A Walk Through the Citadels

Homily at Sion Community for the 35th Anniversary of the Foundation on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Around 50 years before Christ died on Calvary, something new began in the womb of St Anne. Quietly, unheralded, a girl came into being, receiving an extraordinary gift from God. In common with all of God’s chosen people, she had been chosen to be one of those who would put her hope in Christ. Uniquely, she was preserved from all the consequences of the sin of our first parents.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Exactly 35 years ago, Fr Pat Lynch received the name “Sion Community” as a word which would give shape to his desire to spread the Gospel. Quietly, unheralded, he sought out others to receive this name and share his vision. Like St Anne’s pregnancy, it took nine months to come to birth before a team of missionaries was ready to start work in August 1985.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

St Anne’s child grew up to become the young woman of Nazareth who give her total “Yes” to an angel. This one word launched her on an unexpected adventure which led to her giving birth while still a virgin, and nursing her infant child on an unwelcome flight to Egypt.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Imagine a dairy, a place for milking cows! Sion Community found its first headquarters in a converted dairy belonging to missionary sisters in Birmingham. Perhaps there is a hidden meaning in our infancy being in a place whose first mission had been milk.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

In due course, the Holy Family were able to return to Nazareth. There St Joseph was able to resume his trade as a carpenter and teach the growing Christ-child the ways of working wood.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Imagine a sawmill, a place for working wood! In 1990, we were able to move into this building – Michael Coughlan will famously tell you the story about the day he helped pick up the key. In God’s providence, our address is Sawyers’ Hall Lane. In some ways, this house is a sawmill of the soul: we learn from one another and are shaped to be more effective missionaries. It reminds me of the prophecy of Haggai, that we must fetch wood from high places and rebuild God’s house. We, who worship the son of the carpenter, would do well to meditate on what it means to live in the hall for sawyers!

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

In the fullness of time, Our Lord left his mother’s house and called a group of disciples to follow him, drawing some of them into his inner circle so he could teach and mould them in the art of sharing the Gospel. At times they ministered to crowds; at other times, they withdrew into the wilderness to be alone with Our Lord.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Imagine a pottery, a place where clay is shaped, hardened, and made to look beautiful. Nine years ago, we acquired a house of formation away from the crowd. Our house is the Ark of the Covenant, a title of Mary as shelter of the incarnate Word. While Our Lord had to withdraw from his mother’s house to a desert place to find quiet time, we at least can find a place of rest in the house of our mother. In God’s providence, our Coventry house is on Potters Green Road.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

When Our Lord was dying upon the cross, he entrusted his beloved disciple – and so each one of us who embrace that name – to his mother. All of us, as servants of Christ, therefore ‘dwell in the house of Mary’. Why does it matter that Our Lady is the Immaculate Conception? When she appeared to St Catherine Labouré to remind us to ask daily for the graces we need, we were invited to call upon “Mary, conceived without sin.” When she appeared at Lourdes to invite many to come to the healing spring, she identified herself: “I am the Immaculate Conception”. There is a deep and mysterious link between Our Lady’s freedom from all stain of sin, and her ability to be a channel of grace. Today is a day for us to ask anew for all the graces we need to continue the work of Sion Community in the year to come.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Today we stand 35 years forward from the day of our community’s conception. It is not for me to prophesy what will happen next in our journey, though for the last year we have been meditating on an image of a potter watering and centering his material.

I do know that in the months to come, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the bishops of England will rededicate the people of England to Our Lady, recalling how King Richard II entrusted England as the ‘dowry of Mary‘ in 1381.

I do know that in the next three months, starting with a pastoral letter on 1 January, the people of England will be asked to look forward to this day, when we rejoice that the Word of God took flesh among us.

I do know that all the Catholics of England will be asked to make a personal re-dedication of their lives to Jesus through Mary next March, preparing through 33 days of prayer.

I do know that all of this takes place in the year which our bishops have dedicated to the “God Who Speaks” and when Pope Francis will celebrate the first universal Sunday of the Word of God.

Today, we look back and we look forward. We look back and rejoice that for 35 years, Sion Community has moved from conception to birth to maturity. We were conceived together with the Mother of God, Like her, we have a mission to bring to birth the Word of God. Our journey has taken us through a dairy, a sawmill and a pottery. Members have joined and members have moved on, but our community, and our name, remain.

We look forward to a new season when the Catholic Church seems wounded and weak, but when we have confidence that the Lord will not abandon his faithful people. What was true in St Paul’s day is true in our day:

And it is in him that we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning, under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things as he decides by his own will; chosen to be, for his greater glory, the people who would put their hopes in Christ.

Ephesians 1:11-12

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

The same God who has been with us on our journey will call us forward to new challenges. Pope Leo XIII, a great friend of the Holy Spirit, once said “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England”. Our Bishops are calling us to do just that in the coming Spring. The latest Goodnews magazine includes a prophecy from a Brazilian leader suggesting that Our Lady will take back the throne of England and many will return to the Lord. I cannot say what all of this means for the year to come, but I know that we are on the Lord’s side.

To the best of my ability, I have used this sermon to “Walk about Sion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels”. Her towers, our members, are sitting among you this evening. Her ramparts are as strong as the prayers that our members and benefactors offer up day by day, week by week, and especially on Fridays. I have gone through her citadels and discovered a dairy, a sawmill and a pottery, places of good and Godly work. Having done this we can be confident that we may tell the next generation of the One who is God, our God forever and ever. He is ever ancient and ever new, always doing a new thing and doing so through us, his faithful disciples. This is Our God! He will guide us forever and ever! Amen!

