Are you conscientious?

While the idea of conscience has always been important in the Church, it is certainly much more emphasised in recent times. I would date this from Vatican II when its importance was clearly described. But of course it has always been there: indeed, dramatically, Aquinas says that even if our rejection of Christ may be objectively evil, we must still follow our considered reason and be ready to disclaim him if that is where our reason leads.

So one would expect that the powers that be would put a great deal of work into explaining the best ways to employ our consciences. What are the processes we might use? Do we take into account how we are vulnerable to the psychological aspects of human nature? Or the influences from our upbringing and experiences? How does conscience relate to virtue? What is the difference between obedience and the use of reason? And so on.

Today I am suggesting that we look at the nightly consideration of conscience. It would be interesting to know whether most fully paid up Catholics and other Christians do this regularly. Do you? (I should admit here that I am far from being as regular as I should be.)

In reviewing our day do we include the good things we have done and the progress we have made? We know that recognising our successes improves our self respect and motivates us to continue in the right directions.

And that indicates that we should review our virtues. Virtue is a very churchy word. We all approve but it’s too vague to do anything about it. It’s not helped by the old fashioned names of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

But in fact it’s all about virtues. These are the habits and tendencies which measure how we stand in regard to our closeness to God. At the physical level they are developed in the brain. We could, if we were able to interpret them, read off the relevant neural connections which apply. But at the level of the spiritual they mark the grace-filled tendencies which orient us towards the Almighty. But like any habit they can wax and wane: we have to check our progress and our regress continually.

So our nightly examination should perhaps include the question: did I get closer to God today? Or did I slip backwards? And it need not be airy fairy because we have the actions and the thoughts of the day to provide the evidence.

I think we might have great benefit from discussing our experience of all this, and sharing our good ideas.

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Posted in Scripture, Spirituality, virtue ethics | Tagged | 7 Comments

The wind of change

Imagine a large group of people who all went to public schools. We would think it likely that most of them would praise the public school system and indeed be ready to promote it. But inevitably there would be among them a few, perhaps five per cent, who actually thought public schools were a bad idea. These oddballs would indeed be oddballs – in that position. But let’s suppose that some of them set out, with good arguments, to convert the others. And indeed they were sometimes successful. How many would they need to convert in order to the bring the whole mass, or at least more than 70 per cent, to join their side?

The golden number is 25 per cent. This was calculated in an interesting study recently published by Science. This figure surprised me. After all, the majority had perfectly good arguments for their original position so how could the views of a minority, however energetic, change their minds? It worried me, too. What does democracy mean when the view of the majority can, in effect, be overridden by the view of the minority?

When, for example, we were considering our position before voting for the EU referendum, most of us were looking around for good arguments. And there were plenty of them. The problem was that there were equally good arguments for the other side. It seems likely that many decisions were not the outcome of our brainpower but the views of the people who surrounded us.

This is important because we now live in a society in which social views, in large number, can be communicated to huge audiences, effectively overnight. Trump, #metoo, semitism in political parties, freedom of abortion, usage of drugs, choice of gender and so on spread through our society like a desert storm. Do we really think about these things or do we just catch them from the air – much as the Black Death spread in mediaeval times? And, as I have written before, social media creates huge groups at great speed. We must expect the views of our society to be very volatile but very rarely thought through by most of those who hold them.

Let me test myself. My view of the morality of homosexuality, as a clear cut example, has in fact changed over the years. Where I am now with regard to this is immaterial. What matters is whether I have picked it up from the wind, or whether I have thought my way through the question and arrived at what I hold to be the right answer. But I remain open to the possibility that new thoughts and circumstances might get me closer to the truth. And how about you? Can you spot a view which you strongly hold without having thought deeply about it. Or did it come from the wind, including the wind from the hierarchical Church? Or (dare I say it?) from the wind from Scripture?

And now you might be saying: Quentin started all this from a psychological study, but was it a good one that really supports his theme? It’s a fair question. Here is a fair answer: https://bit.ly/2JD9eBV . Decide for yourself.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 8 Comments

The control of life

From time to time I describe in this column some new discoveries related to human life. They are often techniques that raise significant moral questions, and which have potential good and bad outcomes. I think it is important for Catholics to be aware of the broad picture and to be able to respond intelligently if they are raised in conversation.

