The obedient Church

In looking at what changes might be needed in the culture of the Church in order to avoid the scandal examined in the Australian Royal Commission we come back to a subject which we have addressed before on these pages: subsidiarity. One reflection of the Commission was the hierarchical nature of the Church. This suggests an acceptance of the virtue of obedience: we simply obey the regulations of our immediate authority. We do not question.

Subsidiarity, as a principle, does not exclude obedience but it requires that, as far as possible, senior authority should not make decisions which can be made at a lower level.

Not only is it a general principle, it is one which has been formally accepted by the Church in its teaching. In practice it depends not so much on a set of rules but on an attitude of mind. Because we are fallen we tend to be reluctant to reduce our power by allowing decisions to be made by our inferiors. We can always find a rationalisation for holding on to our authority. The right attitude of mind is one which constantly seeks ways to increase the responsibility and commitment of those we lead.

And this appears to be a dangerous thing to do. If something, for which we are ultimately responsible, goes wrong, it looks a poor defence to say that the error was made by a junior who had not been given precise instructions. So a good delegator needs to be tough, confident and to believe that in the long run subsidiarity will give the best outcomes. Weak and anxious leaders find it nigh impossible. The neurologists suggest that such people have a greater brain capacity for emotion which has to be controlled through creating certainty wherever possible.

But even those who wholeheartedly accept subsidiarity will know that there still have to be some basic rules. The difficulty lies in distinguishing these from those decisions which should be left to individual choice. Everyone who has been a parent will have to judge similarly as the children grow up. And in this situation the judgment continuously changes as the growing children must learn to take on more and more responsibility.

However the practical instinct of the Church, despite some changes initiated by Vatican II which have not yet gone very far, is to rely on permanent tradition. Unfortunately this carries the danger that we do not easily distinguish between what is true for all time, and what may well be changed because our understanding has developed.

That is, I would argue, why change in the Church’s culture is inherently a problem. Little details can change here or there but since the culture is characterised by the avoidance of change it is hard to see how it might come about. It may teach subsidiarity but its own structure protects it from putting it into action.

Strangely enough the occurrence of great importance is our old friend Humanae Vitae. I am not talking about whether the doctrine is right or wrong but that the verdict was likely to be so damaging that even many bishops felt it necessary to make it clear that conscience – even in a moral doctrine which had been taught for centuries as an absolute demand of natural law – must give way to the authority of conscience. And that a rejection of this solemn teaching was consistent with being a fully paid up Catholic.

Today, it is the conscience of a pope which is at question. Should it ever be possible, under certain circumstances, for a remarried Catholic who will not undertake to forego the act of marriage to receive the Eucharist? I won’t try to answer this. But it seems ironic that the issue is between the traditional understanding of adultery and the traditional understanding of the authority of the pope.

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis | 36 Comments

The Commission of Shame

“When I went into the confessional, he [the priest] asked me what ‘Father Holmes’ was doing and I told him. His answer was to give me 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, and he told me that I was a disgusting girl and I wasn’t allowed to let [Father Holmes] touch me anymore. That’s something I will never get out of my mind – him turning his back on me and not helping me.” (name changed)

My quote is from the report of the Australian Royal Commission on child abuse, which has recently been published. I have to tell you that it is a a sad document for any Catholic who loves the Church, and a triumphal document for those who don’t.

It is a very lengthy report and I must admit that so far I have only had time to skim through the Executive Summary, although I paid close attention to the issues which have been examined in the Catholic Press. It seeks to look at the degree to which the cultures and operations of the Church may have contributed to the many years of widespread abuse which was never brought to light.

While I do not necessarily agree with all the factors which are considered I have no doubt that the structures of the Church contributed extensively to the scandal, and so to the damage done to the young. Unfortunately those structures are not substantially different throughout the Church. It would appear that the Commission was prompted by the extent of abuse in Australia but, if lessons are to be learnt, they will be pertinent throughout. As The Tablet put it in their Christmas issue: “Investigation after investigation, including in the United States and Ireland, has identified a culture in which protecting the good name of the Church came first, the welfare of transgressing clergy second, and the protection of the children a long way third.”

Among the issues noted was the strongly hierarchical nature of the Church. This seem to have led to its ability to conceal bad news and to disregard ’whistle blowers’. It also created a system of protection for individuals perhaps, at one level, as a means of avoiding scandal. But what was happening was not only an internal question, it was against the civil law. Canon Law is certainly criticised. It would seem that the one person whose needs were not properly addressed was the child who was being abused. In civil hierarchies, such as the army, facilities for individuals to protect their rights, even of the most junior, are provided.

