Stop eating meat

If, like me, you have ‘millennial’ granddaughters you will have encountered vegetarianism. What, several years ago, was regarded as an eccentricity has become common. And, more than common, it appears to carry moral overtones. It is no longer a simple preference, it approaches an obligation. Fortunately my obvious senility excuses me.

Of course I understand the sentiment which cares about the cruelty of killing animals. But I wonder how solidly this is based. Several decades ago I happened, for good reason, to inspect the work in a slaughterhouse. I saw no cruelty there: the animals were instantaneously and completely stunned by the use of a stun bolt pistol. There are variations on this of course according to species but the law protecting animals appears comprehensive, though I am less happy about the religious (Jewish and Muslim) exceptions. But the granddaughters remain unimpressed at my thought that, if we eschewed meat, the animals would not have been allowed to be born in the first place.

It was very different in my youth when meat was heavily rationed. We lived in the country so I was required, with the help of a 12 bore shotgun, to provide rabbits for the table. And chickens were killed by methods I care not to describe. I recall my father coming home with the side of a pig. He was so proud of his success that we were obliged to eat it even when the smell from the larder, no refrigerator of course, suggested it was past its best. My least pleasant memory was the incompetent slaughter of a pig on a neighbouring farm. That will remain with me.

But the future is going to be different. The majority scientific belief is that serious and damaging climate warming is well on the way. One estimate is that in some 140 years we will reach carbon levels not experienced for 56 million years. While it is hard to differentiate between the natural long term cycles of temperature and the man-made contribution of carbon dioxide, it is only the latter over which we may have a degree of control. Meat production requires considerable energy and is responsible for 15 percent of man-made greenhouse gas. So, as the world population grows, our current level of meat consumption will need to be reduced. It would seem that the granddaughters will win.

A key body in this matter is the EU funded PROTEIN2FOOD. This is not an ideological vegetarian force but it is charged with guiding us towards vegetable species which can provide the protein we need and currently gain from meat. And perhaps I should add here that even today many well-meant vegetarian diets require supplements to achieve our full corporal needs. (visit )
PROTEIN2FOOD has, as its aim, to ”…produce plant-based protein food which is sustainable and so attractive that the consumers will prefer those to animal-based alternatives.” Much of their work is concerned with the Andes. This stretch from north to south in western South America moves through such a range of climates that it is not surprising that there are some 30,000 species of endemic plants. I fear that I know few of their names. The target is high protein plants which can be used to make dairy substitutes, cold drinks, appetizers, salads, main dishes, breads, and pastries. One plant involved (quinoa) has sufficient varieties to enable such a range.

Complementary to this ingenuity, work is being done to enable these plants to prosper in our more temperate climate. And further work is being done with ancient European crops, such as buckwheat and lentil. The potential result is versions of pasta, vegetable beverages, protein bars, healthy breakfast cereals and infant food. I will temper my enthusiasm until I am offered these dishes. I am not sceptical but I am wary until I have tasted the outcome. PROTEIN2FOOD will be finishing its work during the current year and we are promised a full display of their results next January.

And there is another substantial benefit. A recent study from the University of Colorado in Boulder has established that cooking a Sunday roast and vegetables exposes us to dangerous airborne particles at the level 20 times higher than the World Health Organization limit, and several times higher than central London on a congested day. These particles (PB2.5) are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs and are related to 29,000 premature deaths annually in the UK. Frying food has a similar propensity. The kitchen particles can remain at a dangerous level for some eight hours. There is an irony in the likelihood that the grand cooking of the great Christmas dinner to celebrate the gift of life is possibly lethal. At least, keep the fan on, and the windows open!

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Climate Change, Quentin queries | Tagged | 65 Comments

The word of God

I am fortunate to live in a big parish and, given that it includes a Jesuit house, we are certainly not short of clergy. Nor are we short of sermons. Some of these are excellent. Some turn out to be poor. So in my mind’s eye I know what a good semon requires. What is your experience?

Today I consider what general tips I would use to advise a preacher. I am certainly not an expert sermoniser but as someone who for several years was a professional public speaker I do have some experience of what might be needed. So here goes.

First point, and most essential, point. Start by deciding your objectives in terms of your congregation – not in your own terms. In what ways do you want to improve their spirituality? In what ways do you want to leave them thinking constructively? In what ways do you want to improve their knowledge or their understanding? Make a short list and make sure that whatever what you decide to say, and how you say it, matches up to your objectives.

Try to make your message original. By that I mean you must develop your own insights. Platitudes will look after themselves. In your ordained life you have thought much about spiritual progress. As you are an unique individual you may well have seen aspects of spirituality which are particular to you. These may be a gift to your listeners. One good idea is more powerful than a series of ideas.

