Imagine a nurse who is caring for a sick person who is in pain, and ultimately in danger of death. She can take one of two attitudes. In the first, all her sympathies are with the patient. She is very upset by the situation, and really quite depressed by it. In the second, she is well aware of the patient’s pain and understands the condition. But she has no time to sympathise because she must keep her professional head clear of emotion while providing the best treatment available. Which nurse would you prefer to be looking after you?

That crude example helps us to distinguish between sympathy and empathy. It’s important to understand the difference if we are to live a Christian life. We are instructed to love our neighbour as ourselves, but we have to be careful how we think about this. Instinctively our reaction is to benefit our neighbour in the way we would want to be benefited ourselves. But what we should be doing is benefiting him in terms of himself.

A story I enjoy is that of the woman whose car stalls in traffic. In no time the driver caught behind her starts banging on his horn. The woman goes round to him and says sweetly: “Tell you what. Why don’t you get my car started, while I toot your horn.”

When my wife played a part in choosing people with the right temperament to train as marriage counsellors the ones she was most likely to reject were those with a ready answer. They prided themselves on their quick ability to give sound advice to those in difficulties. So I was glad that she did not have to select, or unselect, me. Tell me about any difficult human condition, and I know exactly what the sufferer should do next. No wonder I write for the Catholic Herald. Not only can I give my opinion without being asked for it, I actually get paid for doing so.

So I have to be very disciplined in ordinary life. I find it quite difficult because I have children and grandchildren who all, I think, would benefit much from my greater experience. But I need to listen to them, and understand where they are and how they see things. That makes it easier for me to ask the questions which may help them find their own way rather than recommending mine.

So here’s a dilemma. Several years ago I was speaking at a conference of marriage counsellors in Ireland on this subject. I chose abortion as an example. One approach I might have taken was that saving an individual human’s life was so important that this was the one case where persuasion was justified. The other approach was to ensure that a client had thought about all the relevant elements and was aware of the alternatives – and then to leave her to decide for herself. In loving my neighbour, which approach should I have taken?

Posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , | 7 Comments


“Adultery in the heart is committed not only because a man looks in a certain way at a woman who is not his wife but precisely because he is looking at a woman that way. Even if he were to look that way at the woman who is his wife, he would be committing the same adultery in the heart.”

No, I didn’t say that; it is a direct quotation from Pope John Paul’s weekly audience, St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 8, 1980. It caused a great fuss at the time. The critics argued that he was trying to push the Church back to an Augustinian view which regarded sexual desire as a regrettable and, accidentally, sinful, necessity required for reproduction. Whether it was unhelpful to use such an emotional concept for a public announcement is a matter of opinion.

But the Pope drew his language from Christ, as related by St Matthew: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. But he has extended the concept to marriage itself. It is useful to explore this further.

I have first to brush off my defensiveness. In a long life I have known many attractive women, and I cannot claim that the occasional thought never floated into my mind. Whether it ever floated into theirs unfortunately they did not say. But I could not equate such an instant reaction with adultery any more than sexual desire between spouses constitutes adultery in the heart. Were we to take it to be so, breeding would cease.

Indeed a close reading of the Pope’s context, extended in his Theology of the Body, tells us that his target is not sexual desire in marriage as such but a desire which focuses on the other person as a sexual object for one’s own gratification rather than for their dignity as a spouse. And of course it goes both ways. A wife may well commit adultery in the same sense with her husband – a concept not readily available in the culture of the New Testament. The idea that a husband and a wife might reciprocally be drawn to each other, on occasion, solely for shared carnal reasons is one I will not try to disentangle. But it brings me conveniently to the question of lust.

I once attended a superb theatrical production of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The obscenity was not the couple’s nudity but the covering of their nudity. They had recognised a sacredness with which, in their fallen state, they could not cope. It was only in their later expression of two in one flesh that their loving commitment found its place. Were they at first momentarily aware in their recognition of the lightning flash of lust? I use a strong metaphor because lust is a powerful driver. It has lain behind murder, cruelty and the fall of nations. It has the dire ability to blanket out any other thought or feeling, and to promote behaviour which, without it, would be unthinkable. We may abhor, for instance, the corruption of children but if someone’s lust is sufficiently directing this way almost any rationalisation will serve. We should not be surprised that the Church takes a dim view of it.

But not necessarily a nuanced view. There appears to have been no proper discrimination between lust and sexual desire. It is unfortunate but unavoidable that those who decide the rules constitute a group for which sexual desire can never be lawfully entertained since any form, even momentarily welcomed, constitutes lust by definition. Some of the detailed theological arguments about lawful and unlawful sexual practices in marriage, which I cannot fittingly describe here, could only be taken seriously by those without experience.