The Commission used an interesting phrase: ‘cognitive rigidity’. This refers to an inability to question whatever rules and doctrines apply. In such an atmosphere nothing changes. Instead of the Church providing the secular world with an example of how just organisations should behave, it is positively medieval by comparison.

The Commission recommends that celibacy should be voluntary. I do not accept that celibacy in itself is a cause. But it seems possible that any group of celibates would attract a higher proportion of damaged personalities. This suggests that greater care is needed in initial selection. A further recommendation is that the seal of the confessional should not apply in child abuse cases. There would be an obligation to report. Leaving aside the broader issues of the seal, removing it would, I believe, be counter productive. Nevertheless it remains odd that in this one aspect of society an underage individual can report a serious breach of the law against their person, and it be taken no further. I can understand why civil authority is critical. Perhaps an obligation to offer help outside the confessional might be an alternative.

But, and it’s a big ‘but’, it would be a mistake to think that sorting out this shocking issue will solve the problem, and we can go home to tea. It is simply an outcome of an organisation which is lost within a failed culture. It is true that Vatican II went a long way towards outlining aspects of needed reform, but on the ground it is a long, long way from achieving it. Back in July 1964 (Clergy Review), Donald Nicholl (described in his obituary as “one of the most widely influential of modern Christian thinkers”) used the phrase émigré de l’intérieur to describe the Catholic who has to settle for being a second class citizen in a kingdom that does not have first claim on his heart. That’s 54 years ago, and counting.

The Commision’s executive summary is at

I addressed this general issue in 2016: (“Bad apples or bad barrels?” Find it through ‘search’). It was accompanied by an excellent discussion in which John Nolan, Nektarios, and others, were active.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 81 Comments

Think of yourself

I am too full of Christmas fare to think too deeply. Instead I am providing a routine for mindful meditation. I stress that it is only the routine which I have developed, and which benefits me greatly. It is an amalgam of ideas put forward by the experts.

Regular users of mindfulness report reduction in anxiety or tension, a sense of peacefulness, a boost of creativity and better sleep. I have experienced all these things over several years.

If you don’t do it regularly, try it. If you do, share your additional or alternative ideas. Then gradually develop your own routine. You will find that it takes a week to a fortnight of regular sessions before you begin to feel the benefit, so don’t try to assess it until you have given it a good run.

Sit in an upright chair, ideally with arms. I use the one I would normally use for my desktop computer.
Close your eyes and look through the lids, noticing the colours and shapes.
Sniff up and down your nose, noticing the changing temperatures.
Use your tongue to explore your mouth, teeth and lips.
Listen for sounds. Do not bother about their origin, just note the noise entering you ears.
Wiggle and relax the joint between your neck and your skull; similarly the join between neck and backbone.
Stiffen and relax your shoulder joints. Note the relaxation. 3x
Hard fist your hands, then experience their slow relaxation. 3x.
Become conscious of your fingertips of both hands resting on your thighs.
Put your hand on the top part of your chest and breathe in and out as fully as possible. Then the main part, then the stomach part. 3x each.
Long breathe in from the bottom of your lungs to the very top. 5x.
(Quickly check the routines above to see if all remains relaxed. Be aware of the whole top part of yourself.)
Pull in and relax your buttocks. 3x.
Tense, in turn, your thighs, calves, and feet. 3x each.
Check back all the way. Try to be aware of the whole of your body from top to toe.
Breathe deeply and quietly, remaining aware of your whole self. (Use cooking timer?) The whole process should, with practice, normally take about 10 minutes. Develop the habit of being aware of yourself in this way from time to time during the day – particularly when you feel harassed, stressed or uncertain.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 3 Comments

Here lies truth

I write this on the day when I read of Theresa May’s deputy, Damian Green, resigning, admitting to “”inaccurate and misleading” statements about pornography found on his parliamentary computer. I suppose I should not be surprised – there have been plenty of misleading statements by those in authority – whether they relate to personal moral questions or to political decisions.

My eyes were first opened when I read Tom Bower’s Broken Vows which described important episodes in Tony Blair’s period as Prime Minister. It seemed to me that honest, clear statements were out of fashion: it was not so much the lies told but the almost invariable capacity of those in charge to shape their phrasing in a way which supported their own views and ending up by deceiving their listeners. And that means us. And of course if a statement turned out to be an embarrassment, a little ingenuity would be needed to show that the statement had been misunderstood.

