What is happening to the Church?

I am not today looking at the rights and wrongs of artificial contraception, but I would like us to consider the after effects as they have appeared in the Catholic community. You will recall that the Commission studying the issue at the request of the Pope decided in favour of artificial contraception. But this verdict was overturned in the Papal instruction Humane Vitae. Following this, several archbishops, while accepting the papal ruling, reminded their flocks that the ultimate arbiter would be their own consciences. This sounded – to me at least – to be a way of preventing Catholics leaving the Church in large numbers without contradicting the papal ruling.

I was reminded recently in a newly published book on demography that in the early 70’s the number of Catholic US women using artificial contraception increased from one third to two thirds. There was now little difference between the usage of Catholics and the usage of Protestants. But there are other, perhaps foreseeable, outcomes to consider.

One outcome which was certainly foreseen was a change in the characteristics of sexual intercourse. Thus, where intercourse had been locked into its nature as an act structured by its ability to effect conception, it was now an act of intimacy in its own right. That is, it became harder to demonstrate it as acceptable only in marriage. A common sequence for millennials appears to be: kissing. petting, contracepted intercourse, marriage. At the earlier stages an individual may have more than one partner – regarding contracepted intercourse as a day to day expression of intimacy. I know of several middle-class sequences which started at university, followed by a longish period of living together, and completed by marriage when the couple begin to think about children.

We might expect that such sequences would lead to a greater degree of future breakdown. But, so far, this does not appear to be so: ”Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that the divorce rates for couples who have been married for 15 years has fallen from 31 per cent in 2005 to 28 per cent in 2017, and are predicted to fall to 23 per cent within the next decade. As 90 per cent of intact parents with teens are married, these statistics show a clear improvement in family stability.” On the other hand, “Our new finding reveals that we have crossed a watershed. Cohabiting parents, despite being only one fifth of couples, now account for the majority of family breakdown.” I am quoting from the Marriage Foundation website. I recommend anyone interested in modern marriage to visit the research on this site.

A second outcome, which may be more important in the long run, has been a change in the emphasis and effect of conscience. No longer are our consciences automatically restricted to the formal teaching of the Church. While we are required to respect and to be guided by traditional moral teaching, it is our conscience to which we must ultimately attend: https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/Pope-Francis-Be-guided-by-conscience-not-rules is a brief summary .

One thing seems certain: the Church of the future will be different from the Church of the past. And the question is: will it be a better Church or not.?

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The Fall of Man

Once again we have found ourselves in the territory of the Fall of Man – and our inheritance. So it may be useful to examine it more closely.

First of all we ask whether it is fact and fiction. – to which the answer is ‘both’. In historical terms the story is true in the same sense through which we regard the creation of the universe. Yes, God created the world, but he did not do so through the six days described by Genesis: this is simply a story fitted to the knowledge of its original readers. So what is the most likely account of the Fall?

It is of course possible that the whole human race is descended from one couple. This is unlikely because the development of a new species normally arises through several more or less similar ancestors – but we can put that on one side. Instead we should consider what characteristics are fundamental to homo sapiens.

The first characteristic is similar to that of the lower animals. These follow their own natural law which requires them to grab whatever they need for survival, irrespective of the needs of other animals, and to breed as effectively as possible – with the result that they are able to benefit as a species through evolution. We would condemn human beings who only acted this way, but lower animals have no choice.

Human beings, however, have freewill and a sense of moral obligation. While driven at one level by their animal characteristics, they are able to recognise the good and to choose it. But, by the same token, they are able to choose the evil.

And the first instance of choosing the evil is Eve eating the forbidden fruit at the persuasion of the Serpent. So the story tells us that Man had always been fallen because at the very first temptation it succumbed. Our own tendency to choose evil comes, not from Eve, but from the fact that we belong to a species which is vulnerable to evil and has the free will to follow it.

