Tag: ethics

How not to talk about sex

If Catholics spend quite a lot of time fighting amongst ourselves about sex (what do we think about homosexuality, contraception, abortion, premarital sex…), we certainly face a quandry over how we interact with the rest of the world  on matters of human sexuality. There are two basic facts which need to be taken on board: first, that sexuality matters immensely, and two, that most Catholics (whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’) are considerably out of step with the mainstream of secular society on questions of sexual ethics.


There are, of course, some people who would deny that the first fact is a fact, that sexuality is all that important. Puritans and libertines alike have taken this line about sex, either avoiding the stuff like the plague or indulging in it like a harmless play-time. Wrong though both of these parties surely are, they’re not going to come into direct intellectual conflict with Catholics over sex, since they don’t think there’s anything in the region important enough to warrant conflict.

The real difficulty is knowing how to respond to people who accept the first fact but provide evidence for the second, disagreeing significantly with some things Catholics say about sex. These, I think, are most of our contemporaries. They think sex matters – sometimes they seem to think it matters too much – fulfilment in this department is an essential part of a good life. But they think that the things Catholics say about it, or the things some Catholics say about it, or the things they think Catholics say about it are damaging, perhaps even oppressive. It’s unlikely that anyone in contemporary Britain has for long let slip the fact that they are a Catholic without being teased, or greeted by a question, about sexuality.

How, then, are we to witness to what we believe without becoming insufferably pious or appearing prudish? I’d like to reflect on how not to do it, on the basis of my own experience, as a way in to some thoughts about how to do it better.

Polyamory is a thing in universities, people live the lifestyle, justify it in writing and hold it up as better (politically, ethically) than either monogamy or promiscuity. Now, I believe as firmly as I believe any ethical proposition that this is wrong: as a rational human being, I think that our intimate interactions ought to reflect that we are finite, embodied creatures with limited capacities, yet able to form loving bonds. As a Christian, I believe that monogamous relationships image the relationship between Christ and his church. Yet hanging around in universities, as I do, I came across some people, including dear friends who were into polyamory. It was uncomfortably close to home.

Uncomfortable is exactly how I felt. I reacted with fear, what if somebody I loved got into this. What if somebody wanted me to get into it? I reacted sometimes with pomposity, declaiming unwanted lessons on sexual ethics. And I retreated, assuming there was no common ground between me and them, on this issue at least. There was I, contra mundum, and there outside is the incomprehensible and erring world.

My, stupid and inadequate response, which damaged friendships, was wrong on three levels. I’ll get onto those presently. First note that my response mirrors quite precisely a common response in the Church to sexual modernity – we retreat into a ghetto of ethical propriety, the better to preach against an evil world.

First, it is never true that we have nothing in common in an ethical disagreement. We all, St Thomas reminds us, desire what is good for us. We all, I would add, value something called ‘love’. Finding common threads are ways we can begin to talk about these things in a way that is not simply shouting. The question ‘what is romantic love?’ is one that is long overdue attention within Catholic philosophical and theological traditions, and talking about it with others, even, especially, those radically different from ourselves is a sure path to truth.

Second, the idea that talking is the best way to communicate a view about sex is an odd one. We are dealing here with human relationships, and they are lived rather than proclaimed. Rather than mapping out the sins of others, we would do better to form our own relationships into attractive cases of love. People, ourselves included, will see in relationships well-lived how it is that human sexuality can lead to human flourishing far more clearly than they ever could in the pages of an ethics textbook.

Finally, we need to stop being afraid. Being afraid on this issue made me unspeakable, jealous, and generally grumpy. The gospels after all repeatedly command us not to be afraid. And Christ’s promise to Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church was not followed by an exception for talk about sex.

My point in writing this is that our tradition has a lot we can offer in terms of living and thinking about human relationships, without being preachy or sanctimonious. We will only get the chance to offer that if we are not ignored, and we will not be ignored only if we are open (which is not at all the same thing as being laissez-faire). Quite apart from which, we’ll be much happier if we’re not at perpetual war with the rest of the world.



