Good judgment

One day we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. How would we like him to judge us? Our answer may be personal but I will describe what I hope for. I accept that the picture will be patchy. I have done some good things and some bad things – but mostly things in between. So I hope that God will start by looking on such good things as I may have done. I would rather that he left the bad things for later. I would prefer that he saw me as a good person on the whole; I simply slipped a bit from time to time.

When he comes to my bad things I want him to be understanding. Then he will look for all the pressures and the instincts which have driven me in the wrong direction. He will search for every reason, compatible with the truth, to excuse or at least reduce my fault. I would hope that he was prepared to go to extremes in order to get me into Heaven. He will only refuse me if I maintain my obstinate determination towards evil. Then reluctantly he will accept my free will to depart from him.

If I make the grade I will become very aware that I need a good clean up. I now know how far I fall short of his goodness. So I will go cheerfully to the washing machine called Purgatory because I am now determined to be clean and shining for the Beatific Vision.

Your own wishes for your judgement day will not be identical to mine, but I suspect they will be similar. Perhaps one day, when the angels pause their music, we will all get together and compare notes.

Having thought about that, it comes to my mind that we may spend a good deal of time judging others – from our parents, to our siblings, to our teachers and our school fellows, to our spouses, to our colleagues and to all our friends. I dare even to suggest to our fellow contributors on this Blog. Do we judge them in the same way as we hope God will judge us? Are we mainly focusing on their good qualities, and attempting to understand and forgive their faults? Do we look first at what they do right and secondly, even reluctantly, note their failures? Are we determined to see them as good people, as far as we possibly can?

Why am I asking these questions? In fact it is not me who is asking, it is God who is asking. When God taught us how to pray he was specific: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We cannot expect God to judge us more mercifully than we judge others.

Posted in Moral judgment, Spirituality | Tagged | 80 Comments

Don’t say ‘niggardly’

I was surprised last week to hear the word ‘nigger’ more than once on Radio 4. It was used in an historical context, and so was understandable, but usually people go to some lengths to use substitute terms like ‘n-word’ to avoid criticism.

Of course I accept that to use it as a direct term of contempt is indeed offensive. But are we being hypocritical? After all words like dago, or paddy or, even stretching it, wog do not raise hackles in the same way.

Yet, leaving aside the actual words, I suspect that most of us have little caricatures in our minds when we think of different categories of people. We might think of the French, or the Italians, or the German, or the Chinese and in our minds have a little uncomplimentary picture of a typical member. You may remember the P.G. Wodehouse quote ‘’It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’ Very witty – but not very kind. Add to that Gypsy or Jew – and we are in difficult territory.

In fact I suspect that all of us have a racialist element somewhere hiding inside us. Perhaps it comes through evolution: homo sapiens learnt early that strangers (that is, not people like us) are dangerous. But we may not be aware of it. A study was carried out sending in applications for advertised medical posts. The CVs were identical but in half the cases the name of the applicant was foreign; the other half were given English-sounding names. Surprise, surprise – it was those with English names who for the most part were invited to an interview. I don’t suppose those who selected the interviewees would have been aware of their racialist choices – or, if pointed out, would have produced rationalisations to excuse themselves.

If we add to our innate distrust of strangers our evolved capacity to make lightning decisions in the face of danger (those who delayed got eaten) and we have to acknowledge that racialism is hardwired into our systems.

We may not like to think of ourselves as racialist. Heavens, we are Christians aren’t we – everyone is equal in God’s eyes. Yes, but we are better off recognising our bad tendencies so that we can work at reducing them, than to remain blind to our faults.

So let’s cheer ourselves up with the story of the public official in Washington – who used the word ‘niggardly’ in a speech. What an upset! No explanation would suffice, and the official found himself obliged to resign.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 56 Comments

Authority in action

Subsidiarity is a very dull word. Which is a pity, because it describes a very important idea. It is in fact the approach of authority or leadership most like the one which Christ taught us. In simple terms it means that a higher authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at lower or more local levels. We have all experienced subsidiarity as parents or children.

Parenthood is an exercise in managed separation. At the beginning the parent has to make all the decisions but, gradually over time, the parent must stand back and allow the child to take more and more responsibility. The apogee is when the child, now well versed in personal responsibility, is able to enter the independent adult world. It is a parental task which requires endless courage and good judgment. Our immediate instinct is to keep our children safe, and it is easy to find reasons why our authority should prevail. But unless we take the risk of progressively passing on responsibility we will ensure that we send inadequate adults out into the world.

The same principle of subsidiarity applies to organisations. And the need has become greater as these become more and more complex. Increasing technology has pushed decisions further down the line. I have written before about how the efficiency of hospitals can be gauged by the degree and quality of communication between different levels, including the patients, and different departments – from the administrative to the medical. We communicate because we wish to share actively in our common objectives. And I would distinguish sharply between the organisation which only communicate what it is obliged to, and the organisation which only holds back communication when it has to.

But, as parenthood shows, it is not black and white. There may be restrictions. For some years I had the experience of directing a large investment company. Since we were in effect the trustees of public money we were bound by a number of rules emanating from statute. And rightly so. It made it all the more important that everyone, down to the most junior understood the position and took responsibility for their own accuracy.

