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 | 1 Comment

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 | 50 Comments

Poetry Today

(I make no apology for repeating a blog from some years ago. It led to a fascinating discussion and exchange of our reactions to poetry. With one or two exceptions (important ones) current commentators were not then active. So we should get some new important views. The strange world in which we live at the moment invites us to think about our more fundamental truths.)

“Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” said Lord Macaulay. He was right. The sound mind is concerned with common-sense, logic, empirical facts and calculated probabilities. It has no truck with wandering imagination, insights, feelings and the perception of truths which are glimpsed but not captured. The essential quality of poetry is to take us through the physical into the metaphysical by the use of the word.

We might make the same claim mutatis mutandis of all the arts – which are often the only contact with the spiritual that the modern man can bear. But poetry is the most immediate and the most accessible; it does not need an orchestra or an easel – a scrap of paper and a pencil stub will do.

Ultimately poetry has no rules. It stretches the use of language to its limits. Rhyme, half rhyme, rhythm and metre, neologism; alliteration, onomatopoeia, and line shape can all play their part. Of course there are fads. Some will claim that blank verse, often seen today, is not poetry, but both Milton and Dryden cursed the “modern bondage of rhyming” which interfered with purity of expression. In the end the test lies in the effect. Arguably, only the poet can judge how perfectly his poem expresses his meaning.

We do indeed look for patterns in a poem if only because our poor brains need pattern for understanding, completeness and memorability. But the forms of pattern can be achieved in manifold ways. And there are conventional verse forms, such as sonnet, haiku or villanelle (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dylan Thomas) which a poet may choose as a framework for his expression, finding that this discipline forces him to explore his thoughts more widely and deeply.

Three powerful characteristics stand out: metre, simile and metaphor. Metre reminds us that poetry and song are cousins. It can establish the whole thrust of the poem. Compare “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” (Swinburne) with “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” (Tennyson), and with “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?/Do you remember an inn? (Belloc). And if some contemporary poetry eschews obvious metre, it can often be found in another balance, like this little poem about the Bible:

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute, words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

The Highwayman (Noyes) presents us with metaphor and simile within a line: “His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay “. The simile is vivid, but it is the metaphor which carries the power. No eye is actually a hollow of madness, but the phrase leads beyond itself. And we must travel alone to find our understanding. We should be accustomed to metaphor because much of Scripture is extended metaphor, and so is theology – though often stifled by the cold hand of use. What does time in Purgatory mean where time does not exist and the conditions in Purgatory mere speculation?

Shakespeare gives us a powerful example: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.” Two strong metaphors there – and the whole is wrapped in metaphor for the speaker himself is a “poor player” and a metaphor for Macbeth. Most of us know those lines by heart, and have thought upon them.

Which brings me to the memorable line. Poetry can get away with words which would be pretentious in prose. We each have our favourites, but surely all lists must include “A rose red city half as old as time”. John Burgon’s poem about Petra is indifferent, but that line won him the Newdigate Prize and put him among the immortals. I shall resist the temptation to give a longer list – you will know them all.

I say that confidently because a philosophy group I attend on a fortnightly basis finishes the term with a meeting in which each member reads a piece of poetry, and then tells us why. It is a great treat, and it often leads to the best discussions of the term. We are very ordinary people from different backgrounds, and yet all have poetry which has accompanied us through life. And important enough that, for some, reading their choice can move them too deeply to continue.

All of us who have poetry threaded into our lives share Macaulay’s unsound mind. And why not? We believe in a God whose name is a metaphor for his nature and a son who offers himself as a metaphor for his father. Before the altar we are all poets.

Posted in Quentin queries | 24 Comments

The Accent

We have had considerable discussion on the issue of racial prejudice. And quite right, too. But today I want to think about another prejudice. It rarely gets considered, it can have important advantages and disadvantages, and it appears to be near universal, at least in the UK. And I have to say that because I must accept that I certainly have it. Do you? If so, you may recognise my confession.

