No The Pope is Not a Heretic

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 10th May 2019

I’ve been reading a lot about criticism of Pope Francis. I find it worrying because the criticism is coming from within the Church. It’s coming from high levels within the hierarchy. I find it strange because ordinary people like me seem to be very happy with the Pope and take comfort in what he is reported to say.

What sort of things is the Pope saying that seems to cause concern and who are concerned? Some bishops and even cardinals have expressed concern that Pope Francis’ statements on people whose family arrangements are, shall we say unconventional, may run counter to the teaching of the Church. These would mainly be about those who have divorced and remarried. The Church does not recognise divorce since it is concerning a sacrament, matrimony. You can’t just undo a sacrament.

The Church does recognise that some marriages fail because they were not complete in the first place. Where the conditions for marriage were not met the marriage is invalid and can be annulled. The problem would not be obvious at the time of the marriage but subsequent events may show this to be the case. Unfortunately the annulment process is not well known or understood among most Catholics and the annulled marriage would normally be dissolved in a divorce to meet the legal requirements of civil marriage law.

The resulting confusion and the need to get out of a difficult situation can leave many people in a difficult situation. A subsequent remarriage is not recognised by the Church and their irregular situation leaves the new couple cut off from the sacraments. They can’t go back to a former situation and they can’t walk away from their new family. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Pope Francis has also caused concern by his comments about homosexual people. He has stated that being homosexual is not a sin. That is to correct a misconception held by many Catholics. His treatment of priests involved in sexual abuse has caused concern, giving the impression that he tolerates this behaviour. Now a letter has been issued by a number of theologians and senior churchmen suggesting that the Pope is guilty of heresy.

Now theologians are highly trained in Church doctrine. They are the people best placed to interpret scripture and pronounce on the teaching of the Church. There are a number of prominent theologians in the Church but they do not always agree with each other on the finer points of doctrine. I am not a theologian and am in no way qualified to make pronouncements on doctrine. How am I to respond to the criticisms of the Holy Father?

As a scientist, faced with a decision I would look at the evidence and refer to the opinions of experts. However, in matters of theology I can’t claim to understand enough to take that route. The only option open to me is to look to examples in scripture. Are there any instances in the gospels that would clarify this situation?

The best option is to look at what Jesus did. The theologians and senior churchmen are concerned with the laws of the Church as they should be. If we look at the Gospels we see that, quite often, Jesus was accused of breaking the rules. Observance of the Sabbath was very important for the Jews. Jesus fell foul of the Jewish authorities by curing the blind and lame on the Sabbath. This was a clear breach of the letter of the law.

Is there ever an excuse for breaking the law? One of the most serious commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but exceptions are made. You could kill someone in defence of your own life or in defence of your country. Would stealing food to prevent someone from starving to death be a sin? The Commandments and the laws of the Church are there to lead us to an ideal. They describe how life should be lived but the realities of life can put us in situations where we have to choose between two evils. The Church does not expect us to be able to solve an impossible puzzle but to do our best to choose what is least harmful.

Take the example of the pilot whose aircraft goes out of control. He refuses to eject and save his life by parachute so that he can steer the plane away from a school full of children. Should he be condemned for committing suicide or rewarded in Heaven for saving lives? We don’t always expect the rules to be obeyed. The laws of the Church are intended for our good and need not be obeyed if they cause us harm.

The Holy Father’s critics accuse him of being supportive of sinners and so undermining the teaching of the Church. Logically that can be seen to be the case. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis is showing compassion for sinners and people in difficult circumstances. He has good examples to justify this.

We are all aware of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees who brought a woman who was caught in adultery. They were putting Him to the test to see if he would uphold the law that stated that she should be stoned to death. Jesus’ reply was,

“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

John 7: 7

When the accusers had melted away he turned to the woman,

“’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, said Jesus ‘go away and don’t sin any more’.”

