What value do we place on human life? My column is published in the Scottish Catholic Observer this weekend. Get your copy in your local parish. If that’s not possible the full text will be here next Friday 26th April 2019
My column in the Scottish Catholic Observer is published this weekend (Friday 22nd March 2019). Has the issue of abuse distracted us from the real role of the Church? Get your copy in your parish this weekend.
The full text will be here next week.
Speaking out against some populist views can bring unwelcome attention. See my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Full text here next week.
This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 5th October 2018
Reading the newspapers and watching the news on television recently has become a painful experience for Catholics. Every day seems to bring more stories of child abuse perpetrated by priests, nuns and bishops. Priests have been sentenced; bishops have been accused of covering up abuse and we have looked on, aghast, wondering how this could have happened.
Child abuse has been exposed in other churches as well. Politicians and others in power, staff in children’s homes and youth groups have all stood accused of abuse. That’s bad enough but surely it should not happen in our Church. After all, we are supposed to be the good guys. The world that was brought up on priests played by Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien who turned youngsters away from crime and brought them back to the fold in those old films is shocked to find abuse in the Catholic Church. I’m shocked too.
My idea of the good guys was fashioned in my Saturday afternoon visits to the Greens Cinema with all the other boys in our street. Every week we were treated to cowboy films. We recognised the good guys by their white hats and the bad guys by their black hats. Life was simple then. Sometimes the plot would take a different turn and one of the good guys would fail to live up to expectations, a bad goodie. Then one of the bad guys would do something honourable, a good baddie. That sometimes prompted arguments about whether one character was a good baddie or a bad goodie. It can be hard to tell in real life too.
I was brought up to respect all clergymen, priests, ministers or whatever. We expected these people to be above anything bad. It comes as a shock to find that they might just be bad goodies or even good baddies. What we have failed to recognise is that they are just human beings like the rest of us. Being good does not come with the collar, it is the same struggle we all have, worse because so much more is expected.
The most recent trend has become the finger pointing in the hierarchy. Even Pope Francis has been blamed for not having dealt with these problems, even those that occurred well before he became pope. Now this idea that someone out there should have dealt with this and it must be all their fault doesn’t seem to fit well with what I think the Church is. The Catholic Church is not a large corporation where the board of management decide everything and tell the rest of us what we should do.
The Church is the Body of Christ, alive and working in the world. We are all parts of that body. Just as problems with my foot affect the rest of my body (especially in the mornings) problems with any one of us affect the whole body of the Church. It seems to me that we all bear some responsibility for the health of the Church. The revelations of abuse, while painful, are vital for the health of this body. When I read of the abuse of children in homes run by the Church it reminded me of the violence that was meted out to children in our schools. It is only in recent years that corporal punishment was banned in our school system. Before that it was acceptable to belt pupils for getting an answer wrong. That was the norm in Scotland. The Church’s failure, our failure,
to oppose this attitude is the disgrace. We all accepted this as normal behaviour. Abusing children was OK. This was not a problem with priests and bishops. This was a problem with the whole of society.
How can it be that people who repeatedly heard Christ’s teaching about how to cherish children accepted cruelty? It makes me wonder about the real depth of our belief in the Gospel. Have we been going through life paying lip service to Christ’s teaching while accepting the moral values of the world? Is it any wonder then that young people accept the world’s views on sexuality, abortion and materialism, rejecting the Church’s teaching?
I was brought up with the view that the priests were the spiritual descendants of the apostles. They had to carry on the work of evangelisation in the world. I’m now beginning to realise that this is too simplistic. We are all the spiritual descendants of the apostles and it is our job to bring the Gospel to the world. The priests and bishops have a special role in that as they bring us the sacraments but we are the main bringers of the Gospel. In my daily life I have contact with people who will never meet a priest. Who else will bring Christ into their lives?
Now I hear you saying, “Who are you to bring the Gospel? You are just a sinner like everyone else.” and that’s true. I am a sinner, just like everyone else in the Church is a sinner. That’s the whole point. Christ came to save sinners, us. As an individual I’m not really equipped to go out to the world and convert it to the Gospel. As part of the Body of Christ; as part of a Church strong in faith and committed to convert ourselves into the people God wants us to be, I can have an effect on the world.
