Christ versus Satan

Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the three children who witnessed the Marian apparitions at Fatima, died in 2005. But before her death, she predicted that the final battle between Christ and Satan would be over marriage and the family. We may very well think that this battle is in full swing as I write.

Without attempting a detailed sociological review, we may remember that the breakdown of marriage in the UK is above 40%. In addition there is a large number of long term cohabitations: unmarried cohabiting parents account for one fifth of couples but half of all family breakdown. The overall result is that one in four toddlers and nearly one in two teenagers are not living with both natural parents. Since lone parents often live in near poverty, there is a national welfare bill approaching 50 billion pounds. And on top there is the huge emotional cost. – which is almost bound to be reflected in the marriages, or otherwise, of the next generation.

No one can doubt that this is a tragedy which might rightly be called a battle between Christ and Satan. And we would see at the heart of this a separation between sexual activity as an expression of the unconditional commitment of marriage and sexual activity as an expression of temporary relationship, and indeed just for entertainment.

Our immediate response to this might well be that the curse lies in the widespread usage of artificial contraception. After all, given the power of the sexual instinct and the ready availability of methods to avoid conception, what else would we expect? It would seem that Paul VI was right in confirming the Church’s prohibition.

Before we settle for this, however, there are some considerations. The most obvious one is that, with or without, Humanae Vitae, and, even if the general Catholic population had fully accepted the ruling, the outcome would have been much the same.

The HV ruling was not concerned with preventing a couple from avoiding conception, but only with the method being used. Indeed the champions of natural family planning make much of their brave successes in devising better and more accurate ways of avoiding conception. It was argued in the Papal Commission, which preceded HV, that many couples using NFP spent so much time and emotional energy on avoiding conception that it could damage the marriage.

But as we know the papal teaching was broadly rejected, and we understand that upwards of 90% of Catholic couples do not follow the ruling. And such evidence as we have suggests that the parish clergy, for the most part, are doubtful about it. Nor, given the proportion of bishops who supported the Commission’s conclusions, are the bishops seen to be fully aboard. We are in the awkward position of having a definitive teaching which the body of the faithful ignore.

The consequences are alarming. Despite the clemency of the Church in this matter, a large body of the laity feel themselves to be marginalised. We might see evidence of this in the severe reduction in the use of Confession. Another effect may be the dramatic fall in Catholic marriages. Today, measured by size of Catholic population, Catholic marriages in England and Wales are less than a quarter today of those in 1968. There is a similar decline in other major headings. Is it coincidence that these declines started with the arrival of HV? (Figures taken from the Catholic Directory)

Perhaps worst of all, the Church has no effective voice in championing the importance of marriage. In this great battle to which Sister Lucia witnessed, the Church hampered in playing an active part. Even on this Blog we have heard contributors lamenting the rarity of sermons on marriage, In the battle between Christ and Satan the Church has found itself in the sidelines. And, rightly or wrongly, it is held there by HV. In the ordinary world of battles it is unwise to continue following the tactics which are leading to defeat. But, if we were to develop new tactics to uphold marriage and the family, what would they be?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 15 Comments

Marriage making

“When I drove Marilyn to work we used mainly to listen to the radio, but since the course started we talk, nineteen to a dozen, about the last meeting.”

He was referring to the marriage preparation course he was attending back in the ‘60s. I was reminded of this remark when I read the emphasis on this subject in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis suggested that the form of the course was a decision for the local church so I am considering some important issues, which might be considered. I have my battle honours through a diamond anniversary due this month, several years of running marriage preparation courses, and considerable experience of what can go wrong through years of remedial marriage counselling.

