On the recent Annual Chartres Pilgrimage of 2011, the theme taken was “The Gospel of Life”. The Pilgrimage concentrates on a Papal Encyclical, this time “Evangelium Vitae” by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1995. This insightful meditation by fellow pilgrim, Richard Kornicki, was read out to us during the 70 mile walk between the two cathedrals of Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres.
This Pilgrimage takes as its theme the Gospel of Life.
Human life: something to be cherished; something to be protected from beginning to end; something made by God in the image of Himself.
It is hard to imagine a theme that could be more central to our understanding of ourselves, and of our profoundest beliefs. It is hard to imagine a theme more consistently taught from the earliest years of the Church. There is nothing new here. There are no novel doctrines. Only infinite richness.
So when we proclaim the Gospel of Life in a public context, why does it always cause such surprise, so much trouble, such antipathy? Why did the Holy Father have to insist on ‘the legitimate role of religion in the public square’ when he spoke in Westminster Hall?
To understand a little more of this, we need to look at the nature of that ‘public square’ today. And that is the purpose of this reflection.
The generation now in power is different from any that has gone before. As a group of people – in politics, the media, law, medicine, the civil service, local government – they will be looked back on as marking a turning point in British society. Because not since St Augustine landed in Kent, has power been held by a group of people who in large numbers, have less understanding of religion.
It is not that the atheists are in charge, or even the agnostics. It is rather that this is the first generation that takes its decisions with no personal experience of what religion is. Religion is not something they have rejected, it is something which they have never had presented to them: not by their parents, not by their schools, not by the social environment around them. It has passed them by. They have no more understanding of religion than St Augustine had of America.
At best, as Archbishop Smith put it, they see religion as a legally permissible private eccentricity, to be practiced behind closed doors, once a week, by consenting adults. At worst, they see religion only as it is presented to them by the media: fundamentalist mullahs, abusive clergy, and elderly congregations out of touch with today’s world. (No wonder the Holy Father’s visit woke them all up.)
To some extent the Church is at fault here. For too long we have assumed that in talking to Government and its agencies, we were talking to people who knew what religion was, even if they did not practice it themselves. The truth is that we are talking to people like Barry Sheerman MP who, as Chairman of the Education Select Committee, said that he didn’t mind there being Catholic schools but he took exception to them trying to foster religion in children.
It is hard to remember just how little we can take for granted. We have to get over the basic point that religion is not like a subscription to Sky TV. It is not an optional add-on to life. It is the very core of it. Indeed, as the blood of countless martyrs has testified, it is more important than life. To put it in terms that even the Tabloids can understand, you can’t take the Catholic out of me anymore than you can take Blackpool out of a stick of rock.
If that was the only problem we had, it could probably be solved. But there are far more profound issues underlying the tensions between Church and State. Put simply, we believe in moral Truth as something objective and verifiable. The State believes that moral truth is whatever contemporary society says it is. How often have you heard Catholic moral teaching derided with the words ‘Society has moved on’? Well society may indeed have moved on, but Truth hasn’t. That is its nature. If it was true yesterday, it is true today, and it will still be true tomorrow. Whether that happens to coincide with where the weather-vane of public opinion is pointing is neither here nor there.
Sadly, history shows repeatedly how the policies of the state, supported by the media, can be profoundly wrong if there is no objective point of moral reference. In Germany, they turned on the Jews; in Soviet Russia, the Church; in Ruanda, the Tutsis. Scotland had the Highland Clearances; for Ireland, it was the famine. No country is exempt no age is exempt. Choose today’s examples for yourselves. But we tend not to notice the faults of our own time, because they blend in with what Government is saying, what the newspapers and television is saying, what the neighbours in the bus queue are saying. It all seems so normal.
Society will of course move on again. What is acceptable today will not be in future. Slavery was fine. Child labour was fine. Hanging for theft was fine. Massive civilian casualties in war was fine. In time to come, Britain of our own day will surely be pilloried as a place where people did so little while year after year, in every corner of the country, the unborn were slaughtered with industrial efficiency. ‘How could they just go along with it?‘ posterity will ask. We may find ourselves at the Judgement Seat alongside the ordinary Germans of the 1940s, asking with them: ‘what could we do about it?’ The test may not be did you succeed, but did you try?
It is inevitable that in discussing the attacks on the Gospel of Life, you find parallels with the worst totalitarian regimes. It is hardly surprising. If you take away the Gospel of Life, you are left with some benign pre-lapsarian paradise, inhabited solely by the liberal and the tolerant. Left to his own devices, fallen man is pretty quick to come up with a system that worships himself, tolerates no dissent, and leads not to a Gospel of Life, but to a Politics of Death.
The first target of any totalitarian regime is always the family. For that is the only alternative social structure that it cannot wholly control. It is also the first target of any society opposed to the Gospel of Life.
The overlap in motivation is sobering. Marie Stopes is now lauded as a pioneer of what is laughingly called ‘reproductive health’. But few remember what motivated her. It was her passion for eugenics. Far from the innate dignity of man as made in God’s image, Stopes really did believe that physically, intellectually, morally, and economically, there were better people and there were worse people. Poverty and moral degradation went together. And the answer was simple: discourage them from breeding. That was the purpose of contraception.
