A taxing question

What are the rights of the civil state concerning taxation? The first consideration is that it allows the state to remove income, capital gains or wealth from people who have lawfully earned their income or succeeded in making profits. What gives it the right to do so? Philosophers have considered this over the ages but there seems to be a broad agreement that in benefiting from the state we enter into a contract in which we agree contribute to provide the benefits of belonging. Thus even the child in the womb is taken as entering this contract, since it is benefiting from the safe condition of its mother – which the state has enabled.

Theology recognises the state as a subject of natural law. Since we are created as social animals, and so live in collective societies, we are bound to obey the proper authorities and pay our share towards the necessary collective benefits. But that does not give the state a free hand. It must always remember that it is the citizens’ funds, which have been lawfully acquired, which they are taking. Notionally, indeed, it should be regretfully apologising for every penny it takes, and it should ensure that this is used for necessary, just, and proper benefits for society as a whole. (See the Laffer Curve, below)

Is this the impression we have? Or does it feel closer to grabbing its money any way it can which is consistent with, or tending towards, the ruling party remaining in power? And there are other considerations:

What happens to a society in which its most successful people lose much of the benefits of of success through progressive rates of taxation?

Is it proper for the state to use taxation as a device to reduce the diversity of incomes? We are often presented with examples where senior executives have salaries and benefits many time higher than their average employees. But if the employees have salaries at the normal market level are we justified in complaining?

Is it just to impose new taxation on long term activities? For example, the removal of tax relief on interest charges for those who entered buy to let projects to build up their retirement funds. A business can treat these charges as costs of business but the individual now cannot do this. Another example would be extra charges on old diesel cars bought at a time when diesel was recommended as avoiding air pollution.

The Laffer Curve. This is attributed to the American Arthur Laffer in the 1970s. He visualised a rate of tax chosen by the state from 0 percent of personal income to 100 percent. In the first case the tax take is zero. In the second case the tax take is also zero (because no one bothers to work when they aren’t rewarded. ) Somewhere between the two is the ideal point where maximum tax take is found. While in practice this ideal is variable and difficult to pinpoint it reminds the government that increased taxes may sometimes reduce the take. For example the high stamp duty on expensive houses has contributed to a reduction in elderly people downsizing, and thus releasing property for the young.

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Do you disagree?

At what level does stealing constitute a mortal sin? The answer as I write is £155.02. I say this with confidence because the good Jesuits taught me, in 1944, that £5 constituted “grave matter”, and so potentially a mortal sin. It may even have altered a penny or two by the time you read this. Aren’t we lucky? A combination of the modern Catechism and the thoughts of leading moral theologians enable us to measure immediately the moral status of any act we have committed or are proposing to commit. In these days of the smartphone every Catholic should have an app which will not only assess gravity but will indicate a proper penance. No doubt, as artificial intelligence advances, an app will also give us absolution once we have ticked the box confirming our firm purpose of amendment. We must hope that St Peter has a good connection to the internet.

But I am being serious. Behind me as I write are several volumes on Catholic moral matters but very little on the formation of conscience. Perhaps I don’t need it: if the answer is always to be found at the back of a book, why look for a different answer? Yet the deep theology of the moral life tells us that we stand or fall by our response to what we recognise to be evil or good. It is really rather important.

Let’s see what a secular situation might tell us. Imagine that you take your child to a doctor because he suffers from bedwetting. Your doctor concludes that the child has psychological anxieties and should be referred to a psychoanalysis expert. But your own research tells you that enuresis is best cured by behavioural methods. Which authority do you follow: the doctor or your own judgment? The answer must lie in which you judge to be in your child’s best interests. It is quite proper, of course, to choose the recognised authority if we think it to be more likely to be right than us, but vice versa if we do not.

Is this a parallel for moral questions? Here, the authority is likely to be the Church’s moral law. There is no doubt that this has authority in its moral teaching, but changing situations or better understandings have led to developments from time to time. An interesting example was the elevation of the seriousness of abortion when science, via the microscope, demonstrated the radical unity of the embryo from conception onwards. Currently the argument concerns whether an individual in a technically adulterous marriage can ever rightly receive the Eucharist.