The information which a couple might need immediately comes to mind. I think of such things as handling financial aspects of money, bringing up children, sexual harmony, natural family planning and a shared understanding of the sacrament of matrimony. This is usually quite easy to provide, and often supplied by local experts. These topics can provide a basic structure around which the most important outcome can be built. Pope Francis identifies this: “Sadly, many couples marry without really knowing one another. They have enjoyed each other’s company and done things together, but without facing the challenge of revealing themselves and coming to know who the other person truly is.“ (p.210)

He is speaking here about the prime importance of the relationship itself, and the skills which are needed to promote it. Any marriage preparation course which does not major on inculcating the foundations of such skills is largely a waste of time. Let me give you a simple example. Imagine a ten minute talk on budgeting as a couple, followed by questions. Very useful, no doubt. But let’s suppose that the couples have been given a homework task to create a budget between them using a fixed sum of money. The results may vary, and often promote general hilarity, but, for many, it will be the first budget they have ever constructed. Then, in small groups, the couples will discuss their attitudes to money. Not only will they hear the view of other couples, but they may, for the first time, hear the real views of their partner. In this way they learn that such attitudes have a high emotional content related to temperament and personal backgrounds. And they begin to see how different approaches must be melded through respect for each other’s views.

This format: homework preparation, and discussion of different views under a skilled leader, can with ingenuity, be used for most of the key subjects. Imagine the value of a group discussion on whether it is important to share the same religion. Imagine a discussion on whether male and female attitudes to sexuality are the same. Imagine a discussion on the ideal size of a family. Imagine a discussion on in-laws. Leaders will not be manipulating conclusions but they will be contributing extra information based on broader experience, and ensuring that key questions are considered.

The importance placed on homework and discussion tells us that the one day, or one weekend, course is of restricted value. It does not allow for the necessary dialogue and development which the couples can only do on their own. This takes one evening a week for five or six weeks. That sounds a big demand but engaged couples welcome inexpensive opportunities to spend time together. If couples miss meetings the course is not being successful. We rarely lost a couple after the first meeting.

Participants are recruited through the parish, or several parishes working together. A chaplain is appropriate, but the main staff will be experienced married couples. Some kind of selection process is needed: not every couple, and indeed not every potential chaplain, is suited. They will need some training in the skills of group leadership, including the ability to tolerate views with which they don’t agree. And they will learn to spot the occasional couple who need personal counselling before progressing their relationship.

Like any long marriage, we too have had to cope with several adjustments in our relationship. The advent of children, career changes, illnesses, and retirement have been such occasions. Founded on our clear understanding of marriage as an objective, permanent sacrament in which we participated, we had to learn how to adapt through our respect for each other, expressed and understood in deep discussions. If we hadn’t, we might have ended up like so many couples we were to meet in remedial marriage counselling. In most cases, the difficulties were born from poor communication. It often required explicit training of couples in communication with each other – a skill which might, over the marriage, have saved many tears.

(While this column is published here on he correct date, it will not appear in the Catholic Herald until 22 July)

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Stairway to Heaven

Do you say your night prayers regularly? And, if so, of what do they consist? I raise the question not because I am good at saying night prayers but because I believe we should all pause from time to time and consider what we do about this. One issue came to my mind: the examination of conscience. This is most naturally related to going to Confession – although there it may add up to little more than reading a list of possibilities listed in a prayer book – and picking the most obvious. But, given that Confession is less frequent nowadays, it has increased in its importance.

Since I am a wizard at self-justification I need to start with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. I find this not only clears my mind, but it makes it hard to fool myself. And I don’t try to cover the waterfront. Were I to look at my detailed rights and wrong throughout the day, it would not only take half the night but, in thinking about everything, I am likely to do nothing about anything. Of course on any day there may be an incident requiring immediate attention, but usually it’s still the old, old struggle with my perennial faults. Forgive me if I don’t list them – I find them hard enough to accept before God, let alone before you lot. Public confession may be good, but the internet is taking it a little too far.

In fact I don’t even check on all my faults because I think it better to work on one or two at a time. That allows me to think in a very practical way so that I can see whether the barometer of grace with respect to that fault or tendency is going up or down – and what I can in practice do about it. It will be checked the following night.

