


Contributors have, from time to time, noted a gradual slide into secularism in our society. But it may still come as a shock to discover that there are those who would deny us the freedom to argue the moral law in public. That, in the instances noted, the aggression comes from the next generation of our educated young makes it all the worse.

The leader describes our society as one of passive agnosticism. Should we be letting sleeping dogs lie, or does this make our society fertile ground only too ready to support attacks on religion?

We have had constructive discussion on the casual assumption that the idea of God as a creator carries little force nowadays. But there is active, and sometimes aggressive, attack on particular issues. Abortion is indeed the first one which comes to mind. The movement, under the banner of female reproductive rights, is national and international. There has been strong pressure even in the United Nations to have abortion, effectively on demand, as a right in every country. The gulf between those who hold that the human being in the womb is disposable and those who defend human life at every stage seems unbridgeable.

The active campaign against faith schools has been strongly boosted by a minority of Muslim schools – and this has been neatly turned into ammunition against any faith (read, Catholic) school. Many now take it for granted that the use of public money to support religious education is simply unjust. This is reinforced by a condemnation of ‘indoctrinating’ the young with superstitious beliefs. Moreover, it is claimed that the exclusivity of Catholic schools damages the integration of society.

Sometimes we may think that the only ace in the pack available to us is the popularity of Pope Francis. While this is well deserved we should not rely on it. You may be sure that there are those who seek for any crack or misinterpretation which can be used to bring him, and thus the Church, into disrepute. You may remember the damage done to the standing of Pope Benedict by the pack snapping at his heels.

But, as always, it is not enough to say what others should do. We must not forget the effect we have on our families, our friends, and the institutions to which we belong. Our particular rôle is to bear witness to the secular world.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 59 Comments


Many writers will tell you that they never bother to re-read their published work. I am not among their number for I find few things more satisfying than reading something with which I entirely agree. This took me back to a 1966 copy of The Month, containing a piece titled “The responsible conscience.”

The burden of my article was that Catholics in general had been trained to avoid the use of their consciences in any process of moral discrimination. First, the panorama of moral teaching was so wide that the answer to any dilemma of consequence was available. Why try do-it-yourself when the answer was in the back of the book? Second, there was a particular virtue in obedience, which added an extra burnish to one’s moral act. And I quoted several authorities who bewailed the disappearance of the Catholic conscience.

The establishment attitude to teaching morals to the young was that moral education should be explicit, dogmatic and determinate. It should indoctrinate children until resistance to evil becomes almost second nature. It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good. (Sorry, I should have used inverted commas. That was taken directly from a standard moral theology, Henry Davis SJ, 1958 edition.)

This former approach suggests a picture of the Christian life as a journey of great peril. We were either en route for blessedness or en route for a Hell of eternal punishment. Beheading by ISIL is positively benign by comparison. The current Catechism remains clear about this. We may rightly claim to be a religion of love, but we must also accept that in practice we were once a religion of serious psychological threat. We were controlled by menace. It is clearly stated that mortal sin requires full knowledge and consent. But we cannot escape full knowledge given our recognition of natural law and the Church’s teaching. And we do have consent because we have free will, and are assured that the grace needed to avoid sin is always available.

This will read strangely to younger generations. Vatican II reminded us that conscience takes precedence over extraneous moral teaching. We remember moral orthodoxies which have turned out to be heterodoxies. And we understand how full knowledge and full consent are more difficult concepts than we used to think. Shaw’s St Joan did not know whether she was in a state of grace: equally, we do not know if we are in a state of damnation.

Against this background we may understand better the differences of opinion which were expressed at the synod. Perforce, senior bishops and cardinals were brought up in the old school. And the earliest lessons drive deepest. There is a line of thought which says: sacramental marriage is indissoluble, remarriage is a continual state of mortal sin freely maintained with knowledge and consent, so reception of the Eucharist by someone actively at enmity with God is unthinkable.

Similarly, this reasoning goes, a homosexual couple must be aware that their relationship centres on a grave disorder (the Catechism specifically rules out ignorance of the natural law). Of course we must behave decently to them but accepting them as members of our community when they live in culpable enmity against God is many steps too far.

By the same token those couples who use contraception are in a similar case, although this subject appears to have been omitted from the discussions. I hope that the end of the world does not come when there is a queue in my parish church for Communion. I don’t think I could take the weeping and gnashing of teeth. The concept of a cycle of sin, repentance, confession, amendment, and sin again — repeated throughout a married life is, to put it kindly, bizarre.

The opposing view, sometimes described as the pastoral approach, does not, as far as I know, question the law. The indissolubility of sacramental marriage – notwithstanding the ingenious ways we have of disposing of natural marriage – is not in doubt. A mismatch between gender and sexual orientation is patent. And the Church certainly has the right to decide who should qualify for her sacraments. But human moral behaviour is deeply complex. Charting the spiritual state by measuring external behaviour was understandable in medieval terms, it is scarcely so now.

