You can't have your morality a la carte

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MUCH ADO last week in the Independent about religious education. Much need for such education, the Pope and I might agree.

Never a problem for me: of course children should be educated in religion, as in the other three Rs.

You ask by whom? By believers, keen to proselytise as well as to inform?

Yes, by whom else? Maths is not best taught by scholars impartially bored, not convinced of its value and importance, its fascination, veracity, explanatory powers and even beauty.

Wouldn't you even teach children about religions other than their own?

No, not much, except incidentally, as part of philosophy or history or some other discipline. Catholic schools should teach Catholicism, Presbyterian schools Calvinism, Muslim schools Islam, and so on.

But, you demur, isn't that to deny to children the right later to make an informed choice?

I don't think so. Nothing can deny the right to choose. To be 'informed', choice must be based on a secure knowledge of what may be rejected. Children taught about many religions, moreover, may end where they began, knowing about none.

A proper knowledge and understanding of our own religion is perhaps the key to others. As Goethe, no blinkered specialist, said, 'know one thing thoroughly: your wide knowledge is Quatsch' - dilettantism. As for sowing doubts and confusion, even for good intellectual reasons, surely there is no need? They are already present in any mind capable of accommodating or even profiting by them.

And isn't our own religion the key also to much of our history, literature, music, poetry and art? I pity the young now, deprived by unbelieving teachers of the power fully to appreciate Paradise Lost, Dante or Bruckner's great Masses.

As for teaching atheism, it is like inculcating not a philosophy, as one reader, Ingrid Sims, called it, but a negation, a subtraction, an absence, a vacant void into which may pour nothing or everything or anything, including horrors till recently unimaginable and new ones doubtless to come.

I hope or kid myself that nothing I've said so far, except perhaps the last paragraph, is necessarily or wholly unacceptable to non-believers, though some may accept it reluctantly, with reservations.

Kenneth Wolfe, who teaches religious studies at Godolphin and Latymer (Independent, 18 August), I fancy, will not swallow it with rapture, if at all. He wants religion taught as 'a branch of the social sciences', though not ignoring 'the political, cultural and aesthetic causes involved'. Very well, but can anything fully aware of political, cultural and aesthetic complexities be properly regarded as a science? Science deals with the 'known'. How an infinite variety of individuals will exercise their free will is not, cannot be, scientifically known.

What, do I then deny that the 'scientific' study of economics and even of society itself are sciences? Yes, I suppose I do. As sciences they seem to me, as to the great economist Professor James Buchanan, impostures.

The Pope's task in religious education is, of course, infinitely more difficult, contentious and important than Mr Wolfe's or mine. His recent journey into infidel parts reminded him, did he need it, that he has first to answer Lenin's question - Who-Whom? Who is to teach whom? The shepherd or the flock?

The Pope has been described, by soi-disant Catholics as by others, as hopelessly out of touch with the modern world, lost in musty medievalism and 'prejudice'. Is it thus his duty to be educated by those who deem themselves more in touch? By the so-called Catholic intelligentsia, by theologians, journalists, moralists and commentators who are said to 'admire' him but reject his teachings? According to the Independent's sympathetic if not uncritical profile (14 August), many of these believe that 'the greatest service he (the Pope) could now do the church is to die'. Is he to receive education from such admirers? He might remind them that suicide is a mortal sin.

A 'progressive' theologian, Professor Greinacher of Tubingen, has called for the equivalent within the church 'of the students' uprising of 1968'. Another fine educator] What good came of 1968? What have modern universities, so cowardly and disorderly, to teach the Pope? Is he expected to acquiesce or even organise his own humiliation and overthrow?

There are nearly 60 million so-called Catholics in the United States. Of these, 84 per cent oppose the Vatican's ban on the Pill (though it has no power to ban it, only to declare its use sinful); 60 per cent favour divorce and remarriage. Some 58 per cent reject a total 'ban' on abortion. Vast numbers of Catholics here as well as in America 'follow their own consciences' (or whims or lusts) rather than the Pope's teaching about homosexuality, woman priests, married priests and so on.

What is all this to the Pope, except matter for grief? He has to teach for a start what the church is and why it isn't and cannot be a democracy. God is not a democrat. Christ's teachings were not settled by a head count. His church is necessarily hierarchic and centralised, two words anathema to the modern Catholic intelligentsia. It exists and is organised to expound and defend the truth as it sees it, to fight error as it sees it. Those of other minds should surely get out?

Likewise, Catholic moral teachings, based as the Pope sees them on God's word, are not to be altered or erased just because some temporal majority finds that they do not chime well with fashionable social or economic obsessions - though in some respects the Pope's social teachings are more 'fashionable' than, say, my own.

An American lady has recently surfaced, 'President of Catholics for a Free Choice'. This title surely embodies either a tautology or a contradiction. Orthodox Catholics could claim that they have freely chosen and daily choose freely to try to obey all the church's moral teachings.

Others claim the right to pick and choose their morals a la carte - the Pope's phrase - but they are hardly orthodox Catholics. This lady welcomes 'democratic change' to bring 'our church' (as she calls it - Christ's church, the Pope would prefer) 'into line with the way we live our lives'. What an ambition, in view of the way that some Americans live their lives, not to mention the way we now live ours here] Does the lady envisage the Pope being democratically impeached, or God being forced to resign after losing a vote of confidence?

Progressive theologians call for the Pope's death. Might it not suit them better still if God died? According to 'theologians' who are more 'progressive' still, He has already done so. It certainly seems absurd to kill the monkey and spare the organ-grinder.

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