Is God Just?

Crime and punishment – no not Dostoevsky, just Quentin – who wants to know the answer. And I am asking about God’s decisions.

Straightforward Catholic teaching tells us that if we commit a mortal sin, and die before we have repented, we go straight to Hell. And there we stay forever. It will not be a pleasant stay: as Scripture describes it, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Over the years, the Catholic Church has identified several different types of mortal sin. The range is wide: murder, stealing (above a certain level), missing Mass on a Sunday without good reason, and so on. Sexual sin has its own little section: even to enjoy mental pleasure at the thought of forbidden sexuality is included. It may be that no one (other than me) who reads this blog has ever committed mortal sin, according to the Church’s judgment. But if anyone has, he or she might have been run over by a bus on their way to the confessional.

It is not surprising that committing a sin has a particular importance. For example, stealing may well be damaging to a friend but, bad enough as it may be, that is nothing compared to offending almighty God. Thus, when Cardinal Newman discusses even venial sin he says: ”The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

Here, of course, the measure of a sin is described not in terms of the act but in the fact that it is committed towards God. I hesitate to argue against Newman. But certain questions enter my mind. If we look at our civil law we know that certain activities are forbidden. And rightly we are called to justice. If we are found to be guilty, we are punished. The range of punishment is broad – going perhaps from a fine to life imprisonment – although even the latter is rarely, in practice, for life.

However, mortal sinfulness is, we are told again and again, involves punishment for ever. Were we, for example, in the agony Hell for millions of years we would still have not even started: billions of years of further punishment await. And it has all been brought about, perhaps, because we failed to attend Mass on a Sunday.

You see, I am looking at justice. Should our punishment be based on our intention or should it be based on the greatness of God? As far as my judgment goes, I have to say that I prefer human justice rather than what we are told about divine justice.
Or not – as you may tell me

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The Almighty’s Good Idea

One of the Almighty’s better ideas is evolution. The system he has set up makes continuously towards improvement. Given that living creatures can pass on their characteristics through breeding, this is the inevitable outcome. The good characteristics enable creatures to survive and breed, the bad characteristics lead to an early death and less breeding.

From the crudest and most simple living creatures, evolution eventually developed human beings who are not only physically strong and adaptable, but they also have huge brains. Much of the work of the brain is automatic: the human being operates mainly without being aware of this. And there is a further element of the brain: human beings are conscious of themselves and they can make choices. Fortunately, they do not realise that many of the choices they make are in fact automatic, because they don’t appear to be so. Even the experts in the field admit that they cannot explain consciousness and freedom of the will. They call it the ‘hard problem’.

Here is one interesting example. The earliest human beings lived in very hot areas where it was advantageous to have black skin. So that developed. But later, human beings began to colonise the cooler parts of the world. For this, a lighter, even pink, skin was advantageous. So, evolution did its work. And now I notice something very odd: it seems that light skinned people tend to despise black skinned people. Why is this? They should be revering their aristocratic forebears, but they fail to do so.

Let’s look at another aspect: the process of human breeding. I start with women. What characteristics are required by the female of the species? The female has to carry her offspring for most of a year, and then must support the offspring until they are able to care for themselves.

It follows that they will be drawn towards males who appear to be powerful, competent and reliable. They must be healthy in their appearance. And they must have financial resources. It is only such males who are likely to defend and provide for the mother over the several years of childcare. We might think that in the present time some of these characteristics may be in practice less important – but we have to remember that these tendencies in women are inherited from their long-term foremothers. Changed conditions do not change the instincts.

What is required of the male? Certainly, he will look out for the attractive female in good health – she is likely to be competent to bear and to care for the young. So, symmetry, which indicates health, and breasts which indicate milk will be factors. So will the ratio between waist and pelvis. But behind all that, is the need for the male to spread his seed as widely as possible. Unlike the female. who may pay a heavy price, it is at no cost to him. But there is good evidence that women, perhaps unconsciously, supercharge their attractiveness at the time of ovulation. For example, pole dancers in night clubs receive larger ‘tips’ when they are ovulating.

So we are reminded that the pickiness of the female is built into them through their evolved nature. Similarly, the unwanted male approach is triggered by the same means. We are sometimes given to criticise the opposite sex in this regard. But is that fair when the habits have come from how evolution works? Without it, there would be no human race at all.

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NEWMAN — bad or good?

Next Sunday, Cardinal Newman will be declared a saint. It would be interesting to know how readers of this site react to him and to his value to the Church. I am aware that some of you know more of Newman than I do. I have confined myself to a brief account, but you will find much more available on the Internet at, for example:

Cardinal Newman 101: An introduction to his life, work, and thought

Newman was born into an Evangelical Anglican family. For a time, he was an Oxford don. As vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, his reputation was initially born from his magnificent sermons. Far from being brief and histrionic, these were lengthy and largely spoken in a monotone voice. But their matter was marvelous. Many of his sermon are available in print.

