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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?

  • Dar

    I think “strangling counter-culture of entitlement at the expense of lives” would be more acurate, but it isn’t too snappy

  • teigitur

    No doubt they will and the Church will continue to decline.

  • teigitur

    We were not talking about a “death cult” but a culture of death. Do pay attention.

  • teigitur

    “Cult of death.” As above. That fits the bill.

  • Acleron

    I said that? 

    Wonders will never cease, it must be a miracle and I even managed to forge TreenonPoet’sname. But apart from not reading my post, what is inaccurate about TreenonPoet’s definition?

  • Hermit

    Abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, genocide, etc are unwarranted types of death which can always be avoided. So those who promote or somehow agree with any one of these are favouring the culture of death. 

    Whoever is in favour of life promotes it from conception to natural death.

  • Benedict Carter

    I think she may have meant “great” in the sense of “Great Wall”. 

    Garabandal was “authenticated”, and strongly so, by both St. Pio of Pietrelcina and St. Teresa of Calcutta. 

  • JabbaPapa

    They exist in great abundance :

    “freedoms are not associated with christianity, they were achieved despite it”

    “Regarding humans as lumps of meat, well that is all they are”

    “in democratic, secular states, religion tends to lost its importance”

    “christianity does not respect the individual”

    …. and so on and on and on ad maximam nauseam

  • teigitur

    Lol… You are probably evil twins.
     Inaccurate? yep, apart fro 1&2 that is an apt description.

  • Acleron

    “freedoms are not associated with christianity, they were achieved despite it”
    That’s a statement, hardly a slogan and demonstrably true . Fail 1.

    “Regarding humans as lumps of meat, well that is all they are”Demonstrably true. Fail 2″in democratic, secular states, religion tends to lost its importance”Neither a slogan nor inaccurate. Fail 3″christianity does not respect the individual”Neither a slogan nor inaccurate. Fail 4′…. and so on and on and on ad maximam nauseam …’ Just carry on failing Jabba.Unlike the Vatican, I don’t spend my time generating inaccurate slogans, I find out what is happening in the world and in our society. If you want to contribute to improving either, I recommend you do the same rather than repeating slogans that make you look ridiculous. No society is perfect and it never will be, but some types of society are demonstrably worse than others. Blindly following orders from misguided leaders with their own agenda which has nothing to do with improving our society and more to do with an irrational belief has been shown, repeatedly, to be the worst of all societies.

  • karlf

    The holy spirit does nothing. Abortion? – he does nothing. Rape, torture and murder – he does nothing. Famine and starvation – he does NOTHING. Earthquake and tsunami   etc. etc.

  • karlf

    If heaven is so great, why not increase the likelihood of getting there sooner?

  • Oconnordamien17

    Well I had a fair few on me when I posted that! Bad joke, decent message, to put a good spin on it. 

    Teig, you hit the nail right on the head there. In many ways I am an unashamed, but atheist, catholic. But there are things I just can’t grasp. Renewal and the value of prayer being two of the many things I don’t understand.

  • Oconnord

    Sorry, had to reply again to stop that clunky pen-name. 

    But as I’m writing anyway, I want to ask you something relating to another article on the CH. When you lived in Ireland I’m sure you often saw the SPUC protest that was there for years on Westmoreland/
    Connell St. What do you think other people thought of it?

    I always thought it was counter-productive, by using graphic, but non representative images, it almost made people immune. But I realise I’m not neutral on the issue, so I’d like to hear your view. 

  • Matthew Roth

    Hence its nicknames, such as ‘the Pill’ and ‘RU-486′

  • JabbaPapa


    By encouraging souls to go into Hell ???

    If you wanted to help people get to Rome, why would you charter them a flight for Pyongyang ?

  • JabbaPapa

    The Holy Spirit is not a masked superhero from Marvel Comics.

  • Oconnord

    DC maybe? To be honest the holy spirit is the Aquaman of the Trinity.

  • tim

    Some of your points are good (on the day for Life, for example) but the ignorant rubbish you spout about the LIverpool Care Pathway casts doubt on all the rest of what you say. 
    Doctors in this country
    do not deliberately kill patients. It is in the interest of the
    euthanasia lobby to lie about this. Then they can say “Everyone
    knows it’s happening already. So we should regulate it!” Once the
    practice is legalised, it can be made really efficient, whether by
    relaxing any legislative safeguards or (as in the case of abortion)
    ignoring them.  

  • paulpriest

     No: Sorry Tim what’s occurring withe the Liverpool Care Pathway is a Caiaphas Corollary.

    The LCP arbitrarily prognosis best-guess euthanises – it starves, dehydrates, knocks-out, poisons and is barbaric in its denial of consciousness for the dying in their final hours.

    One sixth of the national annual dead  die under the LCP – half of whom were placed on it without any permission from the patient or their family.

    The LCP IS Backdoor Euthanasia.
    Catholic Ethicists, medical and charity quango professionals, senior clerics or Catholic commentators – even pro-Life Activists….are readily, pugnaciously, belligerently defending it as ‘not euthanasia’ and will dismiss and seek to suppress any opposition to it.
    And we have to ask why they wish to close down the debate so immediately and with such force?

    Answer: They want to save lives – they don’t want Active Euthanasia legislation passing through parliament.

    They recognise that

    a] If they say the LCP is euthanising it will make it easier for the Pro-Euthanasia Lobby to argue for euthanasia being a regular normative medical practice in the NHS – and thus make Pro-Euthanasia easier to become law.

    b] As this is a long drawn-out form of passive euthanasia – a system aimed at reduction in pain and suffering would logically [especially in these days of overriding human rights AND financial restrictions] seek to introduce assisted suicide – direct active euthanasia

    Which is why we have at present in this country a conspiracy of silence on the LCP.
    A whispering campaign against orthodox Catholic & Christian ethicists , healthcarte workers, commentators, activists, bloggers etcv – especially those with high positions in the medical profession – who prove categorically and irrefutably that patients are being euthanised and murdered in unbelievably excruciating pain and distress.

    …and why?

    Because [like Caiaphas] the argument is that it is better for a few thousand to die through use, misuse and abuse of the LCP…
    …Than for the law to be changed to assisted suicide and active euthanasia leading to the deaths of millions!!!

    I’m perfectly willing to provide every piece of Catholic teaching which abaolutely condemns the LCP if you wish.

    BUT – this present formal co-operation with evil by wilfully denying the immorality of the LCP , the murder of Patients AND the deliberate campaigning against those who seek to reveal it being backdoor euthanasia ?

    Is beyond repulsive – it’s redolent of silence about the trains going to auschwitz,

  • Memento Mori

    The ‘culture of death’ is a perfectly reasonable way of describing this culture. It could be more precise, but our witness cannot be put indefinitely on hold while we wait for the best formula. So ‘Culture of death’ it is.

    If I have a hesitation, it’s because I believe that this culture, even as it displays a disregard for human life, is in a state of perpetual denial about death. At one time, when someone died, it was normal to have a viewing in the home on the day of the funeral. My impression is that is much less common now – because it’s considered “creepy”. This denial of the reality of death is one of the major hurdles to discussing ethics.

  • karlf

    That’s right Jabba. Superheroes use their super powers to help people in desperate need. God just sits back and observes.

  • Damon

     You are advocating murder?

  • Damon

     Don’t listen to what Catherine Popehater ((C) Eccles) has to say.

  • teigitur

    Interesting, but not surprising, that you still use Catholic for self description. Now would that be atheist Catholic, or Catholic atheist? What would would the difference be, between you and a Protestant atheist , if such a person exists? Cultural only?

  • teigitur

    I think it had a double effect. It shocked some people into giving the issue more thought. (I know of at least one person who changed her mind having seen like images) I think others though it disgusting and ott, for various reasons. On balance I think it was a valid way of putting the message across.
     I am not neutral either, but probably in a different way to you! I think abortion has no place in civilised society.

  • daclamat

    Great for CH sales. Since when was the world divide between Catholics and non? The RCs are an insignificant minority, out of touch and out of reach.

  • karlf

    How about extreme sports? or being a war photographer?

  • Theophilus

    If culture of death is intended to mean a society permeated by powerful forces operating against the protection of life, nobody could deny that there are such forces in societies like the UK today. It is, however, also true that this society offers most people a higher quality of life, better health care and sanitation, educational and cultural opportunities to enhance their lives, more of the good things of life than any previous society – including those where the Christian religion was part of the ruling establishment and dominant ideology. Catholics tend to focus on abortion and euthanasia to the exclusion of most other life issues. Hence talk of a culture of death is unbalanced and unreal.

  • JabbaPapa

    wey hey !!!

    AGAIN with the unsupported statements !!!

    Am I supposed to shoulder the burden of proof for this one too ???!!!

  • JabbaPapa

    Probably the difference between a Communist Thatcherite and a teetotal drunkard.

  • JabbaPapa

    bla bla bla

    Meanwhile, I accurately answered the question.

  • TreenonPoet

     Within the culture of reason there is a culture of death-for-good-reasons. The death cult that I described has a culture of death-for-bad-reasons. When such a cult bemoans a culture of death (without being more specific, and therefore suggesting gratuitous death), it might be digging its own grave.

  • JabbaPapa

    Doctors in this country do not deliberately kill patients

    In fact, doctors throughout the “civilised” West engage in this activity on an extremely frequent basis.

  • Acleron

    Yes, you accurately failed, 100%, no variation about it either.

  • Benedict Carter

    Since the Incarnation.

  • karlf

    unsupported statements? Really?? My statements are fully supported by the absence of evidence to the contrary.
    Go on then – give me an example of when God has stepped halt atrocities, or to protect children from horrific abuse, or to dig them out of earthquake rubble.

  • Marcella Carmen C.

    It is definitely helpful.  As the writer points out, it can shake people out of their spiritual and intellectualy apathy.  Material well-being cannot be said, (as Theophilus below thinks), to equate spiritual equilibrium.  What does Theophilus actually mean when he complains Catholics focus on abortion and euthanasia to the exclusion of most other life issues?  As the biggest health and education provider in the world, the Catholic Church focuses on many issues, from a truly life-giving perspective!  As for better health care in Britain?  Not in my experience.  It is much better in France and Italy.

  • Alexander VI

    I’m sure that banging  on about Garabandal or some other such nonsense will change hearts and minds……

  • Nesbyth

    Brilliant posting….I’m copying it and learning it. I knew a fair bit of this already but need to have it at my fingertips for informed discussion.
    Sad facts though…

  • Nesbyth

    Only shocking in that it is true. That is the shocking part.

  • Nesbyth

    Did that prepare them for today’s gospel? Jesus mentions Hell three times in it, warning listeners that sin is real and has consequences.

  • teigitur

    Seek help. Soon.

  • TreenonPoet

     When a Catholic says “We are living in the End Times”, he is not referring to the heat-death of the universe or the over-heating of Earth, but to an unscientific prophecy. It is tragic that in the 21st century, children are encouraged to believe that certain people can, or were able to, see into the future as if by magic. When they are also told that a dead man can come back to life, a man can walk on water, etc., anything might seem possible. It is those who are taken in who need help.

  • JabbaPapa

    Only after you have provided me with evidence that masked superheros from Marvel Comics have done the same.

    And I take note that my comment : Am I supposed to shoulder the burden of proof for this one too ???!!! is proven to be accurate.

  • JabbaPapa

    You’re discussing hypotheticals — whereas the reality of your logical incoherence, two posts up, is plain for all to see.

  • karlf

    I was referring to superheroes as fictitious characters (who doesn’t??)
    If you do have some proof I’d love to hear what it is Jabba, but surprise surprise….

  • JabbaPapa

    The Holy Spirit is not, in fact, as Masked Superhero from Marvel Comics — simply glancing at their list of publications will definitively prove this statement for you.

    I can see no proof whatsoever on offer for any of your own statements.

  • karlf

    Exactly. There is no proof that God does anything to help people, or any other activities. Nothing.

  • Jonathan West

    It depends what you want to achieve by use of the phrase. If you want to whip up enthusiasm amongst those who already agree with you, then it will be effective – a bit of demonization of the enemy always helps to promote group solidarity.

    But if you’re trying to persuade those who don’t agree with you, then it is counterproductive. By using that phrase you are labelling other people’s honestly-held beliefs as evil. They aren’t evil, they are honest and they happen to disagree with you. By using that phrase, you are signalling to them that there is no discussion to be had. You will persuade almost nobody that way.

    So, the usefulness of the phrase depends whether you are trying to be persuasive or divisive.

    Your choice.