While there is good research which tells us about married sexual practices, I know of none which is focused in any detail on Catholic marriage. So I have to rely on my former experience of marriage counselling and preparing couples for marriage. From this I conclude that the distinction between lawful desire and lust is not best found by analysing different practices. I believe that it lies in attitude. Married couples are quite capable of distinguishing between what behaviours, perhaps judged over a period of time, tend to bring them closer to each other and what tend to put them apart. That seems to me the best way to distinguish between loving sexual desire and selfish lust.

There can be no final rules because everyone has their own sexual personalities, formed from their psychology and experience. And, within a couple, these may change and develop over the years. I recall a lady in her late eighties explaining to me her physical difficulties in sexual activity. She finished by saying “I know what I’m missing.” That’s the spirit!

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy | 8 Comments

Who’s worth the money?

We live in a society in which progressive taxation in unavoidable. So we expect and accept that higher earners should pay more tax than lower earners. Currently higher earners, who are one percent of taxpayers, pay 27 per cent of taxation. And, being relatively few in number, the personal load is very high. Interestingly this proportion has increased markedly since the bad old ‘high taxation’ days of Old Labour (which may very well become New Labour.).

So what? These high earners can afford it. And so many of them make their money through questionable activities, and tend to protect their ill-gotten gains through questionable ways.

But, when we look at the reasons for promoting higher taxation rates for the rich other questions come to mind. The majority of high earners, like most of us, are paid what they are worth. Employers are not inclined to pay over the odds gratuitously. If they are not worth the money they will be replaced by those who are. Of course this is a rough and ready principle, but by and large it preserves a balance. Like democracy it can produce odd results on occasion, but, like democracy, it is the least worst way of doing it.

No one seriously objects to taxation. By benefiting from being in a state, in effect we enter a contract to pay for the offices of the state. It is less easy to defend the state’s right to impose higher rates on the more successful people. Said plainly, the state puts its hands into the pockets of the high earners and removes what is not theirs. Perhaps we should have a single tax rate applied to all income. The rich would still pay more but it would then be proportionate and not confiscatory.

Don’t bother to tell me that this wouldn’t work, for a variety of reasons. The system we use is broadly the most practical. But, and it’s a very large but, anyone who favours the system out of envy is unjust. Those who delight at increased taxation for the successful are guilty of supporting theft. Those who live with it (rich or poor) because there is no alternative, should always regard any increase in tax rates focused on the successful as a matter of regret.

We must accept that the ability to maintain a just and fair society rests on our prosperity. And prosperity depends on a successful economy which, in turn, depends on its successful contributors. And a refusal to reward success is, as Marxist societies have shown, a sure way to impoverish all. “It’s the economy, stupid” And always will be.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 27 Comments

Who am I?

Our minds are very full at the moment. We are in a process of election, and I publish this just a few hours before we know the answers. We also face the issue of the security of our society, following two serious terrorist attacks which, for various reasons were hard to foresee.

So let’s turn to a completely different subject – and give your brain a rest.

What is your identity? By that I mean what constitutes identity? For example, in what way do you share identity with the child in the womb so many years ago? Here are some possibilities.

The first solution springs to mind: I know I am the same person because I have a memory. It is true that I can’t recall my time in the womb but the first memory I have occurred when I was two years old. That’s good enough, surely. But is it? Let’s imagine that Hitler did not succeed in dying in his bunker, he survived but he was left with very serious brain damage which has destroyed his memory. He can recall nothing beyond the age of 10. He is put on trial at Nuremberg and is condemned to death. He goes to the scaffold without any recall of his career. Is this just? If it is memory which preserves identity then he no longer has the identity which carried out all the crimes.

So let’s look at the body. Of course my body nowadays is very different from the baby. But it is possible to watch bodies grow, develop and change gradually – creating a linear identity. And that can be supported by particular features. Got any birthmarks? But there’s a problem there too. We are told that all the cells in our body change over time. I don’t know whether the idea that we have changed every cell over seven years is true, but over seventy years there can be no doubt. It reminds me of the poser the Ancient Greeks used to enjoy. Over its lifetime every plank on your rowing boat has been replaced as it rotted. Today not a single plank of the old boat is left. Is it the same boat? And, if it isn’t, at what stage did it change?

But of course the Ancient Greeks didn’t know about genes. Now we know that our genetic code is with us from conception. And it’s so reliable that we can even use it to deduce our relationship to others. I am told that we once bred with the Neanderthals because some of their native genes remain in our systems. And they have not altered over tens of thousands of years. True that may be, but the actual biological genes are also gradually replaced by similar ones. And what about my (imagined) identical twin? Do we share the same identity?

