My neighbour and myself

I live, entirely alone, in a pleasant part of South West London. When the original ‘locked in’ started I was approached by several neighbours offering their assistance. They are no longer just neighbours, they are now friends. But I am more directly served by a daughter who is in walking distance. She tries to ensure that I am visited at least once every day. Sadly, no hugs allowed – and I do love a hug. And I have been visited twice by my new great grandson: possibly the most beautiful baby in the world.

I have a friend some twenty miles away – she was in fact my late wife’s friend over 60 years. She too is widowed. She used to visit me every fortnight, but nowadays it has to be a late evening telephone call. We are both ancient, and we value that.

But I do have a constant companion – my old moggy. We spend each evening together. She likes routine. I don’t know what I will do if she snuffs it – I am too old to have a new young cat. I have written about her before.

I find my afternoon walks on the Common revealing. Everyone appears to be more sociable than heretofore. I frequently find myself in conversation with strangers, and I am always aware of how similar we often turn out to be. I even have chats with women – I am apparently well beyond being a source of any sexual danger.

What I am seeing is a community actively living out the virtue of loving our neighbour. And I like it. But I wonder whether it will continue when we all feel safe again. I realise that many of our neighbours have no religious connections – some may be consciously against religion. But, poor things, they can’t escape. Every time or moment of loving our neighbour is divine. There is only one source of love, and it is accessible to all of us. The little queue waiting to be accepted into Heaven will have some unlikely members. And so will the queue waiting for Hell. Let us all hope we are at least in the queue for Purgatory. See you then!   

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God’s feline creation

Who is my neighbour? In my case it is my cat, Tasha. She arrived some 15 years ago along with her litter brother. He died 3 years ago (kidneys), and I recall him with affection whenever I pass his grave in the garden. Tasha continues to remind me that God gives us the ‘lower’ animals to love in their own way.

Tasha and I live in a three-story Victorian house so we are not over crowded. She rarely comes upstairs because she is tempted by the radiator half way up. I can’t recall her ever visiting my bedroom Right now she is behind me in my study (almost exact Covid distance) and fast asleep. She looks pretty fit – her coat in fine fettle. Later, she will review the garden to make sure that we have no other cat visitors. And she will enjoy the Shubunkin in their pool – they must be their fourth or fifth generation.

Of an evening she will spend her time with me in the drawing room. She is a discipline fad: I am required to stroke her quite actively: I have to extend my thumb nail so that she can clean her nose and mouth. Quite recently I find I am required to clean out deeply into her ears. Cleaning ears is quite difficult for cats on their own. Her timing is good, but she will wait for me to turn the television off before she goes for her supper in the kitchen.

She loves visitors. And she clearly prefers women. That’s lucky because most of my visitors are female. We don’t eat in the dining room – ten places are too many for the two of us. So she sits at the kitchen table where my late wife used to sit – she is optimistic.

I have a sense that many people see cats, however apparently domesticated, as more fundamentally wild than we see dogs. And the evidence of their genetic history appears to support this. Where a dog may be totally involved with, and obedient to, its owner, cats seem (to me) their own person, who simply choose human being as a source of food and safety. Do you find it so?

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BACK TO THE BULLY

I note that this blog has been running for some 12 years. Given that at least one item was published each month, and often more, we have a minimum of 150 articles. But perhaps, even more important, has been the quality of the readers’ discussions. And it continues to be so. But it does mean that we have a wide range of subjects — so wide that I sometimes find it difficult to write something new. I have managed to avoid Covid so far – at least while the newspapers are full of it.

But the subject of bullying has come into my mind. It is important at the personal level but it also applies at a much broader level. Far more topical is the issue of racial prejudice. That is simply bullying on the basis of race: our societies are prone to identify visible characteristics — some of which are seen to be unlikeable – followed by the assumption that every individual in the group in some way demonstrates such characteristics.

This is what I had to say:

Every time the name Crump (a pseudonym) comes into my mind, I have a tinge of guilt. The memory goes back 70 years when he and I were age nine and we were at school together. He was an effeminate boy, given to whining, and he was broadly disliked by his schoolmates. He may have been pushed around a bit, but he was never physically bullied. We were at a good Catholic school and we knew that that was wrong. But he suffered contempt from his peers, and he was frequently criticised for his erring ways. He must have been very unhappy.


I should, of course, have taken his part. But I was at an age when my  immature moral sense was guided by the attitudes of my peers. So I passed by on the other side.