The Challenge to Change

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Today, I want to talk about someone whose lifestyle seems a bit extreme, and whose message makes us feel uncomfortable. Someone we might admire from a distance but might not want to get too close to. Someone people in authority either criticise, or want to be seen alongside.

I’m talking, of course, about Greta Thunberg.

In case you need a reminder, she’s a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who’s become the figurehead of the climate strike movement – older school pupils protesting that politicians and responsible adults need to act quickly for the good of our planet. Because of her deeply-held principles she is a vegan and refuses to travel by highly-polluting vehicles like aeroplanes or ocean-going ferries. This became a problem when she was invited to address the United Nations in New York, until the crew of a yacht volunteered to sail her across the Atlantic. She’s just arrived in Spain, after another yacht trip – a climate conference which was supposed to be in Chile was moved to Europe at short notice!

Someone like Greta Thunberg provokes strong reactions, but different people react in different ways.

“You’re just wrong.” Does Greta really understand what’s going on with our planet? Some say there’s simply not enough evidence for climate change driven by human use of coal, oil and gas. As a scientist, I know that with something as complex as the climate, we might never be able to prove that our actions are responsible beyond reasonable doubt – but I think we can say that on the balance of probabilities, if we go on as we are, our only planet will be in big trouble during my lifetime. 

“I don’t want to admit you’re right.” That’s called denial. If Greta is right, we all need to make significant lifestyle changes, eating less meat, consuming less energy, living a more simple life. These things aren’t easy. And when someone’s asking you to do something difficult, it’s a natural reaction to attack the messenger. For instance, although Greta has crossed the Atlantic twice now by wind-power alone, some of the crew members of her yachts, there and back, had to fly into position to make it possible. Is that ideal? No, but there isn’t a scheduled yacht service offering regular carbon-free ocean crossings. It’s easy to criticise – but if that’s just a way of avoiding the real issue, don’t!

“I admire you.” It’s easy – indeed, many people would say it’s fashionable – to jump on Greta’s bandwagon. It’s easy to re-tweet her messages and even turn out on a climate protest waving placards. But we can fall into the trap of saying it’s somebody else’s problem. Yes, we’d like our politicians to ‘do something about it’. And there are some things they can do. They can spend our tax money on research into green energy and building more wind turbines, tidal lagoons and solar farms. They can regulate waste so that we recycle more and buy fewer carrier bags or disposable cups. These things will help in the long term. But beyond that, what do we expect our politicians to do? They could pass laws rationing our meat supply, and cutting off our electricity for 8 hours a day. Would we vote for that?

“I’m with you.” Ultimately, Greta will only be successful if she persuades us to make big changes in our lifestyle. Greta’s own mother, an international opera singer, sacrificed her lifestyle – no more flying – when her daughter asked, “Why are you stealing my future?” The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, has just made a video where he talks about his own lifestyle changes: Don’t fly unless it’s unavoidable. Share lifts and use public transport when possible. Turn off electrical items which are on standby. Turn the temperature down and wear an extra layer! CAFOD (and Pope Francis) would add that we should shop for food grown locally; reduce – reuse – recycle; and simply avoid buying things we don’t need!

Greta Thunberg isn’t the only possible answer to my question. St John the Baptist fits the bill as well. Greta’s message is “Change your behaviour! The climate catastrophe is close at hand!” – and John the Baptist came declaring “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!” Both of them are iconic campaigners for change – and both are wonderfully vague about what kind of change they actually want to see in our lives.

We can react to John the Baptist – and to the message of Jesus, which is what he’s all about – in exactly the same way people react to Greta. Some refuse to accept that Christian moral values have any relevance except for Christians who want to live by them. Others might point to the failings of the Church as an institution, or of individual Christians, to say that they’re off the hook. We might renew our Baptismal Promises and say we’re going to live like Christians, but then not think about what that means in practice. Or we could surrender and simply say to God: “Here I am! What change do you want in my life today?”

Advent isn’t Lent. Lent is all about identifying sin in our lives, as a preparation for the wonderful Easter gift of forgiveness. Advent’s something else. Perhaps Advent is the season which challenges us to ask not “What am I doing wrong?” but “What could I do better?” – after all, its climax is Christmas, the season of gift-giving and goodwill to all people. “Repent” doesn’t just mean “Stop sinning.” It also means “Turn your life around. Total change!” Isaiah presents us with images of the perfect Servant of God and of harmony in creation. St Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to “think with one mind”. And since we’ve come together for a Family Day, let’s do just that.

Greta’s family decided together to make certain lifestyle changes. Jesus called a band of disciples together to learn to be his followers. In our families, and in our Sion Community houses, we can help each other, and hold each other accountable to the standards we know we ought to keep. So right now I’m going to pass everyone a slip of paper to write down at least one thing you could do. It doesn’t have to be about the environment – Jesus calls us to other good works, too! I’m going to give you some headings on the screen to help you think:

  • How could you pray together as a family?
  • What could you do to show appreciation for one another within your household?
  • How could you read the Bible together or study something about our Faith?
  • What could you do to bless your neighbour – and by that I mean someone you naturally come into contact with regularly, it doesn’t have to be the family next door.
  • What could you do to live a greener lifestyle?
  • Which good causes might you support financially next year?

