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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”.

  • Mikelawlor2

    I though that Sister Wendy’s words were most thought provoking both on Desert Island Discs and on the television programme. Her advice on how to pray was particularly enlightening and has completely changed my approach to personal prayer. As she is not exactly a radical I suspect that her words about the slowness of the Church to change on issues like condoms merely reflect what most Catholics think and rather show how out of touch Bishop Egan is. Perhaps in a reverse world he should stick to art and Sister Wendy should become the Bishop

  • AndreaGregorio

    Absolutely!  But if Humanae Vitae is consigned to the dustbin, then homosexuality becomes a possibility in Moral Theology (which I believe it should be).  So many heterosexual Catholics will continue to disregard HV, but hypocritically support the Church’s equally reductionist teaching on homosexuality.  Best to leave the bishops sound off to get brownie points from Rome and just adopt common sense.

  • http://profiles.google.com/liamronan49 Liam Ronan

    To be perfectly fair to the readers of this article (and Sister Wendy), and to have any sort of productive follow-on discussion regarding what Sister Wendy said, might it not be helpful to cite her exact words on the subject for the reader rather than summarize without any quotes?

  • John Newton

    One should have more sympathy for Sister Wendy who had the condomquestion thrown at her completely out of the blue. Quite frankly the BBC should be ashamed of themselves for asking an elderly hermit a cheap and shoddy question of that nature.

  • kentgeordie

    Pace Liam below, the article fairly summarises the discussion. Very disappointing – Sister Wendy, whom we love dearly, missed a great opportunity for evangelisation. It is not possible, is it, that so late in her worldly existence, she succumbed to the urge to give the media the answer they wanted?

  • http://profiles.google.com/liamronan49 Liam Ronan

    Ah, my friend kentgeordie, language is a form of art and there are subtleties and nuances to be found upon close examination. I do not prefer to have a painting described to me in absentia nor do I prefer to have a statement summarized for me without my having heard it.

  • PaulHalsall

    Most Catholics actually use the condom and/or the pill.  Look  at the size of Catholic families in Church.

  • Alexander VI

    Francis, do you ever think about ANYTHING else other than sex?

  • Leo Ladenson

     News flash: most Catholics are sinners. Democracy doesn’t dilute evil.

  • PaulHalsall

    But, as Lord Acton observed, autocracy, as in Rome, concentrates corruption.

  • PaulHalsall

    That is what Romanism has been reduced to: thinking about sex.

  • Francis

    Acts 7: 51-54

  • http://twitter.com/fcmoh Fiona O’ Hanlon

    Unfortunately this is not the first time that Sr Wendy has made a comment that does not reflect the teaching of the church i.e her comments on women priests made on Terry Wogan’s chat show. 

  • Leo Ladenson

    But surely you’re not suggesting that the Church’s millennial teaching on the evil of contraception is corrupt? Mistaken (in your view), perhaps, but corrupt?

  • maxmarley

    Sadly western society in general is obsessed with its current sex revolution.
    No individual including hermit sr Wendy can escape its depressing embrace.
    Are we not fortunate that there are some Christian leaders who extol those hardly ever heard about virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice and Truth?

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    I agree with this. I listened to the programme on the Radio 4 website (where it should still be available). I thought Sister Wendy came across as sincere and rather unworldly, precisely what one would hope for in an elderly hermit. Francis in my judgment correctly summarizes what was broadcast: no clear opposition to Church teaching but the implication that it was wrong because it would change. (Although she didn’t say in what way.) It’s a pity she wasn’t clearer about church teaching, but then, that’s why we have a hierarchy: not everything that comes out of any Catholic’s mouth is authoritative teaching. And other than that one remark, I thought she came across as an impressive witness for a life spent in prayer and contemplation of God.

  • Kevin

    Well written again.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Newsflash: Bishop Egan is NOT out of touch on these issues.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Sister Wendy Beckett was invited onto this programme to talk about art and music, as are all other guests. Kirsty Young should never waver from the tangent. It was the height of tactlessness.

    Did Kirsty think, for one second, that she was presenting The Moral Maze?

    I would regard this ‘ambush’ in the same way Lord Sacks was re the Middle East or any Muslim with regards 9/11 and suicide bombers.

    Any Roman Catholic worth their salt – especially clerics and religious – should be forearmed with the answers and not to look like rabbits caught in the lights of a juggernaut.
    Gay Byrne asked a priest on RTE’s The Meaning of Life if he believed that the bread and wine at Holy Mass turns truly turns into the Body and Blood of Christ.

    Religious broadcasting is woeful, inadequate and lacking any imagination.

  • OldMeena

    Perhaps orthodox Catholics should carry a card (shown to media interviewers before the interview begins), saying: “I’m an orthodox Catholic, please don’t ask me about the orthodox teachings of my church – it’s so embarrassing”.

  • OldMeena

    It seems to me that Sister Wendy, probably being very intelligent and also having a great deal of time to think about things (including her church’s teachings) during her contemplative life, could be well worth listening to. 

  • OldMeena

    But Catholics simply don’t realise that they do this.

    The RC Church is infatuated with sex. Normal people outside the C. Church can easily see this – but Catholics can’t see the wood for the trees.

  • OldMeena

    No, not “most”, but rather almost all.

  • OldMeena


  • pooka

    Sister Wendy gave a sincere and measured response when asked a straight-forward question about the Catholic church’s teaching on birth contraception. Why shouldn’t she? Do all Catholics have to parrot the nonsense on stilts that is now the Church’s teaching? Do you expect them to be taken seriously if they do?

  • OldMeena

    Maybe she believes in what she said.

  • OldMeena

    “most Catholics are sinners”
    You must have carried out a very big survey.

  • OldMeena

    “…no clear opposition to Church teaching but the implication that it was wrong because it would change. ”

    To my mind she clearly let us know she believes that the Church’s teaching on this matter is wrong and will change; but only after a considerable time because its wheels grind around very slowly.

    She did not imply in any way that the teaching was wrong “because it will change”. She as good as said that it will change “because it is wrong”. 
    Quite the reverse.

  • OldMeena

    What breathtaking arrogance!

    How dare you high-jack these virtues as Christian ones.

    Truth and the dogma of any particular religion are different things. To find truth you look beyond yourself and your clan. You may or may not find it, but you will have a chance of lowering your level of ignorance. 

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Possibly. I’m inclined to be charitable to her as someone who has clearly pursued holiness and was clearly unwilling to articulate clear opposition to authoritative teaching.

    You of course will be inclined to read your customary obsessions into whatever anyone says.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    The cardinal virtues are those of human nature: God given and clearly articulated by the Church as the guardian and interpreter of natural law. The one place you’ll find truth in its clearest form is of course the one place you won’t look.

    But clearly something keeps drawing you back here…

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Here’s a link to the Catechism http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM

    Tell me how much of that you think is concerned with sex. (Only a quarter is concerned with moral theology and of that very little is concerned with sex even indirectly.)

    Given your usual contributions, you’ll doubtless regard issues such as the protection of family life and stopping the murder of unborn children as being about sex. And you complain about us seeing the world through an infatuation with sex…

  • Rich

    Two very straightforward questions which are more than likely to come up, to which every Catholic should know the answer IMHO.

  • Rich

    Being intelligent and having a great deal of time to think doesn’t necessarily mean she is more likely come up with correct answers … it seems.

  • Rick Childress

    Just because you disagree with the Church’s teachings on contraception shouldn’t make this difficult to understand, pooka. A very key part of being a practising Catholic is the affirmation of faith that she (the Church) is what she claims to be – otherwise, what’s the point – and she authoritatively teaches that the use of contraception for its implicit purpose is evil. ‘[P]arrot[ing] the nonsense on stilts’ it may be – granting you the possibility of argument – but it’s part of the Catholic bit, take it or leave it. And of course I find it amusing when someone argues it’s so much nonsense, when Pope Paul explicitly predicted horrible outcomes (including the dehumanisation of women) which have long since come to fruition. The Church will do well to continue preaching truth, whether another few decades is what it takes for the world to realise its short-sighted foolishnesses.

  • Patricius

    I heard the broadcast and listened to her response to the question. It was scandalous. Some have attempted to defend her on the grounds that the question was thrown at her out of the blue. Perhaps, but, having already heard this clever lady boast of her academic achievements, I am afraid it cuts little ice. 

  • http://twitter.com/John_Fisher51 John Fisher

    Sister Wendy, like most modern day nuns, sadly, is first of all her profession, i.e., art critic and historian, and only second, a Catholic nun. And the second  avocation is far down the list. Most nuns in the English speaking world are radical feminists and use the habit as a cover, so to speak, to deflect the vociferous criticism that would normally be coming their way if they were simply a lay person.

  • GrahamCombs

    I recall many years ago when Sr. Wendy Beckett’s first art programs were being broadcast here in athe US on PBS that she was interviewed on that channel’s Charlie Rose show.   Of course Mr. Rose asked her about sex.   Her answer was interesting.  She said that as a religious she had never struggled with sexuality as she saw some of her younger colleagues do.   It was said quite compassionately and yet honestly — the fact is we don’t all obssess about sex.   It seems to me that it is the secular world that is obssessed with sex and Catholicism, not necessarily Catholics themselves.    At our best we have a far more mature approach to it — as befitting 20 centuries of experience and thought about the sacrament of marriage and the nature of family.    A convert, I don’t know why I thought it odd at the time that a nun would be lecturing on art.  Now of course as I learn more about the Church and her history, it makes perfect sense.  

  • Leo Ladenson

    No, I just used the same one you used when you wrote that “No, not ‘most’, but rather almost all” Catholics use artificial contraception–and are thus sinners.

  • Oblate of ample forth

    Truth isn’t determined by a majority vote- maybe bishop Egan is just speaking the truth and people are out of touch with the churches teaching? Let us pray for each other

  • Miceal Tyre

    I agree with your words John, well put. Twenty-five or thirty years ago the question would not have even been considered to be asked I am sure. I feel sure that the question was pre-determined by the editorial team for the programme and my prayers are with Sister Wendy. To be put on the spot like that must have been unpleasant.

    OldMeena I also agree with your wise words too. Sister Wendy did not disagree or contradict the Church’s teachings. She merely hinted at what one day might be the case. She did far better than me in the same situation. I would possibly have felt I had to explain the Church’s teaching and got myself in a bit of a bind.

    God bless.

  • Paul

    The church is not a clan, OldMeena.  Do a bit of travel and you will find it alive and flourishing in every corner of the globe.  Glory to God.

  • Gildaswiseman

    Oh dear! another modernist in disguise as a Catholic. So very sad! Maybe if more bishops were as courageous as Bishop Egan, the teaching of the Church on the matter of contraception would be harder to openly refute.

  • Vince

    Each member of church should expect to answer that kind of question when they are interviewed by the mass-media about religion. So it cannot come as a surprise ; one must be prepared to answer it. Otherwise it is best to abstain from the spotlight rather than undermine the Church authority.

  • Alban

    Bravo, Sister Wendy! She also has many other sound and profound things to say. I find her a very refreshing person to listen to.

  • Dorotheus

    The real reason why HV has become the elephant in the room is that we know most Catholics do not agree with it. Bishop Egan and others may bluster about it, but they will never challenge people directly because they would suspect that if they did they would walk away from the Church and take their money with them – and the Catholic Church would quickly be down on its uppers. This shows the utter cynicism and hypocrisy of such as Bishop Egan. Sr. Wendy, as a woman (not at all unworldly I would guess), clearly has sympathy for people and the difficulties they face in their lives of a kind that arrogant male prelates need to learn from: they are the unworldly ones, strutting and posturing in their ivory towers.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/VIABFETGEKZXUUND5RRE6QCBXI adamson

     or NFP?

  • Nesbyth

    Actually I believe that Catholics DO realise that HV spoke the Truth about procreation but that “most” Catholics chose to ignore it, felt guilty about so doing and then chose to attack HV and the Church to assuage their feelings of guilt

  • OldMeena

    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.

    For example HV is talked and written about much more than
    other fairly recent papal encyclicals.

    They are always “going on” about matters that concern sex.  I know of Catholic parents who see that most of the religious indoctrination in Catholic secondary schools is concerned with simplistic teaching about sex. Some remove their children as a result; although most are (rightly) concerned with the danger of disrupting their children’s education – and consequently leave them in the school.

    Many parents of course approve of this aspect of their
    child’s education.  But some of them will, in due course and a few years down the road, discover to their surprisehow counter-productive it has been. 

    PS:  But your reply illustrates exactly my point: Catholics normally cannot see this infatuation, but to others it is very clear.  I would guess that it maybe stems from former years when safe and reliable contraceptives were not available. The Church too would always have been concerned with sufficient supplies of labourers and suchlike to supply the needs of the clergy and other “top” people – for the Church has always been much more concerned with worldly rather than spiritual matters.

  • OldMeena

    “But clearly something keeps drawing you back here…”

    Yes – whenever I start wondering too much in a rather silly way I come back here to “sober up”.