Truth matters and Peter Geach understood this

Two men called Peter figured in the Telegraph on Saturday. One was Peter Stanford, former editor of the Catholic Herald, and the other was Peter Geach, the philosopher, who has recently died (The Guardian for December 27 has published a commendable obituary of him).

Christopher Howse wrote about Geach in the Telegraph’s “End Column” and by all accounts he sounds a splendid person, both acclaimed in his field and also a clear-thinking, orthodox Catholic, married to the late fellow philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and the father of seven children. The Guardian obituary records that “in 1962 they toasted the Humanae Vitae encyclical, which forbade Catholics’ use of contraception, with champagne.” Actually the encyclical was not published until 1968, but their response did have panache.

Howse writes in his column that Geach “saw the human race was in a pretty bad way. “Perhaps there will be a future age in which the kingdom of God is more manifest than it is in our lamentable time,” he said when I went to Cambridge to interview him in 1980. “That an awful lot of people are on the way to Hell, is, I’m afraid, likely to be true in our present time.”

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In contrast, Peter Stanford’s article shows that he clearly inhabits a very different Church to Geach – a Church where a properly reforming Pope would obviously bring in women priests and change its teaching on marriage and sexual morality, so as to be more in line with the modern world. He remarks, “The time is surely approaching when Francis must turn his attention to setting down in Church law the new, inclusive, gospel-based approach he is preaching…There is no time to waste.”

It seems a bit pointless to suggest to Stanford that the Church would hardly be the institution she is, founded 2,000 years ago by the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, if she were to follow every passing wind of fashion dictated by the liberal intelligentsia of the day. But Geach understood this profoundly. Truth matters. The Guardian obituary includes a wonderful anecdote about him: “He…failed to suffer gladly anything he considered to conflict with Catholic doctrine, even if uttered by clerics. He once stood up during a sermon, shouting “This is heresy”, and marched his family out.”

I once kept a commonplace book. I see I wrote down in November 1985 this passage about “Charity” from Peter Geach’s book The Virtues: “For God’s sake we must have charity towards our fellow-men; and that means actual love of people individually, not just generalised attitudes of goodwill. We cannot in this life love very many individual people: let us love where we can, and not let love die in indifference and oblivion or be extinguished in a quarrel. Let us above all root out day by day from our hearts the weeds of envy, anger and malice…If we cannot love our enemies actively, let us at least forgive them, since each of us stands in such need of forgiveness. Let us be generous in judging the motives and meanings of other men; this is not a matter of preferring love to truth – nothing blinds the heart more than malice…Let us do good where we can…If we so live we may hope for God’s mercy to come to that Glory in which all men love and all are loveable, and where without care or fret there is infinite leisure to get to know those who will be our friends for ever because both we and they were God’s friends first.”

I don’t know what prompted me to write down that particular passage – but it is still wonderful stuff. May Peter Geach rest in peace and may the Church he loved, now guided by Pope Francis, remain rock-like in matters of truth, preached always with love.

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