The future is already on its way

I have, on occasion, noted in my Secondsight column in the Catholic Herald that decreases in our birthrate promise problems in the future. Last week there was a strongly written article by Dennis Sewell. If you get a chance to read it, take it. (Issue 17/3)

The fact of the matter is that our fertility rate has dropped from 2.7 in 1960 to 1.8 in 2014. The rate required to reproduce the population is 2.1. This means that working taxpayers will be supporting a larger and larger proportion of golden oldies. And that’s before we take into account increased longevity and the possible prospect of cures from cancers and other conditions.

It is not just us. The fertility rate across the EU is worse at 1.5. The Japanese have suffered economically from this problem for several years; they were introduced to widespread contraception following WWII by the Americans. The Chinese face a more serious problem from their ‘one child only’ policy. Although the policy has been changed I understand that their culture is so habituated to tiny families that they now prefer it.

We may assume that the availability of convenient contraception was necessary for this to occur. (Though we may remember that abortion also plays its part.) But with it come other factors. I discuss this from time to time with my grandchildren and I find that they regard a small family as an ideal. Their concern is whether to have it early in their careers or later when they are better established. I note also that they favour partners who will play a bigger, perhaps equal, domestic rôle when this is needed. They are good and thoughtful people, but it’s gender equality nowadays. I just moan because I only have three great grandchildren so far. An email I received today tells me that a fourth is on the way. (Hallelujah!)

We are told that Mrs Merkel looked to improving the German situation by encouraging large numbers of immigrants. The theory was fine because immigrants tend to be hardworking, and to have slightly larger families, but look what happened to her. We need immigrants too. Of course we should be able to monitor the rate and the timing but I wonder how easy that would be in a democracy whose workforce dislike competition for their jobs and their houses.

So what are the solutions? I write this somewhat smugly, having 22 descendants so far. At great family parties I feel I have done my bit. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

(A little post scriptum) “Professor Savage (of the BMA) told the Mail on Sunday that forcing women to give birth to a child of a sex they do not want to have “is not going to be good for the eventual child, and it’s not going to be good for (the mother’s) mental health.” She advocates free choice at any stage in the pregnancy. )

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis | Tagged | 3 Comments

Worry worry worry

Why worry? A change in my household circumstances has led to my undertaking many activities with which I am not familiar. Many people, particularly housewives, would regard these tasks as routine and usually unproblematic. But to the novice they may be quite demanding. And sometimes, worrying.

There seems to be little relationship between a level of worry and the significance of a task. Were I to be in a death cell with execution due in the morning, some degree of worrying would be natural. But I suspect that my worry would be limited because the outcome is certain. Uncertainty seems to be at the heart of worry. Whether this or that important letter arrives in the next post might worry me more.

Worry is irrational. It is obvious that faced by a task we should think constructively about what steps we should take and then put them into action. Worrying may lead to exaggerating a task or putting it off as long as possible. So the effect is negative – we have only made matters worse. Realising that it’s negative does not take it away. In fact we can add to the problem the worry about how much we worry.

What is the source of worry? I imagine that, like so many of our instincts, evolution has played its part. We are always faced by problems and worry came about because we needed to be triggered to prepare for possible solutions. But when we are faced by uncertainty this can be difficult. I remember, as a young man, the occasions when my boss would ask me to meet him the next day – without mentioning why. From that point, overnight and the next day, there would be a little worry nibbling away inside. What might I have done wrong? In fact I cannot remember any meeting which turned out to be unpleasant. All that worry wasted!

Now you, reader, may have worries from time to time. But you have perhaps learned how to reduce these to a minimal level. In which case tell us how you managed that. Were the changes practical ones or did you change your internal attitudes? If nothing else you may find that you’re not alone.

Posted in Quentin queries | 10 Comments

Papal confusion or what?

In a recent letter to this magazine (Wilfred Jones 10 Feb) a younger, and clearly devout, Catholic describes his and his friends’ doubts about Pope Francis’s approach to Catholic teachings on human sexuality. Yes, it is messy. Many years ago I suggested that we would be helped by a computer program which, written correctly, would solve any moral choice and even estimate the proper penance for defiance. It may still be valuable for some but I doubt if Pope Francis would use it. In trying to deduce his direction of travel, I can only speculate.

Several decades ago I had ten years of Jesuit education, for which I am grateful. The moral teaching which I received was comprehensive and firm. I knew exactly where I stood. It conformed to Fr Davis SJ’s Moral and Pastoral Theology: “(The Church) says to the child you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”

Such an explicit view is of course most comforting to those who find their security through certainty, but there is a price to be paid. As one educator, commenting in the 1960’s on a survey of schoolgirls, wrote “…the autonomy of conscience, fundamental to Christianity, has practically disappeared from our teaching.” A secondary price is that, according to temperament, it can lead to intolerance or to scrupulous fear.

