Did I say that?

I am having a difficult week – some hours in hospital trying to locate a blood clot which may, in fact, not exist. So self indulgently I have gone straight for those attractive little quotes – which tend to be amusing and, often indirectly, wise. I have chosen the Anglican minister Sydney Smith as the author; early 19th century.
However three of the quotes are written not by Smith but by me. Can you spot them?
Perhaps readers will have other examples for us to enjoy.

* * *

I never could find any man who could think for two minutes together.

(Macaulay) is like a book in breeches.

(Macaulay) has occasional flashes of silence, that make his conversation perfectly delightful.

My definition of marriage — it resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes in between them.

I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.

The great spectacle of human happiness.

It is a place with only one post a day…In the country I always fear that creation will expire before teatime.

Minorities – are almost always in the right.

Poverty is no disgrace to a man, but it is confoundedly inconvenient.

I am convinced that digestion is the great secret of life.

One of the greatest pleasures of life is conversation.

How can a bishop marry? How can he flirt? The most he can say is, “I will see you in the vestry after service.”

A Curate—there is something which excites compassion in the very name of a Curate!

Those who change their minds change their friends.

I have no relish for the country, it is a kind of healthy grave.

I am going to pray for you at St Pauls, but with no very lively hope of success.

No furniture as charming as books.

The religious mind exchanges thought for Holy Writ.

I require a special operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding. Their only idea of wit is laughing immoderately at stated intervals.

I look upon Switzerland as an inferior sort of Scotland.

What a pity it is that we have no amusements in England but vice and religion.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 8 Comments


Does the name Crito bring a memory? He was Socrates’ friend and, when Socrates had wrongfully been condemned to death, Crito tried to persuade him to escape. But Socrates refused. He argued that such action would be against the laws of Athens. Breaking one law would in effect be the same as breaking any other law. He had chosen to live his life in Athens, and he had enjoyed the benefits of that, including those laws. He had therefore no right to break them.

Whether we agree with him or not, we are still faced by the question of the Social Contract. That is, we all accept the laws of the country even if we dislike some of them. By choosing to live, and benefit from, our society we undertake to accept the rules of that society – which are intended for the society’s welfare.

Philosophers have argued the Social Contract over the ages. Starting with Aristotle and Socrates, other names are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and, in the 20th century, Nozick and Rawls. We find it implicitly in the Bible: the social commandments, such as “Thou shalt not steal”, are principles derived from the Social Contract.

Something so fundamental is likely to have an element related to evolution. And that is certainly so. In primitive times it was necessary to be a member of a group, otherwise survival would be unlikely. It was also necessary to be wary of other groups: there was always danger from “foreigners”. It follows that those humans who favoured being in a group, and being wary of strangers, were more likely to survive and, more importantly for evolution, to breed and protect their young. So our inherited tendency is to live in a group and to share that group’s assumptions and values.

It is not all sunshine – there are dangers, too. The most obvious one is our tendency to share the views of our group. We accept unthinkingly, and we find it painful to question, and perhaps reject, the views of our group. We see a distorted version in the current use of social media whose validity is not based on logic and evidence but merely on the numbers who agree.

We also find it inevitable to make broad judgments about identifiable groups. These are myriad. They can range from gender: “typical of men’, ‘typical of women’ to ‘typical of the Irish’, typical of the Italians’, to accent: ‘upper class’, ‘working class’. We simply don’t have the time to investigate, we need to generalise. Most of the time such judgments result in mere stupidity rather than maliciousness. But not always. How do people generally judge Catholics, or atheists? And, of course the Jews and the Muslims – you do not need me to develop the outcome of that.

How do we cope with our tendencies to generalise? Perhaps readers will have some ideas. But I know that we must start from accepting that we do generalise, and in fact that we need to do so in practice. Once we recognise that, it becomes possible to review our judgments in the light of that. And that is a difficult habit to maintain. At this moment I am aware of this need – because I have been thinking and writing about it. But tomorrow, if I am not careful, I will slip back to my guilty habit of prejudice.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 23 Comments

Three too many

Universal Credit, which provides cash benefits if you are on a low income or out of work, has been often mentioned in the Press. The major issue has been that the allowances are paid at the end of the month rather than at the beginning. The consequence in many cases is that recipients fall into debt. They can get loans from various commercial organisations but the rates of interest are huge. And then they may find themselves in a cycle of debt from which there is no easy way out.

But today I want to look at another issue. Not surprisingly, parents with dependent children get benefits for these. But the situation has changed. I quote the officialese: “If your children were born before 6 April 2017, you will be able to claim for them all. If one or more of your children were born on or after 6 April 2017, you will only be able to claim for the first two unless you had a multiple birth or have adopted.”

Many people would agree with that. Why should couples have endless children at the expense of all of us? Their poverty may not be their fault but that is no excuse when there are plenty of ways to avoid pregnancy. Others would argue that the threat of global warming is highly relevant. The more the children the more the population – and so, the more consumers, the more the warming. So far I have not yet heard the argument that abortion is a virtue in its contribution to protecting our climate. But I daresay that will come.

