Friday 30 October 2020

Abortion and Disability

 While Poland experiences street protests against a judicial determination that abortion on the grounds of disability of the unborn baby is unconstitutional, the BBC has carried a report of the experiences of mothers of Down's Syndrome children. The headings of the three testimonies in the report are:

'The support was only there if I chose an abortion'
'At 38 weeks, I was told I could still terminate'
'I started to ask myself what is so wrong with him having Down's Syndrome'

The last testimony is, in some respects, the most challenging but at the same time the most instructive:

When Tom was born, Nicola was euphoric. But the following day, a paediatrician asked her if she thought he looked normal.

Tom was diagnosed with Down's syndrome and Nicola's world fell apart.

"I was offered absolutely no support to rebuild it," she says. "I felt complete and utter despair and devastation. Gone was this gorgeous baby and instead he was replaced with this unknown entity." .....

..... Nicola's maternal bond had been "severed" and it took her more than a year to fall back in love with her son.

"I started to ask myself, 'what is so wrong with him having Down's syndrome?'"

Tom, now 16, is a pupil in mainstream education. Nicola describes him as "charming, witty and charismatic". A West Bromwich Albion fan, he also enjoys golf, snorkelling and kayaking and hopes to get a job and get married.

Nicola says cancelling the amniocentesis was the best decision she ever made.

"I am terrified I would have terminated Tom's life. I was led to believe he would have a negative impact on our lives but he has enriched them and we are without doubt better people for having him in them."

The BBC report demonstrates clearly a presumption on the part of health care professionals to encourage mothers to consider abortion where there is risk of a baby having Down's Syndrome. It is difficult to read the BBC report without actually feeling that that encouragement is close to, if not in fact, undue pressure. The BBC report links to the page on the NHS website page - here - that offers advice for women with regard to the outcome of pre-natal screening tests. It would be interesting to know how much, in the light of the advice on this page, the experience of mothers has changed compared to the testimonies in this report (the advice has been changed as a result of campaigning by Nicola).

The BBC report prompts two thoughts:

Is an abortion a truly acceptable option in the case of a disability that still leaves the new born baby with a life expectancy of between 50 and 60 years (according to the BBC report), and where, during their lifetime, they can be expected to contribute much to the lives of those around them?

The fact that such an abortion is legal in the UK means that every woman who is expecting a child who may be disabled is put in the position of having to make a decision for or against that abortion. Is the challenge/difficulty, or even the degree of trauma, involved in that decision really in the best interests of every woman, particularly given the apparent presumption in one direction of the surrounding medical care? Is this a choice that women should really be asked to make?

Sunday 25 October 2020

The dangers of not defining the term "love"

 In times when the word "love" is often used in an ill-defined way, it is tempting to assimilate the teaching of the Gospel at Mass today (30th Sunday of the Year):

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.... You must love your neighbour as yourself.

to the mantra of those who advocate for same-sex marriage:

We should be free to marry whoever we love.

Among Christians in general, the ability to answer this incorrect assimilation is undermined if there is no clear definition of what is meant by the term "love", and so there is a slide into an almost passive acceptance of same-sex unions through a lack of confidence as to how to argue against them.

The parish newsletter in the parish where I go to Mass opened with the following commentary on the words of the Gospel:

We are all surely familiar with these words. The question is, do we understand them, and do we live them? Before we can consider the three elements of this summary of the law (love of God, neighbour and self) we need to understand what love is, for we often mistake other things for love. Love is not just a feeling, though feelings certainly form part of it. Nor is it mere instinct or attraction, though these too play a part. Love, ultimately, is an act of the will – a choice. A choice for the good of another person, that takes priority over our own feelings, and is made without any thought to self -interest or personal gain. Put like this it sounds daunting, impossible even, but this kind of love is something we grow into, with God’s help, and our lives on earth are principally a preparation and training ground for the life of perfect unalloyed love which is heaven. 

The full newsletter, with its further commentary on the Gospel, can be found here - note that it will not be a permanent link, as the parish website only keeps recent newsletters. 

The homily I heard at Mass (from a priest covering from a neighbouring parish) was also interesting. In answering the question as to why it was love of God that was the first commandment, rather than love of neighbour, Father suggested that it was our need to experience love first that then enabled us to act in love towards others. As we come to appreciate and know just how much God has loved us, before we have loved him, then we grow in our ability to love others. 

But these words also have a resonance at the ordinary human level which Father did not develop.  Young people who do not have an experience of love in its true sense from their family backgrounds in their turn find it much harder (though it is not impossible) to love their neighbour, and to love a spouse and children in marriage. And we see this consequence in our societies today.

