What Constitutes a Civilized Society?

Over the past few days I have read several comments both for and against the recently-enacted legislation regarding abortion in New York state. To me, the idea of abortion is abhorrent; the idea of permitting abortion at any stage up to birth is mind-boggling. Having said that, I quite see why many of those who are in favour of the legislation argue that such cases would be exceptional and rare. Hard cases, however, do not usually make for good law, nor do they make for good argument. One troubling side to the comments I have read is their sheer viciousness — and that goes for those who are opposed to the legislation as much as for those who are in favour. It seems we cannot agree on our core values, nor can we agree how to conduct ourselves when those values have to be examined and debated. U.K. readers may find an uncomfortable parallel in our current discussion of Brexit. It is as though we have forgotten what it means to be civilized.


How does this apply in the context of today’s feast, that of the Conversion of St Paul? I think we sometimes forget that Saul of Tarsus was a good man but became a better one when he was captured by the love of Christ. As an observant Jew, Saul must have been upright, generous, supremely moral, loving God and the traditions of his forefathers. But that experience on the road to Damascus changed him. Everything the Christian Paul writes is filled with the love of Christ. It transforms what we would call his ‘world view’. His zeal remains, but it is tempered with a humility and sympathy that was not so noticeable before. Would it be very wrong to say that the Risen Christ had a civilizing influence on him? I don’t mean by that to belittle Paul’s conversion or to suggest that he was not, in the conventional sense, a civilized man before his conversion. I mean that after his conversion Paul was much more aware of the value and need of every human being, Jew or gentile, so much so that he was ready to give up all that he held most dear for their sake. The proud citizen of Rome suddenly understood that to be a Christian civis was to accept responsibility for the good of others, to place the good of others before one’s own.

I wonder whether that sheds any light on what we mean by a civilized society. In the West, the role of religion, especially Christianity, is more and more downplayed. There are times, indeed, when being deliberately hostile or offensive towards the most cherished beliefs of others is regarded as being not merely acceptable but a mark of ‘freedom’ or ‘maturity’. Views with which one disagrees are simply dismissed. To argue that abortion and euthanasia are wrong is to invite the charge of being lacking in compassion, yet how compassionate are we really if we do not care for the young, the old and the sick? We may have similar qualms about the morality of capital punishment, the inequalities that mean many go hungry while the West suffers an epidemic of obesity, and so on. Sometimes I have the uneasy feeling that much contemporary morality is based on nothing more than ‘what’s best for me’ — the law of the jungle rather than of civilsation as traditionally understood.

We were discussing this in chapter this morning and asking ourselves what we could do about it. One person mentioned the decline in the use of Christian symbolism and suggested that it had a greater significance than many were prepared to admit. It is comparatively rare nowadays to go into a house where a crucifix or cross is on display. Our custom in the monastery is to have a crucifix in every room — a small, silent reminder of our purpose and of what our duty is. Perhaps those of us who are Christian could think about that. Showy displays of fervour are definitely not what are needed, but in my experience most people find it difficult to be deliberately rude or unkind or selfish when facing a crucifix. It is when we remove our gaze that the trouble starts and the old Adam reasserts himself. Perhaps that was Paul’s secret. He kept his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. We should do the same.


12 thoughts on “What Constitutes a Civilized Society?”

  1. Thank you, Dame Catherine for this post: so balanced and kind. I personally support abortion when the baby is very badly malformed or the mother is at great risk. I support euthanasia when the situation is terminal and the patient is in great pain and distress. I hope when my time comes my family will prayerfully euthanise me as a final act of great love. Those are my personal views. They can only be considered “wrong” in the light of others views which they consider”right”. We are commanded to love one another and for me both these beliefs, given a right set of circumstances constitute love. I know many will disagree with me. They too are”right” in their beliefs and are to be respected.

    • Thank you. You know I do not share your views on the admissibility of either abortion or euthanasia, nor do I believe either to be a truly loving act. This post, however, is not about abortion or euthanasia as such but about society and its values That is why I think the question worth asking, what constitutes a civilized society? I imagine I’ll return to the questions of abortion and euthanasia more explicitly in future posts, as I have in the past, but the shock administered by news of the New York legislation certainly prompted me to think about our underlying assumptions.

  2. The voice of reason as always !
    I agree that society has changed and unless is comfortable and what I can get out of it it’s useless as with the babies, they are hard work, they are loving and worth having ! Civilized societies must work hard to make hard choices and loving choices !
    St Paul saw the light ! I hope others follow !

  3. Dear Sister. Your spiritual insight is so profound I could weep. Please keep the United States in your prayers. I have been so troubled not only that such a bill was passed but to allow full term abortion in New York by Catholic politians. I’m not a politician…but the arguments and decisions within the Republican and Democratic Parties are hurting and killing people. It’s very difficult to live in a land that has always claimed “freedom” but encourages our most beautiful and innocent to be murdered.
    I find comfort in recieving Our Most Blessed Holy Eucharist. I am so grateful to work in the Diocese I live and the Bishop I am blessed to serve. Please remember him in your prayers. God Bless You and Your Sister’s Always.

  4. I have supported parents through late terminations, despite my views. Very hard for everyone. Interestingly I found that with the ‘religious symbolism ‘ of a clerical collar, people assumed they knew my views and made judgements, even though I was not making judgements. I think I walked around in a polite bubble often. Maybe your habit has the same effect?

    • Yes, people often claim to know what one thinks when one may be thinking something quite different! It is an occupational hazard of the religiously identifiable. I think ‘Hate the sin but love the sinner’ is the only way when confronted with something like abortion — which is why, before I became a nun, I was active in ‘Life’ rather than any of the other pro-life organizations. I always felt we needed to offer on-going support to all the people involved. Still do.

  5. I am against abortion in my heart of course but I am also for real solutions. I cannot speak for the abused women or the tragic malfunction of genetics. I cannot cast the stone… I witnessed my own child’s birth and passing. There came no comfort. So I can only give my love and support to those poor women who have to take the choice. Civilised must mean compassion and care for all. Even sinners. Bless you.

      • You are right it, does not. But let those women first hear the offer of help before they hear the voice of disapproval. How can we assure them that the unborn child will be allowed to grow with respect and love? Does that mean huge orphanages or adoption agencies. Or more importantly a huge change in society away from the pursuit of war and wealth and toward care. There is the real sin. The collective greed and violence of humanity. Not the poor women overwhelmed by her disintegrating circumstances. In peace and light.

        • If you read my earlier comment to Canon Hatton, you will have seen that my first response to anyone who thought abortion the solution was to offer on-going practical help. I am far from being alone in that — I think you will find that the overwhelming majority of pro-life advocates in the UK are of the same mind and work hard to give people a genuine choice. Government legislation has effectively closed many Catholic adoption agencies here, but you will find many Catholics involved in attempts to make society more peaceful, more just, less unequal. I trust you are doing the same insofar as your circumstances allow. That is very important if we are to want a civilized society, and I hope we can agree on that. (I can’t continue this discussion as I’ll be offline for a few days for chemotherapy, etc.)

  6. My deepest thoughts are with you in your therapy. Thank you for your amazing thought provoking posts and for talking to me.
    yes in my line of work we have young people in our care many of whom were given up at birth. Which is why I was drawn to the subject. As a British Friend I have great respect for the Catholic Church and that of God with in it. Peace and light

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