A Humanist Encounter with Faith & Spirituality

This is the text of an article published in the June 2016 edition of “Interreligious Insight”, the journal of the World Congress of Faiths.

‘Spiritual’ is a word most humanists avoid because of its lack of definition and its religious connotations. And most humanists feel alienated by the word ‘faith’, regarding it as synonymous with ‘religion’ and ‘belief in the absence of evidence’. So a World Council of Faiths conference in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral titled ‘Promoting spiritual life: an interfaith perspective’ was not my natural habitat. But that was where I found myself early in 2016.

I have had enough ‘interfaith’ experience – yes, that’s another alienating term – to know that the people involved are almost always friendly and interesting, and that there are invariably areas of common ground. This event was no exception and I felt welcome. And my concerns about the relevance to me of substance of the conference were largely dispelled by the opening talk, ‘An overview of current approaches to spirituality’, by the Revd Canon James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College. He emphasised both that he did not know whether ‘spirituality’ was valid concept – referring to it as a ‘Polyfilla’ word – and that, as far as British Christianity in its present institutional form was concerned: ‘It is over’. That put paid to some of my preconceptions!

A huge transition

James Woodward’s words echoed those of Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in the introduction to their 2015 paper ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’[i] ‘The last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation’. The changes they’re referring to have two characteristics:

  • A major decline in Anglican identity has been accompanied by a major rise in those who identify as non-religious, who currently comprise around half the British population. That will increase, as the non-religious proportion is higher among the young.
  • Within the large minority who retain a religious identity, ‘stronger’ forms of faith – non-denominational Christianity, including Pentecostalism, and Islam – are becoming increasingly prominent. Anglicanism, while important, will find itself in a minority. To quote Professor David Voas[ii], a specialist in population studies: ‘The future of religion in Britain is to be found in Islam and the black majority churches’.

40 years of British Social Attitudes survey data tell the story:BSA trend chart 1983-2015

This is a huge transition. The most serious attempt so far to address it and come up with practical proposals for the way forward is the Woolf Institute’s ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: living with difference – community, diversity and the common good’ which reported at the end of 2015. The commission consisted of 20 people from across the spectrum, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss[iii]. They considered the issues under six headings (they called them ‘conversations’): vision, education, media, dialogue, action and law. Underpinning their work is this statement in the report’s preface: ‘There has been general agreement that in today’s society it is essential not only to understand religion and belief but also to reflect on how they interact with each other at local and national levels. Indeed, it is only with such an understanding that communities can be sustained, and that people can live with difference and contribute to the common good.’

Both religious people and humanists have a common interest in helping ensure that the outcome of this major change is a harmonious, well-integrated and, I would argue, secular plurality.

Getting the terminology clear

To do that, it’s essential that we get the language clear. Three terms in particular often lead to confusion: ‘Secularism’, ‘Humanism’ and ‘Spiritual’.

In broad terms, most British secularists see ‘Secularism’ as meaning a situation where:

  • the State is neutral in matters of religion and belief;
  • freedom of religion and belief, and their expression and practice, are protected, provided the rights of others are respected;
  • the same, democratically-determined, law applies equally to everyone;
  • no one should be either privileged or disadvantaged on the grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

So Secularism does not mean Atheism or Humanism; or denying the influence of Christianity on British and European history and culture; or denying the freedom of religious individuals or institutions to participate in public life and express their views. But it does mean that their views are not given greater weight than others, or considered more immune to challenge, simply because they’re faith-based.

There are various definitions of ‘Humanism’ in its modern sense, including the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s 2002[iv] ‘Amsterdam Declaration’ . This is from the British Humanist Association’s (BHA’s) website: ‘The word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic);
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals;
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.’

A humanist is not, therefore, someone who is by definition anti-religious. In fact there is a spectrum of views on that: some humanists/atheists are indeed opposed to religion in all its forms; others are ‘anti-religious privilege’ and ‘anti-bad-things-done-and-said-in-the-name-of-religion’ but less concerned about others’ personal beliefs and happy to seek common ground with people of faith.

Of the 50% of so of the population who are non-religious, most[v] – but certainly not all – are broadly humanistic in their beliefs and outlook, whether or not they label themselves as ‘humanists’.