I am not naive – perhaps all of us have been guilty of deceits in our time – but I am scandalised by the thought that political statements appear to have abandoned any attempt to achieve the truth. All that matters is that the audience is persuaded to favour the speaker. Truth has no a value in the public forum.

Of course this is not a problem confined to the 21st century. Plato and Aristotle both wrote about rhetoric. Plato was attacking the dishonesty of rhetoric, Aristotle provided a handbook on how to make the power of rhetoric more persuasive. Ironically Plato’s attack is a delight to read while Aristotle is rather boring. The best example of effective rhetoric in literature is Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”. Since I cannot conceive of a Secondsight Blog user not having a Shakespeare at hand, look it up and remind yourself. (I daresay it’s on the Internet, too.)

I think we accept that telling the truth, or not deceiving our neighbour, is required by natural law: we are by nature social animals and so in order to flourish we must communicate truthfully or, if you prefer, we must avoid damaging our neighbour’s rights by our deceit. The measure, I think, does not lie in the exact words but whether the truth in the speaker’s mind is the truth which is conveyed to the listener.

So now, children, here is your homework. Look out for politicians and similar, whether they are presenting an attractive idea, or attempting to down an opponent, or simply excusing their own malefactions. Try and decide the likely truth behind the statement and see how it has been manipulated in order to deceive you. Then, if you are daring, do the same to your nearest and dearest. And, if you are truly heroic, do it to yourself. Happy Christmas.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 18 Comments

The paternal God

A day or two ago I found myself in discussion with a Catholic friend. Like me, he is elderly; unlike me he is a lifelong bachelor. Where my Catholic work is mainly through writing, his is through Catholic associations and his own busy parish.

We were talking about Catholic moral teaching in our youth. Its structure was simple. Sinful acts were clearly identified and related, if sometimes rather remotely, to the Ten Commandments. And a careful distinction was made between mortal sin and venial sin: the former were ‘serious matter’ and required full knowledge and full consent. The punishment was hell for all eternity. It was later that we learnt about ‘structural sin’: for example that homosexual acts were intrinsically wrong because they flouted the sexual structures which God had created. In fact it was emphasised that any sexual sin, including ‘impure thoughts’ was matter for mortal sin.

I am writing about many years ago. But the basic pattern still exists. There is a greater degree of understanding of course. A good example of this in the Catechism’s treatment of self-abuse – where it is recognised that in many cases it may be at least partially excused. But its evil nature remains.

Looking at this orthodox pattern of Catholic morality, which on the whole I carry now only in the back of my mind, I was struck by its grotesqueness. If we imagine being in front of a magistrate for many equivalent faults we would expect a fine in most cases, possibly a short stay in prison or something of that order. But God apparently would send us to the pains of Hell for all eternity. And eternity is not just the billions of years since the universe was created, it goes on forever. Think of all the really evil people in history, ancient or modern, and consider how many people would really deserve that. Wouldn’t a billion years be enough even for Hitler? Why would I prefer the justice of the magistrate to the justice of God?

I assume that the culture of the times when this Catholic system of morality was built, led to the authorities believing that only the most extreme threats of punishment would keep people in order. But I believe that it leads only to extremists in one direction, and to abandoning the Church’s moral system altogether in the other. Yet I still believe in our ability to relate to God through love (including those people who love but have no knowledge of God) and I believe in the eternal happiness of Heaven. The fate of those who do not love I know nothing about, except that they have failed in the purpose of their lives.

Towards the end of our discussion my friend and I looked for a better approach. St Paul helped us here. He speaks of God as the father after whom all fatherhood is named. As a father, I was by no means perfect but I did learn that it was not about blame and punishment. Yes, there were necessary rules, but very little was spoken about faults. The emphasis was on what the children could do if they tried, not on what they shouldn’t do. Despite the Church’s questionable traditional approach, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 23 Comments

Are you selectable?

Most of us have attended at least one selection interview in our time, and we may well have been selected. As well as getting the job we benignly approve the good judgment of the selectors. And there is good reason to learn how this judgment works. It has been valuable to me because in recent years I have needed to coach several of my grandchildren for their own interviews. Secondly, because selection interviews have been studied by many psychologists, we can learn a good deal about the influences at work on human judgment.

The first lesson to grasp is that personnel selection through the ordinary interview is, from the employer’s aspect, a hopeless exercise. Its value is negative. The late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology at Susses University) wrote that interviewers, by continuing to have faith in their erroneous judgments, displayed “one of the more curious acts of irrationality in the Western world”. But what is bad news for the employer is good news for others: by understanding the irrationality it is the skilled candidate who controls the interview and not the employer.