Forgive me for covering well-trodden ground but another standing example is the acceptance by many episcopal authorities that those whose conscience guides them to use artificial contraception should do so. In this case the formal doctrine was authoritative and embedded in tradition. It clarified that there may be instances in which the magisterium’s commands should yield to the conclusion of individual conscience.

Obedience is an evolved tendency which enabled groups of various kinds to survive and breed by working together and submitting to common rules. We respect and respond to proper authority, but we must always be aware that it is not absolute: we must answer for yielding to obedience rather than to our own reason. Experience warns us that our inherited tendency to obey is influenced by our temperament and our personal history.

We are obedient to God because, by definition, he is the infinity of the good, but this is not invariably so for the agencies which translate this goodness for us. Catholic morality is rightly based in natural law, and our respect for this requires us to review our moral alternatives in the light of the magisterium’s understanding of nature. That understanding remains open to development.

This may read as if I am encouraging barrack-room lawyers, questioning every instruction and constantly arguing. I am not. But I am suggesting that to act solely in response to authority is morally inferior to recognising the good which lies behind the instruction. And that could, and should, lead us to say so if we encounter an instruction, either in itself or in some application, we judge to be contrary to the good.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this in action was the “conversion” of the late eminent moral theologian Josef Fuchs SJ. His book Natural Law (1965) remains a classic text on the subject as it was traditionally taught. As a member of the pontifical commission on contraception, he sought to understand the views of the lay, married members of the commission and concluded that, through their direct experience of the demands of married love, they were the most reliable judges of the application of natural law to contraceptive practice in their own lives. Some call him “the champion of the Catholic conscience”. Others don’t

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Spirituality | 36 Comments

Just write it down

Many years ago when I was working as a marriage counsellor I was faced by complex patterns of issues within a marriage. Not only were there different issues but these interlocked in several ways. How to sort all this out or, more importantly, how could the dysfunctional couple understand what was happening and what had to change?

I adopted the technique of Mind Maps (to which I had been introduced by Tony Buzan in his book Use Your Head). Put simply, you grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled the major issues down – each within its box. You could add new issues as they came to mind. Then, thinking about an issue , you could put in the elements, and sometimes the elements in the elements. But the effect went beyond increasing clarity, it seemed that the very process of writing it down enabled the clients to observe and mark the connections between the issues and free their brain sufficiently to start
tackling the problems.

Some years later, when such cognitive behavioural methods had become orthodoxy, I noted that writing things down (keeping a diary of relevant incidents, for example) was often the means through which the client could grasp the essence of the problem in a new and constructive way. It has become a major element in therapy, and has its own name: Journaling. It appears, though I do not know the process yet, that somehow the brain understands or reacts in a different way when a record is actually written down. (Anyone have ideas on this?)

I have had recent personal experience. I found that I was not getting easily to sleep. When I turned my light off, various little activities required for the next day would crowd into my mind. Pointless, of course, since I could do nothing about them from my bed at night. Even though commonsense told me that they were not threatening, they still threatened. The worst threat was that my consequent loss of sleep would make the tasks harder.

It then occurred to me that what I had used to help others might actually help me. So I grabbed a lined pad and a pencil and I speedily wrote my thoughts on the matter in the random order they came to me. I censored nothing. There were 11 statements but it could not have taken more than five minutes.

The result was amazing. That night, clicking off my light clicked off my brain. If I sensed a thought coming I rejected it before my brain could even formulate it. But more importantly, this was several weeks ago. Throughout those weeks I have fallen asleep almost immediately every night. Looking at my old scribbled list I note two thoughts which seemed most important.

1 Anxiety about sleep prevents sleep.
2 I cannot fall asleep as long as I am watching for sleep to come.

Neither of these were news to me but it seems that deliberately specifying and writing them down made them stick and become realities in my brain.

I would be interested to read contributors’ experiences of not falling asleep or of reducing insomnia.

Posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 12 Comments

Just five hundred years

Any one familiar with Luther’s 95 Theses, and who are aware of the history of the times, would agree that the Catholic Church needed substantial reformation. Its power over the secular world and its greedy financial appetite were inexcusable. And these outcomes were the fruit of a substantial loss of the holiness that should be one of the marks of the Church. As Lord Acton, commenting on the Renaissance popes, famously said: “All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But, at the quincentenary of Luther’s famous protest (Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum 31 October 1517), we should be aware that, at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation, there was a clear theology. We may, or may not, agree with it but we should not dismiss it. In our vocation to understand the truth we may find new insights in those with whom we disagree. And that goes both ways.

