Tuesday 29 May 2012

Living together before marriage

                                                             Try before you buy...?

Father Stephen Wang has an excellent post on the dangers of living together before marriage....

Now, I realize that in writing that sentence, I have probably immediately convinced most non-Catholic readers that this is going to be one of those posts in which I again demonstrate that orthodox Catholics are the modern descendants of village idiots who think that the moon is made of cheese and that they've recently spent two hundred years dancing in the halls of the faery folk. It's very hard to think of many modern sexual practices that are so deeply embedded in the commonsense of ordinary decent folk and yet are so clearly opposed by Catholic teaching. (Although I'd not want to make too much of this essentially purely rhetorical point, even the obvious other instances -abortion and contraception- I don't think are quite in the same league: very few non-Catholics think that abortion is entirely OK (even if in the end, they consider it a regrettable necessity); even Catholics think there is room for planning a family (even if they are opposed to artificial means of doing this or permanent avoidance of children). On these issues, the opposing side does (or at least should) recognize where the other is coming from).

Everyone I know of my age and younger lived together before marriage. I and my wife lived together before marriage. (We weren't Christians: why wouldn't we?) Many of these marriages have been extremely successful. And of course it makes sense, doesn't it? Why wouldn't you road test what is essentially the most important commitment of your life?

It also fits in with what you might style the Christian revisionist school of sex: if you think that what's important is displaying respect, and care and commitment rather than obeying stone age rules, why shouldn't these virtues be just as apparent within cohabitation as they are within old fuddy-duddy marriage?

Well, as Father Wang notes, the reason is that it doesn't work. And there are clear reasons for that (which he discusses). But let's be anecdotal for a while. Aside from the friends who lived together and then married successfully, I can think of many others who've frittered away their twenties and thirties (so, if they're women, basically their chances of having a baby) on a succession of not quite right relationships. I can also think of others who've broken up from extremely long standing relationships for no particularly serious reason. ('It just stopped being fun.') (And off subject just a little, is Ed West right in suggesting that 40% of British women graduates remain childless? If he is, what a waste!)

From my own experience, I'm utterly amazed that we made it through cohabiting. There was the shock of discovering that the other person involved is really quite rubbish in lots of ways. (Well, I am. Mrs L is of course perfect.) There was the real crunch when, at the end of university, it would have been much easier for us to develop careers separately and move to separate continents. I can remember conversations which, in retrospect, had us poised on a knife's edge: that we survived them is due simply to grace (or luck if your prefer). What we lacked -and what even with that luck/grace came near to sinking us- was that clear sense of mutual commitment that you get in a marriage: that you are embarked on a lifetime's project of mutual support and child rearing which you're going to see through. That's not what we thought we were doing: we thought we were sniffing around each other. Getting to know each other. And implicit in that undertaking is the possibility of failure, and that this failure doesn't matter that much.

When I look back, given the sort of secularized liberals that we were, I don't see that we could have done anything different: as a matter of fact rather than principle, there just isn't a readily available vocabulary outside orthodox religions to explain why living together isn't a good idea. Given the clear prudential reasons for believing cohabitation is a bad idea, that in itself is rather odd. I'm not sure what religions can do to reach out in particular to those half secular members who aren't really signed up to the full commitments and wisdom of their traditions (and that half secular state is one which, realistically, a lot of young Catholics are going to find themselves in when they're thinking about cohabiting). Of course, it means articulating the position of the Church clearly and explaining the reasoning behind it in ways similar to Father Wang's post. But isn't there also a place for (eg) fighting to change our expectations of the circumstances of marriage? For example, it just didn't occur to us that we could be university students and be married: why not? In retrospect, that's what we should have done: made a decision to get married and actually have got married. If we'd done that, I suspect the outcome would have been the same (we'd still be here married) but we'd have avoided some of the precarious moments on which many of our friends have foundered.

Friday 25 May 2012

Alex Preston's 'The Revelations'

                                                Friends+sex+religion=The Revelations 

Just finished Alex Preston's novel The Revelations which is about goings on in an Alpha like course ('The Course' in the novel) and in a HTB like church ('St Botolphs'). The Guardian review (fairly favourable) is here. The FT review (rather lukewarm) is here.

