Life-Long Love

A baby, cradled by mother, cradled by fatherHomily at St Philip Evans, on Trinity Sunday, Year C.

Let’s talk about the family.

Over the last two years, there’s been a lot of talk about “family” in the Catholic Church. In October 2014 and again in October 2015, bishops and experts came together in Rome for two Synods – and before each Synod, great surveys were carried out concerning the reality of Catholic married life. Last month, the Pope’s reflections on the Synods were published, a document called Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love”.

Until now, I’ve said very little about this from the pulpit. I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle, and for our bishops and Pope Francis to set out “where we’re at”. Now is the right time, and over the next few months I’ll draw on a lot of ideas from the Pope’s document.

When I say the word “family”, do you automatically think of two parents with a small child? To be sure, raising children is an important part of family life, but families come in all shapes and sizes – those who have married may be widowed, separated, or suffering infertility. Some of us have never married – but we all come from families, belong to families, and are called to support family life. Even if life’s circumstances mean we are orphans, with no living family to call our own, parish is meant to become our “church family” – if you truly feel you are alone in life, do speak to me as your parish pastor so I can help you make connections in the church community.

Today is Trinity Sunday – the day when we celebrate that God is a family. God is love, and to borrow a phrase from Des Robertson, “We don’t do love alone.” God is love – if God were only one person, how could God be love? There’s nothing in our human experience quite like the God who is three-and-one, so we struggle to find the right language, but let me try.

The first person within God is the one we call “Father”, the begetter, the one who brings other life into being.

From the beginning of time – so early that there was no “previous” time when God was one Person alone – that love caused another Person to come forth. We call that second person the Word of God, the Word who took flesh and became Jesus, Son of Mary.

Before he died upon the Cross, Jesus spoke about a “Spirit of Truth” whom his Father would send. The Bible gives hints that this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, comes, we use the word “proceeds”, from the Father and the Son – in some mysterious way, the Spirit is the love which flows between them. The “Wisdom of God” in today’s reading from Proverbs is a hint towards both the Word and the Spirit who come from the Father and have always been with the Father.

Pope Francis sees in the Trinity an image of the family. First, a man marries a woman. The poetry in the Book of Genesis speaks of woman being made from flesh taken from the side of man – we can see a parallel with the way the Son comes from the substance of the Father. Then the love expressed between husband and wife causes a third person, a child, to come into being. The most important connection between the Trinity and a human family is that in each, love causes a new person to come into being.

The world around us now sees marriage as meaning “I want to be with the person who makes me happy”. What happens if that person is the same sex as yourself? What happens when the person who makes you happy isn’t the person you’re currently married to? Society has rewritten the rules to accommodate these situations.

Pope Francis has a different vision. For him, marriage isn’t about being with the person who makes you happy – it’s about raising the next generation. Every child has a right to be created by a husband and wife expressing their love for one another. Being husband and wife, they have already made a public promise to form a stable household ready to welcome children. The very best that we can want for that child is that he or she is raised by the two parents responsible for that child’s identity, in a home where each parent lives out self-sacrificing agape love for their child and their spouse.

Yes, of course, this doesn’t always happen. There are many orphans, absent parents, and marriages marked by the sad reality of infertility. When a child is conceived in unpromising circumstances, the Church can offer practical help for a mother wondering whether to keep it. But the vision of Christian marriage we want to pass on to the next generation is this: Before you have your own children, make a public promise to love your spouse in good times and in bad. Yes, in a committed family there are times of suffering, but perseverance leads to patience and to hope. Let your child be born to two parents utterly committed to life-long love. Isn’t that the kind of family you long to be part of?

Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:

In a short sermon, it’s not always possible to cover every angle – and a sentence taken out of context can be badly misinterpreted. So when I say “don’t have children until you’ve made the commitment of marriage” that could be misinterpreted as a call to use contraception until you are married. For the record, I stand by the Church’s whole teaching and oppose sexual intercourse outside marriage, but I am merely choosing to emphasise one angle given the shortness of the homily. It took Pope Francis 325 paragraphs to cover everything!

