Impressive Pro-Life Testimonies at the Republican National Convention

Pro-life testimonies at the Republican National ConventionThe recent Republican National Convention featured some extremely impressive anti-abortion testimonies, three of which I want to share with you today. In the first, Abby Johnson, former clinic director and employee of the year at the major abortion provider Planned Parenthood, relates her experiences. As her superior told her: ‘abortion is how we make our money’. 

In the second, Tera Myers, whose son has Down’s Syndrome, describes the anti-life medical community’s attitude to disability. She quotes her doctor’s advice to abort her son: ‘If you do not, you will be burdening your life, your family and your community’.

In the third, Sr Dede Byrne, M.D., a former colonel of the US Army Medical Corps, and now a religious sister of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, reminds us that the Biden-Harris presidential ticket is the most anti-life ever. As she says: ‘The largest marginalized group in the world can be found here in the United States: they are the unborn’.

With her excellent line ‘I’m saying [this] not just because I am pro-life, but becauseI am pro-eternal life’, Sr Byrne also neatly indicates why the Church opposes abortion so vigorously. It is not because she is a mere moral pressure group, but because she is (in her view) the ordinary human instrument of God’s preparing people for heaven. However, God has given man free will: man can turn himself away from God by sin, and so frustrate the Church’s mission. The Church therefore opposes political policies that abet sin: and ‘pro-choice’ policies, more than any others, directly facilitate sins—namely the sins of performing, procuring, or choosing to have, abortions. This (as I would put it) is why the Church speaks against ‘Pro-Choice’ policies so insistently.

The real Hallowe’en

As many have observed, Hallowe’en seems a tiresome prospect this year, because most people have been wearing scary masks for months. I for one shall certainly be glad if fewer American-style trick-or-treaters roam the streets; for as most British people lose the last vestiges of cultural Christianity, one feels that they are beginning to celebrate the dark the powers that their expensive Hallowe’en costumes depict, rather than warding them off, and trick-or-treating itself takes on a more menacing tone. But what is the alternative?

Here we need to look to the past. We Northern Europeans have long seen Hallowe’en as a night of spiritual significance. Gaelic pagans regarded Hallowe’en night as the end of the harvest season, and as the beginning of the festival day of Samhain, which for them was a liminal time—a time to be on one’s guard against ill forces. By the eighth century, under the Church, Hallowe’en had become the day before All Hallows’ Day, or, in modern English, All Saints’ Day; which began with first vespers on Hallowe’en night itself. According to the popular belief of the late Middle Ages, those dead Christians who were unready for heaven (the Church Penitent) became restless on this night. Many people imagined that they rose from graveyards to perform a consoling ‘danse macabre’, depictions of which were common in churches—a kind of Christian memento mori. In some places, poor children went ‘souling’: they knocked on doors to ask for specially-baked ‘soul cakes’, and in return they would pray for the bakers’ dead relatives. After the Reformation, many Protestants taught that the saved were ready for heaven immediately they died, but the custom of ‘souling’ survived in many Protestant places—though the souls of Purgatory were transformed into less definable spirits, perhaps malign.

But the Hallowe’en of Christendom was never a celebration of death and dark powers; it was never an acknowledgement of their mastery over us. For, as I have said, it was really the vigil of All Saints’ Day, the great celebration not only of saints but of God-given sainthood itself. On this day, Western Christians honoured—and still honour—the saints in heaven (the ChurchTriumphant), and thus praise and glorify God for his sanctifying work in them. So doing, we also declare our wish to be as open as them to God’s grace: to that shared divine life God offers to the faithful.
It is this ideal, I think, that can tell us how to celebrate Hallowe’en today: so to speak, we need once more to plant our pumpkins in Christian soil. At the Christian Hallowe’en, Christians acknowledge the darkness of sin within man, and its consequence, death; but we do so only to prepare for the great feast of the triumph of the Church, the great reminder that the darkness within us need not have the last word in our lives—and that therefore it need not have the last word within our societies either. In the struggles of mortal life in this ‘vale of tears’, the Church knows well by experience that the prayers of those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) help those of us alive today (the Church Militant). The whole Church is one great family of prayer.