We are back with our old friend: first impressions. This is a deep universal evolutionary instinct, developed from our need to recognise danger instantly and to act swiftly – without delaying for further analysis. One military interviewer boasted that he could make his selection in two or three minutes. It was not an idle boast because what happens at the beginning of the interview influences the whole episode, and becomes the lens through which later information is judged. For example, studies have shown that negative information which becomes clear later in the interview is often disregarded or excused, when it is inconsistent with the early impression.

The key is to present oneself as a likeable person. That sounds cynical, but do we not sometimes almost unconsciously choose to act in a way which is pleasing to others? Confidence and a pleasant smile is a good start. That’s easier said than done on such an occasion: it may need practice. The handshake is important too – firm enough to show confidence without being intrusive. Spectacles elevate the perceived IQ by 12 points. Two or three inches of extra height help for a leadership post. Before a word has been spoken the interviewer has a picture of the candidate which will be difficult to dislodge.

Having started well there is a need to reinforce the comfort of the interviewer. It is useful to have met some members of the organisation beforehand. The candidate will have learnt about the dress code which he follows in a slightly smarter form, suggesting how important he holds the interview to be. He will have learnt about the issues and the values beforehand, distinguishing carefully between the stated aims and the real day to day values – which are often very different. For example good customer service may only be a theoretical value which is ignored in practice. It is of course the stated aims which you laud in the interview.

He will be asked at some stage if he has any general questions. Having learnt about some of the good features for employees, he will be able to focus on these. For example, if the pension scheme is rated highly his question may be about the pension arrangements. If the interviewer is invited to explain the benefits, he may actually purr, while giving out brownie points.

The CV will record the necessary qualifications, which will of course have been researched. This will include planning answers to possible questions. But for our purpose it is the questions about outside interests which matter. They matter to the interviewer too because asking the candidate to expand on these allows him to think he is conducting a searching interview. The answers, which have been carefully prepared but sound extempore, confirm that he is just the sort of person which the company likes. “I play golf” has secured many a worthwhile position in one company and “I play rugby” in another. (The candidate, of course, has checked this beforehand.) We all value *people like us”.

The selection interview is of course a special case: there is an understood format providing a framework for preparation. But the psychology involved is universal. If you speak in public your audience will have decided within less than thirty seconds whether you are worth listening to. A schoolteacher may never recover from the first lesson he takes. If you meet a new person socially the same pattern is at work: the first few seconds will unduly influence the relationship. And the opposite is also true. We are all susceptible to the power of first impressions. So we all need to learn from what is literally a prejudice: we must listen longer and think more carefully before we allow our instincts to fool us.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Neuroscience | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Pope Francis on the wane?

It’s all a bit confusing isn’t it? The honeymoon with Pope Francis may be drawing to a close. Many of us have been inspired by his character, his teachings and his actions. But is he going too far? We have incidents such as his refusal to judge a homosexual and the tricky problem of someone in a second marriage (given certain circumstances) receiving the Eucharist. A few hundred years ago such views would be a matter for the Inquisition. But he is not a softy – ask the cardinals who have got into his bad books.

While many of us have not been enthusiastic about the way that the Church has rigorously ruled – and particularly in the matter of moral teaching, we may have thought that this was the only way the Church could hold together and evade what we see as the instability of Protestantism. Indeed many converts have been attracted by its certainty. I have a friend, once an Anglican clergyman, who converted to Catholicism for this very reason.

Many have been enthusiastic about a more democratic Church which takes the laity seriously, and is prepared to consult it. We are no longer peasants in the pew. Others argue that this is just spreading confusion and point to the New Testament where Christ gives authority to the Apostles and their successors. Not even his mother gets this.

Recently Pope Francis has visited Myanmar. Many have criticised his failure to condemn the authorities there for their part in the Rohingya crisis. The UN have described this as “ethnic cleansing”. It has been suggested that he was protecting the small proportion of Catholics in the population. Maybe, but others argue that this omission would never have happened in the past: we have to proclaim the truth irrespective of the consequences. We remember how Pius XII was criticised for failing to condemn with clarity the actions of the Nazis against the Jews.

I am describing here views I have heard widely expressed in the Catholic community: I say nothing about my own views. But there is no doubt that the present position is an unsettling one. Will Francis change the Church for the foreseeable future, and his lead continued and strengthened by succeeding popes? Or will his successor be chosen to put things safely back as they were? Francis then becomes an historical anomaly.

What do you think?

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis, Scripture | 67 Comments