Just a word or two on marriage

People tell me that they rarely hear a homily on the subject of marriage. I understand their concern for we know marriage to be for many the major school of love. Yet I sympathise with the clergy. They may well reserve the subject for special groups rather than general congregations. They may want to avoid the awkward questions – although I do not have these in mind here. They may feel that they do not know enough about marriage or they may think their listeners will feel they are outsiders.

In fact the clergy have a good handle on marriage. They are born into families and meet many married people in their work. I realise that there will be a proportion of these which are pathological – which was why a priest got to know them – but there are plenty of others. There is real value in a view from outside looking in instead of being inside looking out. I have known priests whose understanding of marriage was very deep, and all the better from listening to many married couples rather than allowing personal experience to skew their views (as we married people so often do).

Why is this so important? The answer to that is simple. The number of Catholic marriages per Catholic population has dropped by three quarters since the late ‘60s. We may hum and haw about the influence of our secular culture on marriage, but we have our hands full enough with the crisis in Catholicism. I know many families in which the grandparents are devout, the children are occasional, and the grandchildren don’t even get baptised. Recently I watched a young relative being married in a smart hotel to a well meant parody of religious solemnity – but specifically without any mention of God or religion. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t read the Catholic Herald either.)

Where might a priest start? I think he needs facts. That enables him to show that Catholic marriage is based soundly on the principles of human nature. Quite simply we have it right. Let’s tell that to the Catholic young, and hope that they tell it to their friends.

The rate of divorce in this country is around 42 per cent. To me, this is a frighteningly high figure. But it is a small improvement in recent years which some have attributed to cohabitation, giving the couples a longer period to know each other. That may be true but we must note that cohabiting couples who marry tend to be older, and maturity is a positive factor in marriage choice. The peak time for divorce is three to six years after marriage – earlier than the “7 year itch” The rate of divorce continues to fall with each succeeding year of marriage, and the divorce rate for 10 years plus has not changed since the 1960s. Some statistics from the US suggest that Catholic divorce is about 25 per cent lower than the population rate. Are we happy with that margin?

Cohabitation has its own problems. Cohabiting parents make up 19% of couples with dependent children, but they account for half of all family breakdown. And parents who have a child before they are married are less likely to stay together. The happy idea that their commitment is expressed in their love from day to day and that, should they lose that love, they can separate without hassle is straightforward folly. Firstly, although it may never be said out loud, the partners by no means always share that view. Secondly, there is no legal protection for both the partners. Thirdly, the lack of formal commitment makes the relationship continuously vulnerable. Fourthly the children of the relationship do not recognise the difference: to them, breakdown is a destruction of their world – with the likelihood of long term psychological damage, and often impoverishment.

Not that even marriage is always the answer. On current trends any child born in the UK today has only a 50 per cent chance of being with both parents by the age of 15. Apparently children are more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. It would seem that even the promises of marriage – which last until “till death do us part” – are seen as no more than a traditional chant. I can only tell you that in six decades of marriage we have experienced enough of those possibilities to know that it was the bulwark of our marriage vows which got us happily through the inevitable ups and downs.

If you want to know more about the facts I have given here, visit the Marriage Foundation – a splendid, secular site which is devoted to examining outcomes in marriage and cohabitation. (http://www.marriagefoundation.org.uk/research/ ). I consult it frequently, and indeed pinched much information for this column. Anyone preaching, or talking about, the Catholic view on marriage will benefit from a visit.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | 36 Comments

Unholy Office

We think highly of our legal system. We may criticise the detail, and it continues to develop, but it never loses touch with the principles of Magna Carta. Justice is paramount and the rights of the accused are always respected. But in fact many of us are also under a rather different system. I am thinking of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Anyone who publishes work under Catholic auspices is likely (as happened to me on one occasion) to be subject to its authority.

We might ask why it matters so much? We are not speaking of the gallows but only of writings which we may be required to correct or withdraw. But for people of standing – whether theologians or holders of church offices – it can be serious indeed. Not only may it destroy reputations, but it may require removal from office. And, since the procedures can be endlessly lengthy it can in effect destroy lives or damage at the level of mental and physical health.

Here are some of the worrying elements.

The individual being considered it not allowed to meet or speak to his accusers;
The doctrinal office often acts as “investigator, accuser, judge and jury” and also imposes any penalties and hears any appeals;
The accused is often not in direct contact with the authorities — the doctrinal office works through the person’s religious superior or bishop.

As an example, I quote from an account I wrote sometime ago.