Marxism and Christianity : Introduction and Chapter One

My plan is not generally to precis the chapters of Turner’s book. Those who want to read it can do so for themselves. I want instead to reflect on themes it raises about Marxism and Christianity and their relevance to our current situation. However, there’s a lot of scene setting in the introduction and the first chapter, ‘Ideology’, so it might be good to summarise some of that, if only to orientate future posts.

Turner is going to argue for two claims in the book:

The identity thesis: (True) morality is (in capitalist society) Marxism.

The strong compatibility thesis: Marxism and Christianity are in asymmetrical relations of dependence on one another.

The identity thesis, in particular, is likely to strike many readers as implausible. It is worth, then, emphasising that for an entire classical tradition it would appear less so. The possibility of human flourishing, of living well, is – for Aristotle, for example – tied up with the condition of the polis in which somebody is situated. There is, for this tradition, no particular reason that living in accordance with morality in a given situation must be particularly easy, or even possible (so much for Kant’s view that “ought implies can”). If this is right, of course, much of what passes for morality is entirely misplaced. Turner concurs, writing in the 1980s,

Anyone who, like me, feels crushed between the moral cynicism of a Brezhnev and the moral hypocrisy of a Reagan and who finds in both something rooted in the very structure of our moral world will have identified the controlling concerns of this book. Perhaps also they will be able to identify its governing symbol, that it is, as Terry Eagleton once put it, in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in his refusal to talk morality with the moraliser, that the true significance of morality may be articulated. (p. xi)

Morality, Turner concurs with the mainstream of Marxist tradition, is ideological in capitalist society. Morality appears as moralising. So too, alas, is Christianity manifest as ideological. I’ll say a bit about what the claim that a phenomenon is ideological amounts to in a moment. First, an aspect of Turner’s treatment of Marx that comes through in the first chapter deserves comment.


Turner thinks Marxism is a science. That it is a systematic endeavour that aspires to, and often succeeds in, uncovering truths about society, a process that involves getting behind appearances to an underlying reality. This will feel quite alien to many on the contemporary left, and in particular the Christian left, who decry this kind of  or claims to objectivity in favour of more feeling-driven, vision led, and intellectually amorphous movements, often of the sort that Marx would have denounced as utopian. Marx himself rejects the dichotomy between the heart and the head, between facts and values; the talk of science might suggest bland amoral technocracy. But, for Marx, one of realities uncovered by the science of capitalist society is that the accumulation of capital is rooted in alienation, grounded in the failure of millions to flourish as they could. Description and value judgement coinhere. It is in this tradition that I take Turner to be writing. It is also evident in, for example, Herbert McCabe’s ‘The Class Struggle and Christian Love’, a classic of the Catholic left of the time.

The word ‘ideology’ as used in the Marxist tradition suggests a number of things. Ideology is (in some sense) false, untrue, or misleading. Ideology is lived out in our day to day lives. Ideology is a society’s consciousness of itself. It is by no means obvious that these all amount to the same thing, or are even consistently said of the same phenomenon. Turner’s task in the first part of the book will be to explore this, so that we might better understand the ways morality and Christianity are caught up in ideology.

The turmoil before the Kingdom

I’ve not written anything for this blog for ages. This is because of the political situation in the UK. As a Labour Party activist, firmly on the socialist left on that party, things are very hectic – the current internal strife is well known, and the surge in racism after horrendous immigration-focused referendum campaigns demandds a response.


The kind of politics I’m engaged in at the moment involves conflict (in fact, I think this is definitive of politics as such, but that’s an argument for another occasion). I find myself organising against, protesting against, attacking, and proposing motions of no confidence in Party figures. That opposing organised racism similarly requires a certain political aggression is, I suspect, less controversial. Yet notes of disquiet might be sounded about the role of a Christian in all of this. Aren’t we supposed to be beyond all of that? To turn the other cheek, to love our enemy?

I do feel a tension here. And I think it’s a tension that ought to be felt by any Christian who is seriously engaged in trying to transform the world (as every Christian, and for that matter every human being, should be). What follows is a brief apologia for how I see political action. It is not original. My take draws heavily on Herbert McCabe’s ‘The class struggle and Christian Love’ (published in God Matters), and I’ve also learned a lot from things Terry Eagleton has written.