So how might we approach this? Pope Francis emphasises mercy and forgiveness. But, bearing in mind that our God is the one after whom all fatherhood is named, I find it helpful to look at the family. It would be presumptuous to reverse the metaphor and claim that human parenthood is a model of God’s parenthood. But it may be the best model we have.

Loving parents are not blind to their children’s faults or even indurated bad behaviour. We work to understand the different temperaments and motivations. We look at things from the child’s point of view. We are always searching out the good in the child, and we focus on encouragement rather than punishment. If a child offends we may have to condemn, but at the smallest sign of repentance we open our arms. We would admit the ultimate possibility, however unlikely, that a child of full age could exclude himself from the family through obstinate perversity but we would fight long and hard before we surrendered. And we would keep the door open and the fatted calf ready. Does that sound like pastoral care?

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy | Tagged | 103 Comments

The charismatic Cox

Our contributor, Brendan, recently brought the scientist, Brian Cox, into the discussion. I asked him to hold hard for the time being because an interesting letter on the subject was published in the Catholic Herald last week. I have the permission of the writer to post it here, so that we can comment on it.

“Dear Catholic Herald,

I’m sure many readers are watching and even enjoying the BBC2 series The Human Universe (Tues 9pm). Its potential challenge to christian belief and evangelism though will not be lost on most.

Prof Brian Cox, the presenter, is potentially a much more dangerous influence than, say Richard Dawkins. In promoting his New Atheist agenda, Dawkins abandoned science and adopted ill-informed ridicule as his weapon of choice. As such Dawkins was rejected even by many mainstream atheists. Even Stephen Hawking did not manage to make a coherent case for atheism, constantly confusing, as he did, mechanism with agency.

Cox is much more dangerous, whether he intends it or not (but I’m inclined to think he does intend it) firstly because he is telegenic and affable – not a fault of Dawkins! Secondly, Cox is careful to make constant reference to current scientific thinking. Therein lies the danger. Each point he makes starts with a scientific fact or hypothesis that most of us wouldn’t argue with. Then he switches to part of his own worldview, which is not, by any means, an obvious conclusion from the preceding piece of science.

The prefix to episode 2 was “Professor Brian Cox explores our place in the universe. He tackles the question that unites the seven billion people sharing this planet – why are we here?” His exploration was not very exploratory (apart from the nice scenic backdrops). Our “God hypothesis” was dealt with in a single sentence which was, to paraphrase:- “The ancients believed that the universe was created by the gods – it wasn’t”. As with every previous attempt by a scientist to explore the question “Why are we here” he ended up exploring the question “By what process did we come to be here” which is entirely different. There’s that confusion of mechanism with agency again.

In the most recent episode (4 Nov) he makes the following statement (again to paraphrase):- “Mankind lives on an insignificant speck within a vast uncaring universe. His survival (ie salvation?) is in his own hands” and “It’s vital that we abandon superstition” which I presume he intends to mean religion.

Please let us not be fooled into believing that these are simply one person’s opinions which he is entitled to, and so it really doesn’t matter. It does matter. This is first class telly and it’s influencing millions. I’m not hearing the Christian counter-argument, but please God, let’s hear it soon. There are plenty well-qualified to provide it, so hopefully they are suiting up right now!

Alasdair Brooks”

I’m not hearing the Christian counter-argument, but please God, let’s hear it soon. We have certainly discussed similar matters on this Blog from time to time, so we may hope to put forward some coherent ideas about the relationship between science and faith.

Do we think that programmes like this push the general public away from religious belief, satisfied by the charismatic Cox that faith explanations are superfluous? “”I had no need of that hypothesis.” answered the scientist, Laplace, to Napoleon, who had queried the absence of God in his book.

Alasdair Brooks distinguishes between mechanism and agency. Thus for example, the concept of evolution merely shows us one way through which the different species were developed, but tells us nothing about who is responsible for this process and the creation in which this happens. Why is this distinction ignored by Cox – who is nothing if not intelligent?

Do we see the situation as likely to become more extreme as science delves deeper in its understanding. For instance many scientists in the field will tell us, as a matter of fact, that free will does not exist.

I am an admirer of the British Humanist Association. Admirer? Yes, they are energetic and competent in putting their secularist views in front of the public. They have been influential in many campaigns. Why are we less successful, and what should we be doing about it?

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 94 Comments

Marriage in trouble

He was a big, affable man and his attractive wife was petite. He explained to me how his wife was accustomed to attack him physically. And he had the scars of her fingernails to prove it. I was counselling in a presbytery in London. A mile away, in another presbytery, my wife was counselling a woman who had a disabled child. The child was sired by her own father. None of this will surprise a parish priest: all human life is to be found in the confessional or amongst those who seek a little word with him after Sunday Mass. Our job was to give practical help to those he steered into our counselling rooms.