Before we criticise the Almighty for allowing this to be so, we may think that this is the nature of freedom: we have to remember that in order for us to choose virtue we must have the freedom to choose vice. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Immaculate Conception. If Our Lady always freely turned towards the good, this would be of no merit if she did not also have the faculty of turning towards evil.

If I understand Lutheran beliefs correctly, man is fundamentally corrupt and remains so. But he may be saved by the free gift of grace resulting from Redemption. The Catholic view is summed up in St Paul’s words: “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.” The Christian, by some process we cannot understand, takes on the person of Christ. He is no longer corrupted because of the presence of Christ within him. His vocation is to love God and to love his neighbour. This is the whole of God’s law.

But, while we are explicitly asked to be committed Christians through baptism etcetera, those who know nothing of this may still have Christ within them. That is, they believe in a moral law, and so, indirectly, believe in God. And they love their neighbour, thereby doing Christ’s work without knowing Christ’s name. On the Last Day there will be plenty of avowed atheists who will be welcomed in, and plenty of ‘religious’ people who will be left outside.

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 38 Comments

God’s Perfect World

“The universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds” wrote the philosopher Leibnitz. It was his answer to explain a universe which included so many harms – whether through evil men or through the pains and sufferings that are around us all through nature. It leaves us with the question of why a good God created a world with so much evil and suffering. Do you accept his answer?

Most of us know that quotation through Voltaire’s book, Candide. It tells the story of a young man who goes through a terrible life, and witnesses terrible things. Every time he seeks solecism he looks to his favourite philosopher, whose name is Pangloss. He is, of course, a fictional Leibnitz. The book has been a best seller for three hundred years.

It is of course an excellent question. Have you ever wondered how God came to create a world with so much sorrow in it? Perhaps the death of a child, or deep poverty, or human cruelty – or even the “Lisbon earthquake” which occurred in the 18th century; up to 100,000 people died. Surely, we may wonder how God came to create such a world of disasters which, given his omnipotence, could have been a happier place.

Some years ago I asked the group of philosophers which I lead, a question: If you were God would you create a better world than the one we have? (They are a broad group from committed Christian to committed atheist.) Eventually they had to admit that every change for the better would lead to something else being worse: they would leave the world just as God made it. Yesterday morning I posed the question again (the membership had partly changed over the years). This time they couldn’t agree and they left arguing quite strongly with each other.

They come back in a fortnight. So I hope you will all agree on an answer which will satisfy them. Or perhaps not.

* * *
Some quotes to illustrate Voltaire’s character.
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
The best is the enemy of the good.

And this is what he had to say about Christianity:
(La nôtre religion (catholicism) est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde.

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Popular Abortion

One of the great changes in western society during our lifetimes has been the attitude towards abortion. In Rex v Bourne (1938) the conditions required for abortion to be legal because of the condition of the mother were laid out. (These are worth looking at: https://www.womenslinkworldwide.org/en/gender-justice-observatory/court-rulings-database/r-v-bourne. The relevant heading is ANALYSIS.

Nowadays abortion is not only legal but anyone who criticises the ability of a woman to have an abortion is regarded as an enemy of female rights. I am, I fear, just such a person. I can only bring myself to consider it in a situation where it is necessary to save the mother’s immediate life, because her child will not survive in any case.

My argument is very straightforward: the child in the womb is an individual human being, whatever the medical word you use to describe it. And I do not want to live in a world where the life of an individual human being can be taken at will. (And I bear in mind the occasion when my wife, having miscarried at ten weeks, struggled, bleeding, to baptise her child.)

I now see that there is a current case where the ruling allows an abortion in a case where the mother, who is mentally afflicted, wishes to have the child, and the mother’s mother has volunteered to care for the child. Sorry to send you back to your browser, but the story is at https://www.lifenews.com/2019/06/24/appeals-court-overturns-judges-ruling-forcing-mentally-disabled-woman-to-have-abortion/.

The mother’s mother did appeal. Here is the outcome of the appeal on last Monday: https://www.premier.org.uk/News/UK/Doctors-must-not-abort-mentally-ill-woman-s-baby-appeal-judges-rule?utm_source=SPUC+News+List&utm_campaign=5c8aece232-ask+MP+to+contact+Sajid+Javid_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_826f492851-5c8aece232-138710545&mc_cid=5c8aece232&mc_eid=8acb74a2ca.

And see what you think. Where do you stand?

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. After all I have had a long life, following a Jesuit education, married for 60 years, five children and a career in high level finance. I am confident that my decisions and choices are well founded. But I am put on warning: people have an inbuilt tendency to overestimate their intelligence. Why not me? Or you?

I have been looking at the placebo effect. It is a valuable source of knowledge about the way the human mind works. It has the great advantage of enabling us to measure our possible confusions in a reasonably precise way. For example, the effectiveness of a drug for a particular condition can be measured by giving it to some patients while other patients are given a neutral substance instead. Clearly the effectiveness of the drug can be measured by the outcomes of the two groups. However, a number of the patients, who did not know that they had been given the neutral substance, also improved. This is put down to the placebo effect: thinking that you have, or may have had, the correct drug is enough to bring about a degree of recovery.

Perhaps even odder than that, there is evidence that for some conditions even telling the patient that the drug given is inert does not prevent an improvement. I can only suppose that going through the routines focuses the mind on the condition and in some way affects the brain. The patient’s basic temperament appears to be significant.

Other factors play their part. For instance, placebic injections are more effective than placebic pills. And blue pills are more effective than pink ones. Confidence in the medical team or an admired doctor also contribute. A most dramatic example is the potential effectiveness of sham stem cells injected into the brain in cases of
Parkinson’s disease.

Nor should we forget the “nocebo effect”. Here, for example, patients are told that a neutral cream may lead to more pain in some people. And so it does. You will understand how such phenomena can complicate medical conclusions.
Nor is this confined to medical issues. Athletes can improve their performance by false measurements of their timings, and insomniacs can brighten up when (fictional) tests show that that they had had better sleep than they thought. (You will find a thorough article on placebos on the British Psychological Society site at: p://tiny.cc/hzdc7y)

We are not thinking here merely of interesting facts: we are discovering how the human brain works. What we know, or what we decide, is the outcome of the combination between the action of our brains and our freewill. This column is not called Science and Faith for no reason. Every time we act, think or learn our brain changes. It carries our memories further back than we can actually remember, and even these may be distorted. The influence of our parents, other early carers and our siblings, is largely forgotten, but they travel with us into adulthood. I assume that I learnt my faith from my parents, and even now I can remember the answers in the Penny Catechism. Add to that all our experiences and decisions throughout life – each of them, and their consequences, have altered our brains, and so influence our decisions.

So much for freewill? I will certainly defend its existence – but I need to be careful. Most of the time, what are apparently free choices are in fact reactions furnished by my brain. They may well feel free but, unless I am aware of the likely influences playing their part, my freedom may be very limited. I am, as it happens, rather good at convincing myself that whatever I want to do can be justified in some way or another.

There is another side to this of course, how do we judge the actions of others? We might be thinking of gross activities such as murder, fraudulence, adultery or – if we are prepared to go that far – the abuse of the young. Naturally we judge them by our own standards, and that means that they can by no means be tolerated. But how about their standards? We know nothing of their experiences or the details of their brains. They should be punished of course – but perhaps not for their guilt, which we cannot measure, but because their punishment is an unpleasant experience which will be in their brains when faced by the next temptation. You may think I am going too far — but one day we will all be judged before the throne of God and I, at least, would prefer him to bear in mind all the subconscious weaknesses which have contributed to any sinful activities.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 28 Comments


It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

I imagine that everyone knows this final verse of William Henley’s poem. For me, it is the summary of Stoicism – which arguably has influenced the Church over the last 2000 years.

Of course, it comes from the Greeks. The very word stoic (Stoa Poikile) means the painted porch — where Zeno of Citium taught his philosophy, around 300BC. We tend to use the word to describe a temperament sufficiently hardened to enable us to put up with pain and disaster. But that is to sell it short.
Stoicism holds that the cosmos consists of determinate, passive, matter which is penetrated by active divine reason. It is built on logic, physics and ethics. Our own reason is a spark of divine reason.

Since the cosmos is entirely rational and interdependent everything in it is organised by divine wisdom for the best. Human reason is a spark of fiery divine reason. To live in accord with the cosmos is to be happy and virtuous, for these two are the same. Since we cannot avoid “bad” or “good” circumstances, our aim is to accept them. Our objective is not to change the cosmos but to change ourselves so that our reason harmonises with divine reason.

Round about the first century the Romans took up Stoicism as a way of life. Many of you will know (emperor) Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations, which he originally wrote in Greek, at the end of the second century. It is still revered as a literary monument to Stoicism. I keep a copy by my bedside.

Stoicism was of course a gift to the Christian Church as it developed its moral theology. Here was divine reason in the guise of a creator God – constructing the rational cosmos, piece by piece, over six days. It was possible to develop moral theology by the use of reason, just as Aristotle had developed social morality in his Ethics.

Inevitably, Stoic natural law has had its major practical effect on sexual matters – partly because these involve high emotional elements, but more strictly because they are biological by nature – a biology directly created by divine will, and therefore obligatory. Issues like sex outside marriage, artificially preventing conception and homosexual activity were clearly contrary to divine creation. They are evil per se and can never be justified. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor made this abundantly clear.

But, as we have recently discussed, the issue has been brought to the fore by Pope Benedict’s article, blaming the clerical sexual abuse crisis on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and dangerously liberal theological ideas eroding morality after the church reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

As I write, a Vatican paper, Male and Female He Created Them, is being much discussed. It condemns the modern view which sees personal gender as a matter of choice rather than a matter of biology. The paper is based on pure natural law.

A question remains: should our moral values be settled by Stoicism or should our moral judgments have a broader, deeper nature than simply the natural law?

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How odd of God…

Around the world there are a large number of different denominations. They vary in their intensity and in their moral principles. Which do you think is the strangest of all? I have come across one which befuddles me. They worship their own god and it’s a pretty odd situation. In order to prove their absolute fidelity they must agree to kill their own children if their god demands it. Can you guess which one it is?

Yes, you’ve got it: it is the Chosen People, and inherited by Christianity. The evidence is clear in chapter 22 of Genesis. Abraham is required by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac. It is only about fifty lines, so, if your bible is nearby, you can read it in a few minutes. But you may think about it for rather longer. Certainly, philosophers have argued about it it over and over again. It is particularly associated with Søren Kirkegaard – a 19th century philosopher, who effectively wrote a book about it.

It is only at the very last second when Abraham raised his knife over his son’s body on the pyre that God stops him. Abraham’s fidelity is rewarded by God: he is told of the great blessings he will receive for his fidelity. He will have innumerable descendants. “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants as a reward for your obedience.” (Jerusalem Bible)

There is no suggestion that this is simply a parable – it is an incident in the story. And it is quite realistic and detailed. God’s phrase “…you have not refused me your son, your only son” relates it to the history of Redemption, but the original readers might not have realised that at the time.

The quandary lies in the idea that God’s infinite goodness may somehow be expressed in a wicked act. We must ask ourselves if we would have been prepared to sacrifice our children simply because God demanded it. Even Socrates had a go at this in his  Euthyphro dialogue: does God love the good because the good is lovable? Or is the good lovable because God loves it? Or, if you wish, does God define the good arbitrarily? Or does the good exist independently? In this case we ask whether God is entitled to demand evil action in order to test our faith. Or does it cease to be evil simply because God requires it? If you can get a clear answer to that you’ll do better than Socrates.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Scripture, Uncategorized | Tagged | 41 Comments