Brothers and Sisters

The recent Papal Encyclical caused a fuss even before its publication. It was addressed to Fratelli Tutti. As you may imagine, there were complaints that it appeared to apply primarily to men (‘Brothers All’).

Some of the argument related to usage. Would Italians immediately assume that ‘Brothers All’ applied equally to both sexes? Perhaps the issue is too minor for general consideration, but the pressure from some groups for women to be ordained turned it into a more dramatic question. It is one which we have considered in the past on this Blog.

The Church’s strong teaching condemning female ordination is clearly and briefly set out in .

The arguments are well worth reading But I have to say that my own view is that I can see no reasons why women should not be ordained. I cannot see why a woman is less able than a man to take on the role of Christ as a priest. One commentator took the view that we should stop our prayers for increased ordinations given that we have perhaps thousands of women only too ready to apply.

So I would find it helpful if readers consider the issue themselves, and tell us how they would argue their case.

Link to the Encyclical:

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“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.”

Hamlet’s concern is about the future rewards or punishments for our decisions of conscience – and rightly so. But how do we use our consciences rightly? In Catholic terms, it would be fairly straightforward: the laws of right and wrong, mortal or venial, are clear. Tick the box. Or, nowadays we could in practice have a computer guide. Type in the information, and out comes the answer – followed by the necessary penance. Possibly, as we are getting used to long distance electronic communication, absolution would come through our computer. I do not have a ‘smart’ telephone but I daresay that a ‘confessional’ program could be set up.

But Scripture, and particularly the New Testament, will not help us here. We are clearly taught that conscience is founded in love. The fundamental basis is love of neighbour and love of ourselves. I take ‘love of ourselves’ to mean our continuous attempts to climb the ladder another step to reach our own perfection of love.

But people like me, of an older generation, were taught that practical emphasis was always on law – in some description. The spirit is left in the background, obedience is the practical expression. I have found very little to read on the formation of conscience, notwithstanding its importance. I have to go back to my own Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (Gower 2002). There isn’t much in that which I would alter some twenty years later. Out of print, of course.

We have looked at Natural Law on occasion in the past. We need to remember that we know a great deal more about human nature than we did a millennium ago. Take, for example, the homosexual. Once upon a time it was assumed that this was a corruption of nature and would always be fundamentally wicked. But now we know that that the causes of homosexuality are broad and are by no means always the outcome of wickedness.  And I wonder how many of us share Augustine’s view that, although in principle, sexual intercourse in marriage could be sinless, in practice sinfulness of some kind will inevitably be present.

Some readers will know that I spent several years as a marriage counsellor. I learnt there a wide range of motivations behind behaviour. These were likely to be at least related to the upbringing and the experience of each individual – to say nothing of their genes. The solution was likely to be learning how to live with one’s own and each other’s internal tendencies, rather than to change them.

So I think that readers of this Blog could learn a great deal about the formation of conscience by listening to other contributors’ habits. Do you, for instance, examine your conscience each day – perhaps before turning to sleep. And how do you do it?

Do you consider your conscience in some detail before you go to Confession? (Do you, nowadays, regularly go to Confession? – how often?) This is not a trivial exercise: it is through our use of conscience that we can develop our love for God, our love for our neighbours, our love for ourselves.

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What was I saying just now?

Aha! I have remembered to start drafting the next item on this site. That’s important because I find, at a late age, my memory getting more and more unreliable – a condition which I am told is rather common. There are, of course, potential outcomes. Does that bill get paid? Did I realise that my cousin was visiting me for lunch? Did I renew that subscription? Fortunately, my children are aware of this, and don’t hold back on reminders. (Although I am quite open to forget the reminders). But the outside world is not so clement – and I may find myself apologising for what is seen as deliberate delays.

And it hits me in other ways. From time to time I am visited by younger members of the family. Some of these are people of consequence: the distinguished historian, the civil servant who is rattling up the promotional ladder, the top executive who tries to retire but is too valuable to do so – and so on. But, ask for their names – and I am reduced to calling them all ‘darling’. And that’s a problem, too. I started adult life at drama school – and that is (was?) a community in which all females were addressed as darling. I have never lost the habit. However, I married one of them – and I have never regretted that.