Much depends on what you are looking for in a novel. If it is just to present a satisfying internal world, then perhaps this ticks all the boxes. It has a menagerie of characters calculated to appeal to a middle class twenty/thirty something, Guardian reading audience (bankers, lawyers, PhD candidates); lashings of bonking and exuberant rubbing of bodies; a general sense of the importance of spirituality but also of the obvious awfulness and inadequacy of any orthodox Christian answer. The 'Course' in the novel is portrayed as, at best, an overly simple attempt to provide answers to the strains of growing older in well heeled and educated middle classdom; at worst, it is a cynical attempt to make money out of the gullible. As a story of corruption within its own invented world, it's fine. Not great: just fine.

But presumably we are to take this as something more than a thought experiment about a possible world: it is, presumably, something about our world, the possibility of religion and (most specifically) about the sort of modern Evangelicalism that appeals to whatever we're supposed to call yuppies these days. Preston himself seems to emphasize the social aspects of the novel and indeed 'the (Alpha) Course':

With Nicky Gumbel, a charismatic Anglican priest, at its head, the Alpha Course offers a seductive outlet for those who have come to feel that there must be more to life than what they're daily dealing with. Not only that, says Preston, "it is a ready-formed social environment for people who don't have one." Whereas churches such as the one he intermittently attends attract congregations you could count on one hand, those such as Trinity regularly have to turn people away, and for not entirely spiritual or religious reasons.

"You meet people there you could not only marry," says Preston, "but who you could possibly work for as well. Also, it answers a lot of questions."

I can't say I've had much to do with either Oxbridge educated London financiers or HTB. So I'm perfectly prepared to believe that both sets are full of shallow, slightly desperate people who drink and smoke too much and really just want to meet some nice friends to share their lives with. If that's what Alpha in London is all about, then perhaps it deserves this novel. 

But what you don't get from the book is much sense of why religion or God might represent a tempting way out of this. The priest leading 'The Course' is simply focused on boosting numbers: no explanation of why God might be really important to him and thus no real insight into what's gone wrong with his motivations. Loyalty is judged in terms of loyalty to The Course, not in terms of loyalty to Jesus or the Holy Spirit (which is what evangelicals of my acquaintance keep going on about). 'The Course' is simply manipulative: it's out to make money; it ignores immorality; it lies. But there's no real sense of what a good course might be like and what the actual course has betrayed. There are indeed the occasional gestures at suggesting there might be other, better forms of religion, but nothing really clear about what this might be. (Insofar as the book does contain hints on this, the perfect religion seems to consist in the reading of Middle English mystics whilst being brought to sexual climax by your best friend's wife. Whatever the Church of England's view on this suggestion (presumably it would require careful study and prayerful reflection) it doesn't really sound viable for Catholics.) What would have been interesting is some sense of what this God shaped hole in the lives of these people really needed to fill it. Instead you just get a story about how people who pretended to care really didn't after all. An oddly banal thought for a novel about religion.

I've known quite a few people who've been on (Protestant) Alpha courses outwith London. Certainly, the social aspect does seem important: for those for whom it's worked, and getting into a small bible study/social group does seem to be part of the successful mix of modern evangelicalism. But behind that is a desire for God and for something that transcends the everyday awfulness of human lives. I'm pretty sure that Alpha, with its profoundly unCatholic approach to the Church, is an extremely flawed introduction to Christianity. But it is still some sort of introduction: it's intended to pull people in and then (as evangelicals would say) to 'disciple them'. And it is the appeal of Christianity, not just attractive girls and networking, with which this novel singularly fails to grapple.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Schubert, atheism and death

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is dead and another milestone in my own journey to death. I remember very clearly the thrill of buying a cassette of one of his performances of Winterreise as a teenager, significant as part of my development of a cultural space separate from that of my parents. There are a few other pieces that  I remember from around that heady time, but very few others that whispered 'death' so clearly in my young mind and have gone on whispering it throughout my life. And now I'm an age where, although I don't expect to die in the immediate future, enough of the occasional tumours or heart attacks or accidents have occurred among those I know for me to realize that the whisper is for me and not just a conversation between others on which I'm eavesdropping.

Schubert of course isn't just the minstrel of death, but, quite apart from the explicit treatments of death in his songs, the constant themes of parting, failed love, and journeys, combined with his early death (at 31), have always made this, at least for me, his major theme. And now, the man who was Schubert's Lieder has died.

All this made me revisit Terry Pratchett's vision of the good death:

Sir Terry, who was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours, said in an article in the Mail on Sunday: 'I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod.

Why Thomas Tallis? Why not Schubert? Well, here's one answer. With Tallis, you have the certainty of a Catholic composer that (as the text of Spem in alium has it):

I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

Catholics have that hope in the Other. And drugged by fine brandy, consoled by the firm belief of a system we really don't believe in but can pretend to for the few minutes we are conscious, we atheists can screw our courage to the sticking place and swallow the poison.

Would you go out with Schubert on the ipod? After all, Schubert, unlike the loony Catholic Tallis, was an atheist. So why not face up to death and parting and the end of earthly love in all the clarity of its truth? Why look for consolation to the sky fairy believing Tallis when you have Schubert? I suspect that the answer here is that Schubert, genius that he is, portrays the death of the human being as simple creature: he gives no consolation because, really, for an atheist, there ought not to be any consolation, but merely the bleakness of ends and unsatisfactory partings.

Anyway, would you die with Schubert on the ipod? Here are two test pieces. The first, Der Leiermann, is the final song of Winterreise, and the desolate end of a desolate journey:

Way behind the hamlet 
stands an organ man 
and with freezing fingers 
grinds the best he can.

Barefoot on the snowbank 
swaying to and fro - 
and his little plate has 
ne'er a coin to show.

No-one comes to listen, 
no-one comes to greet, 
and the dogs are growling 
at the old man's feet.

And he lets it happen, 
lets it as it will - 
cranking - and his organ 
never staying still.

Strangest of the Ancients, 
must I walk with you? 
Will you grind my Lieders
on your organ, too? 

The second, the final song of Die Schöne Müllerin, Des Baches Wiegenlied, where the brook calls the young man to suicide:

Good rest, good rest,
Close your eyes!
Wanderer, tired one, you are home.
Fidelity is here,
You shall lie by me,
Until the sea drinks the brooklet dry.

I will bed you cool
On a soft pillow,
In the blue crystal room,
Come, come,
Whatever can lull,
rock and lap my boy to sleep!

When a hunting-horn sounds
From the green forest,
I will roar and rush around you.
Don't look in,
Blue flowerets!
You make my sleeper's dreams so troubled!

Away, away
From the mill-path,
Away, away,
hateful girl!
That your shadow might not wake him.
Throw in to me
Your fine handkerchief,
That I may cover his eyes with it!

Good night, good night,
Until all awake,
Sleep out your joy, sleep out your pain!
The full moon climbs,
The mist fades away,
and the heavens above, how wide they are!

Modern atheism, in Pratchett's version, ignores the depths of human death and love displayed in Schubert's music in favour of the stolen consolations of a religion it denies: it is death (and thus life) stripped of complexity and reduced to a lifestyle choice. For a Catholic, Spem in alium promises the hope of paradise but the reality of judgment, the probability of purgatory and the possibility of hell. It is, moreover, merely part of the lifetime of a journey through the hard religious discipline of the Church: if it is a consolation, it is one that has been paid for and one that has depths.

Friday 18 May 2012

Scottish Catholics are revolting

Members of Catholic Women's Ordination (Beijing Branch) expressing solidarity with the downtrodden Catholics of Scotland.

Much to raise Lazarus' blood pressure recently. First, there's that business with Cranmer. Tempting to lump this in with the (English) Law Society's banning of discussion about marriage and unleash a tirade about the need for robust debate in society, offence be damned. But another time. Second, there's Ian Bell's pro-same sex 'marriage' article in last Saturday's (not the Catholic) Herald where Bell's usual 'stream-of-just-about-conscious' prose reaches the predictable conclusion that gay marriage is a jolly good thing. But even I get bored dealing with this sort of argument-lite journalism that's pouring out of the Scottish press on this issue just in case we 'critter-eatin-religious-know-nuffins' haven't got the message yet.