Stopes was at least consistent. Fearsomely so. She even disinherited her own son – for the outrage of marrying a defective female. The poor girl needed to wear glasses!
The distortion of language has been a key part of the appalling industry Stopes created. ‘Reproductive health’ is simply the polite name for a process that is opposed to reproduction and ensures death not health. If the child is wanted it is a ‘baby’, if it is unwanted it becomes a ‘foetus’, a disposable medical by-product.
The distortion of language to hide moral truth has become endemic. Wherever you look, language is manipulated to make the unacceptable acceptable. Firms don’t make anyone redundant, they just ‘let you go’. You are not unemployed, you are a ‘job seeker’. We do not engage in aggression, but a ‘pre-emptive strike’ might be necessary…. for peace-keeping purposes. Politicians may confess to using ‘terminological inexactitudes’ or ‘mis-speaking’. Senior civil servants have been economical with the truth. George Orwell parodied it as ‘Newspeak’ in his novel 1984. It is now so prevalent that we no longer even notice it. That is when it becomes really dangerous.
The abuse of language is not just dishonesty, however. It is far more worrying than that. For language and thought are intimately connected. Without the word, there isn’t the concept. And if you change the word, you change the concept. That is how whole populations come to accept the unacceptable. If you can establish a new terminology, you can establish a new understanding. And if you have new understanding, you can have the policies and practices that go with it.
No one ever asked the German population to assent to the slaughter of the Jewish population. It started with name-calling. No one ever asked the British public to approve wholesale abortion on social grounds. It was a limited measure to stop the damage done by back-street abortions.
If evil presented itself openly and in full, it would be much easier to resist. But it always comes as the thin end of a wedge – or, to put it in Newspeak, as the start of a progress to broader opportunities.
Most of us do not realise the significance of what is happening, until it is too late to undo the damage. It takes the perceptiveness, and the courage, of St Thomas More or St John Fisher to understand what a little bit of acquiescence now, will give rise to in the long run.
If you want a current example, in Britain we are now working our way along from the thin end of the latest wedge in social policy. When the Civil Partnerships Bill was debated in 2006, both Front Benches were absolutely clear that this was a measure to provide sensible pension and other arrangements and had absolutely nothing to do with marriage, which they recognised was something wholly different in kind. Five years later, the Government is implementing legislation on allowing civil partnerships to take place in religious premises. What do legal contracts about pension entitlements have to do with religious premises? When the legislation was going through, they were explicit in saying that what they sought now as a permissive measure, they would expect to see as a right within ten years.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Government has announced that it wants to consult on ‘equalizing’ civil partnerships and marriage. Harmless semantics? Hardly. If marriage is redefined as being between two people of different or the same sex, then where does that leave any expression of the traditional Christian view of marriage? In a word, in the dock. To make such a claim would be classed as homophobic hate speech, a public order offense. Any good police officer, properly trained in diversity, would arrest you on the spot.
Catholic teaching has not changed, but society has. And within a generation the normal understanding of social relationships, based on millennia of teaching and practice can be dismissed as abnormal in the new social order.
In recent years we have got used to life being sometimes uncomfortable for Catholics; it may become more so.
In one sense it is reassuring if we do find life uncomfortable. Because if it weren’t, it could only mean one thing. We would have sold our souls to the mood of the day. We would be a Church that regarded the Gospel of Life not as an enduring truth, but as a ‘flexible concept’. Something to be endlessly adjusted in line with the changing views of contemporary society. Instead of a Gospel that transforms the world, we would have a world that transformed the Gospel. Transformed and reduced it to meaninglessness.
If we are not a sign of contradiction, we are nothing.
But however bleak things may appear, or whatever our fears for the future, we have one extraordinary consolation: the knowledge that ultimately Truth will prevail.
Who could have foreseen the collapse of the Soviet empire? Stalin at the height of his power invaded Poland in 1939 and dismissed the power of the Church with the mocking question: ‘how many Divisions does the Pope have in his army?’
Well the Communist experiment lasted just 70 years. One lifespan. Who could have foreseen that it would be brought down to nothing. Brought down by a Pope who had no Divisions. And a Polish Pope at that. Truth will prevail.
Ultimately it is the Gospel of Life that sustains us, and it is the Gospel of Life that we proclaim. It may be welcomed in the Public Square, or it may be abused and mocked. But it does not change, whatever society thinks about it, and however society changes. Our job is simple. As St Paul said, we are to speak the truth, in season and out. Nothing more and nothing less. For if we do not proclaim the truth, the Gospel of Life, it will be an arid world we find ourselves in. And if that causes us a little discomfort, so be it. It is the Faith of our Fathers, a holy Faith, and we will be true to it… pray God, whatever the cost.
The Gospel of Life is at the heart of our Faith. As Our Saviour said, ‘I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.’ What more could we need or want than that?
Our Lady of Walsingham Pray for us
St Alban ”
St Edward the Confessor ”
St Thomas More ”
St John Fisher “