After Repeal Whither Now?

Last Friday’s vote in the South came after lengthy campaigning from both sides. Nobody was predicting such a landslide for repeal, with many of the projections indicating that it would be close. It would be foolish to think that we in the North will not be affected by this outcome given that a number of campaigners have now set their sights on NI’s pro-life laws. The DUP have quickly come out to re-affirm their pro-life stance and their defence of life, not only that both the secretary of state Karen Bradley and NIO minster Lord Duncan have publicly stated in the past that abortion is a devolved matter, and a large proportion of conservatives MPs have expressed the view that Westminster should not undermine devolution in NI by imposing abortion on us (https://bothlivesmatter.org/72-of-conservative-mps-reject-undermining-of-devolution-to-impose-abortion-on-northern-ireland). If we look to the most recent vote in the assembly on the mater in 2016, 59 – 40 MLAs voted against abortion in cases of so called fatal foetal abnormality, and an even greater majority, 64 – 30, voted against abortion in cases of rape and incest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-35546399. Not only that, the feeling of some voters in the south that a yes vote was a way of casting off the Catholic identity of Ireland is not a view that is widely held here in the North, since the pro-life position here is clearly held across the communities. All in all, despite the pressure on NI to introduce abortion, it will not be a straightforward affair to get rid of NI’s pro-life laws.

Nevertheless, we cannot but be disappointed at the result of the referendum: disappointed that the unborn child now has no constitutional protection, and disappointed that many saw this as a good thing for society. A society needs to be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable; as Plato argues through the mouth of Socrates in the first book of the Republic – might is not right, and justice is the stronger acting for the good of the weaker. The unborn child is the most vulnerable person in society; removing any constitutional protection from it then is not a cause for celebration.

In the wake of the referendum, many Irish people who are still convinced that the child has a right to life and so must be protected will be thinking about what to do now.  In light of this, perhaps a 5th/6th Century monk and a 20th/21st Century philosopher can help. In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the argument that modern moral philosophy is living in a post-apocalyptic age wherein the terminology that is used no longer means what it used to mean. Modern moral philosophers speak of goodness, virtue, vice etc, but they give to these terms a meaning that is artificial and in significant contrast to the earlier philosophers who used the same. Thus, there is often no resolution of moral arguments because there is no common agreement on the realities to which the terms refer. At the end of the book, having given an account of the virtues and carving out a space for them in modern moral philosophy, MacIntyre considers some challenges to his approach. In one poignant paragraph he writes:

‘It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’.

Now a lot has been said about the so-called Benedict option given the book by the same name by Rod Dreher as a way for Christians to live in a post-Christian nation. I do not wish to go into the depths that Dreher goes into; rather I want to capture something of the flavour of this option for Benedict, and present it in a form that is not overtly religious, but which can apply to those whose moral and political position may have once been in the ascendancy but is now in the minority – such is arguably the position of pro-life supporters in the south.

The Benedict option is really quite simple and follows certain features of the rule of life laid down by St Benedict for his monks. The idea is that a community is formed with a common culture and ethos, and that this is a stable community working where it is to perfect itself. Unlike the later Dominican and Franciscan Friars of the middle ages, the monks did not travel out to spread the Gospel or perform works of charity. They remained stable in their monastery and slowly grew in perfection in their form of life. By sanctifying themselves their place exuded sanctity and soon many were drawn to the monasteries in order to participate somewhat in that sanctity. As Newman describes the phenomenon: ‘The new work which he [Benedict] helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city’.

What does all this have to do with us in 21st Century Ireland? And how does it relate to the pro-life movement?

The pro-life position is not an essentially religious position, as evidenced by the many atheist pro-life groups. One does not have to believe in God in order to know basic principles of the natural law that would not justify the killing of innocent people. Nevertheless, the pro-life movement can learn something from Benedict and his monks. The monks did not seek to ascend to a majority status by an aggressive exporting of their values; rather, they became holy, people heard of their holiness, and their holiness spread.