But I shall instead focus on the article in last Sunday's Herald: Catholic rebels v the Vatican. (Reproduced here without the need to open a Herald account.) Basically, this was one of the two stories that non-Catholic journalists print when they're bored: either 'Taig Paedos protected by Pope' or 'Nice Catholics oppressed by Pope'. It is of the latter species whereof we speak today.

Reading the article quickly, you'd get the impression that Scottish Catholicism consists entirely of well educated decent liberal people being oppressed by bishops. Apparently, though, things are getting better. According to Werner Jeanrond, Catholic professor of theology at Glasgow (and apparently soon on his way to St Benet's Hall Oxford -so that'll be something for you all down south to look forward to):

When I lived in Ireland in the mid-1990s, we had the priests, the bishops and the Vatican on one hand and the laity on the other. But this has changed. Now we have priests and laity on one hand and the bishops and the Vatican on the other. That shift I think is significant. We are living in a time of enormous change for the Church. I see this not as a sign of collapse, it is a sign of change and transformation and hope.

Jeanrond goes on:

If an increasingly well-informed Catholic laity in Scotland wants to participate more actively in the government of the Church they will ask themselves why on Earth -when you look at church history in the last 150 years- the worldwide Catholic Church accepted an absolutist model, a model which is not necessary to the Gospel. You cannot ask someone to live in a democratic country -especially a country facing a democratic decision about its future -to then reduce them in terms of their faith, without the exercise of reason. [I'm not sure the final bit quite makes sense -but you'll get the gist]

The article builds on the rather flimsy premise of one Edinburgh priest's attendance at the Irish Association of Catholic Priests whinge-fest to draw conclusions about the state of the church in Scotland. Apart from asking usual suspects such as We Are Church (from which we get the usual answers) there is no evidence put forward that the concerns of the rather elderly Vatican II generation are the main concerns amongst the Catholic laity. John Haldane probably rather nails it when (having interestingly said that the Vatican views Ireland (presumably the Irish Church) as a 'basket case') he a) points out this is a lot of moaning from 'Vatican II priests' who've mistaken the nature of the Catholic Church; and b) there is almost no dissent in Scotland (certainly compared to Ireland) in part due to greater solidarity here in the face of more recent Protestant repression and in part due to the way the Scottish Church had not become such a 'discredited institution' as the Irish Church.

Frankly, I have no idea how much active dissent there is in Scotland: there certainly haven't been many obvious signs of it in the parishes with which I've been involved. Far more common is that drift from Catholic authority: ignoring bits of teaching or, at its extreme, hardly going to Mass at all. But what I want to focus on is this idea of a 'well-informed' Catholic laity. Although Jeanrond claims its existence (and I suppose as a lay theologian with a university professorship, he is indeed a member of the 'well-informed' laity) I don't see many signs of it in general.

There are a number of distinctions to be drawn here. First, you can be well informed about something that has no (or limited) bearing on Catholicism. It's certainly true in this sense that Scottish Catholics are better informed than a few generations ago, but being a well educated lawyer or doctor or teacher doesn't entail that you are well informed theologically. Second, you can be well informed about Catholicism without understanding the reasons behind it. Thus, it's probably true that most Catholics in Scotland know that the Church teaches against contraception and abortion and homosexual activity, but I suspect that very few could give a coherent explanation of the reasoning behind it. Here, unless the laity are reminded of the need for humility, the move from 'I don't know the reason' to 'There is no reason' is incredibly easy to make. Third, in part as a result of changes in teaching within Catholic education in seminaries and Catholic universities, it cannot be assumed that even professional theologians have been well informed about the tradition. (It is for example striking that judging by Jeanrond's CV, you'd be much better sitting at the feet of the philosopher John Haldane in order to gain an understanding of the Church's scholastic intellectual heritage rather than the theologian.)

