When Cardinal Daly clashed with a Cambridge don

The late Cardinal Cahal Daly (Photo: CNS)

A convert friend has lent me a book he discovered on Amazon. Like most converts he is a loyal Roman who has no truck with the fudge and casuistry that goes into reinterpretations of Church teaching on morals. Such reinterpretations, as he knows from experience, always boil down to one encyclical, Humanae Vitae, and only one question: are you for it or against it?

The little book he has discovered is entitled Morals, Law and Life and it was written by the late Cardinal Cahal Daly when he was reader in scholastic philosophy at Queen’s University, Belfast. First published in 1962, Daly’s book is a blow by blow response to a Dr Glanville Williams, lecturer in law and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, who had penned a volume called The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law.

Daly writes that he had expected to find Glanville Williams’s book “a fresh and scholarly examination of the relations between law and morals touching human life”. He discovered it was neither. According to the Jesus don, Catholic moral teaching was “reactionary” “restrictive”, “irrational”, “outmoded”, “doctrinaire” and “authoritarian”. He mocked the idea of original sin, wrote of “religious terrorism”, was enthusiastic for contraception, keen on aborting defective babies and although euthanasia made him feel squeamish, he considered “in a rational judgment the quality of life must be considered”.

Daly is rightly severe in his judgment of the book: the Cambridge Fellow was incompetent in moral philosophy and ignorant of theology. His own book is a fine defence of Catholic teaching and anticipates Humanae Vitae by six years. Some things don’t change: magisterial moral teaching and the outcry against it.

Daly includes an interesting quote from J M Keynes’s memoir, My Early Beliefs: recalling his student days at Cambridge the famous economist wrote: “We repudiated all versions of the doctrine of original sin, of there being insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men. We were not aware that civilisation was a thin and precarious crust…”

Despite a patchy Catholic education (this was the 1960s and Hans Küng was a hero), I was aware of it. A student at Cambridge during that decade, I once found myself at a dinner party sitting beside a Fellow of Magdalene called Fairfax-Scott. For some reason we got on to the subject of sin. Fairfax-Scott was dismissive; an apostle of social Darwinism, he was a believer in progress, certain that mankind was improving and growing better all the time. I disagreed vehemently: what about the last war? What about human nature? I can’t recall how it all ended; we both had raised voices and I left the gathering under a cloud. He must have been annoyed to be challenged by a first-year undergraduate while I was startled to discover the elementary ignorance of such a supposed luminary.

Check out Cahal Daly on Amazon.