An important point (important because it appears often to be neglected) is to notice my positive progress. That may sound like self indulgent praise, but just as our sinfulness tends towards our increasing sinfulness so our improvements lead to greater improvements. My celebration of even a little progress is accompanied by my awareness of the rôle of grace.

Tonight (I am drafting this last Sunday) I will be considering the sermon I heard this morning. It took less than three minutes, but it hit home. In briefing the 72 disciples whom Jesus sent out to carry his word, his instruction was “Whatever house you go into, let your first words be ‘Peace to this house.’” So tonight I will be thinking what peace have I offered today. What peace have I offered to my wife?, what peace have I offered to casual friends who call or telephone?, what peace have I offered to a parishioner who parks his car across my drive when going to Mass?, what peace have I offered to readers of this blog if I make a contribution? It’s all rather pedestrian, I fear, but then love is for the most part pedestrian. And actions are more powerful than the holiest of intentions.

I see the Christian life not as a judgment of whether we are in a state of grace or not, but as a staircase. The top rung is infinitely high for there I would be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. No, I am much further down on my own step. The issue for me is not a supernatural leap to the top, but whether or not I am taking my next step downwards or upwards. Night prayers and prudent examination of conscience seem to me the strategy most like to succeed. What do you think?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged | 37 Comments

Men and men; women and women

Let’s discuss an uncomfortable subject: homosexuality and homosexual acts. We are aware that the Church firmly teaches that homosexual acts, being contrary to the natural law, are intrinsically disordered, and under no circumstances can they be approved. (Catechism 2357) We also know that they are condemned in Scripture in no uncertain terms (cf Romans 1). The Catechism continues by pointing out that we must respect those of a homosexual disposition and refrain from unjust discrimination.

Leaving aside authority, we can easily see the strength of the natural law argument. It is clear that homosexual acts (men to men and women to women) involve a mismatch between physical gender and sexual orientation. And, at the biological level, sexual anatomy shows clearly how it should be used. So why are we discussing it if the moral judgment is clear?

Over the past 50 years or so, there has been a gradual change (reflected in legislation) in our culture. This has not been universal, as the Anglican Church has discovered in other territories. Apart from a general liberalisation of sexual taboos, we have come to understand that homosexual orientation need not be a choice of the individual but the outcome of genes, occurrences in the womb and aspects of upbringing. We cannot assume that this orientation is any more chosen than heterosexuals’ choice of their orientation. Indeed the advent of ‘gay marriage’ suggests that our society believes that committed relationships should be treated, mutatis mutandis, on a par with heterosexual marriage.

On his recent return to Rome from Armenia, Pope Francis restated his refusal to judge homosexuals, and that we, and other Christian denominations, should apologise: “I believe that the Church not only must say it’s sorry … to this person that is gay that it has offended,” he said. “But it must say it’s sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work….When I say the Church (I mean) Christians, The Church is healthy. We are the sinners.”

But accepting that orientation is not culpable does not excuse approval of its physical expression. Our reaction might be that the inclination may be a cross for those who have it, but it must be borne patiently by those who are afflicted. We may sympathise, but we may not approve.

However a homosexual might take a different view. He (or she) might argue that natural law should not be confined to physical structures, it should take into account psychological structures. Whatever the, perhaps unknown, cause of his orientation, it is natural to him. He might claim, as one homosexual did, that just as I may have an instinctive revulsion at the thought of a homosexual activity, so he has a similar revulsion towards intimate acts with the opposite sex. He is only behaving according to the nature God has given him.

He might go on to argue that, although homosexuals do not as such contribute to reproduction, their contribution to human culture has been huge. It would seem that evolution provides for a small percentage of the population to be homosexuals because, on balance, this contributes to the good of society.

So how do we see this? We might confine ourselves to the words of the Catechism. Or we might claim that the mismatch of homosexuality results in promiscuity, a high tendency to spread infections and, many might think, leads to unsatisfactory relationships . Or we might argue that homosexuality is simply a minority option raising no new moral issues other than those which attend heterosexual activity.