So why should a 'well informed' laity expect a say in running the Church, particularly in the area of doctrine? Unless they can really bring some expertise to the table, I suspect this pretty much amounts to: 'I'm an important person outside the Church and I'm used to being listened to so I should be listened to inside the Church as well.' Otherwise, you've simply got input from a group of people who've been educated in the anti-religious prejudices of the society around them and insufficient education in how to respond to those prejudices taking over an already intellectually weakened local Church.

If you want to know the future of the Church, you should look instead to a revival of orthodoxy. If you're going to stay a Catholic in modern Scotland other than in a purely nominal way, you want something different from the Church besides hand me down secular liberalism in funny frocks.(The Piskies already do that perfectly well.) So younger, committed Catholics will tend to be more orthodox in one of the three ways that are current in the Church: they will be spiritually more committed in the way suggested by John Paul II; they will be more committed to the traditions of the Church in a way suggested by the current Pope. And they will be philosophically more savvy about the scholastic tradition in a way evidenced by people such as Haldane, Ed Feser, Joseph Shaw and Thomas Pink.

Of the three aspects, I think it is probably the third that is at the weakest at the moment particularly in the UK: although we have plenty of smart, orthodox Catholic academics, I don't think we have a laity that, in general, is well informed about the reasoning behind orthodoxy. If Benedictus College gets off the ground, it will be a welcome addition to the intellectual life of Catholicism here. Ralph McInerny's comment on the decline of Thomism in Catholic institutions bears repeating here:

How ironic that Catholic philosophy since the Council has taken on the coloration of  modernity and all but abandoned its traditional roots. Our departments of philosophy now have a majority of members for whom what I have been saying would be as unintelligible as doubtless it would be at Meatball Tech. It is a melancholy thought that now, when the salutary impact of traditional philosophy is most urgently needed, we who are its presumed representatives have abandoned ship and are crowding the rails of the Titanic.

(from I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You p105  (ISBN 978-0268034924)).

Thursday 17 May 2012

Habebimus episcopum (perhaps)

Front page news in the (Glasgow) Herald yesterday was that Bishop Tartaglia of Paisley will be the next Archbishop of Glasgow.

The BBC website however is slightly less sure, noting that no decision has yet been made.

If Tartaglia is appointed, Scotland can expect to see the continued presence of a strong Catholic voice against modern lunacies. Bishop Tartaglia last attracted media attention in October last year for his attack on the Scottish Government:

“I sense that there is a growing apprehension and disappointment on the part of many in the Catholic community at the direction your government is taking,” he tells the First Minister. “Like others, I had begun to entertain the hope that yours would be a government of national unity which had the sagacity to move forward towards an independent Scotland by respecting and developing the historic foundational values of faith and reason which have contributed to making Scotland a nation.”

Monday 14 May 2012

I am Cranmer

The blogger Archbishop Cranmer is being pursued for publishing the Campaign for Marriage ad. Naughty heretic though he is, he deserves better than this so, as a sign of solidarity, I've placed the ad in my sidebar since Friday and am now moving it to this post.

Even if you support same sex 'marriage', surely this is a pretty innocuous ad? Are we really getting that afraid of controversy?

Friday 11 May 2012

Protestantism and natural law

I've had a brief exchange on E Church blog  with Peter Kirk on his blogpost suggesting that Christians shouldn't seek to impose their standards on others, particularly with respect to same sex 'marriage'.

He claims

...as Christians we should not be seeking to impose our own moral standards on the world. If we try to do so, we are not showing Christian love to our unbelieving neighbours.

I agree. In fact I would take this a little further than Daniel does explicitly. If we seek to impose our moral standards on outsiders, we give them the impression that the Christian faith is a matter of obeying rules. That is a complete denial of the gospel proclamation to unbelievers, which should be that God loves them and gives them his grace even while they are still living sinful lives. As Craig Groeschel writes today for the Huffington Post, Rules Create Toxic Religion. And the sin of a homosexual relationship is no worse in God’s eyes than the sin of showing self-righteousness and of misrepresenting the gospel.

