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.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail