When Baroness Hollins returned home one evening with her children she was greeted by an agitated nanny.
“The goldfish has died,” she whispered to Baroness Hollins, “but don’t worry I’ve flushed it down the loo.”
She replied: “Go down to the pet shop and buy another one straight away. Next time one dies, please show the children the dead goldfish.”
Baroness Hollins calmly relays the anecdote as we sit together on the House of Lords terrace drinking tea in the afternoon sun. Her worldly frankness jars with the serenity of this removed and privileged setting: “Death is the one thing you and I have in common,” she tells me. “Isn’t that extraordinary?”
She continues: “That’s why we have pets. One of the reasons is that it’s an education for the children
to learn about life and death and they learn about how to manage their sadness and this is one way of helping them. That’s part of death education.”
As she talks, it is evident that she champions education at its most holistic. Copies of recent books from the “Books Beyond Words” series on communicating difficult messages to people with learning disabilities, including the topics of death and sex, remain on the table from a previous meeting. The books originated from her experiences with her son, who has a learning disability.
Above all, she values a critical approach to questions, especially those concerning faith and remains inspired by her mother, who converted to Catholicism when her daughter was aged nine.
“She certainly wasn’t going to accept anything blindly because someone had told her to,” she says. “She made her own decision to become a Catholic. But it wasn’t going to be swallowing every ritual and tradition blindly. She had a very thoughtful approach to it.”
It is clear, then, that from an early age Baroness Hollins possessed a natural resistance to arbitrary rules or authoritarianism. The nuns at her school told her that she would not pass her 11-plus unless she attended a pilgrimage to Lourdes. (Her mother consequently refused to send her.) They also expressed dismay that she did not wear a shamrock on St Patrick’s Day, given her Irish roots (her maiden name was Kelly.)
But she fondly recalls her headmistress Sister Monica: “She encouraged us to think about, ‘what if we’ve all been had? What if there is no God? Will I have wasted my life?’”
Few could argue that a 66-year-old woman who is former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, current president of the British Medical Association and a crossbench peer in the House of Lords has “wasted her life”. But despite this exceptional CV, she does not reek of cold ambition but serenity and humility.
Reflecting on the existence of God she asks me: “But how do we know? Of course we don’t know. I have space for mystery in my life. I don’t feel that I need to know exactly. If there’s a narrative which works and makes sense and I believe in it, I am not sure that I have to justify it.
“The trouble with some of the very passionate atheists who are scientists is that they believe very strongly that they are right but they can have no more certainty than people who do believe in a supernatural aspect to life. They only know what they know. They don’t know what they don’t know. That to me is the mystery of life and death.”
But the mystery of life and, more importantly, death, is one that as a society we are too afraid of in Baroness Hollins’s view.
She argues that pressure to legalise physician-assisted suicide betrays society’s trepidation concerning death. As a mother of two children with disabilities she also worries that legalisation would exacerbate society’s fear of disability. She seems reluctant to elaborate but eventually tells me: “I think it’s potentially a return to eugenics, really. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a strong eugenics movement and we’ve had it in different waves in history. The Nazi era was an example of eugenics at its worse. It’s not well known, but one of the things that the Nazi regime did was to eliminate people with learning disabilities.”
Baroness Hollins stresses that she is not suggesting that proponents of euthanasia want to see the lives of people with disability devalued, but she recalls a visit to a residential community in northern Germany. “They still had people living there who remembered their friends being rounded up and taken away to the gas chambers. They decided as a hospital to put a plaque up and there’s a chapel where they say prayers regularly for the people who were taken away to the gas chambers. But they also tell the visitors there so that they remember.”
Spend 10 minutes in the company of Baroness Hollins and you quickly grasp that she devotes her life to supporting the vulnerable in any way that she can. In February she accompanied abuse survivor Marie Collins to a Vatican symposium on clerical abuse which she describes as “ a very good event, which generated a lot of hope”.
She laments the lack of contrition and honesty on the part of some guilty priests – attributes essential for any reconciliation to take place between victim and abuser. She tells me that during the 1970s and 1980s too many institutions, including the Catholic Church, were slow to understand the pathology behind child abusers.
“I suspect there were also financial concerns. But I think that it’s better to be financially bankrupt but morally rich because you have done it right and you have been honest about it.”
And does celibacy lead to sexual abuse as argued by some critics of the Church? With her psychiatric knowledge perhaps Baroness Hollins is able, more than any of us, to see the human being or, indeed, the patient underneath the priestly garb.
“I think it’s much more likely that people who abuse are people who are vulnerable themselves,” she says, “perhaps because of something bad that happened to them during their development, something which they have not worked through and something which becomes part of their personality.
“The point here is not that someone who has been abused will abuse others. Rather, that someone who abuses others may well have been abused themselves. There is a real difference between the two statements.”
During a recent interview on Desert Island Discs Baroness Hollins defended her capacity to take on secular leadership despite her strong Catholic faith. Isn’t accepting the presidency of the British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors, inviting a crisis of conscience for any Catholic?
Baroness Hollins squints at this point, I suspect only partly due to the severe sun. “In a professional situation
if there is a majority view different to your own then you have to accept that. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to compromise your own values and principles.
“That’s not to say that there aren’t going to be difficult issues, but if one refuses to engage for fear that you might find yourself having to confront difficult issues then I think that would go against my conscience. We have a responsibility to contribute and I believe very strongly in the Catholic Church’s social teaching.
“If you’re Catholic and you have studied some of the Church’s teaching, of course that’s going to influence the way you think. But what’s wrong with that? Other people who have read material by atheist philosophers are also going to be influenced by what they have read.”
There are only a few moments left to raise the subject that intrigues so many about Baroness Hollins. Her daughter, Abigail Witchalls, was left paralysed after a random stabbing in 2005. Abigail was walking her baby son and pregnant at the time. Despite an initially grave prognosis, she survived and gave birth to the baby. What is striking about Abigail’s story is the hope she has publicly expressed based on a strong belief in the love of God.
So how do Catholics today cultivate this strong faith in their children?
“Golly,” replies Baroness Hollins before a long pause. “I don’t know really. I know that belonging to the lay community of St Benedict was a very important grounding for them in being young Catholics because it was a place they could ask questions. It was always a community where not everybody had a sense of certainty, a lot of people were there with a questioning faith.
“It was also an ecumenical community and so it was an accepting community in different kinds of ways. I think learning about Christian community was quite important, probably more important than anything they were taught at school or indeed as young people in Church.”
She continues after a further pause: “I don’t think dogmatism works.”
I ask her what dogmatism is exactly, given that it is has become an insult frequently hurled at the Catholic hierarchy with little elaboration.
“Being too rule-bound,” she replies. “I personally believe we all have to learn the skills to take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions and that sort of independent moral agency seems to me to be quite
Although she is a wise and experienced professor in her 60s, Baroness Hollins still challenges her every thought before uttering her considered conclusion. “We are all on a journey and we are not going to get the answers right all the time,” she says. “We are going to make mistakes. Having the skills to be able to decide for ourselves and to accept responsibility for those decisions seems to me to be more important than simply obeying the rules.”