‘Spiritual’ is more problematic, baggy term, with multiple meanings. Broad definitions are fine, but attempting not to deal with the issue at all by saying ‘We know what we mean’ can only perpetuate confusion.

For example, how are we to understand the result of a 2013 YouGov poll[vi] conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s ‘Westminster Faith Debates’ (see chart)?

Identity pie

We can only guess what respondents meant when they answered the question.  When I expressed concern at the conference about the word’s multiple meanings, James Woodward asked if I had an alternative, and what I thought the meanings were. I readily admitted that I do not know of another word that covers all the ground. But to me it is used to mean three things:

  1. our inner human lives, including our sense of meaning and purpose;
  2. specific types of subjective experience usually described using words such as ‘transcendent’, or ‘connectedness’, ranging from the mundane to ‘peak experiences’;
  3. the manifestation of a real but non-physical ‘spiritual’ realm to which some people attribute these types of subjective experiences – the territory often claimed by religion.


Rather than argue about the definition, I think it would be best always to make clear what we mean when we use it, or – as I tend to do – avoid using it altogether.

A good illustration of the dangers of muddled thinking here was provided by a 2009 debate on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme between the humanist philosopher A.C.Grayling and the Anglican broadcaster Christina Rees. It was about the BBC’s long-contested policy of excluding non-religious speakers from the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot.  In defending the ban, Christina Rees said that ‘Most people, more than 80% [sic],understand life as having a spiritual dimension’ and accused A.C.Grayling of ‘coming from a position that decries the spiritual dimension…a partial and diminished perspective…’ as ‘there is more to life than you can see, touch and measure’. This is a classic example of a slippery use of ‘spiritual’: she was eliding its three meanings to suggest that people who do not believe in a non-physical ‘spiritual realm’ are ‘Mr.Spock’-like creatures, lacking inner lives, emotions or the ability to experience a sense of wider connectedness. Her argument was effectively that the ‘thoughts’ of the non-religious are implicitly of less value than those of the religious because only the latter are fully human. This, of course, is rubbish.

It also illustrates the sort of sterile ‘religion good/atheism bad’ (or vice versa) debate that broadcasters may favour but which serves mainly to entrench existing positions, as opposed to dialogue aimed at enhancing understanding of both commonalities and differences.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of our inner lives

Whether we are religious or non-religious, we are all human beings with inner lives. As the 1993 BHA ‘Human Spirit’ leaflet put it: ‘…the spiritual dimension comes from our deepest humanity.  It finds expression in aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement and physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and purpose by which to live.’

It was this sense of ‘spiritual’, and especially in the context of health, that Dr Desmond Biddulph, President of the Buddhist Society (and a psychiatrist), discussed in his conference presentation ‘How can faiths work together to promote the value of spirituality?’ He urged us to help others feel less isolated, more able to shed fears and live fully. I couldn’t share all of his Buddhist perspective, or the implication that those who are of no ‘faith’ have no part to play in helping people who need the support of an independent fellow human being. Nevertheless, in the sense of acknowledging, supporting and perhaps developing both the human inner life and our shared humanity, there is plenty of common ground here.

As we progress through the transition to a majority non-religious, plural society, the practical issue of delivering compassionate and empathetic support to non-religious people in vulnerable situations needs to be addressed. One of the growing areas for attention by the BHA is Pastoral Support  in hospitals and prisons. The trained and accredited humanists who do this work in hospitals are usually embedded in chaplaincy teams and, naturally, they deal with the same types of human issues and concerns as their religious colleagues.

Under guidelines issued in 2015[vii], NHS bodies in England are obliged for the first time to provide pastoral support and care to non-religious people on the same basis as chaplaincy is provided to the religious. That’s significant as most non-religious people prefer to talk to someone who thinks like them rather than a vicar, imam or rabbi. Unfortunately, the approach of the Established Church to this development has in some cases been to defend the status quo rather than facilitate the change to a plurality of provision in which the non-religious are properly respected.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of subjective experience

In ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’[viii], the French atheist philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, describes what he calls a ‘mystical experience’:

‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six… That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All…. “This is what Spinoza meant by eternity”, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’

What he’s talking about is a ‘peak’ human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too.  Most religious people would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play; or the gentle silence of a country scene; or the sense of awe and wonder at the stars on a dark night.

Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context[ix]:

 ‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’

This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to create a similar response. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

This type of conscious transcendent experience is not the only type of subjective experience described as ‘spiritual’. Marianne Rankin is Director of Communications for The Alister Hardy Trust. In her conference talk: ‘The personal experience of the spiritual: its variety and commonalities’, she reported that the Trust’s ‘Religious Experience Research Centre’ has collected around 6,000 accounts of first-hand ‘spiritual’ experiences since its foundation in 1969. Some of these are ‘Near Death Experiences’, in which people who recover consciousness from near-fatal conditions report experiences which often have common characteristics, such as walking down a tunnel towards a bright light. Such experiences have been observed across cultures and can be found in literature dating back to ancient Greece. Others are ‘Out of Body’ experiences, often associated with sleep or anaesthetic, in which people report the sensation of floating above their own bodies.

Like the other examples, they can be tremendously powerful and many people who have experienced them are totally convinced that they are a manifestation of a ‘spiritual realm’ in which their soul is separated from their body. The difference here between the religious person and most humanists is not in the power of the subjective experience itself, but in whether they consider it to be a manifestation of the way our brain and bodies work, or a manifestation of disembodied soul and a ‘spiritual realm’ – physical versus non-physical.

It was notable that Marianne Rankin’s talk did not deal with that. Perhaps wrongly, I had the impression that The Alister Hardy Trust’s library of experiences is seen as evidence in support of the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis, or at least that it is built on the premise that the hypothesis is true, despite the fact that Sir Alistair Hardy was a distinguished evolutionary biologist. Yet there is an extensive, and growing, body of science providing physical explanations for these phenomena and examples of how they can be reproduced artificially[x]. And there is no objective evidence for the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis. To claim that a subjective ‘spiritual’ experience or sensation is evidence of a disembodied realm of soul and spirit is, to me, rather like saying that the pain of shutting your fingers in a closing drawer is evidence of a disembodied realm of pain and suffering. It isn’t.

But that difference of view does not make the subjective experiences themselves any less powerful or less universal. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is an important feature of our humanity and one of the characteristics of human consciousness – a mysterious phenomenon we are barely beginning to understand.

Religions generally give such experiences a higher priority in life than Humanism does because they equate them with getting closer to God. They deliberately set up the conditions in which they are more likely to occur: awe-inspiring architecture, emotionally-powerful music, practices of contemplation and meditation which make people slow down and provide the sort of pause in daily life offered by Comte-Sponville’s silent walk in the forest. In some cultures, drugs are employed. These experiences are almost always positive and life-affirming, so I think there are practical things the non-religious can learn from the religious here (though we’d probably best avoid the mind-altering drugs). The transmutation of Buddhist meditation practice to secular ‘mindfulness’ is an example.

Spiritual transformation and the public realm

In ‘Integrating spirituality into the public realm’, Dr Jonathan Rowson, former Director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts, was content to use the term spirituality without defining it. He argued that ‘spirituality’ is nothing if it is not ‘transformative’ and that meaningful transformation is not in the realm of inner contemplation, but rather should be a driver for political action to improve life for other people. For him, climate change was the top priority.

There is no doubt that many religious people are driven to do good works by their beliefs, just as many non-religious people also devote their time and money for the benefit of others. And there is validity in the concern that a religious practice devoted solely to personal enlightenment is less beneficial to society than action to help others. But it is hard to accept the principle that subjective ‘spiritual’ experience ‘ought’ to be transformative or – more worryingly – that ‘spirituality’ can be invoked to legitimise political action. There are, and have been throughout history, too many examples of bad things legitimised on the basis of ‘spirituality’ – the US Christian Right and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia come to mind. And most humanists would dispute the idea of elevating ‘spiritual’ motivations above other types of motivation, such as simply thinking that something is ethically right because it makes the world a better place.

Many people of faith and many humanists are interested in similar areas of social and political concern and action – including climate change – there is undoubtedly common ground here. But why bring ‘spirituality’ into it?

