John Hinton meets the former Catholic priest who became a leading intellectual Sir Anthony Kenny is 75 and has a twinkle in his eye as he sits in his study in Oxford, secure in his reputation as a leading international philosopher after an early decision to give up the priesthood. His CV is distinguished to say the least: fonner Master of Balliol College, president of the British Academy and chairman of the British Library, with more than 40 books to his credit on philosophy, history and religion.
He has, then, more than made his mark and his latest book, What! Believe (Continuum Books, L14.99), distils more than 50 years experience inside the Church, outside it and on its fringes — but always much more as a friend than a critic.
He readily agrees to the interview and clearly anticipates professionalism, balking slightly when a local radio reporter popped up in a tearing hurry without having even seen the new volume. Sir Anthony has seen and studied many books. Next to his study, under the eaves of a substantial but unostentatious village house, is a library of 6,000 books, all crossreferenced on a substantial database. His new book is published just as he deals with the final proofs of the fourth volume of his history of philosophy being published by the Oxford University Press, a weighty task for the Oxford don. A project just put to bed is entitled Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Utility, written with his son, Charles, who is an economist with the World Bank, and made possible by a month-long grant from the Rockefeller Foundation of New York at its peaceful haven for intellectuals and artists — a medieval castle beside Lake Geneva.
Utility, though, rather than happiness? Isn't happiness and its pursuit the new buzzword among transatlantic thinkers?
"Utility I would clef= as contentment," he says. "A lot of writers have said that happiness cannot be directly pursued but will come as a result of focusing your life on your avocations and through your friends and family. This I certainly believe."
At just 165 pages, What I Believe is comparatively short. "But," he
points out, "some people say the shorter the book the more difficult it is. There's definitely some truth in that." He knows that he will hardly be accused of skimping.
All this literary activity sounds like hard work and what the future holds might be a little slackening off.
"I don't think I'll be signing any more contracts," he says, admitting that age is starting to tell. "I have to keep going back over text more than I used to. You are not quite as quick to recognise errors. What used to leap out of the page as a mistake, you don't see until afterwards when you realise you may have published a real howler."
Not noted for howlers, Sir Anthony is much more known for the way in which, replete with questions, he eventually argued his way out of the Church.
Born in Liverpool in 1931, his mother came from a staunchly Catholic family with a brother in training for the priesthood. His father, an engineer on a steamship, was a lapsed Catholic and Freemason. Before long they separated — his father to die in the Battle of the Atlantic — and he was brought up first by his grandmother and then, when she died in 1942, by his Uncle Alec, a charming man and a priest in the Liverpool archdiocesan seminary of Upholland. He naturally followed in his uncle's footsteps, going to Rome in 1949 to spend eight years at the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 1955 he was ordained priest and his star was rising; notwithstanding some doubts and difficulties he found himself at Oxford engaged in analytic philosophy studying Aquinas and coming to recognise the genius of Wittgenstein.
But doubts came crowding in when he discovered that all pontifical doctoral candidates had to take an oath rejecting various modem heresies. "The oath included the statement that it was possible to demonstrate the existence of God. This was something that made me more and more doubtful. And I continued to find it difficult to attach a clear sense to many of the doctrines of the Church which as a priest I was committed to teaching."
Kenny left Oxford with little of his dissertation written. Before him lay two years as a parish priest in a depressed area of Liverpool. But he did complete the work in 1961 and was awarded his doctorate.
Two further years in the priesthood followed. Then came the decision. "I could no longer continue as a teacher of doctrines and moral precepts I was increasingly doubtful about." He obtained leave from Pope Paul VI to return to the lay state and became a full-time fellow And tutor in philosophy at Oxford in 1963. Two years later, he married a girl called Nancy from Swathmore, Pennsylvania, when she came to Oxford on a visit from Vassar, among America's top girls' schools. Their marriage has been remarkably happy and they have two sons.
Forty years on, he shows no sign of having any regrets about his divide from the faith. But it is not necessarily dramatic. He is against abortion and, because of the link between sex and procreation, believes homosexual orientation to be a disability, preventing procreation and depriving individuals of the diversity of experience of the two sexes. But clearly, he notes, the moral disapproval of homosexuals "seems to have evaporated".
He is clearly unafraid of controversy, and discusses the.possibM that euthanasia could be acceptable when life has become unbearably painful either to the individuals or to those around them, including their doctors.
"For a utilitarian, whatever the legal system in force, it can in principle be legitimate to kill a patient whose suffering has become unbearable and who wishes to die. Many Christians, though, believe it is wrong to take the life of an innocent person even at their own request. You don't need to be sceptical about the ability of the medical profession to make reliable predictions about permanent vegetative states to oppose legalising the termination of life. There are two slippery slopes to be avoided: authorising a doctor to kill a patient at the patient's request or when the doctor thinks he would be better off dead." But clearly there is a wide gap between those who may be in acute pain and those who have, for various reasons, lest inter-eat in life.
a.kuicide injures those left behind fo grieve. "In a long life, I he been close to a number of people who ended their own lives. In each case, the grief and misery caused to others appeared to me to greatly outweigh the relief from the sufferings that caused them to take such a step.! can only hope that I will never be subject to the temptation they underwent and pray that if I do I will be given the strength to resist it."
You can almost hear the deep, country silence in the study. It's about a mile from the suburban bustle of Headington on the London road to Oxford with a crossroads dominated by banks, estate agents and sandwich shops. The newspa pers today are once more all about terrorism.
War on terrorism, he believes, is nothing short of a "disastrous mistake".
"Terror is a tactic adopted by people who have different aims. One of the effects of lumping all terrorists together is to make it more likely. The United States abhors terrorism but now appears to be at war with the whole Muslim world. Terrorists are vicious murderers but that shouldn't condemn the whole community from which they are drawn. I am certainly not alone in thinking that the present Gulf War should never have begun. We were completely misled. And what we have done is a great mistake."
Sir Anthony's time is precious. He has to prepare for engagements in Scotland and supposed that an hour's meeting would be enough. An hour to discuss his book seems barely enough when you look at the ground he covers — life and death, sex, war, comparative religions, why he is not an atheist, happiness and the life hereafter. And much
more. But this is a man who has s spent a lifetime on an extraordinary intellectual journey.
And on that final note, he would rather there wasn't a life hereafter. Many might disagree with him.
"Some are disturbed by the thought that at their death they will be annihilated. For myself, I find it no more disconcerting to accept that the world will continue in my absence than to accept that for millions of years previously it got on very well without me. It is rather the possibility of continuing after death that I find troubling — not just that annihilation would be vastly preferable to the torments of the damned described by Dante, but that even painless perpetuity would be appalling."
What I Believe is a powerful work and will long be consulted and cherished by those who study philosophy and religion. The book will doubtless be followed by more memoirs from a remarkable man who has often disagreed with Catholic teaching, but has always remained "a friend and fellow traveller" of the Church.