The commentary from the parish newsletter came to its conclusion with the following:

It is easy to overlook the last part: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Loving ourselves means accepting ourselves as God’s beloved son or daughter, and seeking our own good just as God does – that ‘good’ being a share in his life for eternity. Cut adrift from God and the notion of absolute truth and absolute values, many people in society today feel that it is necessary to affirm every choice as equally ‘good’. But God, as a good and loving father knows that not every choice is good for us. It is because God loves us, that he wants us to choose what is good whilst respecting our freedom to make good and bad choices. He affirms us but not every choice we make! Since God loves us, we can and must love ourselves. The three loves Jesus speaks of – God, neighbour, and self – are not in competition, for our supreme good, that of our neighbour, and God’s will, all coincide. 

Thursday 22 October 2020

Pope Francis and same-sex unions

 Catholic teaching on same-sex unions - and, I would suggest, Pope Francis' attitude to them - have not changed despite the reporting of his remarks in a recent film. The BBC include some balanced commentary, but the London Evening Standard are suggesting a "major step forward" that appears unjustified.

Catholic teaching is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Pope Francis has been very clear in critiquing the "colonization of the family" by an ideology of gender, and in critiquing theories of gender that undermine the proper complementarity of the male and female sexes. He has also upheld the idea that marriage is rightly understood as being a vowed relationship between one man and one woman. No-one should be under any misapprehension about this.

I have added the italics in n.2358 in the quotation above because, so far as I can tease it out from the media reporting, Pope Francis' remarks on same sex unions in the film are addressed to particular circumstances for which he articulates the principle of non-discrimination. He does not appear to me to be seeking to change Catholic teaching, or the perception of Catholic teaching.

There is, for example, no moral approval intended of the same sex relationship between the two people contained in the encouragement that they and the children they are bringing up should attend Mass. Applied to the particular circumstances, this appears to me nothing other than "accepting with respect, compassion and sensitivity". The observation that people "have a right to a family" appears to me to address two possible situations: firstly, where children are being brought up by a same-sex couple, where it represents a statement of the care due to those children whoever might provide it; and secondly, to a situation where a member of a family identifies as LGBT and might at that point be cast out from their family as a result. In both cases we again have an articulation of the principle of non-discrimination applied to a specific instance, and, in addition, a thought provoking suggestion as to how Catholic families might prepare to respond should such an instance occur in their own family or extended circle.

The difficulty with expressing support for legislation for civil unions for same-sex couples is that those unions can be perceived as a form of same-sex marriage in all but name (and, as has now happened, represent just a stepping stone on the way to further legal provision that does equate same-sex unions with opposite sex marriage). They can be perceived as an acceptance of the moral legitimacy of such relationships. However, there is some justice in making provision for same-sex couples who may have lived a shared common life over many years to have similar protections over their goods and property that a married opposite sex couple would have - but, of course, this does not have to be linked to the sexual aspect of their shared life. Such provision can be framed for any people who have lived such a shared common life, of which same-sex couples would be one example. In speaking out for a legal provision for civil unions, Pope Francis is again attempting (perhaps in a way that lacks precision) to articulate the principle of non-discrimination.

Mark Lambert has some very useful additional comment on the question of Pope Francis' words about  the "right to a family" and about civil unions here: No, no he didn't actually ..

As the BBC commentary observes, there is no indication what so ever that a change in the substantive position of the Catholic Church on this subject is likely, and media coverage that suggests a "major step forward" is not helpful either to expectations in the Church at large or to the expectations of the LGBT community.

Monday 19 October 2020

Life: A Mystery

 ... is the title of a session at the 2020 annual Rimini Meeting organised under the auspices of Communion and Liberation. The link to the video of the session is here: Life: A Mystery. The first and third presentations are in English; the second presentation is a simultaneous English translation from Italian (there may be one or two infelicitous translations, where an English phrase may not fully reflect the Italian original). Total length is just over an hour.

The first presentation gives a survey of the experience of euthanasia in the Netherlands by Theo Boer, an ethicist who had originally supported legislation in favour of euthanasia but subsequently resigned from one of the regional oversight committees that exist in the Netherlands. The second is given by the doctor responsible for leading on the intensive care provision in Lombardy province during the COVID-19 emergency earlier this year. He describes his experience during that time. The third presentation is from Elvira Parravicini, describing her work in Neo-natal Comfort Care. She ends her talk with a very moving account of one of her cases. 

I think the video is worth watching, not just because of its content, but also because of the encounter it engenders with the presenters, and the sense it gives of how they have responded to the challenges of their professional lives.

Friday 16 October 2020

Globalisation: 1931 and 2020

 From Quadragesimo Anno (1931):

105. In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.
106. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.
107. This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience.