In conclusion

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life recommended that: ‘It should be a high priority, not only for interfaith organisations but also for all religion and belief groups, educational institutions, public bodies and voluntary organisations, to promote opportunities for encounter and dialogue.’

The World Congress of Faiths does just that (even if I find the name rather excluding). Although the conference did not reduce my misgivings about the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’, I’m glad I attended. It is always good to hear a spectrum of intelligent speakers, and to learn of the academic work taking place. More significantly, the issues covered touch on important aspects of our shared human experience. As the transition to a plural society with a non-religious majority and a varied religious minority moves further forward, we all have a role in ensuring they are not neglected.


[i] Charles Clarke, Linda Woodhead June 2015: ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’,

[ii] Ruth Gledhill, ‘Christianity Today’ 9 February 2015: ‘Future of religion in Britain is Islam and black majority churches’

[iii] Woolf Institute December 2016 ‘Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’

[iv] The Amsterdam Declaration, International Humanist & Ethical Union’s World Congress, 2002.

[v] An Ipsos-MORI poll  for the British Humanist Association in 2007 concluded that ‘Just over a third (36%) of the British population has a humanist outlook on life’.

[vi] YouGov/University of Lancaster Survey Results June 2007

[vii] ‘NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015: Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care’

[viii] ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’, André Comte-Sponville 2006, English translation 2007.

[ix] In a letter to  Queen Elizabeth of Belgium.

[x] For example: Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, Trends in Cognitive Science, October 2011: ‘There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences’.
Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American 12 September 2011: ‘Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations – Seeing your life pass before you and the light at the end of the tunnel, can be explained by new research on abnormal functioning of dopamine and oxygen flow’


A humanist response to ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (Pope Francis on ‘The Joy of Love’)

This is the text of a talk given on 21st June 2017 at the kind invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

‘Amoris Laetitia, ‘The Joy of Love’, is a document issued by Pope Francis in 2016  bringing together the results of the two Synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. The official Vatican summary is here and the full document here.

It may seem presumptuous for a humanist – and an atheist – to comment on a Vatican document. My excuse is that John kindly invited me to do so! So here goes, with apologies in advance if I say anything that anyone finds offensive. That’s certainly not my intention. And I should add that I’m giving a personal view rather than an official Humanists UK line.

There are two broad considerations here: the broad context in which Amoris Laetitia was created and hence its strategic purpose, and its content.



Let’s start with the context. We have a Pope from Latin America. The country with the largest Catholic population in the world is Brazil, where Catholicism was introduced in the sixteenth century. Although it has no official religion, in 1970 over 90% of Brazilians identified as Catholics[1]. A recent survey[2] indicates it is now down to 50%, with the church losing 9 million (out of around 130 million) adherents between 2014 and 2016. This is a huge change, leading the Brazilian Cardinal, Cláudio Hummes, to say: “We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?”. Although there has been an increase in the number of non-religious people – now up to around 14% of the population – the main reason for the decline is the growth of neo-Pentecostalism, a form of Protestantism whose main characteristics have been defined as: “the emphasis on the spiritual battle against the devil” and the profession of the “health and wealth gospel,” explained as “the right of a ‘true’ Christian to live his life here and now in happiness and material affluence.” Pentecostalism has no Canon Law, no “magisterium” or rules about contraception or divorce, and no global hierarchy. In response, a Catholic charismatic movement has grown up and, among Afro-Brazilians, there has been the adoption of an Africanised mass[3].

But essentially, in a competitive religion and belief environment, where people are able to make free choices, the Church is losing out to the competition.

Here in the UK there is a different situation. There has been a growth in non-denominational Protestant churches, notably Pentecostals, but they still account for only about 12% of the population. The main change has been a decline in Anglicanism and a large increase in the non-religious, including humanists like me, who now account for roughly half the population. But the proportion of Catholics has remained roughly static, at around 9%. The reason for that is that departures from the church have been balanced by immigration, especially from Eastern Europe[4]. The key issue in the context of Amoria Laetitia, however, is what those British Catholics think about the issues it covers. Here are some statistics from a survey of over 1000 Catholics conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s “Westminster Faith Debates” in 2013[5]:

Asked to choose one item from a list of sources that they “most rely on most for guidance as you live your life and make decisions?”,  not a single person selected “Religious leaders, local or national”, and only 8% selected “The tradition and teachings of my religion”. The top two choices were “Own reason and judgement” and “Own intuition or feelings”, which were together selected by half the respondents.

Asked for their views on abortion, just 19% said it should be banned altogether, 30% favoured “keeping the time limit at 24 weeks”, 5% even favoured increasing the time limit. 30% favoured reducing it. 16% didn’t know.

Asked whether they thought same sex marriage was right or wrong, 38% said it was right, 43% wrong and the rest didn’t know. Of those under 40, over 50% thought it was right.

They were also asked “Do you think British law should be kept as it is, or should it be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, without those friends or relatives risking prosecution?” a clear majority, 58%, agreed that “the law should be changed to allow assisted suicide in these circumstances”.

Similarly, a 2013 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries revealed that 78% back contraception, rising to over 90% in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France. The same poll found that 50% thought priests should be able to marry, 51% favoured female priests and 65% said abortions should be allowed in at least special cases, such as when a mother’s life is at risk. And it only takes a look at the birth rates in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain to see that the ban on contraceptives is widely ignored. You get the idea.

The Vatican’s own poll, conducted in preparation for the two synods that resulted in Amoria Laetitia – where only a limited selection of results have been released – showed that, in Germany,  there was strong condemnation of the ban on re-married divorcees taking communion; and in Switzerland, 90% of Catholics said the ban should be lifted[6].

Meanwhile in the US, under half of Catholics say homosexual behaviour, remarriage without annulment, cohabitation or contraception are sins[7], and one in four have themselves been divorced, while four in ten have cohabited.

The evidence is pretty strong: there is a gulf between Church teachings and the views of many Catholics.

On the other hand, of course, there are many other Catholics in the West – usually the more devout – who are more traditional in their views.

In Africa, homosexuality is a significant issue. Legislation amplifying traditional cultural discrimination against homosexuals has been supported by Catholic bishops in some countries, notably Nigeria, where a 2014 law imposed 14-year prison terms for anyone entering a same-sex relationship. But it has been condemned in other African countries[8].  Those where the church has apparently taken a homophobic line are often those where it is in competition with Islam and African Pentecostalism, both of which have unequivocally hostile positions on the issue.

It seems from the outside that the Church is therefore in a difficult position. It is haemorrhaging followers in at least one of its major countries, Brazil, to a vigorous religious competitor; its authority on family and sexual matters seems to carry limited weight in its historical heartlands in West Europe and North America, where many people who identify as Catholic have decided for themselves to reject core teachings; in Africa there is a strongly-felt split on homosexuality; while at the same time in all areas there is a significant core who expect the Church to uphold its traditional teachings. Across the world, Catholics take opposing – or at least different – views compared to both the Church and each other on some of the most important ethical issues of our time. What to do?

Of course, the Church has always adapted, as the history of ideas like purgatory and limbo illustrates. And while the ban on communion for divorcees has proved one of the most contentious issue related to Amoris Laetitia, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t till about half-way through the Church’s history, in the 12th century, that it decided that marriage was a holy sacrament, and it was only at the Council of Trent in 1547, that sacramental marriage became part of Canon Law.

But we live in a world where the speed of development and communications means that it’s not feasible to take several centuries to make changes, or to have different policies in different places. Yet rapid change is constrained  by the fact that teachings which have in the past been deemed to have Divine authority are hard to change.

Of course, as a humanist I see the whole edifice of Catholic teaching and Canon Law as a human creation. From that perspective, Amoris Laetitia seems to be a sophisticated attempt – couched in the Vatican’s arcane language – to deal with the problems arising when that edifice is undermined by both the complexity and speed of change of modern societies and by the fact that adherents in many places are educated to think for themselves, with the result that large numbers no longer respect Church teaching on key family matters, or consider it to be morally superior.

At the end of the day, the strategic purpose of this document is to help the Church assure its future strength by adapting to massive and rapid social change.



In terms of solutions, the Pope seeks to chart a course between “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations”. In other words it would be impossible to reach agreement on any change to improve the acceptability of disputed teachings. But he also knows, but cannot say explicitly, that the authority to impose them no longer exists, even among some of the church’s own employees.

The chosen solution seems to be to emphasise tolerance and flexibility of attitude enabling priests to hang on to traditional teachings while dealing better with modern realities: homosexual acts remain sinful, but people who are homosexual should be treated with compassion; non-traditional unions are not approved of, but the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage”. Empathy and compassion are allowed to go only so far.

The one area where he tries to go a bit further, effectively by moving beyond tolerance of “error” into  ambiguity of teaching, is on the question of whether remarried divorcees should be ex-communicated – presumably a big issue in terms of loss of adherents and especially their children. He says: “…the baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children”.

This seems to be a far cry from Canon Law, which refers to divorce as “a grave offense against the natural law” while remarriage “adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”  The Catholic Encyclopaedia[9] considers divorce “a modification of monogamy that seems to be no less opposed to its spirit than polyandry, polygamy, or adultery”.

The way out is to say that “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God.” In other words, your conscience can trump the rules.

A group of traditionalist American cardinals were having none of that. They sent the Pope a letter[10] stating that “conscience [as opposed to law] does not decide about good and evil” suggesting that, if it did, there could be good adultery or good murder – they could have added good homosexual activity and good unmarried partnerships. In the letter, they sought to pin the Pope down, using a list of detailed challenges – or “Dubia” – to Amoris Laetitia. Wisely, he didn’t reply. To the outsider, it seems pretty obvious that he is quite happy with the ambiguity. Unfortunately, it looks like the tactic has not been wholly successful.

Another of the risks he runs is cultural relativism. The Pope says that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” and for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle … needs to be inculturated [a new word to me], if it is to be respected and applied”.

Ironically, on the area where that could be the most contentious, homosexuality, he actually comes down quite firmly on an approach which is contrary to the views of bishops in Nigeria and other countries where homophobia is official government policy, supported by the local Church. “Regarding families with members with homosexual tendencies, it reaffirms the necessity to respect them and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of aggression or violence”.  Good!



Focussing now on the content and ethics: the overall sense that came over to me – and I should stress I’m speaking personally here – is of a man whose instinct is essentially to be kind rather than harsh. The cynic might say he has to do that to avoid making the situation worse, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Having said that, while he may be a good man in that sense, some of his ideological beliefs run counter to the values and principles Western societies have evolved – however imperfectly – on the basis of human rights. Essentially, these values reflect the basic ethic of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – without the overlay of scripturally-derived doctrine.

In a telling passage, he takes a very broad brush to tell us what he thinks is wrong with the world of the family: “Families face many challenges, from migration to the ideological denial of differences between the sexes (“ideology of gender”); from the culture of the provisional [sic] to the anti-birth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation; from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to persons with disabilities, to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violence against women.” I confess I don’t know what “the culture of the provisional” means – perhaps something to do with lifetime commitment – but it’s grouped with the perceived evils of birth control. Gender equality is grouped with problems of migration, pornography with child abuse, divorce law with domestic violence.

The implication that there is a comparison of awfulness between divorce and violence against women, or between adult porn and child abuse is, to say the least, both disturbing and surprising, given the massive issue of child abuse and the impact of forcing women to remain in violent marriages.

Not surprisingly for a document about the family, it comes back to divorce more than once. It is “rampant individualism” which he says, “makes it difficult today for a person to give oneself generously to another…..The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals”. Of course, many moral questions feature a tension between what we want to do to maximise our individual happiness and what we ought to do to maximise the well-being of others. But to talk about “fear of entrapment” as if it’s always a sign of moral weakness makes little sense. How about entrapment in a relationship where one party is subject to physical or mental abuse? Or is serially unfaithful? On the other hand, he himself argues that marriage should be understood as “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment” rather than the imposition of an ideal that is impossible to achieve in real life.

