A Catholic President

Yes, I think I must say something. The USA have a new President. Good news by comparison with his predecessor. And many of us would think how marvellous to have a Catholic president. And a public one too, with a life of devotion.

But I am not one of the many because he is clearly claiming to support the provision of killing babies in the womb. I could understand him saying that, in the light of his almost unbelievable predecessor, he would regrettably not interfere with the laws of the different States in the matter of abortion, despite his moral condemnation. I am talking about plain evil.

This is not simply disobedience to the teaching of the Catholic Church (don’t take a hoot about that!) but it is the intrinsic evil of abortion. Let me tell you a story.  My wife was carrying our fifth child in her womb, at ten weeks. I had taken the other children up to the Common for exercise. She miscarried. Notwithstanding her distress, physical and mental, she picked up her child and baptised him or her. And, throughout the rest of her life, she looked forward to meeting her child in Heaven – where she is at last now.

If you think that human beings are simply the outcome of evolution – and so can be dealt with in the same way as any animal life you may agree with Joe Biden. But if you believe that human beings are created by the Almighty to, eventually, be in Heaven, you will not. Of course, there is the question of at what point does humanity start. It seems clear to me that this occurs at conception when the two genetic elements come together – and start the process of development. A process, in my case, which continues into the eighth decade. Those genes have expressed and modified our individual development to the very moment that you are reading this, and I am writing it

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How relationships go wrong

I have mentioned before that my late wife and I spent a number of years in the past as marriage counsellors. Today I want to look at whether my experiences taught me about the important factors in any long term relationships. So, I would have in mind children, parents, long term friends, work colleagues etc. etc.

We had started by working with engaged couples. Many of these had been sent by parish priests – often because the prospective marriage would be one of different religious beliefs. The meetings were a combination of information and group discussion. But there was one couple whose problems required a personal discussion with us.

It really didn’t work. That was because my wife and I approached the issues differently. We were somewhat distressed about this but it led to us getting professional training in direct counselling from the, then, Catholic Marriage Advisory Council.

Where would the clients come from? My wife came up with the idea of offering our assistance to the local parish priests. It worked extremely well. Perhaps too well because the PPs tended to send anyone with any psychological problem. That often led us to be hand in hand with the experts at the local mental hospital. And we were learning a great deal.

One PP told me that I had to keep my guidance to that of the current Pope. I was unable to promise this — he sent me no parishioners.

Where marriages were involved, we discovered that one factor was very common: the ability to listen to one another. There is a fundamental difference between hearing one another and listening to one another. Listening requires taking in the feelings as well as the facts – demonstrating our understanding and feeding it back to the speaker.

So much of our counselling time was spent teaching the clients how to listen. Then, many problems solve themselves. But this is by no means an assistance only to married people. Our relationships involve our friends, our parents, our children, our work colleagues, our bosses and so on. We have become listeners and so, indirectly, of service to all our “neighbours”. And, as I remember, God is rather keen that we should love our neighbours. And that includes us. How do we really feel? The deep understanding of our own feelings is the first movement towards understanding our own decisions and our own temperaments.

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How to Learn

Yes, I remember the day when my 14 year old son said to me: “You’re not like other fathers. “I asked him why. “Other fathers answer their children’s questions — you simply ask me more questions.”

Did I get it wrong? I only know that he eventually became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries.  And a bookshelf in my study is full of his work — Roman Britain, Pepys, John Evelyn. Now in retirement, he is currently working on yet another book. His sister has more than 250 books, mainly on nature, in print around the world.

Where did this start? I like to think it came about because, unlike my classmates, I never went to university. So, in my own defence, I started to study the relevant authors — mainly related to psychology. Not only did this enable me to write books on the practical psychology of everyday business but also on the psychology of morality — in Catholic terms. Later, I was able to help my grandchildren through their various subjects at university.

I had had a personal example of this. At school I required a Credit in mathematics — a subject I had always found difficult. As no teacher was available, I simply worked through previous papers — using my own methodology. Of course, I passed. And I suspect that I know mathematics better than many of my fellows — it has become part of my brain.

Currently, for well known reasons, the young are faced with the problems caused by the practical Covid dangers of the classroom. Is this an opportunity for teachers to focus on how to discover and learn — rather than memorising the facts directly? Their pupils may well find that this sorry situation taught them more than sitting in a classroom. 

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Let’s try again

Secondsightblog has been operating since 2008. Ove the years we have discussed a whole range of issues from the simple to the complex. The comments and questions of readers have been first class. However, one subject has always fascinated me, and I don’t think we achieved the answers. So let’s have another go…

I decided to click my computer mouse this morning. Or did I? There is good evidence that my brain anticipated my conscious decision by a fraction of a second or even, as the latest research shows, by up to seven seconds. And here we are at the heart of neuroscience: one of the fastest-growing disciplines of our time.

Already we can spot metaphysical questions. How can I speak of free choice for a decision made first by the unconscious brain? Could I have vetoed my brain at the last moment? Is my conscious decision merely a process of noting what has already been decided?

Neuroscience, or the study of the brain, involves many disciplines from basic biology to the meaning of consciousness, and takes us into the tricky area of the distinction between mind and brain, to say nothing of the theological question of the soul. We can date it back at least to Galen in the second century AD, who first recorded damage in the brains of the corpses whose owners formerly had mental defects. But the modern trigger has been the availability of measuring instruments, culminating in magnetic resonance imaging which can immediately locate and measure brain activity stimulated by external cues.

Already scientists can map the functions of many locations in the brain, which are better described as interacting webs of connections under continual revision, decay and addition. Although as yet we know only a fraction, we are able to identify basic aspects of memory, the senses, even the webs which process morality and religion, and many more. No wonder that some neuroscientists hold the view that we have just a biological brain, with a corresponding body, and nothing more. All is potentially explicable in materialistic terms, and hence presumed to have emerged through evolution. (Of course, other neuroscientists argue that there are elements, such as consciousness, which cannot be explained through conventional scientific methods. They are not always popular with their colleagues.)

But the sceptical conclusion is not surprising. If every function of which we know can be accounted for within the biological brain (even if they are not all discovered yet) what function could be attributed to any agent which is somehow superior to the brain but differentiated from it – and of course would not be a biological entity detectable by any conceivable scanning method?

Some believers may be concerned about this too. What, for instance, is my religious belief worth if it is simply the product of a gene expressed in my brain structure? What credibility can be given to my choices and aspirations if these can all be traced to biological brain function?

Of course, neuroscientists acknowledge consciousness (they had better, hadn’t they?) They see it primarily as active in the higher operations such as cognition, long-term planning, memory, and language. Such functions are centred in the neo-cortex, lying above the reptilian and mammalian brains whose operations, though essential, are more basic – and are thought to be earlier developments in our evolutionary progress.

But if you ask them to distinguish between brain and mind, you may get some strange answers. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but I can fairly summarise the explanations which some of them have given.

They acknowledge that we are all Cartesian at heart. That is, we instinctively think in terms of a difference which distinguishes mind from brain. We experience a consciousness of self which overviews the biological. We are able to think about our thoughts with an introspection unique to human beings. We have a sense of self which is distinguishable from our brain although it may work through it – as the violinist makes music through the violin. Even sceptical neuroscientists find themselves speaking in Cartesian language because that reflects their inner experience.

Pushed back against the wall, a neuroscientist may claim that mind is simply another word for brain. Cartesian language may be convenient, they say, but in fact all the functions that we attribute to the mind are to be found in the brain including, perhaps, a higher level of consciousness through which our introspection takes place.

But few neuroscientists are philosophers. If they were, they would quickly see that the difficulty is not answered. We can think about our thinking, and we can think about our thinking about our thinking, and so on ad infinitum. Introspection must ultimately come from outside the biological for the merely material cannot introspect itself. And if it is outside the biological it cannot be caught in a scan.

Consider a couple of instances. First, think about the claim that the moral process is fully comprehended by a network of biological connections localised in the brain. In what way could moral approval or disapproval emerge from this? There would be no point in blame or approval if our behaviour were only the outcome of biological connections.

And that brings us to free will. How does the biological make choices? Without free will the sceptical neuroscientist is obliged to accept the conclusions of his neural circuits. And if those circuits came about through the random mutations of evolution, on what basis can he hold them to be true? 

Of course, many of our choices (far more than we imagine) are in practice not free. But there only has to be one occasion in the history of mankind when a truly moral decision was made, or one truly free exercise of the will – and the materialist case is blown.