Yet there is an inherent difficulty. It can be a matter of temperament. A number of people in management positions find it very hard to stand back and allow their juniors to take decisions. They feel secure when they are in charge, and nervous when they are not. They know that their juniors are likely to make mistakes, and that they may be held responsible. Most of us will have had the experience of being delegated to do a job, only to find the delegator standing behind our back at every point. It is not only temperament: many people in senior positions have succeeded to their posts in a culture where rules were rules. We should not be surprised at their discomfort when this no longer obtains to the same degree.

Since subsidiarity is emphasised by the Church we would expect it to operate in an exemplar way within the Church itself. As Pius XII said, it applies “to all levels of life in society as well as to the life of the Church, without prejudice to her hierarchical structure.” I wonder if, over the centuries, the Church would be easily recognised as a good example of subsidiarity.

There is no doubt that Vatican II was a potential turning point. We might think of the dramatic repudiation of the past in recognising the qualities and values of other denominations. The autonomic powers of the diocesan bishops were clarified. High level synods enabling the pope to consult with senior hierarchy were established. A reform of the Curia was proposed. A liturgy in the language of the congregation was introduced. The traditional sovereignty of conscience was reinforced. The watchword was collegiality.

Progress some 50 years later has not been encouraging. The recognition of other denominations led to schism. The selection of bishops remains under Vatican, rather than local, control. Until recently the papal consultation synods have been neutralised by oppressive management. The Curia remains a kitchen cabinet. The translation of the liturgy was removed at a late stage from the English-speaking bishops and replaced by the headquarters’ version. The disciplinary procedures of the Holy Office remain medieval. How many marks out of ten?

Christ taught us, as he washed the feet of his disciples, that authority is not a power of domination but a service which we hold as delegates from God. Subsidiarity exists not to control freedom but to increase it. He chose a risky path in giving us free will: the ultimate gift of subsidiarity. But like all good rulers he also gave us, through grace, the wherewithal to make the right, free, choices.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Spirituality | Tagged , | 50 Comments

On the contrary

Today I am going to cheat. Regular bloggers will have realised that I believe our best way to truth is through debate – and sometimes through argument. And in the last few days I have been reading two strongly opposed views on the sad old issue of contraception. One of them is a report by 22 Catholic scholars, the other is a rebuttal by another group of Catholic scholars.

We all know the importance of the conflict of views on this subject – and the damage that conflict does to the Church. Yet we have heard so much about it that we may be tempted to pass it over.

But it is rare to get authoritative but brief summaries of the two positions. So I am suggesting that we read these and exchange our views on Secondsight Blog.

The first report (now altered from original posting) is at:

Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives

The second (the rebuttal) is at

Feel free to respond to the overall views or to particular issues you want to confirm or deny. Remember that it is more effective to post a number of brief points rather than one long screed. We assume as always that on the Blog contributors are in good faith, just as the authors of the reports are also in good faith.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 44 Comments

The First Judgement

“Who am I to judge?” I see that Pope Francis’s remark in the matter of a homosexual person has entered into our discussions. It is interesting to think about the deeper background which could throw light on some of the issues. Over the lifetime of most us there has been a gradual development within the Church’s pastoral approach. It has by no means been acceptable to all,

A current example has been the judgments which are made about people who, following a failed sacramental marriage, have entered a new, non-sacramental marriage. The traditional view claims that such a person has adopted a life of mortally sinful adultery. And so it follows that they cannot be full members of the Church and therefore cannot receive Communion because they have spurned ‘communion’ by their continued choice. The newer view would say that we cannot make such a simplistic judgment. Objectively the situation has involved something seriously wrong, but we do not know the circumstances. It may well be that the potential sinner has made the best decisions he can, and now lives in a situation where he or she sees that the successful continuance of the second marriage is necessary for all the people involved. Are we to cut off the grace which is needed to carry that through?

Similarly, thinking of our recent discussion on abortion, we cannot say that any particular individual choosing abortion is on the high road to Hell. They may genuinely believe that it is the right thing to do, or they might be so frightened by the situation that they cannot make a free choice. We are talking about a decision serious enough to be grounds for mortal sin, but not about the actual guilt of the chooser.

Homosexuality may give rise to a similar parting of the ways. We have no difficulty is recognising the mismatch between gender and sexual expression, but does it follow that every particular case is sinful? What does the moral choice look like to the person who has a strong homosexual temperament and could not emotionally sustain heterosexual coition? He or she might, for all we know, find goodness and love in a homosexual relationship. Are we, who may not have such tendencies, entitled to make a moral judgment for that person?

In my time as a marriage counsellor I met several clients who were intent on choices with which I disagreed. But my job was not to tell them their fortunes, it was to help them to think through the issues involved. I was in fact leading them through their examination of conscience. If, however, they ended up with the ‘wrong’ decision I had to respect that. To attempt to push them into a different decision (perhaps by my authority or my greater skills in argument) would have been an attempt to violate their consciences.