There is some ground clearing that can be done fairly swiftly here. Love is not the same thing as being nice: an elision common in English Christianity – Catholics are mercifully a bit less prone to it than some others, but by no means immune. And a commitment to peace, which for Christians is the eschatological gift of God, is not the same thing as having a perpetually wet, pacific, disposition. Untold damage has been done, holding back oppressed peoples’ capacity to demand better lives, by the preaching of the opposite views – in the scriptural words ‘crying peace where there is no peace’ – often by people whose eagerness to call up militaries and governments to live peaceably is less obvious.

Resolute opposition to wrong is something that is characteristic of those lives that scripture and tradition hold up as exemplars for Christians. The same gospel that contains the Sermon on the Mount also has Jesus call the scribes and Pharisees a ‘brood of vipers’. It is just as well that conflict seems to be part of lives lived well, since it is unavoidable. There has never been a human society which has not contained it, and there will not be until that divinely human society known as the Kingdom is fully established as a reality (which establishment, I should be clear, I believe to be indispensably a matter of divine grace; I do not think socialism is the Kingdom, under socialism we would still fall out, misunderstand one another, grow distant, and die). Our present form of society, capitalism, is premised systematic conflicts of interest: between firms, between bosses and workers, and between workers themselves, competing for work. It also gives rise to conflicts between nation-states in the grotesque form of war.

This is a very good reason to oppose capitalism. Conflict may, to some extent, be unavoidable. But systematic conflict as the very basis for a society is something else. It is a serious barrier to those skills for human flourishing that tradition has called virtues. Conversely, it tends to make us self-interested and competitive, which the same tradition – against the fashionable talk of entrepreneurship – has regarded as indicative of vice. I don’t believe any of this, I should say, because I am a Catholic – to paraphrase something McCabe wrote elsewhere, I don’t think people should be socialists because I am a Catholic, but because I am a socialist. I have a certain understanding of how society works, based on observation, study, and thought. This understanding true just in case society does in fact work in that way. I could be wrong. But if I am not wrong, then I think anyone committed, as Catholics are, to human flourishing ought to seek to do away with our present form of society. And that will involve conflict, albeit conflict aimed at ending a particular, widespread, form of systematic conflict.

And yet, I go to Mass as part of a Church which contains oppressor and oppressed, bourgeois and worker. I receive Holy Communion, the gift of the life of the coming peaceable Kingdom, as part of this Church and therefore both express and cement my fellowship with its members. This is important. Conflict is not the final reality, the unity of the human race in Christ is – ‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’. The communion of the Church is a sign of this, and it provisionalises all our struggles and all our plans at the present time. In so doing, it doesn’t devalue them, or give us reason to abandon them in favour of ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Yet it makes them part of a bigger, more universal narrative. And that, somehow, should affect how we view those with whom we, rightly, fight. It’s difficult to say how, exactly, or at least, I find it difficult. It certainly doesn’t motivate a retreat back into the Home Counties gospel of niceness. But at the very least it should give us a sense that bitterness or inflexibility should not be part of our politics, and that – somehow – every human being’s interests need to be ours. Having such a sense will make us better, not worse, agents of change.

The feeling of tension in all of this is, though, unavoidable. Not least because it is a tension that signifies the ‘now and not yet’ reality of the Kingdom. It is, in other words, the tension of the gospel.

Trident and ethics


Last night I watched the film Threads for the first time. A chilling account of a nuclear attack on Sheffield during the Cold War, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The subject matter is topical, because today is Peace Sunday, but also because the subject of Trident renewal is current in British politics.

I oppose Trident absolutely, as I do all nuclear weapons. I most naturally articulate that opposition in terms of my Catholic faith, citing the God-given dignity of the human person created in the imagio dei. However, the debate in Britain will not be won or lost on Christian terrain, but in the largely secular forum of politics. It is vital then that a case against the weapons can be made on the basis of natural reason alone; as will become clear, I think that it can. Before I get to that,  I want to mention one trend in Christian thinking about war that I think is positively unhelpful to our making an effective case against nuclear weapons. This is the growth of a default pacifism in quite a lot of Christian talk about war at every level, regardless of whether that talk is directed ‘inwards’ within the Church or ‘outwards’ to the world. Some years ago the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe made a case that pacifism prevents us from seeing the particular evils of nuclear weapons clearly – if all war is forbidden, yet grimly ever-present, then nuclear war is simply a variation on a theme, and to this extent unremarkable.

