Bishops ask Catholics to make their vote count in May general election

Calling on Catholics “to build a world in which respect, dignity, equality, justice and peace are our primary concerns”, the bishops of England and Wales have produced a checklist of issues they wish Catholics to raise with candidates at May’s general election. Above all their letter — signed by the conference president and vice-president, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark —  call on Catholics to engage with the elections. Reminding them of their duty to vote, they ask Catholics to think and reflect on the issues, follow the media debates, quiz candidates and to recognize the good intentions of politicians.

15144270519_f3c18c5036The bishops’ letter — introduced by Cardinal Nichols in this short video message  — sets out four core principles from which a politics geared to the common good should spring: respect for life in all its stages; support of marriage and family life and the alleviation of poverty; education for the good of all; building communities; and caring for the wider world.

While stressing that voting should never be based on a single issue, the bishops suggest that some issues — “especially those concerned with the dignity and value of human life and human flourishing”  — are “more central than others”.

Calling for “politics that protect the fundamental right to life”, the bishops reiterate the Church’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia laws while calling for more palliative care, as well as “a robust National Health Service on which we can all rely”.

They also argue that “commitment to support the family should be at the heart of social and political life” and point out that too many families depend on food banks.

The Catholic bishops have long called for a “just wage”, and in 2015 implicitly call for the extension of the living wage — which is now paid to all staff of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales and all employed in the Diocese of Westminster — in noting that too many families “do not have a living wage to support them and their families” and are forced to rely on state handouts. (Unlike the statutory minimum wage, the living wage is a recommended minimum that reflects living costs). The bishops say government policies should be assessed “on the ways in which they impact those most in need” and on “how they support and strengthen the family and its capacity to flourish”.

Noting that over 845,000 children in England and Wales are educated in Catholic schools that are more ethnically diverse than average, the bishops say government policy should “ensure that the poorest have access to high quality education and that Catholic parents have true choice for educating their children in Catholic schools”.

The longest section of the document, ‘Building Communities’, reflects the bishops’ concern at the loss of trust in society and their view that trust will be restored by enhancing community life in all its forms.

They ask Catholics to apply the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity in thinking about the future of Europe, and call on the parties to consider how to enhance the work of the voluntary sector.  They also call for a market economy that serves human needs, noting that “people are not merely economic units to be exploited”.

On immigration, the bishops focus on its roots in violence and conflict, and the way immigrants contribute to the common good through working to raise their families. While acknowledging that every country needs to control numbers of newcomers and to facilitate their integration, the letter however warns against blaming immigrants for social ills while calling for policies that recognise “the rights, dignity and protection of refugees and migrants”.

Under “Caring for the world” the bishops stress the duty of wealthy nations to assist poorer ones, and note that caring for the planet entails both concern for the environment and protecting the livelihoods of the poorest.

Concluding their letter, the bishops note that  “our actions are more important than our opinions”, and that a general election is not just about expressing an opinion but about contributing to an action towards an objective.

“It is important that we vote,” they write, adding that “it is a duty which springs from the privilege of living in a democratic society.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ,

A Guide to the Family Synod, Part I: ‘Listening’

[This is the first in a series by Elizabeth Howard looking at the questions that have been put to the world’s bishops’ conferences in the run-up to the synod of bishops in October]

synod misc 2After the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last October, the Vatican issued the Relatio Synodi, the detailed result of the assembly’s fortnight of deliberations. It was based on the week of discussions by the Synod Fathers and other delegates who contributed to each session, as well as by the reports of meetings in language-based groups who made a series of suggestions. Pope Francis ordered that every paragraph of the Relatio should be published, even though three paragraphs out of 62 did not achieve the traditional two-thirds majority of Synod Fathers’ votes. Two concerned the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and the other the pastoral care of people with homosexual tendencies.

The Relatio Synodi is the basis of the Lineamenta, a document intended to spark further discussion in the year between the Extraordinary Synod last year and the Ordinary Synod (on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World”) in October this year. The Relatio Synodi itself is followed by a series of questions which the 114 bishops’ conferences around the world are asked to ponder and respond to. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued its own document —  The Call, the Journey and the Mission — in response to the Lineamenta, asking Catholics in England and Wales to reflect on family life on the basis of the Gospel.

synod genThe responses to the Lineamenta will form the basis of the Instrumentum Laboris, the document which will set the agenda for October’s Synod, at the end of which the synod fathers will vote on what will be the Church’s pastoral strategy for marriage and family in the future.

In this series of posts, I will look at the Lineamenta in its four sections: the Introduction; part I, “Listening”; part II, “Looking at Christ”; and part III, “Confronting the Situation”.

(Incidentally, the English translation of the Lineamenta on the Vatican website has been wrongly numbered, with number 1 appearing twice, with the result that the paragraphs do not correspond to the paragraphs of the original Relatio. I will follow the latter for ease of reference.)


The document opens (paragraph 1) by thanking God for the “generosity and faithfulness of so many Christian families” who fulfil their mission with “joy and faith” notwithstanding the “obstacles, misunderstanding and suffering” they face. Pope Francis’s lyrical evocation of the centrality of family life at the prayer vigil for the Synod is then recalled: his beautiful vignette refers both to the joy and comfort of family life, as well as the suffering which some have to endure: “the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans”.

synod day 2 eFamily life can, the Synod notes, be wounded (2), and there are “many signs of crisis”, but people still wish to marry and form a family; the Church is an “expert in humanity” and has much to offer to people, first because of the revelation of God’s love and also because of the wisdom of the teaching of the Church Fathers. The Church also recognises the importance of the family, indeed sees it as “uniquely important to the Church” and an “essential agent in the work of evangelization”.

The Synod was convened by the Pope and gathered around him in order to reflect on the “critical and invaluable reality of the family” (3); this reflection is to continue in the period between the two synods. This process is itself an occasion of grace, where the bishops come together in an expression of collegiality, to follow a “path of spiritual and pastoral discernment”. The task is to “read the signs of God and of human history”.

supreme_court_protest_2The introduction ends (4) by outlining what will follow: “listening”, to reflect the reality of family life today; “looking”, focusing on Christ to see what revelation tells us about the “beauty, the role and the dignity of the family”; and “confronting the situation”. Here, crucially, the document reaffirms in a simple formula the Church’s commitment to the traditional definition of a family. The Synod wishes to discern how both Church and society can “renew their commitment to the family founded on the marriage between a man and a woman”.

There are only two questions for reflection relating to this section; indeed they apply to all sections of the Relatio Synodi:

Does the description of the various familial situations in the Relatio Synodi correspond to what exists in the Church and society today? What missing aspects should be included?

In the opening paragraphs of the question section, the Bishops’ Conferences are urged to continue their reflections in the spirit of the Synod, and “avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine, which would not respect the conclusions of the Extraordinary Synodal Assembly”.

The Relatio Synodi reflects many of the different “familial situations” which exist in the Church and the world today, but there are several gaps.

Manif-pour-tousThe Church’s teaching about openness to life is mentioned several times in the document, but the practical challenge of living the Church’s teaching is given less attention. More could be said about the nitty-gritty of the various methods of fertility awareness, as well as the challenge of explaining the reason for the Church’s teaching given that so many Catholics seem to be unaware of it. Large families are not always made to feel welcome, even at Mass, and that an anti-children mentality which exists in some parts of British society can also be evident within the Church community itself.

As a donor-conceived adult, I would have liked to have seen some mention made of donor conception and the different manifestations of families that this technique has brought into being. The Church’s teaching on donor conception is clear but donor-conceived children exist and continue to be brought into being so some mention of the reality and consequences of their situation would be welcome. It is, of course, through donor conception that same-sex couples have children, as well as infertile heterosexual couples, so there is much that could be said about these situations.

Again, the Church’s teaching on respect for life at all its stages is clear and unequivocal, but it would be helpful to hear more about how the Church can support families with a disabled child or children, as well as those facing long-term or terminal illness in their children.

