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?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 9 Comments

Out in the Open

It’s Summer and the sun is shining. So today I am allowing myself a little nostalgia. Imagine walking down the north side of Leicester Square in the 1950s. You come across a little court leading to Soho, and there is a small crowd listening to a speaker standing behind a one-man rostrum. You will be surprised to see a crucifix on the rostrum and to hear the speaker talking about papal infallibility or the confessional or some other basic Catholic belief. I say talking but it is more like an energetic discussion between speaker and a continuously variable little crowd.

That speaker was me. And the organisation behind it was the Catholic Evidence Guild. There were branches of this around the country but the London one was the largest. That was no surprise because the senior executive was Frank Sheed (of the publishers, Sheed and Ward). Frank, whom I knew very well, was a magnificent lay theologian. His book Theology and Sanity is a classic. If you never read another book make sure you read that one. The main presence of the Guild was Speakers’ Corner at Marble Arch (where I spoke occasionally). There was another “stand” in the City — normally used at lunchtime.

Speakers had a tough training qualifying for different subjects. They had first to present their talk in front of other Guild speakers. They were given no quarter, tears were common. Then they were interrogated by a theologian – and eventually they were let loose on the public.

Of course you started with no audience (perhaps you had a friend with you – who tried to look like a crowd). So you were largely declaiming to the air. But someone would eventually shout back and, with a bit of luck, a crowd would gradually form. Sometimes you had twenty or more listeners. And occasionally you had the treat of genuine, useful, discussion. Just once or twice a listener would speak to me after I had finished. It was usually a personal question – which I either could answer or give them where they might get help.

I benefitted considerably from the experience. Most obviously I have never been frightened by an ordinary audience: normal audiences don’t behave like the Leicester Square crowd. And. decades later, I was earning rather an attractive amount of money as a professional public speaker. How splendid to be paid for doing something that brings you joy!

Naturally,I had to develop my knowledge of a wide range of Catholic theology, and of course all the objections people might throw at it. I had, and still have, a three volume treatise on this, called Radio Replies. Spend five minutes at . You will get a sample idea. (I have chosen the subject of the Catholic view of Reformation Churches since we have recently discussed this. Nowadays we would probably speak more kindly, but the doctrine is the same.)

As far as I know, the Catholic Evidence Guild no longer operates. However Catholic Voices started in 2010. The focus here has been not the street corner but the media. They aim to get opportunities, on the radio for instance, for well briefed (and trained) Catholics to explain issues which are in the news. I was briefly associated with them at an early stage to assist in their preparation. This is clearly a better solution than Speakers Corner in today’s world. And they continue to develop new ideas – such as talking to the laity at parish level about how to explain the Church in a productive and positive way. Austen Ivereigh’s book “How to Defend the Faith” is something of a classic.

Possibly, visitors to this Blog can bring us up to date. The Catholic Voices website is at .

Posted in Catholic Voices, Church and Society | 8 Comments

Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Natural Law is a fundamental element of Catholic moral teaching. Here I am going to set out my understanding so that readers can correct me or develop my ideas. In fact, the concept is based on a very straightforward, and perhaps undeniable, principle.

I start with my washing machine. I realise that it has its own nature, and if I want it to wash my clothes, and indeed to continue to do so into the future, I must respect that nature. For example, I must connect it to the right voltage of electricity, and I must use the right programme for the items I want to wash, and so on.

I can work out its nature by observation based on my general knowledge, but I will be particularly helped by the maker’s handbook. There is no moral question here because it is my machine. But if I have borrowed the machine from you, I have a moral obligation to use it in accordance with its nature.

Now let’s look at human beings. Through observation I see that human beings are, by nature, social animals. There may be exceptions but broadly we live in, and depend on, our membership of social groups. So our nature requires such behaviour as telling the truth, respecting other members property or the right to life. And as it happens these fundamental requirements can be found in the maker’s handbook. We call it the Bible.

The Bible is a somewhat old-fashioned handbook. It takes for granted that human beings were directly created by God. An understandable assumption from this is that we can ascertain aspects of the natural law of human beings from biology. The simplest example is that the sexual organs are constructed (by God) for heterosexual intercourse. To use them for homosexual intercourse would ipso facto be contrary to the plan of the creating God. Similarly, the fundamental nature of sexual intercourse is based on its structural design to fertilise. Thus, to artificially prevent fertilisation is against the natural law. It directly interferes with God’s creation.

A minor, but telling, example can be found in the modern Catechism. It tells us that lying must be condemned as a profanation since “the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth.” — thus a biological basis. However, one may get around this in suitable cases by using “discretion”. This sounds like a suggestion that we may effectively deceive providing that we don’t actually tell a lie.

In recent times there has been a development in our understanding. We are more inclined to look at other aspects. Using the homosexuality example, some would argue that, notwithstanding the nature of the sexual organs, there are those whose sexual orientation is directed towards their own sex. Whatever the reasons for this anomaly may be, it is not a result of God’s direct creation.