I start with three-parent babies. This is a potential solution to the presence of faulty or damaged mitochondrial DNA in the conceptus. This DNA does not carry the personal characteristics of the parent but provides most of the cells’ energy. On paper, at least, introducing it can rescue the forthcoming child from a range of serious potential disorders. Fortunately cases are rare, and the arguments about the best methodology continue. We might argue that altering the genes (which would, incidentally, be passed on to new offspring) in this way is quite unacceptable. But we can understand why some say that the intention is simply therapeutic and would actually save lives.

This brings us to the in vitro issue: conception in the test tube. While this may be intended for medical reasons, the most frequent use would be for parents who cannot conceive any other way. I have a close friend who used it. It is a trying and difficult process for the mother. But my Catholic knowledge of the safe period enabled me to support her over several cycles. The father may be the husband or another donor – raising another moral point. Our immediate reaction might be to assume that such a step (involving the husband of course) was virtuous since it uses the nearest technical method available. But the Church’s understanding is different.

So what do you think? Certainly the methodology can be abused but the fundamental moral issue is whether it can ever be right to separate the sexual embrace from conception if this is contrary to the natural law as God provided.

A very active area of development is Crispr. This is the sophisticated technique used for identifying and altering chosen genes. It is easy to see its value for removing or changing the genes which are faulty in order to correct serious disabilities. But of course the same methodology can be used to tailor-make desirable characteristics of many different kinds. Would you like your child to have blue eyes, for instance? Since many scientists in different parts of the world are working energetically to patent their own developments in this field, there appears to be no easy way to control this.

Of course abortion belongs to this list but I restrict myself here to noting that various movements are having considerable success in making abortion respectable. The recent Irish referendum is a dramatic example. I detect a growing public feeling that Catholic absolutism on this question is some form of religious crankiness. We must draw hope from the fact that otherwise good and respectable people (including a pope and several bishops) supported the slave trade in its time. One day, perhaps, civilised societies will look back and regret.

But abortion raises the question of what constitutes a person. I have listened to several learned discussions on this. Typical issues are the absence of faculties in the early embryo, and these are answered by showing similar absences in those we accept as persons. I have concluded that our definition of person is formed according to the argument we happen to be defending. But one theory, albeit controversial, may have strength. In the very early days, it is argued, the conceptus does not yet constitute an individual. At that stage it can still develop into two individuals, who would be identical twins. If so, the moral issues concerning methods of preventing womb implantation would be different.

What is coming next? Scientists already know how to take, say, human skin cells, and transform them into artificial sperm and eggs. While current protocols prevent this being taken to further stages in humans, it is reported that artificial mouse gametes, using in vitro fertilisation techniques, have produced healthy young. Again, one ethical argument is that the methodology would enable human parents, who could not otherwise do so, to produce their own genetic children.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 20 Comments

For the love of God

Yes, most of us heard or read Bishop Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding.
And if we ask the real message he wanted to give, it can be summed up in just a few words.

We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalise it. There’s power, power in love.

If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to centre around you and your beloved.

Oh there’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There is something right about it.

And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love and our lives were meant — and are meant — to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.

Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: The source of all of our lives. There’s an old medieval poem that says: “Where true love is found, God himself is there.

The New Testament says it this way: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God and those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God. Why? For God is love.”

There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live.

Set me as a seal on your heart? a seal on your arm? for love is as strong as death.

There is a deep truth behind his words, although many may have missed the depth. But not, I hope, the visitors and the contributors to this site. We know a great deal about religion, don’t we? The dogmas, the Scriptures, the moral teaching, the traditions of the Church, the sacraments, the effects of original sin, the need for grace and so on. And we know that this is all beside the real point.

The real point is that all love comes from God, and that is the essence of his nature. Whenever and wherever (and whoever) we love it is God’s love we are incarnating. That is what redemption is about, and it was earned by the wounds in the hands and the feet and the side. There is no such thing as love in the absence of God. And no absence of God where there is love. Theology has no meaning other than to help us, very crudely, to understand. And, if we are not careful, it may well distract us from the real truth.

Atheists, agnostics, religionists, Christians, Catholics will all be asked just one question on the Last Day “Did you love me?” And if someone shouts out “I never met you – I never believed you existed” the answer will be “You met me every day in your neighbour. You simply didn’t know my name”.

Posted in Quentin queries, virtue ethics | Tagged , | 27 Comments

Holy atheists

I haven’t heard much about Richarf Dawkins recently. You will remember his many publications including The God Delusion, which I reviewed for the Catholic Herald. It resulted in a discussion of nearly 30,000 words on his website (which I summarised in the Church Times). But I am grateful: if anyone hears of me in the next century it will be because I am mentioned in a footnote in the book. ‘Who on earth was he?’ the historians of the 21st century will ask.

