by Norman St. John-Stevas
LAST Friday was a had day for public morality in Britain when the Abortion Bill passed the Commons by the grotesquely large majority of 194 votes. Only 29 M.P.s voted against the Bill.
As I was going through the "no" lobby 1 found myself next to Mr. Enoch Powell who was also voting against the Bill. He turned to me and said: "Where are the Romans?" Where indeed!
Only 14 out of the 32 Catholic Members in the House bothered to turn up and vote.
Of course some may have been kept away by illness but even so it was a shockingly bad turnout. The effect is likely to be all the more serious as the very small vote against the Bill will make it much more difficult to amend at the committee stage and get some of its worst features removed.
The response of the Catholic M.P.s was all the more disappointing because of the very considerable effort made by the Catholic Union to rally opposition to the Bill. An excellent brief was provided by the Union and a number of meetings were held in the House to inform Members on the issues involved.
A special debt of gratitude is owed by the Catholic community to Mr. James Dunn, Wing Commander Grant Ferris, Lord Craigmyle, and Mr. Robert O'Brien. Without their efforts the vote would have been even more derisory than in fact it turned out to be.
The Bill is bad in principle but it is likely to be quite disasterous in practise. No one could object very much to the first change it brings about which is to turn what is already case law into statute. It has long
been established that an abortion carried out to terminate a pregnancy which seriously threatens the life or health of the mother is not contrary to law. Cardinal Heenan himself has stated that Catholics would not object to a statute which tidies up the law. The Bill however goes much further than that. In addition to clarifying or restating existing law it contains three clauses which make fundamental changes.
First it provides that if there is a substantial risk that the child if born would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to he seriously handicapped then the pregnancy may be terminated. This clause imports an entirely new principle into the law, that one human being can make a judgment in relation to another, whether or not that other's life is worth living. What it does in effect is to confer a licence to kill, and one without any clear limiting terms. Had this Bill been law when the thalidomide tragedy occurred many of the children who are now being prepared to lead happy and useful lives would have been blotted out. Quite apart from the issue of principle involved, the present medical evidence for pre-natal deformity is far too unreliable to form the basis of any very sure judgment of whether the child will in fact be born deformed. It would be much more logical to wait until the child was born and then kill it if it was found to be deformed. No doubt this will be the next "reform" the Commons is asked to approve.
The second innovating clause of the Bill is equally objectionable. It provides for the termination of a pregnancy if "the pregnant woman's capacity as a mother will be severely overstrained by the care of a child". No attempt is made by the Bill to define what is meant by "capacity as a mother" and the whole clause is so vaguely worded as to enable a woman, in effect, to have an abortion on demand, the very situation which the sponsors of the Bill claimed they were trying to avoid.
The third new clause lays down that a pregnancy may he terminated if the mother is a defective, or became pregnant while under the age of sixteen, or became pregnant as the renal of rape. This clause bristles with technical difficulties which the Bill makes no attempt to dispose of. For example, how can rape be clearly established? It is notoriously one of the most difficult criminal offences to prove. Women often allege a rape on the flimsiest of evidence. Why, furthermore, should an abortion be allowed merely because the mother is young? Of course a pregnancy for a girl under sixteen is highly unfortunate, but is it made any better by making her the subject of an abortion?
The Bill is likely to present Catholic doctors and nurses with severe problems of conscience. Abortion, as a result of the Bill, is hound to become an increasing part of medical practice. The future careers of Catholic doctors and nurses in the Health Service may well be jeopardised, unless special provision is made for their conscientious abstention. I hope that such a conscience clause will later be added, but I judge even more important the need to tighten up the very loose drafting of the Bill. As it stands, it represents a major threat to the principle of the sanctity of life, which for so long has been a fundamental part of English law. IF it is taken for granted—as I think it must be—that the old. familiar expressions of institutional Christianity are dying, if not already dead, the question arises: What is to be put in their place? One answer is, of course, nothing. But that is too easy a reply, even for the atheist. For Christianity has served crucial cultural purposes which cannot be dismissed even by the non-believer.
Indeed. it is interesting to see that, now we are faced with some fairly basic reassessments by the most conservative of all Christian traditions—that of Roman Catholicism —many agnostics are beginning to be alarmed for the state of Christianity. While never having seriously considered the possibility of acknowledging Catholic claims for themselves, they have nevertheless seen the Catholic tradition as an essential conserving .element in Western culture.
This conserving element has given intelligent expression to a necessary pessimism about the human condition, and, it is felt. ought not to be lost in the frantic search for a new image.
The loss of belief in the West has not been an unequivocal gain for human freedom. The old humanist confidence is as dead as the old religion it tried to confound.
Apart from the purely reactionary responses which come from an insecure but still smouldering ecclesiasticism. and the shouts of dismay from moral rearmers and other authoritarian conservatives, it is possible to distinguish three main kinds of answer. These may be conveniently labelled: secularism, modernism, and radicalism.
More in control
MUCH OF THE ATTENTION given to those who want to secularise Christianity has focused upon their attempts to reinterpret the • gospel in the terms of twentieth-century .philosophies. Behind the din and smoke which rises from the battles is the attempt to make Christianity intelligible and relevant to a world which puts almost all its emphasis upon the conscious, adult commitment of the individual person.
The secularist Christian sees the essential movement of modem culture as the rejection of conventions, codes, habits, and traditional sanctions as the basis of life, and their replacement by the efforts of the individual, self-consciously working upon data which have been personally brought home to him.
History indicates to us, the secularist believes. that we are being brought ever more decisively to the point at which every action must be undertaken responsibly in the light of our knowledge. He does not see depth psychology, for example, as revealing to us uncontrollable forces which determine us, but as a new knowledge which, ultimately, gives us new control over ourselves.
Knowledge is power, self-knowledge is therefore also self-determination. Morality is essentially concerned with the exercise of those capacities which make us more selfaware, and so more in control. The objective of moral action is the attainment of "maturity" or "adulthood", which signifies just such a maxim of self-determination.
Concern for others
SEXUAL MORALITY particularly is to be governed by this ideal of maturity. A good sexual relationship is one in which I attain a greater maturity, am more capable of adult growth and the development of a responsible concern for others. If such a relationship is possible for a particular individual only outside marriage, or if it is only attainable in a homosexual context, well and good.
Faith, too, is a conscious adult commitment to God. It is not something that can be given without response, or at any rate it is of little value until the moment of response. Faith is my decision, concerns my relationship to Clod. The church may have at its disposal numerous symbolisms and encouragements to my faith, but its value is ultimately to be judged by the extent to which these help to bring its members to maturity in their own lives,
There are limitations to the secularist position. They follow naturally from its individualism—the emphasis it gives to the individual person and his personal responsibility for everything he does.
To become what I am is the first duty of a Man, and secularism is primarily concerned to underline this truth. It also underlines the concomitant truth that what l'ought to do is subservient to what I ought to he. It emphasizes rightly that moral action is fidelity to myself. What I really want (which is not always what I think I want) is necessarily good, the secularist says; for though he is an individualist, he does not deny the goodness of the individual nature (as an older. specifically Protestant, individualism did).
But the weakness of secularism is that it contains no basis on which to form a criterion by which I can consciously decide (as I must) what it is I really want. The very distinction between these two levels of wanting rests, finally. upon some notion of the solidarity of mankind which it is hard to fit into the secularist position.
For secularism is an individualist philosophy. Hence it is a detachment from all those elements in experience which are politically important.
From Vatican Two
SECULAR CHRISTIANITY has flourished mainly in countries with a Protestant tradition. It is essentially a Protestant growth. It is not surprising to find that its main alternative—modernism or modernis'ation—has been the concern of the Roman Catholic renewal in recent years.
The Vatican Council is, basically, con
cerned to modernise the Church. But modernisation, as an ideology, is by no means a Latin or "Catholic" concept. It has deep roots in other places as well, and this is one of the reasons for the complexity of the present situation. and for the crossing of the wires which we find in almost every part of the debate.
There is, for example, an extremely interesting connection between the ideology of modernisation espoused by Wilsonian socialism in Britain and the ideology of the Catholic hierarchy in the same country; and I suspect that similar connections could be clearly discerned between the other moderately "progressive" Catholic hierarchies in the West and the non-Marxist political progressives in the various countries. (The approval by the Vatican of the Centre-Left coalition in Italy is only one obvious example.)
Parish and life
THE MODERNISER is primarily concerned with the present. We must not be too academic, or spend too much time discussing the exact nature of the tradition we have received, lie says. What matters is what we do with it now, in the light of practicalities.
Politically, his aims are (say) a 4% per annum increase in productivity, comprehensive schools for all, new towns to solve the housing problem; the distant future is a matter for Marxists or Utopians to discuss.
Our job is to get on with clearing up the mess which lies on our very doorstep. So speaks the Wilsonian moderniser. And the call from the Christian moderniser is the same.
Do not bother too much about the population explosion; the important thing is to bring St. Augustine up to date by issuing people with thermometers and charts, and so to relieve the immediate problem of sexual fulfilment in a starving world.
Do not bother too much with a theology of the people of God as community; what matters is the reorganisation of parish and diocesan life so that the pastoral priest can get on with his job of saving souls.
Do not worry about whether there is any sense in the notion of a Christian education; let us get on with the job of improving the standards of institutions we already have. and which have done such good service in the past.
The strength of modernisation is its sense of an empirical community. It is concerned with the renewal of a given community life, within which I alone have a personal existence and a personal faith.
Life in the world
BUT, BY TAKING THE principle of "practicability" as his first criterion, the moderniser tries to evade the very problem which in fact faces him. How are we to know where we ought to be going? Taking the short-term guidelines as the only ones we have. modernisation seems to render superfluous the need for a theoretical analysis of the future.
In practice. he insists, Christianity is concerned essentially with how to conduct our lives in this world, for it is here that we have to work out our salvation.
Thus, the church looks after the problem of death, not by looking death in the face, but by providing an institutional framework for it: "extreme unction" and the whole apparatus of requiem masses, prayers, and candles.
The resurrection proves that death's sting has been drawn, so we have no cause to worry. As long as I am in a state of grace there is, in fact, nothing to worry about— and in any case I cannot do anything about it. It will just happen. The main thing is to lead a good and holy life here, loving God and my neighbour. But this anti-intellectual pragmatism does not really solve the problems which face the moderniser; it merely shelves them.
About moral ideals
CHRISTIAN MODERNISATION. by taking the empirical church as its startingpoint, and finding so much there that is in need of repair, never gets to grips with modern atheism at all. Despite all its advocates, and all the publicity it has had, the Vatican Council has scarcely said anything which is really relevant to the modern agnostic in his intellectual or moral life.
The potentialities of the modern church— as a repository of ideas about the life of the human community, of moral ideals, of protest against tyranny, injustice, and violence, and of a tradition of high culture preserved against extreme odds—have not been realised, despite the efforts of thousands of highly gifted individuals within it, and the tolerance or even the encouragement of those outside.
The reason for this is that the ideology of modernisation has been taken as the basis for the renewal of the church. It need not have been so. Despite their traditional colouring, Pope John's encyclicals did reveal something different which could have been developed in a new direction. For, unlike most of his predecessors. Pope John saw that Christianity was concerned with the attainment of what everybody really wants.
He did not see the Christian life as the business of doing what God—through the mouths of bishops and curial officials—has told us to do, whether we like it or not.
He saw it as the fulfilment of our own deepest hopes springing from the acknowledgement of the goodness of our own desires. This idea of Christianity as the satisfaction of our basic human wants, which he saw as common to the whole of humanity (and which he therefore expounded to the whole world, and not just to his own fellow Catholics) was founded upon just that concept of human solidarity which the secularist needs but cannot admit.
This is where the Catholic tradition is at its strongest—in the endorsement and exploration of the idea of the unity of mankind. and hence of the universality of basic human wants. On such a basis it is possible to see the Christian life as satisfying us, not in spite of our ordinary desires, but because of them.
But it is impossible to take this conception very far as long as it is stated merely in terms of the ideology of modernisation. For to limit it in this way is to identify it, and to try to contain it, within the structure of the empirical church, the church as we have known it, whereas its real significance is that it demands a breaking out from that bondage.
Marx driving force
CHRISTIAN RADICALISM takes seriously the secularist acknowledgement of the
ever-increasing area of human self-determination, and the moral consequences of this in terms of the supremacy of fidelity to myself as the basic Christian demand. From modernism it takes the emphasis on the communal, the historical. the traditional.
As a corollary, it also takes from modernism the emphasis on the satisfaction of the community needs as a moral demand equal to that of individual self-determination. As a consequence of these assumptions it takes up a position which, as a matter of political theory and political orientation, is frankly socialistic, and in which Marx, rather than Methodism, is the driving intellectual force.
The philosophical tradition with which most of us in the Anglo-Saxon world have grown up—the empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume—is inadequate. It imposes a pattern of qualities where, in fact, we experience unities and connections. It drives a wedge between word and thought, between soul and body, between perceiver and what is perceived, between man and his world, and between the individual and the society which nurtures him.
In particular, the problems with which art or religion tries to grapple—the fact of evil, the mystery of death, and all the other inarticulable presences which lie so close to us that we cannot see them clearly or walk round them to take a complete view—pose to us questions which cannot be expressed in the terms of this "secular" philosophy.
In an alien world
WE ARE BEING forced by the very weight of contemporary experience to return to an older set of presuppositions, or unconscious assumptions (which. are, at the same time, for us startling and new as well) for a philosophical framework in which to articulate to ourselves the experience we all know.
I have tried to sketch out such a framework of presuppositions, as it is presented to us in the work of three significant figures of the modern world: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Marx.
In order to understand why it is that the work of these three non-believers should be of crucial importance to the contemporary Christian, it is necessary to see that what they have in common is an interpretation of man's commerce with the world which is much older than that of the secular philosophy itself.
It goes back, indeed, in essence, to the "sacred" world-view of unsophisticated religious man. It can be seen as the modern development of a made of understanding which is that of "participation".
Religious man does not confront an alien world, but participates in a familiar one: and this concept of participation in the world is present, in a modern sophisticated form in the concern, exhibited by all my three philosophers, with the analysis and description of perceptual, linguistic, and social experience.
Primitive man lives in a religious world, and his social and religious experience are different ways of referring to the one, single way of life. This fact leads us naturally to examine the modern Western religious community—the church—and its structures, as offering or failing to offer a way of life correspondingly valid for us in the light of modern experience.
Real and valid
HERE WE FIND the church—the religious community—in a condition so far removed from its true centre, as the heart of life, that it is now scarcely recognisable for what it really is.
The task of theology, therefore, is first of all to examine this empirically given structure, not only in its actual manifestation but also in its inner essence, and see what is needed for its renewal as the fundamental Community of mankind.
In order to do this, we have to distinguish. in the light of fundamental principles and also in the light of an unbiased, critical analysis of its contemporary reality, the essential from the expendable, the theologically valid from the historically conditioned. The theological sections of this book are attempts to suggest an approach to this task.
They centre upon two primary problems: firstly, the nature of the community of the church as the life of Christ in the present world, and secondly the relationship of this community to the resurrected, eschatological, and transfigured world of the coming Kingdom.
Fundamental to this second discussion is a consideration of the nature and meaning of individual death and resurrection in terms of the concepts we have at our disposal from the experience of life in the modern world.
Finally, the argument returns to the options which are open to us here and now, and which have to be chosen in the light of the total argument. Here, if anywhere, is the immediate test of what a radical Christianity entails.