The issue is accent. It would seem that we make instinctive judgments about the people we meet. Some accents depend on origin – say Scottish or West Country. Immediately they indicate to me the nature of the speaker. For instance, I assume a Scotsman to be careful about money. The West Country accent suggests rural, and all that goes with that. But the ordinary English accent is what I have in mind.

Quite simply an English accent immediately suggests class – and with the right class — comes intelligence and reliability. It can sometimes be taken too far. Rees Mogg is an example — rightly or wrongly, I assume that his accent was constructed by him or his forebears. Nor, my mother assumed, is the accent of the Royal Family. When I went out into the world my mother said, “Don’t marry into the Royal Family – they are upstart Germans.” However, that issue, unsurprisingly, never occurred. But my mother was a Thorold, and the Thorolds are a pre-Conquest family. My mother was not in any way a snob – she always had excellent relationships with the servants: some of whom, after 60 years, still send me Christmas cards.

I have a vivid memory of Wilfred Pickles reading the BBC News in the late 40’s. I found that I could not rely on his rustic Yorkshire accent, and had to check it with a BBC News read in a public school accent. I have a theory that the criterion to be accepted by a leading university is related to accent. It may be changing nowadays.

The word ‘girl’ interests me. The common pronunciation is ‘gurl’. But, until I started school, I used ‘gal’. And I fear that I still do. No one takes any notice nowadays so another measure of background has sunk into the background.

The subject is an important one. Racial prejudice is rightly condemned because it leads to unfair assumptions. So we may have a picture in our minds of the characteristics of Jewish people, or Irish people, or working class people – and so on. And perhaps we are not aware that all such groups affect our judgments of the people we meet – whether positively or negatively. But although our day to day judgments are not seen as racialism, the vices of racialism may abound without the knowledge of the individual who is unconsciously making the judgment. Me, certainly – and you perhaps?

Posted in Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 43 Comments

Have you got a conscience?

{Forgive me for my information mail carrying emails which should have been encrypted. This is a computer fault which I am investigating.}

While we have looked at this subject before, it is so important that I think it worthwhile to look at it again.

Back in the Thirties, Harold Larwood was well known in the cricket world for his bodyline bowling. He pitched the ball so that it would shoot up directly at the batsman’s head. And he did so at about 100 mph. You can imagine the controversy – particularly from the Australians who were the usual enemy.

One might expect that the batsman would see the ball coming and to take defensive action but unfortunately the speed of conscious thought is slower than the speed of the ball. He has to rely on the existing pattern which is already hidden in his brain. This spots the direction and the speed of the ball, and the effect of its bounce, and puts into action the best defensive movement.

Most of us are unaware of the degree that our brains affect our decisions. Much of this is built in by evolution – were it not so we wouldn’t have evolved as human beings. And much of it comes from our experiences from early childhood. The brain ranges from the recognition of colour to our fundamental attitudes. A lady I know had a very unhappy early childhood. Now, at 60, she still carries a concern that she is really not a worthwhile person. Rationally, she knows that this is nonsense, but her brain, and so her emotions, still retain it
.
Society, in these days, regards racial prejudice as a regrettable and dangerous vice. Unfortunately, no one told our brains. The brain sees that strangers are dangerous – and should be avoided. We are much safer in our own group – who are naturally our defenders. At our rational level we accept that this is unjust, but our brains may still leave us with suspicions. I go into Town – sometimes in a three-piece suit and sometimes in casual clothes. I am treated quite differently by my fellow passengers. In the first case I am treated as a gent – and often given a seat, in the second I am a nothing. The tendency to act like this entered our ancestors long before homo sapiens existed. We will not lose it for a little while yet.

We walk into a room for the first time. We notice features and their colours immediately. But if our brains lacked their program for colour we would see only light and dark. The colours are not on the walls, they are in our brains. When we walk into a shop or see an advertisement on the computer a quick inspection tells us how well the merchant understood the human brain. Funnily enough, the item is always on a special reduction, provided the purchase is made quickly. Our brains are afraid of missing an opportunity. The danger of loss is more powerful than the possibility of gain.

