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.

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Questions No One Wants to Ask

The breaking-up of a paedophile ring that live-streamed child abuse from the Philippines has been greeted with a mixture of horror and relief — horror that such wickedness can exist, relief that at least one ring has been smashed. We read of the systematic abuse of adolescents in Peterborough, including a girl with learning difficulties, and react with revulsion at the brutality and exploitation involved. Elsewhere we note the historic abuse cases being tried in our courts, the suggestion that nearly 1,000 teachers have been involved in sexual relationships with pupils during the past five years, and wonder how we could have gone so wrong. But then we turn to the popular press and read the endless speculation about François Hollande and his mistress or look at the figures for internet porn and realise it is all part of the same confused approach to life. The sexual wrongdoing of others is something we can condemn, make jokes about or vicariously ‘enjoy’. What we do is another matter entirely. Or is it?

There is often a kind of double-think involved in our attitudes. By separating love and sex, by pretending it doesn’t matter what we do provided no one gets hurt (the hurt being determined by us, not the other), by believing we can pretty much do what we like without its having any consequences, by avoiding commitment and fighting shy of words like ‘fidelity’ and ‘sacrifice’, we have made monsters of ourselves. Most people live good and decent lives, but even the best may acknowledge a few grey areas where their ideals become a little frayed. That is where we need to ask ourselves the questions no one wants to ask. What is the point of parents worrying about their children’s exposure to porn if they themselves watch porn when the children are in bed? What is the point of condemning exploitative relationships in others if we ourselves exploit people? What is the point of expecting others to be virtuous if we ourselves choose to be vicious?

You may think I have been harsh in the way I have framed these questions, but I think it must be becoming clear to everyone that we face a serious weakening of the mutuality of society.*  I myself think that our contempt for the human person, for the human body, is part and parcel of it. We have a double-standard about sex no less dangerous than the one it is fashionable to accuse our Victorian forebears of having. We seem to be keener on the right to die than the right to live, on personal ‘freedom’ than on communal solidarity. In short, we are confused, and it is taking a terrible toll on all of us.

*For me, as a Catholic, that mutuality is linked to morality. However, not everyone subscribes to the same understanding of right and wrong, although all of us, Christian or not, have an interest in society and the way in which it functions for the benefit of its members.

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Holy Innocents 2013

Those who don’t have children of their own are inclined to be sentimental about the children of others — provided they remain at a safe distance, of course. At Christmas such sentimentality is not only indulged, it is almost obligatory. We are invited to become misty-eyed at the thought of children hanging up their stockings for Father Christmas or coo and goo over Nativity Plays where the actors are barely three feet tall and Baby Jesus is all blue-eyed plastic perfection. Then comes the feast of the Holy Innocents and our sentimentality is ripped to shreds by the brutal fact of child murder.

Why does this feast come before Epiphany, when, chronologically speaking, it should follow after? The answer is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the Infant Saviour and their feast is therefore included among those of the Christmas Octave so that the link between the two may be more clearly seen. It is a disturbing feast, turning upside down our ideas about the special status of childhood and the protection every adult should afford every child.

In the Catholic Church this feast is often appropriated to two causes: the pro-life, anti-abortion movement which seeks to put an end to abortion and the situations that make it ‘necessary’ or ‘desirable’; and the attempt to end the evil of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) and exploitation. Both are, in my view, very worthy causes, though I sometimes hesitate over the methods adopted by some groups. What I find difficult, however, is the way in which appealing to the Holy Innocents as patrons of these causes dulls our sense of outrage at the original event. What was God thinking of to allow such a horror?

There is no easy answer to such a question, but unless we take on board the scandal of this feast, I think we are failing to take on board the enormity of the Incarnation. When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he overthrew every previous notion about God. The feast of the Holy Innocents urges us to rethink our own ideas about him, which may well have become tinged with some of the sentimentality I wrote about earlier. We are confronted with a God who is above and beyond anything we can think or imagine. Our only certainty is that he loves us, loves us enough to become one of us and suffer and die for us. The little children slain by Herod may be to us a type, an abstract of innocence, but to him they are individuals, chosen and precious in his sight. Thinking and praying about that may teach us something we never knew before.

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Holy Innocents

This feast is often used by Catholics to condemn the evil of abortion. I have already written something on the subject here. Today I would rather share some thoughts with you about the strange event to which the gospel refers: Herod’s murder of young boys in the Bethlehem district. The historicity of the event is often questioned, although we all know that not every villainy is documented in ways that would satisfy a court of law. What interests me, however, is Rachel ‘weeping for her children because they are no more’ (referring back to Jeremiah 31. 15 – 17).

