Is it a boy or a girl?

LBGTQ – it’s hard to remember what each initial stands for but they add up to a cultural change which claims that gender is a matter of choice. The choice is not necessarily permanent: one may simply change it as perceived or required. I read recently of a policewo/man who it was reported could change gender day by day. The Church is unsurprisingly unhappy about all this: “Make and female he created them.” And while it insists that respect should be given in all cases, history tells us that severe persecution was once the condign answer. Other denominations, Christian or otherwise, take even stronger views. In some communities homosexual activity is a capital offence.

It has been going on for a long time. Recently I spent an afternoon with an old friend. I recall him as a cuddly five year old girl who used to leap up and hug me whenever we met, usually outside church after Mass. Now he is large, strong, and be-bristled; if he cuddled me now he might squeeze me to death by mistake – and a charming and kinder man it would be hard to meet.

We instinctively identify gender through the obvious characteristics of biology. Easy-peasy. In more difficult cases a list of comparative characteristics would, in the old days, be used for a final decision. Now it may simply be claiming so. Having said that, we should remember that in some instances the situation can be complicated. Children who have routinely been assigned gender at birth do sometimes develop psychological and physical characteristics consistent with the opposite gender, or somewhere in between. The proper diagnosis and treatment of such children, both parental and professional, is essential to help the child to cope with the situation and to develop into a confident adult according to their choice.

But the apparent ability to choose or change one’s own gender appears to run counter to what we have assumed to be permanent differences between the sexes, which have come about through evolution to ensure that the reproduction of our species can continue. The female would need to seek mating but would have built-in concern that the right mate was accepted. She would be open to sexual approaches but would only respond to males who would apparently make good fathers: capacity to provide, which might well include power, stability and care. Such qualities would maximise the chances of the children. It is significant that women tend to be most open to sexual advances when they are ovulating.

The male would ideally spread his seed as widely as possible. Maximum fertilisations is the goal. “Men only want one thing” say many women. And that’s true, and they should welcome the wide choice they get as a result of men being made that way. But he is especially drawn to the attractive because symmetry tends towards health. The ratio between waist and hips plus good breasts all indicate good physical mothers – although this may not be the man’s immediate consideration.

But the situation is changing. We now know how to separate sexual engagement from conception. Formerly the two were a function of each other but, over a few decades, we have separated sex for the sake of reproduction and sex for the sake of sex. It is a revolution. It is not my purpose here to argue a moral case on either side but just to note that something at the heart of the human race has changed. And all change has consequences. We might in our discussion try to tease out what these consequences, good or bad, may be.

People of my older generation find the new thinking very odd to understand. It is taken for granted that sexual intercourse is an appropriate expression of relationship – whether the relationship is recent or of longstanding. No doubt two people who are not averse to each other use it as a form of recreation just as we might invite someone for a meal. Marriage has by no means disappeared and for many it is seen as the right relationship for reproduction. But although it is much more stable than living together without marriage, it has a high breakdown rate. And of course gender is no longer a factor. If you feel heterosexual today and homosexual tomorrow, take your pick. Follow your feelings for there are no rules.

We have seen great changes in our lifetime – from nuclear weapons to a digital universe. But make no mistake the sexual revolution will prove the greatest of all. Hold on to the roundabout, it’s going to be quite a ride.

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

Terse Verse

Tum-diddyumtum-tumtum. Yes, a simple pattern of taps. But it has a significance. Try it out with your fingers. The neurologists tell us that our brains respond to such rhythms and form corresponding patterns in our neurons. This is why marching and dancing are not only synchronised but the participants become consciously aware of the group who are sharing that rhythm in their brains. Watch a squad drilling on Horse Guards Parade and you see one unit and one purpose. The evolutionists suggest that this is how poetry started. The chants and songs used by primitive societies brought them together, built up their courage and, when necessary, created a collective force to face the enemy. Change ‘pattern’ to ‘metre’ and the connection is obvious.