Probably most writers have had the nuisance of knowing exactly the right word to use in the next sentence. And we learn that thinking hard is not the solution. Just put in xxx and carry on. And a few seconds later it flashes back into the mind. Grab it while it’s there. So I, and perhaps others, will have had to cope with a poor memory – perhaps poorer than it used to be. So let’s exchange how we have learnt to cope. Or not.

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My marriage was a mistake

A quick glance at the website reminds us that it has been going for a long time – right back to 2008. So occasionally I look back to the old days. I have no way of knowing who actually reads an item, but we do have a large number of commentators ready to correct me, and to correct each other. This is excellent This week I am reproducing an item back from 2015. I like to think that it is still relevant. If not, no doubt you’ll tell me so.
o o o
There I was, repairing this fiddly little gadget when I lost my screwdriver. I knew that I had used it not a minute before, but it had disappeared. Frustrated, I asked my wife if she had seen it. Within a second she picked it up from the very spot where I had put it down. How annoying! Her eyesight is no better than mine so something in my brain must have rendered it invisible. If there is a neurological explanation for this I have yet to track it down. But some of our more common errors are easier to explain. Ironically, they often lie in faculties which are normally useful to us.

In order to understand the world we need to make assumptions based on our experience. If we had to start all our judgments from scratch we would never reach a conclusion. And that requires us to use stereotypes. Take hairy students, the Irish, tall people, or the bespectacled as examples. Each one of those may trigger assumptions in our mind which affect our judgment. Why, for example, are tall men over represented among senior executives, or those who wear glasses seen as intelligent? Our society is rightly sensitive about racial stereotyping, but we forget that everyday stereotyping can be equally undesirable. And this, in turn, reminds us of the potential errors when we allow our moral views to be formed by the company we keep.

I recall the “Windrush” influx of West Indians after World War II; at that time gross racial judgments were approved by the most respectable people. Early in the 20th century the desirability of eugenics was taken for granted. In more recent history attitudes towards homosexuality have altered the boundaries of acceptable comment. But, if we stop for a moment, we may remember that our immediate culture is a dangerous source for our own views and behaviour. Next year, we may all be thinking something else. Yet our instinct for conformity is born of evolution. It promotes the unity, and therefore the success, of a society. Today we don’t have to look far for examples of societies courting self-destruction through lack of unity.

Sometimes our judgments are based on single incidents. We may for example have been involved in an accident with a reckless BMW driver and forever afterwards hold on to a prejudice against such owners. I once knew an Evangelical pastor who borrowed a book from me and never returned it. My wariness of evangelicals, however unjustified, remains. Our judgments can even be inherited. When it came to light that the woman I was planning to marry was actually an actress, eyebrows were raised. An 18th century forebear had married an Italian actress, and was cut off without a franc. That awful warning is in our family genes.

The dangers of inherited judgments can apply to tradition. At a time of development in the Church it is essential, but often difficult, to distinguish core values and principles from those whose form or essence are merely the outcome of habit. And the considerations of natural law must remain open to our developing understanding of human nature itself.

It is often the most routine activities which lead to mistakes. This happens because our familiar procedures are programmed into our brains. We switch them on and leave them to their own devices. Watch me making breakfast: my eyes are glazed. Don’t try to help me – break the sequence and I am lost. The danger here is that our lack of conscious control prevents us from recognising changes in circumstances. We have many unconscious sequences through which we carry out quite complex procedures. Driving a car, for instance, provides several examples. While these little programs may be necessary, we may not notice a change in conditions which requires a change in our action.

How hot is a bowl of water? Take three bowls: one of cold water, one of hot water, one of lukewarm water. Soak your left and right hands in the hot and cold water respectively, then plunge them both into the lukewarm. To the left hand it feels cold; to the right hand it feels hot. This experience reminds us that, typically, our judgments involve comparisons. And that means that we can only validate our conclusions when we have validated our starting point. Until we have some degree of knowledge about our assumptions, our experiences and our prejudices, we can hardly hope to make good decisions. We may not eradicate the influences which can skew our judgment, but we can at least take them into account.

Accepting the vulnerability of our own judgments is not a comfortable experience. We may find ourselves obliged to change our minds. And, since we live in a world where error abounds, going against the grain will not make us popular. The thinking person walks alone.

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The biobag

We have all been reminded about the terrible things our ancestors – essentially like us – have done in history. The obvious example is the economic benefit we earned through the slave trade. We can immediately recognise its wickedness today. And we have to realise that many of us would have at least accepted it had we lived at that time. But before we rush out to destroy the statues of public figures who took part, we need to ask ourselves whether there are any accepted public activities today which, on examination, are clearly evil.

I hardly dare to mention the question of abortion. It seems extraordinary to me that our society accepts that children in the womb can be destroyed at the wish of the mother. Don’t bother to rush to your computer with your arguments — I have read them all. A case might be made for a situation where the mother is in danger of death and that that would necessarily also lead to the death of the unborn child. Otherwise, we are simply talking about murder. You can pass any law you like — it remains murder.

But another issue has come into the question. That is the possibility of removing the baby from the womb at an early stage and to put him or her into an artificial womb (called a biobag) in which it can receive all that it needs until it is ready to be ‘born’.

If I were a baby, I would certainly prefer to be put into a biobag rather than to be left to expire. But the whole concept might well lead to major changes in society. Without doubt, women’s careers are disadvantaged by the process of pregnancy: the biobag leads to real equality between men and women. Perhaps twenty years from now the requirement of pregnancy as a nine month’s condition will effectively have disappeared.

What will be the effects of that? I assume that maternal instincts will not develop in the same way. Maternal milk, and the psychological element of breastfeeding, will no longer occur. A mother wishing to have more children could arrange to have them all over a shorter period of time – perhaps in the same year. The shared duties of husband and wife will affect their relationship in a fundamental way – will this be good or bad?

A somewhat different effect may occur in the freedom of abortion as it occurs nowadays. The current claim that a woman may choose abortion because she is entitled to decide what happens to her own body looks even thinner when the baby can continue to grow outside her body. We may assume that the NHS will pick up the costs since it is a human being in need of medical care. But, following Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1930s), the State will take over these new citizens, bringing them up in its own standards for ideal citizens.

What do you think?

See Sex Robots & Vegan Meat by Jenny Kleeman. Picador. Listen to Woman’s Hour 1st August 2020

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The Marriage Act

I received a note this morning from a young friend of mine. He told me, rather sadly, that his lady friend – with whom he had lived for the last three years – had left him for another man. In a way I wasn’t surprised: the young today appear routinely to enter relationships (often starting at university) which lead next to living together, and eventually to marry. Our reaction may be positive – after all, they have had a real life experience before they committed themselves permanently. We shall see.

Since most of the couples I know come from a Catholic background, it is important to look at the issues which arise. I start with the concept of sexual intercourse having two purposes: the expression of marital love and the conception of children.

The Christian moral approach to this over the last thousand years may usefully start with St Augustine. Yes, he teaches that sexual intercourse in marriage can only be excused from sinfulness by intending to conceive on each occasion. It would be, for instance, sinful if the wife was past her menopause.

Over the centuries, Catholic teaching has developed. The sexual side of marriage is emphasised as contributing to the formal sacramental relationship. The couple may well use the “safe period” if they have good reason for avoiding conception. But they are not permitted to prevent conception artificially – whether through barriers or chemical control of ovulation.

The Church has confirmed its condemnation of artificial contraception, but in practice she accepts that it is a matter conscience. This an uneasy balance.

In the outside world, a big change has taken place. Since the 1960’s it has been possible to control ovulation through the “pill”. Suddenly – not only is contraception convenient but, more importantly, it is a method primarily managed by the woman.

The social outcome has been a much greater separation between marriage and sexual intercourse. While it still has its role as the “marriage act”, it would appear that it is nowadays a normal way of exercising and enjoying any close sexual relationship. The effects of this are broad.