Consider structure. How are you going to get them to move forward in their seats when they hear your first words? Are they always clear about the shape of your message, because you were clear about it first? Avoid expressing your message in several different ways – keep your examples few and short. Please. please don’t go round and round saying the same thing in different forms. Your congregation is not stupid – they can get the message the first time, if you are clear enough. A two minute sermon which says something worthwhile is better than a ten minute sermon which says everything three times.

Finish your sermon with a brief, but clear, summary – which invites them to make your message their own.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged , | 32 Comments

Subsidiarity: Theory X versus Theory Y

Subsidiarity requires that what single individuals, using their own resources, can do of themselves, must not be removed and taken by higher authority.  We associate the development of the principle to the 1950s. It was realised that there were two approaches. The first, and traditional, approach that workers only performed in response to reward or punishment; the new approach held that workers would be at their best through their sense of fulfilment, recognizing their potential value through their work. They were referred to as Theory X and Theory Y.

While the far greater effectiveness of Theory Y was plain it was very difficult to institute. Every business had necessary rules and controls, so it was not easy to discriminate between obligation and responsible choice for the worker. Many businesses claimed to have introduced Theory Y when, on evaluation, it turned out that the application was nominal. In practice it had remained Theory X. An important factor here was whether the seniors who were responsible for introducing the new approach had themselves got to the top through using Theory X.

It became clear that Theory Y could only succeed if the seniors really believed in the principle. So they minimised the rules as far as possible, and looked continually for opportunities to encourage workers to have personal commitment in their jobs and, whenever possible, to make their own choices.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been solidly Theory X. And not surprisingly as it lived in a Theory X society. But it began to change towards Theory Y round about the same time as secular society. A major expression of this was the Vatican Council in the 1960s. But, as one might expect, the application of Theory Y at the local level remains at least mixed – notwithstanding a Pope who is clearly Theory Y and prefers to ask questions and make suggestions rather than rulings. No wonder he is unpopular with some of his colleagues – that’s par for the course. Some twenty years ago, when I was writing a book on the subject, I researched at some depths the use of authority at the level of the Curia and the curial Congregations. At that time it was clear that Theory X still ruled. Has it changed?

But we are concerned with the diocesan bishops. They too have requirements which they need to enforce through their authority. But, like the business manager, they must decide between Theory X and Theory Y. Are they all about power or are they truly about leadership? As Lord Acton put it “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

What would a Theory Y diocesan bishop look like? While he is aware that he must make some unquestionable decisions by reason of his office he must be continuously in touch with his congregation. First of course he must be in frequent dialogue with his parish priests and other formal institutions. Then he must be very aware of the views of the laity – which may require regular representatives meetings. In listening to the views of these groups he must be aware that beyond the arguments he is listening to the people of God. He must be open to their experience and their spirituality.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, subsidiarity, Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Democracy or Tyranny?

Perhaps we have all read, more than perhaps we wanted to, about clerical abuse and the summit of bishops led by Pope Francis , which ended on 24 February. So today I want to look at a more basic factor but which may have played an important part in the traditional behaviour of diocesan bishops. I am referring to the quaint arrangement which in effect gives complete disciplinary power to the bishop. I use the term ‘quaint’ because, unlike Victorian times, most successful secular operations nowadays not only listen to their staffs but deliberately look for communication and feedback. And of course, either by choice or by law, staffs have important rights.

There are some who would turn at this point to the powers given by Christ to the Apostles, and so to their successors. That closes the case. Or does it? The secular operations to which I have referred continue to have boards and bosses, and a range of executive levels. And necessarily there are rules and formal behaviours which are necessary for success and legality. They are neither democracies nor tyrannies.

Some 50 years ago Donald Nicholl, a leading lay Catholic at the time, wrote an article in the Clergy Review called “The Layman and Ecclesiastical Authority.” He quoted a sociologist, Professor Revans, who had conducted a study of communication in hospitals. Revans took a group of hospitals and compared those which had low turnover of staff at all levels and those which had high turnover. He examined a range of hypotheses which might throw up essential factors. The contrast turned out to be the quality of communication.

The poor hospitals were of course communicating, but the direction of communication was typically downwards. Each level treated the level below as idiots, and the final level of idiocy was the patients at the bottom of the heap. Virtually no communication travelled upwards, and, interestingly, there was very little lateral communication – that is, the different professional functions chose to insulate themselves from each other.