Early great poetry used metre alone to raise the grandeur of the account and to support memorability. Homer’s works were probably not written down for hundreds of years. Milton provides a more recent example in Paradise Lost. I have marked the five feet (pentameter) in the second line,

“I may assert eternal providence,
And just–ify–the ways–of God–to men “

Sometimes people complain about the lack of rhyme in much modern poetry. Is it really poetry at all? But Milton would have disagreed; he referred to “The troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming” And so did Dryden. Some argue that rhyme can interfere with meaning, others claim that rhyme forces the poet’s mind to explore. Who would be without Chaucer’s 14th century poetry:

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote”

I have remembered much of that for 70 years. It tells me that rhyme plays a big part in memorability.

There are conventional forms for poetry. Perhaps the best known is the Shakespearean sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) with its 14 pentameter lines and rhyming pattern. Another is the villanelle: think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Or the Japanese haiku: three lines of five seven and five syllables. Such characteristics as metre, rhyme and form in effect frame poetry – presenting it to us for deeper response than we would ordinarily give to prose. Length is not relevant: think of Kipling’s World War 1 poem: “If they ask you why they died, tell them because their fathers lied.” Try and improve on that.

Poetry is allowed by convention to use higher flown language than prose. Metaphor is much used. Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” uses metaphor with power, you can read it simply as a prayer. Think of Wilfred Owens’ Anthem for Doomed Youth: “The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells”. That line challenges our imagination to grasp its impact. He also uses onomatopoeia: “the stuttering rifles rapid rattle”. Can you hear them? Alliteration also plays its part: “The weal which warned the way which once we went” That might have looked overdone in prose.

Poetry is open ended in the sense that the poet presents to us his emotions and his insights in a way which invites us to respond in terms of our own emotions and insights. Since the experience is different for every reader, each encounter is a new work of art. But be careful: Macaulay’s remark that “Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” tells us that the sound mind – confined to the literal and rational – will get little from it. This may explain the great tradition of English Catholic poetry. Names such as Chesterton, Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and many others, show us that poetry is a fitting medium for bringing us face to face with mystery.

It is an art which needs only a scrap of paper and a pencil stump. So Audre Lord (described in my source as African-American, lesbian, socialist, feminist) called it the only politically correct art form. It is always satisfying Cicero tells us: “I have never yet known a poet who did not think himself super-excellent.” But not always rewarding according to the writer de Vere Stacpoole: “A publisher of today would as soon see a burglar in his office as a poet.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

British Values

What are ‘British Values’? I read the phrase quite often nowadays; it is used to to win all sorts of arguments. But I have not come across any generally accepted list. Perhaps we could make a shot at constructing such a list – and one on which we all agree.

I suspect that in practice we appeal to the principle which suits us best. So we may strongly object to Muslim women hiding their faces. I am tempted to agree because I am made uneasy by encountering people whose facial expression I cannot see. An element here perhaps is that the woman in question probably comes from a foreign family. Then there is the argument that people must show their face in court or in official circumstances where recognition is required.

But then I wonder whether I am starting down the path which leads to the state defining what we may wear – similar to the uniforms which schools require. I understand the need to avoid immodest or threatening clothing but just how far do we go? Here’s a thought: what would we think of a woman who walked down the high street with bared breasts? That would, or once would, be perfectly acceptable in other countries. Why is the female breast unacceptable and the male breast acceptable?

How about the baker who refused to make a wedding cake because it had a homosexual message on it? Do British Values demand that the baker had no right to pick or choose, or should the customer have been prevented for setting out a view which is unacceptable to at least a large minority? How would you react to a Christian baker refusing to to decorate a cake bearing the message; “Freedom for abortion”?

I conclude that a British Value here is the acceptance that individuals and groups should have the maximum freedom to exercise their free choices. No such choice should be curtailed unless it is established that this choice causes commensurate damage to our society. Normally this will be a question of balance but in cases of uncertainty the choice of the individual should have the benefit.

With regard to those who, through age or mental capacity, are unable to make rational choices, the guiding principle is the best interests of the individual concerned. This of course includes all individual human beings, which by definition includes the child in the womb.