In today’s homily (available through the parish website, with a link to I make the point that marriage between a man and a woman deserves a privileged status because it has the power to bring new life into the world – it is meant to create a stable environment for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the next generation.

Modern technology allows two parents who could not naturally have a child, to create one in a laboratory. Pope Francis says we shouldn’t do that. We can try to make clever arguments about the destruction of “spare embryos”, possible genetic damage to the child conceived, or whether doing so is “natural” – but there are good counterarguments to these. What if we implanted every embryo? What if we did lots of animal testing to minimise the risk of genetic faults? What do we mean by natural – why is it OK to use medical technology to eliminate smallpox (a perfectly natural virus) and to correct disability but not to make a child by technological means?

Same-sex couples also have strong desires to create a baby which is made from both of them. Already, there are many cases where a woman donates an egg which is fertilised by donor sperm and then implanted in her partner’s womb; male couples have to resort to surrogate mothers. Doing so is arduous and requires a certain amount of self-sacrificing love. We’re not quite at the stage where a man can have one of his cells transformed into an egg, or a woman can have her genes fashioned into artificial sperm, but medical science is on the brink of making these techniques workable. If “family” is about raising the next generation, what if technology allows different kinds of couples to beget offspring in situations inconceivable before the 21st Century?

Ultimately, our Church leaders say “no” to test-tube babies because God gave clear instructions: a husband shall join with his wife, and they should be fruitful. Jesus himself quoted that part of the Old Testament, giving it even greater authority. Even though the sacred authors didn’t dream of our scientific abilities in the time when the Bible was written, we trust that God, who is all-wise and lives outside time, chose the words of Scripture to be relevant for all ages. Creating a new human life is not like any other practical problem – is is a sacred act, because it is the most God-like thing a human couple can undertake. As followers of Jesus, if we have chosen to live our lives in obedience to God’s commands, we have to accept that if we don’t receive the gift of our own child the natural way, we cannot receive that gift at all.

With this in mind, you may wish to re-read today’s Second Reading about sufferings leading to patience and then to hope; today’s Gospel challenges us to accept the truth which comes from God and is made clear by the Holy Spirit.

What help is there for Catholics who want to be faithful to the Church’s Teaching but suffer infertility within marriage? There are doctors and other healthcare professionals who can help maximise the human body’s natural fertility. You can learn more about this by visiting or, or Googling the term “NaPro”.

Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • The creativity of the Trinity is reflected in marriage: 10, 11, 71, 314.
  • Marriage, of a man and woman open to children, is God’s plan: 8, 9, 13.
  • The family is special because it produces the next generation: 14, 52, 53.
  • Why no test-tube babies? 56, 81.
  • Infertile couples – why it is still meaningful for them to marry: 80.
  • Adoption: 82.


Going to Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans for Ascension Sunday, Year C.

God’s got a problem.

God wants us to enjoy eternal life.

But God is also totally just, totally fair.

None of us deserve to go to Heaven.


Famously, the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death!” Surely that means horrific sins, like rape and murder?

No! Any sin, even trivial, means that humanity is not the race of perfect beings which God calls us to be. Because we are staining God’s plan for the whole Universe, that deserves a more serious punishment.

God’s original plan was that when the first human beings appeared on earth, each body would be gifted an immortal soul, and through a further miracle, each human body would be kept free from pain, death and suffering.  But to receive the gift, terms and conditions applied – the first humans had to follow all God’s rules. They didn’t, and so the gift was withdrawn. This is why the Bible says that death – meaning the death of human beings – came into the world through sin. When we read the original story, God said “If you eat the tree of knowledge you will die” – it is by God’s mercy that the death did not come immediately, but only after a life of toil.



The Old Testament contains other deals which God offers to humanity – we call them covenants. On Easter night we celebrated the story of the Exodus. The Angel of Death slays the firstborn of Egypt – the Hebrews have marked their houses with the blood of the Passover Lamb, and are spared. Every year they must tell the story, eat a meal including lamb, and remember. These days it’s easy to object to the idea of God sending an angel of mass destruction. But remember, from the very first generation, humanity is already condemned and is only spared by God’s mercy.

