A quandary

In the Working Paper for the Synod there is a paragraph which seems to have put the cat amongst the pigeons. It reads:

137. In relation to the rich content of Humanae Vitae and the issues it treats, two principal points emerge which always need to be brought together. One element is the role of conscience as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.

It may take you more than a few minutes (as it did for me) to understand just what this means. I even wonder whether it was intended to be too complex for comprehension. But, as far as It can make out, it suggests that there can well be a conflict between the law of God, as witnessed by the Church’s moral authority, and the conclusion of the individual conscience in the light of subjective circumstances. And that neither of these should be over emphasised in the decision.

If I am right, then the document makes explicit two channels of moral thought. One channel says that if we open ourselves to God in the decisions of conscience, we may well conclude that the law as stated does not necessarily apply. We may perhaps believe that the expression of the law is incorrect, or that other moral factors in our situations may overrule the law in this case. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we are bound to follow the conclusion of our reason.

The other view says that if we are truly open to God, we will always conclude that the law, in matters of intrinsic right or wrong, is absolute. Apparent exceptions are illusory because a defiance of God’s law can never be in our true interests. Our failure to see this comes from our unwillingness to listen to the law in our hearts. We are thus at fault. This purports to show that our conscience remains free since the two sources: first, our free rational recognition of the good and, second, the law which explicitly witnesses to the good, are both ultimately from God. And God does not contradict himself.

Since the paragraph is concerned with Humanae Vitae we might test these principles in terms of this statement from its para 11: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law…teaches us as absolutely required that any use whatever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life.” (Italics as in HV)

Have I understood the issue correctly or is there another and better interpretation? If I am correct, should I be concerned about a semi official document which suggests that my subjective evaluation of a moral question could properly take precedence over a law taught through the authority of the Church? Or should I accept that if I cannot recognise the moral law, as the Church happens to teach it, I am failing to open myself to God’s law in my heart?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 7 Comments

The upheaval of change

Douglas McGregor, writing in the late 1950s, described two common and contrasting assumptions which managers make. One of these, which he called Theory X, held that people are inherently lazy and unmotivated. The proper management approach is therefore one of close control exercised through stick and carrot. The other, called Theory Y, held that people are naturally responsible, and are motivated by contributing to organisational goals.

Here, the proper management approach would be to provide conditions in which people were free to exercise this responsibility and use it both for the good of the business and their own fulfilment – which were one and the same thing. He argued that Theory X managers would, at best, get mediocre performance from their workers, while Theory Y managers would get superior performance.

McGregor was certainly not alone. Other management gurus – such as Rensis Likert and Frederick Herzberg were arriving at similar conclusions, and many will know Abraham Maslow’s triangle – a hierarchy of human motivation with basic necessities at the bottom and self fulfilment at the top. Over the last fifty years, the value of Y theory management has become almost a truism, even in those organisations which do not in practice use it, while imagining, and proclaiming, that they do.

Would this model apply to the Church? We could describe the better part of the Church’s history as typical of an X theory organisation. Monarchical in its governance, it is emphatically hierarchical in its nature. It operates by a comprehensive web of inflexible rules, which are buttressed by the heaviest — indeed eternal — sanctions for disobedience. Its internal communication is not just poor, it is lamentable. Against such a description, we might then understand the fundamental dynamic of Vatican II as initiating a formal change from the X theory of the historical Church to the Y theory Church to which we should aspire.

But here we attend to Pope John Paul’s 1985 caveat, warning us against a tendency to consider the Church as a mere institution – not recognising its foundation and fundamental source of authority. But sacred though it may be, it is an incarnate institution and, in many respects, it will behave like one. Y theory organisations work on the tight-loose principle: imperative when it is necessary to be, permissive when it doesn’t. This is a matter of judgment as parents discover in gradually extending a child’s freedom with age and capacity. Overprotective parents and an overprotective Church both inculcate immaturity. And people grow up.

But Vatican II was over 50 years ago, we have a Pope who is Y theory by instinct, we have regular synods for the bishops to exercise collegiality, our liturgy is in our own language, freedom of conscience is resurrected from the past – yet the rows and bickering continue. And catastrophic statistics presage long term disaster. To understand this we may need to examine secular experience. It tells us that changing from X to Y is not done overnight, and tears are shed on the way.

Many workers themselves dislike change. Moving from simple obedience to taking personal responsibility disturbs them. Executives have learnt not to trust the workers: will they lose control? They know that they have been successful through X theory methods, will they be successful now? The new management methods require far more skills, imagination and planning than they have needed before.

We might compare these secular difficulties to those we have experienced in the Church. We may also spot signs of achieving apparent change without its substance. Here we might think of the episcopal synods which emanated from Vatican II as an extension of collegiality. In fact they were so carefully muzzled from the beginning that their contribution has been negative. Or the selection of bishops – a process in which the local bishops have no authority. An episcopal request at the 2001 Synod for the “inadequate and arbitrary methods employed in selecting bishops” to be reviewed was ruled as not up for discussion. Perhaps it doesn’t matter — as Cardinal König once said: “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.”

So we should not be too concerned that it has taken so long to get to this stage. When an organisation has maintained the same culture for many centuries it may take generations to settle with the right balances in place. There is certainly an immediate need for structural change such as the reform of the Curia, the genuine establishment of episcopal collegiality, and the selection of bishops. And I would like (this is my fantasy) every cleric in office to attend a course in modern management. It would not change their sacred duties, but it might ensure that their sacred duties achieved the actual effects they wish.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 52 Comments

A feast of assumptions

We all come to judgments with a bundle of assumptions which we have learned from past experience. It is an assumption that someone who has been dishonest once will be dishonest again; it is an assumption that someone who has cheated on their spouse is untrustworthy in politics. It is an assumption that shareholders should always be considered before employees; it is an assumption that employees should be considered before shareholders. It is an assumption that men are naturally promiscuous; it is an assumption that women are naturally faithful. It is assumption that men are unable to recognize and express their feelings. It is an assumption that a rebellious teenager is acting from malice, or, for that matter, that his upbringing or environment relieve him of all responsibility.

Some of our assumptions may have been learnt from our parents or peer groups, others may be a reasonable deduction from experience, others may be the result of prejudice. Stereotyping is a common form of assumption – students are unreliable, Asians are hard workers, men are emotionally illiterate etc.

We cannot operate without assumptions because we simply do not have time to think out every situation we encounter from scratch. We all have a series of pre-packed judgments in our mind, and we reach up into our mental shelves to bring down the packages which we think apply to the situation in hand. And to a large extent our assumptions define us: “our prejudices far more than our judgments constitute our historical existence” – as one authority argued. But it is possible to review our assumptions and test them for truth, as well as their applicability to a specific situation. We might compare the assumptions we made as teenagers with those we make in maturity because life can change assumptions. Similarly our practice of the habits of virtue can change our assumptions and make them more reliable. But at the point of decision – whether this is a conclusion about truth or a moral decision – we should be clear about the assumptions we are making, just as we need to be clear about our feelings. At the very least we can then judge with our reason what weight they should be given in our deliberation.

How aware are we, in real life, of the assumptions we employ – both in our decisions and in the opinions we express, even in this Blog? Perhaps some of us find that a fellow contributor is predictable and, perhaps rightly, that he or she is reacting rather than thinking. But we must be on guard: perhaps we are seen as predictable to others. Are we responsible for our assumptions?

Posted in Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 63 Comments

How do you feel today?

We may like to think of ourselves as rational people but, in truth, we are not only guided by emotions we are often ruled by them. They play a major role in our decisions, in our reactions, in our relationships. So making emotions our servants rather than our masters is perennially a challenge in our path towards maturity. At the extreme end of the spectrum there are those with borderline personality disorders. Their lack of emotional control makes them a danger to society, and sometimes society must be protected by putting them into care. But for most of us, I hope, the ambition is simply to improve.

First, we must consider the triggers. Neurologists tell us that two parts of the brain are involved here: the hippocampus which stores memories and the amygdala which triggers emotional reaction. Thus we interpret new circumstances through associations with the experiences held in the memory. Experiments with mice brains have shown that manipulating memories (say, changing a painful memory to a pleasurable one) correspondingly changes the reaction of the amygdala, and so the emotional response.

If emotions are rooted in the brain, we would expect to see the strength of emotional response in the human brain as well. While it was known that those with severe lack of emotional control had recognisable brain patterns, it was more recently found that this was a continuum which depended on the degree of emotional control, even in so-called normal people. That is, us. But it does not follow that these essentially biological characteristics leave us unable to improve the regulation of our emotions or even the nature of our emotional responses.

Typically, we cope with negative reactions in two ways. In low level situations we use re-appraisal – attempting to rationalise the threat; in higher levels we use distraction. These strategies may not always work. And this can be a problem when depression and anxiety disorders inhibit flexible approaches to different situations. So if we really wish to regulate our responses more habitually we should consider other longer term approaches.

A cognitive behavioural approach might be a first choice. While not essential, it can be helpful here to use a trusted friend who will monitor and give feedback. The cognitive stage requires identifying unruly emotional reactions, and identifying their inappropriateness in some detail. The causes, which may lie in some memory or in an aspect of character, should be explored and understood. The triggers for recent occurrences should be identified. All this is noted down in concrete terms. A chart of future occurrences and their effects should be kept punctiliously. It is this focused attention which enables us to anticipate the reaction in time to avoid it. Eventually, when a new habit has been formed, the inappropriate reaction should become history.

Another skill, which supports the first, but has a wider application, is deep relaxation. Anyone – and perhaps that is all of us – who is sometimes subject to tension and anxiety can use it with advantage. It has so many benefits to mood and happiness (not excluding lowering blood pressure) that it can be a life changer and a life saver. A simple routine for developing this skill is described on Secondsightblog. Search above for “The Science of Meditation”.

Mindfulness meditation is a more holistic approach. You may be aware that many recent studies (not all of them watertight) demonstrate its usefulness for a range of conditions. I can witness to its value in assistance with insomnia. Its relevance here lies in its ability to filter helpful and unhelpful emotions. An interesting recent study discovered that smokers incidentally reduced their intake by 60 percent, following mindfulness sessions. Their increase in self-control appears to have brought this about without any conscious intention to abstain. Search above for “All in the Mind” for more information.

If our emotional reactions are expressed though the brain (and also through the body) we may wonder how our spiritual search for perfection is involved. Our difficulty here may lie in overlooking the complementary elements of soul and body. Both of course work together. Secular psychology and spiritual growth assist each other in the complete person. Our motive for regulating our emotions so that we react appropriately as rational beings and in a way which is charitable, rather than harmful, to others, is spiritual — but the immediate methodology we may use to achieve this is secular. We cannot expect the Holy Spirit to solve our problems if we do not play our part.

Every spiritual thought and inclination we have – whether we are Joe Bloggs or Teresa of Avila – is mediated through the brain. And our habits, bad or good, are written into our neural connections. Our deeper understanding of the brain teaches us how to train the good habits so that our ambition for holiness can be more closely achieved.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns | Tagged , , , | 59 Comments

The Holy Spirit and you

Relying on the Holy Spirit is a dangerous game. That may sound an odd remark given that Jesus assures us that the Spirit will bring the Church and its members to the truth. But, while the action of the Spirit can be clearly seen in, for instance, an infallible teaching, there are innumerable cases when the Holy Spirit may or may not be at work.

Take for instance someone who prays hard to the Spirit to know if he has a true vocation. When he arrives at certainty how does he know it is the Spirit speaking or whether it is an outcome of a quirk of his character or of his previous experience? A more general example is provided by the formation of conscience. There, we are told, God speaks to the heart, but, notwithstanding our prayers for guidance, are we sure that we arrive at the right answer? We would not, for instance, be surprised to hear two people in good faith disagreeing on a point of doctrine, faith or morals – both believing that they have the Holy Spirit behind them.

We are told to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Good advice, but what is the test? And in what form is the answer? We would expect the Spirit to be most immediately active when the whole Church is praying for the selection of the next Pope. But Pope Benedict, when Cardinal Ratzinger, said on Bavarian television “It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.” If the Church can’t always get it right, why would we think that we can?

You will notice that this posting has a large number of question marks. But please don’t assume that I lack faith in the Holy Spirit. The doctrine is a mysterious one, surrounded by apparent difficulties. I think it would help us all to explore it further and to see if we can unearth some answers.

Posted in Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , | 86 Comments

How was it for you?

“At the heart of this reform (as expressed by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium) are synodality (the entire Church walking, discerning and evangelizing together), episcopal collegiality (shared governing responsibility between pope and bishops) and subsidiarity (decentralization of decision-making authority) — to name just three core principles the exhortation says are needed in order to renew the church.“
Robert Mickens, NCR 31 August 2015.

I quote this because our current discussion On our way out? has, among several other suggestions, cited Vatican II as a factor in our current difficulties. Mickens goes on to say, and with some emphasis, that unless Pope Francis is able to achieve structural reform and in particular reform of the Curia, his objectives will be baulked – perhaps indefinitely. Some of our contributors may be delighted, others may not.

So here are two arguments to consider. They are deliberately polarised and simplified but I hope they will provide a useful start point for discussion.