So we can marvel at the wonder of God’s creation in the workings of the brain, without supposing for a moment that the brain has taken the place of the mind – or, if you prefer the terminology, the soul. (Many will remember the conditions which had to be fulfilled for mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, full consent. Without for a moment denying free will, it does seem hard to judge subjectively whether full consent is easily present. Conversely, when we perform a virtuous act, how do we separate our free choice from other, secular, factors which influence us? You may have a comment about this, or other aspects of the column. Keep them coming!

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Do you like heretics?

“I don’t like Protestants”. That’s what I learnt at school. it takes us back to the Forties – when I spent 10 years in a Catholic (Jesuit) boarding school. I don’t mean that this was formally taught but there was a general view that Protestantism was a betrayal of the true Church. Moreover, its priests were not really priests at all – in most instances there was no connection of ordination, leading back to the Apostles, and thus its “pretend” priests lacked the Eucharistic identity. It appeared to me that we preferred agnostics and atheists to what we thought of as pseudo Christians.

But “The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, recognised that those who believe in Christ and are baptised with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ. Through baptism they “are incorporated into Christ”, that is “truly incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ, and reborn to a sharing of the divine life”. Moreover, the Council recognised that the communities to which these brothers and sisters belong are endowed with many essential elements Christ wills for his Church, are used by the Spirit as “means of salvation,” and have a real, though incomplete, communion with the Catholic Church.

I find this pleasing because, although I am a born Catholic, I have a direct descent from Anthony Thorold, the late Victorian Anglican bishop of Winchester and, formerly, Rochester. His portrait (by Spy) hangs in the loo.

So my question to Catholics, Protestants or any other Christian communions is whether we see, and treat, each other as a unique group of love and companionship. And do we put this in practice in our social work and in the many other ways which Christians can bring to our societies?

Below, you may see an important, official, account of the Catholic Church on this subject. It’s lengthy, and so is the link. But it’s well worth reading.


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My neighbour and myself

I live, entirely alone, in a pleasant part of South West London. When the original ‘locked in’ started I was approached by several neighbours offering their assistance. They are no longer just neighbours, they are now friends. But I am more directly served by a daughter who is in walking distance. She tries to ensure that I am visited at least once every day. Sadly, no hugs allowed – and I do love a hug. And I have been visited twice by my new great grandson: possibly the most beautiful baby in the world.

I have a friend some twenty miles away – she was in fact my late wife’s friend over 60 years. She too is widowed. She used to visit me every fortnight, but nowadays it has to be a late evening telephone call. We are both ancient, and we value that.

But I do have a constant companion – my old moggy. We spend each evening together. She likes routine. I don’t know what I will do if she snuffs it – I am too old to have a new young cat. I have written about her before.

I find my afternoon walks on the Common revealing. Everyone appears to be more sociable than heretofore. I frequently find myself in conversation with strangers, and I am always aware of how similar we often turn out to be. I even have chats with women – I am apparently well beyond being a source of any sexual danger.

What I am seeing is a community actively living out the virtue of loving our neighbour. And I like it. But I wonder whether it will continue when we all feel safe again. I realise that many of our neighbours have no religious connections – some may be consciously against religion. But, poor things, they can’t escape. Every time or moment of loving our neighbour is divine. There is only one source of love, and it is accessible to all of us. The little queue waiting to be accepted into Heaven will have some unlikely members. And so will the queue waiting for Hell. Let us all hope we are at least in the queue for Purgatory. See you then!   

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God’s feline creation

Who is my neighbour? In my case it is my cat, Tasha. She arrived some 15 years ago along with her litter brother. He died 3 years ago (kidneys), and I recall him with affection whenever I pass his grave in the garden. Tasha continues to remind me that God gives us the ‘lower’ animals to love in their own way.

Tasha and I live in a three-story Victorian house so we are not over crowded. She rarely comes upstairs because she is tempted by the radiator half way up. I can’t recall her ever visiting my bedroom Right now she is behind me in my study (almost exact Covid distance) and fast asleep. She looks pretty fit – her coat in fine fettle. Later, she will review the garden to make sure that we have no other cat visitors. And she will enjoy the Shubunkin in their pool – they must be their fourth or fifth generation.

