Baroness Nuala O'Loan

Baroness Nuala O’Loan

Baroness Nuala O’Loan was the first Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland, who carried a number of reports into some of the most controversial killings during the troubles. Originally from England, she was a solicitor and then a senior law lecturer at the University of Ulster. As a member of the House of Lords, she is a legislator. She has spoken about her Catholic faith on a number of occasions, visiting parishes in different parts of Ireland. So I listened to her talk at the Irish Catholic 125 years conference at All Hallows College in Dublin with particular interest. She made a number of interesting observations about the Irish government’s proposed legislation on abortion, including its provision where suicide is threatened by the mother. In order to give readers the chance to consider her remarks, I looked for a copy of her speech, which she kindly provided and I now publish in full:-

“It is  a great honour to be invited to speak to you at this important conference, important because it marks 125 years of publication by the Irish Catholic, and important too because we meet at a time of great hope for this Church of ours.  I would like to congratulate the Irish Catholic and its loyal staff for all that it has achieved over the years, and for being a source of light and understanding for those of us who read its columns, and who seek accessible answers to some of the great questions which arise in relation to our life and our faith.  Accessibility, in terms of format, but much more importantly in terms of content is profoundly important.  One of the problems which we face is that much of the authoritative written material about faith is articulated in language which can be very dense and of great complexity.  The Irish Catholic makes a great contribution in this and in the range of its coverage and photography!

Audience at Irish Catholic conference

Audience at Irish Catholic conference

It is wonderful, too, that as we meet the world here in Ireland is glorious, blue skies, wonderful sunshine.  I as thinking about it yesterday as I drove around the north – it seem as if all the flowers are blooming at once, flowers of every colour: deep pinks, crimson, lilac, the golden yellow of laburnum, the blues and whites – all so beautiful and all telling of the wonder of God’s creation and the beauty of His work.

I have been asked to speak about Catholicism in public life. The reality is that the complexities and challenges of faith are never more obvious than when one actually tries to live them, especially when one moves outside the comfort zone of church and people of a like mind into the public place.  That is, of course what we are all called to do, and that is what Jesus himself did, at the greatest personal cost.  Being called to Catholicism is not an easy thing, although the fundamentals of our faith are profoundly pure and simple.  We know them well.  We are called to love God and to love one another as he has loved us, to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly.  We know that those who feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort those who mourn, visit the imprisoned, etc. are blessed.   All very simple in theory.  All quite complex in the playing out of daily life, both at home and in the public sphere.

I wondered what I should say to you today about Catholicism in public life.  I wondered too what you might be expecting me to say.  The reality, as I am sure you know, is that each of us plays some role in public life, if we define public life as that part of the world which exists alongside our family and private life.  Our daily lives are lived in the public sphere – in community, in work, in school, college and university, in politics, in recreation and leisure pursuits. For some of us our public lives are more public than others.  For many of you your decision making will be your private business.  Very often people will not know whether you have agonised over the morality of something, whether it is ethical to act in a particular way.  For others their decision making is the subject to analysis and comment, some of it offensive, much of it robust.  Those of us who move across the public arena, whether by way of journalistic contribution or in politics or others can be very much aware of this.  it is part of our lives.  It can take courage to articulate the truth when it is not a commonly held or easily accepted  view.   We are much blessed, for example, by the integrity of columnists like Breda O’Brien who writes so informatively and so compellingly in defence of the right to life of the unborn. In a world which proclaims the defence of freedom of speech, and human rights, it can seem as if the right of freedom of religion, conscience and thought is not accorded the same respect as the other rights.  We have to reclaim that territory and speak with courage about what we believe.

There are those who said that we live in post Catholic Ireland, that religion has no part to play in public life.  To say this is to misunderstand the nature of Catholicism.  Robert Barron wrote of Christianity in his book, ‘The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path’:

‘Christianity, before all else, is a form of life, a path that one walks. It is a way of seeing, a frame of mind, an attitude, but more than this, it is a manner of moving and acting, standing and relating. It is not simply a matter of the mind but of the body as well. In fact, one could say that Christianity is not real until it has insinuated itself into the blood and the bones, until it becomes an instinct, as much physical as spiritual. Perhaps, the most direct description is this: Christianity, the way of Jesus Christ, is a culture, a style of life supported by a unique set of convictions, assumptions, hopes, and practices. It is like a game with distinctive texture, feel and set of rules’ [The Strangest Way 2002].