John 7: 10, 11

I noticed two things about this encounter. Firstly, it is the woman who is to be stoned, there is no mention of the man. Secondly, Jesus does not condone the woman’s behaviour but does not condemn her. That is what we would expect of Jesus, his mission was to save sinners, not condemn them. He instituted the Church to continue this work. It is the Church’s role to save and not to condemn.

Pope Francis seems to be living out Jesus’ instruction to be compassionate.

“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned.”

Luke 6: 36,37

Being a sinner myself, I take great comfort in that quote knowing that I am depending on God’s mercy for my salvation. I don’t think Pope Francis is a heretic. I think he gives us a choice; are we to be sticklers for the law like the Pharisees and condemn others or are we to be like Jesus and show compassion to our fellow sinners?

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Shame The Devil

Christmas is over. We know this because the cream eggs are out in the shops now; Easter is on its way. Easter arrives after a long Lent (well it always seems long to me). Ash Wednesday is on the 6th March and February is a short month so get ready.  During Lent we try to prepare ourselves for a holy Easter; move away from sin towards Heaven. This month I began to think about the causes of sin and, of course, the Devil.

A popular image of the Devil is found in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Tom is shown with an angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. The angel is trying to persuade Tom to do good and the Devil is persuading him, usually successfully, to do bad. I think it’s quite a good description of the battle between good and evil. It works better for me than the image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. I’m not keen on snakes and I can’t see myself being persuaded by one. But why is the Devil so persuasive? Surely the wee angel on your shoulder should do better than the Devil?

Just why is the Devil such a good tempter? How does he do it? I think he uses his secret weapon, the lie. Isn’t it surprising how well lies work in persuading people? The current state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic show how well lies work. Some politicians tell lies all the time. Their opponents expose the lies but people take no notice and continue to believe the lies. Why are we so vulnerable to lies? I think it’s because we tell ourselves lies to boost our ego. My wife tells me that I’m not fit to decorate the room; I’m too old and I had a heart attack. I reject that as nonsense as I’m as fit as I ever was. It’s only when I have to use the wee glyceryl trinitrate spray that I realise I’ve been lying to myself.

Satan tried this with Jesus when he offered Him the whole world if He would worship him. Jesus was human but He did know the truth and rejected Satan. We really know the truth about ourselves but our pride leaves us open to flattery.  The clever thing is that the Devil persuades us that we are choosing something good. We do know that the Devil can persuade us to do wrong but we kid ourselves that we are stronger than that. We deceive ourselves.

In the New Testament there are stories of people who become possessed by the Devil. In Luke 8:26, 39 we hear how Jesus cast out a legion of demons from one man, sent them into a herd of pigs and the pigs then drowned in the lake. Demonic possession is not so well accepted in modern times but in recent years there seems to more awareness of possession. The Church has priests who are trained in exorcism and there are more calls on them now. It’s not something we hear much about but you might be surprised. A few years ago I was at a conference in Leeds and got talking to a priest there. When heard where I was from he commented that that was an area with a surge in the number of exorcisms. I found that hard to believe but later found out that he was correct.

If this is a battle between good and evil what are the Devil’s tactics? I put myself in the Devil’s place (I’m not changing sides, just thinking) and I looked at where I would attack. The Devil is not one for frontal attacks so I suppose I would attack things that support the Faith. I would attack the family where we draw strength and support. I would attack the Church and the sacraments that bring us closer to God. I would attack the community of God and persuade people to think only as an individual.

Looking around I think the Devil has been busy. The family has come under attack in western society. Marriage has come under attack. When it can’t be abolished it can be weakened. We are now making marriage irrelevant. It is not seen as the cradle of the family but as a convenience for same sex couples. Now holding a traditional view of marriage is regarded as an attack on the rights of same sex couples. Actually, regarding people as being either male or female is now wrong. The latest thinking is ‘gender neutral’. Your gender is something you can just decide on a daily basis apparently. How do you keep families stable in that situation?