He was to become very involved with the Oxford Movement — which worked towards restoring to Anglicanism the elements of Christianity which were present in the first millennium. The Movement presented its case in a large number of “tracts” (Tractarianism). Newman was a major contributor. But his deep studies eventually led to his conversion. While being very concerned for his existing Anglican flock, he became a Catholic in 1845.

While he was preparing for ordination, he was asked to consider the Congregation of the Oratory. This could be described as a community of which the members lived a common life based on personal friendship, but without vows or other special regulations. That suited him well.

Notwithstanding his admirers, Newman was often involved in criticism — sourced by both Anglicans and Catholics. The most remembered occasion was the vicious claim of the writer Charles Kingsley. Kingsley had said: “Truth for its own sake has never been a virtue of the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not, to be.” But the eventual grand outcome was Newman’s spiritual autobiography: his Apologia pro Vita Sua

Pius IX deputed him to establish the Oratory in England and to establish what would become The Oratory School. At age 79 he was named a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. He declared “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” And he took that opportunity to emphasize once more his condemnation of liberalism in religion. His motto, “Cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart) reminds us that we are all called to our personal relationship with God and with our neighbour.

We might ask ourselves in what respects Newman’s teachings have influenced the Church and remain effective today. Which, if any, have benefitted, and continue to benefit today? Which, if any, have damaged the Church today?

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Listen to my sermon

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekly Mass in my parish – to commemorate an important family occasion. My housekeeper came with me. Being a big parish, we often have a foreign priest – as we had on this occasion. When we left, my housekeeper asked me what the lengthy sermon was about. Given that she was a Ukrainian that was understandable. But I had to confess that I too didn’t understand a single word from beginning to end. Nor do I criticise the preacher: he had clearly spent a long time in preparation. No one, I presume, has pointed out to him that a much shorter sermon, but given more clearly, could have been effective.

Pope Francis has much to say on the sermon: “Everyone who goes to Mass has the right to hear the word of God in all its fullness, which means it must be read well and explained well with fervour.” I am told that his own sermons tend not to be longer than ten minutes.” And that, I think, is the maximum – even if you happen to be the pope. Five or seven minutes is usually quite enough.

I assume that priests in training are coached in the skills of preaching although I haven’t read the principles which are exercised. But, were I were asked what the principles should be, I would have a clear list of the important points. You may say that these have more to do with secular skills than religious ones. And that is so because speakers and audiences have the same characteristics whether the matter is secular or sacred. My expertise lies not in only in having trained speakers but in a lifetime of addressing audiences – from Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to major business conferences.

The first is the most important: set out your objectives. These are not what you are going to do but what you want to change or develop in the congregation’s mind. For example, you might want the congregation to recognise the relevance of a passage such as “So it is when a man stores up pleasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.” (Luke 12). And you would hope that at least a few will set aside time later in the day to think about themselves in this regard. Every aspect of planning must measure up against these objectives.

The second is to glance once or twice around the whole congregation, including the side aisles and people standing at the back. They now all know that you are speaking to them – person to person. And this will also trigger your volume and your speed so that you engage with everyone.

You will of course have checked the loudspeaker system, and you will know how to use the microphone without taking your eyes from the congregation. You will be aware of the different acoustics between a full and a thin congregation in this regard.

Yes, use the occasional story to illustrate the point. In this case the Gospel tells us of the man who stored all his crops rather than all his virtues. There are modern equivalents. Tell it well, and you will not need a second story. And avoid going round and round — giving the same message in different forms. If you can’t make it clear the first time, get that right first.

Use your own insights when appropriate. You are a priest with a long spiritual life. Understanding what you yourself have been through in coming to terms with the message reminds the congregation that, whether or ordained or not, we all have similar struggles in imitating Christ.

How you start will be important. Audiences decide within a few seconds whether to listen to what you are about to say. You don’t get two shots at this. At least metaphorically, the congregation will sit up and move forward in their seats or close their minds and sit back.

Use pauses, but with discretion. Information is taken first into the short term memory but it disappears if there is no pause to move it into the long term memory. Give your congregation that fraction of time, so that they can remember.

Few people will buttonhole you at the door and tell you what was wrong with your sermon. So, finally, pick a group of, perhaps three, sincere friends whose rôle it is to criticise each sermon. If I ever achieved a competence in public speaking it was because I relied on my wife to point out my various faults or potential improvements. And she didn’t hold back. I learnt a great deal.

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Did I say that?

I am having a difficult week – some hours in hospital trying to locate a blood clot which may, in fact, not exist. So self indulgently I have gone straight for those attractive little quotes – which tend to be amusing and, often indirectly, wise. I have chosen the Anglican minister Sydney Smith as the author; early 19th century.
However three of the quotes are written not by Smith but by me. Can you spot them?
Perhaps readers will have other examples for us to enjoy.

* * *

I never could find any man who could think for two minutes together.

(Macaulay) is like a book in breeches.

