UK Churches speak out against bid to allow ‘three-parent’ embryos

pronuclear_transfer_diagram_v4The Church of England and the Catholic Church have issued statements urging MPs next Tuesday to vote against allowing the UK to be the first country in the world to allow a new genetic technology that critics say is both unethical and unsafe.

The procedure, known as mitochondial replacement therapy, has been developed by British scientists in Newcastle. It allows IVF clinics to replace an egg’s defective mitochondrial DNA with healthy DNA from a female donor, to prevent children suffering debilitating conditions like muscular dystrophy. If it works, the result would be babies that are free of disease who are genetically related to three parents, including two mothers.

In our CV Comment briefing on the technology last year, (‘Mitochondrial transfer: science that crosses lines for no good purpose’ here), Megan Hodder noted:

The human germline, the sequences of cells through which genetic information is passed on through generations, would be irrevocably altered. In introducing the technique, the UK will cross an internationally observed ethical and legal boundary, and in doing so gravely undermine the inherent dignity of the human person …. People living with mitochondrial disease deserve safe and effective medical treatment and an understanding of what causes their condition. But mitochondrial transfer will not provide this. It aims to mitigate human suffering by simply preventing certain humans from being born, using methods that will have unknown and unquantifiable consequences for future generations. Introducing the practice into the UK will be a great step backwards for medical ethics and human dignity.

MPs will decide on Tuesday whether to change the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA) of 2008 in order to legalise the procedure. The Government is backing the move.

Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy, the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics, said: “The Archbishops Council, which monitors this issue, does not feel thatpink-150x150 there has been sufficient scientific study or informed consultation into the ethics, safety and efficacy of mitochondria transfer. Without a clearer picture of the role mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics, the Church does not feel it would be responsible to change the law at this time.”

Bishop John Sherrington, from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, says the move would have “profound implications”.

Bishop Sherrington

Bishop Sherrington

“No other country has allowed this procedure and the international scientific community is not convinced that the procedure is safe and effective. It seems extraordinary that a licence should be sought for a radical new technique affecting future generations without first conducting a clinical trial ….This is a very serious step which Parliament should not rush into taking.”

The Church of England has no objection in principle to the destruction of embryos for medical purposes (Sir Tony Baldry, the voice of the Anglican Church in the Commons, noted that “the Church of England accepts that embryo research is permissible if it’s undertaken to alleviate human suffering”), but Bishop Sherrington’s statement articulates the Catholic ethical objection to any procedure that involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process. “The human embryo is a new human life, and it should be respected and protected  from the moment of  conception,” Bishop Sherrington said.

According to the charity CARE, “the reality is we don’t know all there is to know about how this technique will affect the child and there is a strong possibility any child created using this new technique would have to be monitored for the rest of their life.”

The Anscombe Biethics Centre in Oxford also offered a briefing on the proposed regulations, noting:

1. The regulations are entitled ‘mitochondrial donation’ but the processes they permit (Regulations 4 and 7) are the removal and insertion of ‘nuclear DNA’ out of and into an egg or an embryo. Note also that these techniques would not treat mitochondrial disease in any existing person but aim to produce children who are genetically related to the birth mother but free of her inherited condition.

2. The possibility of extending the HFE Act by regulations was included in the Act with the assurance that such regulations would only be enacted ‘once it was clear that the scientific procedures involved were effective and safe’.

3. Though prominent scientists in the United Kingdom are keen to press ahead, the international scientific community as a whole is not convinced that safety and efficacy has been shown. It is particularly significant that the FDA [the US body which regulates medicines] does not yet consider ‘mitochondrial donation’ to be safe. In at least some cases the FDA has been right to be more cautious than the UK. When Thalidomide was in widespread clinical use in the UK it was not approved by the FDA for use in the USA.

5. Those who were MPs in 2008 should also recall the unfulfilled claims made by scientists in Newcastle for the efficacy of ‘animal-human hybrid’ embryos to find treatments for various conditions. Note that the present experimental techniques will affect not only embryos but also women and children.

6. Even though ‘mitochondrial donation’ (that is, replacement of nuclear DNA) has not been shown to be safe or effective in human beings, the government proposes to license these techniques directly for treatment without first gaining safety data from a clinical trial. It has been stated specifically that these techniques will not be licensed “with the objective of ascertaining… safety and/or efficacy”. A clinical trial would create legal problems as the European Directive on clinical trials (2001/20/EC) states in Article 9(6) that “No gene therapy trials may be carried out which result in modifications to the subject’s germ line”. A clinical trial would also create ethical problems and we do not recommend it. However, MPs should consider whether introducing a radical new genetic technique affecting future generations without even a clinical trial is something that should be contemplated.