Luther put the highest value on the grace of Christ. He held that the human race was irrevocably damaged through Original Sin and so could do nothing to help itself. But if it believed and accepted with certainty the grace of Christ as the sole source of goodness and redemption, the bounty of undeserved grace would bring us to Paradise. We are not holy, nor can we ever be holy while we are in our corrupted bodies: Christ’s grace is all. From this foundational principle a number of doctrines emerge.

It might be logically supposed that we have no responsibility for our bad actions and so are freed from the obligation of leading a good life. If our certainty of redemption is all that is required then our morality is not required. But the conclusion is more subtle than that: it is not our morality which we choose but Christ’s morality working itself out through us. We do not say: ‘That’s a good man’, but we say ‘That’s a fallen man, through whom Christ is expressing his goodness.’ There is no such thing as human good works, nor can there be a human freedom of will to choose them.

The seven sacraments, which Catholics describe as ‘outward signs of inward grace’, must be severely pruned. Baptism, as the ritual sign of the presence of Christ’s redemptive promise, and the Eucharist as a sign helping us to realise redemption more fully continue. They are reminders. The remainder have no place.

The whole edifice of Purgatory, together with Indulgences, penances and the rest are wiped off the book. As soon as we die, leaving the corrupted body behind, we are taken into Christ’s redemption. The evil is left behind.

And it must follow that the whole teaching Church with its authorities and its theologians interpreting and developing doctrine must be ignored: the teachers themselves are corrupted by sin, and their proclaimed truths and rules are of no value. The only source of truth which God has given us is Scripture: the phrase sola scriptura and sola fides are born.

This is a very brief account of Luther’s theology, and I would value comments, disagreements, reactions and fuller explanations. I am in debt to Richard Rex, Professor of Reformation History at Cambridge. See his article in the Tablet (14 October). Needless to say that he has no responsibility for the views I express here. His book, The Making of Martin Luther, is now published by Princeton Lutheran Press.

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This day, fifty years ago

This day, exactly 50 years ago, the Abortion Act, introduced as a private bill by David Steel MP, received its Royal Assent. It came into effect in the following April. In 2016 there were 190,406 abortions in England and Wales, of which 38 per cent were to women who had had one or more previous abortions. Over eight million human beings have been aborted since the Act.

We might date the modern view towards abortion from the Rex v. Bourne case of 1938. The law already allowed abortion where the mother was in danger of death; the case extended this to a qualified doctor who in good faith removed a pregnancy for the purpose of preserving the mother’s life. The distinction between danger of death and the preserving of the mother’s life introduced a broader level of judgement with particular emphasis on the good faith of the doctor. I happened in the 1950s to be privy to the records of an expensive West End doctor from which I concluded that a chequebook might be helpful too. As Roy Jenkins (then Home Secretary) described it, it was one law for the poor and another for the rich.

So it was no surprise in the 1960s, when the prospect of more liberal legislation was in sight, that much was made of the frequency and the dangers of illegal abortion, to which the poorer class was vulnerable. The picture of knitting needles, old hags and backrooms in the slums was vivid. At the emotional level the issue became one of proletarian danger and death. But big round numbers are powerful in emotional debate and much was made of the claim that 100,000 illegal abortions took place every year. The number, estimated at that time by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists at some 15,000, could not cut the mustard by comparison.

Fortunately there was another level of debate. I got involved in this as a result of a letter I sent to the Spectator. I was a very young man and I must have assumed that the simple case I laid out was so incontrovertible that the issue would be abandoned: the forces of evil would retreat to their holes. They did not. The initial positions that the foetus was either a human being and thus sacrosanct, or that it was not yet a human being and thus had no rights, never changed. The Anglican bishops lay in between: the foetus was a potential human being and thus had a secondary right to life which should be protected unless the mother’s life was in danger.

It was in this context that I found myself meeting with the Abortion Law Reform Association. I believed that brief exchanges in the Press could never resolve the question, and that it required a written debate which would lay out the arguments in extenso. ALRA, with whom I had several meetings, appeared to be open to this but said they were unable to find the time. I was less keen on the offered alternative which was a public debate and would be more dependent on the quality of the speakers than the quality of the argument.

In the Act a fundamental condition for a legal abortion was that the risk to the mother’s life was greater than if the pregnancy were terminated. And thereby hangs an irony. The amendment which led to this was introduced in the House of Lords at the behest of a strong opponent to abortion who believed that that it would exclude most abortions. The members of ALRA present in the gallery could not believe their luck. It was a sound medical opinion that medical abortion would always be safer than continuing to term. A key condition in the Act, arguably legalising virtually all abortions, was in effect written by the anti- abortionists.

Of course ALRA and their friends won. Nowadays abortion can be obtained with little difficulty even when it is no more than a convenience for the mother. Two doctors are required to approve an abortion and we read newspaper reports which suggest that the process can be effectively nominal. (See CH Letters, October 13, Dr Dermot Kearney.) Yet we should have compassion for those for whom pregnancy is a life-changing moral dilemma. Their choice may be an agonising one.

One group suffers in a different way: doctors and medical staff. The Act contains a conscience clause which protects those who refuse to take part in the treatment. It does not apply to indirect activities which contribute to abortion. Certainly every would-be Catholic doctor or nurse should be aware of how their prospects may be affected in a profession ostensibly devoted to human life. In 2012 two Catholic nurses who were required to delegate, supervise and support staff who carried out abortions were refused the protection of conscience because their involvement was indirect. We might contrast this with Reinhold Hanning, an administrative guard at Auschwitz, who was found guilty under German law as an accessory in the death of 170,000 people.

It is now broadly accepted that the rights of the foetus, if any, must give way to the choice of the mother irrespective of other issues. And there is an outstanding controversial question about whether the conceptus can be regarded as an individual human being before the “primitive streak” at 14 days. This is morally significant to the “morning after” pill and the coil. The Church, while prohibiting abortion from conception onwards, does not claim that individual human life necessarily starts at that point.

The emphasis nowadays is on the rights of the mother, although, this is inconsistent with the key United Nation’s documents. It is beginning to be claimed that opponents of abortion are extremists and, in the case of Catholics, indoctrinated by a Church which has sometimes been shown to be wrong on moral doctrines derived from faulty science.

Some recent incidents illustrate the sign of the times. The Royal College of Midwives, the BMA and the RCOG argue that abortion should be decriminalised. The President of the RCM believes that the normal time limit (40 weeks) should be removed, but here she appears to be going against the public grain . She compared the medical status of the operation to removing a bunion.

The recent British Attitudes Survey tells us that 61 per cent of Catholics approve of legalised abortion. We do not know how many of these are nominal. But it may be that our emphasis on the Church’s prohibition is counterproductive. We might instead explain that it is our conscience which tells us that every individual human being has a fundamental right to life. We do not have to look far back in political history to see the dangers of abandoning that principle.

Finally, on a more cheerful note, it is clear that the British public, as a whole, do not want the right to abortion to be extended. A large poll, taken this year, demonstrated this comprehensively. Gratifyingly, only one per cent favoured abortion being allowed up to birth. No room for more details here, but http://bit.ly/2t5VKTE is a starting point.

To review arguments on both sides, try Moral Maze on BBC IPlayer (14 October). This was a well- balanced programme, and naturally ended with disagreement.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged | 31 Comments

Now that’s queer.

The last blog ‘Who decides our morals?’ received interesting and constructive comment. We touched on the subject of homosexuality, and John Thomas warned us about possible outcomes:
“Truly-independent studies have shown that the result of many homosexual practices involve disease, pain, suffering and death: are we really “liberal” in believing in an institution (eg. same-sex “marriage”) which promotes such practices, and their results? I doubt it. Maybe the truly “liberal” approach – that which truly frees people – is the one which says “for your own sake, you mustn’t …”

So let’s talk a little more about this since homosexuality has some issues which can help our understanding of Natural Law, as presented by the Church.