(Macaulay) has occasional flashes of silence, that make his conversation perfectly delightful.

My definition of marriage — it resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes in between them.

I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.

The great spectacle of human happiness.

It is a place with only one post a day…In the country I always fear that creation will expire before teatime.

Minorities – are almost always in the right.

Poverty is no disgrace to a man, but it is confoundedly inconvenient.

I am convinced that digestion is the great secret of life.

One of the greatest pleasures of life is conversation.

How can a bishop marry? How can he flirt? The most he can say is, “I will see you in the vestry after service.”

A Curate—there is something which excites compassion in the very name of a Curate!

Those who change their minds change their friends.

I have no relish for the country, it is a kind of healthy grave.

I am going to pray for you at St Pauls, but with no very lively hope of success.

No furniture as charming as books.

The religious mind exchanges thought for Holy Writ.

I require a special operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding. Their only idea of wit is laughing immoderately at stated intervals.

I look upon Switzerland as an inferior sort of Scotland.

What a pity it is that we have no amusements in England but vice and religion.

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Does the name Crito bring a memory? He was Socrates’ friend and, when Socrates had wrongfully been condemned to death, Crito tried to persuade him to escape. But Socrates refused. He argued that such action would be against the laws of Athens. Breaking one law would in effect be the same as breaking any other law. He had chosen to live his life in Athens, and he had enjoyed the benefits of that, including those laws. He had therefore no right to break them.

Whether we agree with him or not, we are still faced by the question of the Social Contract. That is, we all accept the laws of the country even if we dislike some of them. By choosing to live, and benefit from, our society we undertake to accept the rules of that society – which are intended for the society’s welfare.

Philosophers have argued the Social Contract over the ages. Starting with Aristotle and Socrates, other names are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and, in the 20th century, Nozick and Rawls. We find it implicitly in the Bible: the social commandments, such as “Thou shalt not steal”, are principles derived from the Social Contract.

Something so fundamental is likely to have an element related to evolution. And that is certainly so. In primitive times it was necessary to be a member of a group, otherwise survival would be unlikely. It was also necessary to be wary of other groups: there was always danger from “foreigners”. It follows that those humans who favoured being in a group, and being wary of strangers, were more likely to survive and, more importantly for evolution, to breed and protect their young. So our inherited tendency is to live in a group and to share that group’s assumptions and values.

It is not all sunshine – there are dangers, too. The most obvious one is our tendency to share the views of our group. We accept unthinkingly, and we find it painful to question, and perhaps reject, the views of our group. We see a distorted version in the current use of social media whose validity is not based on logic and evidence but merely on the numbers who agree.

We also find it inevitable to make broad judgments about identifiable groups. These are myriad. They can range from gender: “typical of men’, ‘typical of women’ to ‘typical of the Irish’, typical of the Italians’, to accent: ‘upper class’, ‘working class’. We simply don’t have the time to investigate, we need to generalise. Most of the time such judgments result in mere stupidity rather than maliciousness. But not always. How do people generally judge Catholics, or atheists? And, of course the Jews and the Muslims – you do not need me to develop the outcome of that.

How do we cope with our tendencies to generalise? Perhaps readers will have some ideas. But I know that we must start from accepting that we do generalise, and in fact that we need to do so in practice. Once we recognise that, it becomes possible to review our judgments in the light of that. And that is a difficult habit to maintain. At this moment I am aware of this need – because I have been thinking and writing about it. But tomorrow, if I am not careful, I will slip back to my guilty habit of prejudice.

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Three too many

Universal Credit, which provides cash benefits if you are on a low income or out of work, has been often mentioned in the Press. The major issue has been that the allowances are paid at the end of the month rather than at the beginning. The consequence in many cases is that recipients fall into debt. They can get loans from various commercial organisations but the rates of interest are huge. And then they may find themselves in a cycle of debt from which there is no easy way out.

But today I want to look at another issue. Not surprisingly, parents with dependent children get benefits for these. But the situation has changed. I quote the officialese: “If your children were born before 6 April 2017, you will be able to claim for them all. If one or more of your children were born on or after 6 April 2017, you will only be able to claim for the first two unless you had a multiple birth or have adopted.”

Many people would agree with that. Why should couples have endless children at the expense of all of us? Their poverty may not be their fault but that is no excuse when there are plenty of ways to avoid pregnancy. Others would argue that the threat of global warming is highly relevant. The more the children the more the population – and so, the more consumers, the more the warming. So far I have not yet heard the argument that abortion is a virtue in its contribution to protecting our climate. But I daresay that will come.

It would seem that, leaving aside the demands of poverty, any family who has more than two children is damaging society. Do we agree with these arguments? If we do I am in a sticky position: not only do I have five children but I have several grandchildren and a swiftly growing number of great grandchildren. (Twenty-three descendants so far.) The older ones have had, or are having, fine and important careers, but that make no difference: I am clearly responsible for too many consumers.

What do you think?

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