We might assume that this would lead to better marriage choices since the couple have had a longer time to know each other, and to test their commitment. But it would appear that this is not so.

“The longer a couple cohabits, the less likely they are to get married. Living together for a long period of time makes little difference to the likelihood of a couple staying together – but increasingly diminishes the chances of them getting married. Couples are most likely to get married or split up in the 2nd or 3rd year of living together. Couples who have lived together for 7 years or more are more likely to split up than marry.”

Yes, I have pinched that paragraph from the Marriage Foundation. This is a splendid organisation (see below) which studies a wide range of matters related to marriage. Its main approach is to use relevant studies of the important issues. It enables us to move from our general opinions about sex and marriage to a degree of authority which enables us to get closer to actual reality.


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Yes, it’s abortion

Yes, I think I must come to this subject. It is a touchy one but I think we must be ready to discuss our views

We are very aware today, because of current incidents, of our former attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade. It seems incredible that our ancestors, who, presumably, were fundamentally no more or less moral than we are, should have supported this trade over many decades. And, across the Atlantic, the financial benefits of slavery led towards the development of the US as a successful, indeed rich, economy. Even the Church, certainly at local levels, was far from eager to condemn the industry.

What commonly accepted principle today may lead our descendants to ask how our society could have been so evil?

It’s quite simple: there is a huge number of human beings who may be killed at the say so. I am, of course, talking about abortion. Even as I write, regulations are still developing to make this process wider and more easily chosen. Over 200,000 human beings were killed in England and Wales over the last ten years.

Of course, the proponents of this massacre put forward their reasons. Fundamental to these is the argument that the mother has a moral right to decide what happens with her body. If she chooses to eviscerate her baby she may do so. Of course, some would distinguish between a conception chosen, or allowed by the mother, and a conception caused, say, by rape.

Another approach is to argue that the entity in the womb cannot be regarded as a full human being, and thus has no rights.
I look at this second point in this way. The ‘entity’ comes into being when the sperm and the egg join in the female body. The hormone mixture from the parents is unique, except in the case of identical twins. The entity then develops and continues to develop until death. I, at the age of 85, am still the outcome of this parental mixture. And, when I see my great grandchildren, I immediately note their descent from their appearance – even in photos taken in the womb. Of course, there will be stages of development: foetal, babyhood, childhood, teenage etcetera. Why should we claim that human beings at the foetal stage may be destroyed at will?

The argument that the mother has rights over her own body is simply confused. The foetus of course has a similar right to its own body. It is not part of the mother. One could imagine a circumstance where the presence of the foetus is mortally damaging the mother and would thus lead to the death of both. Since both would die, would that excuse the removal of the foetus? I leave that open.

We have recently discussed the issue of our readiness to judge other groups of people — whether this is social class, nationality, colour, religion and so on. We wonder how it was that the Nazis persuaded their population that Jews should be expelled or destroyed. Similarly, it would appear that our society has decided that the human being who happens to be in the womb is expendable. And they call it virtue.

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Poetry Today

(I make no apology for repeating a blog from some years ago. It led to a fascinating discussion and exchange of our reactions to poetry. With one or two exceptions (important ones) current commentators were not then active. So we should get some new important views. The strange world in which we live at the moment invites us to think about our more fundamental truths.)

“Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” said Lord Macaulay. He was right. The sound mind is concerned with common-sense, logic, empirical facts and calculated probabilities. It has no truck with wandering imagination, insights, feelings and the perception of truths which are glimpsed but not captured. The essential quality of poetry is to take us through the physical into the metaphysical by the use of the word.

We might make the same claim mutatis mutandis of all the arts – which are often the only contact with the spiritual that the modern man can bear. But poetry is the most immediate and the most accessible; it does not need an orchestra or an easel – a scrap of paper and a pencil stub will do.

Ultimately poetry has no rules. It stretches the use of language to its limits. Rhyme, half rhyme, rhythm and metre, neologism; alliteration, onomatopoeia, and line shape can all play their part. Of course there are fads. Some will claim that blank verse, often seen today, is not poetry, but both Milton and Dryden cursed the “modern bondage of rhyming” which interfered with purity of expression. In the end the test lies in the effect. Arguably, only the poet can judge how perfectly his poem expresses his meaning.

