St Thomas of Canterbury (Again) and Questions of Conscience

Although I have never doubted St Thomas’s holiness, I remain ambivalent about some aspects of his life (see, for example, this post, or any of my previous posts on St Thomas Becket/St Thomas of Canterbury). His role as a defender of conscience, especially religious conscience as opposed to secular authority, is worth reconsidering, however, because it is becoming more and more topical. The cause for which Thomas died was ultimately resolved by a compromise but, at the time, it was an urgent matter, just as many of the questions that trouble Christian, and more specifically Catholic, consciences today are. And, like the questions that we have to consider today, the arguments on both sides often looked irrefutable.

Thomas’s dispute with Henry was essentially about who held ultimate authority, the king or the Church. We face much the same problem today with the conflict, actual or potential, between the civil law and our religious principles. A few examples may be helpful.

The one thing most people know about the Catholic Church is her opposition to abortion. There is a great deal more in what the Church has to say about the sanctity of human life and how that affects every one of us, but the opposition to abortion is what tends to be singled out. In many countries of the world, just as here in Britain, some form of abortion is legal and all citizens, whatever their personal views, must observe the law of the land. The problem comes when someone is faced with a conflict between what he/she believes and what they are required to do as part of their job or, even worse, when there is disagreemnt betwen couples about the child they have conceived. Does the Catholic medical professional or pharmacist, for instance, have any right to act according to their conscience or not? What of those disputes between couples about whether their child should be aborted or live? And what about those recommendations of a termination when a child is thought to be afflicted with some disability which have implications beyond the individual?

To take another example. The Catholic Church admits only men to ordination as priests. At the moment, in this country, that is not regarded as breaking any equality legislation, whatever individuals may think about it. But the Catholic Church does not accept the possibility of gender reassignment, either. So, as far as she is concerned, no one who was not born biologically male can be ordained to the priesthood. That is potentially a rather trickier area and could indeed lead to conflict in the future. Here in the monastery we have already had vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, so it is certainly not something at the extremes of what can be expected. Are we prepared for it or not?

My third example is one I have also encountered. The NHS, quite rightly, is anxious that no one should be pressurised when ill; but when a Catholic patient on her deathbed is denied the attention of a priest on the grounds that her human rights could be infringed as she cannot give her consent, one does wonder what is really going on.* The increasing secularity of society and the seeming determination to marginalise Christianity is genuinely a matter for concern. We must ask ourselves whether we have, in some ways, contributed to it by not standing up for what we believe and by allowing our faith to be ridiculed or sidelined. It is a difficult area and one that requires much thought and prayer if we are not to end up justifying the frequent charges of ‘special pleading’ and so on. I think we could usefully ask the intercession of St Thomas in all these difficult cases, don’t you?

*One reason we have taken out Health and Welfare Powers of Attorney here is precisely so that no decisions can be taken if/when we are comatose that we would not have taken when fully compos. I definitely do not want to be put on a ‘pathway’ I have not agreed to, but I do want to be surrounded by the prayers and sacraments of the Church till the very end.


5 thoughts on “St Thomas of Canterbury (Again) and Questions of Conscience”

  1. Dear Sister Catherine,
    The three dichotomies mentioned trouble many of us.
    I believe that life is sacred and that abortion should be avoided if at all possible. But I would not condemn anyone for having or undertaking an abortion. Equally, I would support any medical professional who refused to give an abortion on grounds of conscience or religious belief. Coercion in any form is wrong. God recognises this. Celibacy or effective use of contraception would both preclude the need for abortion.
    I do not believe that ordination should be for males only. The underlying emphasis on this stems from the historic position of male domination and misogyny enshrined in the Council of Nicea and the subsequently “favourable” interpretation of Biblical texts since then. One has to realise that females were considered as nothing more than chattels by male dominated society from ancient times until well into the 20th Century. God never intended this. He only requires that we love Him and our neighbour. He wants us to be free. That means freedom and respect for everybody – male, female, gay and transgender. He made us all. He loves us all and expects us to accept and love everyone, irrespective of gender, race or creed.
    Lastly, refusing Catholics the last rites or practicing Christians some form of blessing or absolution before they die is heinous. To forestall the deniers, perhaps we should have our medical files noted that we are Christians and want blessing even if unconscious just as those who don’t want to be resuscitated have their records noted.
    We do not live in a perfect world but we can love and be kind to each other.

    • Thank you. I know you write thoughfully, and with great sincerity, but I must point out that some of the opinions you have expressed are not consistent with Catholic teaching, however fervently you or others may believe in them. In the above post I have mentioned three specific areas of Catholic teaching that either do or may bring Catholics into conflict with English law. There are others I could have mentioned, but the intention of my post was to try to encourage people ask questions of themselves, of the relationship between law and religion and of the role of conscience in a modern democratic society. Although I have used Catholic examples, as being those I am most familiar with, I’m sure those of other traditions can think of questions arising from their beliefs and practices.

  2. Oh dear goodness we are beginning to live in a dreadful minefield. I am relieved I think that I am side lined by ill health from having to actually deal personally with these issues. Nevertheless they trouble me greatly.

  3. A positive note: for 30 years our parish has been taking Communion to the local hospital everyday to anyone who registers as Catholic upon admission. Three lay ministers are assigned each day. It is not a Catholic hospital. I think this is one way to “stand up” for what we believe and to take our faith out of society’s margins. I have been part of this only for a little over a year but I come away each time with a renewed faith in the power of the sacrament.

  4. Thank you for your kind response. I know that my opinions contravene Catholic teaching and that is why I am not a Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, I admire your discipline, constancy of belief and your willingness to discuss all matters without rancour or rejection. These are just some of the reasons why we, your followers, love and value you so much. God bless you, peace and love be with you xx.

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