The good hospitals had an easy flow of communication upwards and downwards, and the professional groups worked comfortably together to maximise efficiency. In only one respect did the good hospitals have a higher turnover: the patients had shorter stays because they got better quicker. It was as if the poor hospitals existed to maintain themselves, with the patients as no more than an unavoidable nuisance, while the good hospitals worked together, and with the patients, in the shared objective of healing.

Hospitals and religious communities are different in many ways but both of them share imperatives. Both of them contain different functions which are nevertheless related. Both of them flourish through sharing responsibilities. Both of them are concerned with healing. Is it possible to have a Church in which communication and respect throughout is the key to presenting the life of Christ to the world?

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 42 Comments

Human flourishing

Before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger spoke of Socrates as “in a certain respect the prophet of Jesus Christ”. He saw him as a philosopher who was concerned with the fundamental questions of whether man alone sets standards for himself or whether we can be confident of man’s capacity for objective truth. Socrates never wrote down his conclusions because he never arrived at one: he could only move towards truth through critically challenging his own ignorance.

Socrates tells the story of how the Oracle of Delphi said that there was no man wiser than him. This seemed so unlikely that he felt it necessary to test it by discussions with politicians, savants and craftsmen. He found that they knew many things which, on examination, turned out to be untrue. He concluded that his wisdom lay, by contrast, in not thinking that he knew things when he did not.

The philosopher’s approach was maieutic. Instead of proclaiming his own views, he asked questions which enabled his friends to explore what they claimed and, in doing so, to discover their errors. But he must, I suspect, have been a rather trying conversationalist, always ready to challenge what he heard. For instance, one debate – about whether God loves the good because the good is lovable or the good is lovable because God loves it – involves around 170 exchanges and still ends inconclusively. At one point his interlocutor calls him a bully.

But his fundamental principle is straightforward: virtue is the necessary outcome of knowledge. If we fully understand how our behaviour contributes to the flourishing of mankind, then that is how we behave. To behave otherwise is the result of ignorance. Perhaps his best-known quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, sums him up. This is much more extensive than a simple examination of conscience; it requires us from time to time to face up to and confirm our deepest values, and judge how well we express them in the conduct of our lives. When was the last time we set aside an hour or two for deep self-examination?

He did not, I think, use the phrase “natural law”, but this has become the description of the behaviour we require for flourishing. It was later to be explicitly identified by the Greeks as the principle of Stoicism. Stoicism was adopted by the Romans and influenced Christianity in the development of natural law, which remains the basis for moral teaching to this day.

Natural law has by no means been popular with all philosophers. Take the 18th-century writer David Hume: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning, concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Arguably, Hume was the patron saint of logical positivism. This held that the metaphysical questions addressed by traditional philosophy had no meaning since, by definition, they could not meet Hume’s criteria.

We have assumed in the past that natural laws do not change – after all, it was God who created human nature. But perhaps we should remember that He did so through the process of evolution over some 3.5 billion years, and it continues to evolve. For example, the modern habit of women to have children later in life will eventually increase the typical age of the menopause. Moreover, as we understand more and more about human nature through genetics and psychology, we are helped towards a deeper understanding of how we may flourish in modern circumstances. Socrates would have been the first to investigate aspects of existing moral law.

An interesting example is Fr Josef Fuchs, SJ. He was appointed to the official contraception commission as an expert, and an orthodox, moral theologian. But having discussed the matter with the representative female witnesses he concluded that, through marital experience, they understood aspects of the natural law unrealised by the ecclesiastics. But others might argue that the widespread use of artificial contraception has effectively separated sexual activity from fertilisation – and so from marriage, with consequences which may be far from human flourishing.

Socrates would have had little truck with moral rules presented to him by external authority: his emphasis was always on his individual grasp achieved through questioning and confirmation. The moral theologian Fr James F Keenan SJ records Fuchs saying to him: “You Americans are so emphatic with your judgments. You finish your statements with a period. I find a question mark much more effective.” Socrates would have agreed.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy | 57 Comments

Who knows?

There has been considerable discussion over the last year or two concerning the question of admitting Catholics in a second marriage to the Eucharist. I summarise this by the statement of Pope Francis in 2016: In his September 5, 2016 letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis endorsed their interpretation of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, saying that the bishops’ document “is very good and completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”

The document by the Buenos Aires bishops, entitled “Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia”, allows communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, saying that in “complex circumstances” when the remarried couple could not “obtain a declaration of nullity,” the priests can nevertheless move forward to grant them access to Holy Communion.