The issue of education is not mentioned, although this is often a major worry for Catholic parents trying to raise their children in the faith. The role and availability of Catholic schools in supporting parents merits further discussion. As a home-educating parent, I would be interested to hear more from the Synod about how the Church can support this demanding but very rewarding way of educating children, especially since the number of children being home educated around the world continues to grow.

Although the Relatio does mention work, and specifically unemployment, I would welcome more discussion about the pressure of work and family life which many people face. This is something which the Pope has mentioned in his weekly audiences, specifically addressing fathers, but more on these increasing modern pressures would be very useful.

papafranccarroaltaFinally, Pope Francis’s beautiful closing address to the Synod Fathers gives much cause for hope, as well as further insight into the process of discernment which the year between the Synods represents. He spoke of the Synod as a journey and mentioned the temptations along the way. Indeed, he sees these temptations as part of the movement of the spirits, the process of discernment. But he reassures the Church that the Holy Spirit is with her and she cannot err. She also, crucially, cares for all, saints and sinners alike:

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

[Elizabeth Howard is a Catholic Voices speaker]

Posted in Synod2014, Synod2015

How the local and universal Churches are coming closer

consist2015dThe Catholic Church’s understanding of itself is as a body at once local and universal, and balancing the two is an exercise as old as the Church itself. What is properly the sphere of to the “particular Churches” — the local diocese, bishops’ conference, or continental body of bishops — and what is best decided or determined in Rome, by the Pope and his Curia?

It is a question at the heart of Francis’s reform in church governance, driven by the mandate from the cardinals who elected him, who want to see a better relationship between Rome and the local Church. And it was a question at the heart of the discussions among cardinals yesterday and today in the synod hall.

The discussion was framed in terms of subsidiarity, namely discerning what is best dealt with at a higher or more central level, and what is best dealt with locally. A strong papacy is important for supporting weak Churches or Churches under pressure from hostile states, for example (think China or Cuba), while the Church as a whole speaks far more effectively to international organisations when it speaks with a single voice. But beyond these practical considerations, the papacy exists to further the unity of the Church — a mandate that necessarily involves core doctrinal issues being determined centrally.

Synod general NicholsAs Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, puts it in a recent article in Osservatore Romano, decentralization “does not mean giving more power to bishops’ conference” but allows them to “exercise the genuine responsibility they have based on their members’ episcopal power of teaching and governance, naturally always in union with the primacy of the pope and the Roman church.”

Yet what that “genuine responsibility” consists of is a question still being worked out.

Many of the cardinals here believe the problem is at least partly resolved by bringing the universal and the local Church closer together. Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi said a number of speeches had called for the Curia to have more professionals from different parts of the world, including lay people and women, working in it.

Cardinal-elect Dew

Cardinal-elect Dew

New Zealand bishop John Dew, who receives his red hat tomorrow, believes that the Vatican’s detachment from local realities can be overcome by recruiting people with pastoral experience, who can return to their local Church after some years of service.

“So one hope is that people don’t spend too long in a particular office, but that they can go home to their diocese to be really aware of what people have to deal with in life”, he told Vatican Radio.

This process has already begun: the former secretary for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, for example, has been made a diocesan bishop.

Cardinal Nichols with Pope Francis

Cardinal Nichols with Pope Francis

One concrete, if unspecified, suggestion is for there to be some kind of “structured collaboration” between bishops’ conferences and the Vatican, creating new mechanisms of accountability. The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, is clearly intrigued by the idea and what may come of it.

The ideas are clearly still at the discussion stage, and the burden of the commentary out of the Vatican these days is one of “downsized expectations”, as veteran vaticanista John Thavis points out.

And yet it’s easy to lose sight of just how far things have come in a very short time. Here are four ways in which the ground has already shifted dramatically:

1. Pope Francis has given the task of reforming to the Curia to a group of nine cardinals who are themselves belong in the local, rather than the curial, Church (although one of them, Cardinal Pell, has since been recruited to the Curia).

2. The fact that the College of Cardinals is discussing how reform of the Curia is, in itself, a whole new development in making the curia accountable and transparent.The College has been given a senate-like role, tasked with deliberating on major questions, which in itself dissolved much of the gap between local and universal. A significant example of this new accountability occurred this morning, when the 164 cardinals present in the synod hall were given four presentations, complete with slides, on the progress of the financial and economic reform of the Vatican. It was the first time that the College has received such a detailed report, and were able to quiz officials.

3. As John Allen argues, Francis’s choice of cardinals has broken the traditional pattern of bestowing red hats which necessarily favoured the universal over the local Church, the north over the south.

4. The Synod of Bishops has been given a hugely enhanced role in determining the future pastoral strategy of the Church. Indeed, the whole process has been of including the local Church to shape the policies which affect it — down to the local consultations now happening in advance of the final synod meeting in October. If the synod determines a clear way forward, it will be almost impossible for this or any future pope to resist its conclusions.

[Austen Ivereigh comments on the reforms in a Catholic News Service report here. His biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer, is reviewed here.]

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World’s cardinals gather to ponder Vatican reform

consist2015a[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]  Prior to the ceremony to create 20 new cardinals in St Peter’s tomorrow, the college of cardinals have been meeting in the synod hall to hear reports on the progress of Vatican reforms, and to consider plans for the biggest restructuring of its bureaucracy in generations.

Pope Francis yesterday morning opened the two-day “extraordinary consistory” of the college — 165 cardinals were present yesterday, including the 20 who are to be given their red hats tomorrow — with a speech reminded them of the purpose of church reform: not as an end in itself, but to enable a more effective Christian witness, to evangelise, and to build bridges. (Transcript here.)

The goal, he said, was to enable the various departments (known as “dicasteries”) of the Vatican to work better together, ” in order to achieve a more effective collaboration in that absolute transparency which builds authentic sinodality and collegiality” — two key words in Francis’s reform (for background, see CV Comment here).

consist2015bHe added that the reform had been strongly urged by the cardinals prior to the conclave that elected him in March 2013. They had been concerned that the Vatican had become, in Francis’s own memorable word, “self-referential”, and that its purpose — to facilitate the mission of the Pope — had been obscured. Francis yesterday told the cardinals that the reform “will further perfect the identity of the same Roman Curia, which is to assist the Successor of Peter in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good of and in the service of the universal Church and the particular Churches.” He then reminded them of the purpose of the Pope: ” to strengthen the unity of faith and communion of the people of God and promote the mission of the Church in the world.”

Getting to that point would not be easy: it “requires time, determination and above all  everyone’s cooperation”. Above all, he said, it required prayer and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

He then urged the cardinals, as he had urged the synod of bishops in October last year, to speak freely and boldly. The meeting, he said, would be fruitful “thanks to the contribution which each of us can express with parrhesia [apostolic courage], fidelity to the Magisterium and the knowledge that all of this contributes to the supreme law, that being the salus animarum [the good or health of souls].”

Archbishop Semeraro

Archbishop Semeraro

The proposals for the restructuring of the Curia were presented by the Council of 9 Cardinals, or C-9, who have spent over a year working on the plans.

The C9’s secretary, Archbishop Marcello Semeraro, read from a document sent to the cardinals that spells out the main ideas behind the reform, among them “the problem of relations with the bishops’ conferences” as  well as “considerations governing the quality of staff” and “the presence of lay people in the service of the various dicasteries”. The reform, in other words, aims to address bishops’ longstanding complaints at excessive Vatican centralism, staff who are sometimes recruited more because of who rather than what they know, as well the need to have more lay people, and especially women, working in the Vatican.

consist2015dAlthough no draft yet exists of a new constitution, it was confirmed yesterday that at the heart of the plans are two new, high-profile congregations: the Congregation for Laity, Family and Life, and the Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace. At least six of the existing pontifical councils — advisory bodies set up under Pope Paul VI — would be absorbed within these congregations as special sections. Thus the Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace would include within it the existing councils for health care and migrants, but will also have a new section dedicated to “safeguarding creation”, the subject of a major encyclical Pope Francis is currently working on, to be released in the summer.

The Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, stressed that it wasn’t just a question of “taking certain offices and putting them together in order to reduce their number”, but about giving structural expression to an “ecclesial and theological vision”. The overall effect would be to put the concerns of these two new congregations on the same level as the other existing nine congregations (which are executive bodies with legislative power), while giving laity and family the same standing as clergy, bishops and religious.

However, like those other congregations, the two new ones were likely to be headed by a cardinal, even if the number two could be a lay person.

There were plenty of reminders yesterday, both in comments by Father Lombardi and by cardinals in media interviews, that the road to reform is not easy and will be slow. “There’s a long way to go,” he said, stressing that the new Constitution setting out the new structure will not be ready this year. However, he added, nothing prevented new structures from being created on a provisional basis.

Father Lombardi also said the jury was out on whether it will be effective. “If the reforms lead to a more efficient and less centralized service is something that only time and history will tell,” he said.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, the South-African cardinal Wilfred Napier said that while Pope Francis and the C9 were backed by a majority of the cardinals, he had noted a cooling-off in some. When it comes to reform, “those shouting the loudest” for reform before Pope Francis was elected in 2013 do not seem to be as enthusiastic now, he said, adding: “It’s one thing to say it needs to be done, another to do it”.

Cardinal Napier

Cardinal Napier

Napier, who sits on the Council for the Economy (which oversees the work of the Vatican’s new finance ministry, the Secretariat for the Economy), also said that a number of the larger Vatican congregations long used to a large degree of autonomy were shocked at having now to account for their spending.

“It’s a culture shock to have to report to somebody other than themselves,” he said, adding that getting used to what are standard practices in most companies requires “a mind shift and a change of heart.”

Another complex area is the attempt to restore authority to local bishops’ conferences — as well as continental church bodies such as Latin America’s CELAM or the Asian FABC — after a long period of the Vatican assuming a tight control of doctrinal matters. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis noted:

The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

This is clearly a complex area which will need a lot of further study. Among the 12 speeches yesterday was one by Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warning that certain doctrinal competences were not capable of being transferred or devolved, although the document presented to the cardinals contained no specific proposals in that respect.

However, it is clear that in two areas, reform is moving ahead firmly: economic reform, and safeguarding.

The reports made by the C9 to the cardinals yesterday included details of the first meeting of the expanded Commission for the Protection of Minors which took place on 6-8 February.

Peter Saunders of NAPAC

Peter Saunders of NAPAC

The Commission, which includes experts as well as survivors of clerical sexual abuse, agreed terms of reference, set up eleven working groups to make specific recommendations, and has a permanent office in the Vatican which will shortly have its own website. The Commission will oversee the implementation of safeguarding principles across the Church worldwide, while looking at how the Church can help meet the needs of victims.

By including survivors such as Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association of People Abuse in Childhood, the Vatican is essentially making itself accountable to them. (Saunders has warned that, while he believes Francis “gets it”, the Church can be too slow to change — and that if he hasn’t seen concrete developments within two years, he will leave.)

(Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis,
The Great Reformer, is published by Allen & Unwin in the UK/Ireland and by Henry Holt in the US.)

Posted in collegiality

Pope’s letter calls for Church to fall behind abuse commission

The Vatican today released the text of a letter Pope Francis has sent to Catholic bishops and heads of religious orders across the world, outlining the work of his new commission on sex abuse and calling for the Church to support it. The letter comes as the Commission meets in Rome for the first time since it was expanded in December (See CV Comment here). The letter makes clear Pope Francis’s determination for the Church to take a leading role not just in preventing abuse but “to open pathways of reconciliation for those who were abused”. 

To the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences
and Superiors of Institutes of Consecrated Life
and Societies of Apostolic Life

Last March I established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which had first been announced in December 2013, for the purpose of offering proposals and initiatives meant to improve the norms and procedures for protecting children and vulnerable adults. I then appointed to the Commission a number of highly qualified persons well-known for their work in this field.

At my meeting in July with persons who had suffered sexual abuse by priests, I was deeply moved by their witness to the depth of their sufferings and the strength of their faith. This experience reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.

For this reason, last December I added new members to the Commission, in order to represent the Particular Churches throughout the world. In just a few days, all the members will meet in Rome for the first time.

In light of the above, I believe that the Commission can be a new, important and effective means for helping me to encourage and advance the commitment of the Church at every level – Episcopal Conferences, Dioceses, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and others – to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, and to respond to their needs with fairness and mercy.

Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children. They should also know that they have every right to turn to the Church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home. Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.

Every effort must also be made to ensure that the provisions of the Circular Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated 3 May 2011 are fully implemented. This document was issued to assist Episcopal Conferences in drawing up guidelines for handling cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics. It is likewise important that Episcopal Conferences establish a practical means for periodically reviewing their norms and verifying that they are being observed.

It is the responsibility of Diocesan Bishops and Major Superiors to ascertain that the safety of minors and vulnerable adults is assured in parishes and other Church institutions. As an expression of the Church’s duty to express the compassion of Jesus towards those who have suffered abuse and towards their families, the various Dioceses, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are urged to identify programmes for pastoral care which include provisions for psychological assistance and spiritual care. Pastors and those in charge of religious communities should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones; such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness.

For all of these reasons, I now ask for your close and complete cooperation with the Commission for the Protection of Minors. The work I have entrusted to them includes providing assistance to you and your Conferences through an exchange of best practices and through programmes of education, training, and developing adequate responses to sexual abuse.

May the Lord Jesus instil in each of us, as ministers of the Church, the same love and affection for the little ones which characterized his own presence among us, and which in turn enjoins on us a particular responsibility for the welfare of children and vulnerable adults. May Mary Most Holy, Mother of tenderness and mercy, help us to carry out, generously and thoroughly, our duty to humbly acknowledge and repair past injustices and to remain ever faithful in the work of protecting those closest to the heart of Jesus.

From the Vatican, 2 February 2015
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Posted in abuse, Pope Francis

Parliamentary approval of ‘3-parent embryos’ crosses a line, warn critics

pink-150x150The bishop representing the Catholic Church’s opposition to so-called “three-parent embryos” said he hoped there would be alternative means found to treat mitochondrial diseases that did not involve the destruction of human embryos.

Bishop John Sherrington issued his statement after MPs overwhelmingly decided by 382 votes to 128 to allow the UK to become the first country in the world to practise mitochondrial replacement, ignoring ethical objections and reservations about safety. (For background, see this Q&A in The Independent, and CV Comment here).

Robert Flello MP

Robert Flello MP

Robert Flello, a Catholic Labour MP who represents Stoke-on-Trent South, said he feared “families will be let down tragically” due to the uncertainties in the technique and that society would be “up in arms” if this was a proposal for genetically modified crops.

“You are not curing somebody of something; you are creating someone different. People have compared it to blood transfusions. That is simply wrong,” said Jacob Rees Mogg, a Conservative Catholic MP who voted against the amendment.

Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton, warned that the implications of this step “simply cannot be predicted” but that “the genie would be out of the bottle: there will be no going back for society.”

The new law will come into effect in October 2015. Human trials can then begin immediately and the first babies could be born next autumn.

On the eve of the vote, CV Caroline Farrow put the case against on ITV News. (See interview here.)

Statement by Bishop John Sherrington

“Despite the genuine and considerable concerns of many people, the decision of Parliament is clear on this issue. Whilst the Church recognises the suffering that mitochondrial diseases bring and hopes that alternative methods of treatment can be found, it remains opposed on principle to these procedures where the destruction of human embryos is part of the process. This is about a human life with potential, arising from a father and a mother, being used as disposable material. The human embryo is a new human life with potential; it should be respected and protected from the moment of conception and not used as disposable material.”

Statement  by Bishop John Keenan, Bishop of Paisley

“The proposed techniques fail on a number of ethical grounds which should concern us all: They destroy human life, since in order to construct a disease free embryo, two healthy ones will have to be destroyed. The technique is not a treatment, it does not cure anyone or anything, rather it seeks to remove anyone affected by certain conditions from the human gene pool. Destroying those who have a particular disease and presenting it as a cure or as progress is utterly disingenuous and completely unethical.”

Posted in Uncategorized

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]

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