My italics added.  There is an interesting point raised here, given that the discussion of Quadragesimo Anno, and the earlier Rerum Novarum, focusses so much on the principle of ownership and the relationship between capital and ownership and between labour and ownership. Is there an ethical objection to be raised to this divorce of capital from ownership of an enterprise? Is not this the true sense of the term usury - a use of capital to gain profit without any ownership or labour that is ordered towards the creation of wealth?

From Fratelli Tutti (2020):

12. “Opening up to the world” is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries. Local conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy in order to impose a single cultural model. This culture unifies the world, but divides persons and nations, for “as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours, but does not make us brothers”. We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life. Indeed, there are markets where individuals become mere consumers or bystanders. As a rule, the advance of this kind of globalism strengthens the identity of the more powerful, who can protect themselves, but it tends to diminish the identity of the weaker and poorer regions, making them more vulnerable and dependent. In this way, political life becomes increasingly fragile in the face of transnational economic powers that operate with the principle of “divide and conquer”. 

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Anscombe Bioethics Centre: the Ethics of Pandemic Lockdown

 The Anscombe Bioethics Centre have commissioned, and published on their website, a series of  COVID-19 briefing papers. One of these papers addresses the ethics of imposed lockdowns to control the spread of the pandemic virus in different places. Written in mid-June 2020, it is able to draw on the experience of lockdowns in different parts of the world. It is able to discuss the part that has been played by lockdowns in relation to other steps aimed at keeping the spread of the pandemic under control, and the necessity of moving to a lockdown if those steps are not able to limit community spread.

The headings of the first three substantive sections of the paper are: "The Science of Pandemics", "The Logic of Pandemic Lockdowns" and "The Efficacy of Pandemic Lockdowns". These sections are clear that the virus responsible for COVID-19 represents a real and serious threat to the health of populations and to the well being of their communities. These sections provide properly academic analysis of the experience of different nations with respect to the implementation - or otherwise - of lockdowns. They are worth reading fully to provide a proper balance to coverage in the news media.

Before identifying the ethical principles that would underpin an evaluation of lockdowns, the fourth section, entitled "The Ethics of Pandemic Lockdowns", begins:

As we discussed above, lockdowns are the most potent weapon that public health officials can deploy to prevent or to limit a viral wildfire. They are used to bring an uncontrolled pandemic into control. From a public health perspective, this would ensure not only the health and well-being of a community but also the integrity and functioning of its healthcare system. However, a lockdown also has profound and often devastating impacts on the community’s economic and financial well-being. In April 2020, because of the Global Lockdown, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that global growth in this year of pandemic would fall to -3%. This is a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020.

 Three ethical principles are then identified. The first is that there should be no differentiation in the duty of care between different members of society. Human dignity, and the regard for that dignity, attaches to each and every person regardless of their particular circumstances of physical health or social standing:

As a community, we have to try to protect them equally well during a pandemic even though we may not be able to protect everyone equally well. 

The second is a call to favour and protect the poor and the vulnerable:

Recalling the story of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46), we are called to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. This is especially important to remember during this pandemic because it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the loss of health and the loss of wealth caused by COVID-19. 

 The third principle is that of protecting and preserving the common good of our communities:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the common good as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.’ Within the commonweal, the government is given the authority to care for the common good. This is its primary responsibility. 

Pandemic lockdowns only make sense, from an ethical point of view, in their ability to protect and preserve the common good by reducing viral spread and, in particular, viral spread in the community. 

Lockdowns are ethically justifiable precisely because they protect both the individual good, especially the individual good of the poor and the vulnerable, and the common good. They ensure not only the health and well-being of a community but also the integrity and functioning of its healthcare system. 

The responsibility of government for the common good is what allows them to establish regulations with regard to the conduct of their lives during the pandemic that oblige the  population of their country. The citizen in their turn has an obligation to engage, as a subject of their own action, in favour of the common good and therefore in compliance with established regulations. Government is entitled, for example, to make self-isolation mandatory when a person is identified as a "contact" or tests positive for COVID-19. But the common good in its economic dimension also needs to be considered in determining the exact provisions of a lockdown. 

As we move forward, public health authorities should do what they can to avoid another global lockdown. The pandemic experience in several countries and locales including South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, show us how to do this: By building a robust testing, tracking, and tracing capacity that can identify clusters of infections and break chains of viral transmission before they trigger community spread and exponential growth of the pandemic. 

I would recommend Rev. Austriaco's briefing paper, particularly to those who are tempted by the inclination of some towards virus-sceptic or lockdown-sceptic positions.