The attack on the Church has been Just as successful. It’s not an attack from the outside but from the inside. The sins of a minority of priests and the weakness of response by some bishops have put the whole Church on the spot. Crimes of abuse are being investigated all over the world and the Church’s image is being trashed everywhere. The abuse cases have caused many Catholics to leave the Church and have weakened the catholic community.

The community aspect of catholic life has been in decline for many years. When I was young every parish had a collection of societies and groups to cater for all ages. There were societies for men and others for women. I was a member of the Boy’s Guild and my dad was a member of the Sacred Heart confraternity. These things have largely gone. People are reluctant to join. Attendance at Sunday Mass is the last commitment and that’s only if there is no ‘game’ on.

The Devil likes us to stress our strengths and individualism. In thinking that we don’t need others we are weakened. In looking only to our own strengths we are weakened. How can we counter this? Where do our strengths lie? Paradoxically our strength lies in recognising our weakness. Knowing we are not strong enough to combat evil on our own we turn to God and that is where our strength lies.

The Church is not just a human organisation. Christ is the head of the Church and, as we see in the gospels, is stronger by far than any demon. It’s only through prayer that we can really accomplish anything good. There are lots of different forms of prayer; it’s not just the rosary. The prayer we need in the fight against evil is where we put ourselves into God’s presence and include Him in our thoughts and worries of the day. By having Christ share our lives we become stronger.

Coatbridge, my adopted home, has the motto ‘Laborare est orare’, To Work is to Pray. There is no better prayer than to offer God all we do each day. What we achieve will be all the greater for God’s involvement in it. If we truly offer our work to God, no matter how trivial that work may seem, it will play a part in the fight against the Devil and all his works.

More power to you in your work in 2019; just remember every unpleasant task you undertake, offered to God, is a blow against the Devil.

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 8th February 2019

Who’s The Teacher

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 14th December 2018

The Icon

I had an opportunity to see the new icon of ‘Jesus Our Teacher’ which has been touring round the diocese of Scotland. The icon was designed by Bernadette Reilly and commemorates the passing of the 1918 Education Act which enabled Catholic, Jewish and Episcopal schools to be incorporated into the State System, providing the finance which those religions had been supplying. Catholic and Episcopal schools are still in the system.

The icon, with Jesus as the central figure, tells the story of Catholic education in Scotland and shows the immigrant peoples bringing their faith from places like Poland, Lithuania and Ireland. Like all icons, the closer you look, the more you see. It certainly caused me to think about my own experience of education and the people who influenced me.

My schooling was in Catholic schools and I got the benefit of sound religious teaching as well as a good grounding that stood me in good stead for the future. I taught in secondary schools for twenty five years and spent six years tutoring at Glasgow University. I suppose I’ve seen the education system from both sides. What I remember most is the people rather than the system. I found there were individual teachers who left their mark on me; sometimes just by a casual remark that gave me in insight into a different way of thinking.

In my teaching career I sometimes encountered the debate about whether we were teaching a subject or teaching pupils. The answer is both of course but I found there were teachers who were inspired by their interest in the pupils to go a little further to make their subject interesting.

The icon made me reflect on the idea of Jesus as a teacher. He had no qualifications and never took a class but he taught people, not subjects. That made me think about who are the teachers and the importance of schools. There seems to be a growing body of parents who prefer to home school rather than send their children to school. I think they miss out on the important aspect of schools. That is that they bring children into contact with talented, skilled teachers. Staying at home is a missed opportunity.

Schools are not the only places where learning goes on and it is not only qualified teachers who teach. Parents are the first teachers a child encounters. Their job is vital. If parents fail in their initial formation of the child it will not get the full benefit of schooling. The child learns to talk from the parents talking to it. The child learns the basic skills of living at home. Parents can engender a love of reading by reading stories to the child (even if it is only to get them to sleep.) The child builds up its vocabulary and understanding of language in listening to parents, but it’s more than that.