Our judgment of the people we meet is interesting. Many studies have shown that senior executives tend to be taller than average. Poor for me. On the other hand, wearing spectacles is worth around twelve extra IQ points. Good for me. Our brain is saying that height is powerful and that spectacles say knowledge.
In this light, we might want to think more carefully about the concept of conscience. We see it as a rational process through which we make good decisions. In this context, the good always means love: love of ourselves and love for our neighbour. But if it is true that many of our decisions are influenced by a brain which responds in ways which we can never fully know, how can we ever show that our decisions are rational?

Of course, we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church to help us. But neither are the last word. The last word is the decision of conscience. You will recall how bishops explaining Humanae Vitae reminded us of the finality of personal conscience. When Pope Francis refused to make a judgment about a homosexual, he was not saying that homosexuality was no longer a sin per se, but that he did not know the conscience of the individual. I must even allow for the champions of legalised abortion: some of them sincerely believe that this is the loving thing to do. That, of course, does not prevent us from arguing the issue itself. Indeed, our assumption of their good faith may persuade them to be more ready to listen to what we have to say.

How can we improve our conscience decisions? One approach is to know our inbred tendencies. Then we are more likely to allow for them in making decisions. And, like the golfer practising his stroke, we can train the brain to some extent. But the most valuable for me is to pray to the Holy Spirit beforehand. Annoyingly, that wards off the temptation to favour a result simply because it pleases me.

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 99 Comments

Jesus and the apples

I note this morning that this blog had been operating since 2008. Since then it has carried over 130 articles of substance. That’s by no means a record but I think it tells us that Christians of intelligence are more than ready to think, to consult, to agree and to disagree. I have no firm picture of the contributors who take part in the discussions. Clearly, the majority are Catholics, and a proportion are in religious orders. But there are plenty of other Christians, and of course we have non-believers. The standard of comments is high. And they are frequent – often approaching, and sometimes exceeding, a hundred.

Not surprisingly we often come back to the question of communication within the Church. For me, that was triggered by a major study of communication within hospitals. It contrasted hospitals with poor communication upwards, downwards and sideways, with those who put emphasis on their internal communication. The outcome was that the communicating hospitals were significantly better at curing patients. Round about that time, businesses were finding good internal communication to be a big factor in success.

And, at first sight, it appeared that the Church by its very function was a non-communicator. Its chief, the pope, was absolute in authority and, in certain cases infallible. He was surrounded by a bunch of senior clerics, known as the Curia – a kind of administrative government. Then come the bishops – seen as the descendants of the Apostles, and, in turn, the obedient parish priests. Finally, there’s us, our hands inevitably in our pockets – because that’s where the money comes from.

The 1960s was a key decade. The second Vatican Council took place and demonstrated at least that the bishops were free to discuss issues which historically had been fixed by tradition and authority. Even today there are those who believe, and have argued strongly, that the Council was fundamentally wrong in freeing up the long held ecclesiastical Church authority. We see an outcome each week when we attend Mass in English as an expression of the whole community, and not one in a foreign language exclusive to a minority. It would be interesting to know how well we think the Church nowadays communicates with its members.

I attended Mass this morning on my computer. I am fortunate to have the best parish priest I have ever encountered. I just finish with a story he told.

‘I am reminded of a story told to me of a group of salesmen who had been on a conference. They were running late on their return trip and in their rush through the airport one of the group inadvertently knocked a basket of apples off a table. Apples were everywhere. The group kept running and reached the plane just in time.
All except one. He told his colleagues to go on without him and he went back to where the apples had been knocked off the table. He was glad he did. The young girl selling the apples as a sixteen year old blind girl. She was trying to recover her produce by feel, no one was helping all were trying to get to their departure gates. The salesman knelt on the ground with the girl and gathered the apples into the basket, replacing it on the table and rearranging the display. When he had finished he gave the girl some money to cover the cost of any damaged fruit. As the salesman started to walk away the bewildered blind girl called out “Mister, are you Jesus”.’