Of an evening she will spend her time with me in the drawing room. She is a discipline fad: I am required to stroke her quite actively: I have to extend my thumb nail so that she can clean her nose and mouth. Quite recently I find I am required to clean out deeply into her ears. Cleaning ears is quite difficult for cats on their own. Her timing is good, but she will wait for me to turn the television off before she goes for her supper in the kitchen.

She loves visitors. And she clearly prefers women. That’s lucky because most of my visitors are female. We don’t eat in the dining room – ten places are too many for the two of us. So she sits at the kitchen table where my late wife used to sit – she is optimistic.

I have a sense that many people see cats, however apparently domesticated, as more fundamentally wild than we see dogs. And the evidence of their genetic history appears to support this. Where a dog may be totally involved with, and obedient to, its owner, cats seem (to me) their own person, who simply choose human being as a source of food and safety. Do you find it so?

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I note that this blog has been running for some 12 years. Given that at least one item was published each month, and often more, we have a minimum of 150 articles. But perhaps, even more important, has been the quality of the readers’ discussions. And it continues to be so. But it does mean that we have a wide range of subjects — so wide that I sometimes find it difficult to write something new. I have managed to avoid Covid so far – at least while the newspapers are full of it.

But the subject of bullying has come into my mind. It is important at the personal level but it also applies at a much broader level. Far more topical is the issue of racial prejudice. That is simply bullying on the basis of race: our societies are prone to identify visible characteristics — some of which are seen to be unlikeable – followed by the assumption that every individual in the group in some way demonstrates such characteristics.

This is what I had to say:

Every time the name Crump (a pseudonym) comes into my mind, I have a tinge of guilt. The memory goes back 70 years when he and I were age nine and we were at school together. He was an effeminate boy, given to whining, and he was broadly disliked by his schoolmates. He may have been pushed around a bit, but he was never physically bullied. We were at a good Catholic school and we knew that that was wrong. But he suffered contempt from his peers, and he was frequently criticised for his erring ways. He must have been very unhappy.

I should, of course, have taken his part. But I was at an age when my  immature moral sense was guided by the attitudes of my peers. So I passed by on the other side.

I was later to learn that the unpopular boys were often the most interesting. And, from time to time, I have read how people who achieved distinction in later life often had a history of being bullied it school. A characteristic of high achievers is their independence of thought, which may well make them unpopular in conformist circumstances. Indeed, ensuring conformity is a frequent motivation for bullying the outsider. But I do not think that Crump would have benefitted; to the best of my knowledge he sank without trace. And we should expect that to have been so, because, in general, the long term effects of being bullied can be very serious indeed for those who do not have the innate toughness and confidence to survive it.

Several studies of these long-term effects have been done, and a recent one published this year in Psychological Science gives us a good overall view. The children were assessed between the ages of nine and 16, and the adult outcomes measured in their mid-20s.Victims presented very clear health risks in adulthood, being six times as likely to be diagnosed with serious illness, or to develop a psychiatric disorder. They were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job, or to commit to saving. Poverty in young adulthood is common. They have difficulty in forming, or sustaining, long-term friendships or keeping good ties with their parents in adulthood. They are also prone in childhood to become bullies themselves, in turn, since they lack the emotional control to cope with their experiences. Those who have been bullied and have themselves bullied appear to be the most affected by the consequences.

Another recent study, by the American Psychological Association, shows that victims of chronic bullying were substantially more likely to commit crimes in adult life and, in consequence, to find themselves in prison. Female victims shared these characteristics, as well as a propensity to turn to alcohol or drugs. The author, Michael Turner, commented: “This study highlights the important role that healthcare professionals can play early in a child’s life when bullying is not adequately addressed by teachers, parents or guardians.” He tells me that he is planning further studies to refine his conclusions.

The NSPCC tells us that nearly half of all children report that they have been bullied at some time or another. Around a third of children experience bullying in a given year, and one in five of the children who were worrying about being bullied said that they would not talk to their parents about it. Two out of five have experienced cyber-bullying. Bullying was the main reason that boys contacted the NSPCC ChildLine service.

Experts are agreed that bullying is potentially a very damaging experience with severe long-term consequences. And parents are most concerned that their children should neither be bullied, nor bully in turn. They may wish to take action through the school as forcibly as possible. But it may not be as easy as that. It is hard to tell whether an isolated episode of bullying, which many will experience, is of short duration and can be safely ignored with the help of a little parental support. Nor must we suppose that parents will always know about it. Children have their own private world of relationships, nowadays much extended by social media. They may feel that the interference of parents will identify them more clearly as a target. And they may well be ashamed of being bullied and, as their self-confidence leaks, they may begin to feel that they deserve it. This suggests that action should be taken before it is actually needed – in the same way that prudent parents tackle sexual education.