A final thought is that no one is entitled to condemn the choice of another unless they are prepared to accept that their own choices and actions may be similarly outlawed. Sauce for the goose.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 10 Comments

Smart as they come

There have been several key changes in our history. I think first of the arrival of Roman Britain and the Norman conquest. Then came printing, and the part it played in the Reformation and in the intellectual life of the country. Following that was the establishment of the supremacy of parliament over the sovereign in 1688. But just as important was the change in communication: the penny post and the gradual spread of the telephone. But it would seem that we are already immersed in a new and important phase. This is the smartphone.

For various reasons I have recently been in particularly close contact with the younger members of my family – mainly in their fifties and their twenties. It would seem that without such an instrument I cannot really be said to exist. I have a vivid recent memory of a great granddaughter at her first birthday party watching a telephone throughout her specially prepared meal.

We are talking not so much of a gadget as a way of life. The intensity of the efforts to persuade me to buy such a facility, so that I can be said to belong to society again, tells me that I am in some way culpable for declining my proper connection with other people. I am seen as something like a hermit in my decline to join society in its network of digital connections.

Smartphones can be expensive. I see that you can easily spend £600 on one – and very much more if it is kept in a fashionable cover. I assume that they have become a matter of social display – proclaiming the prosperity and the taste of its owner. They appear to have an infinite range of capacities, and the extent of the range is more important than their actual use. (I will confess to owning a mobile phone, that cost me £15 from Tesco’s, and I still have to ask passers by to dial a number for me. It is of course never switched on but I do occasionally remember to charge it.)

I am not a digital antediluvian. I buy on line, I tax my car on line, I use the internet for a wide range of information from obscure philosophical texts to how to cook an omelette. I use emails in preference to letters. Indeed I started using computers before many of the current enthusiasts were born. Remember Alan Sugar’s Amstrad? But all of these are conveniences: facilitating pedestrian jobs in a more convenient way. They do not threaten the social bonds which hold us together. May we expect a very different future? Perhaps all our communication will be through smartphones – even if we are in the same room. If we occasionally need old fashioned communication some descendant of Amazon Echo will provide for us. (Yes I tested Echo long before it was on the market, I have my private connections.) And, if we need a cuddle, we touch the right key and out comes our robot – prepared to meet whatever need we have. We would of course have to decide what gender we chose to be that day, and what gender we wished our robot to be. We are all hermaphrodites now.

What jolly fun!

Posted in Quentin queries | 23 Comments

The future threatens

None of us can foresee the future, yet we have to try to forecast if we need to take action now in order to ward off possible dangers. One issue here is demographics, and luckily the future here can give us a clearer view. For instance in the 1950s it was possible to forecast changes in the Japanese population which would eventually do great damage. And so it happened.

Today there is much concern about the rate of growth in Africa. Fertility rates are dropping globally but remain high in Africa. The world population is expected to grow from around 7.5 billion today to around 10 billion by 2050, and half that growth is likely to occur in Africa.

Of course we can respond to that threat by pointing out that there is plenty of physical room in the world and that our capacity for increasing resources has always flouted the doom mongers of the past. Malthus may have been right in his mathematics but always turned out to be wrong in practice.

However there is another factor. Following World War II, Japan was strongly under the influence of the US. And one important change came about: the spread of contraception to control population growth. It worked very well. But the inevitable problem was that it ensured an imbalance between the proportion of the existing population and the proportion of the younger population. The result was the costs, not only in money, of a huge elderly population which had to be met by a much smaller working population. Much of Japan’s economic problems in recent years have been brought about through this.

The current response to African growth is to provide better family planning. And indeed this summer Priti Patel, the U.K. secretary of state for international development, has undertaken to increase spending on overseas family planning services to a total of $1 billion in the next five years.