In the desert, Moses receives a Law for the Hebrews. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest must sacrifice a bull for the cleansing of the temple and a goat for the sins of the people. But how can goat’s blood and bull’s blood take away sins? Even in the Old Testament, prophets and psalmists pondered how that worked and realised that it was only a sign of continuing to depend on God’s mercy.


For six weeks we’ve been celebrating Easter – the story of what happened. Today’s letter to the Hebrews helps us understand why it had to happen. Jesus Himself was the perfect sacrifice, the only being whose death could possibly have a moral value sufficient to compensate for the spoiling of a perfect world. It is His blood, offered once, which can accomplish what the sacrifice of a goat and a bull each year could not. Just as the Hebrews whose homes were marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb were spared bodily death, so we are spared spiritual death when we ask Jesus, the Lamb of God, to protect us by his blood.

When the new English translation of the Mass was issued, there was concern that the words said:






Why “for many”, not “for all”? Was there any person Jesus didn’t die for?

But in the prayers of our Mass, we try to follow faithfully what the Bible says; many parts of our prayers are taken directly from Scripture. This one comes from today’s reading: “Christ, too, offers himself only once to take the faults of many on himself.” This doesn’t mean that there was anyone Jesus didn’t want to save. But it’s not impossible that some souls could refuse to accept the gift. All are offered the chance of heaven; many accept it. More than that, we do not know.


Another short but important teaching is present here, too. The Bible is clear that we are not reincarnated – we live once, and then comes judgment. Scripture only says this explicitly once, but once is enough.


I won’t often preach a sermon which focuses on simply explaining something, rather than having practical consequences. But today is a good day for explanations. Jesus has just completed 40 days explaining things to his disciples. Sometimes we need the humility to accept that God’s explanation for things is good enough, even if it leaves us with more questions.

God had a problem.

God wanted us to enjoy eternal life.Crucifix by Penanne Crabbe

But God is also totally just, totally fair.

None of us deserve to go to Heaven.

Jesus freely chose to die on the Cross to make up for our unworthiness.

Even if we don’t understand how it works, we give thanks that it did work, and Jesus did it.


The mystery of faith:

Save us, Saviour of the World.

For by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.




Original Sin

Yesterday, I took part in a Radio Wales discussion to be broadcast on Sunday, prompted by the recent publication of a book.

Born Bad”, by Australian historian James Boyce, traces the idea of “Original Sin” and its influence on Western history. It got me thinking…

What is Original Sin? It’s a status that we have in God’s eyes. When God looks at the human race, He sees that we are all descendants of the Original Sinner, the first human who failed to carry out His will perfectly. We belong to an imperfect race – but God takes away our status of “original sin” when we are baptised.

How do we know this? It’s another way of expressing truths in the Bible which say we died through Adam but are made alive through Christ (Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:22).a red apple clasped by open hands

When I was asked to make a closing comment for the programme, I said that Original Sin was a true concept, but not one particularly relevant in the 21st Century. Why would I call it “irrelevant”? It’s because in the past we have tried to use “Original Sin” as an answer to several deep questions, an answer that may have seemed plausible then, but can’t hold in the light of what we now know.

In what follows, we need to understand that there are some questions to which the Catholic Church has an official answer (a doctrine), solemnly defined by the authority of the Pope, and other questions on which we are free to hold differing opinions.

As Catholics, we’re free to believe that the Bible story of Adam and Eve is literal, or figurative. But it is a doctrine that all humans descend from one original sinner. Now that’s not incompatible with the theory of evolution; indeed, evolution proposes that for any particular trait which we regard as making us human, we are all descendants from the original ancestor with that trait.

Why do human beings sin?

It’s a doctrine that our vulnerability to being tempted (the technical name is concupisence) came into the world because of the first human’s sin. But inheriting Original Sin isn’t enough to explain why we sin – after all, the first human sinned, and Our Lord experienced temptation, even though neither of them were marked by Original Sin!

There are many questions for modern biology and psychology about “nature versus nurture” and to what extent our good or bad behaviour is driven by the genes we inherit. But the doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t allow us to claim that we were “born bad” – at most, only that we were “born vulnerable”.

Why is there death?

The Deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom asserts that “death came into the world through the Devil’s envy”. But there’s plenty of evidence that stars exploded, plants died and animals ate other animals long before humans were around. How can we make sense of this doctrine? St Paul affirms that death comes to all humans because of sin, and we need to nuance this reference to death so it applies only to bodily death experienced by human beings, creatures with immortal souls.

Since all the biological evidence shows that human beings are part of a natural world with a cycle of life and death, we cannot plausibly assert that the first true human to evolve should have been immortal on the basis of their biology. But if we believe in a God with the power to work miracles, we could believe that God wanted to give the miraculous gift of “never dying” to the first human. We could also then hold that God in fact withheld this gift because the first human wouldn’t live in perfect obedience to God.

In the fullness of time, because of our “happy fault”, Jesus died so that we could become members of his body and be more closely united to God when we are raised after our deaths – a gift even greater than the undying bodily life which could have been given to the first human.

Is it sinful to have sex even within marriage?

Discussions about “Original Sin” often get caught up with a very old idea that there’s something inherently sinful about the way babies are made within marriage. This in itself confuses original sin (which is a status) with the question of whether it’s a sinful act to conceive a child. But in any case, the idea that marital sex is sinful was never an official doctrine of the Church. Marriage between two Christians is a sacrament, and St John Paul II pointed us towards the idea that the bed of a married couple is a holy altar on which this sacrament reaches its consummation – a sacred moment indeed.

Do unbaptised babies go to heaven?

It’s a doctrine that infants who die before being baptised don’t deserve to go to heaven. But it is only an opinion suggested by scholars that God holds these souls in a place called Limbo which isn’t quite as happy as heaven. Pope Benedict XVI asked some top theologians to look again at this teaching and in 2007, their report said that we can believe that God does admit unbaptised children to heaven, but does so as an undeserved gift.

This case gives us a good example of how carefully we must express the Church’s teaching. Pope Innocent III taught that “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision” – in other words, every human being born into our sinful race, because they belong to a sinful race, is not automatically entitled to go to heaven. It sounds like Pope Innocent III was saying that unbaptised babies couldn’t go to heaven. But the statement also leaves room to say that even though they are not entitled to it, God admits them to heaven as an undeserved gift, an act of mercy, a grace. In this Year of Mercy, perhaps we can comfort someone who has lost a child with the idea that the Church trusts in God’s mercy towards infant souls.

The only reason we can’t give a 100% cast-iron guarantee that unbaptised babies go to heaven is that neither the Bible nor the Tradition going back to the Apostles says anything definite on the matter – we can only extrapolate from our general knowledge of God’s love and mercy. Meanwhile, it’s right and proper that we do present our babies to be baptised because God wants us to work with him in the work of redeeming the world; every time we celebrate a sacrament, we do things God’s way, and heaven rejoices.

In summary…

Yes, we were born tainted by Original Sin. No, the act by which we were conceived was not intrinsically sinful. Yes, our bodies will die.

It was never logically coherent to blame Original Sin as the sole reason why we commit actual sins, but our modern scientific knowledge is beginning to allow a much more detailed consideration of how genetics shape human behaviour.

Empirical evidence rules out the idea that death (of plants and animals) only takes place because of the first human sin, and positing that the human body is meant to be intrinsically immortal is highly implausible.

Over the centuries, particularly concerning unbaptised babies, the Catholic Church has carefully nuanced its teaching so that statements which seemed to point in one direction are now taken as pointing in another. The very concept of Original Sin is therefore reduced to a status which a person acquires at conception and loses by baptism, but which has very little practical consequence when distinguished from concupiscence.

Born Bad? No – we are made in God’s image and Genesis assures us that we are very good.

Born imperfect? Yes – but we are invited by a merciful God to walk the path of the sacraments all the way to heaven.