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Body and Soul

On the ‘Sunday’ programme (5 June) there was a brief discussion between three professors of science: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The topic was the relationship of science and religion – always relevant to this column. They all took constructive views but, not surprisingly, I leant towards the Christian view of Professor MacLeish, a physicist at Durham. He spoke of nature being woven into the human story, and the concept of the resurrection eventually embracing the whole of creation. It may be useful to unpack this concept.

We enjoy two approaches to knowledge: one is material, the other is immaterial. Science is the province of the first, and human perception is the province of the second. Science is necessarily concerned with the empirical. It constructs theories of causality and demonstrates the truth by material evidence. Perhaps ‘truth’ should be followed by a question mark because, in principle at least, any scientific conclusion can be modified by further evidence. Nevertheless, many such conclusions are so definite that it would be pedantic to deny them. Where scientists of a secularist tendency may go wrong is to infer from this that immaterial knowledge does not merit the description. It cannot be demonstrated materially and thus, being subjective, cannot lead to truth.

Immaterial knowledge concerns such phenomena as: need for meaning, reflective consciousness, the ability to recognise moral obligations — stemming from our ability to distinguish right from wrong, our rational capacity and our freedom to choose. It would be philosophically, and indeed scientifically, illiterate to conclude that this is not knowledge on the mere grounds that it is not empirical. Investigating the truth here is not advanced by dismissing our perceptions but by considering what qualities would be needed to provide an adequate cause for them. There is a parallel with the scientific method, for both may start by observing a phenomenon and hypothesising a sufficient cause.

Professor MacLeish’s view of nature being woven into the human story is rich indeed. But we are inclined to impoverish it. We recognise that the soul is the life and the form of the body and we know that the two are integrated, but we do not easily think that way. So we speak of saving our souls instead of ourselves, or of souls in Purgatory or heaven – as if a soul was an entity in its own right, when it only exists in relation to the body of which it is the form. Thankfully, there is literally no time between death and resurrection for time is a human concept. Our mistake lies in needing to identify concepts of which, in this world, we have no experience.

I occasionally come across, otherwise well educated, Catholics who refer to evolution as a theory – using theory in its sense of plausible but unproven. I suspect that their failure to accept manifest evidence is born from a distorted view of creation. God is not the first cause but the perennial cause. The material world down to the smallest sub atomic particle is held in existence by his active will. Existence is a continuous miracle. Given life and a form of reproduction which allows characteristics to be inherited and modified, evolution is a necessary outcome. In itself it is as blind as a mathematical equation, and every bit as useful. It is our vocation, inherited from Adam, to modify its effects when conditions require. In human judgment, we might well see evolution as one of God’s better ideas: one principle producing all species, including one fit for an immortal soul.

As I write I do not know the outcome of the EU referendum but we have all just been through an informative example of the material and immaterial working together so closely that we are hard put to discriminate between the two. Much has turned on forecast outcomes supplied by different authorities, and since we know that forecasts are only probabilities, great weight has had to be put on our value systems. How do we rate sovereignty versus integrated cooperation? What weight do we put on the historical tendencies of both options? Should we focus on the short term effects or on the long term? How dependable are our judgments of the protagonists? What unhealthy prejudices and partisan exaggerations have contaminated the arguments, and may have contaminated us?

Such issues, and many others, contribute to our overall preference for the result which best promotes the human flourishing of our country, and other countries which may be affected. Our different decisions remind us that we are all different people. Different genes, different upbringing and different experience ensure this. Such factors can, at least in principle, be investigated by science. But overall we retain the freedom to decide in the light of our values. It is not through discrete decisions but through the sort of person — body and soul, we have become through grace that the choice is made.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, evolution, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Spirituality | 47 Comments

Hell or Heaven

In December last year a hero died. His name was Salah Farah, and he was a school teacher, married with four children. It occurred in Kenya when a bus was stopped by al-Shabab. The terrorist told the Muslim passengers to move away so that they could shoot the Christians. They refused. Salah said “We asked them to kill all of us or leave us alone.”

