1000 human embryos v 5 year old child?

Last week I came across some controversy on the internet. On Twitter, to be more precise (who would have thought it!?). A man called Patrick S. Tomlinson, who goes by the handle @stealthygeek, had quite a bit to say about those of us who believe that human life begins at conception. I had never heard or come across Tomlinson before, but from a cursory glance at his Twitter profile, I gather that he is a science-fiction author with 21 thousand followers on Twitter. He seems to have accrued a few thousand of these followers from a series of tweets made on 16 October. At the time of writing, the first tweet in the series has 3.8 thousand replies,  26 thousand retweets, and 53 thousand ‘likes’.

Tomlinson claims he has been asking a single question to what he describes as the “Life Begins at Conception” crowd for 10 years, and has never been given an answer. It centres around a fictitious scenario in which you find yourself in a fertility clinic which is on fire. As you’re running out of the building, you hear a child’s cry and you open a door to find a 5 year old child in one corner of the room. In another corner is a container labelled “1000 viable human embryos.” Funnily enough, you can only save either the 5 year old or the embryos. Which do you save? Tomlinson claims that no one who believes that life begins at conception can answer the question. He states that there is a correct answer, but those who believe that life begins at conception cannot give it because it would refute their own argument.

This is where it gets interesting. Ben Shapiro (political commentator, lawyer, author, and member of the “‘Life Begins at Conception’ crowd”), among many others, gave the answer that Tomlinson claimed no one who believes that life begins at conception would ever give. Shapiro and many others stated, without hesitation, that they would save the 5 year old (thus ending Tomlinson’s claim that no one in this ‘crowd’ would share that response, as it would show that they put more value the life of a single 5 year old than a thousand unborn humans). Shapiro then went on to explain exactly why Tomlinson’s thought experiment was fundamentally flawed (if you want to read more of Shapiro’s argument, you can find it here). Tomlinson did as all good debaters do. He blocked Shapiro.

It isn’t my intention to get embroiled in this particular debate, but to share with you a story that actually happened just over 10 years ago in America. Perhaps it may offer some perspective for those, like Tomlinson, who vehemently oppose the idea that life begins at conception. The following passage is an excerpt from Fr Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution.

“Human beings come into existence months and years before they’re conscious of themselves as persons, yet I’d argue that who they are later is identical to who they were before they were born. Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence, and philosopher Christopher Tollefson open their book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life with the news story they call ‘Noah and the Flood’. It tells how police saved Noah from the hospital where he was trapped during hurricane Katrina which devastated new Orleans in September 2006. Noah existed as a human embryo, frozen in one of several canisters of liquid nitrogen along with 1,400 other human embryos. Sixteen months later, Noah was born, and his parents Rebekah and Glen Markham named him in honour of the survivor of an earlier flood. If he hadn’t been saved, Noah would have perished. The authors write:

Let us repeat it: Noah would have perished. For it was Noah who was frozen in one of those canisters; Noah who was brought from New Orleans by boat; Noah who was subsequently implanted in his mother’s womb; and Noah who was born on January 16, 2008.

The writers say that if Noah were asked if it was he who was rescued that day, he would say ‘Of course’. And they continue: ‘…what Noah would be saying in these two words – and his answer is confirmed by the best science – is that human embryos are, from the very beginning, human beings, sharing an identity with, though younger than, the older human beings they will grow up to become.’

It is vital that we see human beings as a whole, right from conception. Within the container that the police saved in 2006 was not a component of a whole person, not one viable part of personhood, but Noah himself, a person then and a person now. A society that values its weakest and most vulnerable is surely a stronger society for it.



I don’t like Mary?

Catholics love Mary. Every year approximately 5 million people visit Lourdes and Fatima, 1.5 million travel to Knock, and a staggering 15-20 million visit the Marian Shrine in Guadalupe. Veneration of the Mother of God is almost engrained in the Catholic DNA.

So why could I not bring myself to like Mary? I’ve travelled to Lourdes, said countless Rosaries, stared at statues until my eyes ached, just trying to feel something. But it never came. Many people in my parish have a great devotion to Mary, so I always felt guilty about being a bit huffy when the statue of Our Lady as she appeared in Lourdes was brought out on a Friday evening. I managed somewhat better on Saturday mornings with the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. But still, I would groan if the choir elected to sing “Lady of Knock” or “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” during Mass in May or at the Requiem Mass of a devoted parishioner. (I am still quite adamant that neither should be used in the Liturgy out of respect for good taste at least, but that is for another day…). When some Marian hymns crept into the Liturgy for no apparent reason, I was always very concerned about the intrusion of popular piety on the public prayer of the Church. And so, I was a terrible Catholic. (That’s certainly how I felt).

“The Devil hates Mary,” I read in countless blogs and articles. I continually felt I was fighting for the wrong side, but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything resembling love for this Woman who appeared so alluring to seemingly everyone, but was too sickly-sweet for me – eyes fixed towards the heavens in a gentle gaze, hands folded softly, with perfect porcelain skin and delicate robes. This was not someone I recognised as the Mother of God. “What is wrong with me?” I hammered God repeatedly with that question.

Eventually, I accepted the answer. There was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t hate Mary. Catholics don’t have to be devoted to Our Lady of X, Y, or Z. I don’t have to believe that Mary appeared in Knock or in Lourdes or anywhere else for that matter. These are private devotions, and not central to the Catholic faith. (If they help you in your faith life, that’s brilliant – whatever genuinely brings people closer to God is always a good thing). So who was the Mary I sought? I decided to go back to the Mary I felt I could trust. The Mary who cradled her Son in birth and in death. The Mary of the Bible. The Ark of the Covenant, the Daughter of Zion, the New Eve.


Crushing the serpent?

Finally, I could see her. Not as a mass-produced statue or painting, not as the object of pious exercises, but as the Mother of God. Understanding how Scripture unfolded to reveal the immense majesty of Mary changed everything for me. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel” (Genesis 3:15). That’s more like it! I could never really imagine the Mary of Lourdes or Knock or anywhere else actually crushing the serpent’s head (any depictions of this seem ultra-gentle and too nice to me, almost as though she is caressing it with her foot rather than crushing it). Again, when we see depictions of her “clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1), or “crowned with twelve stars (Rev.12:1), these appear to be such pale imitations of the reality Scripture describes. This young woman, who speaks few words in Scripture but who is vital to God’s plan for salvation, has been placed at the centre of the battle between good and evil. Not as a mighty warrior, or an angry mother wishing to avenge the death of her Son, but a woman who stands silent and ready, poised, prepared at all times to follow God’s will.

It was this silent readiness that drew me to the next link in my journey to Mary. When in Drumalis for a training workshop some time ago, I found a few spare minutes to browse the bookshelves, and as I came to the end of what I thought had been a fruitless endeavour, the words caught my eye: “A Woman Wrapped in Silence.” Reading the blurb, I discovered that this book was a lengthy narrative poem written by John W. Lynch based on a Biblical understanding of Mary and her life. And as I began to read, I realised that this was the first time outside Scripture that I had found what I could describe as a truly human portrait of Mary. It is a beautiful and powerful read, one which I continually go back to in prayer. It has helped me tremendously with my relationship with Mary and with Christ.

Finally, I can say that I love Mary. I love Mary who said Yes to God, who gave birth in the feeding place of the animals to a Son who would give Himself up to death by the most violent and cruel means, so that he would become the Bread of Life and the Saviour of the world. At last, I know how to thank her and to love her.

I’d like to finish by sharing just one of many passages from “A Woman Wrapped in Silence” which has given me countless opportunities for contemplation and prayer.

She turned to leave. A woman in the dusk before a tomb. Her veils were on her and her step was slow, and looking, she could see upon a hill a cross stabbed upright in the earth, as if it were a sword that should not be withdrawn. She paused a moment. But there was no need or reason now for her to stay. She knew. This was an ended cross and was a past. She was a woman who had borne a Son. This was a cross. And on it He had died.


The Donkey – G.K. Chesterton

A poem for Palm Sunday and Holy Week

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.



When Jesus went into Capernaum a centurion came up and pleaded with him. ‘Sir,’ he said ‘my servant is lying at home paralysed, and in great pain.’ ‘I will come myself and cure him’ said Jesus. The centurion replied, ‘Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof; just give the word and my servant will be cured. For I am under authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man: Go, and he goes; to another: Come here, and he comes; to my servant: Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you solemnly, nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this. And I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven.’                                (Matthew 8:5-11)

Anyone who has worked in an office environment will have, at some point, experienced IT problems. When this happens, there are generally two options (or three if you count the tried-and-tested “Did you turn it off and on again?” method): an engineer can come out to your office to resolve the issue, or they can remotely access your system from wherever they are based. In order to do this, you will need to give them permission to access your computer from theirs. You need to allow them to remotely ‘enter into’ your system. Doing so requires a certain level of vulnerability and trust in the person to whom you are allowing access.