I was later to learn that the unpopular boys were often the most interesting. And, from time to time, I have read how people who achieved distinction in later life often had a history of being bullied it school. A characteristic of high achievers is their independence of thought, which may well make them unpopular in conformist circumstances. Indeed, ensuring conformity is a frequent motivation for bullying the outsider. But I do not think that Crump would have benefitted; to the best of my knowledge he sank without trace. And we should expect that to have been so, because, in general, the long term effects of being bullied can be very serious indeed for those who do not have the innate toughness and confidence to survive it.


Several studies of these long-term effects have been done, and a recent one published this year in Psychological Science gives us a good overall view. The children were assessed between the ages of nine and 16, and the adult outcomes measured in their mid-20s.Victims presented very clear health risks in adulthood, being six times as likely to be diagnosed with serious illness, or to develop a psychiatric disorder. They were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job, or to commit to saving. Poverty in young adulthood is common. They have difficulty in forming, or sustaining, long-term friendships or keeping good ties with their parents in adulthood. They are also prone in childhood to become bullies themselves, in turn, since they lack the emotional control to cope with their experiences. Those who have been bullied and have themselves bullied appear to be the most affected by the consequences.


Another recent study, by the American Psychological Association, shows that victims of chronic bullying were substantially more likely to commit crimes in adult life and, in consequence, to find themselves in prison. Female victims shared these characteristics, as well as a propensity to turn to alcohol or drugs. The author, Michael Turner, commented: “This study highlights the important role that healthcare professionals can play early in a child’s life when bullying is not adequately addressed by teachers, parents or guardians.” He tells me that he is planning further studies to refine his conclusions.


The NSPCC tells us that nearly half of all children report that they have been bullied at some time or another. Around a third of children experience bullying in a given year, and one in five of the children who were worrying about being bullied said that they would not talk to their parents about it. Two out of five have experienced cyber-bullying. Bullying was the main reason that boys contacted the NSPCC ChildLine service.


Experts are agreed that bullying is potentially a very damaging experience with severe long-term consequences. And parents are most concerned that their children should neither be bullied, nor bully in turn. They may wish to take action through the school as forcibly as possible. But it may not be as easy as that. It is hard to tell whether an isolated episode of bullying, which many will experience, is of short duration and can be safely ignored with the help of a little parental support. Nor must we suppose that parents will always know about it. Children have their own private world of relationships, nowadays much extended by social media. They may feel that the interference of parents will identify them more clearly as a target. And they may well be ashamed of being bullied and, as their self-confidence leaks, they may begin to feel that they deserve it. This suggests that action should be taken before it is actually needed – in the same way that prudent parents tackle sexual education.


The subject for discussion is not best opened by a direct question such as: are you being bullied? The third party approach is better. Here, in general conversation, the questions are in the form of: is there much bullying in your class? What kind of person is a bully, and what makes them so? Do you have any friends who have been bullied? Can we imagine what it feels like to be bullied? We might even have a personal experience of being bullied to pass on as an anecdote. This should be an informal discussion not an interrogation, nor a tense interview. Even if personal clues are not raised in the children’s answers, at least parents can ensure that necessary information is given.

Notwithstanding such an ideal, parents should keep a weather eye open for uncharacteristic changes in their children. A sense of depression, loss of appetite, poor sleep and an unfamiliar reluctance to go to school are among the signs which may tip off parents that their children need support and help.

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Brothers and Sisters

The recent Papal Encyclical caused a fuss even before its publication. It was addressed to Fratelli Tutti. As you may imagine, there were complaints that it appeared to apply primarily to men (‘Brothers All’).

Some of the argument related to usage. Would Italians immediately assume that ‘Brothers All’ applied equally to both sexes? Perhaps the issue is too minor for general consideration, but the pressure from some groups for women to be ordained turned it into a more dramatic question. It is one which we have considered in the past on this Blog.

The Church’s strong teaching condemning female ordination is clearly and briefly set out in  https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19940522_ordinatio-sacerdotalis.html .

The arguments are well worth reading But I have to say that my own view is that I can see no reasons why women should not be ordained. I cannot see why a woman is less able than a man to take on the role of Christ as a priest. One commentator took the view that we should stop our prayers for increased ordinations given that we have perhaps thousands of women only too ready to apply.

So I would find it helpful if readers consider the issue themselves, and tell us how they would argue their case.

Link to the Encyclical: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html

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Hamlet

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.”

Hamlet’s concern is about the future rewards or punishments for our decisions of conscience – and rightly so. But how do we use our consciences rightly? In Catholic terms, it would be fairly straightforward: the laws of right and wrong, mortal or venial, are clear. Tick the box. Or, nowadays we could in practice have a computer guide. Type in the information, and out comes the answer – followed by the necessary penance. Possibly, as we are getting used to long distance electronic communication, absolution would come through our computer. I do not have a ‘smart’ telephone but I daresay that a ‘confessional’ program could be set up.

But Scripture, and particularly the New Testament, will not help us here. We are clearly taught that conscience is founded in love. The fundamental basis is love of neighbour and love of ourselves. I take ‘love of ourselves’ to mean our continuous attempts to climb the ladder another step to reach our own perfection of love.

But people like me, of an older generation, were taught that practical emphasis was always on law – in some description. The spirit is left in the background, obedience is the practical expression. I have found very little to read on the formation of conscience, notwithstanding its importance. I have to go back to my own Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (Gower 2002). There isn’t much in that which I would alter some twenty years later. Out of print, of course.

We have looked at Natural Law on occasion in the past. We need to remember that we know a great deal more about human nature than we did a millennium ago. Take, for example, the homosexual. Once upon a time it was assumed that this was a corruption of nature and would always be fundamentally wicked. But now we know that that the causes of homosexuality are broad and are by no means always the outcome of wickedness.  And I wonder how many of us share Augustine’s view that, although in principle, sexual intercourse in marriage could be sinless, in practice sinfulness of some kind will inevitably be present.

Some readers will know that I spent several years as a marriage counsellor. I learnt there a wide range of motivations behind behaviour. These were likely to be at least related to the upbringing and the experience of each individual – to say nothing of their genes. The solution was likely to be learning how to live with one’s own and each other’s internal tendencies, rather than to change them.

So I think that readers of this Blog could learn a great deal about the formation of conscience by listening to other contributors’ habits. Do you, for instance, examine your conscience each day – perhaps before turning to sleep. And how do you do it?

Do you consider your conscience in some detail before you go to Confession? (Do you, nowadays, regularly go to Confession? – how often?) This is not a trivial exercise: it is through our use of conscience that we can develop our love for God, our love for our neighbours, our love for ourselves.

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What was I saying just now?

Aha! I have remembered to start drafting the next item on this site. That’s important because I find, at a late age, my memory getting more and more unreliable – a condition which I am told is rather common. There are, of course, potential outcomes. Does that bill get paid? Did I realise that my cousin was visiting me for lunch? Did I renew that subscription? Fortunately, my children are aware of this, and don’t hold back on reminders. (Although I am quite open to forget the reminders). But the outside world is not so clement – and I may find myself apologising for what is seen as deliberate delays.

And it hits me in other ways. From time to time I am visited by younger members of the family. Some of these are people of consequence: the distinguished historian, the civil servant who is rattling up the promotional ladder, the top executive who tries to retire but is too valuable to do so – and so on. But, ask for their names – and I am reduced to calling them all ‘darling’. And that’s a problem, too. I started adult life at drama school – and that is (was?) a community in which all females were addressed as darling. I have never lost the habit. However, I married one of them – and I have never regretted that.

Probably most writers have had the nuisance of knowing exactly the right word to use in the next sentence. And we learn that thinking hard is not the solution. Just put in xxx and carry on. And a few seconds later it flashes back into the mind. Grab it while it’s there. So I, and perhaps others, will have had to cope with a poor memory – perhaps poorer than it used to be. So let’s exchange how we have learnt to cope. Or not.

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My marriage was a mistake

A quick glance at the website reminds us that it has been going for a long time – right back to 2008. So occasionally I look back to the old days. I have no way of knowing who actually reads an item, but we do have a large number of commentators ready to correct me, and to correct each other. This is excellent This week I am reproducing an item back from 2015. I like to think that it is still relevant. If not, no doubt you’ll tell me so.
o o o
There I was, repairing this fiddly little gadget when I lost my screwdriver. I knew that I had used it not a minute before, but it had disappeared. Frustrated, I asked my wife if she had seen it. Within a second she picked it up from the very spot where I had put it down. How annoying! Her eyesight is no better than mine so something in my brain must have rendered it invisible. If there is a neurological explanation for this I have yet to track it down. But some of our more common errors are easier to explain. Ironically, they often lie in faculties which are normally useful to us.

In order to understand the world we need to make assumptions based on our experience. If we had to start all our judgments from scratch we would never reach a conclusion. And that requires us to use stereotypes. Take hairy students, the Irish, tall people, or the bespectacled as examples. Each one of those may trigger assumptions in our mind which affect our judgment. Why, for example, are tall men over represented among senior executives, or those who wear glasses seen as intelligent? Our society is rightly sensitive about racial stereotyping, but we forget that everyday stereotyping can be equally undesirable. And this, in turn, reminds us of the potential errors when we allow our moral views to be formed by the company we keep.

