Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.


28 thoughts on “Time for Another Little Rant?”

  1. I think that care is needed when expressing personal views, particularly is they disagree with those of established churches or religions. As an Anglican and a former Catholic, I can see two sides of that story and the journey which I have made from one to the other. There is nothing inspirational about the story, although lived experiences, when I at first became agnostic towards God for a long period, than my singular encounter with Jesus at a time of great trauma for others, which allowed me to know that denying God wasn’t a position that I could sustain. And my encounters with your blog have always been thought provoking, from my early misunderstanding of some aspects of Catholic Doctrine which I had disagreed with to one where I now disagree with some actions of my Anglican Bishops in regard to minorities within the church, which has been hurtful and has driven people away in some circumstances.

    We have to remember that as men and women, we are fallible, we can and do get things wrong, but the redeeming Grace of our Saviour and with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit we are able to change, repent and do things differently. A lesson that I have learned and strive daily to live out, not always with success. But the transformation of lives is the message that Jesus shared with us, our own and others, and speaking about his redemption of us, can help others to see how it could tranform their lives.

    I pray that we will all be more listeners than shouters, that we will be able to have frank exchanges without rancour and anger and that by our living out our vocation to be disciples, we are able to disagree well, without sacrificing our integrity.

  2. Thank you so much for putting into such lucid words and clear exposition my views which I’ve often felt so frustrated about and unable to articulate clearly.

    As a Catholic woman involved in the Labour Party and feminist groups I’ve so often felt the intolerance of those who are not just totally convinced of their own righteousness but who disparage and abuse anyone who doesn’t agree and seeks nuance. And that’s leaving aside the bigotry and astonishment that a left leaning feminist can also be a Catholic.

    The issue that’s so troublesome at the moment isn’t that transgender people’s rights should be respected, but that some demand access to all women spaces. I had no idea that your monastery too had faced this issue.

    So thank you for your calm and reflective words. And, if you will, a prayer for those of us who seek to build a better society through political action which often involves compromise while sticking to our core principles.

    • Thank you. I have some transgender friends but none has asked to join the community although one, definitely, has very strong religious beliefs and is understanding of the complex issues gender identity raises for others. There are many other issues, as you point out, but I like to keep my posts short and let readers do the thinking

  3. Where you have had an enquiry about a vocation from someone who obviously is not going to meet the basic requirements, and who then threatens legal action when refused, I can’t help wondering if the applicant was an “activist”,’pushing the boundaries’ to see what the result would be.

    • Quite possibly. Someone with a physical disability once gave us a lot of grief about our provision of disabled access (not all they thought it should be, though we do our best), my saying on one of our web sites that ‘monastic life is not for wimps’ (meant to be a little humorous, but I rewrote the offending passage) and so on. It was relentless but, fortunately, we all recognized that it was a bit of a wind-up.

  4. Very thorny, this. I suppose lots of people will say Vox pop, vox Dei. Which doesn‘t help at all, because we don‘t really know how many of the „pop“ are truly of a certain view. Many who disagree with the current politically correct opinion will just keep their heads down.
    But it is insidious. I studied and then taught German. If you do that, you have no option but to confront the question: How could a civilized and culturally sensitive nation have allowed the Nazi horrors to take place? Then I look at the current political shenanigans in Westminster and see disturbing parallels and wonder how things could have reached the state they are in. Where is the point of no return?
    I am full of admiration for the way you are able to address these matters. I guess each of us must do the same individually, with much prayer and attention to the still, small voice of calm in our hearts.

    • Thank you. These questions are horribly complex, aren’t they? I wonder how many people have realised, as I can see you do, that the big question, how do we ascertain the truth, is one some do not want to address?

    • This is very pertinent today in Westminster. It would seem that some people think, in perhaps a childish fashion, that those in power cannot be wrong.

      It is easier for some to follow the prevailing view, whether it’s caring towards others or not, than to discern what is actually happening and to base their response in an educated and informed way. This may result in a person losing their job, friends, family and/or reputation, but a person willing to do this will have an integrity and strength rarely seen.

