Francis hosts trafficking conference organised by Church in England and Wales

traffick3Last Thursday the Vatican hosted an international conference on the scandal of human trafficking, deplored by Pope Francis as a “crime against humanity”. The two-day conference, organized by the Church in England and Wales and chaired by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, brought together international police chiefs and religious leaders who pledged to work together to fight modern-day slavery. At the end of the meeting, Pope Francis met privately with four women who had been victims of trafficking.

The Church and Law Enforcement in Partnership conference brought together 120 politicians, religious leaders, police chiefs and trafficking survivors to discuss the ways in which the Church can help combat human trafficking. It was intended to build on the work of a previous 2012 conference organised by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales with the Vatican.

With an estimated 2.4 million victims per year, human trafficking is the second most profitable criminal enterprise in the world after the arms trade. The covert and exploitative nature of trafficking means that identifying trafficked individuals is an immensely difficult task, and one that requires collaborative effort from governments, the police, businesses, and voluntary groups embedded in local communities.

traffick2Cardinal Nichols, who chaired the conference, expressed his hope that anti-trafficking initiatives in the UK and especially London would become a ‘model of co-operation’ for combating human trafficking worldwide. 

The Cardinal spoke of the collaboration between the Metropolitan Police and London’s anti-slavery charities, as well as of the Coalition government’s draft Modern Slavery Bill, which aims to give greater protection to trafficking victims and increase the number of convictions for trafficking. He also spoke of plans to establish a Church-run recovery centre for trafficking survivors which will be funded through Caritas. 

The extensive work of female religious congregations, who offer support, refuge, and rehabilitation to trafficked women, was also highlighted.

traffick4Because trafficked individuals are very often unwilling or unable to come forward to the police themselves, whether due to trauma, fear of retribution, or concerns that their immigration status may be revoked, building compassionate personal relationships is of prime importance in successfully identifying and rehabilitating trafficked individuals. Previous large-scale anti-trafficking raids in the UK were often deeply distressing for the women involved and tended to yield poor results.

Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland of the Metropolitan Police explained how officers who conduct raids on brothels and suspected crime scenes in London ask religious sisters from a local congregation to speak to suspected victims on the raided premises, as women find themselves able to trust and confide in the sisters far more easily than with the police.

The conference also launched the Santa Marta Commitment, through which representatives from the police forces from over 20 countries pledged to “eradicate the scourge of this serious criminal activity, which abuses vulnerable people.” The Santa Marta group — so-called because they were housed in the Vatican guesthouse where Francis lives, the Casa Santa Marta — will next meet again in London in November to share expertise, do training, and organise practical initiatives to combat human trafficking both across borders and within their own countries.

Prayerful as well as practical efforts were up for discussion, such as the Day of Prayer for victims of human trafficking inaugurated on 8th January 2014. This is the feast day of St Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian Sister sold into slavery as a child, who is being promoted as a possible patron saint for human trafficking victims.

Addressing the conference, Pope Francis described human trafficking as “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ”. The ITV News presenter Julie Etchingham, who was seated next to the Pope, said she could see his speech in his hands as he read it, and that “even by the end of the first paragraph he departed from his text”: “Basta, basta,” he exhorted. “When it comes to human trafficking, enough! Enough!” (See her account, with video clips, here. Interview with Cardinal Nichols here.)

trafficking1Francis stressed the importance of having anti-trafficking strategies that are “accompanied and reinforced by the mercy of the Gospel, by closeness to the men and women who are victims of this crime,’ and praised those who give trafficking victims ‘welcome, human warmth and the possibility of building a new life.”

Etchingham later interviewed Francis, asking him if he had a message for the traffickers and the victims.

His answer came slowly, he weighed every word. A pause between each phrase to allow the translation to come. Here is a master communicator, uncontrolled by a press officer – seizing another opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless.

“It’s an absolute shame. It’s a crime against humanity. It’s a form of slavery and as Christians, those who suffer are the body of Christ, the flesh of Christ,” he said

He paused, and added:

“Humanity still hasn’t learned how to cry, how to lament. We need many tears in order to understand the dimension of this drama.”

[Megan Hodder]

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Senior UK judge opens door to better protection of religious belief

baroness-haleBaroness Hale, one of the UK’s most senior judges, and the first woman appointed to the highest court in the land, recently set out in a speech to Yale Law School criteria for accommodating religious beliefs when these appear to clash with the rights of particular groups in society. In the light of same-sex marriage becoming law, and the demands of groups for the ‘eradication’ of views unsympathetic to theirs,  the speech is timely and could be the start of a long-overdue restoration of the law’s balancing act on discrimination and religious freedom.

She has form in this area. As deputy president of the UK’s Supreme Court, Brenda Hale has sat on judicial panels which have heard the most vexing and important cases concerning religious freedom in Britain in modern times. As she says in her speech at Yale Law School, the anti-discrimination measures adopted in the UK as a result of EU law are blunt tools. There is a conflict between, on the one hand, measures prohibiting discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, and on the other, measures prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief when people act in accordance with that religion or belief.

Two sets of regulations were passed, in 2003 and 2007 (and now found together in the paradoxical Equality Act 2010), which stand in practical opposition to one another. The workings of these measures are often in the context of alleged discrimination by Christians against gay or lesbian people, e.g. in cases where hoteliers or bed-and-breakfast owners have denied rooms with double beds to same-sex couples (Preddy v Bull) or where, citing their Christian beliefs, employees have refused to take part in same-sex civil partnerships or sex counselling sessions (Ladele and McFarlane).

In these cases there is a tendency for courts to find the actions of the Christians to be ‘directly discriminatory’ and therefore without legal justification. This has been the case even when the policy of refusing double beds to unmarried couples has been applied to the opposite-sex unwed as to the same-sex unwed. When there is a case that the action is only indirectly discriminatory — in which case the law allows potential justifications for discrimination — English jurisprudence has been severely against any possible arguments, finding, for instance, that the lack of express exemptions and the capability of a Christian simply to resign from their job rather than compromise their beliefs, gives ample protection. Constant rulings to this effect are leading to the freezing-out of Christians from jobs and public life.

Baroness Hale does not engage with this problem (although Parliament has: consider, for example, the specific protections for faith schools, who can defend their ethos from secular dilution, or for medical professions faced with complicity in abortion) but instead contrasts EU law with the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECHR posits positive protections for religious beliefs and practices (Article 9) and private life (Article 8), whereas EU law prohibits discrimination under both heads of sexual orientation and religion. EU law arises from the current Treaty of European Union between some 28 states; the Convention, on the other hand, has some 47 states party to it. There are some key differences between the two corpuses: the Convention usually protects a person or entity against the state and is rarely useable against another person (legal or natural) although its application is wide, whereas EU law covers employment, occupation and training in both the private and public sector for the purpose of establishing a common market in labour.

Although she does not quite put it this way, Lady Hale notes that the Convention allows more flexibility in its interpretation. Discrimination may be justified in the context of human rights when it is a proportionate response to a legitimate aim, although some areas require stronger justifications than others. “Sexual orientation falls into the category requiring ‘’weighty reasons” to justify a difference in treatment” she notes, yet:

 How much more satisfactory it would be, I have suggested, if there were to be a general defence of justification in discrimination law, so that courts and tribunals could get down to addressing the real issues – legitimate aim, rational connection, proportionality – rather than looking for distinctions which mean that they hold there was no discrimination at all. The problem has become more acute now that we have so many more protected characteristics which may well conflict with one another, in particular religious belief and sexual orientation.

What legal tools can be applied to carve out a less rigid understanding of the relationship between anti-discrimination measures? Lady Hale’s conclusion is that, “instead of all the technicalities which EU law has produced”, it would be

 [a] great deal simpler if we required the providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs of others. We can get this out of the ECHR approach but not out of our anti-discrimination law (although it is well established there in relation to disability).

What would this legal test look like? Adopting the “powerful minority” of dissenting judges in a recent ECtHR decision, Francesco Sess v Italy (concerning a Jewish lawyer refused adjournment of his case to a decide which did not coincide with Jewish holy days), Lady Hale agreed that when deciding the proportionality of a restriction on the freedom to manifest religion, the “means which is least restrictive of rights and freedoms” must be adopted, so “seeking a reasonable accommodation may, in some circumstances, constitute a less restrictive means of achieving the aim pursued”.

This means “employers might have to make reasonable accommodation for the right of their employees to manifest their religious beliefs and suppliers of services might have to make reasonable accommodation for the right of their would-be customers to use them.”

Whilst a reasonable accommodation test would be better than the status quo, where measures prohibiting discrimination against Christians will almost always lose as a matter of law, the main objection is that it is far from certain whether it would be sufficient in practice to alter the balance as it currently stands. Lady Hale cites two cases before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal which were discussed in one of the B&B cases, Preddy v Bull, in arguments before the UK Supreme Court.

The BCHRT cases concerned, firstly, the Catholic Knights of Columbus, who hired their hall to a lesbian couple for a reception after their marriage. The letting was cancelled when the Knights found out about the purpose of the rental. The tribunal “accepted that the Knights could not be compelled to act in a manner contrary to their core belief that same-sex marriages were wrong” but because “they did not consider the effect their actions would have on the couple, did not think of meeting them to explain the situation and apologize, or offer to reimburse them for any expenses they had incurred or to help find another solution”, the Knights “failed in their duty of reasonable accommodation… In effect, they did not appreciate the affront to the couple’s human dignity and do their best to soften the blow.” In the other case, Christians who cancelled the booking of a gay couple failed in their duty of reasonable accommodation “in the offensive manner of the cancellation and the failure to explore alternatives”.

Do we really want to see Christians lose their rights to manifest their deeply-held beliefs just because they failed to apologise correctly? Whilst the cancellations might have been rude, surely that rudeness in and of itself cannot trump the otherwise reasonable right they have to act in accord with their formed conscience, in ways recognised and supported by millions of people around the world? The precise interpretation of facts in a broader balance lies at the heart of legal activity. Baroness Hale herself sees this problem:

I wonder whether that is something of a relief or whether we would be better off with a more nuanced approach. I find it hard to believe that the hard-line EU law approach to direct discrimination can be sustainable in the long run. But I am not sure how comfortable I would be with the sort of balancing exercise required by the Canadian approach. At all events, it is fascinating that a country with an established church can be less respectful of religious feelings than one without.

 And make no mistake: if there were to be a reasonable accommodation test, it would be used in more and more situations. As the UK Supreme Court showed in its recognition of Scientology as a religion, English law reduces protections for conventional and orthodox religious belief while at the same time widening the category of beliefs which fall to be protected as religious.

Lady Hale’s speech should be welcomed for its recognition that Christians in Britain are often in tricky legal positions. She doesn’t accept that religious belief is worthy of any special protection just because it is religious (hence the snarky aside about “a country with an established church”, above) and she echoes Lord Justice Laws’ famous retort to George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, when Carey criticised the courts for failing to recognise the privileges of established Christianity (“there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content,” said Laws. “The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves.”) But her logic, subtle and incremental as it is, may help tip the scales back towards protecting Christians living and working in the secular world.

[Peter Smith is a barrister]

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The state has eviscerated marriage. Society must rebuild it.

When the first gay weddings are celebrated this weekend in the UK, those who feel  discomfort at the state’s redefinition of marriage will be made to feel even worse by being jeered at from some quarters as homophobes and bigots. The brilliantly successful attempt to frame the redefinition of marriage as the final stage of a civil rights campaign for gay equality has had its effect; and many Christians, rightly appalled at finding themselves cast in the role prepared for them, want desperately that the Church now “demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being”, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has put it.

Feelings run high, because many gay people have been persuaded that those who oppose gay marriage object to them, or their love, or their desire for equality. They have been told that not just by campaigning organizations such as Stonewall, but by the Government itself, which has sought to capitalize on gay peoples’ feelings of anger and exclusion by offering them gay marriage in sympathy. In this trading of self-interest — gay groups needing to deliver victories, governments needing to feel good about civil rights — opponents of SSM have been scapegoated. They have been painted as irrational people driven by phobia — or in the case of religious people, by atavistic theological impulses —  which will make it will be harder for them, over time, to be teachers or public servants. The state has introduced a new, official definition of marriage which is wholly out of keeping with that of society, and those who dare to say so will pay the price.

Catholic Voices, which has been a prominent advocate of retaining the conjugal understanding of marriage since the move was first announced out of the blue in the party conferences of 2011, has had a fair share of abuse hurled at it, its arguments for conjugal marriage dismissed as rationalizations for homophobia. It has often got personal. Just last night one of the CV speakers, Caroline Farrow, was spat at and told she was ‘disgusting’ as she left the BBC Question Time studio at Brighton University after she opposed same-sex marriage (SSM) from the audience. Her Twitter feed afterwards filled up with the kinds of insults and language that at one time, ironically, gay people used to suffer.

“Love is love,” the deputy prime minister declared today, as if that’s what this was always about — the opponents of SSM believing, presumably, that love is never, or sometimes not, love. It is part of a frame that casts opponents of SSM as grim reactionaries fuming from the sidelines while the champagne flutes sparkle and the wedding cakes are cut and love is declared.

But it’s not gay people, or love, or equality that we oppose, but the evisceration of marriage. And that is why we find it hard to stay silent.

What is at stake

What is at stake is that, in order to accommodate one group’s desire to have their love legitimated by the state — a dubious idea in itself — the state has emptied marriage of its essential meaning. It has changed marriage from an understandable, recognizable, conjugal institution, one hallowed by faith and civil society, to an ersatz, hollowed-out arrangement that cannot be called an institution at all. That matters because it makes marriage less interesting, less attractive and less important. People — gay or straight — will increasingly come to ask: why do I need a piece of paper from the state to prove I love someone? If marriage is simply “about” the love between any two people, what has the state got to do with it anyway?

In the past, that question has been simple to answer. The state recognises, protects and supports the pre-existing social and cultural understanding of marriage as an institution linked to, but not conditional on, reproduction, at the heart of which is a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. That relationship is apt for, even if it does not always produce, children; and because the rearing of children by their biological parents matters, the conditions of marriage — permanence and fidelity — are designed to support that end.  That is the only reason the state has ever wished to single it out and promote it: not to recognize, or endorse, the love between two people, which is no business of the state, but to regulate and protect an institution whose elements are designed to benefit children, even when no children issue.

Were it not for reproduction, marriage would not exist. The fact that some marriages are childless, or do not last (because of death and divorce), or involve adopting children, does not detract from this understanding. Marriage has a meaning. It offers a model, an understanding — what the Greeks call a telos — which makes it what it is. You may not want it, and you may not qualify for it, but you know — you used to know — what it stands for. 

Although much is made of the fact that gay couples will now be admitted to this hallowed, timeless social institution, the uncomfortable fact — and Stonewall and the Government, who drafted the legislation know this all too well — is that they are being admitted to another institution altogether: an ersatz, eviscerated, parody of the real thing.

An ersatz ‘institution’

For a start, their sexual activity is irrelevant; consummation, in the new definition, is not required (at least for gay people; part of the anomaly of this law designed to bring about equality is that it creates two categories of marriage): thus an institution linked to reproduction is now a desexualised institution. (The Church, which has long insisted that sex is for marriage, must now insist, counter-culturally, that marriage is for sex.)

Second, marriage has always been understood as the bringing together of man and woman; it is a gendered, gender-specific, gender-complementary institution. Yet the new version of marriage “means the union of two people”, according to Hackney Council’s new script. Any two people.

Third, marriage has been understood to be about fidelity. Yet sexual exclusivity is no longer a requirement for a gay marriage: adultery has been stripped from it as grounds for divorce.

The new version of marriage, then, is not about sex, not about a man and woman, and not about permanence and fidelity. What, then, is left? The answer is Clegg’s: it is sentiment — the feeling (but not the sexual act) of love — between two people.

Love is not the condition

Many would agree that love is what the institution of marriage is “about”. But love has never been the sole condition of marriage. What makes marriage are all these elements: one man plus one woman, brought together through love and affection, sexually bonded for life, faithful to each other, in order to provide the best environment for the creation and rearing of children.

The government edition is a vague, sentimental partnership, parasitic on the richer, deeper meaning of marriage — would gay people want it if it weren’t? — yet at the same time destructive of that meaning. It cannot last.

The impact

What will the effect be? It is too early to say conclusively. The UK is one of just 15 nations to have dethroned conjugal marriage, and the first was one to do so was barely a decade ago. But we can make some predictions based on the experiences of those other countries, as well as common sense, all of which point to the progressive weakening of the significance and meaning of marriage in society. Here are three.

1. Civil marriage will over time come to be seen as insignificant and incoherent. People will ask, “why bother? What is it? Why do I need it?” Fewer will marry. And the main victims will be the children of poor families, who are the ones who most benefit from being raised by their biological parents in a stable environment. (See the studies cited here pp 257-8).

2. Despite the claims of lobbies and the Government’s own wishful thinking, gay marriage will not strengthen marriage. The take-up in other countries, and the expected take-up in the UK, has been far too low to make any impact on marriage as a whole — even if gay marriages were strong, which they are not: the divorce rate among those few same-sex couples who do enter marriage is far higher than among straight couples — and in lesbian couples is above 70 per cent.

3. Marriage will be further weakened by future claims from sexual groups also seeking legitimacy from the state. The lesson from other countries is not that gay marriage leads to the legalisation of polyamorous and other kinds of unions — although it has in some places — but that the state is urged to consider them, and must oppose them from a unstable, even incoherent, juridical basis. If marriage has been redefined in one particular (man plus woman) why not in other particulars (fidelity, permanence, restricting numbers to two)? The arguments are incoherent, and further weaken the idea of marriage.