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 83 Comments

Love, Love, Love

Every Thursday, I take part in a sacrament. And so do many of you. Yes, at 8pm, I join my immediate neighbours and we clap to express our gratitude towards the members of the NHS who, despite their danger, work to save us.

A sacrament? Surely that’s the wrong word. But perhaps we should consider the traditional definition of sacrament: ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. Is not the inward grace my personal intention of thanksgiving? And does that not go directly to the Almighty?

In this respect we could consider a formal sacrament, such as baptism. While, depending on our particular Christian understanding of grace, we know that through baptism we are joined to Christ. But even the outward sign can vary. I remember my wife miscarrying at three months and, alone in the house and bleeding, she got her child to the bathroom and baptised him (or her). And as in many cases. the recipient was not aware of what was happening.

Of course, the New Testament goes to great pains to teach that formal baptism is essential. And not surprisingly so: Christianity was a new religion born from an old religion. For practical and hierarchical reasons, it was necessary to distinguish between the one and the other. But we know that even the most wicked man can turn towards Christ at his last moment. “betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found.” (Camden)

What does turning towards Christ mean? We all know the answer to that – it is clearly described in orthodox Christianity and of course again and again in Scripture. But it must be more than that unless we think that everyone in the world, going back to our earliest ancestor, failed to get to Heaven because they never had the opportunity to know Christ, let alone follow him. Of course, we cheerfully invented Limbo which conveniently allowed us to resolve the problem without feeling guilty. Tosh! I say.

My answer is simple: love. And I mean love of self and love of neighbour. Love of self is not selfishness it is the intention and the action to develop as a fuller human being. Love of self and love of neighbour are intermixed. Even the walled in hermit must love his or her neighbour because God loves his neighbour. The self-styled atheist who seeks to save his neighbour from the nonsense of religion can be loving that neighbour through doing so.

Why must this be so? That’s an easy one: We can describe God in a myriad of ways, but they are all partial. Quite simply – God is love. Every atom of love is the expression of God – mixed up perhaps, or in the wrong context, or mistaken. But, in the end, it is God.

Posted in Quentin queries | 97 Comments

A breath of air

The post this week is entirely different from the usual material. This time it is wholly practical. Our computers are filled with information about the Virus, but little has been said about how we can improve our performance if we are unlucky enough to catch it. In fact, what I am about to write may save a life or two. It will help others as well if they take it on as a habit.

You will have read that one frequent element is damage to the lungs. While that damage will affect most sufferers, it is at its worst for older people. And I imagine that will include many of the readers of this Blog. I am now going to give you a simple description of how to help your lungs to be more efficient.

Sitting down in a comfortable chair, consider your lungs. See them as having three layers. The top layer if just below your collar bone. Put both your hands on your chest and breathe in – but only at that high level. Once you are conscious of this level, relieve it and move your hands to the centre of your chest, over your ribs: now breathe in at this level – and feel your central chest expand. Relax. Finally put your hands on your tummy (cf tummy button). Breathe in from the bottom of your lungs. You may be surprised at the amount of air you can suck in.

Practise all three at random, until you are able to choose readily whichever part of your lungs you want to use.Now that you can clearly recognize the levels of your lungs, use all three. Fill your tummy level, add to it your chest level, and add to that your high level. Now, perhaps for the first time, you have really filled all your lungs.

But you haven’t really started – you have the equipment, but you have not yet learned to develop it as a constant habit. And that’s demanding. Even now, after several years, I spend a few minutes every evening extending my lungs this way. I get an extra advantage: practising my lungs for a few minutes, brings me quietness and calm. The anxieties of the day float away – and I am ready for bed.

You may say “What does Quentin know about this – he’s not a doctor or a psychologist.” True, although as a marriage counsellor I used it successfully dealing with moments of distress, and occasionally with friends of mine. But, if you think about it, you may agree that it’s common sense – and well worth trying –particularly at a time when we may need our lungs in their best form.