  5. Re subjects that currently seem to socially fall under ‘hate speech’ whereas it used to be understood and accepted as one’s or the institution’s defensible opinion, I think it safer today unless protected by being in a Church/Sermon type context to just keep the truth to oneself or with those who you know agree, rather than try explain truth/reality to those who do not want to hear it and who will be almost expecting or even wanting to be offended to use it against us.

    Re the majority being right or not – let us not forget those who shouted for Christ’s death, or again the majority at the time of the Arian heresy…. so no, often the majority can be plain wrong and in these modern secular times, it is increasingly wrong.

    It will become harder and harder to stand up for what we know is true and right, but we must stand with Christ rather than compromise ourselves.

    • I agree that we must stand up for what we believe to be true, which will, as you imply, mean being misunderstood and even hated. Some of the questions we face are not the same as those faced by our forebears, which can lead to much agonising over how we ascertain truth. I’ve always thought that debate was important but increasingly our public discourse seems incapable of debate, preferring instead the use of slogans and sound-bites. Must we therefore abandon the arena?

  6. “The majority” is just another word for “the mob”. Never a good go-to resource for what’s right or wrong.

    Truth is always best discerned in solitude, IMO. Be still and know that I am God…

    • Not sure I would equate ‘majority’ with ‘mob’, in fact, I’m certain I wouldn’t. St Benedict is keen on collective discernment, though with important qualifications. See, for instance, what he says about the monastic chapter in RB 3. The practice of the early Church, e.g. the Council of Jerussalem, is also suggestive of the importance of community and a common mind on matters.

  7. Re ”Must we therefore abandon the arena?”

    I do not think we must ever abandon the arena – but we are going to have to be most circumspect in how we speak in said arena. I’m sure that speaking on current sensitive subjects even at Hyde Park corner where once anything went could now get soapbox speakers arrested, whereas before people liked to go and listen there.

    Are we to go silent, or moderate where we speak and how we speak…?

    There certainly remains to us the option of still openly speaking up for Truth and the Salvation of Souls, but it will likely bring condemnation and suffering as was dished out to the Confessors of old.

  8. Jonathan Sumption spoke like this in secular terms in last year’s Reith Lectures. In Alexis de Tocqueville tones, he concluded by suggesting that Democracy itself can’t survive our current intellectual and political condition. Not every elitist political structure, but certainly the one we once enjoyed in the UK, was for everyone much more conducive to privacy, diversity and dissent. I found the lecture heartening – and I’m a poor tradesman rather than a wealthy landowner. This particular rant of yours was equally heartening – and I’m not even Catholic.

  9. As our friend points out above: an overwhelming popular vote chose to release a terrorist (Barabbas) and torture to death an innocent man. There are plenty of other examples both in Scripture and history.
    I wonder how many of the voters were doing it for the pure “Boaty McBoatface” relish of frustrating a hated ruler, with no particular concern for who died or how?
    And how many of *them* didn’t believe that Pilate would go through with it, or that Jesus would actually die?
    Democracy generally works better than the alternatives – but the people are NOT God and they are not infallible.

  10. Morality and the place of the Church and of the Bible have been and still are fluid areas of concern for all Christians. We have to recognise that adherents and rulemakers have been prepared to fight wars and kill thousands and thousands of people for the interpretation of the guidance within the Bible and associated religious works.
    Those who did not fall in line with enforced orthodoxy were deemed to be heretics and beyond the safety even of sanctuary.
    We have come a long way. Nowadays our churches are prepared to be tolerant of most beliefs as long as we respect each other, love our neighbour as ourselves and do not harm others or the planet. It is this approach that gets us somewhere near the peace and love preached and sought by our dear Lord Jesus for us all in the Gospels. He died so that we would be free from prejudice, hatred, intransigence, war, famine and slavery. We are taking a long time in realising this but there are more and more of us getting there by different routes – there are many mansions – than are wanting to coerce, repress, enslave, hate or kill our neighbour.
    Thank you for your thoughts as usual. I wouldn’t want to be in your place on the transgender/vocation issue. It will no doubt happen in more than one religious community somewhere in the world over the next few years. The authorities are struggling with other communities – school and prison at present. Fear of the unknown is the greatest hurdle, but as in life generally there has to be some give and take. Perhaps we may see a transgender religious community being established possibly in this country or the USA before too long. I doubt whether it will be Rome or Canterbury which will be sponsoring such an establishment but they will no doubt be observing what might happen within such a place.
    God bless and care for you, dear Sister Catherine. Peace and love be with you and your sisters.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tim. The Catholic Church, in my experience, is much more definite — some would say precise — in what she teaches than many other Churches and has always distinguished between the deposit of faith, which cannot be altered, and the disciplines of the Church, which can. Thus, she is quite clear that human life begins at conception and that abortion is therefore wrong. But she is also aware of what’s called the evangelical precept of charity, so she cannot just say abortion is wrong without at the same time doing everything she can to support mother and child (and father, too, if he is somewhere in the picture). Slavery is another area where the Church’s record is mixed, just as society’s is. In all these things it is how we ascertain truth that seems to me important to explore.