It is this vulnerability and trust that we see in the figure of the Roman centurion. Here we have a figure of authority, someone who is used to being in charge, who commands large numbers of soldiers and servants. The first step the centurion took was to be vulnerable enough to ask Jesus for help. The second step he took was to trust; to have faith that Jesus could do what he asked, and that He did not have to be physically present with the centurion’s servant in order to heal him. Both these steps required a substantial amount of humility from the centurion. This true humility did not lead the centurion to say, “Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof, so I’ll just have to accept that my servant won’t be healed.” The centurion’s humility was such that he realised, despite his power over many, that Jesus’ power was far greater, far stronger, and that a word alone from Jesus could heal his servant.

In this Gospel passage, Jesus shows us the power of humility. Indeed, His time on earth was marked by humility, from His birth in a stable to His death on a cross. Humility allows us to rely not on our own power, our own strength, but on the strength of our God who wants nothing more than to enter into our lives. Let us use this Advent as a time to give God access to our hearts, to recognise our unworthiness before Him, and in spite of that unworthiness, to accept with joy His unfailing help.

First Sunday of Advent


Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. So stay away, because you do not know the day your master is coming, You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’                      (Matthew 24: 37-44)

Well, that escalated quickly. If you’re like me, Advent is the time when you can finally allow yourself to start thinking about Christmas. During this time, the Christian world prepares to recall and celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ birth. So why does the Church hit us with a Gospel about the end times at the very beginning of Advent?

Picture the scene: a family gathers around the tree on Christmas morning, the younger siblings eager to tear open the wrapping paper that surrounds their presents, a dad hoping for a new pair of slippers and a mum….wait, where’s mum? Dad gets up and goes back into the bedroom where mum is sleeping soundly. He gives her a nudge. “Are you not getting up? The kids are waiting.” Mum stretches, looks at the clock and wearily replies, “What? Waiting for what? It’s 6.30am on a Sunday. Why is everyone awake?” Suddenly it dawns on her as she looks at the date on the bedside clock. 25th December 2016. “Wait!? It’s Christmas? I’m not ready! I didn’t get round to buying presents, never mind a turkey. Why did no one warn me!?”

An unlikely story. Many of us will spend weeks, or even months preparing for Christmas Day, and it is easy because we know exactly when it will be. We work better with deadlines than without. We know the deadline for shopping online, the deadline for sending Christmas cards, the deadline for ordering the turkey. We know these things must be done by a certain date. If Christmas could be celebrated on any day of the year, a day of our choosing, would our preparations be as thorough? Or perhaps we would never actually get around to celebrating it at all.

And that is what makes our Gospel reading today even more difficult for us. Jesus tells us that He will come again at an hour we won’t expect. So how can we possibly prepare? There may be a sense of apathy, a self-assuredness that the hour He speaks of won’t come in our time. We don’t need to worry now. But if Jesus came tomorrow, how prepared would we be? Would we be ready to welcome Him? Or would we exclaim, “Why did no one warn me!?”?

In a sense, Advent can feel like a kind of limbo. On the one hand, we have the annual cycle of the Church’s year, and during this time we prepare each to recall Christ’s birth. On the other hand, we look forward, to a time not known to us, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead (an acknowledgement we make each Sunday when reciting the Creed). We are continually reminded that Christ will come again, that we will be judged, and yet we often fail to prepare ourselves for this reality. So what can we do when we are constantly looking back to Christ’s time on earth and looking forward to His coming again?

The answer is given to us in the Gospel. We ‘stand ready’. We make our present position a stance of readiness. Each day we prepare ourselves to live as a disciple of God. Advent is a real gift in this sense. For the next four weeks, we have the opportunity to really focus on our place in God’s creation. To focus on what God has given to us, how He communicates Himself to us, and how we respond to that communication. Perhaps we can spend extra time in prayer during Advent. Many churches have Eucharistic Adoration nowadays – why not resolve to spend time with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as often as possible? Perhaps, like me, you might want to spend more time reflecting on God’s Word, because it is in His Word that God reveals His plan for us. If you have children, take the time to make an Advent wreath with them and spend a few minutes together in prayer each day. Find a way of making your heart a home for Christ this year, and you will go a fair way in preparing yourself for when He comes again.