The model I used was “The Skilled Helper”, developed in the 1980s by the Jesuit, Gerard Egan, at Loyola University, Chicago. This was a problem solving framework which could be applied in a range of counselling circumstances. I was later to use it for my own “Managing People and Problems’, 1988 – which was gratifyingly published internationally.

The format was similar to that to be developed for cognitive behavioural therapy, which I described in my last column. It started with a listening stage in which the counsellor non-judgmentally took in the client‘s story, reflecting his understanding of how the client experienced the problem. This was followed by mutual exploration, which the counsellor gently guided. Usually they discovered that what had been a multi-faceted issue could be distilled into one or two key difficulties.

Following this analysis, goals were set for change. These followed the established rules for effective goals, in particular their order and concrete nature. More often than not, the client – or clients — needed specific training to achieve these goals. The last, and often lengthiest, stage was the achievement and monitoring of these goals over, perhaps, several weeks.

The application of this simple format required considerable skills. The range of difficulties was broad: how would you for instance help a couple who find that they share no interests, or a wife distressed by her husband’s addiction to pornography? But the common run of married or cohabiting clients shared the same common problem: communication.

That sounds like a motherhood word, but there is no doubt that the quality of sustained communication is a common factor for the good or ill of this relationship. The circumstances of marriage continually change — from young couplehood to parenthood to the empty nest and to retirement. The psychological needs we have in our twenties are not the same as we have in our fifties. Circumstances may vary from poverty to plenty and, perhaps, back to poverty again. And every change requires a new adaptation to each other, without a guarantee that both partners will adapt in the same way. No wonder that many people take for granted that marriage is a temporary state.

But there is communication and communication. The etymology of the word suggests a coming together as one; it requires not only the giving of information but also receiving it through listening. The first comes naturally, the second does not. Many conversations are a little like playing table tennis – we only take in what our partner is saying in order to whip back our response. Useful exchanges require that we listen to both the words and the feelings of the other, and acknowledge these before we respond. It is not hard to distinguish duelling from communication. It is through this ability to understand how a situation is seen, understood and felt by each other that accord can be achieved; it is the main tool for adjustment within the changing circumstances of a marriage.

Of course there are many reasons for marriage difficulties other than communication, but I found that it was so often a contributory factor that I spent much time drilling couples in this difficult skill. And drilling was needed. I would ask X to explain an issue already raised, from his point of view, and Y to respond by showing that she had taken in both the facts and the feelings. When they got it wrong (often) I checked them, and they had to start again. Frequently, that exercise enabled them to solve the actual problem in question – providing the proof of the pudding.

Given the pain which a couple may suffer, perhaps over years, before they come to counselling, it is a pity that they were never schooled in communication when they were preparing for marriage. This, I would argue, is a main function of marriage preparation courses. It cannot be done over a single day because the couple must develop and mature over a period. Subjects (such as ideal family size, what difficulties could arise in a mixed marriage, discipline and children, savers versus spenders, female and male attitudes to sexuality, natural family planning, marriage as sacrament, commitment) need more than information — they require actual practice in exchanging views. And most of that practice will be homework between sessions.

It might sound ambitious to ask a young couple to give up five successive evenings. But, except for the odd couple who leave after the first week, the rest will stay the course. – they are far too interested to leave. You can watch couples maturing before your eyes, and, in a very few cases, see a couple learning that they are not ready for marriage. (We even had one young man who came hopefully with two fiancées to see whom to choose.) Even now, decades later, we still meet couples who volunteer how formative these courses were for their own marriages.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | Tagged | 33 Comments

The maze of morals

You may have listened to a recent episode of the Moral Maze (link below) which debated the issue of moral education in schools. I found the programme confusing; it suggested to me that even well educated and thoughtful people may be sadly ignorant of the elements involved. You may disagree.

This week I am listing some questions inspired by the programme because you may well be able to throw some light here. Given that we may sometimes find ourselves discussing these issues with non-Catholics, it will be helpful if you do not major on ‘Catholic’ answers, remembering that morality throws up questions to non-believers just as it does to believers.

1 Is moral education primarily about teaching the young which actions are wrong and which actions are right?

2 Is moral education primarily about developing the skills of moral thinking so that pupils are able to decide on moral codes themselves?

3 Is moral education best not taught directly, but incidentally – when issues arise within other subjects such as science and history?

4 Should schools have no responsibility for moral education? This is the duty of parents: the schools’ job is to teach facts not values.

5 What common basis do we have for moral principles, or is any basis a matter of personal choice? (I think here particularly of teaching in non-faith schools.)

6 How would moral education deal with the fact that different cultures have different moral bases? For example, a culture with different approaches to the rights of women, homosexuality, capital punishment, democratic tolerance, etc.

While I have numbered the questions so that you can identify to which one you are referring, feel free to give more general answers. Raising additional questions on this subject would be valuable. What I have written is only a start point.

Moral Maze

Posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged | 101 Comments