I am reminded by coming across, by chance, a few paragraphs I wrote about Dawkins at the time. And I have to say I thought it summarised the question of atheistic scientists. So I am cheating by reproducing it here:

“Notwithstanding Piers Paul Read’s excellent article on Professor Dawkins’s programmes The Root of All Evil?, or perhaps because of it, I fell to wondering whether he might have something to teach us. It would be safe to say that Dawkins is not exactly popular among Christians at present. The only redeeming feature a lady friend of mine could find was that she found him rather good looking. But Benjamin Franklin claimed that he had never met anyone from whom he could not learn something: so what can we learn from Dawkins?

First of all, Dawkins is a searcher after truth. We may think that he is confused or barking up the wrong tree, but no one who has read his books will doubt his sincerity, and his determination to increase the sum of human knowledge. How many of us could say the same? We may claim that he has an obstinately closed mind. But how many of us have really used our intellects to interrogate what we believe? And has our religion been in the habit of encouraging or discouraging this? There are motes and beams here.

Second, he is a man of faith. He believes without any solid evidence that science can, at least theoretically, explain the whole universe, including the crucial transcendental aspects. But he would retort that we believe in a creator God equally without any solid evidence. In fact we regard this as a major virtue and call it Faith. So, “Yah Boo!” all round.

Dawkins chose his targets selectively. His programmes were an exercise in polemics, not science. But in themselves they were good targets, and we would do well to acknowledge this. The tendency in human nature to form intolerant communities around some core, unprovable “value” appears in both secular and religious contexts. But it has been prevalent in Christianity, even in modern times, as a brief acquaintance with Church history will show. Derek Wright in The Psychology of Moral Behaviour quotes evidence to suggest that the majority of religious adherents do so primarily to meet their emotional need to be part of a secure and certain community. Only a minority genuinely own their religious belief and commitment.

Dawkins argues that the indoctrination of the young into religion is an abuse of young minds. Of course others indoctrinate, we teach (can you spot the difference?). A shocking accusation! Well, not altogether. I can think of several examples of such abuse in my Catholic education. Just challenge me. My point is that until we open our minds to the tragic ways in which we can be false to Christ’s message we cannot hope to do better in the future. Dawkins, for all his vehemence, can do us a service — if we feel secure enough to listen to his case without prejudice.

And the vehemence of his views is what I like best. Hugh Ross Williamson, the distinguished Catholic historian who died in 1978, wrote in his Letter to Julia that he respected the committed religious believer and also the committed atheist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle. I suspect he would not be any more surprised than me to see Professor Dawkins, wearing that “naughty boy look” he does so well, welcomed at the Pearly Gates. His passport would not be that he had found the truth but that he had looked for it.”

Posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | Tagged | 29 Comments

Words, words, words

It was the custom, and perhaps remains so today, to name the senior class at a Jesuit school as Rhetoric. This proclaimed the classical view that rhetorical skills were needed by anyone who intended to be of substance in the outside world. Indeed, I did much public speaking at school – followed by Speaker’s Corner for the Catholic Evidence Guild. And many years later being paid attractive fees for addressing business conferences and dinners. But rhetoric has been a problem and continues to be today. From Today in Parliament to most social media you will find it flourishing.

It developed as an art from the fifth century Grecian world when there were many lawsuits over land ownership, and was seen as an essential tool to hold one’s own rights and to claim against the rights of others.  It created the need for teachers of rhetoric, who were a questionable lot.  Socrates was not pleased. He took the view, as we read in Plato’s Gorgias, that it was neither an art, nor a virtue, but simply a skill which could be used for good or bad purposes. Aristotle’s compendium on the subject is not light reading, but his analysis of the elements of persuasion remains relevant. And the importance of rhetoric has continued. From Rome to the Renaissance it marked the well-educated individual.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary gives, as its first definition “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.” The emphasis here is on “effective” because the purpose is to lead the listener, through argument and emotion, to agree with the rhetorician and to act accordingly. The Dictionary then adds that it can carry the implication of insincerity.  We often employ the word to suggest that the style is superior to the substance.