We do indeed look for patterns in a poem if only because our poor brains need pattern for understanding, completeness and memorability. But the forms of pattern can be achieved in manifold ways. And there are conventional verse forms, such as sonnet, haiku or villanelle (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dylan Thomas) which a poet may choose as a framework for his expression, finding that this discipline forces him to explore his thoughts more widely and deeply.

Three powerful characteristics stand out: metre, simile and metaphor. Metre reminds us that poetry and song are cousins. It can establish the whole thrust of the poem. Compare “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” (Swinburne) with “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” (Tennyson), and with “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?/Do you remember an inn? (Belloc). And if some contemporary poetry eschews obvious metre, it can often be found in another balance, like this little poem about the Bible:

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute, words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

The Highwayman (Noyes) presents us with metaphor and simile within a line: “His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay “. The simile is vivid, but it is the metaphor which carries the power. No eye is actually a hollow of madness, but the phrase leads beyond itself. And we must travel alone to find our understanding. We should be accustomed to metaphor because much of Scripture is extended metaphor, and so is theology – though often stifled by the cold hand of use. What does time in Purgatory mean where time does not exist and the conditions in Purgatory mere speculation?

Shakespeare gives us a powerful example: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.” Two strong metaphors there – and the whole is wrapped in metaphor for the speaker himself is a “poor player” and a metaphor for Macbeth. Most of us know those lines by heart, and have thought upon them.

Which brings me to the memorable line. Poetry can get away with words which would be pretentious in prose. We each have our favourites, but surely all lists must include “A rose red city half as old as time”. John Burgon’s poem about Petra is indifferent, but that line won him the Newdigate Prize and put him among the immortals. I shall resist the temptation to give a longer list – you will know them all.

I say that confidently because a philosophy group I attend on a fortnightly basis finishes the term with a meeting in which each member reads a piece of poetry, and then tells us why. It is a great treat, and it often leads to the best discussions of the term. We are very ordinary people from different backgrounds, and yet all have poetry which has accompanied us through life. And important enough that, for some, reading their choice can move them too deeply to continue.

All of us who have poetry threaded into our lives share Macaulay’s unsound mind. And why not? We believe in a God whose name is a metaphor for his nature and a son who offers himself as a metaphor for his father. Before the altar we are all poets.

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The Accent

We have had considerable discussion on the issue of racial prejudice. And quite right, too. But today I want to think about another prejudice. It rarely gets considered, it can have important advantages and disadvantages, and it appears to be near universal, at least in the UK. And I have to say that because I must accept that I certainly have it. Do you? If so, you may recognise my confession.

The issue is accent. It would seem that we make instinctive judgments about the people we meet. Some accents depend on origin – say Scottish or West Country. Immediately they indicate to me the nature of the speaker. For instance, I assume a Scotsman to be careful about money. The West Country accent suggests rural, and all that goes with that. But the ordinary English accent is what I have in mind.

Quite simply an English accent immediately suggests class – and with the right class — comes intelligence and reliability. It can sometimes be taken too far. Rees Mogg is an example — rightly or wrongly, I assume that his accent was constructed by him or his forebears. Nor, my mother assumed, is the accent of the Royal Family. When I went out into the world my mother said, “Don’t marry into the Royal Family – they are upstart Germans.” However, that issue, unsurprisingly, never occurred. But my mother was a Thorold, and the Thorolds are a pre-Conquest family. My mother was not in any way a snob – she always had excellent relationships with the servants: some of whom, after 60 years, still send me Christmas cards.

I have a vivid memory of Wilfred Pickles reading the BBC News in the late 40’s. I found that I could not rely on his rustic Yorkshire accent, and had to check it with a BBC News read in a public school accent. I have a theory that the criterion to be accepted by a leading university is related to accent. It may be changing nowadays.

The word ‘girl’ interests me. The common pronunciation is ‘gurl’. But, until I started school, I used ‘gal’. And I fear that I still do. No one takes any notice nowadays so another measure of background has sunk into the background.