Children develop attitudes from listening to the parents talk. I’m thinking of my own children. What attitudes did I impart to them? Did I show them how to be good citizens? Did I encourage them to be helpful to others? Did I encourage them to love God? I don’t really know the answers to those questions but it makes me think. Jesus taught with authority in the Synagogue but his real teaching was done in what he did and the stories he told. I wonder if I did enough.

Of course, learning is not something confined to childhood. We continue to learn long after we leave formal education. John Dewey, an American educationalist, regarded learning as a sign of life. If you stop learning, he thought, you are not fully alive. Learning as an adult may take place in formal classes or in training courses at work but that is only a small part of learning. We learn from books and magazines. I learn all sorts of things from reading the Scottish Catholic Observer. I find out what’s happening in the church and I also develop my understanding of my religion from reading some informative contributors. Mostly I learn from people.

I was struck by a reading at Mass the other day.

You must preach the behaviour which goes with healthy doctrine. It is for you to preach the behaviour which goes with healthy doctrine. The older men should be reserved, dignified, moderate, sound in faith and love and constancy. Similarly, the older women should behave as though they were religious, with no scandal-mongering and no habitual wine-drinking..

Titus 2:1-8

I cut this short to leave out the bit about wives should obey their husbands as it might get me into trouble at home. The passage makes clear that we are to be teachers by the way we behave. It’s not a case of do what I say but it’s about teaching by doing. My issue is that I would probably be regarded as an older man and I should be reserved, dignified and moderate. I’ve just been looking after my five year old twin grandsons and none of those adjectives could apply. Nobody would describe hiding in the hall cupboard in a game of hide and seek as dignified.

However I like to think that Jesus would hide in the hall cupboard in my situation. Spending time with children and having fun with them is one way of showing you love them; you don’t need to put it into words. The same thing applies to adults. You might just spend a few minutes listening to someone’s tale of woe but giving them your time shows that you value them. That was the kind of teaching Jesus often did. He spent time with the people who were ostracised from polite society and showed them that they were valued.

What does Jesus expect us to teach? Surely it comes down to the basic commandment; love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. You can do that with a simple comment or even just a smile. I remember our careers master asking me how I had got on with my application to join the Royal Airforce. I told him I couldn’t fly as I was found to be colour-blind. He said “What’s for you will not go by you”. I was feeling pretty miserable at the time but it made me think and I realised that God had a plan for me and for everyone. I was still disappointed but I had learned an important lesson about our relationship with God.

Sometimes you can pass on an important lesson with a simple comment. You can only do that if you engage with people and you can only succeed when you are being positive. It’s too early for a New Year’s Resolution but I’m going to make the effort from now on to be that positive influence on those I meet. No more wee grumpy guy.

What are you afraid of?

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 2nd November 2018.

Are you afraid of the dark? Lots of people need a little nightlight in their bedroom in order to get to sleep. Are you afraid of dogs, birds or even clowns? Yes, fear of clowns; there is a word for it, ‘coulrophobia’. Fear is natural. Fear alerts us to danger and sets the body to deal with the danger. It can prompt the body to produce adrenaline, enhancing the ability to fight or flee. Fear can be a lifesaver.

I’ve always had a fear of snakes. I always thought I’d be able to get away from a snake as snakes slither about fairly slowly. That idea was destroyed one day on a dusty road in the bush when a six foot long snake shot across in front of the truck I was in. I was shocked at how fast it could move. I’m even more afraid of snakes now.

Fear can be used to control others. Fear of strangers can turn people against incomers. If the incomers look different, a different colour or unfamiliar dress they are easy to recognise. Those who use a different language or practice a different religion are often rejected by the indigenous communities. This has been exploited by politicians who play on people’s fear of strangers to whip up support.

Fear doesn’t always help. You hear of people being frozen in fear when finding themselves in a very dangerous situation. Fear sometimes stops us doing what we know we should be doing. Sometimes we are afraid of appearing to be different. We don’t want to stand out from the crowd. Being seen to be different can result in us being left out or even ostracised. We all, naturally, want to belong to the society we live in. Sometimes we accept norms and behaviours that don’t really fit in with our views.