Indeed, for that very reason, the Christian season of Allhallowstide, which begins on Hallowe’en, has one third and final day. On the second of November, the Church celebrates All Souls’ Day: the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Christian liturgy on this day resembles that of a funeral; the day is especially comforting for those in mourning, who can unite their pains of bereavement to those of the whole Church Militant, as everywhere she dons black vestments and commemorates the dead. No-one need feel alone in grief on this day.

Allhallowstide thus takes us from a reminder of darkness, to a glorious glimpse of our future hope and the ongoing triumph of the Church, and takes us back again to an honest acknowledgement of the pains of this mortal life; but an acknowledgement filled with the renewed hope of faith. It is through just such a season, developed by many generations of the faithful, that society can again find a rational, hopeful, faithful response to the increasingly satanic tenor of the de-christianized Hallowe’en. This Hallowe’en night, then, why not observe Allhallowstide, starting with the first vespers or evensong of All Saints?

POSTSCRIPT. There is one common Christian objection to Allhallowstide, which sadly keeps many from enjoying its benefits. For it has always been a human religious instinct to honour distinguished creatures as well as God: the classical cult of heroes shows us this, as does the recent cult of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But some Christian men (and it is almost always men) think that Christian practices that satisfy pre-theoretical human religious or aesthetic instincts distract Christians from a pure intellectual awareness of the Gospel, and are ‘pagan’ and ‘religious’ (a pejorative term for them). They therefore object to the veneration of saints, adding that it cheats God of the love and reverence due to him alone. However, this objection is easily answered. The instinct of veneration is no more peculiarly pagan than the instinct of prayer to God. The Faith is that to which all human religious instincts, all our mental striving, and our very nature points; the cross is written through all the substance of the world. Fittingly, therefore, the Faith reconciles, perfects and fulfils our religious instincts; it does not simply deny or suppress them. Indeed Christians’ love of the saints, like our love of our families, in no way conflicts with our love of God: love is not a zero-sum game. 

Catholics, voting, abortion and social justice.

Why is society imperfect? Why is there war and crime and social injustice? The answer, for Catholics, is clear: man is fallen. Therefore, if Americans want to make their society and country better, their first task is to help themselves and others to let in God’s grace, to reject sin, and to grow in holiness. In that way alone can man produce a glimmer of the heavenly city on earth. This first task–the sanctification and salvation of souls–is the true purpose of the Church; it is what she is made for. A more just society is a side-effect of the Church’s work, but not her primary goal. Indeed she forsakes her unique purpose if she tries to pursue social justice as her primary end.

This shows why those Catholics who would put other social justice issues above abortion, and vote for Biden–Harris, are so muddled in their thinking. True social justice emerges when individuals reject sin; and only then. But no political policies promote sins–and very serious sins–more effectively than pro-choice ones: the materially grave sins of abortionists, women, and others involved.

Other social justice questions leave far less sin at stake. Under Bush, pro-Democrat Catholics equated deaths by abortion with deaths by war; under Trump they weigh abortion against unjust immigration policies. But death in war often involves no serious sin on either side of the conflict; and it is far from obvious that an American’s voting for or implementing a questionable immigration policy is a grave sin (in the latter case, it might depend partly on his ranking and station within immigration enforcement).

In terms of promotion of sin then, there is simply no comparison between ‘pro-choice’ policies and (let us say) socially unjust Republican ones. By equating these putative Republican injustices with abortion, and so ignoring the question of sin, pro-Biden Catholics are pursuing a mere effect of the Church’s sanctifying work, namely social justice, as if it were the primary goal of the Church in itself. But this makes no theological sense, and is doomed to failure: society cannot enjoy the effects of grace if it closes itself to grace by embracing sin-promoting policies.