Similarly the pro-life movement is now in the minority in the south and does not hold the position that it once did; as has been indicated in the media recently, the pro-life position is now in a similar state as the pro-choice position in 80s Ireland.  None of this means that what was once true – that it’s not ok to kill the unborn – is no longer true. It simply means that a significant number of people are not convinced of this truth.

Given all of this, perhaps we may now reflect on the Benedict option. Instead of seeking to erect a structure, perhaps the pro-life movement should focus on growth and attracting people through their growth. To do this, it must fortify itself and like the Benedictine monks, appear to the world as a strong stable community, cultivated naturally amongst those who are pro-life and spread through the natural and universal appeal of the right to life. In effect, the pro-choice movement did this with their defeat in the referendum in the 80s; they gathered themselves, developed their message, and gradually worked away behind the scenes so that incrementally over the years their position gathered momentum.

Whilst every county except Donegal voted for repeal, there were still significant numbers of pro-life voters in every county. The pro-life message has reached all parts of the country and still resonates. The task of fortifying and stabilising that community of supporters will not be a difficult one, and it is a task that must be done so that there can be strong pro-life opposition to the abortion legislation that is being planned for the south. But beyond issues of politics and legislation, the pro-life position needs to be born again in people all over Ireland, and a way of doing that may be the Benedictine way of establishing a strong community stable in their ethos and culture which attracts people towards it. If people can see that the pro-life position is one that is genuinely concerned about the lives of both mother and baby (as of course it is), that it sees something better for society than abortion, and that it is not an artificially constructed position with no life in it, then those who were not pro-life (and not principally hostile to being pro-life) will see that position as a genuine alternative to be taken seriously.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Conscience, Abortion, and the SDLP

As is now well known, last weekend the SDLP voted in favour of two motions: (i) to allow a conscience vote on abortion and (ii) to retain the pro-life party policy. Just a few days after this, the party leader Colum Eastwood came out in favour of repeal in the referendum in the south citing concern about difficult situations. There are number of things to observe here.

How we are to take the retention of the SDLP’s pro-life policy whilst at the same time endorsing a conscience vote on the matter of abortion? At best we can say that the SDLP as a party will not campaign for abortion. But at the same time, how can the SDLP support the pro-life position as party policy if those who are not pro-life and do not support pro-life measures are permitted to campaign and vote on policies inconsistent with the right to life? Whilst these issues may not have any effect on the pro-life position of the majority of the party members, it means that SDLP public representatives can, without impediment, endorse positions inconsistent with the pro-life party policy.

Given that the majority of members of the SDLP are pro-life, one may not be too concerned with its adopting a conscience position on abortion. However, what is of concern is party leader Colum Eastwood coming out in favour of repeal in the south and seeking a law change for difficult situations whilst at the same time calling himself pro-life (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-44198421). To be clear, to be pro-life in this context means to defend the right to life of those who have such a right. All human beings have such a right as stipulated by both the Universal Declaration of human rights, the European Convention, and good old rational thinking. Is Mr Eastwood’s position consistent with defending the right to life of all those who have such a right? Let’s consider the matter.

Mr Eastwood speaks of difficult situations that families and doctors are put in because of restrictions in law, and he would like to see that changed. But the law up here (and the case is similar in the south) is that it is lawful to perform an operation in Northern Ireland for the termination of a pregnancy, where: (i) it is necessary to preserve the life of a woman; or (ii) there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. Not only is this consistent with the law, it is consistent with respecting the right to life of the unborn since the principle of double effect allows for an action to be undertaken the consequence but not direct intention of which is something that is morally problematic. Hence a woman can receive treatments the consequence but not direct intention of which is the ending of the life of the unborn; in such cases we are not working to end the life of the unborn, but to treat the mother. The law here (and in the south) has a balance between the right to life of the mother and of the unborn child.