There are some scientists currently and confidently working at transplanting brains to new bodies. They claim to be very close to achieving this with some mammals. Perhaps the day will come when this can be done with humans. Were that so would the resulting creature have the identity of the brain or the identity of the body which it now operates? And we may have an extra problem which the scientists have probably not considered: on the Day of Judgment who will get the resurrected body?

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 10 Comments

R U a racist?

I am a self-confessed racist. If you think that means I should not be writing in a Catholic magazine, I would remind you that you are a racist too. I discovered this descending some narrow stairs on the London Tube. Coming up was a West Indian, so I stepped aside to let him pass. And I felt good about it. Why? Because it confirmed my self-image as a liberal, high minded person who was tolerant towards those of a different race. And you can’t get more slimily racist than that.

Of course we know that there are provocative areas such as antisemitism; we avoid those with great care. But of course that extra degree of care is in itself racist. When those who wish to be critical take pains to emphasise that their remarks are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, they may be being sincere or they may have convinced themselves about the purity of their motivation despite their latent feelings. But it’s broader than that. When different nationalities spring to mind – say Italian, Irish, German – are they accompanied by characteristics which, if we are not careful, give us a convenient background against which to form our judgments? If you have ever said of someone “typical Italian” you are racist.

But it’s broader than that still. Psychologically similar are any automatic reactions to identifiable groups. For the young it may be the old dodderers who have lived too long and disproportionately use up our resources. For the dodderers the young are the immature rejecters of values which our great wisdom assures us are essential. And let’s not forget class – and Bernard Shaw’s remark “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him.”

We can extend this into detail. Why are taller men more readily promoted than their stunted brothers? Why are the bespectacled thought to be more intelligent than the clear-sighted? Why are the attractive less likely to be found guilty in court and to get higher damages when they win a civil case? Why are we more likely to believe someone with brown eyes rather than blue eyes? Why do those with foreign names get fewer professional job interviews? Such irrationalities, and many others, have often been documented.

When we note such a broad characteristic in human nature we presume that it has developed because it is of benefit. And an answer may well be found in evolution. In the most primitive times we moved in small groups, often at a distance from others. Strangers were always dangerous and so the groups which treated them with suspicion were the ones which tended to survive. The unwary groups did not. So this wariness is in our genes. We see this in the lower animals. Make a loud noise and cats shoot out of the room without waiting to consider the degree of danger. That’s why cats survive. The experts call this “fight or flight” to describe the instinctive reaction to threat.

There is a rational basis too. We are continually required to make judgments. But if we were to pause to do the necessary research and to calculate the odds of different outcomes, we would never have time to decide whether to get up in the morning. We actually need to carry a myriad of assumptions stored in the shelves of our minds. It is these shortcuts which record the generalisations which are our starting point. What proportion of these assumptions is soundly based; how many have been uncritically absorbed from undigested experience or the views of our peers? How often do we consider how closely they meet the situation we face? It was Socrates who warned us about our impertinent confidence in the truths which we only think we know.

The outcomes of acting on collective judgments are often trivial. But they can be very serious indeed. Defying Hitler is an autobiographical account by Sebastian Haffner of the German state, from World War 1 to the 1930s (see internet). It shows us how easily a civilised society can be transformed into an evil authoritarian state. Given a restless and frustrated society, the strategy was to create enemies: the Communists and the Jews. Every disaster or violent sabotage was imputed to them through a controlled press. Before long the bulk of society was only too willing to be protected by the Nazis from such fearful foes. Those who disagreed kept quiet or took the consequences. It was not being German which made them Nazis, it was being human.

We cannot avoid collective judgments — which are the heart of racism in its widely differing manifestations — because it is too deep in our genes. But we must be aware that they may lead to injustices. In the end we must judge people as they are, and not as members of their group.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, evolution, Moral judgment | Tagged , | 13 Comments

When first we practise to deceive

Here we are again – in the run up to the General Election. Manifestos are out, politicians are quizzed: it’s a good opportunity to think about truth in the public forum. No doubt there are few direct lies, if only because a discovered lie carries a heavy price. But, short of that, it would seem that distortions of truth are the order of the day.

My theory is that politicians do genuinely fool themselves that getting themselves into a position of power, or continuing there, is always for the common good. And it is this which justifies their economy with the truth. I have just been reading Broken Vows, which is a biography of Tony Blair in power, written by Tom Bower. This presents me with a picture of a whole government, including the civil service, which is a stranger to the truth. Fighting for position, doing down your enemies, making sure that your views are accepted no matter what. It is a cauldron of deceit. You can only serve the people by dishonesty – from the subtle to the flagrant. And I write this on a day when I have just heard that epitome of virtue, Theresa May, claim that her ‘end of life’ social care plan remains the same notwithstanding the collapse of a major element. I am thankful that when many years ago I toyed with entering politics I decided that I was unlikely ever to be able in conscience to subscribe to a complete manifesto.