This confusion about the Church’s purpose sadly seems to have reached the episcopate. Consider Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a specialist in Catholic social teaching, who questioned the United States Bishops’ Conference recent description of abortion as its ‘pre-eminent’ social justice concern; he wanted similar weight to be given to other social justice issues.

We can infer that the bishop was making the same mistake that I have imputed to pro-Biden Catholics if we consider other statements of his. In his own diocese, he has defended a parish’s employment of an openly practicing homosexual, arguing that ‘if the Church eliminated all employees who are not living out the teachings of the Church in its fulness, we would be employing only angels’. The bishop’s logic here seems to be that almost none of us perfectly realise Catholic social teaching—almost none of us identify ourselves with the poor as St Francis did—and therefore none of us can be said to be any more compliant with Church teaching than said homosexual. This reasoning ignores questions of intention, deliberation, and obligation, and so conflates the world’s evils with imputable personal sin (formal sin). It looks more like late Protestantism’s sin-minimising take on the doctrine of total depravity (which labelled all our actions sinful, and so made the concept of personal sin meaningless) than it does anything Catholic. 

Though I should acknowledge that I cannot prove that the bishop has been making this mistake, nevertheless I have reason to suspect so: for if one loses the distinction between evil and imputable personal sin, then one will indeed think that the Church’s primary mission can and should be to reduce evils like social injustice, and one will be unable to understand that societies best curtail the proliferation of evil by resisting and discouraging personal sin. This mistake—the final consequence of which would be that the Church think and act like just another NGO—is not one that senior churchmen should be making.

Perhaps, then, it would be good if those Catholics who would conflate abortion with other social justice issues reflected carefully on the end of man, the nature of sin, and the purpose of the Church. Let us hope and pray that they do so in the next couple of weeks.

Our Lady of Aberdeen

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Aberdeen, as celebrated in the Diocese of Aberdeen. Here is the old hymn for Our Lady under this title, which my source tells me was composed by Mother Francis Forbes R.S.C.J.

Our Lady of Good Succour,
In the city by the sea,
Where the Don flows down the valley
To greet the silver Dee,
The ashes of faith still smoulder
Where the fire of the faith has been:
Bring the old faith back to Scotland
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Our Lady of Good Succour,
In the country saints have trod,
*Martyrs and brave confessors
Who gave their lives for God,
O hear the prayer of Columba,
Of Margaret, Saint and Queen:
Bring the old faith back to Scotland
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Our Lady of Good Succour,
The love of God grows cold
In a country that has forgotten
The saving truths of old;
But a brighter dawn is breaking
And a fairer hope is seen:
Bring the old faith back to Scotland
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Our Lady of Good succour,
In the happy days of old
Men deck’d thy gracious image
With silver and with gold;
Though darker days succeeded
Thou still art Scotland’s Queen,
Come back, come back to Scotland,
Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Sadly the diocese replaced this hymn with a ecumenicalized version in the 1980’s, but it still speaks powerfully today.

*My source has ‘while’ before this word, but that makes no sense.

The Meerkat and the Lemmings

Suppose your London home was subject to daily harassment and brutish intimidation, far from anyone you could really trust. Suppose you lived there with your wife and four-year old child. Suppose you thought you very likely had coronavirus, and suppose your wife had just become very sick. Suppose you could drive your wife and child somewhere else, without stopping; somewhere where young adult relatives could care for your child if you and your wife became incapacitated; a place where you could, however, keep your family isolated if that didn’t happen. What would you do?

Suppose that you then had a nasty bout of probable coronavirus, recovered, still felt strange, and wanted to get back to London to help coordinate national government. Might you not take a brief test-drive, stopping nowhere special, and then drive back to work?  

            Those are the questions that our media do not want to ask. Why? Because they hate Dominic Cummings. He’s a maverick, an outsider—just look at his dress sense—; he’s a game-changer; and—quelle horreur— he’s a Brexiteer. Therefore, it seems, he’s also fair game for a witch-hunt.