On the other hand Cardinal Müller recently affirmed that the Catholic Church is the “instrument of salvation”, that heaven and hell are eternal, and that moral teaching is essential to the path of salvation. He said that the divorced and remarried cannot receive the Eucharist if in a sexual relationship. (This is, in effect, confirmation of what the Church has traditionally taught.)

So what do you think? Behind this particular issue lies a broad and important question with regard to Catholic moral teaching. Briefly, the basis is the Natural Law. Or, to put it another way, if we follow the requirements of our nature, we flourish; if we go against our nature we damage ourselves, and often others. Traditionally adultery has always been taken as against the nature of marriage – which is not surprising given that Scripture is equally clear on the matter.

It looks to me as if Francis, and those who agree with him, are arguing that the established principles of natural law may not apply in certain circumstances. Presumably there is reason to argue that in such cases the importance of sexual expression in the second marriage may be seen to be closer to human flourishing than abstention. This is not entirely novel: Josef Fuchs SJ, the great natural law theologian, accepted the possibility of artificial contraception after he had discussed with married women their understanding of flourishing as it might occur in marriage.

Are we moving towards a situation in which the morals laws, as they are described, for instance in the Catechism, should be regarded as strong guides rather than absolute rules. And what might be outcomes be?

Posted in Moral judgment, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | Tagged | 56 Comments

Have I made a mistake?

Why is the first paragraph of this column so important? That is easy to answer. If the first paragraph sounds sufficiently interesting you are more likely to read on. And, providing that your interest continues as we get into the thick of it, you will read to the end. But we may not be aware that this may be a simple instance of how evolution frequently leads us into error. You may like to consider the most usual ways where psychologists tell us we tend to go wrong.

My first example is known as fight or flight. For our pre human ancestors the safest response to any threat was either to prepare immediate defence or to escape from the situation. So our brains learnt to respond instantly, and, even before our conscious thinking, our bodies reacted – for example, a possible danger triggered the adrenalin needed for swift action. Fortunately we don’t meet such threats too often, but our ability to digest our first reactions, and our tendency to maintain them is still with us. For example, the initial impression of a candidate applying for a position can influence the final decision, even in the light of contradictory evidence.

Physical appearance can alter the verdict of a jury or the size of damages. The friendships and the relationships we develop can be affected for better or worse.
Another common source of potential error is confirmation bias. When we have taken a definite view on some issue or another we are liable to maximise the evidence which supports our belief and to minimise the evidence against it. A classic example is climate change. That there were opposing sides to the debate was easy to understand initially but, given the mounting evidence, it is no longer so. Yet there are still those who believe that the claim of likely climate change is some sort of international conspiracy. Their patron saint appears to be President Trump. We may often meet confirmation bias in religious discussions, and we are more likely to be aware of the evidence which supports our beliefs than the evidence which opposes them.

I have personal experience of what are called fixation errors. I may well get stuck when I am drafting a column: what should the next paragraph be?; how is the darn thing going to end?; why did I ever start it? Then I took the advice of Linda Blair (a clinical psychologist, google her). She demonstrated, in a Telegraph article, the value of deliberately switching from one task to another on a regular basis. The studies showed that this regime produced better results than sticking to the first task until completion. It has often saved my life. Since then I have reinforced this through deliberate methods of freeing my brain, allowing it to present me with a range of entirely new ideas.

In theory the broader and wider our experience the better off our decisions should be. But there is a danger that our memories become selective. For instance, following a disappointing holiday in a foreign country, we might carry a general idea about that country for ever afterwards. We may do the same with staff: men versus women, graduates versus non graduates, Irish versus Scottish, may give us long term firm opinions from a single instance in our experience. Prejudice rather than thought out and researched views may well be guiding us.

Which! Magazine (November 2018) has some excellent material about purchasing, on line or in store. The sellers make good use of comparisons – a common source of error. For a simple example, an expensive television may be deliberately placed by a cheaper one – and by comparison the cheaper one seems a bargain. This is reinforced by suggesting that a quick purchase is essential. Our fear of loss (twice as powerful in its influence as the attraction of gain) may rush us into error. It seems odd that respectable businesses should use such ingenious traps to deceive us.

Married or female priests, adultery in second marriages, contraception, homosexuality, clericalism are all issues discussed today. Have your views on any of these been modified in the last 20 years? If so, what has altered your mind? It may be rigorous logic or further information. But it is also likely to have been influenced by the views of others. It is hard to be an outlier; it’s more comfortable, and consistent with evolution, to be in line with people like us. It has been suggested that our tendency to make common judgments is unique to us as a race and a reason for our success, compared for instance with the Neanderthals. Annoyingly, if your views have not changed over 20 years you will then have to consider whether your brain has been active at all.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy | 26 Comments