Really, these current abuse scandals should make us take a good look at ourselves. Do we just observe the letter of the law or are we imbued with the spirit of the law? Are we obsessed with the minute details of Catholicism and blind to the big view of the ministry we are baptised into? Trotting out to Sunday Mass and sitting there, chatting to our neighbour, while Christ Himself becomes present on the altar seems to be missing the point. Opting for macaroni cheese for dinner on a day of fast and abstinence but ignoring those who have no food is a sign we have lost the plot.
As long as we rely on our own strengths and abilities alone we will fail in our mission of evangelisation. We can only succeed when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. We can’t put priests and bishops on a pedestal where we see them as possessing supernatural powers. We are all fallible. On our own we fail to match up to the Gospel. We can only succeed when we allow the Spirit to use us. For that to happen to me I must change the way I look at the world.
I must become more aware of my dependence on the Holy Spirit. I must think of the gifts I have been given as tools. I have eyes to let me see. I must look critically at what I see. I have a brain to let me think and I must think about I see and make a judgement on what is right and wrong. I must act on my judgements and use the gift of speech to speak out against what is wrong and speak up for what is right. Our school motto in Columba High School was ‘Speak out for Justice’. If we all do that there will be fewer scandals in the future.
My column is published today in the Scottish Catholic Observer. Who is to blame for the recent scandals? Is it the priests, the bishops or even the Pope? Get your copy this weekend for my take on this. It’s sure to be controversial so make sure you get your copy this weekend. If you miss it you’ll have to wait ’till next weekend to get the full text here.
Have you ever met anyone who always miserable? Nothing seems to satisfy them. They are hard to take. But really we don’t like to admit that we are never completely happy.
We are always searching for that elusive thing that will make us really happy. What could it possibly be?
Read my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish. The full text is here next week.
This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 10th August.
This month I’m considering the eighth commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Is this really a directive that will make you happy? Sometimes we tell lies. We might call them little white lies as we use them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to avoid a confrontation. Can that be wrong? Why does telling the truth get such a good reputation?
George Washington, the first US President, is reputed have shown a tendency to tell the truth from an early age. The story goes that as a six year old he was given a gift of a hatchet. He reputedly chopped his father’s cherry tree with it, causing some damage. When confronted by his father he apparently replied “I cannot tell a lie, I damaged the tree.” This earned him the reputation of honesty. However the story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, his first biographer. It is, in fact, a lie.
Should we always tell the truth or lie with a good intent? One situation where people sometimes tell lies is in writing references for someone’s job application. The might hope to advance the person’s career, exaggerating their abilities and achievements to give them a leg up. Perhaps they want the person to get the job to move a problem on to someone else to deal with. In either case the candidate will be set up to fail in the new job, causing trouble for them and their new employer. Better to just, truthfully, tell the good things. By reporting that the applicant for the secretary’s job makes a great cup of tea you can tell the truth and say nothing negative, The prospective employer should get the message.
The commandment talks of bearing false witness which makes us think of being a witness, whether in court or in reporting an incident. The ends of justice can be thwarted when lies are told to protect the guilty. Lying can not only protect the guilty but can result in an innocent person being imprisoned unjustly. There have been many cases of people who have been released after many years in jail when their case has been reviewed and found to be based on false evidence. I wonder how many innocent people have been imprisoned unjustly and were never cleared.
The difficulty we have when lies are told is that it can cause a breakdown in trust. The story of the boy who was bored and cried “Wolf” just to see the people run out to defend the flock illustrated the point well. Eventually the people were fed up with his game and when the wolf did appear they ignored his cries. They had lost trust in him. How often does that happen today?
One important area of public life where trust is very important is politics. We elect politicians to form a government and work to bring about good results for the country. We trust that they will do what they promise. Very often they do not achieve what they had set out to do. This may not be because they were telling lies but rather they get the job and find things are not as straight forward as they had assumed while they were campaigning. We have to trust them on that.
Where the trust breaks down is when politician are found to be misleading. Misleading Parliament is a serious offence. Esther McVey was forces to apologise to Parliament when she was found to have made a report to Parliament which was the complete opposite of the truth. She claimed that she had unintentionally misled Parliament rather that lied to hide a very critical report on her department’s work.
These incidents can cause people to lose trust in our politicians and our political system is damaged as a result. Many now are ready to disregard anything politicians say because of the behaviour of a few. The US President has become infamous for his use of ‘Fake News’ both by telling lies openly and by claiming that any criticism of his behaviour is just fake news.
We seem to have become a society for whom the truth is whatever we choose to believe. We long ago decided that unborn children are not really human. Aborting them is not killing. Now we face claims that abortion is a human right. All along I thought the right to life was a human right. In our modern world there is no such thing as an objective truth; truth is what we want it to be. I think that sums up my problem with this issue. As a Christian I live in two worlds, the Christian world and the modern world. These worlds are at odds on the issue of the truth.
In Christianity the truth plays a central part in our existence. In John’s gospel Jesus mentions the Truth twice. When Jesus was preparing the disciples for his leaving them he reassures them that they will be able to follow him later. Thomas asks how they can follow if they don’t know where he is going. How can they follow if they don’t know the way?
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
If you know me you know my Father too.
From this moment you know him and have seen him.
John 14: 6,7
Jesus is saying that the Truth is not something we decide for ourselves. Recognising the truth seems to be essential if we are to reach God the Father and our salvation. Jesus seems to be saying that He is the way to the Father and eternal life and he personifies the truth. Later he goes further.
When he has been arrested and is eventually taken before Pontius Pilate he is questioned by the Roman Governor. Pilate asks Him why his people have handed Him over to be executed. Jesus explains that His kingdom is not of this world.
Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. ‘Truth?’ said Pilate ‘What is that?’
John 18: 37,38
So that seems to be the position that Christians are in, facing a choice of two worlds. Which world do we want to belong to? The eighth commandment tells us that we belong to the world Jesus is leading us to; where we can find true happiness. That’s the choice I’m facing. Do I subscribe to a world of objective truth where black is black and white is white or am I to be happier in a world where white can be declared the New Black?
Perhaps I would prefer a world where I can be a man today and just declare myself to be a woman tomorrow? I can make up my own truth and you will be declared intolerant if you do not agree. I can’t see that leading to happiness. It seems to me that this is a recipe for social upheaval and prepares the way for the unscrupulous to manipulate people. To use the old expression ‘It will all end in tears.’
Is fake news the latest fad or have we always been afraid of the truth? The eighth commandment is very definite about it. Read my article in this weeks Scottish Catholic Observer.
The Seventh Commandment – Thou Shalt Not Steal
If the Ten Commandments are God’s guide to human happiness how does ‘Thou Shalt not steal’ fit into it? Does stealing make you unhappy? Certainly we are unhappy if someone steals from us so stealing does spread unhappiness; but people seem to be happy to steal from others. Theft and fraud are on the increase. Why is this and was it always like this?
Perhaps theft is increasing because it is so much easier to do today in the age of the internet? In the past a thief would have to snatch something from you or break into your house. To get at your savings the robber would have to go in and rob the bank. While that still happens, more theft is happening remotely. People can gain access to your savings remotely and rob you without even being in the country. People who relied on the honesty of banks and pension schemes may find that their savings have been taken and they are left with nothing.
In the past you could be hanged for stealing a sheep. Today you might have your knighthood taken away for robbing a pension scheme. So what does the commandment forbid and what does it allow?
The seventh Commandment is really about providence. Everything we have, the Earth and all its resources are provided by God. The Earth’s resources are for the good of all people. We can take the resources we need as personal property, earning them by work or by inheritance or gifts. The commandment forbids us from taking anyone’s property without their permission. It also regards keeping things we borrow, fraud, paying unjust wages and forcing up prices to the detriment of others.
There is no point in me sitting back smugly thinking that I’m ok with the seventh commandment because I don’t steal; it’s not as simple as that. This is about how we share the Earth’s resources, the gifts from God. We are entitled to acquire the resources we need to live. In simpler times this was very straightforward. You could grow the crops you needed and farm your animals. This was limited by the amount of land you could work. When societies became more complicated that changed. When land was enclosed to create more efficient agriculture there were those who owned land and those who had to work for the landowner. That can be a good system that provides more food than we got from individual plots of land. It’s only good if the workers are paid a fair wage that lets them share in the resources provided.