“If you love me, keep my commandments” would seem to settle the matter. But we need to remember that it is not the law which saves; only love can do that. The law is there to formulate the principles which guide us into loving action. As Bernard Häring wrote, “One who is exclusively concerned with the normative formula, without being taken up with the value which is its foundation, will inevitably descend to moribund legality.“

“Thou shalt not kill” is clear. And so is “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. But once we consider the values which are their foundation even the most orthodox accept that, in the matter of killing, there may be exceptions. Such exceptions do not negate the law: they are derived by considering circumstances where justice, which the law protects, is better achieved. One value behind marital fidelity is preserving the long term security of the relationship required for successful procreation. Under quite different social circumstances, polygyny (a form of group adultery) was once reluctantly countenanced by the Old Testament for similar ends. Polyandry was always forbidden because it did not contribute to reproduction.

My guess is that Pope Francis believes that in certain circumstances the values of procreation may be better served by recognising a second, non-sacramental, marriage. He, too, is reluctant because a serious mismatch has been the cause. But, provided that the necessary circumstances are established, a patching up may be the best available solution. He does not suggest that the marriage act should automatically be prohibited as technical adultery. Procreation, which requires both reproduction and stability, would not be served by this.

A suggestion that a pope is prepared to permit exceptions to explicit and absolute traditional moral teachings is dangerous. But Francis has form. His reaction to Zika infection, which can damage the foetus, was that condoms might be used. Everyone is now strangely silent about this. And understandably so because it negates the claim that artificial contraception used in voluntary sexual intercourse is invariably wrong. Here, too, he is looking at the value behind the moral principle rather than the “moribund legality”.

We see that much of the law allows for such exceptions. But this has not been so for actions which are judged to be intrinsically evil. It is claimed that they violate structures which have been created directly by God. Homosexual behaviour, telling lies, direct sterilisation are everyday examples. But of course we know now that God’s creation of such structures is indirect since they are the outcome of evolution. While they continue to guide our understanding of natural law because they are imbedded in our natures, they too allow for exceptions. I believe that Pope Francis is indicating to us, as incidents arise, that a law may be firmly maintained while allowing for exceptions when the values for which the law itself was designed are endangered. Gradually, but rather slowly, the centrality of conscience, always present but re-emphasised in Vatican II, is coming to the surface.

There is a price to pay. Recognising exceptions is a messy matter. We lose the on/off switch which conveniently tells us wrong from right. Autonomy is a messy matter too; it is far harder to manage than automatic obedience. Pope Francis is not trying to give us an easy time; he is challenging us to take responsibility through our deeper understanding of the law.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Pope Francis | 24 Comments

Perhaps the saddest post…

My post today is very short. And when you read it I think you will be sad too. It’s at
I am sending it today because it may well appear in the Catholic newspapers, and I think we need time to study a full account.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

The times, they are a-changing

The recent post “Touch my button” (click on Home to review it) brought to the fore how our society is rapidly changing. The subject of artificial intelligence led us to consider how it is likely to change our everyday world as it becomes more sophisticated and more available. Even in the last 10 years the computer, the smart phone and social media have become important to the way we live – sometimes to the detriment of those who have been left behind.

It has not only been a change in facilities; it has led to social change too. The surprising election of President Trump seems in large part to be down to the substantial number of people who felt that the status quo of the establishment ignored their interests. In this country there is a growing number of left wing workers who are getting hot under the collar. It is not quite the French Revolution although it sometimes shares the same language. So I thought it would be interesting to jot down a few concrete and controversial issues which we might consider. You may be able to think of many more. I start with three statements, Take your choice. From time to time there will be more.

Digital faculties will eventually store detailed, perhaps day to day, personal records through which every citizen will be followed, and be obliged to conform to ‘acceptable’ opinion and behaviour.

The term British Values is a list in the imagination of the exhorter. It approves what he approves, it condemns what he condemns. It is an intolerant wolf in a patriotic sheep’s clothing.

The gap between the rich and the poor is likely to increase. Think of the difference between the earnings of large company executives versus their ordinary workers.

Posted in Quentin queries | 13 Comments

Messy marriage

Last week was Marriage Week. This is an international celebration promoted by the Marriage Foundation. They refer to recent studies which give a picture of how we stand in this country. The news is not good. The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family breakdown in the developed world. Nearly two thirds of British children who are born to unmarried parents experience breakdown before the age of 12. Other countries, such as the US and Belgium, have substantially lower rates. Spain’s figure is 6 percent.

Children born to cohabiting parents have a 94 per cent greater likelihood of such breakdown than children born to married parents. But even for children born into marriage our rate of early breakdown is about one in three. Check the figures at the Marriage Foundation.

I do not think that anyone with imagination will deny the multitude of personal tragedies which are the outcome of this. I don’t focus here on the parents, or whether or not they are at fault, but on the children. Consider for a moment what would have happened to your life if your parent’s marriage had broken down while you were a child. I know of cases where the scars have lasted a lifetime. And tragically there is evidence that such children have a higher rate of marital breakdown when it comes to their turn.

I am not optimistic. I am in close touch with a number of people in their twenties. They are all good people (many baptised as Catholics) highly educated and building promising careers. They have long term partners of similar quality. From time to time I raise questions about marriage with them, and I try to explain the difference between the totally committed relationship and the ‘for the time being’ relationships which they have. They listen politely But they think that, although I mean well, I am very old fashioned. They take the view that there is plenty of time to get married – perhaps when they want children. Meanwhile they see intercourse as a value in its own right, and a proper expression of their long term, but uncommitted, relationship.

And perhaps I am old fashioned. We did not quiz our children about their intimate lives, although there was plenty of round table conversation, but we had house rules. They could entertain the opposite sex in their bedrooms but doors had to be left open. Now I see that fewer parents are concerned about this and that couple sleepovers, with parental permission, are common. I assume they use contraception, they’re not idiots. Could we maintain our position nowadays? Fortunately we do not have to try.

Is the Church, via the schools, getting the message across? I recall a conversation with a fifteen year old convent girl. She knew and understood the Church’s teaching but this teaching was kept in a closed compartment. Real life was different. We might think that higher levels of education would relate to more stable marriages. But the Marriage Foundation figures tell us the opposite: it was the married couples with lower education whose children were less likely to experience parental breakdown before they were 12 years old.

Behind all this lies an increasing psychological separation between marriage and reproduction in our culture. We have seen this recently in the formal acceptance of homosexual marriage. It is no coincidence that it has grown alongside the availability of artificial contraception. Some will argue that this forcefully supports the Church’s prohibition; others will argue that the existence of the prohibition has reduced the credibility of the Church’s overall teaching on marriage. But the change in our secular culture would have come about with or without the Church.

Leaving aside our witness through personal example, how can we change attitudes within our society? If we cannot persuade our political masters that the misery caused by broken relationships warrants direct attention, perhaps we need to fight Mammon with Mammon. The cost of the breakdown of long term relationships now approaches £50 billion a year – an increase of 30 percent since 2009. We know that marriage is significantly more stable than cohabitation. Strong governmental support of marriage as an explicit policy might well reduce this considerably.

And we should revisit the tax benefits of marriage so that every potential couple will wish to have the financial advantages of the wedding ring. I have heard it said that the huge cost of a splendid wedding often requires postponement. We were married in a parish church, the reception was in a nearby family house and we could only afford a two day honeymoon. That was 60 years ago. It reminds me that a rich wedding followed by a poor marriage cannot hold a candle to a simple wedding and a rich marriage.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment | Tagged | 23 Comments

Say what you mean

`Words carry their own luggage by way of overtones.’ The English language is remarkable for its richness, and often allows for a choice of word or expression according to the flavour which the speaker intends to convey. The two versions of the same statement which follow are both saying the same thing. Or are they?

The modern advertising executive is full of creative ideas which can turn a rather staid image into something new and exciting. He knows what aspiring consumers want and he makes sure that the product really fits their expectations. He makes the best use of the latest scientific and psychological methods to ensure that a client’s major investment in publicity gets the very best return. After all his fees depend on satisfied clients.

The trendy advertising guy touts the latest gimmick needed to turn a respectable product into a slick package. He’s on to the yuppie wavelength and knows just how to appeal to the punters’ greed. He’ll describe the current, fashionable theory of consumer behaviour, with a good sprinkling of psychological jargon, and suggest that you can safely bet a fortune that it’ll work for you. Win or lose, he still gets his cut.

I’ll leave it to you to decide between those two descriptions. But it’s worth spending a minute or two analysing the methods they use to convey totally different impressions. What is the difference between `creative ideas’ and `latest gimmick’, or between `major investment’ and `betting a fortune’? The contrast is exaggerated in order to make the point; but it reminds us of the importance of the choice of language needed to appeal to the right patterns in the Target’s mind.

The above is am extract from a book on persuasion in business which I wrote in 1990. It had a good, international, run but as, almost invariably happens, it eventually disappeared without trace. I do occasionally get query letters from South American university students, but that’s all. However the idea here is interesting because we are all prone to choosing our language in order to make our point effectively. And certainly religious language makes use of it.

We occasionally hear those in authority telling us that this or that is a ‘mortal sin’. More precision could be achieved by ‘this or that is potential matter for mortal sin’. If we take this further we come across ‘grave disorder’ – and we are really frightened. But it would be more accurate to refer to ‘serious mismatch’. ‘full knowledge’ and ‘full consent’ are conditions for mortal sin. What does this mean? No one has full knowledge about anything, and we have no way of telling whether our consent is full. When the choice is heaven or hell I think we need a little more clarity.

It’s the same at the other end of the scale. We cheerfully use the word ‘grace’. But we can mean it in so many different ways. In fact there are different forms of grace but we might be hard put to produce a short definition of any of them. How about ‘virtue’? Or even ‘love’ itself? That’s a word which has distinct different meanings, but we use it frequently because it helps the emotional force we need to get our ideas across.

I notice this subtle use of language in many contributions to this Blog. And I would be critical if I were not aware that I am given to it as well. You may like to consider some of the ways in which, perhaps unconsciously, we use manipulative language in order to persuade.

It starts young. I recall, from over fifty years ago my small son moving from “Granny I want a Ghostbuster’s gun” to “Granny, I need a Ghostbuster’s gun.” And he got it.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 11 Comments