But, while politics by nature tend towards the distortion of truth in the thrust for power, it may be useful to consider the standards of honesty which we impose on ourselves. I am not thinking only about direct lies, I have in mind a variety of ways in which we might deceive others. Telling a truth which we know will be misunderstood is one example. Failing to say some thing which should be said is another. Presenting selective information to get our own way, is not confined to advertisements – it is to be found in family conversation. We might go deeper down and think about lies which we take to be good manners. Have you ever told a cook how much you have enjoyed a meal when it fact you disliked it? Kindness intended, no doubt, but a lie nevertheless. I recommend an exercise in which we take a single day and note how often we diverge from the complete truth, even if we distinguish between the important and the trivial.

The fundamental principle is that we have been created, as rational social animals, to communicate with each other. And ‘communicate’ means ‘to come together’. Divergence from the truth, or omission from a truth which is owed to another, is an offence against communication. It does not bring us together, it pushes us further apart. We might see ourselves as honest persons. But in fact honesty is not a stable characteristic, it is one we have to work at continuously as we step up the long ladder which leads to God.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Synod | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

The Third Age

Yesterday I had a telephone call from Rupert (not his name). I usually see him once a fortnight but recently he has been away suffering from bone marrow cancer. The news was good. Following courses of treatment he is now clear, although it is too early to confirm permanent recovery. Part of my pleasure is selfish. Rupert is a clinical psychologist and has a special interest in Eastern religions. He has been an invaluable contributor to the fortnightly philosophy group which I lead. And he offers his professional skills freely to members of the group.

The third age of life, following childhood and full employment, can be a long one. And, for some, it can be miserable. Lack of regular human contact and a range of interests can lead to loneliness, depression and increasing poor health. About half of this population live alone and some ten per cent report loneliness. This may come from illness or bereavement, and the loss of companionship in retirement from working life. The rate of depression is high and, without treatment, the effect on general health, not excluding suicide, is serious. Perhaps we do not value ordinary, everyday, relationships until we lose them.

The misery is not relieved by hearing that third-agers are a drain on society consuming an unfair share of public resources. They may not know that as a group they contribute a net £40 billion to the economy including taxation, social care and volunteering. Alison Pollock, Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University, London, even suggests that they are used as a convenient excuse by government for starving the NHS.

Friendships tends to develop, and to be maintained, when circumstances provide opportunities to be in each other’s company — which in turn results in finding common interests and sympathies. So a solution might lie in a structure which is designed to further these aims. I would suggest one organisation which is having considerable success is the University of the Third Age. This originated in France, establishing extra-mural connections with formal universities. In the UK, it operates independently, and is broader in its approach. It has 400,000 members, with an ambition to double this by the end of the decade and, under the auspices of the Third Age Trust, recently celebrated the opening of its 1,000th centre.

I have no formal connection other than as a member and a leader of a group for many years but my experience, in a leafy suburb, will convey the atmosphere. Central to the organisation are the small groups which meet regularly. Typically, they work under a leader and meet in a private house or council premises. The coverage is extensive. I note 85 current groups in my local U3A. They cover many aspects of the arts, music science, current affairs, history, active pursuits and games. And, if anyone chooses to start a group related to their special interest they will get the help they need to promote it. In addition there are formal talks, study days, short courses, organised expeditions and summer schools.

The learning methods tend to be informal. While much will depend on the leader, the main source of knowledge will be in the membership of the group. Discussion and participation are the key. The knowledge will often lie in the experience of the membership. When my wife started a current affairs group, several years ago, she found herself surrounded by retired international experts. Her expertise lay in knowing how to use them.

My own philosophy group discusses respectfully religious and secular views. The favourite topic is moral philosophy. Needless to say, this is more about defining the questions than arriving at answers. That is the nature of philosophy. Some of the issues end up in this column, and vice versa. Over the years the group has of course had turnover. This is not because they choose to leave but because old people, rather inconveniently, die. In my imagination I see already a group of ex-members up in Heaven – and still discussing. I wonder if they have the answers now. It must, for instance, be easier to conclude a discussion about what Socrates really meant, if you can ask him directly. Though, knowing Socrates, you are more likely to get another question than an answer.

The University of the Third Age has no political agenda. Apart from the wide variety of views, its strength does not lie in such power but in knowledge and truth – achieved through formal and informal debate. I have no doubt that the members are better prepared to contribute to society through formed opinions and constructive voting choices – skills particularly needed at the present time. And they are likely to have more friends, and to live longer and more happily too.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns | Tagged | 18 Comments