It would seem that, leaving aside the demands of poverty, any family who has more than two children is damaging society. Do we agree with these arguments? If we do I am in a sticky position: not only do I have five children but I have several grandchildren and a swiftly growing number of great grandchildren. (Twenty-three descendants so far.) The older ones have had, or are having, fine and important careers, but that make no difference: I am clearly responsible for too many consumers.

What do you think?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 9 Comments

Out in the Open

It’s Summer and the sun is shining. So today I am allowing myself a little nostalgia. Imagine walking down the north side of Leicester Square in the 1950s. You come across a little court leading to Soho, and there is a small crowd listening to a speaker standing behind a one-man rostrum. You will be surprised to see a crucifix on the rostrum and to hear the speaker talking about papal infallibility or the confessional or some other basic Catholic belief. I say talking but it is more like an energetic discussion between speaker and a continuously variable little crowd.

That speaker was me. And the organisation behind it was the Catholic Evidence Guild. There were branches of this around the country but the London one was the largest. That was no surprise because the senior executive was Frank Sheed (of the publishers, Sheed and Ward). Frank, whom I knew very well, was a magnificent lay theologian. His book Theology and Sanity is a classic. If you never read another book make sure you read that one. The main presence of the Guild was Speakers’ Corner at Marble Arch (where I spoke occasionally). There was another “stand” in the City — normally used at lunchtime.

Speakers had a tough training qualifying for different subjects. They had first to present their talk in front of other Guild speakers. They were given no quarter, tears were common. Then they were interrogated by a theologian – and eventually they were let loose on the public.

Of course you started with no audience (perhaps you had a friend with you – who tried to look like a crowd). So you were largely declaiming to the air. But someone would eventually shout back and, with a bit of luck, a crowd would gradually form. Sometimes you had twenty or more listeners. And occasionally you had the treat of genuine, useful, discussion. Just once or twice a listener would speak to me after I had finished. It was usually a personal question – which I either could answer or give them where they might get help.

I benefitted considerably from the experience. Most obviously I have never been frightened by an ordinary audience: normal audiences don’t behave like the Leicester Square crowd. And. decades later, I was earning rather an attractive amount of money as a professional public speaker. How splendid to be paid for doing something that brings you joy!

Naturally,I had to develop my knowledge of a wide range of Catholic theology, and of course all the objections people might throw at it. I had, and still have, a three volume treatise on this, called Radio Replies. Spend five minutes at http://www.radioreplies.info/radio-replies-vol-1.php?t=26 . You will get a sample idea. (I have chosen the subject of the Catholic view of Reformation Churches since we have recently discussed this. Nowadays we would probably speak more kindly, but the doctrine is the same.)

As far as I know, the Catholic Evidence Guild no longer operates. However Catholic Voices started in 2010. The focus here has been not the street corner but the media. They aim to get opportunities, on the radio for instance, for well briefed (and trained) Catholics to explain issues which are in the news. I was briefly associated with them at an early stage to assist in their preparation. This is clearly a better solution than Speakers Corner in today’s world. And they continue to develop new ideas – such as talking to the laity at parish level about how to explain the Church in a productive and positive way. Austen Ivereigh’s book “How to Defend the Faith” is something of a classic.

Possibly, visitors to this Blog can bring us up to date. The Catholic Voices website is at http://www.catholicvoices.org.uk/ .

Posted in Catholic Voices, Church and Society | 8 Comments

Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Natural Law is a fundamental element of Catholic moral teaching. Here I am going to set out my understanding so that readers can correct me or develop my ideas. In fact, the concept is based on a very straightforward, and perhaps undeniable, principle.

I start with my washing machine. I realise that it has its own nature, and if I want it to wash my clothes, and indeed to continue to do so into the future, I must respect that nature. For example, I must connect it to the right voltage of electricity, and I must use the right programme for the items I want to wash, and so on.

I can work out its nature by observation based on my general knowledge, but I will be particularly helped by the maker’s handbook. There is no moral question here because it is my machine. But if I have borrowed the machine from you, I have a moral obligation to use it in accordance with its nature.

Now let’s look at human beings. Through observation I see that human beings are, by nature, social animals. There may be exceptions but broadly we live in, and depend on, our membership of social groups. So our nature requires such behaviour as telling the truth, respecting other members property or the right to life. And as it happens these fundamental requirements can be found in the maker’s handbook. We call it the Bible.

The Bible is a somewhat old-fashioned handbook. It takes for granted that human beings were directly created by God. An understandable assumption from this is that we can ascertain aspects of the natural law of human beings from biology. The simplest example is that the sexual organs are constructed (by God) for heterosexual intercourse. To use them for homosexual intercourse would ipso facto be contrary to the plan of the creating God. Similarly, the fundamental nature of sexual intercourse is based on its structural design to fertilise. Thus, to artificially prevent fertilisation is against the natural law. It directly interferes with God’s creation.

A minor, but telling, example can be found in the modern Catechism. It tells us that lying must be condemned as a profanation since “the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth.” — thus a biological basis. However, one may get around this in suitable cases by using “discretion”. This sounds like a suggestion that we may effectively deceive providing that we don’t actually tell a lie.

