When and How Should We Express Moral Outrage?

I wasn’t going to blog today because I have often written about St Thomas of Canterbury, and I am very keen to catch up on my ‘thank-yous’ to our Christmas benefactors. Three things have made me change my mind. The first was hearing a friend waxing indignant about the story behind Philomena, the second was finding a tweet in which the tweeter asked me, rather aggressively I thought, what I was doing about the two migrant children who have died in U.S. custody recently. In the latter case, I think either the tweeter assumed I must be a U.S. citizen or was hoping that by tweeting me she would capture my Twitter ‘audience’. In both cases, however, the moral indignation was plain, and I felt there was little I could do to assuage either person. I turned to Facebook and there found one of my online friends, whom I don’t know very well, complaining that if he expressed his horror of abortion most people tolerated his views because he is known to be a Catholic, and being pro-life is expected of Catholics. If, however, he expressed other views in line with Church teaching, especially some that are less well known, he seemed to attract a great deal of moral outrage, often expressed in very personal terms.

Now, it’s easy for me to say I agree that the treatment of many young Irish girls in the mother-and-baby homes of the past was appalling and that I am troubled by what we know of the treatment of young migrants detained by U.S. authorities, because that is no more than the truth. I don’t regard myself as personally responsible nor, crucially, do I see any way of helping other than through prayer and the financial aid the community provides refugees and migrants. I’m a Benedictine nun, not a religious sister belonging to any of the Orders or Congregations that ran the mother-and-baby homes, and I’m British not a U.S. citizen. But none of that will help either of my interlocutors, nor, I suspect, would anything similar help my FB friend to deal with his critics. We are facing the phenomenon of moral outrage seeking a target and not being sure where to find it. It is akin to the frequent demands, ‘Someone must pay for this’ and ‘heads must roll’ whenever incompetence or worse is discovered in politics, business or any public service. Just think of the comments on the police that followed the Gatwick Airport drone chaos!

Some of us probably try to channel our sense of outrage through letters and emails to those we think are in a position to change things, or we may use social media to try to draw attention to the wrong we believe needs righting. The difficulty, in most cases, is not letting our sense of outrage run away with us, so that we waste our fire, as it were, in a scatter-gun attack that simply annoys those caught in it. St Thomas of Canterbury (yes, I got him in!) was very astute in the quarrel he picked with Henry II and in his manner of conducting it. He tried to remain Henry’s friend while clearly demonstrating that some of their old shared behaviours were no longer acceptable now that he was a bishop. Henry, alas, felt a deep sense of personal betrayal as well as fury at the idea that the Church had liberties not under his control. We know how the story ends, and how a few years later a compromise with Rome made the quarrel between king and archbishop seem irrelevant. But we are left with the memory of a brave man, who stood up for what he believed and gave his life for it without calling down imprecations on the heads of his murderers. In that, I think he showed that there is more than one way of working to achieve what is right, that moral outrage can be expressed quietly and with consideration for others. It is easy to dash off an angry tweet or Facebook status. It relieves our feelings. But if we really want to do good, we might take a leaf from St Thomas’s book.

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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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Broken Friendship: the Case of St Thomas Becket and Henry II

There is a profound ambivalence about St Thomas Becket. While I don’t question his sanctity — no one ever impugned his chastity, for example, which, for the time, is fairly telling — I can’t quite rid myself of the doubts of Gilbert Foliot and others of Becket’s contemporaries. They were shrewd men, and they were good men; so why were they uneasy about the archbishop? The cause for which Thomas died was, ultimately, resolved by king and pope so that, had he lived some years later, it would not have provided a pretext for murder. Was there, as some have thought, a simple clash of personalities: Henry, an angry and hot-blooded man; Thomas, cooler but with a taste for the theatrical, wanting to play the part of archbishop to perfection? Or was there something simpler still, a broken friendship, a scorned love turning to loathing, and lesser men keen to win the king’s favour by killing Thomas?

Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that Thomas died bravely and in defence of the Church’s teaching. In other words, he died a martyr. But I think we can say his martyrdom began long before. He witnessed to Christ by the life he led once he became archbishop. Many of the luxuries he had formerly enjoyed, he now renounced — chief among them, his old friendship with Henry. We can only speculate what that meant to either man, but we know the price that Thomas paid.