The subject for discussion is not best opened by a direct question such as: are you being bullied? The third party approach is better. Here, in general conversation, the questions are in the form of: is there much bullying in your class? What kind of person is a bully, and what makes them so? Do you have any friends who have been bullied? Can we imagine what it feels like to be bullied? We might even have a personal experience of being bullied to pass on as an anecdote. This should be an informal discussion not an interrogation, nor a tense interview. Even if personal clues are not raised in the children’s answers, at least parents can ensure that necessary information is given.

Notwithstanding such an ideal, parents should keep a weather eye open for uncharacteristic changes in their children. A sense of depression, loss of appetite, poor sleep and an unfamiliar reluctance to go to school are among the signs which may tip off parents that their children need support and help.

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Brothers and Sisters

The recent Papal Encyclical caused a fuss even before its publication. It was addressed to Fratelli Tutti. As you may imagine, there were complaints that it appeared to apply primarily to men (‘Brothers All’).

Some of the argument related to usage. Would Italians immediately assume that ‘Brothers All’ applied equally to both sexes? Perhaps the issue is too minor for general consideration, but the pressure from some groups for women to be ordained turned it into a more dramatic question. It is one which we have considered in the past on this Blog.

The Church’s strong teaching condemning female ordination is clearly and briefly set out in  https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19940522_ordinatio-sacerdotalis.html .

The arguments are well worth reading But I have to say that my own view is that I can see no reasons why women should not be ordained. I cannot see why a woman is less able than a man to take on the role of Christ as a priest. One commentator took the view that we should stop our prayers for increased ordinations given that we have perhaps thousands of women only too ready to apply.

So I would find it helpful if readers consider the issue themselves, and tell us how they would argue their case.

Link to the Encyclical: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html

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“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.”

Hamlet’s concern is about the future rewards or punishments for our decisions of conscience – and rightly so. But how do we use our consciences rightly? In Catholic terms, it would be fairly straightforward: the laws of right and wrong, mortal or venial, are clear. Tick the box. Or, nowadays we could in practice have a computer guide. Type in the information, and out comes the answer – followed by the necessary penance. Possibly, as we are getting used to long distance electronic communication, absolution would come through our computer. I do not have a ‘smart’ telephone but I daresay that a ‘confessional’ program could be set up.

But Scripture, and particularly the New Testament, will not help us here. We are clearly taught that conscience is founded in love. The fundamental basis is love of neighbour and love of ourselves. I take ‘love of ourselves’ to mean our continuous attempts to climb the ladder another step to reach our own perfection of love.

But people like me, of an older generation, were taught that practical emphasis was always on law – in some description. The spirit is left in the background, obedience is the practical expression. I have found very little to read on the formation of conscience, notwithstanding its importance. I have to go back to my own Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (Gower 2002). There isn’t much in that which I would alter some twenty years later. Out of print, of course.

We have looked at Natural Law on occasion in the past. We need to remember that we know a great deal more about human nature than we did a millennium ago. Take, for example, the homosexual. Once upon a time it was assumed that this was a corruption of nature and would always be fundamentally wicked. But now we know that that the causes of homosexuality are broad and are by no means always the outcome of wickedness.  And I wonder how many of us share Augustine’s view that, although in principle, sexual intercourse in marriage could be sinless, in practice sinfulness of some kind will inevitably be present.

Some readers will know that I spent several years as a marriage counsellor. I learnt there a wide range of motivations behind behaviour. These were likely to be at least related to the upbringing and the experience of each individual – to say nothing of their genes. The solution was likely to be learning how to live with one’s own and each other’s internal tendencies, rather than to change them.

So I think that readers of this Blog could learn a great deal about the formation of conscience by listening to other contributors’ habits. Do you, for instance, examine your conscience each day – perhaps before turning to sleep. And how do you do it?

Do you consider your conscience in some detail before you go to Confession? (Do you, nowadays, regularly go to Confession? – how often?) This is not a trivial exercise: it is through our use of conscience that we can develop our love for God, our love for our neighbours, our love for ourselves.

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