Society has changed — not Catholicism

JOHN HALDANE

Its teachings may sometimes be uncomfortable, but what lies behind them is thought that has been thought out.

The recent row concerning the remarks of Cardinal Keith O'Brien preaching on the "Day for Life" is but the latest round of reaction to traditional Roman Catholic teachings. Anyone who claims to be shocked by the Catholic view that intentional abortion is objectively a case of murderous killing is either ignorant of the Church's long-held view or else feigning surprise in an effort to cast that judgement as beyond belief. Of course, the view is open to objection, as are other Catholic moral teachings about marriage, capital punishment and the justice of war, but it is surprising to see them being reported as if newly discovered. They have long been proclaimed and argued for in detail and at length.

If their extent and specificity, and the conviction with which they are declared seem unusual, and out of keeping with the style of other sources of public interventions, this may be due to the pervasive influence of relativism according to which there is no such thing as objective moral truth, let alone an overall system of truths. To the extent that the relativist can or wishes to make sense of moral seriousness it amounts not to a determination to discover universal values and requirements, but rather to a resolve to make authentic personal choices: 'doing what you feel is right'.

This trend from objective truth to subjective conviction has taken its toll on other comprehensive world-views besides Catholicism. Time was when those interested in justice debated the claims of egalitarian socialism and liberal capitalism, and those concerned with history discussed whether it was inevitable, rationally intelligible, or merely one thing after another.

Again in art the debates raged between formalists and moralists: the aestheticists celebrating art for art's sake, the moralists regarding it as a means of enlightenment. Likewise others debated whether human beings were naturally good or depraved, whether existence was meaningful or absurd, and whether there could be any hope of personal happiness apart from social or religious salvation.

These contrasts and oppositions, and the arguments on either side would once have been familiar to educated readers but increasingly value and meaning are terms of market assessment and life-style choice. The very idea that one's happiness might depend upon answering fundamental existential questions, and that there are comprehensive philosophical and theological systems addressed to resolving these seems to have been lost sight of, or perhaps rejected.


"He declares, as innumerable writers of lesser power have declared, that there is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other".


Reminders of how, not so long ago, it was otherwise, and of how Catholicism was understood by educated people even when it was denied by them lie open on my desk. In his book The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays (2004), the former priest and ex-Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Sir Anthony Kenny discusses the attitudes of several nineteenth and twentieth century 'greats' to the question of religion, which often took the form of choosing, and sometimes oscillating between atheism, agnosticism and Catholicism.

At one point he quotes Sir Leslie Stephens, author, mountaineer and father of Virginia Woolf, writing of John Henry Newman (a figure to whom Kenny returns often). Stephen writes: "He declares, as innumerable writers of lesser power have declared, that there is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other".

That was at the end of the nineteenth century and one might view it as a curiosity of the age. But consider the following from a hero of twentieth century liberal thought. Writing in 1942 in a review of the first three of T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets George Orwell remarks "Sooner or later one is obliged to adopt a positive stance towards life and society. It would be putting it too crudely to say that every poet in our time must either die young, enter the Catholic Church, or join the Communist Party, but in fact the escape from the consciousness of futility is along these lines".

To contemporary secular liberals this may seem almost as shocking as Cardinal O'Brien's sermon. Certainly they would discomforted by Orwell's hostility to the idea of abortion as expressed through the main character of Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

"For the first time he grasped, with the only kind of knowledge that matters, what they were really talking about. The words "a baby" took on a new significance. They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly, alive and growing. ... He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating — a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning. Yet if it had been put otherwise he might not have recoiled from it. "No fear!" he said. "Whatever happens we're not going to do that. It's disgusting."


Orwell understood its commitment to 'infinite truth' and respected it for that, though he himself rejected religion. Others of his generation, however, like others before and since saw the depth of its teachings and entered the Church.


Elsewhere Orwell wrote of how "very few people, part from Catholics themselves, seem to have grasped that the Church is to be taken seriously". Orwell understood its commitment to 'infinite truth' and respected it for that, though he himself rejected religion. Others of his generation, however, like others before and since saw the depth of its teachings and entered the Church.

The converts of the twentieth century number, among creative artists and writers, R.H. Benson, Sir Lennox Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, David Jones, Graham Greene, Sir Alec Guinness, Ronald Knox, Sir Compton McKenzie, Malcolm Muggeridge, Alfred Noyes, Marshall McLuhan, Siegfried Sassoon, Edith Sitwell, Muriel Spark, Graham Sutherland, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Evelyn Waugh.

Since this might be thought to reflect the appeal of fantasy to the imaginative mind it is worth adding a list of leading contemporary British and American philosophers who also converted to Roman Catholicism: Elizabeth Anscombe, Frederick Copleston, Sir Michael Dummett, Peter Geach, Alasdair MacIntyre, Nicholas Rescher, and Bas van Fraassen (joining such Continental philosopher converts as Rene Girard, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil.

Before reaching for some further explanation of why it is that serious thinkers might have been drawn to Catholicism it may be worth considering the possibility that as Orwell saw "it is to be taken seriously". G.K. Chesterton once described philosophy as "thought that has been thought out", adding that "man has no alternative except being influenced by thought that has been thought out and influenced by thought that has not been thought out".

Catholicism's teachings may sometimes be uncomfortable but, as the 900 hundred pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveal, what lies behind them is unquestionably thought that has been thought out.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Haldane. "Society has changed — not Catholicism." The Scotsman (June 8, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of the author, John Haldane.

THE AUTHOR

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St. Andrews University, Scotland. Among his books are: Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, The Church and the World, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion, Atheism and Theism (Great Debates in Philosophy), Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical, Values Education and the Human World and The Philosophy of Thomas Reid: A Collection of Essays.

Copyright © 2007 John Haldane




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