Divorce is stated explicitly to be “evil”. While this is said in the context of the damaging impact on children – a very real issue of course – there is no qualification. It is just as evil apparently when the couple are childless, or have adult children, or when children’s life is being scarred by conflict between parents, as when people divorce for selfish or trivial reasons and there are young children involved. That seems to be contrary to the Pope’s own exhortation about dealing with the world as it is rather than in theological absolutes. From a humanistic viewpoint, this is – to put it politely – ethically problematic. A humanist view would be to consider the likely consequences in each case and try to produce an outcome which yields the least suffering, and the greatest long-term well-being, for all those concerned. I am no specialist in Divorce Law, but from the outside it seems that the legal approach in most Western countries, evolved through the democratic process over the years, is closer to that compassionate ideal than a doctrine that forbids divorce in almost all circumstances, and has had the effect of bringing shame on innocent divorcees.

One area where there is a welcome implicit shift from traditional teaching is that of sex education. “Yes to sex education” is the title of the section. While it complains that the expression ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against” there is the implicit acceptance that many young people will have sex before marriage and it’s better that they are properly educated about it. OK. Of course, I think the Church’s whole approach to contraception, birth control and population growth is ethically unsound, but there’s no time to go into that now.  I would just say that two underlying issues are, in my view, hugely important here: firstly, women’s rights and education – together with technology that makes contraception safe, cheap and readily available – and secondly, the direct and indirect impact on human suffering of the Earth’s population growing on its current trajectory.

Similarly, in terms of flexibility, I read into the section where the Pope accepts that the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” that there is license for priests to have a constructive and supportive relationship with people who are in unmarried partnerships or even same-sex couples.  Of course, as a humanist I would say that applying the Golden Rule to people who are homosexual means not causing them avoidable suffering because of their sexuality, while helping them maximise their well-being, assuming there is no negative effect on the well-being of others. On that basis, it is a no-brainer to me that it is morally good to enable people who love one another, and want to make a lifetime commitment, to get married. And while the Pope’s approach here does encourage greater kindness and compassion, the firm barrier of a teaching that says the natural expression of these people’s sexuality is deviant and sinful means that this kindness and compassion is constrained in a way that I imagine is increasingly uncomfortable for many good Catholics.

It also raises what I assume is a general issue with the document. Presumably it’s a matter of luck whether the particular priest someone is dealing with chooses to exercise the limited tolerance allowed by Amoris Laetitia to the full, or to cling more strongly towards the still-unchanged traditional teaching*.

I guess that is a problem that the CEOs of many other multi-national organisations would understand.

Overall the direction the Pope seems to be taking with Amoris Laetitia seems, from this humanist’s perspective, the right one. But the train will keep running into the buffers of doctrine. If that problem is not addressed, then it’s questionable whether the document will successfully deal with the strategic challenges the Church is facing. Maybe it’s simply not possible to reconcile the conflicting forces here. Only time will tell.


* Two days after the Westminster Cathedral Inter Faith Group meeting at which I presented this paper, this article appeared in the Washington Post: Illinois Catholic bishop decrees no Holy Communion, funerals for same-sex couples. It begins:

“The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Ill., is calling on priests there to deny Holy Communion and even funeral rites to people in same-sex unions unless they show “some signs of repentance” for their relationships before death.

The decree by Bishop Thomas Paprocki also said that people “living publicly” in same-sex marriages may not receive the sacrament of confirmation or be admitted to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a process by which many converts become Catholic, preparing them for baptism and confirmation.

At the same time, Paprocki said that children living with a Catholic parent or parents in a same-sex marriage may be baptized. But when it comes to same-sex unions, priests cannot bless couples, church property cannot be used for ceremonies and diocesan employees are forbidden from participating, the decree said.”

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/

[2] https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/brazil-loses-9-million-catholics-in-2-years

[3] https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/catholic-church-brazil

[4] https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/centres/benedict-xvi/contemporary-catholicism.aspx?filtered=1

[5] http://faithdebates.org.uk/blog/surveys-reveal-widening-gulf-catholics-church-teaching/

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10627312/Catholics-divided-on-issues-such-as-divorce-and-birth-control.html

[7] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/08/popes-proclamation-like-views-of-u-s-catholics-indicates-openness-to-nontraditional-families/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/in-rare-public-split-catholic-bishops-differ-sharply-on-anti-gay-laws/2014/02/13/ccfcdd84-94e6-11e3-9e13-770265cf4962_story.html?utm_term=.710376b3afad

[9] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm

[10] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/11/14/full-text-cardinals-letter-to-pope-francis-on-amoris-laetitia/