Monday 12 October 2020

The Universal Destination of Goods: Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II and Rerum Novarum

I have recently had reason to study Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum. The sense as one reads Leo XIII's account of the right to private property, of which he gives an extensive defence in terms of natural law, the family and in its nature as the fruit of a persons labour (nn.4-9, 11-13), is that it is the right to private ownership of property that comes first followed by the teaching on the demands of the universal destination of goods (n.22).

The balance in the account of the seventh commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn.2402-2406) appears more strongly to put the universal destination of goods first, and the right to private ownership of property as second to it.

The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

Pope Francis cites Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens on exactly this point. John Paul II asserts that the right to private property is subordinated to the universal destination of goods in the context of a particular discussion of ownership of the means of industrial production (n.14), though Pope Francis cites a later reference (n.19) to this principle in John Paul's account of the part played by a worker's wage in allowing access to a share in the universal destination of goods.

In a section of the Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti entitled "Re-envisioning the social role of property", Pope Francis writes:

118. The world exists for everyone, because all of us were born with the same dignity. Differences of colour, religion, talent, place of birth or residence, and so many others, cannot be used to justify the privileges of some over the rights of all. As a community, we have an obligation to ensure that every person lives with dignity and has sufficient opportunities for his or her integral development.

119. In the first Christian centuries, a number of thinkers developed a universal vision in their reflections on the common destination of created goods.[91] This led them to realize that if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it. Saint John Chrysostom summarizes it in this way: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well”.[92] In the words of Saint Gregory the Great, “When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us”.[93]

120. Once more, I would like to echo a statement of Saint John Paul II whose forcefulness has perhaps been insufficiently recognized: “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”.[94] For my part, I would observe that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”.[95] The principle of the common use of created goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order”;[96] it is a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others.[97] All other rights having to do with the goods necessary for the integral fulfilment of persons, including that of private property or any other type of property, should – in the words of Saint Paul VI – “in no way hinder [this right], but should actively facilitate its implementation”.[98] The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society. Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.

 The three Popes - Leo XIII, John Paul II and Francis - each address different historical contexts: the rise of socialism (but read carefully how this term is to be understood) in the case of Leo XIII, the question of ownership in largely industrialized societies in the case of John Paul II and the selfishness of largely post-industrial societies in the case of Francis. Pope Francis teaching can be seen to be in absolute continuity with that of his predecessors in the See of St Peter, and with a particular application to the circumstances of his time.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Universal Fraternity: Pope Francis and St Francis

 Pope Francis takes, it appears to me, a very significant step when he writes, in the first paragraph of his Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti:

"FRATELLI TUTTI". With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel. Of the counsels Francis offered, I would like to select the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother “as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him”. In his simple and direct way, Saint Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.

Whilst it is not clear when and under what circumstances the Admonitions, to which Pope Francis refers in this paragraph, were composed, they would appear to have been addressed to gatherings or chapters of the early followers of St Francis. St Francis would appear to have attached great importance to them, wishing them to be written down exactly as he had delivered them.

The first audience of these words, then, are the brothers gathered around St Francis himself; and then, with their preservation in the Franciscan tradition, members of the Franciscan order reaching down to our own day. The intention is that they should give an account of the style of life expected of the brothers. So, for example, the praise of the brother who loves a brother both when they are far and near might have a reference to the Franciscan who has travelled or is away from his community.

Pope Francis, however, has St Francis address the Admonitions to "his brothers and sisters". There is a textual justification for this, in that the text of many of the individual admonitions refer in a generic way to the blessings of the "servant who ..." (much in the style of the Beatitudes). While the context of their composition suggests a direction immediately to the brothers engaged in the Franciscan life, the text taken apart from this context can be given a wider audience, that is, an audience of all those who would live a Christian life, both men and women. 

This generalization of the applicability of a life according to a religious rule to all Christians reminds me of an observation made by Louis Bouyer in the Preface to his book The Meaning of the Monastic Life.

The purpose of this book is primarily to point out to monks that their vocation in the Church is not, and never has been a special vocation. The vocation of the monk is, but is no more than, the vocation of the baptized man. But it is the vocation of the baptized man carried, I would say, to the farthest limits of its irresistible demands. All men who have put on Christ have heard the call to seek God. The monk is one for whom this call has become so urgent that there can be no question of postponing his response to it ... But this is tantamount to saying that this book is equally for every Christian ...

The last sentence of the paragraph extends the Franciscan charism of fraternity to apply it to each and every person, be they Christian or not. The movement of the idea of fraternity referenced in the paragraph is therefore from a specific charism associated with St Francis towards a wider experience applicable for all who would live a Christian life and, eventually, to suggest an applicability of the idea of fraternity to each and every person, be they Christian or not.

It argues for the extension of a Christian charism of fraternity in the wider world. To suggest otherwise is to misrepresent the inspiration of Pope Francis as expressed in this paragraph.