Industrialisation takes this further and allows the owners to acquire vast wealth. It is easy to forget that the resource of the Earth are provided for the common good and believe that we should take as much as we can as our own personal property. Probably the greatest gift of creation is human life. Our lives are given as a free gift and we have been given free will to allow us how to use this gift. The commandment forbids us to abuse this freedom of our fellow human beings. If we enslave people or see their worth simply as a source of profit then we break the commandment. Slavery may have been abolished but it still exists in practice. People trafficking is now one of the major problems confronting the police.
Now I don’t have any slaves. I don’t have employees. I might feel that this aspect of the commandment does not apply to me. I would be wrong. One of the curious things I have noticed while shopping with my wife is how few items on sale are made in this country. I get the impression that everything is made in the Far East. That is not necessarily a problem but journalists have shown many instances of people in the East working in conditions we would not accept here and for very little money. They have to work long hours and still remain in poverty. That’s not the case for everything we buy but how do we know how the workers who made our clothes are treated? Can I be sure that my cheap trainers were not made by slave labour?
I don’t know what the solution is; even well-known companies have been found to have goods manufactured in conditions that exploit the workers. I must confess that I have never been terribly interested in the trade deals our country has with the Third World. Perhaps it’s something I should be thinking about the next time I use my vote to elect those who make these deals. If I go out to enrich myself by making someone poorer that must be against the seventh commandment; even if the other person is at the other side of the world.
The seventh Commandment goes much further than stealing. The Earth and its contents are a gift from God and we are to use these resources for our good and well-being. These resources are for the use of all mankind, even those who have not been born yet. That makes us responsible for maintaining the ability of the Earth to provide for us. The commandment forbids us from stealing from future generations. If we go about stripping the Earth of its resources to increase our wealth then we are abusing those gifts.
We are responsible for handing on a world that has all that future generations will need. Our use of the Earth’s resources must be sustainable. Now is that what we are doing? It seems to me that we are plundering the Earth’s resources as fast as we can; spending the Earth’s wealth as if there were no tomorrow. Perhaps there won’t be a tomorrow for those coming after us if we keep this up. I was in the Philippines a few years ago and visited a hole in the ground, a really big hole, where there used to be a mountain. They dug the mountain away to extract minerals.
We are also using up the Earth’s animals faster than they are replaced. I don’t mean we are eating all the cattle. We are killing all the elephants to get their ivory tusks. That is only one example of the animal species we are removing from the Earth. Our children’s children may never see some species except in books or films. We are stealing their future wealth.
Now I have never personally dug away a mountain nor shot an elephant but am I in that chain of consumption that is at the root of all this destruction? My home is kept warm by burning natural gas reserves. I have a smartphone that uses some rare metals, supplies of which are running out. This is modern living and I have not given any thought to the damage I might be causing to the Earth. What pollution is caused to the air and the seas just to satisfy my desire to have the latest gadget?
I’m posing myself this question and there is no easy answer. I’ve been smugly satisfied because I’m not a petty thief, shoplifting in ASDA; while I might be a major thief, using up the resources that belong to future generations. The world would be a happier place if we all used less and took positive steps to improve our world. Perhaps I should make a start by sorting out the garden? It’s not much but it would be a start.
The Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
In this series I’m trying to show that the Ten Commandments are God’s guide to human happiness. I’m finding the Sixth Commandment a difficult one to do. Readers might ask what my experience of adultery is and I’d have to admit I have none. My critics might say that people commit adultery because it makes them happy so my idea that the commandment is a guide to happiness must be wrong.
Well, I can’t write from personal experience but people do write about death and I’m sure they must be alive to do that so personal experience is not always necessary; observation can suffice. I would think that adultery will cause unhappiness and worse in the long term. Adultery is often the cause of the breakup of a marriage and all the hurt that that involves. Families suffer, especially when children find their world turned upside down.
Adultery can lay one open to blackmail. History shows us examples of how the resulting scandal can wreck a career and ruin a life. The Profumo affair in the early sixties, when John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in the MacMillan government had an affair with Christine Keeler, caused him to end a promising career and contributed to the fall of the Conservative Government. Many people were deeply unhappy.