Take as an example “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus conceals his intention to inflame the mob under the cover of a funeral speech: ”I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.” Every line is designed to deceive the “honourable men”. Compare that with Mark Antony’s “O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!.” There is rhetoric enough here to inflame passion but no deceit. In real life we may recall Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech, which, ironically, never used that phrase. I do not doubt Powell’s sincerity.  Even I have to admit that I wrote a book entirely devoted to the use of rhetoric in business situations, without using the word “rhetoric” once.

So it comes in all sorts and sizes. We remember that it can be written as well as spoken: from Cicero on natural law to Cassius Longinus’s third century classic “On the Sublime” to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua to that column you read in your newspaper this morning. It can be long or short. The shortest I have found is “He would, wouldn’t he?” from Mandy Rice Davies. Even my Ukrainian housekeeper had heard that one.

We are left asking the question: whatever our sincerity and the importance of the cause we defend, to what extent are we entitled to use the techniques of rhetoric to persuade our listeners?  Let’s suppose that I am addressing an audience on the undesirability of immigrants, particularly those of colour. I abandon the use of quiet logic and choose passion laced with prejudice. I focus on fears and I make use of anecdotes. Any statistic that helps will be at hand. I hope for a noisy audience and I fan their strong reactions. Ideally they will leave the hall carrying banners and shouting slogans.

But if I wish to support immigration I will need to create a quiet and thoughtful atmosphere. I may season this with a little humour, establishing how civilised I am. My logic will be impeccable as will be my statistics, but both are carefully selected. They will be backed up by chosen anecdotes of the historical outcomes of racialism. I will welcome the occasional heckle because my peaceful response will support the merits of my cause.

My point of course is that both speeches use rhetoric. And the order in which I take subjects, the pauses, my summaries, the tone of my voice, the use of my eyes, and a myriad of other techniques will also influence the outcome. So how comfortable do we feel about influencing people through methods of which they are mostly unaware? Should we not describe rhetoric by definition as manipulation? But, if we do, we recall that “manipulation” comes ultimately from the Latin for hand (manus). So let’s call it “handling the audience”. Choosing the most beneficial word is key in rhetoric.  Now ask your spouse to make you a cup of tea – but remove rhetoric from your request, so “darling”, “would” and “please” are all verboten.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

RU a cannibal?

Are you a cannibal? You might very well be. Imagine that you happen to belong to a cannibal tribe. You have been taught from infancy that the only way to secure the tribe is to eat its enemies. Doing so prevents their sprits from bringing harm. Or perhaps that it enables you to to be strengthened from consuming the enemy’s spirit. It’s a pound to a penny that you would go with the flow.

This reminds us that, in addition to our genes and our upbringing, there is the influence of society and – more particularly that part of society within which we ordinarily live. And we tend to be less aware of that third influence. I suppose I would describe myself as a bourgeois liberal with intellectual aspirations. So I spend much of my time with such people. Indeed, here I am – writing in a bourgeois liberal way.

We should of course expect this. Evolution requires that there should be harmony within groups because a harmonious group leads to greater survival and greater success. So it survives and breeds. We are programmed to have the same values as our group.

A way of testing this is to look back through our lives and note the changes in our attitudes. I don’t only mean the changes which come about through the maturing of age but the changes which are vulnerable to exterior society. This may be clearer to Catholics than to some others because it is easier to spot changes as they occur.

In my formative years (1940s) the Church took pride in its rigidity. Doctrine was firm and unchangeable: you did not question, you accepted. Moral teaching was specific, extensive, and required unquestioning obedience. Conscience was a simple matter: the Church told you what your conscience said. The smoke of Hell was always in the nose. But then came Vatican II and, later, the question of artificial contraception. As you may know, I believe that the latter was the first essential influence on comprehensive change. We suddenly found that we actually had a real conscience. It will never be the same again.

Some of you will react to this by holding that all these developments have been disastrous. The Church has lost its authority, individual Catholics are confused, it will be difficult and perhaps impossible for the Church to get back to its true authority and, more importantly, its true identity.

Others will say that it is only now that the Church is finding its identity. Yes, there are problems and confusion. Some liberals go to extremes, of course. But we are at last beginning to reform the Church so that it can be a real reflection of Christ amongst his people.

In calling to mind these alternatives I am not arguing the case either way. I am asking in what ways have your values changed from those of your youth? And to what extent do you find yourself in company with Catholics who are broadly in agreement with your views? Can you make a list of your specific dogmatic and moral values which have changed over that time? And do you agree that it is important to ensure that the values you hold are your own rather than merely accepting the values of others.

Posted in Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 12 Comments