In today’s world it can be difficult to recognise what is a generally accepted view and what is an idea that is made to look like the normal view. Pressure groups use the press, social media and public demonstrations to promote ideas. For example we can promote sexual equality and demand that men and women have equal rights. We can go further and say that equality is the basic human right. Not many will argue with that. Then we can claim that those who are uncertain about their gender should be treated equally. Finally we can claim that everyone has the right to choose their gender.

We might find these arguments confusing but difficult to dispute. They can sound reasonable. Official bodies and political parties accept them; nobody wants to alienate potential voters. The pressure is on us to accept this new norm and conform. Who wants to stand out from the crowd?

Of course we must stand out from the crowd if the crowd is wrong. Now I have no doubt that there are people with genuine gender problems. These may be rooted in their biology, physiology or psychology. The appropriate professionals can bring them the help they need and assist in the decisions they take. That is a far cry from declaring that anyone can choose the gender they wish to have. It’s an idea that is not only misguided but can be dangerous.

A friend of mine was telling me recently about being taken to task by a pupil because he referred to her as a girl. She refused to be regarded as either male or female. Realising he was dealing with a delicate situation he asked her how she wished to be addressed. She replied that she should be referred to as ‘it’. The teenage years can be difficult enough coming to terms with one’s sexuality without confusing the issue.

I’ve heard of parents of new-born babies taking a gender neutral approach to child rearing, allowing the child to choose their gender at some later stage. It seems to me that we are taking away any certainties in our lives for no good reason. It is the result of muddled thinking. Thinking that equality is the basic right was the first mistake; it is not. The basis of any society is truth. Society cannot work effectively if it is not based in absolute truth.

This gender issue is not the only one where ignoring the truth is causing problems. We recently saw an occasion where a government minister was forced to apologise to Parliament for misleading the house (you can’t say lying in the House of Commons) about the results of an investigation into her department. We have an American President who appears on television in the morning saying one thing and later in the evening says the opposite.

In international negotiations we have the British Government signing an agreement and months later telling us that that agreement is no longer valid. Without certainty nobody can trust us. Life becomes impossible without the truth.

Where can we find this certainty? How do we deal with the fear of rejection if we stand out from the crowd? As Christians we must expect to be at odds with the world. We take our lead from Jesus. How did Jesus react to rejection? In John’s gospel we read that Jesus told the people something that disturbed them.

“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

John 6:51

Now many of the people who heard this could not accept it and walked away. Jesus was not put off by this. He made no attempt to bring them back. He didn’t change anything he said to win them over. The truth is the truth and you either accept it or reject it.

If we find ourselves being rejected because we believe in the truth and that does not comply with the accepted norm how do we react? How do we deal with the fear of rejection? Again we look to Jesus as our guide.

Jesus warned his disciples that they would face rejection and even persecution.

“Do not be afraid of them therefore. For everything that is now covered be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Matthew 10: 26, 28

The message is clear. Don’t be afraid. You can choose to be rejected by the world and be accepted by the God who created everything or give in to the world and face a far greater rejection in the future. We have recently seen Christians in the Middle East willingly give up life itself rather than deny the truth. I’m not suggesting we should seek martyrdom but we must be strong in the Faith and proclaim the message of the Gospel by our behaviour and in how we deal with our fellow man. Or as my mother used to say, ‘Tell the truth and shame the Devil.’

Joseph McGrath

Scandals in the Church

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.

What Do You Covet? The Last Commandments.

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 7th September 2018

This is the last of my articles on the Ten Commandments. I’ve decided to look at the ninth and tenth commandments together because they deal with the same idea, coveting. Coveting is not a word we use so much today so I looked it up. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary it is defined as

“to want to have something very much, especially something that belongs to someone else . ”

That’s fairly straightforward but why is it so important as to require two commandments? Presumably we would want something because it is better than what we have. What is wrong with wanting something better? I think it is a very important part of human nature to want to improve. We are the only species capable of making changes that improve our world.