            Unfortunately for the media, though, at yesterday’s press conference Cummings was the witch that wouldn’t float. Politically dangerous but personally quiet and sincere, Cummings offered a reasonable account of his movements, quoting the government guidelines, which tell us to use our grown-up judgement if we have young children. Beth Rigby of Sky suggested to him that he had ‘badly misjudged the public mood on this’. In reply, Cummings explained that any public anger was largely due to misinformation (he was too polite to say ‘fake news’). As he quietly insisted over the course of the interview, stories that he had stayed with his parents, that his parents had looked after his children, that he’d had a jolly at Barnard Castle, and that he’d gone back to Durham after his return to London, were all false. One’s overall impression was that the mad-but-loveable inventor Sergei the Meerkat had accidentally teleported himself into Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. But it took courage for Cummings to hold his line as he did, and one couldn’t but conclude that that courage came from his conviction that he’d done right by his family.

The media were really contemptible. One journalist suggested that, in using his discretion regarding his young child, Cummings had used a ‘legal nicety’, adding “there may be some legal loophole, but you’ve broken the spirit of it” [sic]. (Laura Kuenssberg would later write that Cummings ‘at the very least broke the spirit of the lockdown rules’[1]). The concept of ‘breaking the spirit of the rules’ of course makes no sense when the rules allow discretion, and in any case suggests a worrying conflation between the Coronavirus guidelines and actual law. Indeed, ‘loopholes’ are things one finds in complicated statute laws that judges must apply strictly—not in guidance that’s supposed to be followed and enforced with good sense. (I.e.: if the letter of the law says ‘use good sense’, then it’s impossible to break the spirit of the law without breaking the letter, and so the concept ‘the spirit of the law’ is redundant). The media’s use of such terms for the coronavirus guidelines is Orwellian and dangerous.

Another hack tried to magic up some mud, trying to suggest that Boris Johnson took no interest in Cummings’ movements until the issue had become publicly damaging. But as Cummings explained, his movements were hardly a natural priority for the PM, and, when they had discussed them after Cummings’ return to London, they had both still been feeling pretty strange.

Robert Peston said “your own scientists are worried that, by introducing some element of personal discretion into the rules, you are putting lives at risk”, his tone suggesting that ‘personal discretion’ was an inherently repellent notion. But of course that discretion was always there, even if the public didn’t perceive it to be. Technocratic Peston came across as inhumane.  

One Guardian woman then suggested that Cummings ought not to have made use of his parents’ spare cottage; for most people don’t have access to a spare house. He should have suffered like everyone else, she suggested. Well, I suppose that that idea accords with the Guardian’s blinkered notion of ‘fairness’, but what’s fair about putting your child, and anyone who might have had to care for him, at unreasonable risk? The same journalist also asked a typical barrister’s question: ‘you also just mentioned that you have made other mistakes…can you point us to any more of them?’, thus implying that Cummings had conceded that his travelling was a mistake (he hadn’t).

            If this sorry episode has taught us anything, it’s that the broadcast media think they can destroy anyone who lies outside the acceptable range of political thought, by manipulating the opinion of a seemingly credulous public. I sincerely hope they don’t succeed.

            Yet none of this unedifying furore could have arisen if it weren’t for our absurd sensitivity about ‘protecting the NHS’. As Kathy Gyngell has rightly said, Cummings—however unjustly—has suffered from the oppressive ‘lockdown’ culture that his government has created, and the media hysteria around it. The problem isn’t just that the media hate him; it’s also that, lemming-like, they are willingly acceding to a dangerous mentality, almost a dangerous new legal culture. Perhaps you will recall the old joke: in England, everything is allowed that is not expressly forbidden; in Germany, everything is forbidden that is not expressly allowed; in France, everything is allowed that is expressly forbidden. Britain seems to be slipping uncritically, almost unconsciously, into the second model.    


[1] Laura Kuenssberg, ‘Dominic Cummings’ press conference did not answer fundamental question’, BBC News, 26th May 2020, available athttps://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52802703