Culture, compassion, consistency and conscience – addressing public policy challenges

In this ‘long read’, Archbishop of Southwark, Most Rev John Wilson, argues that re-evangelisation and the revival of a Christian culture is necessary if we are to successfully make progress in addressing public policy challenges

From 1962 to 1965 the Second Vatican Council transformed the expression and experience of global Catholicism. It is said that universal councils of the Church need at least a hundred years to be implemented properly and interpreted accurately. That means we have forty-two years to go just to get to first base. We are in a continuing period of discernment about the Church’s relationship to the world; about how the Church can be dynamically present to the world; and about what it means for Church to evangelise by speaking the truth in love, and not least the truth about the dignity of human life.

I undertook research some years ago to explore post-Conciliar responses from within the Catholic Church in England and Wales, from 1965 to 2000, concerning the issues of abortion, reproductive technology and euthanasia. What follows are some broad brushstrokes for consideration in relation to public policy on these issues which is also applicable elsewhere.

There was no fundamental change in Catholic teaching on morality relating to human life between the pre- and post-Conciliar periods. There were, however, important changes of accent, with differences of language, tone and style. Catholic teaching about the inviolability of human life remained the same. The change came from societal transition in religious and moral values, with the rise of secularisation and permissive ethics. This enabled cultural and legislative progression towards acceptance of an individual’s choice for abortion, reproductive technology, and euthanasia.

Immediately following Vatican II, the Church maintained a moral authority, largely still within a Christian worldview. While Catholic responses to moral issues did appeal to reason, dialogue with wider society was less important than securing fidelity from Catholics through moral teaching and formation. Our present-day circumstances witness the Church’s authority substantially diminished and our culture post-Christian.

To this day, the 1967 Abortion Act overshadows the entire post-Conciliar ecclesial pro-life project. It also ultimately undermined all subsequent attempts to protect embryonic human life.

In the wake of Vatican II Catholics saw voices in favour of abortion and euthanasia as threatening the goods of faith, reason and society. The wake-up call came with legalised abortion. To this day, the 1967 Abortion Act overshadows the entire post-Conciliar ecclesial pro-life project. It also ultimately undermined all subsequent attempts to protect embryonic human life. With hindsight, Catholic analysis recognised strategic inadequacies within the anti-abortion tactic employed by the Hierarchy. The bishops had been advised that opposition to abortion would be severely undermined were it associated too closely, or even exclusively, with Catholicism. Thus, to avoid the accusation that anti-abortion sentiments were the intransigent dictates of a minority religion’s oppressive leadership, episcopal condemnation was asserted, but, so it was claimed, it needed to be secondary to lay and parliamentary resistance.

The Abortion Bill’s passage into law provoked criticism that both the bishops and Catholic medical professionals had failed in their duties. Unless the legislation had been defeated completely, the bishops would have been equally criticised for assuming the alternative stance of ghetto-Catholic authoritarian imposition. In all probability, prevailing political and social forces would have secured statutory sanction for abortion irrespective of whichever ecclesiastical strategy had been adopted. While ecumenical convergence would have strengthened the argument, the triumph of legalised abortion was an unprecedented indication that more than ecclesial readjustment was taking place during the post-Conciliar period.

Initial Catholic responses to abortion legislation were not without complication. The guiding statements issued by the bishops proved inconsistent and confusing. In a manner uncharacteristic of pre-Conciliar moral teaching, certain questions pertinent to Catholic physicians and nurses, particularly the dilemmas of surgical co-operation in termination, were assigned to individual conscience for resolution rather than to ecclesiastical regulation. This was not problematic in itself. Vatican II had recently re-emphasised the dignity of conscience. The difficulty concerned the appeal to conscience in some areas, but not in others, and the manner in which conscience was to be formed. In affirming the place of conscience, the bishops were also implicitly testifying to the impossible task of comprehensively codifying the increasingly complex circumstances of bio-ethical decisions. What was true then is true today. Formation in an authentic understanding of conscience remains a contemporary need in the Church.

Official Catholic responses to moral issues at the beginning of life generally shunned discussions of personhood as philosophically extrinsic to the biological reality of an existing human life’s claim to protection. Similarly, questions surrounding individuality in relation to the embryo were dismissed by arguments advocating precautious defence in favour of human rights and life, although the presence of certain ambiguities was readily acknowledged. Whilst this enabled Catholic responses to maintain directness and simplicity of language and concept, critics accused the Church of failing to address adequately essential aspects of the debate, notably the process of embryonic individuation. Striving for an accurate scientific foundation, disagreement with the Church’s position derived from differences in interpreting the facts, generally dictated by divergent ideologies and rationale. In asserting fertilisation to be the origin of both human life and of human rights, majority Catholic opinion had committed itself to a default stance, opposing any measure that threatened the continued existence of a newly conceived life. However, refusing to engage with certain questions or ideas ran risks in terms of credibility; and the same is true today.

Across the post-Conciliar timeframe, until the year 2000 we see, within the variety of Catholic responses to bio-ethical questions, a transition from predominantly religious language and argumentation to justice-orientated assertions of the right to life, in accordance with notions of the common good. Catholic contributors recognised that the authority of religious interventions, which sought to influence a progressively secularist and pluralistic society, depended on the ability to engage dialogically and rationally, employing accessible terminology and logic.