Perhaps I should start by saying that I do not question John’s evidence. Rather I welcome it, because it reinforces the nature of homosexuality as a mismatch. That is not a theological conclusion but a factual one: the mismatch is between biology and orientation. And mismatches tend towards problems: try putting a two-pin plug into a three-pin socket and you will see the mismatch straightaway. So we should expect the sort of problem outcomes to which John refers. The Church (CCC 2357) describes homosexual acts as grave depravity, intrinsically disordered, and which can under no circumstances be approved. While ‘disordered’ has the same meaning as ‘mismatched’, it carries more condemnatory overtones.

Clearly we should avoid mismatches as far as practical. But we are told that homosexual orientation is not chosen. It is suggested that it can come through genes, through problems in the womb before birth, or through upbringing. Nor is it curable. Various psychologists, or pseudo psychologists, have claimed that they can ‘cure’ it, but evidence of success is lacking. So we can presume that homosexual orientation in itself involves no moral fault.

But homosexual acts are a different matter. Could there be circumstances in which these might be justified? The answer in Catholic terms is unconditionally ‘no’. The reason is that homosexual acts are judged as intrinsically wrong, so, by definition, they are always sinful. This is an element in Natural Law which holds that God expresses his direct will through the structure he has created. This was understandable up to the 19th century but now we know that, through evolution, the creation of biological structure is indirect. While the outcomes of evolution are generally good since they have supported survival, this is not always so – particularly when conditions change. (A current example is the fertility rate which is about three times too high for modern conditions, and has to be controlled though contraception.)

While we are free to judge homosexual acts as evil, depending on the circumstances, we may no longer claim that they are always evil simply because God was once thought to have proclaimed this through his direct creative act.

It then becomes possible to consider whether two homosexuals who have entered into a committed loving relationship may be behaving virtuously in terms of what is open to them. We might well expect that the mismatch involved could cause problems, although the evidence that this is so in the case of homosexual marriage, is not yet available. I would not call it marriage for semantic reasons, and I would prefer to think of it as a civil partnership, but I should be happy to respect it as a good thing. Would you?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 41 Comments

Who decides our morals?

When my wife miscarried at three months she pulled herself, haemorrhaging, to a tap so that she could baptise her baby. Why? Because she had been taught that an unbaptised baby will never get to Heaven. I commend her devotion, but just look at the situation: this child created to be fulfilled in eternity with God might, simply by chance, miss the whole point of its existence. Indeed at an earlier time it was thought that its destination was punishment in Hell because it was damned by the inheritance of Original Sin. Later we invented Limbo, but the principle was the same.

If that looks absurd to me – an active cradle Catholic – how would it look to an outsider? Flip through the New Testament and you will read the fundamental message that the vast majority of the world’s population is on its way to Hell. The only way to escape that fate is to be baptised and, in doing so, become a member of an exclusive organisation called Christianity. There are only one or two small exceptions, such as baptism of desire.

And, even the baptised are likely to stand in danger. How many of us can hold our hands on our hearts and claim that we have never committed a mortal sin – as so described by the Church?

I have tried to explain to outsiders that we have to interpret Scripture in terms of the context and knowledge of the times. They politely say they understand – but they walk off shaking their heads. And really I agree with them. Scripture is clear and emphatic about this. And the Church throughout its history has solemnly taught these things. If the infallibility of the Church cannot be invoked here, where else can it be invoked?

We are all aware of the decreasing proportion of Catholics in the developed world. And we know of so many who have in fact lapsed. I know, because it’s my generation, and many grandparents tell me that their adult children, to say nothing of adult grandchildren, have simply slipped away. It was a granddaughter of mine in her early teens whom I was teaching Catholic sexual doctrine. In fact she knew it well from her convent. She said “Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught, but I have to think about real life.”

I am aware that the beliefs and principles of the Church will often be rejected by the world. We should expect that. But I would be happier if we were associated with a moral law which others might envy, and which we fully understand and defend out of conscience rather than fiat;. For example, I will have no truck with abortion – I don’t need the Church to tell me that. But I am open to a more liberal attitude towards homosexuality – now that we understand the condition much better.

It is no surprise that Pope Francis is in trouble with the traditional conservatives. He favours active and continual exploration of the demands of morality. He respects tradition but has little time for accepting it as always the last word..

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