I am not concerned here with the morality of family planning, while noting that natural family planning is likely to be a very small part of this. But, if it works, our experience leads us to foresee considerable economic problems, as it did for Japan – and, perhaps at a less critical level, for other countries – including our own. (And, even as I write, I see that it is proposed to raise the age of retirement in the UK. The reason given is the increase in longevity: the real reason is to reduce the bill for the State pension.) I note, with distress, that this programme, to which we are all contributing, includes “safe abortions”. But nowadays all sorts of people of respectable goodwill regard abortion as no more than a health issue — in this case an acceptable method of controlling population. And apparently most of us are happy about this: the proportion of Catholics who agree that abortion should be allowed if a woman does not want the child has increased from 33% in 1985 to 61% in 2016 (National Statistics).

If you want to study the population situation in Africa in more detail, is a useful site.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 14 Comments

How odd of God

In May this year an unrepentant Ian Brady, the ‘moors murderer’, died. Terry Kilbride, the brother of a victim, hoped that Brady would ‘rot in hell’. Perhaps we agree: Brady would appear on many people’s short list of the wicked. We sympathise with Kilbride’s immediate reaction. But then, perhaps, we think about it. If you were charged with deciding Brady’s punishment, how long would you think he should be tortured? Would a week be enough? Or a year? Or would you dismiss torture altogether as a barbaric punishment always to be condemned? But if we look at the descriptions of Hell as they appear in Scripture, we find that a year would scarcely meet the case. Indeed, after 14 billion years (the age of the Universe) the pains of Hell would not really have got started. They go on forever.

So how do we cope with a God whose apparent moral approach is grotesque? The descriptions of Hell in Scripture are explicit, and, in many cases, put into the mouth of Christ. We must deal with it in the same way that we deal with the statement that the world was created in six days. At that time, in the absence of a modern judicial system, criminal punishments were typically brutal. Take your choice between hung, drawn and quartered, broken on a wheel, buried underground, or burnt at the stake. In that culture Hell makes a little more sense. We have to settle for the reality that God is infinitely just and merciful – and leave it in his hands.

Why does this matter? I want to take you back 76 years: imagine that seven year old boy cleaning his teeth in the washroom at boarding school. He is desperately trying to avoid swallowing any water, which would have broken his fast, as he feared he would not have the courage to avoid Communion in front of his friends. Yes, it was me. Some years later a teenage pupil was drowned: we were much relieved to hear that he had been to Communion that morning – and so not bound for Hell, as we probably were.

That is old history. But I wonder how much we have really changed. In 2015 the American bishops produced an excellent paper on pornography. It pointed out that using it was mortally sinful, although they specified the need for full knowledge and deliberate consent. That’s a neat phrase which on examination has no practical meaning: there is no way in which we can we be certain that any decision fulfils either criterion – even though our salvation apparently turns on it. Then we read dear Pope Francis telling us, at Fatima, that the godless life “risks leading to Hell”. I wonder how many godless victims of the three great tragedies this summer were caught in unrepented mortal sin at their sudden death. And how many failed the obligatory requirement of Baptism?

We might start by accepting that the Church ruled its community predominantly by fear for 95 percent of its history. The positive approach through virtue was of course plainly expressed but, in the human psyche, guilt and threat are far more powerful than encouragement. In the 20th century the Jesuit moralist, Henry Davis, could still speak of “indoctrinating” children until resistance to evil becomes a second nature.

It is ironic that secular society has learned that autonomy, responsibility and an understanding of values are the keys to positive performance. Of course there is a need for basic rules but the emphasis has to be on achievement. For us that is to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we do it step by step, even if occasionally we slip. Why waste time looking downwards when our target is above us? I have no doubt that the diminution of devotion within our modern Catholic societies can be largely attributed to the Church’s minatory tradition. Why am I not surprised to be told that nowadays the majority of British Catholics accept abortion at the mother’s choice?

St Paul speaks of God as the father after whom all fatherhood is named. As a father, I was by no means perfect but I did learn that it was not about blame and punishment. Yes, there were necessary rules, but very little was spoken about faults. The emphasis was on what the children could do if they tried, not on what they shouldn’t do. They have all remained close to me throughout a lifetime. Despite the Church’s vocabulary, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine. I suspect he loves sinners more than the goody-goodies – they are opportunities for his favourite activity: forgiveness. Even for Brady I recall the phrase: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground is mercy sought and mercy found.” I pray so.