I recall the “Windrush” influx of West Indians after World War II; at that time gross racial judgments were approved by the most respectable people. Early in the 20th century the desirability of eugenics was taken for granted. In more recent history attitudes towards homosexuality have altered the boundaries of acceptable comment. But, if we stop for a moment, we may remember that our immediate culture is a dangerous source for our own views and behaviour. Next year, we may all be thinking something else. Yet our instinct for conformity is born of evolution. It promotes the unity, and therefore the success, of a society. Today we don’t have to look far for examples of societies courting self-destruction through lack of unity.

Sometimes our judgments are based on single incidents. We may for example have been involved in an accident with a reckless BMW driver and forever afterwards hold on to a prejudice against such owners. I once knew an Evangelical pastor who borrowed a book from me and never returned it. My wariness of evangelicals, however unjustified, remains. Our judgments can even be inherited. When it came to light that the woman I was planning to marry was actually an actress, eyebrows were raised. An 18th century forebear had married an Italian actress, and was cut off without a franc. That awful warning is in our family genes.

The dangers of inherited judgments can apply to tradition. At a time of development in the Church it is essential, but often difficult, to distinguish core values and principles from those whose form or essence are merely the outcome of habit. And the considerations of natural law must remain open to our developing understanding of human nature itself.

It is often the most routine activities which lead to mistakes. This happens because our familiar procedures are programmed into our brains. We switch them on and leave them to their own devices. Watch me making breakfast: my eyes are glazed. Don’t try to help me – break the sequence and I am lost. The danger here is that our lack of conscious control prevents us from recognising changes in circumstances. We have many unconscious sequences through which we carry out quite complex procedures. Driving a car, for instance, provides several examples. While these little programs may be necessary, we may not notice a change in conditions which requires a change in our action.

How hot is a bowl of water? Take three bowls: one of cold water, one of hot water, one of lukewarm water. Soak your left and right hands in the hot and cold water respectively, then plunge them both into the lukewarm. To the left hand it feels cold; to the right hand it feels hot. This experience reminds us that, typically, our judgments involve comparisons. And that means that we can only validate our conclusions when we have validated our starting point. Until we have some degree of knowledge about our assumptions, our experiences and our prejudices, we can hardly hope to make good decisions. We may not eradicate the influences which can skew our judgment, but we can at least take them into account.

Accepting the vulnerability of our own judgments is not a comfortable experience. We may find ourselves obliged to change our minds. And, since we live in a world where error abounds, going against the grain will not make us popular. The thinking person walks alone.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 46 Comments

The biobag

We have all been reminded about the terrible things our ancestors – essentially like us – have done in history. The obvious example is the economic benefit we earned through the slave trade. We can immediately recognise its wickedness today. And we have to realise that many of us would have at least accepted it had we lived at that time. But before we rush out to destroy the statues of public figures who took part, we need to ask ourselves whether there are any accepted public activities today which, on examination, are clearly evil.

I hardly dare to mention the question of abortion. It seems extraordinary to me that our society accepts that children in the womb can be destroyed at the wish of the mother. Don’t bother to rush to your computer with your arguments — I have read them all. A case might be made for a situation where the mother is in danger of death and that that would necessarily also lead to the death of the unborn child. Otherwise, we are simply talking about murder. You can pass any law you like — it remains murder.

But another issue has come into the question. That is the possibility of removing the baby from the womb at an early stage and to put him or her into an artificial womb (called a biobag) in which it can receive all that it needs until it is ready to be ‘born’.

If I were a baby, I would certainly prefer to be put into a biobag rather than to be left to expire. But the whole concept might well lead to major changes in society. Without doubt, women’s careers are disadvantaged by the process of pregnancy: the biobag leads to real equality between men and women. Perhaps twenty years from now the requirement of pregnancy as a nine month’s condition will effectively have disappeared.

What will be the effects of that? I assume that maternal instincts will not develop in the same way. Maternal milk, and the psychological element of breastfeeding, will no longer occur. A mother wishing to have more children could arrange to have them all over a shorter period of time – perhaps in the same year. The shared duties of husband and wife will affect their relationship in a fundamental way – will this be good or bad?

A somewhat different effect may occur in the freedom of abortion as it occurs nowadays. The current claim that a woman may choose abortion because she is entitled to decide what happens to her own body looks even thinner when the baby can continue to grow outside her body. We may assume that the NHS will pick up the costs since it is a human being in need of medical care. But, following Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1930s), the State will take over these new citizens, bringing them up in its own standards for ideal citizens.

What do you think?

See Sex Robots & Vegan Meat by Jenny Kleeman. Picador. Listen to Woman’s Hour 1st August 2020

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The Marriage Act

I received a note this morning from a young friend of mine. He told me, rather sadly, that his lady friend – with whom he had lived for the last three years – had left him for another man. In a way I wasn’t surprised: the young today appear routinely to enter relationships (often starting at university) which lead next to living together, and eventually to marry. Our reaction may be positive – after all, they have had a real life experience before they committed themselves permanently. We shall see.

Since most of the couples I know come from a Catholic background, it is important to look at the issues which arise. I start with the concept of sexual intercourse having two purposes: the expression of marital love and the conception of children.

The Christian moral approach to this over the last thousand years may usefully start with St Augustine. Yes, he teaches that sexual intercourse in marriage can only be excused from sinfulness by intending to conceive on each occasion. It would be, for instance, sinful if the wife was past her menopause.

Over the centuries, Catholic teaching has developed. The sexual side of marriage is emphasised as contributing to the formal sacramental relationship. The couple may well use the “safe period” if they have good reason for avoiding conception. But they are not permitted to prevent conception artificially – whether through barriers or chemical control of ovulation.

The Church has confirmed its condemnation of artificial contraception, but in practice she accepts that it is a matter conscience. This an uneasy balance.

In the outside world, a big change has taken place. Since the 1960’s it has been possible to control ovulation through the “pill”. Suddenly – not only is contraception convenient but, more importantly, it is a method primarily managed by the woman.

The social outcome has been a much greater separation between marriage and sexual intercourse. While it still has its role as the “marriage act”, it would appear that it is nowadays a normal way of exercising and enjoying any close sexual relationship. The effects of this are broad.

We might assume that this would lead to better marriage choices since the couple have had a longer time to know each other, and to test their commitment. But it would appear that this is not so.

“The longer a couple cohabits, the less likely they are to get married. Living together for a long period of time makes little difference to the likelihood of a couple staying together – but increasingly diminishes the chances of them getting married. Couples are most likely to get married or split up in the 2nd or 3rd year of living together. Couples who have lived together for 7 years or more are more likely to split up than marry.”

Yes, I have pinched that paragraph from the Marriage Foundation. This is a splendid organisation (see below) which studies a wide range of matters related to marriage. Its main approach is to use relevant studies of the important issues. It enables us to move from our general opinions about sex and marriage to a degree of authority which enables us to get closer to actual reality.

https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=marriage+Foundation

 

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment | 41 Comments

Yes, it’s abortion

Yes, I think I must come to this subject. It is a touchy one but I think we must be ready to discuss our views

We are very aware today, because of current incidents, of our former attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade. It seems incredible that our ancestors, who, presumably, were fundamentally no more or less moral than we are, should have supported this trade over many decades. And, across the Atlantic, the financial benefits of slavery led towards the development of the US as a successful, indeed rich, economy. Even the Church, certainly at local levels, was far from eager to condemn the industry.

What commonly accepted principle today may lead our descendants to ask how our society could have been so evil?

It’s quite simple: there is a huge number of human beings who may be killed at the say so. I am, of course, talking about abortion. Even as I write, regulations are still developing to make this process wider and more easily chosen. Over 200,000 human beings were killed in England and Wales over the last ten years.

Of course, the proponents of this massacre put forward their reasons. Fundamental to these is the argument that the mother has a moral right to decide what happens with her body. If she chooses to eviscerate her baby she may do so. Of course, some would distinguish between a conception chosen, or allowed by the mother, and a conception caused, say, by rape.

Another approach is to argue that the entity in the womb cannot be regarded as a full human being, and thus has no rights.
I look at this second point in this way. The ‘entity’ comes into being when the sperm and the egg join in the female body. The hormone mixture from the parents is unique, except in the case of identical twins. The entity then develops and continues to develop until death. I, at the age of 85, am still the outcome of this parental mixture. And, when I see my great grandchildren, I immediately note their descent from their appearance – even in photos taken in the womb. Of course, there will be stages of development: foetal, babyhood, childhood, teenage etcetera. Why should we claim that human beings at the foetal stage may be destroyed at will?

The argument that the mother has rights over her own body is simply confused. The foetus of course has a similar right to its own body. It is not part of the mother. One could imagine a circumstance where the presence of the foetus is mortally damaging the mother and would thus lead to the death of both. Since both would die, would that excuse the removal of the foetus? I leave that open.

We have recently discussed the issue of our readiness to judge other groups of people — whether this is social class, nationality, colour, religion and so on. We wonder how it was that the Nazis persuaded their population that Jews should be expelled or destroyed. Similarly, it would appear that our society has decided that the human being who happens to be in the womb is expendable. And they call it virtue.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 54 Comments