I’m going to give you a few minutes now to think and pray about one thing you could start doing, either tomorrow or after Christmas. When you’ve written something on your sheet, I want you to give it to another member of your family or Sion Community household. Later today, or when you get home, compare your notes. Is there something positive we can help each other to do? As the saying goes: “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately!” St John the Baptist warned us that we must change our behaviour because God’s Kingdom is close – a promise that we can make earth a little more like heaven, and a warning that God will be checking up on us soon!

Our Lady, Rosa Mystica

I’ve long been fond of the devotion to Our Lady under the title, Rosa Mystica. The beautiful image of Our Lady with red, white and golden roses upon her breast is attributed to the alleged visionary Pierina Gilli who in 1947 and 1966 claimed to see the Mother of God appearing in this way at Montichiari and Fontanelle in Italy. Pierina claimed that Our Lady wished to be honoured as Rosa Mystica (mystical rose) and that the three roses represented our prayers (white), the sacrifices we make in atonement for the sins of others (red), and our penitence for our own sins (gold).

The duty of investigating any claimed apparition falls on the local bishop. Successive Bishops of Brescia discouraged attention to these claims:

  • 1968: Please don’t spread devotions the Church hasn’t investigated or approved.
  • 1975: Please honour Our Lady by going to established shrines rather than sites associated with this alleged apparition.
  • 1984: The official status of these alleged apparitions is currently ‘not proven’ (non constat de supernaturalitie) and therefore devotion to Our Lady Rosa Mystica in this fashion cannot be encouraged.
  • 1997: The Bishop who made the 1984 declaration and was still in post confirmed that the 1984 document was still in force.
  • 2001: The Liturgy Office of the Diocese of Brescia issued a Directory on how worship at the apparition sites was to be managed, in a way that minimised attention to the claimed apparitions.
  • 2008: The new Bishop of Brescia asked those who promote devotion to Our Lady Rosa Mystica to make clear that the Church position has not changed – the position is still that the Church does not recognise the truth of Pierina Gilli’s claims.

Whenever the Catholic Church investigates apparitions, it can declare one of three possible verdicts: of divine origin; definitely not of divine origin; or ‘not proven’. Where there are clear theological errors in the alleged message, the Church will quickly dismiss the claims as definitely not divine. But where there are novel devotions containing nothing inconsistent with the Catholic Faith, Mother Church often prefers to watch and wait, and make a final judgement in the light of the long term fruits.

In July 2013, the Diocese of Brescia again updated the Directory regulating worship at the apparition sites. In short, Our Lady can be honoured under the title Rosa Mystica because this is an ancient title of the Madonna; but no reference may be made during official activities to the alleged visions and their messages.

In 2014, an official decree of the Diocese of Brescia erected the “Foundation Rosa Mystica Fontanelle” as the Church’s official organisation to care for the property and activities at Fontanelle. It is noteworthy that the cycle of monthly and annual events include all the particular devotions (13th day of each month, and special activities on 13 July, 13 October and 8 December) which can be found in the alleged revelations. Paradoxically, although the new Foundation’s mission is not to promote the alleged messages of Pierina Gilli, their website does offer a short summary which is necessary to explain why the shrine exists in the first place!

Today, 7 December 2019, Bishop Tremolda (Bishop of Brescia since 2017) will institute an official sanctuary of Our Lady Rosa Mystica at the apparition site in Fontanelle. In a letter issued 21 November 2019, the new bishop recognises that many thousands of pilgrims have come to this place to honour Our Lady, and is cautiously optimistic that this is a healthy devotion for the Christian faithful. His letter acknowledges that judging the fruits of the devotion is as important as weighing up Pierina’s claims in judging this spiritual phenomenon. He also mentions that there is a ‘renewed phase’ of investigation taking place, with the Diocese of Brescia and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continuing to evaluate the claims.

As is the case with Medjugorje, the current position is therefore that pilgrims are welcome to come to Fontanelle as a place of pilgrimage, without the Church making any definitive decision on the truth or otherwise of the apparitions and messages which have been claimed there – but with the clear intention that the visions should be judged, in part, on the fruits which come from practicing the devotions.

Some will see this as a sign of organic growth towards final recognition, which always happens with a plausible apparition: initial scepticism giving way to cautious welcome of the fruits – ministering to those who come out of love for Mother Mary. Others will lament the fact that so many ‘disobedient’ pilgrims came to the shrine that provision for pilgrimages has had to be made in the first place – their disdain motivated by filial love and obedience for Mother Church. Let us always seek the best possible motives in those who take a different position from ourselves and disagree well! The inauguration this weekend is not insignificant, since part of the alleged Rosa Mystica message concerns devotions on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, that should not be taken as endorsement of the proposed devotion, either – Jesuitical ambiguity worthy of Pope Francis himself!

A Catholic Opinion on Yoga

As a Catholic priest with some expertise in New Age matters, I am often asked to comment on the appropriateness of Catholics engaging with yoga. This is not an easy subject, and the best answer partly depends on why the question is being asked. So choose the appropriate link for your situation:

Whichever situation applies, there is one thing which will apply consistently throughout this article: the word ‘yoga’ will be used as a shorthand for hatha yoga, which is the discipline of assuming certain postures (asanas) following the ancient tradition developed in India. There are other forms of yoga which deal less with bodily posture and more with mental meditation, but that’s not what’s usually implied when a Westerner talks about ‘doing yoga’.