On the contrary, in an imperfect world, which falls short of the fullness of God’s Kingdom, the mainstream Christian tradition remains that war, whilst always tragic, is sometimes permissible. Christian pacifism falls into the trap of an overly realised eschatology, a failure to recognise the sense in which the Kingdom is still yet to come. This is not to say that the Church doesn’t have a particular vocation to live peacefully, since we are the sacramental anticipation of the Kingdom. We should be wary of glorifying war, something that has too often been a feature of Christian existence, and it is perfectly legitimate for individual Christians to choose to refrain in principle from all violence. This is very different, however, from demanding pacifism from the world. Doing so blunts the case against nuclear weapons: the problem with them is not that they are weapons of war, but that they are weapons whose purpose is the deliberate killing of the innocent.

This is not the argument that has been most prominent in the current debate. We hear various cases made against Trident: that it is a waste of money, that it is not an effective deterent against the actual threats to the UK in an age of non-state combatants, that spending on nuclear weapons has a low labour-intensity, that the whole project is based on an overestimation of the UK’s military status, that the submarines are effectively under US control, and so on. Now, all of these things are true, and I don’t think there’s any harm in saying them. Yet if the debate is had solely in these terms, a disturbing conclusion follows: perhaps if these matters could be addressed, nuclear weapons would be acceptable. Particularly, Trident’s champions will insist at this point, since we have no intention of actually using the things. They are, as the saying goes, purely deterrents.

This last protestation is nonsense: no deterrent ever succeeded in deterring without a credible threat of use. But even leaving that aside, there is something disturbing about these terms of debate. Elsewhere Anscombe named a current strand of moral thinking consequentialism. For the consequentialist, the only things that make an action right or wrong are its (foreseeable) consequences. In certain circumstances, then, things that might be unthinkable in the ordinary course of events might become permissible: Anscombe uses the example of the judicial punishment of the innocent.

Against consequentialism, Catholic ethics maintains that some types of action are, by their very nature, always and everywhere forbidden. This is not to say that our understanding of ethics is primarily law-based, a matter of command and prohibition. For Aquinas, the subject matter of ethics is human flourishing, and its major concern is with the acquisition of virtue, in the possession of which flourishing consists. It is consistent with this outlook, and has always been maintained by the Church, that there are some things that a virtuous person would never do under any circumstances, actions which are simply incompatible with certain virtues. These actions corrupt, and a society in which they are performed, or for that matter seriously contemplated, is one that will not form flourishing human beings. Importantly, the Catholic tradition also asserts that this outlook does not depend on divine revelation (although is, of course, compatible with, and indeed completed by, it). So in bringing these kind of considerations to the table, we are not giving up on the possibility of debate beyond the boundaries of the Church.

Deliberately killing the innocent is one such impermissible action, as therefore is threatening to kill the innocent. A certain kind of comformist casuistry might propose at this stage that killing the innocent is merely a consequence of the action of dropping a nuclear bomb, and on this basis argue that the principle of double effect is applicable. I’m reminded of the rhyme:

Say I’m awfully aggressed:
I’ll pull the trigger – well I’m blessed!
He hit the bullet with his chest!
I’m glad I did my morals

Killing the innocent isn’t the consequence of the action of dropping a nuclear bomb, it is the action. One thing Catholics can usefully do at the present moment, with respect to nuclear weapons and other things beside, is remind the world that there are some things we should just never do, regardless of the consequences. This view, although in principle available to people of all faiths and none, has fallen out of favour for reasons whose intellectual and social roots it would be interesting and investigate. In this context, the Church remains an important custodian of an important insight for all of humanity, and it is one of which we can remind others without forcing the debate onto specifically Christian terrain.