In their original context these words relate to Israel’s experience of exile and restoration. I find unconvincing attempts to turn the words into some sort of messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. I think Matthew uses the phrase to express the grief and hopelessness of Jewish mothers suffering the loss of their sons at Herod’s orders and links to Ramah because that is the place from which the Jews were gathered together for deportation to Babylon. It is, if you like, a coded message: death and destruction were not far from Jesus from the very beginning of his earthly existence as they have never been very far from any of the Chosen People.

There are a number of Jewish midrashim on ‘Rachel weeping’ which add to our sense of the universalism of Matthew’s point. In one of them Rachel moves heaven and earth and the Holy One, blessed be he, to weep with her; in another she not only weeps but argues with God and prevails upon him to rescue Israel from danger. In other words, the grief of Rachel is the grief of every generation which experiences death and exile.

Today, with so many refugees in the world and the borders of many hitherto hospitable nations being closed against them, we could spend a few moments thinking about the plight of those who, like the Master we follow, ‘have not where to lay their heads’ and whose lives are vulnerable to attack. Tyranny did not die with Herod, nor did the coming of the Prince of Peace destroy the cruelty in human hearts.

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Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church

A thoughtful question posed in a comment to yesterday’s post (Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility) is my reason for writing about this subject. I hope that what I say will stimulate reflection and debate, and that the debate will be conducted with sensitivity. The last thing I should wish to do is cause pain to those who have been raped or who have suffered an abortion.

First, a few words about myself. Long ago, before I became a nun, I used to play an active part in Life which, at that time, had a very clear and simple response to abortion. Essentially, we said that people had to have a choice and the only way that a real choice could be offered was by ensuring that anyone who was pregnant had somewhere to live and all the support needed to bring her child safely into the world. Many of the people we tried to help were deeply afraid: of violent partners, hostile parents, their own inadequacy to cope with parenthood. We provided ‘safe houses’ and on-going help.  I can recall only one woman who said she had become pregnant because of rape, but I’m sure there were others, and probably instances of incest also. I state this because one very good question is, ‘how much do you know about the subject?’ and in my case the answer is ‘very little, but possibly slightly more than some others’.

Next, we need to consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It starts, not with a negative, but a huge positive: all life is sacred, and in the case of human life, that life begins at conception. This teaching is based on scripture and natural law. The problem with natural law is that not everyone believes there is such a thing, i.e. a self-evident truth which is accessible by reason and is not dependent on religious belief. If you are prepared to give the time, one of the best accounts of what Catholics believe is in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life). In section 60 the pope says, ‘From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth…[M]odern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be.’ Read that, and then read what obstetric textbooks say about the beginning of human life. The fact that the viability of life outside the womb is being pushed further and further back seems to me to underline the fact that the answer to the question ‘when does life begin’ is susceptible of only one answer: at conception.

The Catholic Church is entirely consistent in its attitude to the sanctity of life. As Donum Vitae puts it, ‘It is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ (That’s also a reason why the Church is unhappy with capital punishment: there have been so many instances of innocent lives being taken.) We simply don’t have the right to take innocent human life; and that’s something that allows of no exceptions or we get into the business of valuing one life more than another. A child conceived by rape is still a child and has as much right to life as a child conceived by loving parents; so too does a child who has some physical or mental deformity. Our value as human beings does not depend upon our being perfect according to some arbitrary standard imposed by other human beings.

So, we come to the distressing case of someone, woman or child, who has conceived because of rape. Do we say, ‘The circumstances are so awful and the suffering will be so great that abortion is allowable’? or do we say, ‘This is terrible. We must do all we can to help the woman and her child, and go on helping, because there are two lives here and both are sacred’? The Catholic response is the second. Please note that it has two parts.

It says first of all that rape is a terrible wrong inflicted on another. One of the problems we face in western society is that rape has somehow been trivialised. No one I have ever spoken to who has been raped would agree that rape is trivial. That is a message we need to get across loud and clear, and I’m not convinced that the Church has done a very good job on that. Secondly, it says that there are two lives to be considered and we do not have the right to choose between them. On the whole, the Church has done better with that, but it has not always stressed sufficiently that its teaching makes other demands on the Catholic community. If we are to uphold the Church’s teaching about abortion we must also uphold her teaching about the duty to help and support those in need.

I am sure that this post will seem harsh to many. I have not been in the situation I describe and do not know, from the inside, what it is like, but I still believe that what I have written is true. Sometimes when Catholics talk about abortion they give me the shivers. What comes across is the moral absolute, not the reverence or compassion which should be an integral part of it. There are no easy answers to hard questions like those posed yesterday. We have to live with that and do the best we can. Pray today for all who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy — and dig deep in your pockets and your compassion.

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