Now clearly, even from a Protestant perspective such as Peter's, such is not the only possible view and, indeed, it is at odds with the Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin who were very happy to impose 'their' (or rather 'God's') standards on society. But putting that aside, his argument does indicate a fundamental chasm between some modern versions of Protestantism and Catholicism. Moreover, since in Scotland at least, most atheists tend to understand Christianity through a Protestant prism, this understanding of Christianity leads to problems in comprehending the Catholic Church's position on same sex 'marriage'. 

In his reply to one of my comments on Stuart's blog, Peter says:

I would agree with part of what I think you are saying, in that I would see true Christian ethical living as a lifestyle based on showing Christian love for others. But I still don’t accept that Christians should expect unbelievers to live this kind of lifestyle without having the relationship with God on which it is based.

I think there are two points at stake here: a) morality as a voluntary agreement versus morality as living in accordance with our nature; b) our dependency on grace to be able to live well versus man made measures such as social pressure or political arrangements. In short, the Catholic response is that morality is based on living well in accordance with our nature rather than an agreement, and that God's grace is given (among other things) through the medium of political arrangements.

a) Let's call the proper form of Christian living -the 'lifestyle' to which we are called by God- 'Godly living'.   Godly living is, for a Protestant of Peter's kidney, a voluntary agreement: we voluntarily submit to God's will for us. As a result, Godly living is not applicable to those who have not consented to it.

For a Catholic, the key 'relationship' here is that of our creation: we are created with a certain nature with certain things that will harm and benefit us. These harms and benefits objectively exist, whether or not individuals happen to recognize them. So encouraging people to live in accordance with their nature (and thus avoid same sex 'marriage') is as much part of care for them as encouraging them not to drink too much.

b) For Protestants of this type, even if Godly living is (in principle) applicable to all human beings, it is not (in fact) available to them without grace. This boils down to two claims: first, that without grace we cannot act as we should (and even as we really want); second, that without grace we cannot know what we should do. Here, what I think is the key element of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism enters in: Catholicism typically sees grace as given to people by mediators. Grace is given by the sacraments, by the Church itself and by the very material circumstances of the world. Every moment of every existing being trembles on the edge of non-existence without the active support of God. So grace, in principle for Catholics, is not just a special momentary act of God: it is the sustaining activity of God throughout all time and in all places, mediated through the natural world and the Church.

Some types of Protestantism see grace as the result of a personal commitment: I commit to God by a personal decision; he personally commits to me in response to that decision. For Catholics, my very existence is graced. My education by school and parents is part of God's grace. My encouragement to live a Godly life by friends is the working of God's grace. As a result, whilst Catholics and Protestants agree that, without grace, we cannot fulfil the natural law, Catholics would expect not just a 'in or out' version of grace where those who are 'in' (because they are personally committed to God) will be able to fulfil the natural law whilst those who are 'out' can't; but rather a spectrum: some societies and some individuals will have more difficulty than others because theirs is a spectrum of transformation by God's grace rather than simply being 'in or out'.

As such, encouragement by the State through its institutional arrangements is as much part of the operation of God's grace as the evangelical altar call.

In sum:

a) To Protestants such as Peter, I would say that same sex 'marriage' should be opposed because it encourages people to live badly. Good laws and good institutional arrangements are just as much part of God's grace as, say, a pastor's advice and encouragement.

b) To atheists, I would also say that same sex 'marriage' should be opposed because it encourages people to live badly. In particular, the need to provide for the proper raising of the next generation is undermined by its introduction.

In substance, the same answer. But different wording for different audiences.

Monday 7 May 2012

Salmond in trouble over gay marriage

In yesterday's Scottish edition of the Sunday Times, the headline was 'Salmond in trouble over gay marriage', reporting that both David Cameron and Alex Salmond were 'under intense pressure' to put their plans to legalize same sex marriage 'on hold'.

Quite a lot of the article appears to be recycled from English editions with the well known mutterings of English conservatives about the need to return to a true Conservatism being repeated. The material on Scotland is rather thinner: apparently:

...some SNP ministers have warned privately that legislating in Scotland threatens their chances of winning the independence referendum.