The successes and failures in this endeavour can be determined from examination of the Catholic submissions to different governmental committees and bodies. Moreover, these also reveal a further and significant factor, namely the expression of disagreement within Catholic ranks. The post-Conciliar period witnessed numerous and diverse contributions by Catholic representatives to the process of parliamentary investigation on questions of abortion, reproductive technology and euthanasia. Whilst each submission reflects the particular approach and emphasis of the sponsoring organisation, the, at times, blatant contradictory recommendations and conclusions challenged the assumption that there existed, even in England and Wales, a single Catholic interpretation.

It would be inaccurate and simplistic to suggest that divided Catholic opinion and submissions assisted the 1984 Warnock Report’s endorsement of in vitro fertilisation, whilst the unanimity of Catholic proposals to the 1993 House of Lords’ Select Committee on Medical Ethics ensured euthanasia’s continued prohibition. Yet, the reality of Catholic discord on bio-ethical matters was significant. While bishops might rightfully assert that their response conveys authentically the Catholic Church’s position, the presence of divergent and dissenting other Catholic opinions undermined the credibility of their status and message. In a related, but different sense, ecumenical and inter-religious divergence can have a similar effect. It splits the ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ view, potentially setting one religious group against another, or allowing the ‘religious’ voice to be dismissed as too confused to be important.

Integral to the Catholic Church’s response to abortion legislation was the initiation of practical pastoral strategies to assist those who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant and faced with circumstances or pressures which made abortion the only option. An essential part of any effective response to abortion requires that fundamental root causes be addressed and viable alternatives be provided. Again, however, this will not quell those for whom this is solely an issue of rightful autonomous choice.

Defeat on abortion was disorientating for the Church and began a slippery slope assault on human life in our country. The pro-abortion argument in British society had been fought and won, leaving opponents the arduous and long-term project of re-conscientisation concerning unborn life, supplemented by preventative alternative practical propositions. The Church remained convinced that moral formation in the values of life, sexuality, and the family, promoted in accordance with justice, offered the best possibility for cultural and ethical renewal. We will each have a view as to how successful we believe that has been and why.

Even within the broadly unified Catholic responses on abortion, differences surfaced in the interpretation of specific related realities such as the administration of the morning after pill following rape, the acceptability of rubella vaccinations with cell lines from aborted babies, and the advice to electors on pro-life issues. Appeals or referrals to conscience could only make sense where the working and application of conscience was properly understood within the ecclesial and wider community. The confusion between conscience and autonomy remains to this day among Catholics. In Veritatis Splendour, St John Paul II distinguishes between a ‘false autonomy’ and a ‘rightful autonomy,’ affirming a ‘participated theonomy,’ where human free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence. (VS cf. 38-41) This is something we could promote more fully.

Within the Church’s response to reproductive technology some Catholic contributors advocated the ‘simple case’ of in vitro fertilisation, both to the Warnock Inquiry, and in opposition to the Vatican’s 1987 instruction on human life. Even the Bishops’ Conference appeared initially in favour, or at least unclear as to whether it should be entirely against. The gradual realisation, however, that, in practice, fertilisation in vitro was inseparable from embryo exploitation and, that furthermore, it precipitated experimentation on human life, de facto incapable of consent, served to clarify a negative official ethical assessment. There was, and remains, a need for adequate pastoral responses to infertility.

The connection is made between the legal acceptance of abortion and moves towards euthanasia, both connected by the affirmation of autonomy over the continued existence of life. The experience of abortion legislation, and the liberalisation of its application, and the shifts from embryo manipulation in the treatment of infertility to wholesale destructive experimentation, have aroused Catholic vigilance to the reality that, no matter how strictly regulated, legalising the practice of euthanasia would signal the advent of serious degeneration in ethics and care at the end of life.

There is a vital need to reclaim authentic compassion as an intrinsic and authentic Christian virtue which sits within an ethical framework. Compassion cannot equal blind acceptance of moral wrong. It’s an often hijacked sentiment, used to validate free choice in difficult circumstances irrespective of consequences. The categorisation of certain human lives as expendable through abortion, embryo destruction and euthanasia, is nothing less than a radical reassessment not only of our once common morality, but also of our common humanity.

Given the extensive responses of the post-Conciliar Catholic Church in England and Wales to these ethical issues, one might reasonably ponder why the message appears to have gone largely unheeded; or, to put it another way, why the battle has, in some sense, been lost. Certainly considerations of the content of communication and the nature of argumentation are relevant, as is consideration about the limitations in effectiveness imposed by internal disagreement and mixed messaging. Perhaps the most important factor, however, in reducing the efficacy of the Church’s response has been that of society’s increasingly individualistic and utilitarian culture, accompanied by a drastically decreased appreciation for any morality pertaining to a Christian ethos and expressed by the institutional Church which has failed in safeguarding vulnerable children and adults. The momentum that enabled abortion and embryo destruction to prevail now targets the legalisation of euthanasia. Comprehensive hospice provision offers no answer to those who simply want to assert their supposed right to die, when and how they choose. In whatever way the Catholic Church continues to respond – and she must continue to respond – the dynamics of secularisation will be influential, if not dominant, in shaping the argument; and, therefore, the rebuttal has to be shaped accordingly.

In essence, the Church is brought back to her apostolic roots, called to speak the truth in love to a world that does not know God. Everyone worships something, even if irreligiously and subconsciously. St Paul preached to a people who worshipped an unknown God, and he named Him to be the God of Jesus Christ. A radical re-evangelisation of culture offers the fundamental and enduring response to ethical questions, spotlighting genuine alternatives which serve the common good, and recalling society to an inner conviction of human life’s grandeur and dignity as the sacrosanct gift of God.

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Author: John Wilson

Published: 4th April 2023

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020