“A recent account of a number of individuals who have come up against the Church’s discipline suggests that its grasp of good employment practice, to say nothing of basic human rights, leaves a great deal to be desired. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought in discussing the case of Father Balasuriya describes the authorities’ response as showing an ‘extraordinary disregard for natural justice and due process of law.’ Michael Walsh reports himself as struck ‘by the plain and simple discourtesy displayed by the CDF. The books which are under censure are not properly read; letters go unanswered; those accused are rarely approached personally, but through their superiors. Balasuriya learned of his excommunication when he heard a BBC broadcast.’

For a Church which is centred on the message of love for God and man to have to look outside at secular practice to learn how to treat people with basic human decency seems , to say the least, odd. The lack of respect for the rights of individuals is a characteristic of an organization whose management has not learnt to respect its subordinates.”

My own case was much less dramatic – it cost me, at best, a few hundred pounds in royalties as my imprimatur was removed. (And never restored — despite modifications to the text agreed with an appointed suffragan bishop.) I was amused at my attackers who even went as far as inventing quotations from the book to make their case. And I was interested that the CDF took particular exception to one paragraph which had in fact been drafted for me by an archbishop, For obvious reasons I cannot tell you who.

Of course many senior people have asked for a complete revision of these methods which appear to descend from the Inquisition. And a current attempt is being made. When will the Church move forward from the 13th century?

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The paralysis of fear

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” said Franklin D Roosevelt facing the economic crisis of 1933. He went on to describe it as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…” Strong words for a strong occasion, but it may be useful to remind ourselves of the fear we encounter in our own lives, and whether its effect is negative or positive. I am not thinking here of chronic anxiety which dogs some people and requires professional attention, but the fears we encounter every day.

I am reminded of an advertisement by an American tire company. No wonder it was successful because it offered a strong price reduction. But the original price on the page and the bargain price were, by mistake, exactly the same. Since the responses were no fewer than those for the corrected version of the offer, it would seem that the attraction was the bargain rather than the actual price. This is an example of fear of loss. Many studies have shown that we are substantially more motivated by the fear of a loss than by the possibility of a gain. It explains the endless chains of advertisements which proclaim a limited time offer or the threat of stocks running out. A successful life assurance salesman told me that he would approach potential clients a fortnight before the premium increased at their next birthday. Fear of loss clinched many a sale.

Since common sense tells us that, without this fear, we could make buying decisions more objectively, we recognise its negative effect. But this example is relatively trivial so let’s think about insomnia. It is estimated that around 20 million people have sleep problems in this country. Many insomniacs report that their fear of having a bad night’s sleep has in itself become the problem. And this is increased by the prospect of the demands of the next day. Such fear becomes self-fulfilling. For the insomniac, having nothing in the diary for the next day is a boon.

Imagine that you live with your family in one of those tragic towns which are regularly subject to random bombardment. Fear is unavoidable and appropriate. But as Roosevelt suggests, if it reaches a stage of paralysis it becomes negative. Instead of taking such steps as are available to maximise safety, you sit there miserably awaiting doom. Fear has not served you well. Indeed, eradicating fear, were that possible, would be a positive advantage.

If fear is so negative in its effects we might wonder why evolution has given us such a response. Perhaps it is related to the phenomenon known as ‘fight or flight’. This is an autonomic reaction, which we share with the lower animals, to sudden danger. It releases a cascade of hormones which prepare the body for instant response. Fear, by contrast, is a condition which puts us on long term warning that we are under threat. So both fear and ‘fight or flight’ have their evolutionary uses, but only up to a point. Beyond that point they both do more harm than good.

In Bernard Shaw’s play, Joan of Arc is asked if she is in a state of grace; she replies “If I am not, may God bring me to it: if I am, may God keep me in it!” None of us knows for certain what our final fate will be, should we be run over this afternoon by a bus. And of course, as Christian morals are presented, we are faced continually by the alternatives of an eternity of bliss and an eternity of punishment. It is certainly true that the gift of free will implies that we are free to reject God, and that he will respect that choice. But, at the psychological level, the two are not balanced: our exaggerated fear of loss is likely to ensure that the prospect of damnation will loom larger in the mind, quenching spiritual growth. And this may indeed be paralysing for those who are especially vulnerable to fear.

When Professor Dawkins suggests that inculcating faith in infants is a form of abuse, I find myself agreeing with him in respect to this issue. It continues throughout the Catholic life. We are continually reminded of opportunities for mortal sin – from missing Mass on Sunday to throwing Jews into gas chambers. Or, put more correctly, we are surrounded by matters sufficiently grave that, if we adopt them with full knowledge and consent, we will damn ourselves. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether our knowledge is full or our consent complete. We should not be surprised that many Catholics go absent without leave and degenerate into virtuous humanism. A Christian life which is sustained by fear cannot be what God intended. Can we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth?