But, of course, what we know now is that we are not the result of direct creation. At the biological level we are the result of evolution. At the centre of that is our identity as person with its capacity to think and choose. While these characteristics are spiritual, in that they are not caused, they are most certainly strongly influenced by genes and experience. And it is effectively impossible to discern free decisions from influenced decisions. We are free but we never know how free we are.

On this Blog we have plenty of examples. Contributors present a range of views. However well they have been considered before posting, conclusions remain influenced by inherited genes and by experience. And neither the contributor nor the reader knows the line between evidenced logic and subjective influence. The latter may go back to infancy. Hence the value of disagreement and argument. This perhaps is why we should pay most attention to those who disagree with us: this is taking contradiction as more valuable than affirmation because it gives us the opportunity to review the principles we should otherwhile see as infallible.

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 41 Comments

Just what do we believe?

We have recently been discussing the reducing percentage of Catholics in our society. But today I want to look at what we believe. I am triggered by a Pew Survey which tells us that 69% of all self-identified Catholics said they believed the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus but were instead “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The other 31% believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, known as transubstantiation. I wonder whether those two views are also reflected in the Catholic readership of this Blog.

The Church’s teaching is absolutely clear – see the Council of Trent. The Eucharist is not merely symbolic. In actuality it is the body and blood of Christ – that is what substance means. It does of course retain the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine (appearance, taste etc.) but it is no longer bread and wine. Nor does the body and blood share its substance with bread and wine. It is no longer bread and wine – irrespective of the fact that scientific analysis and human recognition show it as such.

Compare, by contrast, the water used for Baptism. It remains water but in the Sacrament the water is indeed the symbol of cleansing. It is God’s power which is effective directly in this case. “An outward sign of an inward grace” is the common phrase.

Why should we believe in transubstantiation? It is a miracle of God, brought about through God’s will. Nor was the definition by the Church easily agreed. It was necessary to look at the history of the Church’s teaching and practice since the time of the Apostles — in order to confirm that the historical practice throughout the Church’s history accepted the essence of this teaching – although it was not yet expressed in the formal definition of Trent.

It would seem to follow that two thirds of the Catholic population are heretical, and in consequence reject the infallibility of the Catholic Church through their refusal to accept one of her most serious teachings.

Or perhaps not. Your average Catholic does not always look at the precision of words. It may be that ‘symbol’ has different possible meanings in different minds. Nor would we expect everyone to understand the concept of transubstantiation. In the end it seems to me to be enough that to believe at the altar we receive Christ himself — body, blood, soul and divinity — through the means he chose.
It would also be interesting to hear what Anglicans, and other
Christians, believe, and why.

(’t-believe-real-presence )

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 55 Comments

The death of Christianity?

If we are to believe the British Social Attitudes surveys over many years, we may accept that Christianity is gradually dying in this country. Those who record themselves as Christian slowly but regularly decrease in numbers. The Anglican Church has been hit the hardest, but Catholics decline steadily as well. Their percentage in 1983 was 10 percent; it is now down to 7 percent. Or, if you wish, 30 percent lower.

We can see some reasons why this is happening. Perhaps the most obvious is generational. Those who are Catholics all their lives tend to continue, but the number of young people from Catholic families is distinctly fewer. Nor does the evidence support the optimistic thought that such young people return to Catholicism at a later date.

Perhaps, a factor in this is that people who once thought that claiming a denomination of some sort was respectable no longer think this to be so. Indeed, they may think humanism or agnosticism is a respectable position – perhaps even more respectable than religious superstition or imposed moralities.

There has also been a considerable change in general attitudes towards sexual practice. It would appear (and I have seen this in my family) that the young, perhaps starting from university, move quickly into full sexual activity, often living together, before marriage is considered as a probability. The rule for our children, some forty years ago, was that they might entertain their ‘friend’, but the bedroom door had to be open. Nowadays that simply sounds quaint.

But we must also consider how successful we are at presenting Catholicism. Do we present our beliefs in a way which attract people, while being clear about the value of our moral beliefs? For example, in the matter of abortion we may well be seen as enemies to human rights when we remind people that the last time an identifiable group of humans lost their right to life was in the Thirties, in Germany.

And the Church needs to look at itself too. The scandals of child abuse have, and indeed should have, been broadly condemned. And this related not only to the actual abuse but how the Church again and again failed to manage it.

Do we see the active Church in this country as an enthusiastic community, led by fine bishops who work with the laity for the greater good of God – or just an administrative organisation – with its eye always open to Rome? Do our friends envy our Catholicism, or just put up with it as an acceptable quirk?
What do we have to do to increase our percentage in the population rather than to watch it gradually decrease as an old fashioned superstition?
(There is a fine article on this subject by Stephen Bullivant in the Tablet, 27 July, if you can get hold of a copy.)

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | 63 Comments


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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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