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The Mass on my screen

I have just finished watching the Easter Friday service on my computer. It was sent by my local church – which is one of the finest parish churches in the country. And, when I say ‘nearer’ I mean that it is less than fifty yards from my house. The only human figure on the screen, the celebrant, was my parish priest. He has a fine singing voice, and I listen to every word of his exceptional sermons.

Some of what I write now will look odd to non-Catholics who use this site. Just forgive me: please pray for us, and we will pray for you.

Despite hermits, and such like, Catholicism has always been a social religion. Even praying on our own we include the whole Church: “Our Father” not “My Father”. The Mass itself is social: a kind of latter-day re-presentation of the Last Supper, and so leads up Holy Communion – where most of us will receive the Blessed Sacrament.

So that creates a problem for a computer Mass, even if it is not a recorded item but sent directly at the speed of light. I happen to be on my own, but in other circumstances my family and/or my friends could be with me. Nor can I receive Holy Communion. So it’s really second rate.

The problem for me is that I find the computer Mass much more satisfactory. First of all, I find a much stronger focus. I listen to every word, instead of being distracted by other people around me, or trying to find a spare place. I have to sit, kneel or stand – simple enough but less simple with increasing age. I can hear clearly every word from the altar. As for sermons – pot luck. We seem to have range of African priests – no doubt for excellent reasons. I can tell that they have spent a long time preparing their sermons but, for me at least, they are incomprehensible. In fact, most sermons are far too long. The exact timing of a computer Mass fixes the maximum time for a sermon – so I come away with a coherent message which I can then think and pray about.

But, of course, this is a computer Mass, you can’t really compare it with a real Mass which I can attend – or at least when the Virus allows me. Well I’m not entirely sure about that. You see, at a real Mass it all happens in our brains. We hear noises which our brains interpret into comprehensible language. We only have a sense of space because our brains are capable of interpreting the space. We are only aware of people around us because our brains tell us so. Without a loudspeaker system, those at the back hear the Mass fractionally later than those at the front. No one hears a word of Mass at the moment the celebrant says it.

So what? In the computer Mass it is just the same. Its occurrence – visibly and orally goes straight to our brain at the speed of light. In fact, the brain gets it fractionally faster than the attender who has to allow for the slower speed of sound. Is there any relevant difference between the two?

Of course we can’t receive Holy Communion. But do we think that Christ refuses us the grace of Holy Communion simply because our actual attendance is impossible?

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Bio-ethics, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 53 Comments

Words of Wisdom

I had a telephone call this morning from my son. He wanted me to know that he had got back to the UK following his lecture tour in the Australian universities. He is one of our leading romano–british historians. It reminded me of a conversation we had when he was fourteen. He said that I was unlike other fathers. He claimed that most fathers answered their children’s questions whereas I simply asked him questions back. I like to think, though I cannot confirm, that this triggered him into investigating the truth rather than looking for someone else’s answer.

This wasn’t original to me. I was fortunate to have had a Jesuit education. There I learnt that I couldn’t make statements of significance unless I was prepared to support them with logic and evidence. Nor, as far as I was concerned, could my son.

I have little knowledge of the status of regular contributors to this blog. The odd hint gives me clues of course. But I have the impression that many are highly educated, sometimes clerical, and, most often, with views worth reading and thinking about.

So today I am asking whether any of you recall a remark, or an idea, from a parent, or a teacher, or a friend which you took on board and which has continued to influence you since then.

In my case, it was many years back. I was in a high- level business meeting where we were looking at how we could improve the business organisation. We went through a lengthy discussion reviewing all the different aspects, and potential improvements. When we finished, our chief actuary asked: “But, in the end, what are the things which really matter?” In five minutes, we knew the answer.

So, since then, whether it’s family, or business, or my health, or investments, or my plan for the day, I start with the question “What are the things which really matter?” It has been invaluable.

So I ask you to think through your own mind and memory and see if you can remember the principle, or principles you have picked up over the years and are still benefitting in your life.

Posted in Maxims, Quentin queries | 57 Comments