It may seem strange to write a column about the experience of bereavement, but I learnt so much from it that I think it may be helpful for others. I want to describe some of the issues about which I should have been properly prepared, and so may remind others.

But I start by looking at the Almighty’s timetable. Three years ago we scheduled the great family party to celebrate our diamond wedding anniversary. It would be on Sunday, 31th July. But we were foiled: that turned out to be the weekend of the Prudential cycle race – which makes our local roads effectively unusable. So we had it on the Sunday before. Afterwards my wife remembered it in her diary: FANTASTIC! — yes, capitals and underlined. On the next Thursday, the exact date of our anniversary, three of our many grandchildren took us out to supper. It was a lovely evening. In the early hours of Sunday, the original day for the party, her heart failed. There was no sign of pain. I found her body when I brought her the Eucharist from early morning Mass. Her Requiem was on the only day easily available – the Feast of the Assumption. Try and think of a better day for a mother of five. Or rather, of six — she miscarried once at three months, but managed to baptise the child. All her life she looked forward to meeting it in Heaven.

Her bedroom remains the same as it was: her dentures are still in a glass, her spectacles are by her bed. No, I am not expecting her back. But every evening I spend a few minutes with her. Just as any saint to whom we might pray is present to us, so is she to me. Scripture may tell us that there is no marriage in Heaven, but do you think that 60 years of love is ever nullified? Mind you, it can be trying. I often ask her about decisions I have to make. Her guidance is always good, even when I am inclined to disagree. In the old days I would probably have argued, now I listen. She is still guiding my life.

Over time I learnt more things. One surprise for me was that she didn’t simply love her five children. She loved each child uniquely just as each child was unique: five different relationships. So I learnt something about motherly love that I hadn’t taken in before.

There was guilt too. I could think of many instances when I could have understood her better, or when I needed a deeper understanding of what she did and what she thought. And that was particularly clear to me because she had a habit of writing out her feelings, and how she understood my feelings. Finding these, stuffed in a desk drawer, and reading through them (perhaps I shouldn’t have) was painful and remains so. I noticed that in most cases she ended by blaming herself. I saw it differently. Nothing to be done or undone – just a reminder of how we so often fail. More prayers required.

We were from a generation where, on the whole wives did not go out to work, although my wife founded and managed a successful audiotape business for a Catholic charity, and was a highly skilled marriage counsellor. But her function was to run the household while my function, outside my business career, was to look after family money. I can scarcely imagine how complex that would have been for her if I had died first: virtually all our holdings were in both names. Even in this case it was a matter of months rather than weeks, and my good fortune in having a corporate accountant as a son in law. But of course I knew little about the many activities required to keep the household safe and working well. I didn’t know where the relevant papers were, or whether and when renewals were required. Nor did I know that little man around the corner who could fix this and that in the household.

So my advice here is to train each other. Have specific and recorded places for paperwork, and a diary list for renewals and anniversaries. And, from time to time, swap jobs under the other’s tutelage. There should be no task of substance which cannot be carried out correctly by either of you. The children, as was in my case, will strive to be helpful but even they cannot guess without the documentation.

I hope there is no need to remind anyone about having an up to date will, lodged with your lawyer. If you want to know why, google “intestacy”. The distribution rules for the intestate are common sense, but they won’t be right in many situations. I have given power of attorney with regards to finance to my children, and I am in the process of doing the same for health matters. That way, when I go, the children will know how I cared for them. They are my future.

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The First Judgment

I would describe myself as a short man. While I like to think that I have a pleasant face, I would never describe myself as handsome. I wear spectacles – often two pairs — around my neck, and I have a short beard and moustache. I say all this because I am very aware that people make quick judgments about those they meet – and there is a tendency to cling to such judgments despite contrary later evidence. Indeed, even as you read this, you will be developing ideas about the sort of person I am.

This has been important to me in my life since, for various reasons, I have had to speak to many audiences. And I am aware that in a matter of two or three minutes my listeners have formed a view – not only of me but whether I am worth listening to. I write about this because it is only our acceptance that we are vulnerable to such judgments that we may be able to correct our own vulnerability in this regard.

There is a well known story of the discussions between Nixon and Kennedy – on television and on radio. Most people would say that Kennedy was a fine-looking man, while Nixon was, by comparison, dark and threatening – despite his intelligence. When the discussion was on television the audience tended to give the laurels to Kennedy; when it was on radio it was Nixon who got the palm. And plenty of studies looking at voting for politicians, via their appearances, have been carried out in this country.

I do not know enough about accents in the US, but I do know that, in this country, accents – both geographical and social – are an important measurement. I am able to place someone in their social position before they have finished their first sentence. For instance, people with what we would call a BBC accent (it is no longer so of course) are taken to be more intelligent than their lesser friends. I wonder to what extent this is a factor when students apply to top universities. The selectors may be quite unaware of their bias.

Perhaps more ominously, appearance can be important in court. Having a pleasant and attractive face not only increases your chances of bring believed, it gets you better damages if you are suing, and lower damages if you are being sued.

Perhaps I don’t come out too badly. I may be short rather than tall – and there is good evidence that taller people carry a level of authority – and tend to be in higher business positions. And that, I think, is why the ‘short’ Montgomery was so oafish in his demands. On the other, I wear spectacles – which are recognized as a sign of intelligence.

We might wonder why we have this tendency to make, and hold onto, such unreliable judgments. The answer of course is evolution. Our primitive ancestors survived, and so bred, because they spotted early signs of danger. They either had to be ready to fight, assisted by their rush of adrenaline, or escape. Those without this reaction did not survive and so were less likely to breed.

Now of course our brains have developed mightily and so we are able to modify such bad judgments. But to do so we have first to accept that our instinctive judgments are dangerous unless we are ready to recognise them. Once recognised, we are able to modify them. And the greatest danger lies with those who are confident that they have no such prejudiced reactions.

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Quentin queries | 11 Comments

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: 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.?

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 39 Comments

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 | 77 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.

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 26 Comments

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: 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

The mother’s mother did appeal. Here is the outcome of the appeal on last Monday:

And see what you think. Where do you stand?

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 29 Comments


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://

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