Is Democracy Dead?

For those of you not entirely fed-up reading about politics…

I doubt that any of us could have predicted the events of the past week. A Prime-ministerial resignation, a re-enactment of Brutus’ betrayal of Caesar, and a Shadow Cabinet rebellion are only some of the fall-outs following the EU Referendum on 23rd June. Throughout the past week, I’ve read and heard a lot about democracy. In particular, those who voted to leave the EU have ensured we all know how democracy works. Even many of those who campaigned to stay have shrugged their shoulders and said of the general public’s advisory vote, “Well, what can we do? We live in a democracy and the people have spoken.” It got me thinking about democracy and the various guises and forms it has taken throughout the centuries. The more I looked into it, the more I wondered:

Is democracy dead?

The EU referendum was as close to direct democracy as we get in the UK. Direct democracy originated in Athens during the 5th Century B.C. and at this time there were two prerequisites necessary for its success: 1. the community must be small enough for citizens to attend debates and to vote. 2. citizens must be afforded enough leisure time to engage in politics. It is clear from these two conditions that there was an emphasis on the ability of participants to engage, not just in a vote but in the entire political process. We can say, therefore, that participants in a direct democracy must have the ability and the opportunity for politics to play a central role in their everyday lives. Neither of these conditions are met in our modern society.

Recent research has shown that up to 7% of Leave voters regret their decision and would change their vote if they had another opportunity. The reasons for this are varied. Some feel they were mislead by politicians and their promises of extra money for the NHS and a reduction in immigration, promises swiftly retracted following the referendum. Others simply thought their vote wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, it appears that sections of the general public were ill-informed (the blame for which lies both in the provision and reception of information) and apathetic towards the democratic process. If we don’t think our vote makes a difference, do we really live in a democratic society?

I live in Northern Ireland, where the majority of citizens voted to remain within the EU. What I found interesting is that we voted in a referendum brought about by a party which had a 0.4% share of votes in our 2016 elections. The referendum was not desired in Northern Ireland, nor was its eventual outcome. It is unsurprising therefore, as we now face leaving the EU, that many people feel their vote would not and did not matter.

But the referendum isn’t the only problem. The party political system in the UK simply does not work. It isn’t democratic, in the true sense of the word. The last time any single party obtained greater than 50% of the vote was in 1931. Time and time again, we end up with governing parties who have roughly one third of the vote. Parties don’t even have to have the largest, or even second largest share of the vote to form a government. Look at the Liberal Democrats in 2010. They formed part of a coalition government, having acquired just 23% of the vote. Labour on the other hand, had 29% share of the vote and did not form part of the government. In simple terms, it didn’t matter that the Labour Party enjoyed greater popularity amongst the general public. The democratic vote didn’t really matter.

It seems to me, then, that we live in a sort-of democratic oligarchy. Every few years, the masses get a chance to ‘have our say,’ on who we want to represent us. But after that, it seems as though this small group of representatives can act independently of our opinions and desires. One only has to look at the current disarray in the Labour Party. Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey, has been one of Jeremy Corbyn’s main detractors in recent days, and has repeatedly called for his resignation, despite Wallasey’s CLP voting against any attempt to remove Corbyn and relaying their opinions to Eagle. She has simply ignored them. This is the story in many constituencies; Corbyn continues to enjoy significant grassroots support. Yet the man who, in September 2015 was voted leader of the Labour Party in a landslide victory, is facing political ruin because of the actions of a few.

It is clear therefore, in a time when just 36% of young people actually voted on their future either within our outside of the EU, and with many feeling powerless and disengaged from politics, that our current political system must change. Now is the time for brave and sincere leadership, a leadership not afraid to let go of the decaying structures of the past in order to build a new, representative, and effective democracy for our future. The time to act is now. If left any longer, one thing is certain: democracy in the UK will die.

Being little is a pretty big deal

I’m currently in exam-mode, so I don’t have much time (or inclination, for that matter) to write about anything other than what happens if you find a snail in your ginger beer or how to establish a duty of care (funnily enough, the two are related). So I’ll leave you with the words of someone who can teach us all a thing or two about life, despite having lived such a short time: