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If only Sister Wendy Beckett had taken her lead from Bishop Egan when talking about condoms on the radio

To avoid causing scandal, Sister Wendy should perhaps stick to art

By on Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic who lives the life of a hermit, outside the Louvre

Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic who lives the life of a hermit, outside the Louvre

Sister Wendy Beckett, the art critic and contemplative nun who lives the life of a hermit in a caravan next to a Carmelite convent, was on Desert Island Discs just before Christmas. I enjoyed listening to her – but, like the curate’s egg, only in parts. Asked by the presenter, Kirsty Young, about her interest in art, she replied that “If you don’t know about God, art … can set you free.” She believes that we are all born with an instinct for art, “a kind of disguised God”, and she hopes that in her small way she might have helped some people “find God in beauty”.

I agree with all this, but I also recall reading the 19th-century French art critic, the Abbé Brémond, who pointed out that the humblest prayer is more significant and enduring than the greatest poetry ever written. Beauty can be seductive as a supreme cultural experience yet unaccompanied by what we call “grace”.

Towards the end of the programme Kirsty Young asked, as presenters usually do when confronted by a Catholic, what were Sister Wendy’s views on “condoms”. At this point I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Sister Wendy might talk about another kind of “beauty”: that of marital, self-giving love. She didn’t. After a long pause and choosing her words carefully, she implied that the wheels of the Church turned very slowly and that therefore it would take a long time before it would change its stance on this subject. What was one to make of this? It was confusing to the listener as nothing was quite spelt out – but the implication was as I have indicated: that in the passage of time the Church would change her teaching on birth control. If this is what Sister Wendy intended to imply, she gave some scandal to her listeners, including Kirsty Young who appeared quite satisfied with what she said.

What she should have stated, simply and clearly, was that the Church cannot alter her fundamental moral and ethical teachings as they are not hers to change; her task is to re-present them to each new generation for the beauty, truth and goodness they contain. A friend who also listened to Sister Wendy and who is very well up on Church teaching, emailed me to say she could not make head or tail of the nun’s response. My view is that Sister Wendy should stick to art, about which she knows a great deal and about which she communicates very lucidly – and leave questions about the “c” word to those better qualified than her to explain.

One of those so qualified is the new bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan. On the Sunday after Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, he actually circulated a pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae, a subject he agreed was “challenging and controversial” (which is why Kirsty Young raised it, naturally). He pointed out that the two big debates in our society today revolve around “sex and authority. What is the truth about human sexuality? And who can tell me how to live my life?” He described Humanae Vitae as a prophetic document for emphasising that the “two aspects of sexuality – love and life – cannot be divorced”, and pointed to the “catastrophic consequences” for society, 45 years on, now that sex has been reduced merely to a “leisure activity”.

As Bishop Egan says, Pope Paul’s encyclical has become the “elephant in the room” that no one mentions and he urged everyone in this Year of Faith “to discover again the Church’s wonderful vision of love and life, as expounded in the Catechism”. I think Kirsty Young should invite Bishop Egan to be a guest on Desert Island Discs and that Sister Wendy should ponder his pastoral letter. More even than the contemplation of great works of art we need, as the Bishop writes, “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our land [so that] the people of England find their way to salvation and happiness in Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, ever present and active in his Church”.

  • OldMeena

    I do too. I liked her from the first.

    If a broadcaster were to approach her and ask if she would like to be interviewed NOT on visual art  but rather on Catholicism, or religion, or God, it would make a very interesting series of radio or TV programmes.

    But this event would strike terror into the souls of the fundamentally orthodox.  She would probably be threatened with (for me) unimaginable consequences if she were to accept and step “out of line”.

    But it really is a possibility that should be taken seriously. If the Catholic religion, or any other one, is really true, then it is by far the most important thing in the universe (in fact it is infinitely important). If an orthodox fundamentalist was interviewed, everyone would know what to expect – and so it would be fairly pointless: not adding anything.
    If the RC Church wants to get a really important message and its mind-boggling claims and teachings across to people outside it as truths, it needs to add something.

  • OldMeena

    No, you miss the point, already made.


    Look at Catholic families attending Sunday Mass (and yes, I have gone to
    Mass to see).


    There is ample VISUAL empirical EVIDENCE to support “almost

  • pooka

    My point is that, regardless of one’s own view of the issue, it’s clear that very many Catholics disagree with the current teaching on contraception. Indeed, so did the Pontifical Commission initially set up by John XXIII and subsequently upgraded to a commission of Cardinals and Bishops by Paul VI. If Catholics cannot express a view on contentious issues without being castigated as not-being-real Catholics by the Taliban tendency, then you will become a very impoverished Church indeed.

    In your own terms,

    Is the encylical Humanae Vitae infallible?

    How can the Church claim that NFP is comparable in its effectiveness as a method of family planning as ‘artificial’ methods whilst recommending the former but condemning the latter as an intrinsic evil?

  • Leo Ladenson

    Have you been to Mass lately in Manila or Kinshasa or Mexico City or Delhi?

    You would not see the same ANECDOTAL “evidence” in those places.

  • Rick Childress

    This is somewhat painful to watch. The point Leo is making is correspondent to yours. IF what you are saying is true, OldMeena, THEN they are sinning.

    What’s more, while I can’t speak for the UK, here in the United States more and more of both non-Catholic and Catholic families alike are using NFP. I’m not sure a visual head-count – in that case – is an accurate assumption of use of contraception.

  • OldMeena

    The evidence here is not anecdotal, it is empirical. It may be seen, evaluated numerically etc.

    The other places you cite are presently in difficult situations. There is certainly a lack (shamefully encouraged by the Church) of information about contraception and a lack of actual contraceptives. Many people are poor.

    There was excellent news this week from the Philippines where the Church has lost its battle (after 14 years of disgracefully blocking legislation). The same thing will happen in these other places – after more years of misery for so many. 

  • James

    I think most Catholics don’t *like* Humanae Vitae, rather than do not agree with it.

  • James

    “orthodox fundamentalist”. What does that even mean?

  • Leo Ladenson

    So to sum up your point of view:

    What you claim to see around you = “empirical” “evidence”


    children = “more years of misery for so many.”

    Got it.

  • Alexander VI

    “It was scandalous”
    Grow up..

  • cullenD

    I think your last point is wishful thinking. I’d assert with a fair amount of confidence that that those born after HV, (and many born before) are aware of it but choose to ignore it as “irrelevant”. They definitely show no signs of shame or guilt. They simply think it, as with most “church thinking” can’t apply to them, as the church doesn’t understand their circumstances. If anything they think the church should be ashamed or guilty of it’s stance.

    Of course I’m now open to the counter that the church doesn’t explain itself well enough. Which is of course true. But that does lead to the conclusion that as soon as the church loses hegemony on education, influence and the market of ideas, at the slightest peek of different options, people will choose to abandon, or pick and mix, church teachings.

  • cullenD

    It seems paradoxical that a women who’s views, on something as subjective as classical art, are lauded. Then, when used to a subjective subject as condoms, dismissed.

    I’m sorry to say I do see a common thread, women are only useful when they “toe the party line”. Nuns should be acknowledged, while they “shut up and work”, but all their intellectual contributions are just unimportant. Unless it’s a political tool like Mother Teresa. If they use their well trained intellects outside of male control, or even choose the wrong “good works”. They need to be quashed! 

  • Parasum

    Given the immense confusion caused by the Pope’s words about condoms in 2010 (?), and his failure to explain precisely and clearly just what he meant, it seems a bit much to find fault with her. How can she possibly know what the doctrine about condoms is, when the  Pope (of all people) upsets the apple-cart ? She’s not a professional theologian – but he is. If he gets a free pass – far more should she.

    “I thought Sister Wendy came across as sincere and rather unworldly, precisely what one would hope for in an elderly hermit.”

    ## Exactly.

  • Parasum

    “”What she should have stated, simply and clearly, was that the Church
    cannot alter her fundamental moral and ethical teachings as they are not
    hers to change; her task is to re-present them to each new generation
    for the beauty, truth and goodness they contain.”

    ## To which the obvious response would have been, if the interviewer was doing her job properly: “But, Sister, what in principle & in practice does that mean ?” Vague burbly stuff about the Church’s inability to “alter her fundamental moral and ethical teachings[,] as they are not
    hers to change”, gets us nowhere, fast – it’s a non-answer, that raises a lot of questions. Interviewers are very quick to notice non-answers. The Church always eventually changes stuff it needs to, by the simple expedient of deciding that, after all, that teaching is not among its “fundamental moral and ethical teachings” – as happened in 1965, with religious liberty. Or after 1745, with its letting its prohibition of taking interest on a loan become obsolete. The set of “fundamental moral and ethical teachings” *sounds* as though it contains a precise set of doctrines; in reality, membership of that set is much more variable than may appear on the surface; the Church “cannot alter her fundamental moral and ethical teachings” only so long as she does not do so; having done so, she puts together a form of words to make it seem she has not done so. All the Church has to do is to say that she has “discerned” that X was, after all, not that important, or not irreversible. That way, the Church saves its infallibility in teaching, at least verbally.  And where one thing has been “discerned”, a million more may be: but change of doctrine is still change of change of doctrine, no matter how it is packed and labelled.

    This is why there is not going to be any admission by the Magisterium that Limbo was “unsaid” – because it had (supposedly) never been taught. Even though it had in fact been taught, and even though the doctrine had been acted on by the Church. When the Church does allow contraception, it will insist till it is blue in the face that it had always allowed it; but by then, all of us will be dead, so we won’t be able to “blow the gaffe”. The Church does not object to changing its teachings – what is vital, is that it should be able to say in good conscience that it has never done so:  for the Church, the illusion of changelessness of doctrine matters far more than whether doctrine has changed. Provided the illusion is intact & is believed, the actual facts are unimportant. This is typical of Fundamentalist thinking. Fundamentalisms are for the Fundamentalist believers – what outsiders may say, does not matter.   

    “A friend who also
    listened to Sister Wendy and who is very well up on Church teaching,
    emailed me to say she could not make head or tail of the nun’s response.”

    ## Then maybe the friend should give her the benefit of the doubt ?

  • Katey

    Kirsty actually asked about the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms AND abortion. I hope the Catholic Church never changes its stance on abortion – we need Christian voices to speak out against the murder of the most innocent!

  • Lazarus

    ‘It is not a matter of how much is written down, but rather of what attracts by far the most attention of Catholic commentators and clergy when they preach to ordinary Catholics.’

    I have never, never heard a single homily on sex or contraception. (It’s a good question as to why these aren’t more regularly preached, but that’s an entirely separate issue.)

    As far as Catholic commentators are concerned, it depends what you mean by Catholic commentators. If you mean ‘what ordinary Catholics get told by the Church in more informal ways than preaching’, my parish runs regular talks on things such as the bible, justice and peace etc. Can’t think of a single one on sex. (Again, it’s a good question why not -but that’s not the point at issue.) When I was prepared for my First Confession, there was certainly some mention of sexual issues, but very little. If you when what swivel eyed bloggers like myself concentrate on, we’re (I’m) pretty much reacting to the sex obsessed secular world to which you belong. Stop talking about sex all the time and we’ll go back to talking about the things that really interest us like the nature of the Trinity.

    Have you tried (say) looking at a tabloid to get some idea of what a real sex obsession looks like? 

  • Lazarus

    If that means what I think it means, it’s terrifically sad.

    Do you mean: ‘I think about religion quite a lot, find something attractive in it, and then deliberately come to the CH website where I can expect to find myself repelled by the reality of it’? 

    If that’s it, a) why on earth do you keep coming back here; and b) why do you keep posting comments which are deliberately intended to provoke a strong reaction? The absurdity of b) should be clear to anyone. The pointlessness of a) (judging a religion by a bunch of quarrelsome cyberwarriors like myself reacting to deliberate provocations by nu-atheist and heretical posters) should be also evident.

    If this is really what’s going on, for goodness sake, take a step back and sort yourself out. Unless the above comment is simply another rhetorical trick to bash Catholics with (in which case we can go back happily to our spat), then go and do some proper religious and spiritual exploration rather than wasting your time here. That’s far too important a task and the comboxes here are not the place to do it.

  • Lazarus

    If a male religious had said what Sister Wendy said, he would be getting just the same treatment. 

    Catholicism is a hierarchical religion. Christ established the Church with specific teaching authority given to the bishops and the Pope. Sister Wendy, when she teaches on art and when she teaches in accordance with that authority is serving the Church’s mission. (And I think her discussion of art on TV has been an important contribution to that mission.) When (if) she speaks against that authority, those views are liable to be corrected, just as any other Catholic who misrepresents that authoritative teaching is liable to be corrected.

    Not sexism. Just the nature of the Church’s teaching authority. Blame Jesus if you want to.

  • OldMeena

    Well said. 
    I’m sorry I can’t write as clearly as this.

  • OldMeena


  • OldMeena

    I admit to being repetitive here, but think you know full-well what I mean.

  • OldMeena

    “I have never, never heard a single homily on sex or contraception. ”

    When I say “preach” and you say “heard” we must both (if you don’t) think beyond the narrow auditory sense that the words suggest.

    I’m not surprised that you have not “heard” such things (in the narrow sense) as Catholics find sex embarrassing to talk about.
    Catholic children however do get in in the schools.

  • OldMeena

    I don’t post here merely to provoke strong reactions, but rather to try to find the Catholic response to matters not dealt with, other than in predictable and unhelpful orthodox ways, in Catholic publications/broadcasts. I think not so much of religion, but of the things which both religion and atheism consider and speak about.

    The attractiveness of religion must be obvious to all: it (Catholicism at least) teaches that we do not suffer oblivion after our short life, but have the option of eternal happiness. And, while alive, teaches that the creator of the cosmos knows us and cares about us. That must surely be seductive – it certainly is for me – and a shot of the sharp “reality” (of which you write) is sometimes probably good.

  • OldMeena

    No. Not what I see, but what everyone can see and agree on.

    No. Not children but many more children than can be supported properly by their parents, their country and by the earth.

  • Miceal

    Murder, yes, but then as Steven Morrissey sang when he was in the pop group The Smiths:

    “Heifer whines could be human cries 
    Closer comes the screaming knife 
    This beautiful creature must die 
    This beautiful creature must die 
    A death for no reason 
    And death for no reason is MURDER”

    But in the many cases of pregnancy through rape, pregnancy of under age girls though sexual abuse, sometimes by the hand of their own Father or Uncle, or a pregnancy, thankfully less frequent due to medical advances available in rich societies, where letting the baby grow could seriously endanger the life of the mother…
    In such cases not allowing a termination of the foetus is either deliberate mental torture for the prospective mother or deliberate endangerment of the mother’s life. Do you support deliberate mental torture? If you had to give birth to a child conceived forcefully through rape would you do so happily? If you were pregnant and the doctors told you that there was a very high chance or even guaranteed likelihood that carrying the child to full term would result in your death and/or the death of that child would you still carry it until the worst happened? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’ then there are clearly no mirrors in your house or you do not look yourself in the eyes in them. On one case in Ireland someone actually was low enough in their own moral code to try and blame the young woman who had been raped. That’s the kind of sickening attitude that is normally encountered in male chauvanistic Islamic societies.

  • Miceal

    I’d be interested to know how many of the world’s Catholics have actually read Humanæ Vitæ? I have not read it all properly yet although I have heard it quoted and misquoted, more often misquoted I am sure, over the decades.

  • Lazarus

    So, we can’t see this infatuation because it’s not written down. We can’t hear it because it’s not spoken. But nonetheless, it exists because in some mysterious way you can divine its presence…

    Makes me almost sympathetic to Dawkins’ empiricism. I particularly enjoy the idea of hearing ‘beyond the narrow auditory sense’. Absolutely priceless.

  • Lazarus

    Frankly, you sound muddled in your motivations, which is fair enough. I’d simply suggest that one of your motivations (to provoke strong reactions) is at odds with your other (to gain insight). The latter is more important and I’d drop the first.

  • Jon Brownridge

     The Pope’s remarks (2010) about condoms were actually clear and consistent. He simply explained that the moral issue is not condoms – it’s contraception. When condoms are used by homosexuals, contraception is not an issue and therefore, though the homosexual acts are deplorable, there is no moral issue with the condoms so used.

  • Mater mari

     How very presumptuous to judge a couple’s use of contraception by the size of their family.  I have friends with three children who have never been near a contraceptive of any kind; another who has only two children.  The answer?  Self-control, partial or, in some cases, total.  I know only too well how difficult this can be, but we have recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if we fail or even if we need encouragement.  I also know of a family with seven children where the parents used the Pill.  Whatever happened to ‘Judge not, that you be not judged’?

  • OldMeena

    Not priceless I’m afraid – actually a common remark. Composers of music, poetry etc and other artists have often talked of their muses in this way – and some have said that at times they feel they are taking dictation.

    As regards the written word, I was “talking” (how about that?) about the Catechism. Plenty is written on this website and on Catholic Answers, for example, for all to see!

  • OldMeena


  • OldMeena

    The provocation of strong reactions is not a motivation of mine.Sometimes even a most mild posting does seem (to my surprise) to produce a furious reaction.But I should have omitted the “merely” to make this clearer.


  • Amkennedpayen

    I totally agree with you !

  • IssacClarke

    The question was both fair and unfair.

    When asked of Sister Wendy, the art expert, the demure woman who lives in solitude, it was unfair.

    When asked of  the SISTER WENDY, who has been published by the church and media, the one used as a propaganda piece by both, it was fair. She was presented as an unusual voice, to soften the harsh views of her church, which she did well. 

    But now it seems the handler’s have turned on their most mild of poodles. How dare she even think! When faced with a problem she probably never thought about. 

  • Deacon Don Bourgeois

    I am sure that Sister Wendy is a very nice person, but she should be up to the task of answering what the Church’s teachings are and does not have a right as a religious and as a Catholic to expound heresy. She should know that as a Catholic we do not have a right nor does the Church have a right to pick what is popular and what is not. Either we believe and follow what Jesus and His Church teaches or we can join the rest who have abandoned the truth and join the Protestants who have brought themselves to the slavery of changing their teachings to conform to the desires of the secular society.

    As Catholics when we stand and make that “Profession of Faith” at Mass, we say we believe “all” that the Catholic Church teaches, not what we like or dislike. This is a no-brainier. End of story.

  • Simon

    I am far more interested in the opinion of a nun who spends 6 hours each day in prayerful contemplation than in the view of a journalist or that of a bishop.