Now Mr Eastwood wants to see the law changed in order to deal with difficult situations. These situations cannot be those in which the mother’s life is at risk or there is a real and serious risk to her mental/physical health, since these are already dealt with in the law. Thus, it follows that Mr Eastwood would like to see the law changed to allow for abortion in cases where the mother’s life is not at risk and she does not face a real and serious risk to her mental/physical health, long term or permanent. But this is inconsistent with protecting the right to life of the unborn, since in cases where the mother’s life is not at risk or there is not a serious risk to her mental/physical health, no measures need be taken which have the consequence but not the direct intention of ending the life of the unborn. In those cases, if we take measures to end the life of the unborn, we are doing so with the direct intention of ending the child’s life, not treating the mother. And this clearly violates the right to life of the unborn and cannot be adopted by anybody who is pro-life.

Mr Eastwood has the task of squaring the circle of being pro-life and allowing for the direct and intentional ending of life for someone who has a right to life. Whether he can square the circle is Mr Eastwood’s affair (I don’t think he can), but what is clear is that his position is confused and that his thinking on this matter does not merit to be called pro-life.

Dr Gaven Kerr




Opportunities to learn about St Thomas Aquinas

For all those who have an interest in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas but feel somewhat reticent (perhaps even daunted) about approaching this great thinker, there is some good news. Two initiatives are taking place this year which aim to make the thought of this thinker better known to an interested but perhaps non-specialist public.

Firstly, the Aquinas Institute of Ireland will be having its annual summer school in Emmaus retreat centre Dublin, August 5 – 11. This is the seventh year of the summer school wherein people of all abilities come along to read the writings of Aquinas. The school caters to all levels from beginner to intermediate to advanced, and the reading groups are guided by experienced tutors who specialise in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Not only does this present a great opportunity for those who want to take some time to read Aquinas, but it is also an opportunity to get away from the world and spend a week with like minded people. The day is structured around prayer and reading and finishes at 2pm, at which time students have the opportunity to read, visit the chapel for adoration, socialise etc. Previous summer schools have been a great success and participants always leave feeling refreshed and with some confidence in their grasp of the thought of Aquinas. Participants this year will be reading Aquinas’s commentary on the Prologue to the Gospel of St John. For more information see the website: http://www.aquinasinstitute.ie/#home

Secondly, the Priory Institute Tallaght is launching its MA programme in Aquinas studies. This will be a certified course which will result in a masters degree for the student. In this course students will have the opportunity to learn about the life of Aquinas, his metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of religion, theology, not to mention the chance to learn enough Latin to read his original writings. The degrees from the Priory Institute are taught via distance learning, with some residential weekends through the semester. They thus provide an excellent opportunity for people who wish to pursue a programme of study but who are constrained for various reasons. For more details on the MA in Aquinas studies see the Priory Institute website here: https://prioryinstitute.com/news/2018/march/ma-in-aquinas-studies

Now, for anybody who has heard of St Thomas Aquinas but does not know who he is, herein is a very brief biography. St Thomas was born in 1224 in Italy in Roccasecca near Monte Casino. He was initially sent to study with the Benedictine’s at Monte Casino, but because of conflict between the Emperor Frederick II and the pope Gregory IX when Thomas was about 14/15 he was sent to study at the University of Naples. It was here that he was introduced to two major influences in his life: the philosophy of Aristotle and the Dominican Order. An Irishman, Peter of Ireland, who was a member of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), taught him philosophy, wherein he learnt not only of Aristotle, but also of the Islamic (Averroes and Avicenna) and Jewish (Maimonides) philosophical traditions.

A few years later at the age of 19 Thomas decided to join the Dominican order to the horror of his family. This was seen as something of a disgrace by his family, who wanted him to join a more prestigious order such as the Benedictines. So they undertook to kidnap him as he was travelling to Rome (and further to Paris for his studies). St Thomas was set upon by his brothers, and when they tried to remove his Dominican habit the gentle St Thomas fought them off but went willingly with them. He was duly locked within his family castle for one year. During that year his family tried to break his resolve by introducing a prostitute into his room. Seeing the woman, Thomas prayed inwardly, took a burning log from the fire, and chased her from his room locking the door from the inside and burning a cross on the door. After this he prayed that he would never be tempted in the flesh and that night he dreamt that he was girded by two angels in answer to his prayer (it is this event which is the inspiration for the angelic warfare confraternity whose members pray daily for purity in the world).