The first view is that the Council was a response to the strong modernist culture which followed World War II. There were many voices within the Church calling for reforms which would make the Church relevant to these new conditions. Although the Curia sprang to the defence of tradition, the assembled bishops untypically resisted. The results were disastrous. Discipline became slack, many clergy went haywire, ‘conscience’ somehow justified everything, our great Latin liturgy became an anachronism, ecumenism led to a slackness of doctrine and endangered our understanding of the Church’s unique foundation by Christ.

Leaving aside the chaos of the immediate aftermath (which included explicit permission for Catholics to reject the grave teaching of Humanae Vitae) successive popes have attempted to keep the lid on the pot – with mixed results. They have had strong support from the Curia – which has only yielded to change in a minimalist way. The current situation is inevitably messy. The Church has largely lost its own identity and, not surprisingly, many Catholics have fallen away. While the world sees Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air, the truth is that he is pursuing goals which can only worsen outcomes.

The second view is that Vatican II was a recognition that an authoritarian, monarchical Church was an historical aberration. Circumstances in the Middle Ages (the schism of the Eastern Church, the poor quality of the clergy etc) called for a top down society – which was then common in the secular world. This was to be reinforced by the threats of the Reformation. Vatican I confirmed this by defining the ultimate powers of the pope.

Vatican II was a recognition that the world had changed. Its objectives are well defined by Pope Francis in the Mickens quote above. Yes, the upsets noted in the first view cannot be denied. But they are the upsets which often follow a revolution – peaceful or otherwise. So far, the outcomes of the Council have often been disappointing, but this is largely because the old guard have fought strenuously to maintain the medieval hegemony. The Curia, still unreformed despite the Council’s requirements, continues to rule the roost. The episcopal synods which were intended to broaden collegiate authority were deliberately muzzled from the start. The choice of new bishops is still exclusive to the Papacy. The Holy Office continues with a legal system which owes more to the Inquisition than any modern understanding of justice. Pope Francis shows every intention of leading the Church towards the Council’s objectives. But he may fail, or be succeeded by someone unsympathetic to these intentions. This would be the worst result of all. We would end up with a small, inward-looking collection of people – more like a sect than the Church of God.

Now you may lean to one side or the other, or indeed disagree with both. But I am suggesting that we consider particularly the history of the Church since John XXIII opened the window to let some light in. Vatican II was styled as a pastoral council. Its aim was not to define doctrine but to review how the Church was doing its work to bring people to salvation. Did it succeed or fail in that objective? How would the Church look today if it had not occurred? Is some of our messiness simply because it takes time for reform to work its way through? How will the Church look in future if we abandon the Council’s intentions and behave as if John XXIII had never opened the window without foreseeing what might be blown in by the wind of modernism?

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 76 Comments

On our way out?

So what has been happening to the Catholic Church in this country and in Western society as a whole? Anecdotally, I encounter a large number of Catholic grandparents who tell me that few of their children, let alone their grandchildren, are regularly practising their religion.

I don’t want to flood you with statistics but I record here a couple of indications which suggest to me that this is widespread. Baptisms per 1000 Catholics in England and Wales have dropped by more than half since the ‘50s and ‘60s. The number of Catholic marriages per 1000 Catholics is four or five times lower than 50 years ago.

In any other context we would see such a collapse as a major disaster. A business which saw such falls in its customer base would know at once that it should take radical action or accept that it was on its way out.

Were we a business we would probably start by opening up two investigations. One of these would be to investigate our customer base and find out what our existing customers see as good or bad in our products and services. The second would be to consult with our own staff with a particular focus on those who deal regularly with customers and potential customers. Knowing that there is often a wide gap between what we believe our business is about and what it is actually doing, we might employ hard headed professionals to help us with this. We would also investigate what other businesses in our field were doing, with an emphasis on the most successful ones.

It may be that such a procedure would not fit the Western Catholic Church. After all, its mission and its values are set by Almighty God and not by the market. But I wonder if a deeper, and thoroughly objective, investigation would reveal some clues. And I wonder if some hardheaded thinking might point to possible solutions.

As far as I know, there are no plans to undertake any such investigation. So I rather fear that we will need to start by asking Secondsight Blog readers to tell us what they think to be the causes of our decline. And perhaps even suggest some remedies. They are a knowledgeable lot, and certainly don’t pull their punches. If they can’t get nearer to the heart of the matter, I wonder who can.

Perhaps we can avoid our hobby horses. (All too often when I see a name I can guess the sort of thing they are about to say.) Here, we must stand back a little, put on our professional hats, and think objectively about what may be wrong and what might be needed to put it right.

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | 129 Comments