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Debate: Is it helpful to describe British secular society as a ‘culture of death’?

Or is the phrase too hostile for non-believers to engage with it properly?

By on Friday, 28 September 2012

The Houses of Parliament (Photo: PA)

The Houses of Parliament (Photo: PA)

This week Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said that British society was being threatened by a “strangling counter-culture of death”.

In a powerful address after he was consecrated as Bishop of Portsmouth he said:

We must offer this salvific message to a people sorely in need of new hope and direction, disenfranchised by the desert of modern British politics, wearied by the cycle of work, shopping, entertainment, and betrayed by educational, legal, medical and social policy makers who, in the relativistic world they’re creating, however well-intentioned, are sowing the seeds of a strangling counter-culture of death.

The phrase has already prompted some criticism. Michael Walsh, a papal historian, argued in the Tablet that a real “culture of death” would look very different from modern Britain. Another academic, Dr Gemma Simmonds, a lecturer at Heythrop College, also suggested it was too negative, saying: “The theology of Vatican II makes clear that the Holy Spirit speaks within contemporary culture and in many voices outside as well as within the Church.”

Many Catholics believe the phrase is a useful shorthand term for destructive practices such abortion, euthanasia and IVF. But is it too negative to be persuasive for non-believers? It has in the past provoked outrage. In 2010 Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs for the Diocese of Westminster, described Britain as the “geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death”, and got into trouble for it.

But the term has a good pedigree. Blessed Pope John Paul II introduced it in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae; Americans Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Burke and Cardinal O’Malley have all used it more recently. It gives society a shake. It conveys a sense of urgency and crisis. Non-believers will have a hard time brushing it off as irrelevant.

So, is it helpful to describe British secular society as a “culture of death”? Or do non-Catholics find the phrase too offensive to engage with it properly?

  • C_monsta

    Talking of dodgy culture, Willliam Oddie and those who left the comments on this article about Jimmy Savilemust now feel a little embarassed. It just goes to show how what one believes to be the reality can turn out to be entirely false. Take heed:
    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/11/07/jimmy-savile%E2%80%99s-obituaries-mentioned-his-charity-work-but-why-the-conspiracy-of-silence-about-his-faith/

  • TreenonPoet

    Well it is not plain for all to see because I cannot see it.

    The definition of ‘culture of death’ presented in the opinion piece ”a useful shorthand term for destructive practices such [as] abortion, euthanasia and IVF” is not very helpful because a list of destructive practices is not a culture. From the context one can gather that the term ‘culture of death’ is meant to describe the custom of carrying out these destructive practices by a sub-group of people. (I do not think that ‘destructive’ is a good word here as it suggests more than termination.)

    What other ‘destructive practices’ belong to the set of practices covered by this definition? Take, for example, the practice of treating others so badly that they commit suicide. That is just as destructive a practice (and worse than abortion, euthanasia, and IVF because of the suffering it inflicts before the suicide). Does that belong to the set, or is it excluded simply because some priests are guilty of it? If it is included, then the culture overlaps Catholicism. If it is excluded (as the new Bishop of Portsmouth implies), then this ‘culture of death’ is actually a culture-of-deaths-of-the-sort-that-the-Bishop-of-Portsmouth-disapproves-of. It is very misleading to shorten it to ‘culture of death’; deliberately misleading, I would suggest.

    Given that all the evidence points away from the existence of an after-life, what is the best thing to do when the choice is between (a) saving a mother’s life by aborting the unborn and (b) letting the mother die slowly in order to give a few more days’ life to the unborn? Good reasoning favours the earlier death of the unborn (choice a). Bad reasoning says that they should both die (choice b). The first is an example of a death for good reasons. The second is an example of death for bad reasons.

    If the Catholic Church bemoans a culture of death it will be digging its own grave if enough people recognise that the Church opposes deaths that are justified by reason and even causes some deaths as a result of its bad reasoning.

  • Charles Martel

    Is it helpful to describe British secular society as a ‘culture of death’?
    Is it helpful to call a spade a ‘spade’?
    Is it helpful to let one’s yes be ‘yes’ and one’s no ‘no’?
    Hmmm…tricky one, Bill.
     

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal

    ONCE AND FOR ALL SOLUTION FOR ALL KINDS OF EVILS AND MORE: COME TO JESUS THE LORD, LISTEN TO HIM AND OBEY HIM AND BE HIS APOSTLES.

    APOSTLESHIP IS THE KEY: PROMOTION OF APOSTLESHIP.

    IN THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH EVERY CHRISTIAN WAS AN APOSTLE; SO THE CHURCH WENT ON GROWING AND GROWING THROUGH THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT OF JESUS THE LORD.

    JESUS PROMOTED APOSTLESHIP BEYOND HIS SUPER TWELVE:

    THE SEVENTY TWO WERE MADE APOSTLES. THEY WERE SENT TWO BY TWO…

    ST. PAUL…..

    MARY, THE MOTHER OF THE LORD…QUEEN OF THE APOSTLES..

    MARY MAGDALENE, “APOSTLE TO THE APOSTLES” – POPE JN. PAUL II

    THE YOUNG MAN JESUS CALLED SAID, ” LET ME GO AND BURY MY ….

    JESUS TOLD HIM, ” LET THE DEAD BURY…….AS FOR YOU COME AND PROCLAIM THE KINGDOM OF GOD”.

    WHY REMAINING CAUGHT UP WITH PRIESTHOOD AND TALKING ABOUT IT TOO MUCH TO KEEP THE PEOPLE OCCUPIED?

    PRIESTHOOD IS INCLUDED IN APOSTLESHIP.

    WHY RUNNING AWAY WITH A PIECE OF THE WHOLE?

  • Oconnord

    My tongue is firmly in cheek here, catholic by culture, protestant by personality. Atheist on all things which have no evidence, with a touch of the agnosticism as I know I can’t know all!

    To give a silly example, I don’t see the necessity of middlemen when I am perfectly able to learn for myself. The first apt I owned I bought from plan. I taught myself how to tile and lay wooden floors. I simply bought a book and the right tools. After a while I found that I could improve on the instructions I read, even though they were written by an expert, as each particular job is different and it helps to be adaptable.

    A bit of protestant attitude can help in life :)  

  • teigitur

    How interesting. I often think many of the Catholics in Scotland are Calvinist Catholics. Not by belief but by attitude. It was rare in Ireland for obvious reasons, but  then so were atheists, organic or otherwise!
     I regard DIY, as housework, (cooking excepted, thats not work) to be avoided at all costs and pay some-one to do it. I doubt my Calvinist ancestors would be too impressed.

  • JabbaPapa

    Believe whatever you want, but the moment YOU start claiming that your personal beliefs are true, then the burden of proof is YOURS.

    So please demonstrate the truth of the above — you’ve claimed that “absence of evidence” “fully supports” your claims — please can you show me how a lack of evidence in your own personal experience MUST be viewed as some kind of universal constant.

  • karlf

    I’m not claiming that my personal beliefs are true – YOU are. I’m simply pointing out that there is no evidence that God helps people. Just as you don’t believe Leprechauns exist (although you refused to admit this to prevent me coming back with a Jabba style retort of “you’re indoctrinated to not believe in leprechauns”), I have no good reason to believe in a loving god who helps people in desperate need.

  • Oconnord

    Without getting into Calvinism, as such, I don’t believe in pre-determinism. But of course that’s where the organic thing came in, for me. I was never persuaded that God existed, so it’s near impossible for me to believe in doctrine or dogma. I can agree with them, but not accept they have any value beyond current understanding…. (I don’t accept Absolutes, to oversimplify again).

    BTW I consider DIY to be like cooking, but in a once off dinner party sort of way. You often take on more than is sensible, learn new skills which you may not use again for a long time, the basics are similar…. ingredients, measures, proportions, mixes, textures, cuts and presentation. 

    The goal is the same. You want to present something that is seen as professional. If you manage that, then the sense of satisfaction is palpable.

  • Oconnord

    Hmmm.. I know what you mean. I became dismissive of the images, which is really not a good thing. But I came to the view, after knowing some people involved, that they weren’t really pro-life, but unrealistically anti-abortion. They had no answers beyond abortion is wrong. Again, I admit I’m coming from an opposite bias than you.

    One thing I will raise, as it’s not often considered, about Irish abortion law. I also knew a girl, (she was about 20 at the time), who went to England, but changed her mind. She explained to me after how much pressure she was under. She had to borrow for the flight and procedure, she luckily brought a friend for support, but she did not have the option of any delay for reconsideration. It’s near impossible for me now to explain the pressure she felt, but it was almost like a duty, she had embarked on the path by choice, she had said she would have an abortion, so she’d no choices left. 

    I know I don’t in anyway represent the true pressures involved. But giving Irish women a “choice”, by travelling to England, can often mean they feel they cannot change their minds, is an awful thing.

  • Hadrasteia

    In matters of life and death there is no such a thing as neutral, there is either a pro-life or a non pro-life (death) culture, as one annuls the other and they are not compatible.There are many advances in technology, science etc, but a culture that cheapens the value of life, or that promotes or trivialises abortion can not be called a culture of life. You can call it whatever you want, but it promotes death.

  • Isaac

    He not it!

  • Oconnord

    I should add that (I think), Catholicism is about people, the church is about people. The hierarchy would wilt away quickly without support, the people would chose new, better leaders quickly, and survive. The leaders would die from lack of attention.  

  • teigitur

    Well pro-life is not quite the same as anti-abortion which you are probably aware of. But most, if not all anti-abortion groups, that I know of, have realistic and vibrant “pro-life” sections. In other words providing support,often material, to the girls who ask for it and need it.These are not all RCC groups, though many are. One of the best non RCC groups in Ireland is “life”.which offers an allround service free, and is funded and mostly staffed on a voluntary basis. ( I happen to know some of the people involved, so hence my interest and knowledge). But to return to the thread. The big issue is education, and I maintain that the images work in at least some cases. I am of the opinion that if even one unborn child is saved because of them, then all the other distain and outrage fades to grey.

  • JabbaPapa

    karlf :

    I’m not claiming that my personal beliefs are true

    Of course you bloody well are !!! In this very post of yours, in fact !!!

    Haven’t you realised yet exactly how sick I am of this preposterous claim by the NuAtheists that they “have no beliefs” ???

    YOU are.

    FFS, YOU are the one barging in here evangelising YOUR views about reality, so that matey, YOU are the one with the job of convincing other people, not them of convincing you, ipso facto the burden of proof is YOURS.

    I’m simply pointing out that there is no evidence that God helps people.

    As I continue to point out, and you continue to misunderstand, there is in fact a great deal of such evidence — your personal decision to reject all of it out of hand does not make it vanish away out of reality.

    My own personal experience of things is clearly going to be more important to me for the determination of what is real and what isn’t than the indoctrinated slogans of the NuAtheists.

    Just as you don’t believe Leprechauns exist (although you refused to admit this to prevent me coming back with a Jabba style retort of “you’re indoctrinated to not believe in leprechauns”)

    viz. indoctrinated atheist slogans, case in point.

    FWIW, I do NOT in fact know if leprechauns exist or not. Your statements about my beliefs are obviously less-informed than my own. Isn’t that obvious to you ?

    I have no good reason to believe in a loving god who helps people in desperate need.

    The only desperate need is the need of our souls to love God in the face of faithlessness and Hell, and that is what God desires.

    Everything that exists is evidence of God — can you put “everything” in a test tube ?

    God’s purpose is not to be the subject of experimentation nor empty speculation.

    God does not resemble the fantasies that you entertain of what He should be like.

  • JabbaPapa

    You should not confuse the Faith with the Religion.

    The Catholic Religion is in service to the Faith, not the other way round.

    Catholicism is about God more than it’s about people.

  • Oconnord

    Hmmm again… much to think on! We do agree education is the key. I’m guessing different sorts of informatation are involved though.

    But in real terms, we must provide a place where all children are valued. Not tolerated as is the norm now, and I say this as a person who doesn’t like children. I respect parents, and kids, I just don’t want to have to put up with them.  

    And don’t get me started on teenagers….. I know they get a “bad rap” on the news and in the tabloids. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like punching one in the face, often, when I have to share a bus with them. (notice how they are pack animals, I rarely am annoyed, except when there are in a herd). 

  • karlf

    I’m not evangelising my views, or claiming I have no beliefs, and I’m certainly not a “NuAtheist”. I am questioning your religious claims of truth, which seems appropriate considering the nature of this website.
    You told me that I was indoctrinated not to believe in God, hence the bit about the Leprechauns matey. Are you indoctrinated to not believe in the things that you don’t consider to have good enough reason to believe in? Werewolves, the Loch Ness Monster perhaps?

    You have not come up with a single example of evidence that would help me to believe in a loving God who helps people.

  • Acleron

    ‘Haven’t you realised yet exactly how sick I am of this preposterous claim by the NuAtheists that they “have no beliefs” ???’

    Your feelings are immaterial in this respect. It bears repeating that having no belief in a deity is not the same as believing such an entity exists. You claim to be a metaphysicist but cannot understand the simple difference. Having no belief in a deity is exactly the same as having no belief in unicorns etc. How can you accept one and not the other?

  • JabbaPapa

    I cannot recall having claimed to be “a metaphysicist”.

    Furthermore, it is the beliefs of the NuAtheists under discussion, not my own.

    Belief in non-existence is a belief.

  • TreenonPoet

     The opinion piece does not mention the word atheist (new or old). It talks about “non-believers”. I wonder who they are.

  • Acleron

    The discussion is about the lack of belief. Failing to believe in something is not a belief. The only discussion is whether you actually believe in what you say or have to say it to justify your own beliefs.

  • Oconnord

    Jabba….. I don’t understand! 

    You capitalise Faith as if it were a definite, proscriptive word. It means so many different things, to so many different people, who all have conflicting beliefs. 

    Isn’t that part of the problem of being a relevant? Your “truth” must be better than another’s, somehow. You have to dismiss all opinions that don’t “back you up”, irregardless of thier validity.  

  • JabbaPapa

    Shifting the topic of discussion to suit your own personal agenda is a trademark of your “debate” tactics.

  • Acleron

    I responded to your comment.
    As you appear to have forgotten your own words, here they are again.

    ”Haven’t you realised yet exactly how sick I am of this preposterous claim by the NuAtheists that they “have no beliefs” ???’.

    So I’m discussing what, how and whether you realise something. I was ignoring the ‘how sick I am’ part because that could only lead into areas of diagnosis.

  • Anonymous
  • Corah

    How can anyone take Catholics seriously after reading such a terrible rant? So much hatred and aggression aimed at our Bishops and Archbishops. I think that Paul Priest forgets who is in high office in this church and mercifully, it certainly is not him! I pity his Bishop, I really do.