The equality chimera

Does the desire for equality have any part in these discussions? When she was making up her mind about the law which she bravely — to the horror of her parliamentary colleagues – voted against, Sarah Teather, the Lib-Dem MP and former minister, a passionate advocate of equality and gay rights, came to the conclusion that the rights involved counted for very little. She told the House:

The argument in favour of same-sex marriage has mostly centred on rights. But this isn’t the only liberal philosophical perspective on the legislation. The more I considered this bill the more I was unsure about the state’s role. If an important reason for marriage is that it is a space for having and raising children, I can see the relevance for the state being involved in regulating it and encouraging stability for the good of society and for children’s welfare. Similarly, if there is a need for protection of rights to property and rights to make decisions, there are good reasons for the state to provide regulation. But neither of these things is what this legislation is trying to do. In this case, the state is regulating love and commitment alone, between consenting adults, without purpose to anything else. That feels curious to me, as I would normally consider that very much a private matter.

And there is the rub. The campaign for gay marriage — inviting our politicians to be part of an intoxicating, historic civil rights campaign opposed only by dinosaurs and bigots — was never about securing legal rights or ending the exclusion from the benefits of the law. If being unable to marry was a symptom of discrimination against gay people, why was it never mentioned on the marches? Why was it never part of the gay rights battle against discrimination? (In countries where same-sex marriage has been legalized, the take-up has been small, and dwindles over time.)

This was always a symbolic, political move by a lobby seeking from the state an endorsement — a secular blessing — for gay relationships. The price for that political victory has been paid in the destruction of marriage’s core meaning.

Stonewall’s strategy throughout has been to frame the opposition to gay marriage as a kind of homophobic spluttering from suburban old people in cardigans. “Same-sex couples are living in committed, loving relationships and people have realised that the sky has not fallen in,” says its spokesman today. But that is wholly to deflect the point. It is not homosexuality or gay people that opponents have a problem with but the evisceration of marriage.

That is why we must continue to speak up, and refuse to be labelled as anti-gay. As Catholic Voices showed in the only ever UK survey of attitudes to SSM among gay people, there are many, many gay people deeply opposed to this move — and even more who believe it has been wrong to press for it.

A time to rebuild

We must continue to speak, too, against the other tactic of SSM advocates —  to paint religious opponents as driven by some kind of theocratic urge to impose its theological understanding on society. That is a gross misreading. Not only does the Church respect the secular autonomy of civil marriage, it also believes the state should continue to defend and uphold the meaning of marriage which neither Church nor state has the power to change. Church and state have traditionally provided two avenues to the same institution, an arrangement that serves the common good. That partnership will now be under severe strain.

The sky will not fall in. But now that the state has destroyed marriage’s intrinsic meaning, the gap between the true understanding of it and the ersatz version confected by the state will grow over time. On the plus side, that makes evangelization easier.

The passage of the UK’s gay marriage law was a shocking display of naked state power: there was no real debate, no authentic consultation, no proper time given to the issue. Unannounced in any campaign manifesto, it was driven by the collusion of all three parties, driven at speed through Parliament in order not to give time for civil society to organize in response.

That is why the mobilization of energies and resources in support of marriage called for by Pope Francis in the Catholic bishops’ synods of 2014 and 2015 could not come at a better time. The recovery of the key institution of human society needs to begin from below. That is the task to which the Church must now turn.

The battle was lost; but now is not the time for growling or sulking. Opponents of SSM will not celebrate this weekend, but nor should they stand grim-faced at the sidelines. While the state hollows out marriage, others must begin rebuilding it from below. Manif-pour-tous

[Austen Ivereigh]

Catholic Voices speakers are today appearing in many media. Fr Edmund Montgomery is quoted here, Fiona O’Reilly here. Fr Edmund has been on Sky and BBC R5 Live. O’Reilly has been on BBC News. Ivereigh has been on BBC ‘Today’ (at 52 mins here) BBC Radio London (Vanessa Feltz show), and on Radio 2 ‘Jeremy Vine’ show. Laura Keynes has been on BBC Radio Cambridge. Many of these, and other clips, will be available later on our website here

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The foetal body-burning scandal: facing the truth of a throwaway culture

An investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches has revealed that the bodies of thousands of miscarried and aborted babies have been incinerated as chemical waste, with some used to heat hospitals in a waste-to-energy scheme. The programme can be watched here.

Ten NHS trusts have admitted to burning foetal remains alongside surgical waste. Two hospitals, including the world-famous Cambridge University teaching hospital Addenbrookes, processed the bodies in specially built facilities. At least 15,500 sets of remains have been incinerated by 27 NHS trusts over the past two years.

The news has provoked widespread revulsion and horror. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of what Pope Francis memorably described in his address to diplomats in January as the ‘throwaway culture’. He specifically referred, as an example of that culture, to the practice of abortion, and the discarded victims who never see the light of day.

The revelations show how far the UK’s abortion laws, introduced in 1967 on the grounds of compassion, have ended numbing our nation’s sensitivity to life. Treating foetal remains as nothing more than a waste product or potential source of energy may be the law’s inevitable corollary  — especially for a hospital which treats abortion as merely a medical procedure. Jim Dobbin MP, the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group was correct when he observed that this disregard is the fruit of 50 years of abortion laws.

Dr Dan Poulter, a health minister, says it is totally unacceptable and has pledged to stamp out the practice — the only possible response to public outrage. But the main reaction has centered around the lack of sensitivity and compassion shown to parents who were not informed and given no choice over what happened to their babies’ bodies. But the real issue is that no-one within the NHS sought to question the morality of burning remains in the same incinerators and sometimes at the same time as items such as soiled dressings. What is missing is an understanding of the humanity of the babies involved.

Human life, and therefore the body, is present from the first moment of existence, which is why foetal remains must be accorded the same dignity and respect as any other human being. Donum Vitae, the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) in 1987 is clear that “the corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings”.

The NHS medical director says hospitals should bury or cremate the bodies of aborted babies. But the NHS contracts out the majority of its abortion provision to private clinics, which are not subject to the same regulations. Almost all of the 200,000 babies who are lost to abortion every year in the UK will have their remains treated in an identical fashion to the industrial incinerators exposed by Dispatches. All should be compelled to treat remains in a dignified and respectful fashion. Women using these clinics should also be asked what they would like to happen to their baby’s remains. However uncomfortable it must be for an abortion clinic, that conversation must take place.

What was clear from the heart-breaking interviews in the Dispatches programme was that the women involved did not regard their babies as ‘potential’ lives and rejected the medical terminology that seeks to obscure the the humanity of the unborn. These women were grieving for actual babies, not mere products of conception; they were known and loved, no matter how brief their time on earth. The UK charity Saying Goodbye, run by the Mariposa Trust, receives more than 600,000 hits on their website every month from grieving parents who have been denied the opportunity formally to grieve for their baby.

In the face of a culture that denies the humanity of the unborn, the Catholic Church gently asserts it, offering support, advice and comfort to grieving parents, including funeral and burial rites free of charge. The remains of unbaptised babies can be buried on consecrated ground and receive funeral rites. The Church entrusts infants who have died without baptism to the mercy of God who desires the salvation of all people.

This is a distressing story but may be seen, in retrospect, as another of those moments where the silence over abortion is temporarily shattered and the contradictions and discomforts surrounding the issue bubble to the surface. It comes at at a time when the government are seeking to liberalise existing abortion practices by stealth, despite polling data indicating enormous opposition. The government may be anxious to respond to the outraged reaction to the Channel 4 revelations; but are they listening to what lies behind it?

[Caroline Farrow]

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Mitochondrial transfer: science that crosses lines for no good purpose

25841preg_innerThree-parent embryos are the most  high-profile recent development in reproductive technology, and an area where the UK is striving to take a leading role — hence the  government consultation on new rules to allow it. Scientists, as always when seeking permission to push the boundaries of the law, say it offers hope of preventing life-threatening diseases for which there are no cures. But when it comes to biotechnology, ‘can’ does not imply ‘ought’. Both the technique, and the claims, need to be looked at very closely.

What the technique involves

By replacing defective genetic material with that of a healthy, third-party donor, three-parent embryos aim to eliminate certain types of inheritable disease caused by defective mitochondria, the structures which generate energy within cells. About one in 200 children born in the UK have some form of mitochondrial disorder, the most serious of which affect the heart, brain, muscles and liver.

Under the procedure, the nucleus is removed from an affected woman’s egg or from a cell in an embryo and transferred to a donor egg or embryo that has healthy mitochondria. ‘Mitochondrial transfer’, as the technique is known, has never been tried in humans and is at the moment illegal — prohibited in Britain under laws that ban the placing of an egg or embyro into a woman if the DNA has been altered.

pronuclear_transfer_diagram_v4The UK is currently on track to become the first country in the world to introduce mitochondrial transfer in clinical practice. This will allow a small number of women carrying a particular kind of defective mitochondria to have children free from mitochondrial disease but still genetically related to them.

The proposed procedure is not a treatment for mitochondrial disease; it is a method of ensuring that individuals who would have had mitochondrial disease are not born. It does nothing to help the estimated 12,000 people in the UK already living with mitochondrial disease, or those yet to be born with it (often defective mitochondria is not identified until after the child of a carrier begins displaying symptoms). Nor does it help those with conditions which are only partially caused by defective mitochondria.

As a result of the technique, a baby will have DNA from the biological parents and a female donor who provides healthy mitochondria, the tiny biological batteries that power most cells in the body. The fraction of a cell’s DNA that is in mitochondria is minuscule and affects only how cells are powered. It does not influence the child’s physical appearance or personality.

Why the government is consulting

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which governs the use of reproductive technology in the UK, prohibits the creation and use of genetically altered eggs and embryos except in the case of severe mitochondrial disease. The Department of Health’s public consultation is seeking approval for draft regulations which would introduce the use of mitochondrial transfer as a treatment in the UK. Parliament must approve those regulations before the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) can allow clinics to offer the treatment.

The scope of the consultation is to decide which of the two processes of mitochondrial transfer – pro-nuclear transfer or maternal spindle cell transfer - should be used, and how the practice should be licensed and regulated. The question of whether or not the procedure should be introduced at all, as far as the Department of Health is concerned, has already been settled.

Crossing a line

MitochondriaThe desire to one’s own children is a very human one. But meeting that desire through mitochondrial transfer would come at disproportionate medical and ethical cost. 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.

International consensus currently holds that genetic therapies which make structural repairs to a single individual, without affecting their genetic descendants, are ethically and medically justified if used with appropriate safeguards. But gene therapies such as mitochondrial transfer, which make modifications to an individual which will then be passed on through the germline, are not.

There is good reason for this. Mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA), while comprising only a small percentage of a person’s total genetic material, is remarkably poorly understood considering the pervasive effects it has on human metabolism and development. Modifications made to a person’s mtDNA will become an irremovable part of the human germline, and will be passed on to that person’s descendants together with any undetected defects and unpredicted consequences that occur as a result.

What consequences? No one is quite sure. An advisory committee to the US Food and Drug Administration recently raised a number of concerns about lack of robust preclinical data on the safety and effects of the procedure. Trials at Newcastle University in 2010, which form the Department of Health’s evidence base, concluded that the average amount of defective mtDNA that remained after mitochondrial transfer was not significant enough to cause disease. But this gives no indication of the likelihood of defects and complications manifesting themselves at later stages of an individual’s development.

In other trials performed on macaques, which indicated that manipulated embryos can develop healthily, researchers observed considerable differences between outcomes for macaque and human embryos which cast doubts on the application and relevance of these findings to procedures on humans.

pink-150x150But the potential problems for modified individuals are not solely physical. It is unclear what identity issues modified children may experience in adulthood, given they will have at least three genetic parents, and in the case of PNT children no immediate genetic precursors.

As the Anscombe Bioethics Centre says in their paper on the subject, “we are very far from the unconditional welcome of new life which having a baby should involve.” This complex fragmentation of one of the critical building-blocks of human community, parenthood, is not something to be undertaken lightly.

The practice of pro-nuclear transfer, where the implanted embryo is constructed from components of prior embryos, shows this disregard for the natural value of human life particularly acutely.

The procedure will require the destruction of at least two embryos even in the most efficient model, and in reality it is likely to require more: the Newcastle University research found that embryos created by PNT were only half as likely to survive to the blastocyst stage as non-modified ones.

Contrary to the position of the Department of Health, no amount of regulation and safeguarding can make mitochondrial transfer a safe or ethical procedure. Its problems are inherent, and can be avoided only by prohibiting the practice entirely.

Instead, funding and efforts should focus on research into the causes of mitochondrial disease, and the development of treatments for individuals both living and yet to be born with these debilitating and poorly-understood conditions.

Pushing boundaries to the benefit of the few

Once regulations are introduced, it will fall to the HFEA to determine which women carrying defective mitochondria are eligible for transfer, based on the likely risk of significant impairment in any naturally conceived children. According to the Department of Health there would only be an estimated 10 cases a year severe enough to be eligible for the procedure. That leaves several hundred people being born each year with mitochondrial disease who still require care, treatment and assistance.

The introduction of mitochondrial transfer shows a growing tendency in reproductive technology to sideline conventional and established treatments in favour of research that pushes boundaries but delivers no greater clinical or social benefit. Just look at that happened with cybrids, introduced in 2008, whose clinical and research applications have turned out to be few and far between despite much initial hype.

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.

[Megan Hodder]

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Pope Francis anniversary interview: highlights

Francis Mar 2014Francis’s 5 March interview with Corriere della Sera – published simultaneously by La Nación in Argentina — contains fewer surprises than we have been used to in his previous ones, and has therefore attracted less attention than they did. In part this shows that Francis’s novelty is wearing off: the media are getting used both to the fact that he does such interviews, and the views expressed in them. But that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

The interview contains no across-the-board lede. Different media have found stories in different parts: the BBC, like the Boston Globe, is struck by his defence of the Church over sexual abuse, the Guardian by his rejection of papolatry, while the Daily Mail gets excited over a ‘revelation’ of Francis falling for a girl while in seminary (although the story is as old as a book that came out in 2011.) Many, like the Sydney Morning Herald, hone in on his apparent openness to civil unions (although he is careful not to give any across-the-board view) while clearly rejecting same-sex  marriage; while the Telegraph thinks there is a story in Francis not ‘ruling out’ retiring. For the Catholic media, the biggest story was Francis appearing to praise Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae, for years seen as the dividing line between liberal and conservative Catholics.

From a communications point of view, this interview seems intended to shoot down a few balloons — scotching a few myths, downplaying some expectations, and trying to rescue the real Francis from beneath the ideological projections. But it is revealing in a number of important respects. Here are the highlights.


Nicholas with B16Francis says the emeritus pope is not “a statue in a museum” but “an institution which we haven’t yet got used to”. He points out that before the reforms of Paul VI, the idea of “emeritus bishop” did not exist — there was no retirement age for bishops — but now emeritus bishops are part of the institution of the Church. In the same way, we are adapting now to the idea of an emeritus pope. “His is discreet, humble, he doesn’t want to bother anyone,” the Pope says.

Francis makes clear that his role has been discussed between them. Having talked it over, they had both reached the conclusion that it was better for him to see people and take part in the life of the Church. Francis invited him to take part in the consistory to create new cardinals, and he accepted. Francis praises his wisdom and says he thinks of “grandparents, who with their wisdom and their counsel give strength to a family and do not deserve to end their lives in a nursing home.”


Francis says he had not expected this “diocesan transfer” — i.e. being elected — and in March last year “I had no project to change the Church”. His programme is seeking to implement the priorities defined by the cardinals in their pre-conclave discussions. He proceeds, he says, on the basis of waiting for the Lord to give him inspiration.


o-POPE-FRANCIS-ROLLING-STONE-570Francis says he dislikes “ideological interpretations” of him and his papacy, which he describes as “a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’.”

I believe Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the Pope as a sort of superman, a kind of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.


“The truth is that I am not nostalgic,” says Francis, but adds that he would like to visit his sister, who is unwell, “but this does not justify a trip to Argentina. I call her by phone and this is enough.” He says he is not thinking of going to Argentina before 2016 and that “now” he must go to the Holy Land, Asia, and then Africa.


I want to say two things. The cases of abuses are terrible because they leave extremely deep wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and he opened the way [to dealing with the issue]. And following that path, the Church has come a long way. Perhaps more than anyone. The statistics on the phenomenon of the violence against children are shocking, but they also show clearly that the great majority of abuses take place in the family environment and from people close to the victims. The Catholic church is perhaps the single public institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more, yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.


st-francis-of-assisi-1643The Gospel condemns the cult of wealth. ‘Pauperism’ is one of the critical interpretations. In Medieval times, there were a lot of pauperistic currents. St. Francis had the genius of placing the theme of poverty in the way of the Gospel. Jesus says that one cannot serve two masters, God and money. And when we are judged in the last judgement (Matthew 25), we will be asked about our closeness to poverty. Poverty distances us from idolatry, it opens the doors to Providence. Zaccheus gave half of his wealth to the poor. And to those who keep their wheat barns full of their own selfishness, the Lord, in the end, will call them to account. I have expressed fully in Evangelii Gaudium what I think about poverty.


It is true, globalization has saved many from poverty, but it has condemned many others to die of hunger, because with this economic system it becomes selective. The globalization which the Church thinks of is not like a sphere in which every point is equidistant from the center and in which, therefore, we lose the distinctiveness of different peoples, but a polyhedron, with its different faces, in which every people conserves its own culture, language, religion, identity. The current ‘spherical’ economic, and especially financial, globalization produces a single way of thinking, a weak way of thinking. At the centre is no longer the human person, but money.


Francis recalls deciding on the theme of the synod three months after his election, and choosing the family, “which is undergoing a very serious crisis” to which “we must give a response”. For this deep reflection is required, which is what the consistory and the synods are engaged in. Only in the light of “deep reflection” can particular issues such as those of the divorced and remarried be faced.

consistory 1Referring to the recent extraordinary consistory in Rome,  he says: “Cardinal Kasper made a beautiful and profound presentation that will soon be published in German, in which he covered five points, the fifth of which was that of second marriages.” He said he was glad that there was vigorous discussion. “The cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented many different points of view, which is always enriching. The fraternal and open debate develops theological and pastoral thinking. I am not afraid of this; in fact, I look for it.”


Marriage is between a man and a woman. Religiously-neutral states wish to introduce civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, impelled to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as for example social security. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them separately.


It is true that women can and should be more present in  decision-making roles in the Church. But this I would call this a promotion of a functional sort. Just doing this doesn’t get you very far. It’s better to think of the Church as having a feminine article (‘la’). She has been feminine from the beginning. The  theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar worked a lot on this subject: the Marian principle guides the Church hand in hand with the Petrine principle. The Virgin is more important than any bishop and any apostle. The theological deepening of this is underway. Cardinal Rylko, with the Council for the Laity, is working in this direction with many women experts in different areas.


Asked if the Church can reconsider the question of birth control, Francis says it depends on how you interpret the text of Humanae Vitae (Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical).

Paul VI himself, towards the end, urged confessors to show great mercy, and to pay attention to concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, for he had the courage to go against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to apply the brakes on culture, and to oppose neo-Malthusianism* both at the time and in the future. It’s not about changing doctrine but of going to the roots and ensuring that our pastoral outreach keeps in mind the situations of each person and what they are capable of. This will also be discussed in the run-up to the synod.

[*i.e. theories of population control based on eugenic ideas, and specifically the idea that the broader use of contraceptives will eliminate vice and raise the standard of living.]

[Austen Ivereigh]

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Cardinal Nichols: Rome press conference highlights

[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]

vincent2In his first press conference since being created cardinal last Saturday, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, spoke with journalists yesterday at the English College in Rome. The themes included last week’s discussion on marriage and family (see CV Comment here) as well as the radicality of Francis’s papacy, the UN report on abuse, wealth and poverty, relations with Anglicans, and his priorities as cardinal archbishop.


_73155060_73153359Describing his experience of the previous few days as a “vivid and powerful experience of the universality of the Church”, Cardinal Nichols said being among 18 new cardinals from 15 countries, with only four Europeans, had made clear to him where the strength of Catholicism currently lies. “Now I sit next to the cardinal from Managua,” he said.

He said he had also been struck by the “depth and richness of friendships that Church helps to nurture among people” and the way in which faith deepens friendships. He said he took away from the Pope’s homily on Sunday Francis’s “intense insistence that our relationship with Christ lies at the heart of everything.”

He spoke of his pride that the choir of Westminster Cathedral had sung at both the consistory on Saturday and Sunday’s Mass with the cardinals, which had “showed the world something of the richness of the tradition of English church music.”

The invitation to the choir to sing at the consistory arose from the 2010 visit to London of Pope Benedict XVI, when he had been impressed by the choirs of both Westminster Abbey and Cathedral.

choristersAfter the Mass on Sunday the cathedral choir  waited for Pope Francis in the courtyard outside the Santa Marta guest house. When he arrived, they sang for him, and Francis greeted them one by one. It was “a very personal, very intimate and an unforgettable gift to the Holy Father”, said Cardinal Nichols.


Cardinal Nichols announced he would be hosting a 9-10 April conference in Rome on human trafficking that would bring together church leaders and law enforcement officers. About 2o heads of police services from many different countries will be taking part, including the head of Interpol and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner from London. He said the conference was based on the victim-driven work of the previous three years.

vincent4“By attending to them and their needs we can make a huge contribution, with the police, to the tackling of this problem,” he said, adding: “There have been raids in London that began in church circles”.


Cardinal Nichols said he enjoyed contact and cooperation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and that  there had been a recent two-day meeting of the bishops of the Church of England and the bishops of England and Wales.

He said the fact that the House of Bishops had taken a further step towards ordination of women as bishops “does not make the path to structural unity any easier, but it does not impede our joint cooperation”.


new-cardinal-nichols-with-westminster-cathedral-choirAsked to describe the changes under Pope Francis, Cardinal Nichols said: “I would not use the word reform. I would use the phrase ‘radical renewal’. He is a Pope of startling, radical renewal in the Church. He is radical because he goes right to the very heart of why the Church exists, why it has life in it, and what its mission is.”


Cardinal Nichols was one of 185 cardinals — virtually the entire College — who met over two days last week to discuss the pastoral challenges of marriage and family. The cardinals were addressed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, and then had a free-flowing discussion, with contributions from 45 cardinals.

The extraordinary consistory discussions, said Cardinal Nichols, were “an overture before the opera or concert really begins” at the synod discussions in October 2014 and again in October 2015. Although there were many themes, there was a focus on specific pastoral challenge of those who were divorced and remarried, and therefore barred from Communion.

New Cardinal Alencherry of India talks with Cardinal Dolan of the U.S. during a consistory ceremony in Saint Peter's Basilica at the VaticanCardinal Nichols said there were “five key melodies enunciated in this overture”:

1. The debate was characterised by “a keen awareness of the distress of many people in their experience of their family and marriage and their family. People feel they have failed and have a desire to start again.” People sense their not being admitted to Holy Communion as a kind of punishment, a sign of not being accepted. “There’s a whole need to explore more what the Eucharist plays, whether the Eucharist is, as this sense suggests, the sum total of Catholic life, and it isn’t. But there’s a great recognition that these are people we’re talking about and the hurt they have in their lives for all sorts of reasons.”

2. There was also “a deep concern for the truth of the unity and indissolubility of marriage” and the central importance of teaching of Christ. “Out of that came a desire to thank those who give the witness of fidelity in their marriages: the majority of marriages remain and endure and people remain faithful to each other”. Marriage is the work of grace. “It was clearly recognized that if we are to unfold that grace it’s a real challenge  to how in Europe we understand each other as human beings,” he said, adding: “The anthropology behind the unity and indissolubility of marriage is a real challenge.”

consistory 13. Concern for human freedom. To give a solemn undertaking in marriage, people needed to be free do do so. However,  especially in Europe “the cultural context in which people come to the altar to be married is radically changed”. For a marriage to be a sacramental covenant, it is not enough that people entering marriage aspire to permanence; the sacrament requires “a commitment to indissolubility.” He said: “There was a whole lot of discussion about how free are people to give the consent and commitment that the validity of marriage is understood to need.”

552px-Chiesa_del_Santissimo_Redentore_e_di_Sant'Alfonso_de'_Liguori4. Concern for love. Francis spoke of “the need for a pastoral care that is intelligent, courageous and full of love.” Cardinal Nichols said this pastoral care was clearly enunicated by the founder of the Redemptorists, St Alphonsus Liguori, whose church in Rome was now Cardinal Nichols’s titular church. “If ever there was a master of pastoral theology, it was Alphonsus,” said the cardinal, “so I will be looking to him.” Key to the pastoral support of the family was the need to build up supportive groups that were broader than the nuclear family, and inter-generational. The challenge to the Church, said Cardinal Nichols, was: “Can we help society knits its families together for mutual support?”

5. There was also a concern that marriage annulments be made more available and  accessible. That meant looking at the basis for evidence needed, among other mechanisms of church tribunals. Although they must be concerned to establish the truth of the marriage, “can they be made more accessible?”

In answer to a later question about the question of the separated and remarried, Cardinal Nichols said:

We have to back and look again at place of the Eucharist in relation to the whole life of church and spiritual life of any person or couple. And make it possible that somehow the identification between receiving Eucharist and being a faithful Catholic isn’t as important is now. When I was growing up, there was a more reserved approach to the Eucharist. It made demands on us. To receive the Eucharist was the high point. There must be ways in which people can live a very fruitful life in the church even if for the public reasons we all understand they might not have access to the Eucharist.

That’s on the one hand an understanding of the Eucharist that we have to develop or recover; and on the other hand, not assume like we tend to, that if they’ve experienced a failure in their marriage and have started again with a new partner that they are necessarily in this new relationship with the Church. So I think we have to be —and it’s a strong point in the discussions — much more positive in the way in which we engage with people whose marriages have broken down to find solutions that apply to them, even if they might not think so. We too easily assume that the breakdown of a marriage is an irretrievable situation. Given some of the things that have been said about the freedom needed for a valid marriage we shouldn’t come to that conclusion too quickly.


Cormac+Murphy+O+Connor+Extraordinary+Consistory+QMFaoHLbyY5lCardinal Nichols cited Francis’s letter to the new cardinals that their appointment was “a call to serve. A call that invites you to have broader horizons and a larger heart.” He said: “What I saw in his choice of 16 active cardinals was his emphasis on cardinals in poor countries and secondly cardinals who live in the world’s great cities. They’re the right priorities, frankly.”

Cardinal Nichols said the traditional  description of a cardinal as a prince of the Church “is not one that occurs to Francis, and it’s not one I think of for myself.”  

He said he had three priorities as Archbishop of Westminster: to be attentive to the poor, attentive to the world of business where wealth is created, and attentive to the parishes as “the basic unit of the Church where people live their faith.”

He said Pope Francis in his message to Davos recognised the importance of creative business for developing the wealth of the world, but which was understood as “service to the whole of humanity and not a self-service to business itself.”

Cardinal Nichols said his  conversations with business leaders had showed him that “many are willing to admit that business around the world has lost trust, and the trust has to be rebuilt”.

“There are potential allies in the business world for the agenda of the Church”, he said, adding: “The perspective of shareholders is not wide enough for business to work with integrity. They have to look at the wider context in which wealth is created and who it serves.”

He said “the Holy See is building up its reputation as a protagonist for the poorest of the world” and that the trafficking conference was a sign of that.   


Cardinal Nichols said the recent UN Report (see CV Comment here) seemed to have “an exclusive focus on the Catholic Church and to that extent was not satisfactory.”  He said the report seemed to be wanting to identify Church with abuse in a way that was “profoundly misleading”. He said the report also had a very limited understanding of the nature of the Church, “seeing it as a worldwide corporation with a single chief officer.” 

Cardinal Nichols added:

My first duties with regard to child protection lie within the legal structure of Great Britain. Criminal proceedings have to take place there first. If I were to act on the basis of canon law straight away I would be in the wrong; because I would be interfering with the proper process of justice in Great Britain. The sense that somehow the Holy See was somehow responsible for the handling of child abuse cases in Britain is totally flawed. It just isn’t so. We are accountable first of all under the criminal and civic law of Great Britain. Jurisdiction in a nation-state is not a matter of choice. Being a member of the Catholic Church is a matter of choice. And therefore the jurisdiction of the Church is not the same as the jurisdiction of the land. And that’s the misunderstanding. We are asked to report to the Holy See, but our primary duty is to cooperate with the police in the pursuit of criminal activity in our land. And that’s what we do: regularly, clearly, and we’ve done it with great clarity for at least the last 15 years. So from the point of view of England, I would say the UN report is 15 years out of date.


Nicholas with B16Following the Pope Emeritus’s surprise appearance at Saturday’s consistory, Cardinal Nichols said it would not be normal to have Pope Francis and Pope Benedict at ceremonies in the future, although “I wouldn’t be surprised if he came to the canonizations” of John XIII and John Paul II in April. “But his vocation is now to pray for the Church and live that life of prayerful seclusion.” 

- ENDS -

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