  11. I struggle with the church acceptance or otherwise of transgender, lgbt rights and issues as I do with attitudes towards unmarried people living together and the addicts we serve weekly at a group for the marginalised . One writer commented that it is all very well for us to run groups , provide a place to gather be seen to be accepting and to be seen to be doing our Christian duty . The test comes when the people start coming to our neat little church . The question posed was are we really ready .Are we ready for the hungover alcoholic, the homeless woman whose lack of personal hygiene is so pungent to cause intakes of breath. Are we ready for the autistic teenager whose form of worship is to interrupt the minister with loud song or repeat each verse of the bible passage during the reading .Are we really ready for the transgender or the person considering the next step towards this, arriving in church in make up , wig , handbag but men’s trousers and tie . Are we ready for the homosexual couple who want to serve on the leadership of the church .
    One of the saddest situations I have encountered is an that of an elderly dear dear friend an elder in the church who poured out his heart in tears to tell me he was a homosexual.He had served all his churches sacrificially he was loved for his grace and kindness but he could not tell his congregations for fear of rejection . He did not feel free to be open about his love for another man. Before he died he told our minster that he was at peace because although church people would not have accepted him if they had known ,he felt utterly loved and accepted by God .I was not given permission to share his sexuality after his death ,I did however speak in conversation hypothetically about a similar situation.I was shocked at the adverse reaction .
    My dear friend obviously did not think we are ready , so are we ? Or do we just play at loving one another as we are commanded to do but when the crunch comes ?
    Perhaps we would be better adopting a welcome , belong with us ,welcome believe with us , welcome by the grace of God become a child of God with us .
    Leaving the rest to our Saviour.

    • Thank you for that, Chris. I think sometimes that a lot depends on where our particular experience of church happens to be. For example, in the Oxfordshire parish to which we formerly belonged, I doubt whether anyone would have batted an eyelid at any of the things you mention, though the situation might be different today. In the Highlands, or so Quietnun assures me, it would be trickier. What suffering your friend must have endured! At the monastery, we try to be welcoming to all but we also have to be prudent. An aggressive and hostile man is obviously more of a challenge for us than it would be for a community of monks, and being welcoming doesn’t mean pretending we don’t believe what we do. I think we all tend to bumble along as best we can, but the big question, how do we ascertain truth, how do we find and identify God’s will, so to say, is part and parcel of being a Christian and will never leave us.

  12. Vox populi can get it terribly wrong. What “maintains hold on peoples’ thinking” today is emotivism on the lowest common denominator, dressed up as egalitarianism, given fake respectability by the claptrap of faux-intellectuals à la Habermas who have taken over our universities and the press.
    Among the people, it creates a false, ultimately alienating sense of self, and dangerous expectations of what society can -nay, MUST!!!- do for them. Among the leaders of people, it provides them with perfidious tools for manipulation.

    But there must be alternatives, for our Church and for wider society. I enjoyed what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says towards the end of his book “after virtue”:

    “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lan of consciousness of this that is part of pur predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -doubtless very different- St. Benedict”.

    (MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue (3 ed.). London, UK: Bloomsbury. p. 305)

  13. I have started and stopped three replies to the question are Majorities always right.
    The answer I have come to is, no and yes, mostly for the reasons you have alluded to.

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