Take the houses we live in. When I was a wee boy I lived in a tenement building where three homes on each landing shared one toilet. Now I live in a house that has two toilets all to itself. We have a natural desire to want to improve ourselves and we often see that as meaning we need better things.

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, understood from his uncle’s study of the human mind that we all aspire to better ourselves. He found a way to harness this to persuade people to change their behaviour. At the end of World War I, one hundred years ago, American industry had geared up for war production. Now the war was over they needed people to buy things to replace the demands of the war.

Bernays put his ideas to work and devised a strategy to increase demand for cigarettes. He took up the campaign for emancipation of women and In a parade in New York had women parade smoking cigarettes under the banner of ‘Torches of Freedom’. Women smoking had been frowned upon now this was a campaign to get women to rebel and assert their equality with men. The market for cigarettes virtually doubled. Public relations had come to maturity. We can be persuaded to want something we don’t need.

It seems to me that we all need a positive self-image if we are to be happy. We need to know that we are important, that someone holds us in some regard. The effects of loneliness are corrosive and we can see this in the rise in the suicide rate. We are often persuaded that we can prove our importance by the things we have. For some that means wearing the latest fashion. We discard perfectly good clothes and replace them with something new. For me that usually results in a jacket that I am comfortable in being dumped and a new one purchased because my wife won’t be seen with me in the ‘shabby’ one.

Human relationships suffer the same way. We are constantly shown images of women with ‘perfect’ figures and men with muscular stomachs. We are persuaded that someone else’s wife of husband is better than the one we have and desire to have them. Marriages break up. Families are disrupted. Nobody is really happy.

Money is the other thing we desire because it can put us up there with the elite. Billionaires can display their wealth with multiple mansions, yachts and even personal planes. How we would love to be like them. The Lottery and the Euro Millions take in vast fortunes each week because we think that a big win would sort out all our problems. A couple of months ago someone I know won the Millionaire raffle on the lottery. He won one million pounds. He gave half of it to his son to buy a house and spread the rest over his nieces and nephews. He virtually gave it all away. He is a very happy man because he has solved problems for other people.

I have come across a few millionaires in my career. They all looked miserable. Rarely a smile crossed their faces. Their money never made them happy. On a flight earlier in the year I watched a film, “All the Money in the World” about John Paul Getty who was the world’s richest man. His grandson had been kidnapped and he refused to pay the ransom. It reminded me of an interview Alan Wicker did with him. He was unhappy living in England. He wanted to be in America but was afraid to fly in case the plane crashed and thought that a boat might sink so he had to stay put. He was thoroughly miserable.

How often do these things we covet actually make us unhappy? Surely we should be happier when we have them? But we don’t. How many people have be caught by the Nigerian scam where they get an email from a woman whose husband hid millions in a bank vault and she needs help to get it out. Send her the money to get access to the money and share in the riches. The money is sent and vanishes for ever.

It seems to me that this all brings unhappiness. I think I’ve spotted the reason. We are all striving for happiness. To be happy we must feel that we are respected and loved by others. We look around to find ways of achieving that. Of course we are looking in the wrong place. Popularity is a fleeting thing. You can be a hero today and be forgotten tomorrow. You are still the same person but the world moves on.

To achieve happiness you need to look at who you really are. You are not the sum of your possessions. You are not the person others see. You are unique. Your existence here is not random; you are here for a reason. Kojak’s catch phrase was “Who loves ya baby?” (If you remember that you are as old as me.) It is the key to happiness.

The answer is simply that you are loved by the only one who can really see you as you really are. You are loved by the God who made the universe and everything in it. If the creator of everything that exists loves you despite all the things you don’t like about yourself why would you worry about what anybody else thinks? You don’t need a private plane, a floating gin palace or Miss World on your arm. That’s why the ninth and tenth commandments tell you not to covet anything. Things make you unhappy. George, who gave away the million, is one happy man. You can be too.

The Eighth Commandment – Full Text

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?

Jesus said:

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.’