Why does yoga propose the particular asanas (postures) which are used? In its original culture, certain postures were associated with particular Hindu deities. Many yoga teachers believe in the flow of spiritual energy, or prana, and in particular the sexual energy known as kundalini – postures may be chosen because of their supposed effect on this energy flow. The Catholic Church has no official position on whether such spiritual energy exists; but whether real or supposed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that any attempt to manipulate such energy, even for a good purpose, is forbidden.

Now, while yoga has its roots in Hindu beliefs and practices, the Catholic Church ‘rejects nothing that is true and holy’ (#2) from other world religions. So is there anything which is ‘true and holy’ within yoga? There’s nothing wrong in principle with breathing and posture exercises in themselves, and these things can be positive for health. So the question is, why does a particular teacher promote particular exercises?

There are three possible reasons for promoting a particular exercise:

  • Blind faith that it works.
  • Empirical evidence showing that it has a beneficial effect on health.
  • The use of the posture in the yoga tradition.

Blind faith is not a good reason for doing anything. To give authority to any practice without good reason is to make an idol out of it; that would be the sin of superstition.

Empirical evidence that a practice is good for health is a valid reason for undertaking the exercises. There is some published evidence that a form of yoga is good for reducing high blood pressure and marginal evidence for promoting good back function.

Of course, the most common reason for promoting an exercise as ‘yoga’ is because of its direct connection to the yoga tradition dating back 5,000 years in India. A yoga instructor may not be fully aware of the heritage behind a particular posture, but there will be a train of trust and acceptance which ultimately roots what is being taught in beliefs in Hindu deities and the flow of prana and kundalini energy.

Is it possible to Christianise yoga? Yes, but it’s not easy. An instructor would need to look at all the possible poses and exercises, and ask which ones should be used for valid, scientific reasons. Then, when teaching, both the instructor and the pupil would need to make an explicit, prayerful, intention thanking God for the good wisdom contained in these exercises while explicitly renouncing any link to the spiritual heritage which brought those poses to consideration. This is necessary to eliminate the possibility that adopting the pose could constitute honouring a false god, which would be a sin against the First Commandment.

Arguably, if you distanced an exercise regime from its Hindu roots in this way, what you would have is not any form of yoga worthy of the name, but merely an exercise regime inspired by it – at which point you might ask whether it doesn’t make more sense to take an aerobics class, work with a physiotherapist, or try Pilates, which doesn’t have a spiritual heritage.

I’m thinking of trying yoga.

OK. So what are you looking for? Some people turn to yoga because they want to keep their body well-toned. Others are seeking meditative exercises which link mind and body in unity. Obviously caring for our bodies and calming our minds are two good goals. That doesn’t mean that we can follow such practices unthinkingly.

Above, I suggested that it was possible to Christianise yoga, but the resulting exercises would hardly be worthy of the name ‘yoga’ at all. Perhaps you can find an instructor consistent with what I outlined above, but it won’t be easy – and you should also make a mental intention to distance yourself from the spiritual heritage of the exercises. Even if you manage to do this, by engaging in something that’s identified as ‘yoga’ you may still still lead others to think that all kinds of yoga are OK (compare St Paul’s argument about why he won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, even when it’s been blessed in Christ’s name, in I Cor 8). Further, it’s likely that you will be doing your yoga class in the midst of people who aren’t making that same renunciation of spiritual heritage, and who by their implicit or explicit intention to submit to the authority of ‘yoga’ are breaking God’s law.

Our Catholic understanding of deliverance is that even an ill-informed act of consent to a foreign spiritual practice can open up a person to the level of demonic influence known as obsession, and being in the midst of such people even with a personal intention not to consent can expose a person to oppression. That doesn’t mean these things will always happen. It does represent a risk.

So if you are considering trying yoga as a member of the Catholic Church personally committed to be a disciple and witness to Christ, my simple answer is: DON’T. It’s just too difficult trying to engage with yoga in a way which places sufficient distance between yourself and the spiritual consequences, and there is always the risk of being a counter-witness who will lead others into danger. No-one is forcing you to do yoga, even if your best friend is nagging you to go along with her. So find an unproblematic form of exercise – there are plenty of alternatives!

I need to make a decision about yoga happening ‘under my authority’.

Is your child being invited to do yoga in school? Does a yoga group want to hire your parish hall or advertise in the parish magazine? This needs careful handling. Yoga is very slippery when it comes down to offering a coherent reason why Catholics should avoid it. To explain why there may be a problem (which you’ll understand by reading the section above) requires a deep understanding of spiritual warfare and demonic influence. This won’t make sense to the yoga group who want to hire your hall, and may be miles beyond he understanding of many Catholic schoolteachers.

If I had to give a reason to a school why I didn’t want my child to do yoga, I would use the same line as St Paul on meat sacrificed to idols – “If we do Yoga, we could give the impression we are supporting Hinduism, so it would be more appropriate to do aerobics or Pilates.” Ultimately, if that approach fails, I would assert your right to withdraw children from religious activities, and if they say yoga isn’t religious, I would challenge them to demonstrate that the form of yoga being offered has no connection with Hinduism. You should ask for an exhaustive list of the postures and meditations being taught, and for the reasons and heritage behind each one.

If it’s a question of hiring out your hall, great care is needed to avoid falling foul of equalities legislation. You might not want it to happen in your hall but have difficulty ejecting an existing group. Given the great difficulty of purging yoga of its spiritual meanings, you might explain that under charity law, you can only use Catholic property for the advancement of the Catholic faith (which under our respect for the rights of other religions and hospitality to refugees might occasionally mean hiring out our halls for another religious group to worship in as long as this is clearly labelled as such). So we might want to ask the instructor and pupils to either sign a declaration that they acknowledge what they are doing comes from a religious tradition incompatible with Catholicism, or a declaration that they explicitly renounce the Hindu heritage of what they are doing – plus asking the instructor for an exhaustive list of what is being taught and the rationale behind it.

My friend is trying yoga…

You may be concerned for the spiritual health of a friend or colleague who is trying yoga. You are right to be concerned, but proceed carefully. It is very difficult to draw someone to change moral behaviour until they have a Christian motive. So your first steps will be to draw the person through the thresholds of conversion to Christ outlined in Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Once your friend is in the Commitment Zone, you can begin a conversation about whether they see any problem with yoga for a follower of Christ, and if not, invite them to find out about the spiritual heritage of yoga.

Help! I’ve done yoga and I feel bad about it. What should I do?

Don’t panic. You’ve made the most important step, which is realising there’s a problem. As a Catholic, you should go to a priest and make a good confession. You might find that the priest doesn’t think yoga is a problem. Nevertheless, insist that you believe you have honoured foreign gods by practicing yoga, and given a bad example to others, and seek absolution.

If you’re a Christian in a tradition which doesn’t practice confession, then at least make a prayer of confession directly to God.

Once you have repented of your sin, pray thus:

Lord Jesus, I renounce yoga. I take back all authority I have given to any foreign spirits by opening myself to yoga. In the name of Jesus, I take back all authority which I gave to my yoga instructor. I renounce the power of prana and the spirit of kundalini. (Feel free to make the prayer more specific for the names of particular exercises which have bothered you.) I command any and all evil spirits which I have renounced to leave me now, in Jesus’ name.

You might have a prayer-companion, or a sympathetic priest, who will pray with you as you offer this prayer, but you can do so alone. This act will be an important step in your spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus Christ who chooses to give no authority to any other spirit in your life. May God bless you for your desire for spiritual singleness of heart! Walk in the light of Christ, and do not be afraid.

Election Morals 2019

I’ve had a few requests to comment on the UK General Election 2019, so here goes. As a declaration of personal stance I should note that I am not a member of any political party (though I used to be a paying supporter of the Pro-Life Alliance when that was a political party). At past local, general and European elections I have chosen to vote variously for Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Plaid Cymru candidates.

Casting a vote in the UK is not an easy matter for a conscientious Catholic. Two of the major parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, have made explicit commitments to abortion in their manifestos. Abortion is not the only issue a Catholic voter should consider (read more below) but is a serious matter so we should take stock of this first.

Law and Pledges on Abortion

The situation in Great Britain at present is that killing an unborn child is a crime, but the 1967 Abortion Act and subsequent amendments mean that doctors can legally authorise an abortion of any child at up to 24 weeks’ gestation for the ‘physical or mental health of the mother or family’ (which is broadly interpreted in practice to mean if the mother is distressed enough to ask for an abortion it will probably be granted) and up to birth in the case of a handicapped child.

Abortion policy is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in Wales. Since the Northern Ireland Assembly members have not agreed to allow the Assembly to operate effectively since 2016, the Westminster Parliament voted in July 2019 to revoke the law which makes abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, and require the Government to put in place abortion services in Northern Ireland by the start of April 2020.

The Labour Manifesto pledges to “uphold women’s reproductive rights and decriminalise abortions”. This would mean repealing the current law still applicable in England, Wales and Scotland which makes abortion illegal outside doctor-approved circumstances. It also pledges to make abortion available in Northern Ireland, thereby complying with the July 2019 instruction issued by Parliament.

The Liberal Democrat Manifesto makes a similar commitment, with an explicit mention of preserving the current time limit: “Decriminalise abortion across the UK while retaining the existing 24-week limit and legislate for access to abortion facilities within Northern Ireland.” It also pledges to

  • Enforce safe zones around abortion clinics, make intimidation or harassment of abortion service users and staff outside clinics, or on common transport routes to these services, illegal.
  • Fund abortion clinics to provide their services free of charge to service users regardless of nationality or residency.

The Conservative Manifesto makes no mention of abortion.

I only have limited time to prepare this blog, so I am not considering Green, Brexit Party, or Nationalist perspectives although these will be of interest to voters considering these parties. Such views will probably be of less influence when it comes to forming a Government, except in the case of an SNP-Labour pact, but the SNP Manifesto is not out yet.

None of the 3 main party manifestos mention euthanasia or assisted dying, and this has traditionally been a conscience issue for Westminster parliamentarians.

Other Ethical Issues for Catholics

Abortion is not the only red-line issue for Catholics. There are other actions the Catholic Church also regards as ‘intrinsic evils’, courses of action so bad that they must never be chosen as a flawed means to a good end. Finding a neat list of these in Catholic teaching is not straightforward; Jimmy Akin does a good job of marshalling the relevant parts of Gaudium et Spes and Veritatis Splendor.

The use of weapons of mass destruction is an intrinsic evil, as innocent civilians will be killed and maimed. Biological and chemical weapons are outlawed by treaties, but the UK maintains its own nuclear deterrent. As long as no nuclear war takes place, these weapons create jobs and don’t kill anyone, while abortion results in thousands of deaths… but if a nuclear exchange did take place, the results would be horrific. Using nuclear weapons is clearly immoral; ethicists are divided on whether the threat of using them for the sake of keeping peace is so intrinsically immoral that a Catholic would be obliged to shun a job which produced or deployed such military hardware. Labour has pledged to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent but enter global talks for total nuclear disarmament. The Liberal Democrats make a similar pledge but with an explicit downsizing of our nuclear fleet. The SNP leader has stated that abolishing Trident is her price for a pact. The Conservatives will ‘renew Trident’ with no signal of wanting to enter multilateral disarmament talks.

Other Catholic issues are harder to turn into political red lines. Catholic Social Teaching demands a preferential option for the poor. On the face of it, left-leaning parties promising to spend directly in support of poor people do this. But right-leaning parties will argue that by supporting business they create more opportunities for better-paying jobs and boost the economy, so casting a vote to the right is not automatically an anti-poor act. If left-wing policies reduce economic productivity and lessen the pot of money available, the Government cannot spend what it doesn’t have. Any moral decision involving a complex web of economic forces is not straightforward.

Finally, there’s the tricky question of LGBTQ+ rights. The Catholic Church opposes discrimination, in the sense that it believes no-one should be denied equal access to commercial or government services just because of their sexual identity. But it firmly holds that human fulfilment comes from embracing the gender-identity of the body that you were born to and God’s plan that a man and a woman should unite and found a new life-bearing family. A broad agenda of advancing and normalising LGBT+ rights is clear in both the Lib Dem manifesto (15 mentions) and in Labour’s (16). There are only two nods in the Conservative document, a bland affirmation of the importance of combating ‘harassment and violence against all religious groups, and against LGBT people’ and a note that the Tories organised a conference about LGBT issues in the developing world.

The Value of a British Vote

Not all votes in Britain are equal. Some constituencies are marginals, where every vote counts in a two-way or three-way contest, and you have a significant chance of influencing which party or parties will form the next Government. Others are ‘safe seats’ where the large majority of the sitting MP makes it overwhelmingly unlikely that any other party’s candidate can win. Theoretically, of course, any candidate can win any seat; but when we weigh up the moral responsibility of casting a vote, we must take account of the likely outcome of my actions combined with that of people over whom I have no control. Since all political parties package together a wide range of policies, any choice we make, any signal we send, is a mixed bag bundling things we don’t like with things we do.

Catholics cannot in good conscience, choose to promote and broaden access to abortion.

Catholics cannot in good conscience, choose to promote the use of nuclear weapons.

But a vote for an MP is not a referendum on either of these issues. Catholics are not forbidden from choosing a package of morally good measures which also includes abortion as part of the package. And realistically, what Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering has more symbolic value than practical influence, given the wide access to abortion already available through doctors.

Voting for a party which has no realistic chance of winning in your seat sends a signal. The overall national level of support for a party influences how much airtime it gets on the media, and gives some weight to the party leader in negotiations where cross-party support is needed. It may also influence whether the sitting party moves towards or away from the centre ground in a future manifesto.

Although the Conservative Manifesto doesn’t mention abortion, it’s unlikely that a Johnson Government would act to restrict access to abortion or revoke current LGBT legislation. So while voting for a Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate is technically an act of co-operation with an evil promise in a manifesto, it is an act which will have very little practical consequence should either party gain power. And voting for these parties in a safe Tory seat will not send a strong ‘pro-abortion’ signal because that’s not what differentiates these parties from the Tories in practice.

Awkwardly, the two parties which explicitly mention abortion and clearly have a large pro-LGBT+ agenda are also the parties in England which lean towards nuclear disarmament talks. In the current climate, the strongest interpretation of voting for a party will be around its stance on Brexit, but the multiple mentions of LGBT in both manifestos also give this prominence.

Brexit itself is not an issue on which there is a clear Catholic stance. There are Catholic values which would support Remain when it comes to maximum co-operation and support for poorer neighbour nations, but also teaching on subsidiarity which might lean towards Leave. Somehow Catholics must seek to respect the democratic will expressed by the British people in the Brexit referendum while seeking to bring some kind of unity to a deeply divided nation. Not easy.

The Catholic Dilemma

It’s very difficult to give an ‘absolute recommendation’ for something as complex as choosing a candidate or deciding whether to vote. If ALL the available candidates are anti-life then whether you vote or not, an anti-life candidate will get in. In this case the system is not offering you an option to vote for pro-life principles. It is offering you an option to choose between other values which are also important, and which impact on the rights and well-being of precious human lives who have already been allowed to be born.

Remember that God holds us responsible not only for our actions but also for our deliberate inactions (‘I was in prison and you didn’t visit me!’). I would absolutely understand and respect a person who says ‘I can’t vote for any party this time because they all represent co-operation with an anti-life mentality’ – especially when that is because of the explicit mention of abortion in the Labour and Liberal Democrat Manifestos. But know that choosing not to vote will not result in pro-life decisions being made by politicians. It only gives away your small opportunity to influence the other decisions which politicians will make.

If you choose not to vote you are putting a little more power into the hands of those who don’t share your principles, people who will cast their ballot. If this means, ultimately, that you do choose to vote, and your action contributes to a candidate with an anti-life viewpoint or manifesto being elected in your constituency, after the election you would do well to write a letter to your new MP. You should make it clear that you voted for them despite, not because, of their support for abortion, or LGBT issues, or the renewal of Trident, since there was no workable alternative on offer, and stress the good values you wanted to embrace by choosing to vote for them.

We cannot choose evil that good may come of it. We can only choose what is good and accept the consequences. We must never directly co-operate with abortion or with nuclear annihilation, but casting a vote is doubly indirect, first because we are choosing a package, and secondly because the ultimate outcome is determined by 649 other MPs over whom we have no control and a media over whom we have little influence. It seems to me that the consequences of voting Labour or Liberal Democrat are such that a Catholic voter is not morally forbidden from doing so, but the voter would need to be clear about the social goods which they are choosing by doing so. Equally, a Catholic voting for the Conservative party would need to have reservations about the renewal of Trident with no suggestion of seeking multilateral disarmament talks, and a sense that the Tories represent a good practical outcome for the poorest members of British society.

Whatever you do, take time to pray before you vote – or make a meaningful decision not to vote – and be sure that whatever decision you make, it gives you peace before God. Peace be with you.

Choose Wisely!

Homily at the Erskine Catholic Parishes, for the conclusion of the Sion Community MissionSolemnity of Christ the King, Year C.

David for King!

Our first reading is strangely appropriate today. Israel is looking for a leader, and although kings normally gain their crowns by royal birth, in this case the people are choosing a new king. And it sounds like they are asking three questions.

  • Is he one of us?
  • Is he successful?
  • Is he God’s choice?

The first question is the politics of identity. We rush to put labels on people so we can decide if someone is one of them or one of us. Rangers or Celtic? British, European or Scottish? Leave or Remain? Remember the Golden Rule – always treat Them the way you would like Them to treat Us – especially if you think they don’t deserve it!

The second question is about competence. Who will do a good job? Who do you trust? David was good at leading soldiers in battle… did that qualify him to lead a nation in peacetime? And what does a good job look like, anyway? Is it about keeping the ship steady or setting a new course? Most politicians fall from power when they get one big thing wrong – when Prime Minister Macmillan was asked about the greatest challenge for a statesman, he famously replied: “Events!”* How far do we believe in forgiveness and allowing someone to learn from their mistakes?

The third question is about values. This goes to the heart of modern politics. Over the last 50 years, Western democracies have thrown away Bible values in favour of “Do what you like as long as you don’t get in the way of someone else.” The State no longer supports our sense that there are certain things good people shouldn’t do. Worse, if we dare to ask our politicians to reflect these values, we may be accused of being illiberal and bigoted.

It might have come to your attention that there’s a General Election next month. Strangely enough, it was reported this week that the most common first name for candidates in this election is David!

It’s not the job of our church leaders to point you towards or away from particular parties or politicians, but it is their job to remind us of the questions we should ask before choosing which candidate deserves our vote. The Bishops of Scotland have issued a letter which you can take home and read this weekend. I’m not going to read the whole text here, but I can summarise the questions they suggest we ask of each candidate before we vote:

  • Will you respect that human life has a dignity not because it is wanted by someone, but because it is human?
  • Will you support married couples, and families with children, in decisions about taxes and benefits?
  • Will you provide fair support for poor people at home and abroad, and take account of the consequences of our actions for Earth’s climate?
  • Will you seek to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and restrict the sale of small arms to countries where they contribute to instability?
  • Will you respect the consciences of those who stand out because of their religious or philosophical beliefs, and tackle religious persecution around the world?

Today is not only the eve of a General Election; it’s also the close of our Parish Mission. For the last week, Sion Community has been working among you, reflecting and praying about what it means to be a parish moving from Maintenance to Mission. But we should look carefully at that word, “maintenance”. We can maintain something in working order, but most things decay over time – vintage cars can’t be used for an everyday commute. And if “maintenance” means keeping things running as they are, we have to face up to an embarrassing truth: what the Catholic Church is really good at across the UK is losing old people slowly and young people quickly. In fact, if we carrying on losing people at the same rate we’re only a few decades away from total collapse!

In my conversations with your parish leaders, I’ve seen the beginnings of an idea emerge. It’s the idea of a parish which is attractive to young parents with small children. So today, I’d like to encourage you to dare to dream. What if you changed the way you did things on the weekend to be as attractive as possible to these missing Catholics?

I know none of us like change. We’re probably really tired of elections right now, too. And casting a vote usually means choosing a package which combines some ideas we really like with others we’d rather not pick. In the same way, if we succeed in inviting lots of young families to be part of our weekend worship, we’ll be blending something we like – a growing parish, hooray! – with changes we might not like – different music, more noise, more unfamiliar faces.

Two sinners were nailed to crosses either side of Our Lord. One was only thinking about himself – he cries out to Jesus, “Use your power to get us out of this mess!” But that’s not the Lord’s way. Jesus does not seek to dominate, but to reconcile. The other sinner understands that on the other side of the pain, there will be glory. First, he needs to die to himself – he must accept that the way forward will be painful. Then, and only then, Jesus will bring him into the Kingdom of Light.