The tension in such and similar cases, appears to be between the moral law as taught by the Church and the conscience of the individual. Perhaps we feel that either of these can be taken too far. In one direction we could end up in a merciless clamp of legalism: the other could lead to a moral slackness born from our inherent tendency to find excuses for anything we really want to do.

And where does love come in?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment | 40 Comments

Abortion 2016

The Abortion Act 1967 was frankly a disaster. The most emotionally effective argument in its favour was the prevention of illegal abortions (the number of which was grossly overstated at the time). The exceptions allowed by the Act – the physical or mental health of the mother or the severe disability of the child — turned out to be conditions of straw, as was well known to the lobbyists and indeed to anyone of common sense. So nowadays abortion is effectively a matter of choice, and we have approaching 200,000 legal abortions a year. What is more, our culture has moved on from regarding abortion as a sad necessity; it has become a virtue. It is now politically incorrect to object to it. Various estimates have been made about the attitudes of Catholics, but it is safe to say that a substantial number walk by on the other side, and include many who effectively approve.

In following discussions on the internet I find that three arguments predominate. The first is the ‘hard cases’ approach. How could we deny abortion to the mother of a baby who is severely handicapped or a baby who is the result of rape? We are of course instinctively sympathetic. But it is useful here to establish whether the arguer has only such extreme situations in mind or whether he or she would also support abortion in normal circumstances. If so, we can leave aside the hard cases and focus on the principles.

This may lead quickly to considering the status of the entity in the womb. I use a neutral term here because our instinctive use of the word ‘baby’ is likely to be attacked. So I settle for ‘individual human life’ and then ask what part of this description does not apply.

The question of exactly when a human conceptus becomes an individual is tricky. The encyclical Evangelium Vitae does not settle this but teaches that the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception. Others, including respectable theologians, have argued that individuality is only achieved at the stage when the embryo can no longer split into identical twins. Since splitting may occur during the ten days or so following conception this has a bearing on the morality of very early abortion. This issue, and indeed many others, is argued at length in Norman M Ford’s When did I begin? Cambridge University Press).

The claim that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to be pregnant is made by Amnesty International. The Royal College of Midwives has formally recommended that there should be no legal constraint on abortions, including those at late term. Any male who criticises abortion in the public sphere is likely to be hounded for his anti-feminine obduracy. It seems odd to me that one can only defend a woman’s right to control her own body at the expense of another human being‘s right to life. It is accepted that, when a decision is made on behalf of another because of age or mental capacity, we act in the best interests of the subject. Apparently the best interest for the individual in the womb is death. Does not history warn us that making exceptions to those who have the right to life is the beginning of a sorry road?

In fact abortion is not a human right, although the UN Human Rights Committee, may appear to claim so. No UN committee can define a human right. Nor is it a requirement of international law. The UN Declaration of Human Rights declares that every human being has the right to life, liberty and security of person, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, claimed to be the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history, states in its preamble “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” So the boot would appear to be on the other foot.

We may wonder how so many of our decent citizens claim the right to exterminate a whole class of human beings because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But ignored evil is not a novelty. As I have mentioned before, the execrable slave trade was accepted by our society and even found a champion in a pope. (Nicholas V) The respectable bourgeoisie, no doubt regular churchgoers, accepted and often directly benefited from slavery. For them it was not a moral issue.

Finally, here is my bête noire. Let us please avoid putting contraception and abortion into the same sentence. Whatever our view on contraception may be, it is minor league compared to abortion. Linking them merely invites the world to dismiss both as Catholics’ eccentricity.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , | 131 Comments

Are you too humble?

Thinking of the many contributions, made to this Blog I have come to the conclusion that we are a very humble group. We are quite careful, when expressing an opinion not to be too self congratulating. We all admit, directly or indirectly, that we may lack aspects of Christian quality, that we are prone to sinfulness, and that we fall short in many ways. It is almost as if we need to assert our humility before we are able to point out the failure of others.

Now, is this a good thing?

I ask the question because of the psychology of self image. Quite simply human beings live up to, or down to, the image they have of themselves. Let’s suppose I have an image of myself as a generous person. In accepting such an image I find myself living it out. Faced by a practical decision I am inclined to say, at least instinctively: because I am a generous person I will do the generous thing in this decision. That is ‘living up’ to my image. By contrast, supposing I see myself as shy and tongue-tied in company. Then my picture of myself makes me anxious, and I very quickly confirm my image by hesitations and the occasional idiotic remark which others charitably ignore. That’s ‘living down’.

When I was in the commercial world I had much to do with salespeople. Their measurement, and indeed their income, were directly related to concrete success. But the difference in performance did not appear to be the outcome of good education or the gift of the gab; but it was related to their self image. Thus a person who saw himself as someone who would make ten sales a month would organise their activities on that basis, with a confidence that they would succeed. The ‘two sales a month’ salesperson would settle for that since it was their expectation. And, as the months went by, their respective self images would be regularly confirmed, and harder to change.

But does this apply to the Christian virtues? If I see myself as a sinful person does that enable me to repent and improve? Or do I just have a low expectation of myself and remain content with that? Would all our examinations of conscience be better for thinking about what we get right and building on that – rather than focussing remorselessly on our faults and seeing ourselves as unsatisfactory people?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 38 Comments