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Spirituality | Tagged , | 69 Comments

Words, words, words

Most of the readers of this Blog are churchgoers and thus are regular recipients of sermons (or homilies, as they seem now to be known). I am fortunate in being in a large parish served by a group of priests, often assisted by visitors, so I probably hear a wider range than most. But I am planning to write a column for the Catholic Herald on the subject, and so I am asking for your help through telling me of your experiences – bad or good.

Typically I attend a Low Mass at 8:15 on a Sunday, so the congregation are relatively mature. But there are also Masses aimed at families or at young people. There is also a more formal Sung Mass. I rarely attend these so I have no basis for a reliable opinion.

A good sermon, to my mind, is one where the preacher is clear what points he wants to make, and has chosen an effective way of bringing these alive to the congregation. I use the plural here but in many instances one good point properly made is better than several. Too many points in an attempt to cover the waterfront are likely to be self defeating. I like to be left feeling: yes that applies to me, or: that’s an interesting approach – I must think further about that.

Are preachers more guided by the discipline of time (my sermon should run for five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter hour) or by the subject being addressed? Of course for practical reasons there must be an upper limit – but there is no lower limit. If the message can be communicated in three minutes, four minutes are too long. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s story about initially intending to give a large donation to the cause being promoted, but reducing his donation the longer and longer the speaker continued. I have heard preachers go round the point they are trying to make again and again and again. By the time they finally finish I will have switched my mind off, and all is forgotten – but not necessarily forgiven.

A good structure is important. The congregation should be clear about what is said and how it leads up to the point which is being made. Once we find ourselves saying: what is he going on about now?, the sermon is lost. Listeners do not easily retain what is being said; it is not like a book where you can flip back a paragraph or two if your attention has wandered. A good beginning which attracts the listener and prepares his mind for what is to come, and a good ending which reinforces the message are always necessary.

I have written here about the basics of presenting the spoken word. But we should also consider the matter. It is usual and correct to start from the Scripture of the day or some aspect of the liturgy. But there are many occasions when a preacher can properly choose his theme on the matters that he thinks are important – perhaps relating to some topical question. Are there subjects on which you would like to hear a sermon – but scarcely ever do? Or are there subjects which come up with boring repetition which you would simply prefer not to hear.

Please give me your reactions to the sermons and homilies you hear so that I have the right ammunition to consider the problem.

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Diamonds are for ever

Last Sunday we had a big party. Its core was five children, 14 grandchildren and three great grandchildren – together with spouses and established inamorati. And we were joined by three other guests who had been present at our wedding exactly sixty years before the date that I post this on the internet. That’s what we were celebrating. But there was another celebration too: Eleanor Rose Lark Huchet de la Bedoyere, five weeks old, had her first introduction to the family. Being loved by so many people she can hardly go wrong: her only problem will be fitting her name on to a credit card one day.

So I am now very aware of the importance of family – and thankful we have been blessed with such a full quiver. Not everyone is so favoured. There was a little concert – Eleanor’s mother is a leading West End singer – and a sketch figuring the memories of being our grandchildren. They remembered so many things they were grateful for, but I had forgotten.

I was reminded that grandparents are not just the old people – helpful for baby sitting. They play a unique part in the upbringing of the young. They do not have a parental relationship with the children, which can be limited by the tensions of achieving autonomy, but a freedom and openness that allows for exploring territories in ways that parents cannot cover.

I spoke a few words – most of it was what you would expect. But, given that several of the older grandchildren are in different stages of relationships, I turned to the marriage vows: ‘For better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health etc’. And I told them that in a long marriage you encounter several of these, and when you do, you are sometimes only sustained by the unconditional commitment you have made. It was not a day for critiquing those in serious relationships, but are not married. I just hope that one or two will think more deeply about their options.

So what do you think of the rôle of the grandparent – either as a grandparent or as a grandchild?

At the end I gave them a little poem which I wrote as a Valentine to my wife a few years back. It seemed to sum up what I felt.

What right have you and I to talk of love,
Ex-patriots from the country of the young?
Our thinning blood’s at leisure in our veins,
The sharp tuned nerves of Eros all unstrung.

We fondly watch the relics of our love
Who propagate anew, and – in our place –
Do forge bright links along the endless chain
To join the rusting link of our embrace.

But echoes from the anvil of your loins
Greeting my hammer blows with rousing rings
Have not yet faded from the quivering iron;
And still it sings.

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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 | 69 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)

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | Tagged | 43 Comments