'It's not that there has been a sudden outbreak of moral conservatism. [Heaven forfend!] The ministers who have doubts about same-sex marriage are just being pragmatic,' said a source close to one SNP minister.

Well, good. But I'll believe it when I see it. Anyway, whilst regular readers will realize that (like most Catholic bloggers) I spend most of my time with my head wrapped in silver foil to prevent surveillance from telepaths employed by the World Government, with only a small (cross shaped) hole cut therein to allow communications from my Guardian Angel, and will therefore pay little heed to my actions, I'll say to those anonymous SNP ministers that I couldn't bring myself to vote for any of the three parties on Thursday simply because of their stand on same sex marriage. (I exclude the Lib Dems and the Greens from any possibility of my support since they seem to have turned themselves into anti-Catholic, lifestyle issue parties at least in Scotland.) So, a spoiled ballot paper with an elegant explanation of my refusal to vote crafted in large green crayoned capitals.

Not sure if it was the right decision, but in the absence of any serious alternative in my ward to the comfy consensus on destroying the family, I didn't feel I had much alternative. (Had a mature political alternative such as the penguin candidate, Professor Pongoo, been available, I may have reconsidered. On the other hand, penguins are well know to be unreliable in this area.)

Anyway, make of it what you will. But apparently there are 11% of us Scottish nutters out there for whom support for same sex marriage will make us less likely to vote for independence as opposed to only 2% of the sensible and decent people for whom support for same sex marriage will encourage support for independence. I suggest ministers do the math and find a way out of this hole they've dug for themselves.

Friday 4 May 2012

Abortion, pictures and virtue ethics

With the introduction in some US states of laws obliging women to see ultrasound pictures of their unborn child before an abortion as well as the normal, rumbling discussion about the use of images of babies in anti-abortion campaigns, what in general is the role of pictures in coming to a moral decision on abortion?

Putting aside questions about the rights and wrongs of forcing women to see pictures, or about the use of misleading pictures, the general argument against using pictures is simply that they engage the emotions in what is essentially a rational decision: by appealing to a 'coo' factor or a 'yuk' factor, such images undermine the process of rational reflection.

Of course, for those theories of moral judgment which reduce them to a mere expression of emotion, there is a general difficulty about explaining why some emotional reactions are more important than others. But for Catholics, there is an apparent difficulty in explaining why what is essentially a decision based on cognition -of the nature of the action and of the relevant portion of the natural law- should be influenced by the deliberate seeking of an emotional reaction. I'll say something more about the specifically Catholic position at the end, but for the moment, let's approach the question through the prism of one of the big three ethical approaches that you'll find in modern, academic, non religious philosophy: virtue ethics.

In virtue ethics, the secular philosophical approach developed from Aristotelian ethics, emotions are a key element of moral decision making. However, it is also possible that we, as less than perfect moral agents, have our emotional reactions wrong: the less than virtuous will tend to feel wrongly, and the correction of such wrong emotions is part of the movement towards virtue. But it's rather implausible to claim that the (general) reaction on seeing the obviously human shape of a unborn child is in some way distorted: if this was 'corrected' the (virtuous) reaction which we depend on for a flourishing life of respect for other human (shaped) beings would also be removed. And this is why the showing of images such as the above is one of the strongest anti-abortion tactics: it taps into the essential care for the human form, and more particularly the young, helpless human form, on which human care for the next generation depends.

The main pro-abortion objections here would seem to be:

a) We can be misled by such images
b) Such images get in the way of a rational decision
c) We do not in fact have a strong emotional reaction to the unborn at an early stage of development.

On a), I've already noted that the imperfectly virtuous will get their emotional reactions wrong, but that isn't the case here: we would expect the virtuous to feel care in the face of a human baby appearance. So the objection here must be rather along the lines of the 'cute bear' syndrome: human beings find bears cute, even when they represent a serious danger to them. (We 'misread' bears because they look cuddly and friendly when they're not.) But again, that can't be the objection here: unborn babies don't look like human beings (but aren't). They actually are human beings. (And note that this point is separate from the claim that they look like human persons but aren't: on the assumption that 'person' here means someone who is capable of autonomy and rational decision making, unborn babies don't look like persons. (I wouldn't entrust my business affairs to one.) They look like helpless human beings because that's what they are.) In sum, the charge of being misled is wrong because the images are appealing to a virtuous emotional response rather than a flawed emotional response; and because they elicit the emotion of care for what they really are rather than what they appear (misleadingly) to be.