Salah took a bullet but afterwards he said “people should live peacefully together. We are brothers. It’s only the religion that is the difference, so I ask my brother Muslims to take care of the Christians so that the Christians also take care of us… and let us help one another and let us live together peacefully.” he was taken to hospital to remove the bullet but he died during the operation.

Of course none of us know what happened to Salah in the afterlife. However we can speculate. Here is a man who had every opportunity to become a Christian. He was educated and certainly had the opportunity to meet Christians. But he appears to have rejected this. He was not baptised (I assume) and, had he read the Christian Scriptures, he would have known that only through Christ could he be saved. Therefore this act of heroism was not a result of grace (either sanctifying or actual) – it was therefore of no supernatural value. Consequently we know that he is now in Hell for all eternity.

That’s one argument, and it’s difficult to fault. My only problem is that I don’t believe it. Indeed I hope that in my afterlife I will find myself in the same place as Salah is now.

But there are consequences from my belief. It would seem that, having an unbaptised fallen nature, we receive an ‘eternal’ sentence when we die. Is it necessary to have been martyred in the cause of our fellow man to be saved, or, if Salah had not been on the bus – and died as a Muslim in ripe old age, would his fate be the same? And how about people of a humanist bent, who nevertheless lead decent lives – no more perfect or imperfect than are our own?

(There is a brief account of Salah’s death on

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Mary, quite contrary

Do Catholics worship Mary, and would they be right to do so. Surprise! Surprise! Yes they do. It might be tactless to claim this in non Catholic company because most people think of worship as an attitude to God, whereas it means recognising the worth of someone (‘worthship’) – just as I worship my wife. We worship Mary as mother of God who was appointed by her son to play an important part in our redemption. But it is only God whom we adore.

References to Mary in the Bible, direct and indirect, appear in many places: from Genesis (“I will put enmity between you and the woman…“) to the Apocalypse (“Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”) And, in between, many other references with which most Catholic are familiar. You will find a useful list at But in this post I want to look at just three of these, before turning to the questions raised by claimed appearances of our Lady in modern times.

The first is when Jesus, apparently lost on the way back from the Temple, says: “Why were you searching for me? Do you not know that I must be in my father’s house? (Luke 2:46-49) The second is the marriage feast at Cana. You will remember that Mary’s concern about the wine was greeted by what reads as a snub from Jesus: “My time has not yet come.” Mary’s response is basically: “Pull your socks up.” (John 2:3-10). The third is when Jesus is told that his mother and his brothers are waiting outside for him. Again a snub; he looks away to his disciples and claims that these, rather, are his mother and his brothers. (Matthew 12:46)

These occasions when Mary and Jesus appear to have a moment of difference are clearly important – otherwise the Evangelists would have omitted them or described them in a gentler way. Given the inspiration of Scripture, what is the message you take from these three incidents?

Our own St Joseph has asked us to consider the, rather more recent appearances of Mary – for example: Fatima, Lourdes, Knock, Guadalupe, Medjugorge etc. I understand that all of these, except the last, has formal approval from the Church – although no one is obliged to accept them. I have had cause only to study Lourdes, because some years ago I wrote a play on the subject which was well received in my large parish. (The script is available for any parish which wishes to use it.) Here I find the evidence convincing. But some may be opposed – taking such occasions as a temptation to superstition, and potentially leading to a Marian ideology.

Which leads me to my third point. Is there a danger that the strength of devotion to Our Lady leads us to put her son on the backmarker? After all, Mary appeals directly to our imaginations – the concept of mother is woven into our hearts from birth. It certainly looks odd to other Christians, who from time to time claim this devotion to be superfluous, and a distraction from our focus on Christ. I willingly confess to going more often to Mary rather than to Jesus. My wife says it’s because I always go to a woman rather than a man in times of need. True, I fear.

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 64 Comments