In recent times there has been a development in our understanding. We are more inclined to look at other aspects. Using the homosexuality example, some would argue that, notwithstanding the nature of the sexual organs, there are those whose sexual orientation is directed towards their own sex. Whatever the reasons for this anomaly may be, it is not a result of God’s direct creation.

But, of course, what we know now is that we are not the result of direct creation. At the biological level we are the result of evolution. At the centre of that is our identity as person with its capacity to think and choose. While these characteristics are spiritual, in that they are not caused, they are most certainly strongly influenced by genes and experience. And it is effectively impossible to discern free decisions from influenced decisions. We are free but we never know how free we are.

On this Blog we have plenty of examples. Contributors present a range of views. However well they have been considered before posting, conclusions remain influenced by inherited genes and by experience. And neither the contributor nor the reader knows the line between evidenced logic and subjective influence. The latter may go back to infancy. Hence the value of disagreement and argument. This perhaps is why we should pay most attention to those who disagree with us: this is taking contradiction as more valuable than affirmation because it gives us the opportunity to review the principles we should otherwhile see as infallible.

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 41 Comments

Just what do we believe?

We have recently been discussing the reducing percentage of Catholics in our society. But today I want to look at what we believe. I am triggered by a Pew Survey which tells us that 69% of all self-identified Catholics said they believed the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus but were instead “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The other 31% believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, known as transubstantiation. I wonder whether those two views are also reflected in the Catholic readership of this Blog.

The Church’s teaching is absolutely clear – see the Council of Trent. The Eucharist is not merely symbolic. In actuality it is the body and blood of Christ – that is what substance means. It does of course retain the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine (appearance, taste etc.) but it is no longer bread and wine. Nor does the body and blood share its substance with bread and wine. It is no longer bread and wine – irrespective of the fact that scientific analysis and human recognition show it as such.

Compare, by contrast, the water used for Baptism. It remains water but in the Sacrament the water is indeed the symbol of cleansing. It is God’s power which is effective directly in this case. “An outward sign of an inward grace” is the common phrase.

Why should we believe in transubstantiation? It is a miracle of God, brought about through God’s will. Nor was the definition by the Church easily agreed. It was necessary to look at the history of the Church’s teaching and practice since the time of the Apostles — in order to confirm that the historical practice throughout the Church’s history accepted the essence of this teaching – although it was not yet expressed in the formal definition of Trent.

It would seem to follow that two thirds of the Catholic population are heretical, and in consequence reject the infallibility of the Catholic Church through their refusal to accept one of her most serious teachings.

Or perhaps not. Your average Catholic does not always look at the precision of words. It may be that ‘symbol’ has different possible meanings in different minds. Nor would we expect everyone to understand the concept of transubstantiation. In the end it seems to me to be enough that to believe at the altar we receive Christ himself — body, blood, soul and divinity — through the means he chose.
It would also be interesting to hear what Anglicans, and other
Christians, believe, and why.

(https://www.ncronline.org/news/theology/pew-survey-shows-majority-catholics-don’t-believe-real-presence )

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 55 Comments

The death of Christianity?

If we are to believe the British Social Attitudes surveys over many years, we may accept that Christianity is gradually dying in this country. Those who record themselves as Christian slowly but regularly decrease in numbers. The Anglican Church has been hit the hardest, but Catholics decline steadily as well. Their percentage in 1983 was 10 percent; it is now down to 7 percent. Or, if you wish, 30 percent lower.

We can see some reasons why this is happening. Perhaps the most obvious is generational. Those who are Catholics all their lives tend to continue, but the number of young people from Catholic families is distinctly fewer. Nor does the evidence support the optimistic thought that such young people return to Catholicism at a later date.

Perhaps, a factor in this is that people who once thought that claiming a denomination of some sort was respectable no longer think this to be so. Indeed, they may think humanism or agnosticism is a respectable position – perhaps even more respectable than religious superstition or imposed moralities.

There has also been a considerable change in general attitudes towards sexual practice. It would appear (and I have seen this in my family) that the young, perhaps starting from university, move quickly into full sexual activity, often living together, before marriage is considered as a probability. The rule for our children, some forty years ago, was that they might entertain their ‘friend’, but the bedroom door had to be open. Nowadays that simply sounds quaint.

But we must also consider how successful we are at presenting Catholicism. Do we present our beliefs in a way which attract people, while being clear about the value of our moral beliefs? For example, in the matter of abortion we may well be seen as enemies to human rights when we remind people that the last time an identifiable group of humans lost their right to life was in the Thirties, in Germany.

And the Church needs to look at itself too. The scandals of child abuse have, and indeed should have, been broadly condemned. And this related not only to the actual abuse but how the Church again and again failed to manage it.

Do we see the active Church in this country as an enthusiastic community, led by fine bishops who work with the laity for the greater good of God – or just an administrative organisation – with its eye always open to Rome? Do our friends envy our Catholicism, or just put up with it as an acceptable quirk?
What do we have to do to increase our percentage in the population rather than to watch it gradually decrease as an old fashioned superstition?
(There is a fine article on this subject by Stephen Bullivant in the Tablet, 27 July, if you can get hold of a copy.)

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | 63 Comments