On b), within the context of virtue ethics, emotions are an essential rather than a regrettable feature of decision making. So this objection has to be interpreted as one about a specific difficulty in the role of emotions here, rather than a general inappropriateness in referring to them. Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this is by thinking of cases in which the 'yuk' factor can get in the way. One example would be the dentist: we might have a strong emotional reaction to going to the dentist but realize that we need to get over it in order to have the necessary dental work done. Analogously, it might be claimed, we realize that we need an abortion but have a 'yuk' reaction to the process of getting it done. And, as in the case of the dentist, it would be irrational to dwell on the occasions of those 'yuk' reactions: much better to close your eyes, screw your courage to the sticking place, and try not to think about the process of dentistry (or abortion).

So this suggests that, in some circumstances, if you are convinced of the morality of a particular abortion, it may be rational to avoid occasions of emotional reactions such as photos. But there is a distinction to be drawn here between the case of dentistry and the case of abortion. The point of the photos is that they reveal something that may otherwise be overlooked: that we have strong emotional attachments to the sort of being that we are trying to get rid of. The worry on the anti-abortion side is that this important and morally relevant fact is too easily lost sight of and that is why it needs to be re-introduced into the decision making process in order for that decision making process to be complete. In the case of dentistry, either the emotional reaction is disproportionate to the actual events (in which case, familiarization through (eg) pictures might indeed help) or the emotional reaction is correct but outweighed by the dangers of not going through with the procedure.

At best, objection b) suggests that introducing pictures at a late stage in a decision procedure might well be counter-rational. It certainly does not show that introducing them at some stage in that decision procedure would be counter rational: indeed, given the importance of emotions in virtue ethics, the better view would be that introducing and familiarizing yourself with them would be an essential part of rational reflection.

Finally, I turn to c). Now if it is true that, as I have argued, familiarity with pictures of a developing baby is part of the reflection which is required in thinking about abortion, a consequence of that is, in all probability, that showing pictures of early stages of foetal development isn't going to provoke an emotional reaction.

Doesn't this show, it might be argued, that early stage abortion is morally unproblematic? Well, all I have argued here is that familiarity with pictures of the development of a baby is a necessary condition of rational reflection on abortion. But this does not amount to a claim that it is a sufficient condition: just looking at pictures isn't enough. A claim you'll often here about Catholic views on abortion is that they've changed over time: Aquinas, it is (falsely) claimed, had no problems with abortion up to the point of ensoulment which he placed following Aristotle at either 40 or 80 days after conception. This reasoning was, roughly, based on the appearance or, more exactly, the movement of the child: the sort of thing that is indeed captured by photos and scans. So based just on this evidence, there would be a good case for distinguishing between the 'quickened' and the unquickened child. But now we have more evidence; that the process of growth from conception to birth is more of a continuous process than earlier times thought. Now, whatever finally we are to make of such evidence, it is clearly relevant to rational reflection: again, pictures just aren't enough. But that doesn't make them unnecessary.

To sum up, within the virtue ethics approach, familiarity with the appearance of the growing baby and our emotional reaction to that is an essential part of rational deliberation.

What then of a specifically Catholic approach here? As Catholics, we are bound by the Magisterial teaching expressed in the Catechism (para 2271):

Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.

That authoritative teaching does not contradict the sort of philosophical considerations adduced above, but builds on them. The virtue ethics approach sketched above focusing on the appearance of the unborn baby, at the least, shows that abortion after a certain stage of development should be morally troubling: to acknowledge that much is moral progress. That further argument may be required to demonstrate the complete immorality of all direct abortion shows only the incompleteness of the above considerations, not their irrelevance.