As he was being crucified, Jesus was the victim of negative campaigning. He was labelled as the powerless King of the Jews, mocked for his inability to get down from the Cross. None of us like negative campaigning when politicians spend more time attacking their rivals than explaining their own good ideas. So in our turn, let’s pledge not to be negative campaigners for the future of this parish. When a change we don’t like comes along, let’s look for the good reasons behind that change and say “I don’t like it, but I understand why we need to do that.” I estimate that you have about ten years to turn things around. You have been blessed with capable leaders willing to ask how to do things differently.

David for King! You have your own David in this parish, and he has gathered a good leadership team around him. Now the trouble with leaders is that there are only two kinds – the sort who don’t make changes, and the sort who make changes you don’t like. So I say to you: remember the words of St John Henry Newman, who said “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Remember the words of Christ: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Change, and believe the good news!” Trust in your David and his generals, to lead you in changes for the better, and when you can’t see the good in a change, give them the benefit of the doubt. Accept change, and slowly, this parish will begin to grow. Resist change, and it will stay as it is right now – not fixed, but gently declining. The choice is yours.

An election only happens once every few years, God willing. But at in this parish community, you have an opportunity to vote every time you open your mouth, every time you work with your hands, every time you type with your fingers. Each one of you has very little power over the future of the UK and over the future of Scotland. But each one of you has a tremendous influence over the future of this parish. Choose wisely!

* Not “Events, my dear boy, events!” as commonly misquoted, but more fully, “The opposition of events!”

Go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God

Homily at St Bernadette’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission – Saturday Mass of St Columbanus (Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 9:57-62)

“Your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”

What Jesus Christ said to that man in the Gospels, he has said to his followers through the ages, and he says to us today.

We might be distracted by the stark rejection of the complaint that someone must bury his father! Surely it’s a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead?

The thing is, the man’s father was most likely alive and well. I don’t think Our Lord was suggesting someone should walk away from a family funeral to start being a full-time missionary. Rather, I see a man making excuses: ‘I have family duties right now; when my Dad’s dead I might be able to help.’ But Jesus often spoke of the need to place honour for our Heavenly Father ahead of any good respect for our earthly parents.

The Catholic Church has lived through different shades of opinion on how urgent it is to share the Gospel. At one extreme our ranks have included preachers with the fiery message that anyone who doesn’t become a Catholic before they die will be damned to Hell for all eternity – a message so unpalatable that even the Vatican has acted to rein in such opinions. This simply doesn’t fit with what Scripture says about ‘good pagans’ who don’t know about Jesus being saved by following their conscience. On the other extreme, in recent years we’ve been seduced by a comfortable but false idea that God is a nice, loving, nanny who will simply scoop up all his naughty children into heaven with a smile whatever we do on earth. That’s not true either – Jesus made it crystal clear that Hell is a very real possibility for those who cause ‘little children’ to stumble or who let their hands, feet or eyes wander to places they shouldn’t.

The Catholic Church often proclaims that particular people have become saints in heaven, but we’ve never made a definitive statement that a person has been condemned to Hell. What we can offer is a sure and certain path which will lead people to eternal life. Anyone who puts God at the centre of their life by attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days – health permitting – and who strives to live out the moral values of the Catholic Church, making a sincere confession whenever they stumble, is guaranteed to end up in heaven. Now a soul might need to spend some time being purified in Purgatory first – but what matters most is the final destination.

We’re all going to die. That’s bad news.

Jesus proved there was life after death. That’s good news!

There is a possibility that souls can enter Hell and experience eternal punishment. That’s bad news.

But by following the teachings of Jesus given to us through the Catholic Church, we can be sure of reaching heaven. That’s Good News!

When we reach the gates of heaven, Jesus will look at each one of us, and say, “Why should I let you in?”

Don’t try saying ‘because I’m a good person’. That’s OK for pagans but it doesn’t work for Christians. We know what the right answer is: ‘Jesus, I know don’t deserve to come in, but I’m sorry for all my sins, which I’ve confessed and I trust you will let me in anyway.’ For that answer we not only get into heaven, we receive a rich reward for the good we’ve done on earth.

We can let the scholars debate the fine details of how and why people get into Heaven. Our Lord cut through all that by leaving us a simple instruction: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’

St Paul travelled around the Mediterranean three times to do just that.

St Patrick and his generation established the Catholic faith to Ireland, and St Columba brought it, through Iona, to Scotland.

St Columbanus, whom the Church celebrates today, was an Irish monk whose mission was to people in the north of France and Italy.

In the 19th Century, many Christian missionaries from Scotland took the message of Jesus to India, China, the West Indies, and parts of Africa. Among them were two prominent Catholics, Agnes McLaren, a doctor in India, and Duncan McNab, who worked with Australian Aborigines. 

But there’s no need to go to distant parts of the world to fulfil what Christ asks of us. There are many people in Erskine who are not yet followers of Jesus – even among those who might call themselves Catholic. You’ve made a great start in this parish, using Alpha as a tool to spread the news of Jesus. Your challenge now is to find the right way to share Jesus – using Alpha and your personal conversations – with people who don’t come to Mass, people who may have no real Christian faith at all.

It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Maybe you have fields or jobs to tend to. Maybe you have fathers, or mothers, or children, who need looking after. God doesn’t want us to neglect our duties to our families, but neither does he want us to use that as an excuse for not doing something uncomfortable. And even with Alpha, there’s a danger it becomes a closed circle for insiders, when it is meant to be a way of spreading the message of Jesus to outsiders.

Remember the wise words of Archbishop William Temple, who said:

“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

And remember the even wiser words of Jesus Christ, who said:

“Your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”