For those of us who are Catholic there cannot be and should not be any disconnect between our daily lives in the public place and our religious faith.  So a life lived in the community of the Church,  a life as part of the Body of Christ which is the Church, must be led in a way which reflects its divine maker and which acknowledges the responsibilities and great joys inherent in our greatest gift – our faith.  Once we accept the chain of connectedness from our baptism to our membership of that community, and, through the Eucharist to the fact that Christ lives in each of us, that he lives also in the lives of friends and stranger, that he is constantly to be encountered in the lives of all His people, even in the paedophile, even in the murderer, (utterly challenging as that may be), we live in a very different public place.  We no longer really have the option of behaving as if we really matter more than anyone else.  We no longer have the option of ignoring the common good and of not attempting to make a contribution to our brothers and sisters in Christ. To do so would be to ignore that Christ whom we profess to love as we walk along the way, deciding whether or not to pass by on the other side!

This faith of ours makes many calls on us.  As Christians, as Catholics we know that our faith calls us to honesty and integrity, but above all to holiness – as the Catechism tells us, to ‘do the will of the Father in everything, that they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbour’ [Catechism para 2013.2014]. And of course the reality is that so many Catholics do recognise this.  They do make a significant contribution.  John XXIII wrote of this 50 years ago, in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth.  Talking of human society, he said:

‘through it, in the bright light of truth, men should share their knowledge, be able to exercise their rights and fulfil their obligations, be inspired to seek spiritual values; mutually derive genuine pleasure from the beautiful, of whatever order it be; always be readily disposed to pass on to others the best of their own cultural heritage; and eagerly strive to make their own the spiritual achievements of others. These benefits not only influence, but at the same time give aim and scope to all that has bearing on cultural expressions, economic, and social institutions, political movements and forms, laws, and all other structures by which society is outwardly established and constantly developed’.

And so it is – the Catholic Church has a proud reputation in terms of its contribution to the development of society across the world.  In country after country its missionaries, lay and religious have established the schools, the hospitals, the health centres, the social centres, the programmes for the relief of poverty, the development of agriculture, all the structures of a modern society, and in so doing have contributed to the growth of society.  In saying this I do not ignore the terrible scourge of child abuse, or the unfaithfulness of some members of our church, nor do I ignore the shocking failures at the heart of the Vatican.  But it is important to remember the good that was done, the sacrifice which was made by so many here and in foreign lands.  We had African visitors last month, a man on his 40s, his wife and their four children.  we had known him as a very bright but very poor, and often hungry  schoolboy for whom education had brought liberation. He is now a civil engineer working on water projects across Africa, and he had  had travelled with his family across the world,  to see the place which had brought the missionaries who built the schools he had attended.  It was both warming and humbling to see our world through their eyes, and to sit around our dinner table as his little daughter prayed the grace, praying for me who had cooked her dinner, giving thanks to God for all the fun they had and praying for all the little children in the world who do not have enough to eat. Life brings us many blessings, doesn’t it?

We all have to make choices about what is right and that which we know to be unethical or wrong in legal or moral terms.   It can challenge us all.  We often don’t think of the consequences of our decisions.   We could decide to drive too fast.  We could decide not to point out to a waiter that fact that there are drinks missing from the bill when we get it.  We could conclude that the taxman does not need our money as much as we do, and not declare all our income.  All these things, and many many more, are not ways which we should behave if we are followers of the man who walked the dusty roads of the Holy Land for such a brief time, before he allowed himself to be taken away and crucified.

Faith calls us to walk in a different way, acknowledging our call to give all we have for others, even when it is inconvenient, or too demanding, or frightening, or even when we are just feeling a bit lazy.  Our faith, though, is not a threat to others though some may interpret it as such.  For all of us, but particularly for those who carry responsibilities as influencers of political, social and religious development, as decision makers, as representatives of authority, our lives as Catholics should  permeate and enable every part of our beings, every conscious thought.   When we feel isolated or concerned about our capacity to do what is right, we need only remember the words of Jesus on so many occasions: at the Transfiguration, when he walked on the water, when he met the women at the tomb who could not find his crucified body: ‘be not afraid’.  Those words have comforted men and women over the ages, they have comforted me when I have feared because of what my public life called me to do.  Jesus left us himself in word and sacrament, we know, and in the words of scripture we find not only challenge (and there is plenty of that) but also comfort and viaticum, food for the journey.    I was very privileged towards the end of his life to come to know Cardinal Daly  who was wonderfully supportive to me at times of difficulty.  He did not tolerate self pity or anything like that, but he would pray with such love to the Father, calling him so tenderly, Abba Father, and he would quote, with a twinkle in his eye St Paul, who said: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ [Philippians 4:13].

Those called to public life in the world today will face many challenges.  The dilemmas are not new.  Speaking of this in Westminster Hall in 2010, Pope Benedict recalled:

‘the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. He spoke of The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God’ .

He went on to say:

‘Religion… is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life’ [].

The call could not be clearer.  People do seek to put pressure, as they always have done,  on Christians to act against their conscience. We can see it in Ireland today in the context of the Heads of Bill on abortion.  There is no duty on the state under Human Rights Law to provide abortion on demand. The current proposals,  as they stand, would result in a situation in which  Ireland faces the prospect under the proposed law of terminating the pregnancy of a mother whose baby has been in her  womb for up to nine months, because she is threatening to commit suicide.  Women in this situation require every assistance and support, they need compassion and pragmatic solutions to the problems  they face. But to suggest that abortion will solve the problem of threatened suicide not only fails to acknowledge and protect the little child in her womb, but, as research in 2011 shows, actually  increases the risk of suicidal behaviour by 155%.

The reality is that the only way in which abortion can be conducted in the later stages of pregnancy is either through normal delivery or Caesarian Section.  The mother must give birth. She is carrying a child and what will be removed from her womb will not be foetal tissue, but will in most cases be very recognisable as a little boy or a little girl. Who in their right minds can believe that going through the process of giving birth to a little child, which is intended to die because it has been deliberately born too early, will bring peace of mind to a girl or woman who is suicidal?

We face difficult ethical and moral issues in the UK too.  I think of the Bill which has been laid before Parliament this session which will permit assisted suicide, and which we must both challenge and debate very soon.  I am very clear that this bill must not be passed because it will leave sick, elderly and vulnerable people in a perilous situation in which issues of financial costs of care, and decisions about the value of their lives could be made, which might lead to them being euthanased.  In the Netherlands where euthanasia is lawful the most recent Report on the matter stated that over 300 people were put to death without their consent.  As we contemplate the horrendous suffering of some individuals, and as in some cases they approach the courts and legislators seeking changes to the law to permit assisted suicide or euthanasia, there is a temptation to think that it would be the hallmark of a civilised society to allow them to die at a time and in the manner of their choosing.  But it is not as simple as that.   All human life is sacred to God.  It is not ours to dispose of.  Rather it is our duty on all occasions to do all we can to protect it.

It can be easy to take the articulated majority view on things.  For elected politicians there is a great temptation to vote and behave in a way which they think will secure their seats at the next election.  That is very human.  But the reality is  that those who speak loudest are not necessarily the majority.  They are simply the people who speak loudest.  They may be presenting considered views, but the legislator must look at the exact words of any proposed text and work out what they mean and what the consequences will be.  He  or she must then make decisions about how to act. An interesting document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued in 2002 is as resonant today on these issues as it was when it was issued:

‘The complex array of today’s problems branches out from here, including some never faced by past generations. Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. At the same time, legislative proposals are put forward which, heedless of the consequences for the existence and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behaviour, attack the very inviolability of human life. Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in law-making bodies have a «grave and clear obligation to oppose» any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.[19] As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, «an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality»’ [Evangelium Vitae, 73  JPII from DOCTRINAL NOTE on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life].

It is very difficult to find one’s self in the position in which one must vote for something one knows to be wrong  in order to try and prevent a greater harm.  This is what John Paul was telling us we must do.

Baroness Nuala O'Loan

Baroness Nuala O’Loan

I think, too, of the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill which is currently before the House of Lords and on which I spoke and voted on Tuesday last. The Church is very clear in her teaching that those who have a same sex orientation must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity, and every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. The European Court of Human Rights stated in 2012 that there is no discrimination in excluding same sex couples from marriage.

The UK Government, in their rush to pass this legislation and to provide equality, as they describe it, for same sex couples, have produced a bill which will create two types of marriage – marriage between a man and a woman which will continue to involve a lifelong commitment, has a sexual aspect involving consummation, and has a presumption that the husband is the father of any child born to the mother during the marriage, and that the partners will remain loyal to each other. That legal definition of marriage is the same as the Catholic definition of marriage.  Under the proposed English Law there will then be a second type of marriage which will be between same sex couples, has no requirement for consummation, in which any child of a mother cannot be presumed to be the child of the other partner, and in which a same sex partner cannot be divorced on grounds of adultery with another same sex person.  Effectively as I said, there will be two sets of rules: one for same sex couples, one for opposite sex couples. Is this equality?  Can it be right?  Will it not lead to endless legal challenges as parties to one type of  marriage seek to assert rights against the UK government in the European Court which are available to parties in the other type of marriage but not to them.  And what does the proposed law do to the institution of marriage and its role in society?

These are the types of issues which legislators must face.  I often walk through Westminster Hall and pass the spot on which Thomas More faced the judges and was sentenced to death for his refusal to yield to Henry V111’s demands.  He could have lived had he denied his faith.  He chose to go to his death rather then deny God.  We do not face such challenges today in most parts of the world.  We are subject to all sorts of derision and to contempt however.  For elected politicians there is always the risk that doing the right thing will lead to loss of an election, status, income and their whole life style.  Politicians, like influences and decision makers everywhere need your prayers and your support.

For all of us, as we contemplate the richness and wonder of the faith that is ours, as we thank God for the beauty of our world, for the great gifts he has given us there is still a need to be aware that we must constantly and consciously, if we really are part of the body of Christ, live our lives in the constant awareness that we are in the presence of Christ.  If we do this we will lead lives of prayerful alertness.  We will acknowledge our obligation to understand the teaching of our church, to distinguish between that which is doctrinal and binding on us and that which has evolved and will continue to evolve.  Under Canon Law, Catholics should:

 ‘distinguish carefully between the rights and the duties which they have as belonging to the Church and those which fall to them as members of the human society. They will strive to unite the two harmoniously, remembering that in every temporal affair they are to be guided by a Christian conscience, since no human activity, even of the temporal order, can be withdrawn from God’s dominion’ [Catechism paras  912, 913].

‘Formation and enrichment’ of all members of the Church, John Paul II said  will enable ‘the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mould communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture’. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in 2004 that:

‘Catholics who bring their moral convictions into public life do not threaten democracy or pluralism but enrich them and the nation. The separation of church and state does not require division between belief and public action, between moral principles and political choices, but protects the right of believers and religious groups to practice their faith and act on their values in public life. Catholics need to act in support of these principles and policies in public life. It is the particular vocation of the laity to transform the world’.

Finally then I want to return to that aspect of life which is critical for all of us  if we are to be able to fulfil this vocation which has so many aspects – from the call to holiness to the call to transform the world. We will only be able to do this if we make sure that we know that God holds us in the palm of his hand and if we make space in our lives for the Lord who loved us so much that he gave his life for us.  Maybe like me you can be very busy, you can feel that there is not much time for prayer, for reading of scripture, even for church and sacrament.  it is an easy trap to fall into.  The deepest traps are always the easiest to fall into, and the challenge for each of us is to ensure that we do not think that doing the work of the Lord is enough, that we pray by what we do and that will suffice.  We can delude ourselves, especially when things are going well.  We must make time too for the Lord of the work, for it is in and through and with Him that we will be able for the work, and that we will be gifted with that courage and energy which will enable us to do what we should do.

As we gather together today, we do so in hope: that hope of eternal life, which is already happening as we walk our journey home to God, for death it was written is an horizon  and “an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight” [Rossiter, W Raymond  1840-1918] but also in the hope that our Church, which has been much battered will grow stronger, more attuned to the call of scripture, and will be a body which truly is the body of Christ here on earth.   As Pope Francis said last week, the Church is ‘the work of God, born of His love and progressively built in history”  “born of God’s desire to call all men and women to communion with him, to friendship with him, even further, to participate as his children in his very divinity’.   

It is perhaps appropriate to end with some words which are attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo [354-430AD] :

‘God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them,  and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have  lost their courage.  Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honour and glory’.

Baroness Nuala O'Loan

Baroness Nuala O’Loan

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