The subject is an important one. Racial prejudice is rightly condemned because it leads to unfair assumptions. So we may have a picture in our minds of the characteristics of Jewish people, or Irish people, or working class people – and so on. And perhaps we are not aware that all such groups affect our judgments of the people we meet – whether positively or negatively. But although our day to day judgments are not seen as racialism, the vices of racialism may abound without the knowledge of the individual who is unconsciously making the judgment. Me, certainly – and you perhaps?

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Have you got a conscience?

{Forgive me for my information mail carrying emails which should have been encrypted. This is a computer fault which I am investigating.}

While we have looked at this subject before, it is so important that I think it worthwhile to look at it again.

Back in the Thirties, Harold Larwood was well known in the cricket world for his bodyline bowling. He pitched the ball so that it would shoot up directly at the batsman’s head. And he did so at about 100 mph. You can imagine the controversy – particularly from the Australians who were the usual enemy.

One might expect that the batsman would see the ball coming and to take defensive action but unfortunately the speed of conscious thought is slower than the speed of the ball. He has to rely on the existing pattern which is already hidden in his brain. This spots the direction and the speed of the ball, and the effect of its bounce, and puts into action the best defensive movement.

Most of us are unaware of the degree that our brains affect our decisions. Much of this is built in by evolution – were it not so we wouldn’t have evolved as human beings. And much of it comes from our experiences from early childhood. The brain ranges from the recognition of colour to our fundamental attitudes. A lady I know had a very unhappy early childhood. Now, at 60, she still carries a concern that she is really not a worthwhile person. Rationally, she knows that this is nonsense, but her brain, and so her emotions, still retain it
Society, in these days, regards racial prejudice as a regrettable and dangerous vice. Unfortunately, no one told our brains. The brain sees that strangers are dangerous – and should be avoided. We are much safer in our own group – who are naturally our defenders. At our rational level we accept that this is unjust, but our brains may still leave us with suspicions. I go into Town – sometimes in a three-piece suit and sometimes in casual clothes. I am treated quite differently by my fellow passengers. In the first case I am treated as a gent – and often given a seat, in the second I am a nothing. The tendency to act like this entered our ancestors long before homo sapiens existed. We will not lose it for a little while yet.

We walk into a room for the first time. We notice features and their colours immediately. But if our brains lacked their program for colour we would see only light and dark. The colours are not on the walls, they are in our brains. When we walk into a shop or see an advertisement on the computer a quick inspection tells us how well the merchant understood the human brain. Funnily enough, the item is always on a special reduction, provided the purchase is made quickly. Our brains are afraid of missing an opportunity. The danger of loss is more powerful than the possibility of gain.

Our judgment of the people we meet is interesting. Many studies have shown that senior executives tend to be taller than average. Poor for me. On the other hand, wearing spectacles is worth around twelve extra IQ points. Good for me. Our brain is saying that height is powerful and that spectacles say knowledge.
In this light, we might want to think more carefully about the concept of conscience. We see it as a rational process through which we make good decisions. In this context, the good always means love: love of ourselves and love for our neighbour. But if it is true that many of our decisions are influenced by a brain which responds in ways which we can never fully know, how can we ever show that our decisions are rational?

Of course, we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church to help us. But neither are the last word. The last word is the decision of conscience. You will recall how bishops explaining Humanae Vitae reminded us of the finality of personal conscience. When Pope Francis refused to make a judgment about a homosexual, he was not saying that homosexuality was no longer a sin per se, but that he did not know the conscience of the individual. I must even allow for the champions of legalised abortion: some of them sincerely believe that this is the loving thing to do. That, of course, does not prevent us from arguing the issue itself. Indeed, our assumption of their good faith may persuade them to be more ready to listen to what we have to say.

How can we improve our conscience decisions? One approach is to know our inbred tendencies. Then we are more likely to allow for them in making decisions. And, like the golfer practising his stroke, we can train the brain to some extent. But the most valuable for me is to pray to the Holy Spirit beforehand. Annoyingly, that wards off the temptation to favour a result simply because it pleases me.

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