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.

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About Quentin

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

12 Responses to RU a cannibal?

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    I think Quentin’s question is as ever a complex one and it makes one sit back and think about values you hold and how long you have held them. Being a free churchman but brought up in a C of E environment at home I suppose the first thing I can recall is how hard and fast the Roman Catholic faith seemed in its approach to religion to me as I matured. In my 80 odd years or so now I think that society as a whole has been the main changer and religious attitudes have had to think through their responses to the changes to keep up and don’t always get it right in my view. Who would have thought that the folks in Ireland would even discuss abortion let alone plan a referendum on what has always been a tough and painful experience for many to even suggest or contemplate.
    I still find same sex marriage and the whole question of homosexuality and ‘coming out’ difficult to accept and yet was glad when the legal process caught up with public opinion and it became a crime no longer.
    I think we would all ought to be aware in our views – no matter how arrived at or held – that change is here to stay and we should be flexible at all times and in all things as a consequence.

  2. John Nolan says:

    Quentin, I think your ‘bourgeois liberal’ attitude leads you to some odd conclusions. The idea that only in the 1960s did we discover we had a ‘real conscience’ (as opposed to what Newman, that great theologian of conscience, expounded in the 19th century and which was in line with the Church’s teaching on the subject) strikes me as bizarre. What happened was that people confused private judgement with conscience and preferred to be guided by the former.

    Has the Church changed her doctrine on faith and morals since the 1940s? Actually, no. She may be less robust in declaring it, but is this necessarily a good thing? Did it take until the 1960s (nearly two millennia) for the Church to discover her true identity? I know you are not suggesting this, but the whole idea is so absurd as to strain credulity to its limits.

    I came to adulthood after the Second Vatican Council, when some of its dubious fruits were becoming all too painfully evident. This means that my view of what are still recent events are different from those who are a mere ten years older than I, and to whom Vatican II heralded a new dawn.

    Barrie’s comment is interesting: ‘change is here to stay and we should be flexible at all times and in all things’. The first statement is oxymoronic, and the second assumes that there are no doctrinal and moral absolutes. We cannot be flexible in all things, unless we are jellyfish!

    • Quentin says:

      John, in looking at your contribution here I thought I ought to remind myself of what Newman said about conscience. I was fortunate enough to find an excellent description. I know its excellence because I wrote it. Search ‘Clear conscience’ and you will find it. I hope you will agree.

      In my piece this week I used the fiat offered by several dioceses with regard to the use of conscience following Humanae Vitae. This changed the previous teaching on conscience from the academic to the everyday decisions of millions of Catholics.

      Typical of the practical use of conscience in the 20th century was the approach of theologian Henry Davis SJ in his standard work. “The Catholic Church insists therefore, in season and out of season, on the religious education of the child, explicit, dogmatic, determinate moral education in a religious atmosphere, thus giving him something to cling to against the time of vehement temptation. It indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature. It does not wait until the passions have grown strong then to offer the youth the free choice of religious dogmas or moral antidotes. It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.” (1958 edition) Interestingly he deplored the use of Tampax unless you were a ballet dancer.

      Yes, freedom of conscience has always been the teaching. Aquinas gave dramatic examples of its unlimited extent. But now individuals are applying it more generally. And I agree that many problems arise as a result. We have to work this through.

      • John Nolan says:

        Quentin: Done. And I do agree with your summary. Some questions. Would Newman have held that Humanae Vitae was part of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, and therefore infallible? Why did Paul VI, having published the encyclical, forbid American bishops to censure priests who openly preached against it? If a married couple used artificial contraception as family planning, but not with the intention of permanently ruling out having children, could they do this while still accepting the logic of HV?

        I remember my father, a devout and is some ways prudish Irish Catholic, remarking at the time: ‘I think the Church should keep away from the subject of sex for at least the next hundred years.’

      • Quentin says:

        Behind HV there was a long teaching position founded on the belief that sexual expression could only be lawful because God had arranged procreation that way. Thus, to take a single example, a married couple should not have intercourse after the menopause because they could not then have procreational intention. Use of the safe period would have been condemned out of hand as gravely sinful. This would have been the ‘Ordinary and Universal Magisterium,’ for several centuries. So much for its infallibility!
        Latterly the argument against contraception came from ‘biological’ natural law. That is, the structure of intercourse was ordered (by God, presumably) towards conception. (back to Aquinas!) That view would still be held as the reason why such interference with the act is forbidden irrespective of circumstances.I don’t know what Newman would have thought about the prohibition of contraception. Fortunately he wasn’t infallible either. However he would certainly have taken into account the widespread rejection of HV by the body of the Church. You might say that the Church (hierarchical) accepts the prohibition but that the Church as a communion does not — since the laity are part of that communion.

  3. Geordie says:

    A brilliant summing-up John Nolan. The Holy Spirit hasn’t deceived the Church for 2000 years and suddenly produced an enlightenment. I was a young man in the ’60s and I found I was rather a misfit. I was waiting for the Church to put the world back to right thinking but it didn’t. The world changed the Church, or the Church hierarchy of those days, and the hierarchy has kow-towed to the world ever since.
    I thought it must be me that’s wrong so I went with the flow to some extent but not too far. It resulted in me having little respect for the Church’s authority and I began to follow my own conscience with the help Cardinal Newman. He kept me loyal to Catholic practice and Catholic Doctrines but not to Institution of the Church. He, himself, was treated very badly by the hierarchy of his time.

  4. G.D says:

    As an adult covert from out right ‘cannibalism’ sinner and eating anything of the ‘flesh’ i chose, i can say my attitudes have changed drastically, and have stayed so for 40 odd years. (All credit to God alone!).
    Against my ‘social peer group’ and family at the time, and still against the views of many of my present peer group too, i can witness that there is a great importance to holding your own views rather than seeking the ‘crowds’ acceptance. (Although, i like to assume the grace that got me here is infusing my views and they are not my of myself entirely; own them i most certainly do.
    It seems to me ‘progress’ (or at least new horizons) is made from such odd balls. Newman was indeed seen as such by many of his time. As plenty of other bourgeois liberals of history are when too adamant with their views.
    Makes for an ‘isolated’ existence at times, but that’s a bonus! To thyself be true!!
    (p.s. i’m a ‘spiritual vegetarian’ nowadays. The ‘flesh’ has nothing to offer).

  5. John Nolan says:

    Quentin, I believe some of the Church fathers thought that all sexual intercourse was intrinsically sinful. I find it difficult to believe that it was widely taught that sexual intercourse after the menopause was illicit, since Scripture gives two examples of women who conceived in old age – Sarah in the OT and Elizabeth in the NT. The idea of the ‘safe period’ presupposes an understanding of the menstrual cycle which was not available for most of the Church’s history.

    St Augustine in ‘De Bono Conjugali’ concedes that sex in marriage can be affinitive as well as procreative, so it can’t be held that the teaching you cite was ever part of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium – quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est – or that it can be used to suggest that the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium is fallible.

    • Quentin says:

      I think the simplest thing I can do is to email you my pdf on “Towards a New Catholic Anthropology”. It describes reasonably fully the earlier approaches of the Church. For instance if your wife is barren you must live as brother and sister.
      Neither Elizabeth nor Sara show contrary cases since their intention to conceive is specific.
      St Vincent’s 5th century guide to discerning the Church’s teaching (quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est) is no doubt a good starting point. But it is no more than that. Were it an absolute, the Church would not have required the commission on contraception since they would have known the answer before they started. In itself it has no absolute status since we could argue forever on what it contains.

      • John Nolan says:

        Indeed, but as Catholics we are obliged to accept certain truths de fide. Did HV restate what Pius XI had stated in Casti Connubii ? Had Paul VI ruled that it was OK to use the Pill might he have been seen as contradicting the teaching of a recent predecessor?

        I agree with you that the case is by no means closed. Perhaps Paul VI would have been better advised not to appoint the commission in the first place and let Pius XI’s teaching stand. Either it was definitive or it was not, and no committee of ‘experts’ was competent to overturn it.

        I look forward to reading your pdf. I am intrigued by your use of the term ‘approaches’ which hardly suggests settled doctrine! Yet I am prepared to concede that your research has been more thorough than mine.

      • Quentin says:

        Casti Connubii was, I think, the beginning of the change in so far as it accepted positive action to avoid conception. And there was enough fuss about that.

        I think the Commission was unavoidable as a sop to remove the issue from the Council itself. The general outcome of the Council concerning marriage gave an excellent description of the affective side. And of course ‘83 Canon Law revision puts the affective side first, without of course altering the procreational side. I would argue that the affective side was always first insofar as Genesis starts with the concept of sexual intercourse as creating the unity of ‘one flesh’. The first conception comes later.

  6. John Nolan says:

    Thanks, Quentin. You have (as so often) hit the nail firmly on the head.

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