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Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life and the Ordination of Women Bishops
20 July 2014
Former Archbishop of Canterbury and member of the House of Lords, Baron Carey of Clifton PC, FRSA, FKC, has changed his mind. What he once supported he does so no longer. And, with the very greatest respect to his Lordship, he had no right to change his mind; well, not as a leading churchman, anyway. He now supports the right of everyone (in certain circumstances and under strict conditions) to end their life when they so choose.
The decision to end one’s own life at one’s own discretion goes against the constant Christian tradition and teaching on the sanctity of human life. Even before Christ came, the revelation the Jews received from God made it quite clear that human life was specially sacred, coming from God, a gift of God and a supreme privilege. Only He can give it; only He has the right to terminate it. This understanding carried through into Christianity. Christ sanctioned it and the Church taught it consistently down the centuries. No one, purporting to speak in the Name of Christ or of his Church, has the right to say otherwise.
But Dr Carey does say otherwise. He says so as a man held in high esteem in this country and throughout the Anglican world. He says so as a former Archbishop of Canterbury. What he says ordinary Christians are likely to take as Gospel Truth, simply because he has said it.
But have you ever heard of a Pope or a Catholic Bishop or an Orthodox Bishop changing his mind on a matter of Christian faith or morals? It is a thing unheard of.
The Catholic Church speaks out fearlessly on what she knows to have come from God, without pandering to public opinion or to the latest social or theological fashion. Because human life has been revealed to us by God as something supremely sacred, no one has the right to destroy that life in the womb (abortion), destroy it in its course (suicide and murder) or terminate it early before its natural end (euthanasia). Huge evils have come upon our society because people have taken it upon themselves to act contrary to the will of God, in disregard of the sacredness of human life.
Of course the Church is wholly compassionate towards those who find themselves at the end of their lives in Locked in Syndrome or such like conditions; towards people who are terminally ill, suffering severely and without hope of cure. The heart of Christ, the heart of the Church goes out to these people: whose heart wouldn’t? But even so it cannot pander to public opinion or to pressure groups and do what God forbids.
As one who has been through illness and pain myself, I know how positive such a situation can be. Believe it or not, I am actually grateful the Lord put me through it. And when such suffering comes to us at the end of our lives, is it not a God-given opportunity to prepare ourselves for that world where pain and suffering will be no more, for that eternal life which Christ merited for us by his own prolonged suffering? Is it not misplaced compassion to end prematurely that period of purification?
This week David Cameron has reshuffled his cabinet. He wants more women in places of high responsibility in his government. This, in my opinion can only be a very good thing. I have for many years been convinced that if a majority of women were running the world instead of men (who sometimes like to play war games – can you think of anyone?) then the world would be a far better, safer and more peaceful place. The focus would then be on the children, on their future, on education and health, on ensuring a stable future for the world, on compassion towards the marginalised and the poor, on peace. I am 100% behind Mr Cameron, whatever his motives, in putting women in positions of authority, sincerely believing that they would do the job of government very differently from us men.
But what about women bishops? That would give women the opportunity to play a foremost role not only in government but also in the leadership and management of the Church, bringing their own singular feminine qualities to such a sensitive post. It would be supremely politically correct as well, giving equal opportunities in the Church to both sexes. It would seem to have everything going for it. All things being equal, I personally would be very happy with it, though I know from long years of pastoral ministry that the vast majority of Catholic women would hate it. They are soundly against women priests or bishops, and have been so since the 1970’s when it first began to be discussed.
I said, all things being equal I would be happy with women bishops. But all things are not equal, as I shall explain. The Anglicans, whose Synod gave the green light this week to women bishops, seem to focus on equality for women and put it forward as their main argument. But is that adequate? I, for one, never heard any theological arguments being aired in the debate. So, what exactly is the theological position?
What hinders women from becoming bishops in the Catholic Church is not that they are in any way inferior to men, of course they are not. The plain fact is that the Church has no authority to add to or change any fundamental feature of the Church which Christ set up, or to change fundamentally the way He structured it. The problem would be exactly the same if the tables were turned and it were women whom Christ had chosen as his Apostles. If there had been no tradition of men being priests or bishops but only women, then the female Pope would be in the same position and not have the power to ordain men to these sacred ministries. The Church’s hands are tied by the will of Christ.
So how do we know that Christ never had women priests and bishops in his sights when he established his Church? The answer lies in what theologians call Tradition.
Tradition is a very important word in Catholic theology. It comes from the Latin word meaning “to pass on, to hand on”. The term tradition embraces everything – what the Church is; what the Church does; what the Church teaches; even the Scriptures are part of Tradition. Tradition is ALL that is handed down from Peter and the Apostles to their legitimate successors, the bishops of the Catholic Church. In an unbroken line, which theologians call Apostolic Succession, the Church herself, in all her richness and complexity, is handed down intact from generation to generation. What is in Tradition is what Christ intended his Church to be and to do; what is not there was never intended by Christ to be part of his Church. And female priests or bishops has never been part of the Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
To Peter and to the Apostles, on whom was built the Catholic Church, and to their legitimate successors, the Pope and Catholic Bishops, Christ gave the Keys of the Kingdom. Whatever they, and they alone, bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. But even they, even the Holy Father himself, the Successor of Peter, cannot change any fundamental feature of the Church or introduce anything new into the Tradition Christ established. The Pope’s power of infallibility is limited to clarifying and defining what is already in Tradition and which has been accepted as true by the Universal Church down the centuries. Even he cannot add to it. There is no record whatsoever in the Church’s Tradition of women being admitted to Holy Orders, nor does it seem that anyone can change that, least of all a Church which is already out of communion with the Universal Church!
Furthermore, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would be with the Church to preserve her from error in the course of her journey down the Christian centuries. In matters of faith and Christian morality, the Tradition of the Church would be preserved free from error by the working of the Holy Spirit and by the careful shepherding of the successors of Peter and the Apostles.
But, you may ask, since the Church of England has decided to ordain women to the Priesthood and now to the role of Bishop, doesn’t that make it part of Tradition? No, it does not. The Anglican Church, with the greatest respect, is not the Universal Church. Four centuries ago it separated itself from the Universal Church, put itself out of communion, and went its own way, forsaking thereby that promise Christ made to the Church that its truth would be divinely safeguarded. As George Carey has no right as a churchman to change his mind on a matter of Christian morality, neither has the Anglican Church right or authority to change the ancient Tradition in matters of faith. To attempt to do so is theological folly; to override Tradition for the sake of political correctness or under duress from minority groups is hardly credible.
Already, the validity of the male bishops and priests of the Anglican Communion is highly questionable in the eyes of the Catholic Church let alone the validity of the Holy Orders they purport to pass on to the women. The ladies will be bishops in name only, though the Lord will surely work through their goodness of heart. It is a very sad situation.
What I say here is nothing that Archbishop Welby and the other members of the Anglican Synod would not have been fully aware of. They have not acted in ignorance, but in isolation. Furthermore, the Synod’s decision this week has, I believe, severely put back the cause of Christian unity. Already the Russian Orthodox Church has issued a statement severely critical of the Anglican decision. The Catholic Church, recognising all that is good and valid in Anglicanism, will still strive to move forward towards that goal of full unity for which Christ prayed. Even such obstacles as these are not insurmountable to the workings of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of Christ.
God bless you, Fr Antony