The day Macpherson died

I will always remember the day Macpherson was drowned. I was 15 when it happened, and Macpherson (name changed) would have been a year or so older. He was in a single skull on the Thames nearby and apparently he capsized, was caught up in the toggle, and died. It was a shock for us all, and it raised a momentous question: had Macpherson been seen at Communion that morning?

Why momentous? Quite simply, if he had received Communion we could be confident that he was in a ‘state of ‘grace’ and, perhaps after a bout of Purgatory, he was in line for eternal bliss. If he hadn’t, it could be assumed that he had been guilty of solitary vice. He had not gone to Confession (along with the queue of penitents on the same quest present every night in the school chapel) and so was destined to the eternal torture of Hell. And eternity didn’t just mean for, say, the equivalent of the 13.8 billion years since the universe began, it would be forever. So the answer was really quite important – to Macpherson and indeed, potentially to us.

You may say that we had a grotesque, distorted, view of death, judgment, hell and heaven. Maybe so, but we were bright boys benefiting from the best Jesuit Catholic education. And that is what we thought we had been taught. When I read Professor Dawkins suggesting that early religious teaching could be a form of abuse, he may have a point. Had some Middle Eastern tyranny imposed a punishment like that for an equivalent crime, we would have been demonstrating in Trafalgar Square at the grossest breach of human rights known to man. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild!

Not that I blame the Jesuits. It was how they were brought up too. The equation runs: solitary vice = grave matter; grave matter committed with full knowledge (we all knew the law) and full consent (we had free will and sufficient grace) = mortal sin; dying in unforgiven mortal sin = hell for eternity. QED.

My wife giggles at this, but then she was an adult convert, and so missed the advantage of an early Catholic education, and the atrophied conscience which this might have induced. She remains the best spiritual adviser I know. (Convenient, too. I would never have to confess my sins, she points them out to me even before I have committed them!)

Why do I write about this, at this point? First of all, the equation I cite above remains in the Catechism. Secondly, the tension in the Synod lay very much between those who argued that any weakening or softening in Catholic moral teaching would lead down a slippery slope to a religion of no more than vague good will, and those who argued that she must understand people as they are in the circumstances of their lives. The wind must be tempered to the shorn lamb. Both positions are strong, but – as yet – we have not found a way we can reconcile them. Perhaps a Second Sight Blog discussion would help.

And, in case you were worrying, several people remembered that Macpherson had been to Communion that morning. Phew!

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to The day Macpherson died

  1. ignatius says:

    “…You may say that we had a grotesque, distorted, view of death, judgment, hell and heaven. Maybe so, but we were bright boys benefiting from the best Jesuit Catholic education. And that is what we thought we had been taught…”

    Hopefully you all just missed the class on grace…otherwise you were all being led astray by monsters.

    • Quentin says:

      Do you mean the class which taught that you always received enough grace to avoid sinning? Thus confirming that you had no excuse.

      • ignatius says:

        Yes, thats the one…comes just before you do the Clark Kent act in the phone box…you know, the one where you go in as a normal human being and then a quick twirl and out you come as superman..

  2. Horace says:

    I too was brought up by the Jesuits but I don’t follow the argument above.
    (1)“if he had received Communion we could be confident that he was in a ‘state of ‘grace’ .“. WHY?:There is no obvious reason why someone not ‘in a state of grace’ should not be seen to go to communion.
    (2)“If he hadn’t, it could be assumed that he had been guilty of ‘solitary vice’.”. Again WHY? There is no compulsion to go to communion even if you are in ‘a state of grace’.

    Finally, to me the notion that “Hell consists in the eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice [see Compendium 212]” is not very surprising.
    It is admittedly difficult to imagine anyone (especially a child) at the time of death deliberately defying God ; but I suppose it is possible.

  3. Galerimo says:

    What a great post. You certainly go to the heart of the issue. Maturing spiritually.

    It brings to my mind too a time in my marriage when I confessed all my sins to my wife, a cradle catholic like myself. There were to be no holds barred as we enthuastically forged (should I say now in hindsight, “forced” our relationship). My “Matter” in this “confession”, was based on the same outcomes of examen that you mention. She just laughed, “Those are not your sins”, she said, “These are”. And she began to list a whole lot of behaviour that had simply never occurred to me. It was a moment in the relationship as well as a moment in the maturing process of the soul for me.

    I don’t think I can forget the power of the little stick any more than the powerful elephant can when it recoils with all its superior strength from the childhood experience. The maturing process for me has been how to come into the estate of adult faith. The purpose of the disciplines learned earlier in life was to awaken conscience and cultivate value for a happy and a good life, Trying to enforce the same measures on the nuance and complexity of adult living has been the work of a life time. Learning to accept life on life’s own terms, to forgive myself and maintain the values of loving God, self and others has been the work of a lifetime. Sins and Hope become real with time. I hope God won’t zap me when I have sinned, repented been to Holy Communion and haven’t got to go to confession.

  4. John Candido says:

    ‘First of all, the equation I cite above remains in the Catechism.’ (Quentin)

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church must be seen as a beginning point, much as ‘Galerimo’ mentioned previously; not a rule book that magically covers every possible mutation of circumstances found in life. If it were to be used in such a fashion, the church runs the risk of creating a bleeping, obedient and mindless flock of fundamentalists. Legalism, rigorism and judgementalism are not the way of Christ by a long-shot. Life is chaotic at best.

    ‘…the tension in the Synod lay very much between those who argued that any weakening or softening in Catholic moral teaching would lead down a slippery slope to a religion of no more than vague good will, and those who argued that she must understand people as they are in the circumstances of their lives.’ (Quentin)

    The tension found in the synod is found in life in general. It is the classic tension in moral theology between the objective teachings of the church and the subjective circumstances that individuals find themselves in.

    ‘On 15 September 1965, as the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was drawing to a close, Pope Paul VI set up the Synod of Bishops, convinced that the Pope needed “to make ever greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church:” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority”.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synod_of_Bishops_%28Catholic%29 (Wikipedia, 6th November 2015)

    The first synod appeared in 1967 after being given birth at Vatican II, and they have been serially ambushed by an unholy combination of either Popes and/or the Curia. Francis recently insisted in a speech on the 17th October 2015 that synods are to be a living forum of free and open discussion amongst respected equals. I think the new buzz-phrase is the ‘listening synodal church’.

    http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/pope-calls-listening-church

    What follows are quotes from that speech.

    ‘From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome I intended to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council.’ (Francis)

    ‘A synodal church is a listening church, knowing that listening “is more than feeling.” It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), to know what the Spirit “is saying to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).’ (Francis)

    The following quote is simply superb!

    ‘Our gaze extends also to humanity. A synodal church is like a banner lifted up among the nations (Isiah 11:12) in a world that even though invites participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration – often hands over the destiny of entire populations into the greedy hands of restricted groups of the powerful. As a Church that “walks together” with men and women, sharing the hardships of history, let us cultivate the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and the exercise of authority, even now will be able to help civil society to be founded on justice and fraternity, generating a more beautiful and worthy world for mankind and for the generations that will come after us.’ (Francis)

    Life has a way of defeating the most dedicated ideologues. Francis has sparked the Catholic revolution by eschewing the worst aspects of the Roman Catholic Church’s former modes of governance, to bravely embracing a listening synodal church. Alleluia!

  5. G.D. says:

    ‘grave matter committed with full knowledge (we all knew the law) and full consent (we had free will and sufficient grace) = mortal sin’

    What does ‘full knowledge .. and full consent’ in this context mean? ………
    Does anyone have full knowledge – they may know what they do is terribly wrong, against the law, but is that full knowledge? They may choose to consent, but is that ‘full’ consent body …… & Soul?

    If, as i believe is theologically correct, there is that presence of God within everyone (and without God we don’t exist) then that part of the individual will not be consenting. And if the individual has not responded to God’s Spirit within them how can full knowledge be.

    Sure it’s good to say what is ‘wrong’ and encourage to be ‘right’, but eternal damnation through the catechisms teachings is almost impossible to achieve – FULL knowledge & consent can only come when we fully know God, and ourselves.

    Then, via love and justice the person will choose with full awareness …….. for God or ill.
    Purgatory may even be a ‘time’ of coming to that decision, and suffering, for the sake of love, the justice incurred by a life of ‘not knowing what they do’.

  6. G.D. says:

    sorry misquoted … Luke 23: 34.’Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing’ (Catholic Good News Bible).
    To extensive purposes they most certainly did!

  7. Martha says:

    G.D. “What does ‘full knowledge .. and full consent’ in this context mean? ………”

    Quentin, I find it very hard to understand how so many generations could have been taught in the way you describe, as I was, without a much fuller exploration of the three requirements for grave, mortal sin, as G. D. has mentioned. We were also taught, weren’t we, that an act of perfect contrition would save us if we died in what we might have thought was mortal sin without being able to go to Confession. This is sorrow for sin not so much for the punishment it deserves, or even for the suffering of Christ to save us, but purely for having offended the goodness of God, and really seemed impossible to achieve with complete honesty, though I used to try, especially during thunderstorms.

  8. Quentin says:

    Martha, I think we are talking about two related but different issues here. One of these is considering what the Church’s teaching really means. We are looking at this in the light of our maturity and experience., and we may well be able to interpret it in a way that is satisfactory to us. The other is looking at it through the eyes of the adolescent who will be immature and will interpret more literally. We might dismiss this latter issue as historical, but we should remember that many of those who now debate such questions were brought up on the ‘hard line’ approach, and will be fearful of any slippage.

    What I believe is beyond contention is that the traditional teaching of morality and sin was woefully distorted. The only excuse is that the teachers had no understanding of how to help their charges to develop as moral people. In other words, they didn’t have full knowledge.

  9. Brendan says:

    As far as I can recall ; my earliest years right up to burgeoning adulthood brought up in a ‘ good ‘ Catholic family milieu , were not lived within ten miles of a religious habit or punctuated by a priest of one of ‘ the orders ‘. Do I feel a different ‘ Catholic ‘ to others . No!
    I’m told that the heretical movement ‘ Jansenism ‘ penetrated deep into the French and Irish Church by the nineteenth century. Looking back , perhaps I sensed echoes of it in my youth and beyond . Stern and aloof priests ?… maybe ; hell and damnation ?.,,,very little , if any.
    As far as the Synod is concerned , then like now ‘ Peter ‘ will make his voice heard ; and that ‘ aboriginal ‘ voice of God informed and matured from influences right from my beginnings until present will speak to me in the same terms that bind myself , my coreligionists , my world ; to say……. family, family , family ! Everything , has always and will always centre on the family !
    .

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brendan.
      You say,family, family, family! Every, has always and will always centre on the family!

      You are right, and it must also include God our Father, Mary our Mother, Jesus our Brother,The Holy Spirit our Comforter, and St Joseph our Protector. The whole Christian Church our Family.

  10. Vincent says:

    I find it useful to employ a model to understand our relationship to God more fully. Many of us have experience of marriage. This has its mortal sins, e.g. adultery, violence etc. And venial sins — too many types to mention. A big difference here is that God is always ready to forgive the very worst, while a marriage partner may only go so far. He is, so to speak, always waiting with open arms.
    Is this a useful parallel to help our understanding?

  11. ignatius says:

    Vincent,
    Yes it does. It is easy to distort an understanding of a person if you do not know them well and so easy for linear and logical doctrinal emphasis to distort an understanding of God which is not based on a father heart.I must admit though that prison chaplaincy does test this model rather at times.

  12. Peter Foster says:

    How the Church teaching came to the state Quentin describes is an important matter for historians. But it constituted an untruth in its own right [that is, naturally, and not by comparison with Christ’s message (of which the Church was the arbiter)] of which people were dimly aware and which greatly weakened the supposed authority of the Church.

    Contemporary untruths with the same authoritarian overtones are: the current version of how the Holy Spirit puts into effect Christ’s message that He will be with his Church, namely, self referenced infallibility; and of course Humanae Vitae.

    For an educated view of the former read: The Limits of Infallibility by Bishop B.C.Butler in the Tablet, 3 January 1970, p.3.

    • Quentin says:

      Ah, Bishop Butler! Yes, he expressed his thoughts on this briefly on the Sunday following the publication of HV. I imagine that this is what he developed in the article to which you refer.

      Whatever take one has on the HV question, I agree that the outcomes have been extremely damaging, and continue to be so.

      I think that had the decision gone the other way it would have been easier for the whole Church to continue her belief in the intrinsic connection between sexual expression and procreation. (And there would have been rather more Catholics to believe it!) Meanwhile I remain a champion of NFP as the most characteristic and virtuous way of living out that connection.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Peter Foster.
      I am trying to search for the Limits of Infallibility by Bishop BC Butler in the Tablet, 3 January 1970, page 3.but have not been able to find it.
      Is there a web site?

  13. Peter Foster says:

    St Joseph: The first part is in the Tablet, 3 January 1970, p.3.
    The second part is in the Tablet, 24 April 1971, p.6.

    Look in the ‘Archive’ in http://www.thetablet.co.uk, and ‘browse all issues’. I think you may have access even if you don’t subscribe.

    Interestingly, I notice that in my copy the first part is more elaborate than in the Tablet so I think he must have also written an expanded version but I haven’t yet found the source.

  14. St.Joseph says:

    I dont know of anyone who subscribes to the Tablet, it is just out of curiosity,,
    But thank you for your help.

    • Quentin says:

      St J. what I recall about Bishop Butler’s remarks following HV is this.

      At the time of HV’s publication it was officially clarified that the document was not infallible. Butler pointed out that not being infallible meant that the document was fallible, i.e., it could be mistaken.

      The Tablet article is a careful analysis of the nature of any infallible papal teaching; he makes the important point that the actual language used is not as important as the meaning the pope intended. he think they should remain very rare, and only used when they are essential. But perhaps we should leave these very detailed explanations to the theologians!

  15. Nektarios says:

    Quentin

    I have re-read your preamble, and much of the postings, and consider it to be judging after the flesh but not the Spirit.

  16. John Candido says:

    There seems to be a gathering consensus amongst a number of theologians that the Roman Catholic Church is being loosely divided into three broad camps, while the church maintains the unifying edifice of the papacy, which keeps the three camps worshiping as one church. These loose and broad wings are the obvious groupings of liberal, moderate and conservative. This is the opinion of liberal theologian Daniel Maguire.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2015/11/three-branches-of-catholicism/

    The synod in Rome on the family has thrown up an important focus of controversy on the idea of the human conscience and what role it plays for all Catholics. It seems to have become an important point of divergence between liberals and conservatives on issues pertaining to the family and to doctrine more broadly.

    http://www.knoxnews.com/knoxville/life/terry-mattingly-conscience-becomes-a-key-fighting-word-in-vatican-synod_88111891

    • Quentin says:

      John, I wonder whether the three approaches you describe are underpinned (at least to some extent) by personal psychology. So conservatives are likely to be people who need everything to be cut and dried. They feel safe like that. The liberals are instinctively against authority and any threat of compulsion raised their hackles. This is a form of delayed adolescence. The moderates (like you and me, of course!) think the rules to be important but retain the need to verify them in actual instances, and to hold the ultimate decision themselves. In the moderate picture, the Church is a witness to the moral law and not the lawgiver.

      • John Candido says:

        I broadly agree with your metaphor Quentin. It is not a bad way of thinking about the three broad positions in the Roman Catholic Church. A similar psychological assessment can be applied to politicians as well, with conservatives on the one hand, moderates in the middle and liberals on the opposite end of the spectrum.

  17. G.D. says:

    Psychological types of them that have a preference to control, them that prefer to be controlled, and them that need neither, would fit the bill more aptly. I am, of course, in the latter group.

    True leaders guide, true followers give themselves freely.
    Both are free of compulsions. And both in the latter group.
    But then no one is perfectly so.

  18. Nektarios says:

    I would ask the question, has anything changed over the the last 60 years or so morally, in marital affairs and how man has sought to deal with it? One could go further back, 1000 years, two thousand years or millennia even before that. Apart from the superficially changes, which the Synod are discussing, what it the area of morals and marital relationship as changed? Well, it seems to me nothing has changed. Tinkering around the edges does not get rid of the problems. Thinking about these problems will not give you the answers, answers yes, but not the truth, the reason being these moral issues etc lie much deeper in us than we imagine, they lie in our fallen human nature.

    Since the Fall man has been walking in darkness, he does not admit this of course and thinks he/she is so enlightened and modern, but as we look around us it is clear for all to see, man is walking in darkness, just like our predecessors before us.

    Jesus said, I am the light of the world, he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

    What difference is there between the conservative, the liberal, the moderate, the psychological and the philosophical approaches if the vast majority are still walking in the dark? Their vaunted proud assertions really amount to nothing, he still walks in the dark.

  19. Nektarios says:

    If you permit, I will go on a little further on this matter.

    The problem that ensued after the Fall would prove catastrophic not only for mankind, but also for the whole of nature and the cosmos.
    For man, he cannot change himself, or his fallen nature, it will die. So I am somewhat surprised that after millennia the Synod by what ever means it has tried in the past and failed, and will it the present fail to reach its objectives, because fallen nature does not only not see it, but does not want it, because the natural man, of the past and the modern present is a sinner, a rebel against God.
    He is in the dark, in his sorrows, in his fears, anxieties, violence sickness and death and he has no answer to it. But God does.

    When Jesus told the Pharisees that He was the Light of the world, the Pharisees assessed Him according to the outward appearance. Christ has made a momentous statement, but all they could do was to ridicule Him, they did not believe Him, others wanted to pick up stone and kill him. So this judging or assessing things only after the flesh then and now, only means this, man is still walking in darkness. Yet Light has come into the world.

    Remember our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus? Can a man be born again when he is old?
    An answerable question. but listen to the Lord’s reply, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that with is born of the Spirit is spirit.’

    So the answer to man’s darkness, is not tinkering with intellectual superficial understanding, which is only walking around in the dark looking for agreement, consensus when what is actually required is the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and dispel our darkness, and more to the point give power to overcome.

  20. St.Joseph says:

    I think we ought to be carefull when we speak about mankind.
    When the Holy Father speaks he speak to everyone.
    However it is mostly Catholics who hear his voice.
    That is why we have a Church, so that we can build on Truth..
    The world will not listen. When Jesus was on earth He spoke to all men.
    Now we have moved on and we as Christians are born of the Spirit.
    Jesus said we will be seperated mother from daughter, etc etc..etc,
    As long as we as christians can hold on to the Truth without losing it to those who wish to desttroy it .Jesus said not all will be saved.
    Those who have gone astra in their life time the Lord will always open His arms to His children if we love Him.
    I believe Pope Francis recognise this. and is fighting Saten. Of cours many will disagree with what I say. But they are my thoughts!

  21. ignatius says:

    Nektarios:
    “So the answer to man’s darkness, is not tinkering with intellectual superficial understanding, which is only walking around in the dark looking for agreement, consensus when what is actually required is the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and dispel our darkness, and more to the point give power to overcome.”

    And I guess it never occurs to you that the Holy spirit might just turn up at synod? ..no, I thought not.

    • John Candido says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more Ignatius; especially synods that are conducted under the auspice, guidance and emphasis of a listening synodal church, where every participant is given the respect and consideration that their position and experience in the Roman Catholic Church as a bishop deserves. That is that they can participate freely and in good faith, without any fear of repercussion against them, or that their sincere contributions are not going to be cynically gazumped by the Pope and/or any member of the Curia with a fait accompli, i.e. a predetermined outcome.

      Considering that the Roman Catholic Church is in a diabolical position in contemporary society on several fronts, such as the loss of adherents, its alienation of modern women and youth in particular, the sorry history of the sexual abuse of children and women, the catastrophic lack of vocations to the priesthood, and the increasing burden of aged priests faithfully administering to their parishioners to the end of their active careers as priests.

      The unintended outcome of preventing synods to work correctly as a shared opportunity for genuine listening, respectful discussion and debate, has meant that the litany of problems outlined previously are made far worse through time than they would have been, given the full effects of a more agile, responsive and listening synodal church, had gone missing. What a complete waste of time for any bishop who actively participated in any synod on the assumption that their statements or experiences were to be given due consideration! How utterly self-defeating, disrespectful, risible and counter-productive!

      Any diminution of synodal integrity and its due processes is completely unacceptable. Experienced ecclesiastical officeholders are savvy enough to know better and it is a given that all of the laity would have expected that they behaved themselves with propriety, integrity and love. To serially ambush synod after synod in a fifty year period, is one of the most duplicitous and disgusting acts imaginable by those entrusted with the governance of our church.

      It is incredibly abusive and disrespectful of the synodal process as common-sense would dictate, and how it was originally conceived by Pope Paul VI and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who collectively brought them into being. A consequence of this fifty year policy stitch-up is that it is depressingly disrespectful to the entire laity of the Roman Catholic Church, by people who are supposed to be caring for the church and acting in good faith as our servants.

    • Nektarios says:

      Ignatius

      What makes you say that? Did I infer that in anything I said?

      If one is looking for answers to man’s problems from the old nature per se, one will never find it and continue as the natural man has always done and continue walking in the dark.
      However Ignatius, what I did infer, was the need to be born again of the Spirit of God, then we have a new nature with a new principle acting in our lives. This is all the work of God in us of course.
      God has given mankind his word, the Bible, and against much persecution, sacrifice and martyrdom that some have paid to bring us the word of God, yet in man blindness as well as darkness ignores it, ridicules it, think they know better , are superior to even the Apostles, so he goes looking for the solutions to man’s big questions and problems in the dark, looking to philosophy, humanism and so on . The answers are there in His word if we but carefully and prayerfully read it and let the Holy Spirit enlighten our minds.

      Lastly, Ignatius, in your last sniping line of your posting, are you suggesting He is not there at the synod, and guess He may or may not turn up? What an odd view you have of God’s omnipresence.

      • ignatius says:

        Nektarios,

        “God has given mankind his word, the Bible, and against much persecution, sacrifice and martyrdom that some have paid to bring us the word of God, yet in man blindness as well as darkness ignores it, ridicules it, think they know better , are superior to even the Apostles, so he goes looking for the solutions to man’s big questions and problems in the dark, looking to philosophy, humanism and so on . The answers are there in His word if we but carefully and prayerfully read it and let the Holy Spirit enlighten our minds….”

        Alas were it so simple then you would not feel the need to bang on about church history and the fallen nature of the Catholic church as you tend so to do. You would not feel the need because, believe it or not Nektarios, we also carefully and prayer fully study the scriptures and trust the Holy spirit to enlighten our minds. If you read the last line of my post more carefully and in context you would see that I had (mistakenly this time I must admit) assumed that your target was the synod itself. Looking again I see that your post is merely unintelligible:
        ” So I am somewhat surprised that after millennia the Synod by what ever means it has tried in the past and failed, and will it the present fail to reach its objectives, because fallen nature does not only not see it, but does not want it, because the natural man, of the past and the modern present is a sinner, a rebel against God.”

        But any case I should, and do, apologise for leaping to unwarranted conclusions.

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