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 is at:
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 | Leave a comment

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 , | 122 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

Playing God

Today I am not writing an ordinary post, I am asking an extraordinary question.

We live in a world in which there is much suffering. We experience it ourselves in aspects of our lives, even if it is only from time to time. Pick up a newspaper and you will find accounts of suffering which are almost unbearable – we find it hard even to get our imaginations around the sorry lives of so many innocent people. Yet this is the world which God has made.

So I am going to ask you to put aside your religious beliefs, and even put aside God, for just a few moments. Because I am going to ask you to imagine that you are God. My question is: what would you change in creation if you had the power of God to do so?

Of course you can dismiss the question by claiming that since God is infinitely wise he must of course have done everything perfectly. But that’s a cop out. For this exercise you have to stand back and use your own noddle. The only tip I would give is that when you see a possible change, just check the unintended effects which your change might bring about.

Good luck!

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 37 Comments

Just a word or two on marriage

People tell me that they rarely hear a homily on the subject of marriage. I understand their concern for we know marriage to be for many the major school of love. Yet I sympathise with the clergy. They may well reserve the subject for special groups rather than general congregations. They may want to avoid the awkward questions – although I do not have these in mind here. They may feel that they do not know enough about marriage or they may think their listeners will feel they are outsiders.

In fact the clergy have a good handle on marriage. They are born into families and meet many married people in their work. I realise that there will be a proportion of these which are pathological – which was why a priest got to know them – but there are plenty of others. There is real value in a view from outside looking in instead of being inside looking out. I have known priests whose understanding of marriage was very deep, and all the better from listening to many married couples rather than allowing personal experience to skew their views (as we married people so often do).

Why is this so important? The answer to that is simple. The number of Catholic marriages per Catholic population has dropped by three quarters since the late ‘60s. We may hum and haw about the influence of our secular culture on marriage, but we have our hands full enough with the crisis in Catholicism. I know many families in which the grandparents are devout, the children are occasional, and the grandchildren don’t even get baptised. Recently I watched a young relative being married in a smart hotel to a well meant parody of religious solemnity – but specifically without any mention of God or religion. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t read the Catholic Herald either.)

Where might a priest start? I think he needs facts. That enables him to show that Catholic marriage is based soundly on the principles of human nature. Quite simply we have it right. Let’s tell that to the Catholic young, and hope that they tell it to their friends.

The rate of divorce in this country is around 42 per cent. To me, this is a frighteningly high figure. But it is a small improvement in recent years which some have attributed to cohabitation, giving the couples a longer period to know each other. That may be true but we must note that cohabiting couples who marry tend to be older, and maturity is a positive factor in marriage choice. The peak time for divorce is three to six years after marriage – earlier than the “7 year itch” The rate of divorce continues to fall with each succeeding year of marriage, and the divorce rate for 10 years plus has not changed since the 1960s. Some statistics from the US suggest that Catholic divorce is about 25 per cent lower than the population rate. Are we happy with that margin?

Cohabitation has its own problems. Cohabiting parents make up 19% of couples with dependent children, but they account for half of all family breakdown. And parents who have a child before they are married are less likely to stay together. The happy idea that their commitment is expressed in their love from day to day and that, should they lose that love, they can separate without hassle is straightforward folly. Firstly, although it may never be said out loud, the partners by no means always share that view. Secondly, there is no legal protection for both the partners. Thirdly, the lack of formal commitment makes the relationship continuously vulnerable. Fourthly the children of the relationship do not recognise the difference: to them, breakdown is a destruction of their world – with the likelihood of long term psychological damage, and often impoverishment.

Not that even marriage is always the answer. On current trends any child born in the UK today has only a 50 per cent chance of being with both parents by the age of 15. Apparently children are more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. It would seem that even the promises of marriage – which last until “till death do us part” – are seen as no more than a traditional chant. I can only tell you that in six decades of marriage we have experienced enough of those possibilities to know that it was the bulwark of our marriage vows which got us happily through the inevitable ups and downs.

If you want to know more about the facts I have given here, visit the Marriage Foundation – a splendid, secular site which is devoted to examining outcomes in marriage and cohabitation. (http://www.marriagefoundation.org.uk/research/ ). I consult it frequently, and indeed pinched much information for this column. Anyone preaching, or talking about, the Catholic view on marriage will benefit from a visit.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | 40 Comments

Unholy Office

We think highly of our legal system. We may criticise the detail, and it continues to develop, but it never loses touch with the principles of Magna Carta. Justice is paramount and the rights of the accused are always respected. But in fact many of us are also under a rather different system. I am thinking of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Anyone who publishes work under Catholic auspices is likely (as happened to me on one occasion) to be subject to its authority.

We might ask why it matters so much? We are not speaking of the gallows but only of writings which we may be required to correct or withdraw. But for people of standing – whether theologians or holders of church offices – it can be serious indeed. Not only may it destroy reputations, but it may require removal from office. And, since the procedures can be endlessly lengthy it can in effect destroy lives or damage at the level of mental and physical health.

Here are some of the worrying elements.

The individual being considered it not allowed to meet or speak to his accusers;
The doctrinal office often acts as “investigator, accuser, judge and jury” and also imposes any penalties and hears any appeals;
The accused is often not in direct contact with the authorities — the doctrinal office works through the person’s religious superior or bishop.

As an example, I quote from an account I wrote sometime ago.

“A recent account of a number of individuals who have come up against the Church’s discipline suggests that its grasp of good employment practice, to say nothing of basic human rights, leaves a great deal to be desired. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought in discussing the case of Father Balasuriya describes the authorities’ response as showing an ‘extraordinary disregard for natural justice and due process of law.’ Michael Walsh reports himself as struck ‘by the plain and simple discourtesy displayed by the CDF. The books which are under censure are not properly read; letters go unanswered; those accused are rarely approached personally, but through their superiors. Balasuriya learned of his excommunication when he heard a BBC broadcast.’

For a Church which is centred on the message of love for God and man to have to look outside at secular practice to learn how to treat people with basic human decency seems , to say the least, odd. The lack of respect for the rights of individuals is a characteristic of an organization whose management has not learnt to respect its subordinates.”

My own case was much less dramatic – it cost me, at best, a few hundred pounds in royalties as my imprimatur was removed. (And never restored — despite modifications to the text agreed with an appointed suffragan bishop.) I was amused at my attackers who even went as far as inventing quotations from the book to make their case. And I was interested that the CDF took particular exception to one paragraph which had in fact been drafted for me by an archbishop, For obvious reasons I cannot tell you who.

Of course many senior people have asked for a complete revision of these methods which appear to descend from the Inquisition. And a current attempt is being made. When will the Church move forward from the 13th century?

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 49 Comments