7. Each MP must consider whether he or she has confidence that replacement of nuclear DNA has been shown to be effective and safe, and each must take responsibility for this decision. This responsibility should not be passed on to the HFEA, for the Act very deliberately did not give this power to the HFEA, but required regulations and hence parliamentary scrutiny.

8. The regulations envisage that by one technique (Pro-Nuclear Transfer) two embryos would be destroyed in the process of constructing a modified embryo. This is a further step in commodification of the human embryo and a failure to respect new individual human lives.

9. The regulations amend the Act so that the egg donor and the child conceived using her egg (in the case of the pre-fertilisation technique, Maternal Spindle Transfer) have fewer rights to know about one another. This stripping away of rights was not discussed at the time of the passage of the Act’

[Austen Ivereigh]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ,

‘Of course you are a son of the Church’, Francis tells transgender man

Diego Neria Lejárraga

Diego Neria Lejárraga

“God loves all his children, however they are; you are a son of God, who accepts you exactly as you are. Of course you are a son of the Church!”

These were Pope Francis’s words in a telephone call last year to Diego Neria Lejárraga, a 48-year-old Spanish man who had undergone gender reassignment surgery, when the Pope invited him together with his fiancée to meet him at the Vatican.

The meeting took place last Saturday in the Casa Santa Marta, according to Sr. Neria. The Vatican has neither confirmed or denied it, saying it is the policy not to comment on the Pope’s private meetings. But it is clear that it happened.

Neria, a practicing Catholic from Plasencia, a small town in Cáceres in Estremadura, says he has suffered from rejection by some of his fellow parishioners over the years since his  operation eight years ago — although his bishop has always been supportive.

He took the decision to have the surgery at the age of 40, after his mother died, in order to achieve a physical congruency with the gender he had always known he was. Some months ago, he wrote to Pope Francis, giving examples of how he had been criticized and spurned by what he calls “the most conservative members” of his parish. Many transgender people suffer stigmatisation and isolation, and are prone to suicide.

By the age of 3 or 4 years old, most children have a clear sense of their gender, which  in 19,999 people out of 20,000 matches their chromosomally determined biological sex.  A person’s self-perception of gender relates to anatomical and functional differences in the brains of men and women; trans people however have brains that are the opposite of what  their biological sex would suggest. According to Dr Samuel James Hall, consultant aneasthetist at Royal Sussex County Hospital, “the mismatch is rare but real, occurs early in embryonic development, and is usually clearly expressed in childhood. Causes are not yet understood.”

On 8 December last year, Diego Neria received a call from the Pope to tell him that he was loved by God and to ask him to come to meet him in Rome. Francis insisted that he and his fiancée, Macarena, come at the weekend because during the week Diego worked as a clerk.

Promising to call later to fix the date, the Pope telephoned again on 20 December. “I have a gap on 24 January at five in the afternoon. Can you both come then?”

14223853742869Neria says Francis told him not to worry if he couldn’t afford the ticket. “If you have no money, when you’re both here I’ll give you an envelope to cover your expenses, that’s no problem. You know I live with other priests in the Santa Marta guesthouse. When you get here, tell the Swiss Guards you have a meeting with me, and that’s it.”

Neria will not discuss the meeting itself, insisting it was private. But he told Hoy newspaper that it was a “marvellous, unique and intimate” experience.

“It’s not that I was angry with the Church beforehand,” Neria told El Mundo. “But there were attitudes often expressed that I didn’t like. But not from everyone, because the bishop has always been very good to me, and I’ve been well supported by him. But it’s been hard at times.”

[Austen Ivereigh]

Posted in Pope Francis

The ‘reasonable accommodation’ of faith in the workplace


Celestina Mba

[By Peter Smith]

CV Comment readers will recall the case of Celestina Mba, the Baptist sacked by a London council because she did not want to work on Sundays, which (following the Fourth Commandment) she regarded as exclusively for rest and worship.

Mrs Mba was unsuccessful before the Court of Appeal. She had a right not be discriminated against on behalf of her faith, but had contractually agreed to be available to work Sundays. The council’s obligation was to provide round-the-lock, 24/7 continuity of care in a home for children. The obligation on employees was deemed proportionate to that aim.

Mrs Mba was subsequently denied leave to appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court (UKSC), and is understood to be considering appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

What will happen there? As also indicated previously on CV Comment,  ECtHR has moderately strengthened religious freedoms in the UK in its decision in Eweida and others. One interesting aspect of Mrs Mba’s case, should it go to Strasbourg, will be to see whether the ECtHR continues to address the overlapping and somewhat confusing layers of law that simultaneously tackle discrimination on grounds of religion or belief and protect manifestations of religion or belief. In the UK, the law is drawn from statutes that incorporate European Union law (such as the Equality Act 2010) and the ECtHR’s own jurisprudence on the European Convention on Human Rights (via the Human Rights Act 1998).


The reasonable accommodation of religious freedom

Mrs Mba’s case clearly raised the possibility of a new framework governing situations in the workplace where an employee’s religion or belief collides with an employer’s demands. It is a framework known as the reasonable accommodation of religious freedom.

Lady Hale

Lady Hale

Such a framework exists already in other common law jurisdictions, among them the United States. In Canada, employers are obliged to protect their employees’ religious rights without unduly influencing those rights. In simple terms, any discriminatory measure which impinges on religious freedom is subject to a standard test. The employer must show that the discriminatory standard is for a purpose rationally connected to the performance of the employment; that the standard was adopted in the honest belief with good faith that it was necessary to the fulfilment of that legitimate work-related purpose; and that the standard is reasonably necessary to the accomplishment of that legitimate work-related purpose.

Baroness Hale, the Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, is the leading specialist on the judicial benches on matters of discrimination and employment law (last July it was she who rejected Mrs Mba’s application for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court). She considers that a Canadian-style reasonable accommodation test might be a better way of balancing the religious freedoms of employees against the rights of their employers, and has publicly said so on several occasions.

The Scottish midwives

Her most recent mention of reasonable accommodation was in the Supreme Court’s final judgment of 2014, where she gave the leading (and only) judgment of the Court in what has come to be known as the Scottish midwives’ case over conscientious objection to abortion.

That objection was spelled out in the 1967 Abortion Act. Section 4 of the Act says:

[N]o person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.

The Scottish midwives

The Scottish midwives

The burden of proof of conscientious objection is on the person claiming it, and the right to conscientious objection does not affect any duty to participate in treatment which is necessary to save the life of or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman.

Two Catholic midwives, Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, were employed as ‘Labour Ward co-ordinators’ at a hospital in Glasgow. They were excellent midwives with many decades of experience between them. They held (and continue to hold) the orthodox Christian belief that human life begins at conception and abortion is the wrongful killing of human life.

The hospital decided that, from 2010, in cases of foetal abnormality (and occasionally other medical reasons), the Fetal Medicine Unit would routinely administer the first dose of medication to induce premature labour in any mother who decided on termination. The mother would then be returned to the Labour Ward for the remainder of the process to occur.

The extent of conscientious objection

As their titles suggest, Mrs Doogans and Mrs Wood were employed to manage and co-ordinate aspects of the Labour Ward. The midwives complained that hospital’s reorganisation would breach their right to conscientious objection, as they would be delegating, supervising or supporting staff to participate in and provide care to patients throughout the termination process.

Supreme Court

Supreme Court

Following split decisions at first instance and on appeal, the Supreme Court had to decide what ‘participating in any treatment’ meant for the purposes of the Act, and whether the co-ordinators’ duties fell within the protection afforded.

The midwives argued that any looking after of women who had just had abortions fell within s.4., whether it involved receiving and dealing with the initial telephone call, booking the patient into the Labour Ward, supervising the staff looking after the patient both before and after the procedure, as well as to the direct provision of any care for those patients.

The Royal College of Midwives, in contrast, considered only ‘direct’ involvement in a termination fell within s.4, and the hospital largely agreed with that interpretation, viewing ‘treatment’ as the narrow process starting with the administration of labour-inducing medication and ending with the “expulsion of the products of conception” (Lady Hale’s description).

This treatment, the hospital argued, did not cover many other tasks like fetching the drugs used, making bookings, providing aftercare, administrative and managerial tasks such as allocating resources and assigning staff, and supervising nurses – all tasks the co-ordinators were expected to carry out as part of their employment.

Lady Hale considered two previous judicial decisions that looked at the meaning of treatment under the Act, the Royal College of Nursing and Janaway cases. She concluded that the purpose of the Act was to carve out an exception to what generally unlawful, i.e. the killing of unborn children; it did not affect what was lawful before the Act came into force. The right under s.4 only applied to the narrow range of activities that fell into the first category (of acts now lawful under the Act), not the second.

She took a narrow view of both “treatment” and “participation,” saying that it meant taking part in a “hands-on” capacity [para.38] Thus the vast majority of the tasks the midwives did not want to participate in fell outside the protections of the conscience clause.

Neil Addison

Neil Addison

There is much to rue in the judgment. As the Catholic barrister Neil Addison points out in a stinging set of criticisms, Lady Hale cited no debates when divining Parliamentary intention; she compared the relationships midwives had to abortion treatment those of cleaners within hospitals when in fact the midwives were medical professionals with considerably more central roles in patient care; and she commented on other matters, like the objector’s obligation to refer to another medical professional, without being asked to and without hearing full arguments on the point.

The practical effects of the judgment are likely to further dissuade practising Catholics and others from entering specialisations in the medical profession such as obstetrics and gynaecology, or becoming midwives or otherwise working in maternal and infant health and on labour wards.

The decision will (unless superseded) contribute to the building of silos in medicine, where whole fields become fenced-off by managers unwilling to allow flexible working practices.

Should the midwives have been ‘reasonably accommodated’?

Yet there is hope in two of the matters Lady Hale labelled “distractions”.

lawsuitThe first is whether the religious basis for the midwives’ objections would be protected under human rights law (the s.4 protection of conscience is absolute, and does not depend on why a person objects to participating in abortion). As Lady Hale noted, refusing for religious reasons to perform some of the duties of a job is likely to be a protected manifestation of a religious belief, following the ECtHR in Eweida, but it could still be qualified at the hospital’s insistence if the restrictions on the right were a proportionate measure for a legitimate aim.

The second is whether, even if not protected by the conscience clause, the midwives may claim that the hospital “should have made reasonable adjustments to the requirements of the job in order to cater for their religious beliefs” (para.24). This will depend in part, said Lady Hale, on “the practicability” of the accommodation.

Yet, as Neil Addison notes, the Judge herself found that since 2010 there had been about 6000 births a year at the hospital, and just under 60 terminations a year on the Labour Ward. Given this, he wonders whether “it would not have caused [the hospital] any real difficulties to have reasonably accommodated the conscientious objections of these midwives.”

The midwives’ case has been remitted to the employment tribunal in a bid to resolve their grievances with the hospital. The reasonable accommodation test may provide assistance in this case, and develop protections for Catholics and other Christians in the workplace.

[Peter Smith is a barrister]

Posted in Uncategorized

Francis offers challenging new take on birth control teaching

FrancisOne can almost hear the headline-writers chortling as they label the latest he-said-what?!? Francis story: “Pope tells Catholics not to breed like rabbits”, is today’s firm favourite, taking a line from his press conference (transcript here) on the plane back from Manila, following a final Mass attended by an estimated 6.5m people — the largest crowd in human history.

As ever, Francis made the headlines by his disarmingly straightforward articulation of the Church’s position — in this case, affirming the Blessed Paul VI’s opposition to artificial contraception, while making clear that this does not mean parents should not limit the number of children in ways appropriate to their circumstances. He illustrated this, typically, by focussing on a situation of human suffering, mentioning the case of a Filipino woman whom he had admonished because she was on her eighth pregnancy, having had seven Caesareans. “But do you want to leave seven orphans?  That is to tempt God!” he told her.

Paul VI, he added, “speaks of responsible parenthood” — a teaching contained in Gaudium et Spes in its paragraph 50, which speaks of the importance of generosity and openness to life, but also of responsibility in deciding how many children to have:

Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfil their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.

As Francis, and of course the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, make clear, there are many “licit” — that is, natural and organic — methods for restricting numbers of pregnancies. Later in the press conference, Francis says:

God gives you methods to be responsible. Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood! This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can seek and I know so many, many ways out that are licit and that have helped this.

But while Francis was here restating church teaching, the main emphasis of his remarks on this question — ignored in many reports — was to stress the importance of poor people resisting pressures placed on the developing world to have fewer children, often as a condition of receiving aid (an issue memorably raised by one of the African cardinals at October’s synod); or, just as insidiously, to impose gender ideology as a condition of building schools.

It is in this context that Pope Francis re-articulates Paul VI’s opposition to contraception — as a bravely prophetic stance on behalf of the poor of the world against the powers of the age, driven by neo-Malthusian and eugenic assumptions that the “problem” of development is that there are too many poor people in the world.

This language will surprise those in Europe and America who have long seen the contraception question through the lens of personal autonomy. For liberal Catholics, it has also been an iconic issue of an abuse of papal authority (which is how many saw the decision of Paul VI choosing to ignore the findings of the commission the Pope set up to look at the question), and the editorial stances of some publications have been shaped by this lens.

But the developing world doesn’t see it in the same way. The foundational document agreed by the Latin-American bishops (CELAM) in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 — which was opened by Paul VI, and was very influential on the young Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio — saw Humanae vitae as a way of resisting both the rich-world-funded development strategies that started with birth control, as well as the “eroticism of bourgeois civilization”.

Medellín reaffirmed the encyclical’s exclusion of “artificial methods to voluntarily render infertile the conjugal act” while going on to quote Paul VI’s own words to the conference, in which he stated that “this norm does not constitute a blind rush to over-population; it diminishes neither the freedom nor the responsibility of couples, who are not prevented from exercising an honest and reasonable limitation on the number of children they have; nor does it forbid legitimate therapeutic applications nor the progress of scientific research”.

Pope Francis, in his remarks on the papal plane, articulates precisely this anti-colonial, anti-Malthusian view of birth control, seeing it in terms of the freedom of the poor from self-interested, alien ideologies.

The ideological colonization. I’ll only give you an example of what I saw 20 years ago, in ’95. A Minister of Public Education had asked for a big loan to build schools for the poor, public schools. They gave the loan on condition that in the schools there would be a school book for children of a certain level, no? It was a well prepared book, where the theory of gender was taught … This is ideological colonization … [T]his is not new, the dictators of the last century did the same. They came with their own doctrine. Think of the Balilla (the Fascist youth cadres under Mussolini), think of the Hitler youth. They colonized the people, but they wanted to do it. But how much suffering.  Peoples must not lose their freedom. A people has its culture, its history. Every people has its own culture.

But when conditions are imposed by the colonizing empires they seek to make peoples forget their own identity and make them (all) equal. This is the globalization of the sphere — all the points are equidistant from the center. But the true globalization – and I like to say this – is not the sphere. It is important to globalize but not like the sphere, but like the polyhedron. Namely that every people, every part, conserves its own identity without being ideologically colonized. These are the ideological colonizations.

Francis then mentions a 1907 book that he has often referred to, The Lord of the World, by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, a Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University at the time, who, Francis says, foresaw “this drama of ideological colonization”. The book describes the abolition of culture and religion by a uniform humanist thought, and in which the Anti-Christ appears as a peace-loving, tolerance-preaching politician blindly followed by the crowds. According to Joseph Pearce in his book Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, whereas the dystopias foreseen by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have had their day, “Benson’s novel-nightmare … is coming true before our very eyes”. This seems to be Francis’s view too.

Francis’s warnings about an “ideological colonization”, therefore, is also about a creeping social conformity to a bourgeois-humanist ideology which has increasingly come to dominate thinking, one that puts the sovereign individual in the driving seat.

Far from being the imposition of an authoritarian religion, in other words, the resistance to artificial birth control is the affirmation of human freedom and responsibility — the noble right to cooperate with God, against the demands to conform to the zeitgeist under the flag of personal autonomy.

In this sense, Francis may have added nothing to church teaching on contraception. But he has articulated it in a challenging new way — and indirectly framing those Catholics who have resisted Humane vitae as neo-colonial bourgeois conformists.

[Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, published in the U.S. by Henry Holt and in the U.K. and Ireland by Allen & Unwin).

Posted in contraception, Humanae Vitae, Pope Francis | Tagged

David Cameron’s missed opportunity to agree with Pope Francis

David CameronThe British prime minister, David Cameron, has been widely reported as disagreeing with Pope Francis’s remarks over freedom of expression and the right to mock to religion. Asked about the Pope’s remarks (see CV Comment here) on the US TV channel CBS, Cameron said:

I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian; if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak vengeance on them. We have to accept that newspapers, magazines, can publish things that are offensive to some, as long as it’s within the law. That is what we should defend.

The newspapers seem unanimous. “David Cameron disagrees with the Pope”, says the Guardian; “David Cameron says the Pope is wrong”, says the Mail. The Independent‘s headline even spells it out: “Pope Francis is wrong to endorse revenge in wake of Paris attacks, says David Cameron”.

ALT102-115_2015_080149_highYet Pope Francis in his remarks never “endorsed” any such thing — indeed, he expressly deplored any kind of violence, especially in the name of religion, and made clear there was no justification for it under any pretext whatsoever. The headlines start from assumptions which are completely false.

Even if the Pope’s remarks could be misinterpreted, his spokesman could not be. “Obviously he wasn’t justifying violence,” Fr Federico Lombardi said Friday. “He spoke about a spontaneous reaction that you can have when you feel profoundly offended. In this sense, your right to be respected has been put in question.”

What the Pope did have the courage to say was that freedom of speech has limits, that to build a society at peace with itself we need to respect what others hold dear, and that the reverse of this respect — a mocking, sneering, jeering humour allied to a post-Enlightenment contempt for religious belief as minority eccentricity — tends to provoke furious reactions which make it harder to build the common good.

He was not, in other words, entering into a debate about the legal limits of free speech but, as church leaders tend to do, was making an ethical point about how to promote human flourishing.

The distinction was spectacularly missed over the weekend by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Observer, who mischievously assumed that Francis was making an excuse for violence, then spent their columns solemnly pontificating on how wrong he was.

“The Pope came as near as dammit to suggesting that Charlie Hebdo had it coming”, wrote Toynbee, her “near as dammit” conceding that he did not suggest anything like it. After solemnly invoking Jesus (something she only does when criticizing Christians) she added: “Verbal provocation is never an excuse for violence – that’s the wife-beater’s defence.” Toynbee somehow manages to turn the Pope, who was illustrating a point about how people react when they are insulted, into a wife-beater.

Cohen similarly claims that Francis was “in effect” saying “the Parisian satirists had it coming” before invoking the memory of free-speech victims of religious power down the ages: “Do I need to remind you that insulting the gods, the pope or the synagogue were the charges the faithful levelled against Socrates, Galileo and Spinoza?” he asks.

Both columnists concede that there are, in practice and in theory, limits to free speech, but seem to think these should not apply to religion. Why? “Religion is a form of power,” writes Cohen. “We do not have absolute freedom of speech, but we must protect our limited freedom to criticise power.”

But this is not the age of Spinoza and Galileo, when religious authority had temporal power, and when the state sought to absorb the Church. Neither religion nor religious institutions have any more privilege in British society than non-religious institutions, and in the case of France rather less: religion is expressly excluded from the public square.

So why should those who mock religion and religious believers be cheered and applauded, but not, say, those who mock LGBT people?

As the gay lobby Stonewall has demonstrated in pushing Parliament to agree same-sex marriage without it ever being put to the electorate,  the LGBT lobby has far more political muscle than any Church in Britain. Yet if someone were to advocate the pillorying of homosexuals on the grounds that it was necessary for free speech, or because Stonewall is powerful, there would be a public outcry (and our Churches would be among the most passionate in raising their voices). So why is it alright to make fun of the sensitivities and feelings of religious believers, but not of gay people?

In a classic secularist-humanist misreading of religion, Toynbee claims that Francis was demanding “a special, anti-Voltairean status of protection for religious ideas – a respect never given to political or other ideas just as passionately held.”

But for people of Christian faith, being children of a loving God is core to their identity; it is key t0 who they are. It not “religious ideas” that they would like to be respected, or even religious institutions, but God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. In that sense, Pope Francis’s analogy of a man reacting to his own mother being insulted was a good one. Believers are in a relationship; and like all relationships, theirs involves memory and feeling, which are the fruit of the experience of prayer over time. Similarly, for Muslims, Prophet Mohammed is revered and respected; their attachment to him is far more like a personal bond than an intellectual conviction.

To say that religious believers deserve, like anyone else (gay people, for example, or racial minorities) in society, to have their feelings and identity respected, is not per se to propose further legal limits on free speech. Those limits are a matter of constant debate in Parliament, which must weigh up other goods in tension with it: the right not to be defamed, for example, or the right to be protected from harassment and hate speech. Our legislators must make prudential judgements about how to balance those conflicting goods in law.

But in order to build a genuinely pluralistic, tolerant society, in which people can in freedom seek and debate the common good, and in which different groups holding strong convictions can live in peace with each other, we need to assert far more than the legal right to cause offence. We need to assert the ethical obligation of respect.

David Cameron, as the elected leader entrusted with safeguarding the British common good, should know that, and should be fearless in stating it.

Instead, he affirmed a crowd-pleasing banal truth.

He may not, contrary to reports, have disagreed with the Pope. But he missed a terrific opportunity to agree with him.

[Austen Ivereigh]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ,

Francis on Charlie Hebdo: with free speech comes responsibility

ALT102-115_2015_080149_highPope Francis stirred controversy today in remarks on the papal plane from Colombo to Manila by telling journalists that it was “normal” for an insult to provoke a strong reaction, and that there are “limits” to freedom of expression, adding: “You cannot make fun of the faith of others”. Some commentators have interpreted what he said as giving succour to the notion that those who give gratuitous offense should expect retaliation.

Yet his words, printed in full below (H/T Gerry O’Connell at America magazine), make clear that he believes free speech cannot be understood as purely a question of license: its purpose is to build the common good of society. When it is used to insult and mock, it produces a reaction (the Pope jokingly used the example of a man punching someone who insults his mother).  That does not justify, as he makes abundantly clear, a reaction of violence; but nor is it enough to declare that freedom of speech is unlimited (and in practice, in the law of most nations, it is not).

His statements can be summarized as follows:

  1. Everyone has the right to practice their faith in freedom.
  2. It is wrong to commit violence in the name of God and religion.
  3. Freedom of expression is necessary to build the common good of society.
  4. But it is important not to use this freedom to offend and insult.
  5. When this happens, it is “normal” for those insulted to react.
  6. Some things are sacred, and it is wrong to insult and mock religion, contrary to what many in post-Enlightenment societies believe.

In these statements, Francis has nailed a truth which has been lacking in the discussions following the appalling massacres in Paris, namely that freedom of expression is an inadequate basis for building society. Without respect for the beliefs of others and self-restraint in the exercise of freedom of expression, there can be no peace.

What, then, are the limits that the law should impose? When does self-restraint turn into censorship? Francis does not enter these questions; he leaves that debate to others.   His concern is to name some essential truths which should guide our discussion in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.

[Austen Ivereigh]

Pope Francis’s words on the papal plane:

Maillard: Holy Father, yesterday at mass you spoke about religious freedom as a fundamental human right. But in the respect for the different religions, up to what point can one go in freedom of expression? That too is a fundamental human right.

Pope. Thanks for the question, it’s an intelligent one. I believe that both are fundamental human rights, religious liberty and liberty of expression. One cannot — but let’s think — you are French? Let’s go to Paris, let’s speak clearly. One cannot hide a truth: everyone has the right to practice one’s religion, one’s own religion without giving offense. Freely. That’s how we do it, we want everyone to do that. Second: One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God. To us, that which happens now, it stuns us. But let’s think about our own history: how many wars of religion have we had? You may think of the night of St. Bartholomew; how can this be understood? We too were sinners in this. But one cannot kill in the name of God. This is an aberration. To kill in the name of God is an aberration. I believe that this is the principal point in terms of religious liberty. One has freedom in this, but without imposing or killing in the name of religion.

As for freedom of expression: each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation! Let’s think, if a member of parliament or a senator doesn’t say what he thinks is the right path then he does not collaborate for the common good. Not only these, but many others too. We have the obligation to say openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offense, because it is true, one cannot react violently. But if Dr. Gasbarri (the papal trip organizer who was standing beside him), a great friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him. But it’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. Pope Benedict in a speech, I don’t remember exactly where, he spoke of this post-positivist mentality, of post-positivist metaphysics, that led to the belief that in the end religions, religious expressions, are a kind of subculture, which are tolerated but are of little value, are not on the Enlightenment culture. And this is part of the heritage of the Enlightenment. And so many people who speak badly about other religions, or religions [in general], they make fun of, let’s say toy with [make into toys] other people’s religions, these people provoke and there can occur what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother. That is, there is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects life, human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit and I have taken this sense of limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that in regard to my mom. I don’t know if I have managed to answer the question.


On the plane back from Manila to Rome, Francis was asked to clarify his position.

Valentina Alazraki Crastich (Televisa):  On the flight from Sri Lanka you used the image of the response that this poor man (Alberto Gasbarri, organizer of papal trips) might have merited if he insulted your mother. Your words were not well understood by everyone in the world and seemed to justify in some way the use of violence in the face of provocation. Could you explain a little better what you meant to say?

Pope: In theory we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation, in theory yes, it is not a good thing, one shouldn’t do it.   In theory we can say what the Gospel says, that we should turn the other cheek.  In theory we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. But in theory we all agree.  But we are human and there’s prudence which is a virtue of human coexistence.  I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously because I risk making him/her angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just.  But that’s human. For this reason I say that freedom of expression must take account of the human reality and for this reason one must be prudent. It’s a way of saying that one must be educated, prudent.   Prudence is the virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here,  I can go up to there, and there, beyond that no.  What I wanted to say is that in theory we all agree: there is freed of expression, a violent aggression is not good, it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice let us stop a little because we are human and we risk to provoke others. For this reason freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.

Posted in Pope Francis, Uncategorized

Pope Francis to diplomatic corps outlines steps to counter a throwaway culture

Francis to diplomatsPope Francis yesterday delivered an address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, as is the pope’s custom at the beginning of each New Year. It provides a snapshot of the Vatican’s view of the state of the world, and is closely read by those looking  at what the Holy See plans to focus on in the year ahead.

The Pope linked his reflections by the common thread of rejection, which along with peace, he told the diplomats, was a major part of the Nativity story. “Rejection is an attitude we all share,” says Francis. “It makes us see our neighbour not as a brother or sister to be accepted, but as unworthy of our attention, a rival, or someone to be bent to our will. This is the mindset which fosters that “throwaway culture” which spares nothing and no one: nature, human beings, even God himself. It gives rise to a humanity filled with pain and constantly torn by tensions and conflicts of every sort.”

Alongside the personal dimension of rejection comes what he calls “a culture of rejection which severs the deepest and most authentic human bonds, leading to the breakdown of society and spawning violence and death.” As a painful example, Francis points to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris last week, arguing that religious fundamentalism is the result of “the throwaway culture being applied to God”. Says Francis: “Religious fundamentalism, even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext.”

The Pope turns to other examples across the world of brutality which discards the vulnerable: the Boko Haram kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria and the slaughter of innocent children in Pakistan; people-trafficking; internecine wars in Africa, as well as the “dramatic theatre of combat” in Ukraine; the spread of “fundamentalist terrorism” in Iraq and Syria; the rape of women; rising numbers of refugees; as well as the less visible “hidden exiles” within wealthy cultures — the elderly, handicapped, and unemployed. Even the family itself is considered disposable, the Pope notes, remarking on the low birthrate in many countries, “thanks to the spread of an individualistic and self-centred culture which severs human bonds and leads to a dramatic fall in birth rates, as well as legislation which benefits various forms of cohabitation rather than adequately supporting the family for the welfare of society as a whole.”

Addressing these concerns, the Pope called on the world to protect the Christians and others fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East:

Here, in your presence, I appeal to the entire international community, as I do to the respective governments involved, to take concrete steps to bring about peace and to protect all those who are victims of war and persecution, driven from their homes and their homeland. In a letter written shortly before Christmas, I sought to express my personal closeness and the promise of my prayers to all the Christian communities of the Middle East. Theirs is a precious testimony of faith and courage, for they play a fundamental role as artisans of peace, reconciliation and development in the civil societies of which they are a part.  A Middle East without Christians would be a marred and mutilated Middle East!  In urging the international community not to remain indifferent in the face of this situation, I express my hope that religious, political and intellectual leaders, especially those of the Muslim community, will condemn all fundamentalist and extremist interpretations of religion which attempt to justify such acts of violence.

He also called for a change in attitudes towards migrants fleeing situations of conflict:

One consequence of the situations of conflict just described is the flight of thousands of persons from their homeland. At times they leave not so much in search of a better future, but any future at all, since remaining at home can mean certain death. How many persons lose their lives during these cruel journeys, the victims of unscrupulous and greedy thugs?  I raised this issue during my recent visit to the European Parliament, where I insisted that “we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery” (Address to the European Parliament, Strasbourg, 25 November 2014). Then too there is the alarming fact that many immigrants, especially in the Americas, are unaccompanied children, all the more at risk and in need of greater care, attention and protection.

Often coming without documents to strange lands whose language they do not speak, migrants find it difficult to be accepted and to find work. In addition to the uncertainties of their flight, they have to face the drama of rejection.  A change of attitude is needed on our part, moving from indifference and fear to genuine acceptance of others.  This of course calls for “enacting adequate legislation to protect the rights of… citizens and to ensure the acceptance of immigrants” (ibid.). I thank all those who, even at the cost of their lives, are working to assist refugees and immigrants, and I urge states and international organizations to make every effort to resolve these grave humanitarian problems and to provide the immigrants’ countries of origin with forms of aid which can help promote their social and political development and settle their internal conflicts, which are the chief cause of this phenomenon. “We need to take action against the causes and not only the effects” (ibid.). This will also enable immigrants to return at some point to their own country and to contribute to its growth and development.

The Pope also turned to his own experiences of the light shining in the darkness, not least the inter-religious peace and understanding he saw on his trips to Albania and Turkey, as well as Jordan, and in the historic restoration of Cuba-US ties which he brokered and the US’s decision to close Guantánamo Bay.

Lastly, Francis looked ahead to a new Climate Change Agreement, which will be preceded by his first mainly-authored encyclical, on ecology, expected in March.

This is likewise my own hope-filled prayer for this new year, which, for that matter, will see the continuation of two significant processes: the drawing up of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals, and the drafting of a new Climate Change Agreement. The indispensable presupposition of all these is peace, which, even more than an end to all wars, is the fruit of heartfelt conversion.

Posted in Holy See diplomacy