Realising they could not break his resolve, Thomas’s family permitted his return to the Dominicans and on to Paris where he would study with another great thinker of the time, St Albert the Great (also a Dominican). Thomas was initially very quiet as a student and earned the nickname of the Dumb Ox. St Albert one day set the students a difficult problem in logic and the students could not resolve it. Wanting to tease the Dumb Ox, Thomas’s fellow students asked him to solve it, which he did. This impressed St Albert who then took the young Thomas under his wing.

Thomas quickly progressed through his studies and academic career, teaching in various places and institutions throughout Europe. By all accounts St Thomas never felt worthy of the trust others had placed in him to work in theology. He worked tirelessly and wrote voluminously. In a writing career of about 20 years he produced 10 million Latin words which equates to about 30 million English words. That is  1.5 million words per year, or about 4,100 words per day.

St Thomas is not only known for his theology but also for his great sanctity. One particular story stands out that when composing a treatise on the Trinity he was having great difficulty, and in tears he went to the altar and placed the treatise on the ground and wept in prayer. The crucifix above him spoke the following words: ‘You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labour?’, Thomas’s response was: Non nisi te, Domine – Nothing but thyself Lord.

In December 1273 , whilst saying mass, Thomas was struck during the elevation of the host, so much so that his socius Reginald had to get his attention. After this Thomas put away all his writing materials, and when encouraged to write and to finish his Summa Theologiae  all he could say was: ‘I can’t’ [the Summa Theologiae remained unfinished]. Evidently Thomas had a complete nervous and mental breakdown after this event at mass. Thomas later revealed to Reginald that the reason he could not go back to work was that everything he had done seemed like so much straw compared to what he had seen. Thomas was later summoned to the Council of Lyons in 1274, but along the way he had an accident; while he was travelling he hit his head on an overhanging branch and was quite stunned. His brethern helped to get him to the nearby Cistercian abbey of Fossanova wherein he died on 7th March 1274.

St Thomas Aquinas was not just a typical university professor who locked himself away and wrote on matters that only a handful of people could engage with at his level. He was certainly that, but he was only that because of his deep love for God and his yearning to know Him more Who was his friend. This is the man that you have the opportunity to get to know through the Aquinas summer school and the Priory Institute MA in Aquinas studies.


Death of Stephen Hawking

Prof. Stephen Hawking passed away yesterday 14/3/18 at the age of 76 and by all accounts he died peacefully in his home. Prof. Hawking was a world renowned physicist not only for his work on big bang cosmology (originally theorised by Catholic priest George LeMaitre) and his work on black holes, but he also popularised modern physics to a general reading public.

Whilst a research student I read A Brief History of Time and his interpretation of big bang cosmology such that there are no boundary conditions and so no beginning of the universe. I then read uncomfortably his suggestion that with no beginning of things there was no need for a cause. This was uncomfortable for me because as a philosophy student schooled in logic it appeared to me that Hawking committed a clear fallacy of denying the antecedent: if x has a beginning it has a cause, x does not have a beginning therefore it does not have a cause. Recognising this fallacy I then related it to the medieval discussion, particularly of Thomas Aquinas, of the possibility of a beginningless created universe. This is to the effect that the universe could be without a beginning and yet have a cause; the typical metaphor for this is that an eternal foot is the cause of an eternal footprint on an eternal sandy beach.

Realising that Hawking’s remarks brought him into dialogue with medieval views in philosophy prompted me to do research on the metaphysics of creation which in turn prompted me to investigate more in depth Aquinas’s proof for God in the De Ente et Essentia. The former work led to the publication, ‘A Thomistic Metaphysics of Creation‘, Religious Studies (2012), 48 pp. 337 – 356, and the research into the proof of God led to a book with Oxford University Press, Aquinas’s Way to God: The Proof in the De Ente et Essentia.

Stephen Hawking had a real gift for presenting modern physics to a contemporary public, and perhaps unknown to himself his engagements have brought him into dialogue with perennial themes in the philosophical tradition, particularly in this case the medieval tradition represented by Aquinas. Hopefully part of his legacy will be that more people take seriously the task of thinking about the origins of the universe and our place within it.

Dr Gaven Kerr


The Catholic Church: An Empire of Misogyny? Mary Lewis LLM responds to Mary McAleese.

The following is a guest post written by Mary Lewis LLM of the Iona Institute NI.


Former Irish President Mary McAleese recently excoriated the Catholic Church as an “Empire of Misogyny.”  The lack of women in leadership roles within the church and the lack of strong role models for women to look up to within the Church, led her to make this accusation. Since her denunciation, the media has been awash with reaction, including a poll by Liberal.ie which concluded that 80% of Irish people agreed with her. I for one – an Irish Catholic woman, wife, mother and barrister and more recently a student of theology, disagree.


The earthly leader of the Catholic Church is the Pope and he has always been male. Well, why couldn’t a female be a Pope, a bishop or even a mere priest? That misses the point, earthly leaders, whether male or female, are nothing before Christ the King. Christ selected twelve apostles, all of whom were male. That cannot just be glossed over.  “Christ Jesus, who although God, …emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-9).

Christ, who instituted the male priesthood, is our guide on all things including who is called to be a priest. Above all, Christ came to serve, even though He is all powerful. He did not “cling to his equality with God,” (Phil2:5-9) so mere human beings should not seek self-aggrandisement either. Instead we must be obedient to His will.

This apostolic tradition of a male only priesthood must be followed, if we are to be true to Christ’s name. The sacrifice made by those men called to be priests, is analogous to the sacrifice Christ made for the Church- his bride. This nuptial meaning remains important, perhaps more so nowadays, when the meaning of marriage is under scrutiny and even attack.


As for female role models in the church, it is amazing that Mary McAleese has failed to notice the dozens of women saints the Church venerates daily- starting with Mary the Mother of God, whose name she shares. Our Lady was chosen by God as mother of Christ. She accepted with humility the greatest role a human being has ever been offered. Without Our Lady’s assent, Christ would not have been born and there would have been no sacrifice by Christ in His Passion and Resurrection, much less a priesthood. Essentially the Catholic church would not have existed without her. No woman should feel belittled or inferior because of Christ’s selection of men for priesthood any more than a man should resent not being selected as mother of God.

There are many Catholic women who have led extraordinary lives in the Church. I can quickly think of three who were around during Mary McAleese’s lifetime: Firstly, Mother Angelica who founded a global television network for evangelization on a shoestring. Secondly St Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa) who is widely revered for her love and care for the poorest and most neglected and who had an ability to inspire and influence world leaders as well as the ordinary person in the pew. Her own personal struggles in her faith have been an encouragement to many to persevere when struggles arise, as they always do in life. Thirdly St Katharine Drexel was a wealthy heiress who set up a religious community of sisters serving the Native American and African communities in particular in the United States. She was an educationalist and missionary with an immense love for the Eucharist.

Going back some centuries to the fourteenth century, the great Dominican Saint- St Catherine of Siena was a mystic, philosopher and theologian. She is now regarded as a Doctor of the Church. She travelled widely throughout Europe including to Avignon where she met Pope Gregory XI and is credited with having prevailed upon him to return to Rome from his exile in Avignon.

The truth is that seeking leadership should not be the primary goal for any Catholic, male or female. Rather we should emulate St John the Baptist’s advice: “He (Christ) must increase that I may decrease.” (John 3:30)

This message is easily forgotten nowadays, possibly because “Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing.” (The Power of Silence Cardinal Robert Sarah, p. 74(2017)).