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Have you ever heard of the Limited Image Performance Syndrome? Probably not, because it was I who invented the phrase many years ago. It boils down to the convenient acronym: LIPS. I have written about it in more than one book, and I have lectured on it at many business conferences.

Put simply, it means that we all have an internal image of the level at which we can perform various enterprises. We have a strong motivation to live up to our standard, and, by the same token, not to exceed it.

I first observed it when I had the responsibility of directing training for one of the largest and most skilled sales forces in the country. It was divided into about 50 local branches, which gave me an opportunity to study how each branch manager set about motivating his team. Rewards of various kinds were important, but they were not the key. The difference in performance was much more directly linked to whether the manager had inculcated a sense of pride and high self-image among his sales people.

Self-image is formed in different ways. A recent study has shown that there is a genetic element, and that this inherited attitude is a good predictor of future performance – at least as good as intelligence scores. A second factor enters in the first few years of a child’s life. At this stage the child is discovering what sort of person he or she is. If the child experiences consistent love and caring over this time of crucial plastic formation, a good self-image is likely to become hard-wired. Recent work suggests that peer group experience at school is also very important.

These factors are innate but we are also aware that the level of our self-image can wax and wane. A good experience gives us confidence, which we then express in confident behaviour; conversely, a failure or a setback can cause our confidence to leak away. If you were watching Wimbledon tennis this year you may have noticed how confidence levels frequently changed, and how these were reflected in dexterity of performance.

But we are equally uncomfortable when we exceed the level of our self-image. A recent study, carried out by Northwestern University, provides evidence that, if we are particularly virtuous in one area of our lives, we may compensate by behaving badly in another, or at least refraining from the good we would otherwise do. Thus, it suggests, we regain the comfort of our own LIPS level.

So a fraudulent investment manager may undertake great and good public works and thereby restore his appropriate moral level. His vice and virtue cancel out. But, more relevantly, it indicates how those of high religious standing, even members of the priesthood, can indulge in evil practices. They do not do so in spite of their high calling but because of it. They are restoring their LIPS level.

There is much to think about here. We immediately face an apparent contradiction. We are taught to be humble, that we are miserable sinners, that any good we may achieve must be attributed to the grace of God. Our LIPS level should be rock-bottom. Then we remember that Christ declared himself to be humble and that he received everything from his Father. Yet he spoke as one with authority and emphasised that no one could approach the Father except through him. The claim: “I and the Father are one” does not suggest a low LIPS level to me.

I would approach this first by remembering that we are called to be perfect. Thus there is no upper limit for, no matter what we do, we will fall short. Next, we have to remember that we are always worthwhile because, however unsatisfactory and sinful we may be, God loves us and continues to search us out. So that is the basis for high self-esteem.

Then I look at the paradox of grace. Every movement we make towards God is wholly achieved through grace, yet our choices are truly ours and we truly become holy people. Grace is not a whitewash; it works not from outside us but from within us. Solve that, if you can, or – like me – just accept it. Thus whatever spiritual progress we make should be a source of self-esteem. In this way we are able to achieve a high self-esteem, while remaining humble in our acknowledgement that it comes from God. And there in no upper limit.

How would such theological reflection express itself in practice? I maintain that the traditional daily examination of conscience (which does not appear to have been updated since the Middle Ages) is fundamentally flawed. Rightly, we search out our faults, are contrite, and resolve to do better. But we can omit reflection on the good things we have done, the small advances in virtue we have made.

This reflection is important because, although we must thank God for the grace we needed, we have actually become holier thereby. Our all important LIPS can rise to a higher level, inspiring us to live up to our higher standards. John Paul II taught that virtuous behaviour leads in turn to greater virtue, but surely this is more difficult if we do not reflect on such progress as we have made.

But care is needed. All examination of conscience must take place under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. Only then can we hope that our insights may be realistic and sincere. In testing them our ultimate criterion must be St Paul’s teaching that even the most extreme of good works are nothing unless they are sourced in love.

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Quentin queries | 7 Comments