I think there is a lesson here for all of us. Most of us who claim to be Christians subscribe to the ‘both and’ school of Christian philosophy. We want to be good and virtuous, but we’d also like all the other gifts, if possible — health, wealth, family, friends, etc. Above all, we treasure those we love and find a thousand different justifications for clinging to them. But what if a friendship, for example, no longer gives life but proves a hindrance to our fidelity to Christ? What if we find ourselves in the position of Thomas via-à-vis Henry? In the monastic tradition, renunciation and detachment are a necessary part of ascesis. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but sometimes the good is the enemy of the best. If we are required to perform certain duties in the Church (or anywhere else for that matter), we can be sure that we shall be asked to give up some of what is good as well as all that is bad. Thomas renounced his friendship with Henry, not gladly but because he believed he must. That was part of his martyrdom. Something very similar may be asked of us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Living with Imperfection: St Thomas Becket

In an earlier post on Becket and Conscience, I voiced my ambivalence about St Thomas Becket. I have no doubt of his sanctity, but I am less assured of the rightness of his opinions on the hot topics of his day. It is a situation we find repeated in every generation. We do the best we can to live honourable and upright lives, making our decisions on such evidence as we have. Unless we are extraordinarily self-assured, we are aware that we never have perfect knowledge, never have perfect insight. There is, however, something we can cling to in the midst of our confusion and doubt, and that is God’s ability to deal with it all. The Incarnation reminds us that God hasn’t let sin and death have the upper hand. He never will. Ultimately, all will be made perfect. It may just take a while.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Violence Against Women

News that the medical student brutally raped in New Delhi a few days ago has died of her injuries ought to give us all pause. Violence against women is tolerated in many societies, including our own. If that seems to you very shocking and makes you want to protest, you have clearly not listened to some of the terrible stories I have listened to in the course of my monastic life. What particularly struck me about some of them was the fact that otherwise decent, kindly men seemed to think it acceptable to slap or strike their wives/partners for what they (the men) perceived as domestic failures — a dish not cooked to their liking, forgetting to buy a particular brand of toothpaste and so on. The violence wasn’t always physical, of course. Some of the insults and disparaging remarks still make me wince. Also upsetting is the memory of those occasions where the man blamed the woman, ‘She provoked me. She made me do it.’ I don’t believe it. We can all restrain our fist if we want to. The truth is, we don’t want to; and we’re only annoyed when we don’t get away with it.

Now, I am not suggesting that women are always right and men always wrong; nor am I suggesting that violence is always male on female; but women are much more vulnerable, if only because we aren’t usually as big and heavy as men. The inability of the Indian government to do anything constructive about the situation in New Delhi highlights the basic problem that needs addressing. We need to change the culture which allows women to be perceived as of less value or consequence than men. By that I don’t just mean making it unacceptable to assault or rape women, but making it unacceptable to disparage or belittle women simply for being women. Where there is no respect, no real respect, all kinds of gross behaviour become possible.

It is important to note that what I am talking about is not equality but respect. Equality can be measured; respect cannot. The Christian Churches bear a great responsibility in this matter but I’m not sure we live up to it. Some of the comments following the Church of England Synod’s rejection of the Measure to admit women to the episcopate were embarrassing in their contempt; some of the remarks made about nuns (usually meaning religious sisters) in my own Church have made me very hot under the wimple at their arrogance and injustice; I’m sure you could think of other examples for yourself.

Today we celebrate the feast of St Thomas Becket whose thinking about a difficult question of the day led him into conflict with the king. Perhaps we all need a bit of Becket in us on precisely this question of violence against women. Unless we show that it is unacceptable in all its forms, major and ‘minor’, it will go on being tolerated; and the brutal truth is more women will die. I don’t want that on my conscience. Do you?

N.B. For thoughts on St Thomas Becket and conscience, see this post.

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Becket and Conscience

St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket

The feast of St Thomas Becket always takes me back to Cambridge days and the difficulty of making up my mind about Becket. I always wanted to see him as the doughty champion of the Church, clear-eyed in his acceptance of the consequences of clashing with the king. But I was enough of a historian to worry that many of his contemporaries were less convinced. Gilbert Foliot, for example, did not see Becket as a hero; and Foliot was a man of great integrity. I finally decided that I could accept Becket’s holiness without necessarily thinking him right in all his judgements (it is significant that no one, not even his worst enemies, ever accused Becket of unchastity which, at that time, would have scuppered any claim to sanctity, but the cause for which he died was quickly superseded by a compromise).

My student dilemma is one we are regularly faced with in the secular sphere. Recent events in Russia leave one “wondering” about the justice system there. What is happening in the Ivory Coast has a definite whiff of sulphur about it; and as for what we know of Afghanistan, who could say, hand on heart, that the western forces have made the situation there any better, despite the huge sacrifice of people and resources on every side?

All of us have to make decisions based on imperfect and often contradictory evidence. We must do the best we can. Sometimes doing the best we can may lead to martyrdom of one kind or another. More often it means being misunderstood or misprized, usually by those whose opinion we most value. Let us not undervalue the courage and persistence that requires. The daily death to self, the trying to do the right thing, makes the whole of life a martyrdom, a witness for Christ.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail