Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme explored the idea of the moral authority of the Church in the light of what we can all recognise to be scandals. At this time when we are praying for the election of a new Pope, such a topic will indeed be in the mind of the Cardinal-Electors, as much as those who look to the Church – from within and without – for moral guidance. Do these scandals undermine the moral authority of the Church? Can the Church proclaim truth despite, and even through, her failed members and leaders?
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, whose parish I was covering this weekend, spoke on the programme. He ably described moral authority as ‘the ability to speak on moral issues, it’s the ability to pronounce on right and wrong, it’s the ability to mediate to people what is not just the opinion of the Church, but what is the authoritative teaching of the Church – that which must be obeyed, as Canon Law says, with religious obedience of the will’. He went on, ‘In other words it’s not just another of the things offered in the great marketplace of humanity, it’s something which can be taken as true and believed as true. That’s what moral authority is: it’s the ability to speak truth’. That is important. Moral authority is the revelation of truth which, as the Catechism says, is always from God: ‘The authority required by the moral order derives from God’. (CCC §1899).
Today is Day 25 of 40 Days for Life and I’m privileged to have been asked to write this short meditation for those supporting this great initiative. Today’s intention is that those who carry out abortions may have their hearts converted. The text is Luke 23: 34: ‘And Jesus said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
It may be naive, but there must be some sense in which those who are involved with this most heinous of crimes against the dignity of human life, are unaware of the depth and seriousness of what they are doing. If they understood fully what was going on, what damage they were doing, then I cannot believe any human would be capable of carrying out this offence.
We rightly make public our opposition to these horrors, but in our hearts too, we must pray that those who are unable to see what they are doing might have their hearts converted. We read regularly of stories of abortionists who have had a conversion experience – often through the witness of a soul whose life has been cut short by them. We might, as a discipline that turns our anger into love – the only force which can bring about true change – pray that more such conversions might come about, as powerful expressions of the love of the Lord, whose incarnation brings a special dignity to the lives of all humans from conception to the natural death.
May the saints – whose lives show us the conversion we all require – support us in this task. And may the Lord use us as his instruments, to show his love to a world which so badly needs it, especially in these darkest of circumstances.
Let us pray.
Almighty and ever-living God, you show us in the lives of the saints the need we have of your mercy and grace, so that our hearts may be conformed to that of your Son. Grant, we pray, that the hearts of those who commit crimes against the dignity of human life, may be so infused with your love, that they may come to depend entirely on you and, in so doing, become the strongest advocates of your mercy and grace. We make this prayer through the same, Christ our Lord. Amen.
The past few weeks have seen a number of pretty vocal criticisms of a handful of public figures in Church life. Many of these criticisms are entirely justified, and only a fool would try to defend the actions of those few individuals who have fallen short of the call to holiness. Often these public reprimands are bound up with a call for Church reform. The Church is, in fact, permanently in the business of reform, though we might more usefully speak about ‘conversion’. Of course, this might not be the ‘conversion’ that society wants, but reform and renewal and conversion, are not alien to the life of the Church – in fact, they are central to it. Christians undergo a constant and continual conversion deeper into a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, and so with the Church and each other, because that is the life to which we are called by our baptism.
Part of that continuing conversion is the growing towards Christ which takes place through the recognition, admission, contrition, and absolution of sin. In this, the Christian is restored to the grace of baptism through God’s forgiveness in the sacramental action of Confession. When we Christians do something wrong, we don’t only have vocabulary to describe it – e.g. sin – but we also have a clear moral code by which we are able to judge the act. ‘Wrong’ and ‘Sin’ are not only fluid terms in the Western secular mindset, but they are always applied subjectively because no moral code exists independently of the Judeo-Christian moral law which undergirds the very fibre of society. Thus we have the analogous situation of a senior Churchman being decried for doing something which secular society encourages and promotes, and the cries of hypocrisy from certain quarters begin to ring hollow.
Last night I had a fairly robust interaction with a few people on Twitter about the Jimmy Carr tax controversy which has been in the news here the past few days. My point was that, whatever level of hypocrisy might have been exercise by the comedian, the moral question with regard to tax avoidance is one which (in this case) cannot be separated from the legal requirements placed on UK citizens.
What do I mean by that? Well, firstly a small example. Is it immoral to buy a bottle of gin in Duty Free shops? I sincerely hope not. This is because the government has, under certain circumstances, allowed a dispensation from paying a certain amount of taxation on a commodity. Is it immoral, then, to pay not one penny more than your annual tax bill requires? No. The government asks for X amount, and we respond to that in a way which fulfils Christ’s command – Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
So, then, is legitimate tax avoidance (not evasion, I hasten to add) immoral? Well how can it be? If there is a legal loophole which allows a person to say that they do not have to pay more than they have to, why would it be immoral for them to make use of it?
Whether or not it is desirable for the government to allow such loopholes to exist is, I think, a valid question. But if somebody legitimately and legally avoids paying more than they must, then this is surely not their error but their right and duty, especially if they have dependents (such as a family).
Now, I must add that this is not a defence of those who engender a smash and grab attitude. It is immoral, for example, for a person to have wealth and yet not give at least some of that wealth over to aid the poor and those less fortunate. But that’s not the question that is directly posed here. Rather, the act which is being described as ‘immoral’ (by the PM, no less), is in fact an example of a legitimate exercise of civil law. Whether or not that law should now be changed – well, that’s a different question altogether.
For those interested in reading more about the Catholic approach to taxation, I would heartily recommend the excellent writings of Germain Grisez, in his excellent and concise The Way of the Lord Jesus. It is available for free (!) online, and I would recommend this, this and this as good places to start.
Update: Maybe he read this and was filled with remorse and contrition. Maybe not. Anyway, Jimmy Carr has (within minutes of me posting this) put this statement out to his 2, 302, 756 followers on Twitter:
I appreciate as a comedian, people will expect me to ‘make light’ of this situation, but I’m not going to in this statement as this is obviously a serious matter. I met with a financial advisor and he said to me “Do you want to pay less tax? It’s totally legal.” I said “Yes.” I now realise I’ve made a terrible error of judgement. Although I’ve been advised the K2 Tax scheme is entirely legal, and has been fully disclosed to HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs), I’m no longer involved in it and will in future conduct my financial affairs much more responsibly. Apologies to everyone. Jimmy Carr.
Credit where credit’s due. As it were. No pun intended.