To understand the nature of adultery we need to look at the nature of marriage. Adultery is committed by a married person. It’s not so much about the sex as about matrimony. Weddings are joyful occasions. The preparations for a wedding are mind-blowing in the detail required. The details about invitations, dresses, hymns, cake etc. are endless and expensive. A wedding today is a major undertaking. Every bride wants their wedding to be spectacular and memorable. Many couples these days decide to go away to exotic locations for a wedding. I’ve even read of couples getting married while skydiving. Given all the effort that goes into it, who could blame us for regarding this as the sacrament of matrimony? It’s not.
Weddings are spectacular, not because of the dresses and the band, but because of who is involved. Matrimony is the only sacrament where the priest does not confer the sacrament. The bride and groom confer the sacrament on each other but someone else is involved. Like any sacrament matrimony is an encounter with Christ. How spectacular would it be to have Prince William at your wedding, the future King? Well in Christ you have the King of Kings and he is not just there for the wedding.
The sacrament of matrimony involves everything you do in every day of your marriage. It’s the marriage that is the sacrament, not the wedding. Taking your wedding vows is only the start, everything after that is sacramental. Everything from having and providing for children down to making the toast in the morning are sacramental and an encounter with Christ. Committing adultery is not just defaulting on a legal agreement as in a civil marriage; it is offending against the sacrament. The positive side of this is that you earn grace for everything you do in that marriage, even taking out the bins. You get that grace from God to help you live out your marriage.
When I got married my wife promised to stick with me for better or worse, in sickness and in health ‘till death do us part. Now that is a big ask. I can’t think of another agreement you are asked to make that is so demanding. What a great profession of love that is.
I was a guest at a wedding recently. It’s only one of many weddings I have attended but this one was a bit different. The priest’s homily is usually upbeat and positive about the marriage. This one was slightly different. It was upbeat but came with a caution. He pointed out that the honeymoon will come to an end. The couple will wake up one day and he will discover that she is not an angel and she will find that he is not Prince Charming. The hard reality of living with another human being with human failings will strike. I can only imagine the disappointment (my wife reads this column so I need to be careful here).
That’s when real married life begins and the grace we get from the sacrament kicks in. Once we are away from the dazzle of the wedding and confront all the challenges of normal daily living the love and support we bring to each other in marriage brings us the strength to persevere. Families bring responsibilities and challenges. I’m grateful that there were two of us working together to bring up our children. Surely there should be some support mechanism for those who, as a result of a death or a marriage breakup, have to bring up their children alone.
Critics of religion often describe the commandments as a negative list of don’ts. That’s a bit like describing the “Stop, Look and Listen” advice on crossing the road as negative. The Sixth Commandment is not negative it is urging us to be faithful to each other and the sacrament that brings us so much support. How does the Church support marriages in difficulty?
The aftermath of the Second World War saw a big increase in marriage difficulties. Men were returning from the war after almost six years of absence to families who had grown used to life without them. Many things had changed in the interval and the relationships had not been able to grow with the changes. Marriages were in difficulty and the Church responded by creating a counselling service to help. The Catholic Marriage Advisory Council was staffed by married people who had come through a rigorous selection procedure and were given continuous training.
Their training enabled the counsellors to help the couple identify the core problems in their relationship and work towards a solution. Problems tend to grow over a long period and so the counselling is no quick fix. The counsellors work with the couple over a protracted period to repair their relationship. The name was always a bit strange because it wasn’t a council, they didn’t advise and it didn’t limit the help to Catholics. It’s now known as Scottish Marriage Care.
I see this as the Church’s practical work in support of the Sixth Commandment. It’s not a list of don’ts but a positive step in helping people facing the realities of life. Human beings are very good at seeing what they want to see and missing the obvious. The counsellors are trained to peel away all the layers of misperception and reveal the true causes of conflict. Once you know the true cause of your problem you can find a solution. That’s how to find real happiness.
You might not think that applies to you but just how good are you at following events? If you would like to find out just how good you are you will find a video test below Try it out for a simple measure of how good you are at seeing what is there rather than what you want to see. I’d be interested in your findings.
How many passes do the white team make?