Supporting the shepherds

Sometimes people say that I would make a good Bishop, and I say, “Not in a 1000 years, thank you very much!”  Why not? Probably because it is hard enough to live up to my calling as a Priest, let alone the even higher calling of a Bishop! This is brought out today in our 1st Reading (Jeremiah 23:1-6) where doom is pronounced on the shepherds who fail to look after their sheep, and then by the words of the Gospel (Mark 6:30-34) where, despite the fact that the disciples are tired and need rest, they have to respond to all the people who have come asking for help, because the people “were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Notice that this was all the people, not just the “faithful”. One of the problems we English Catholics face is that because of our history we think that Bishops and Priests are only meant to be shepherds to those who call themselves Catholics. But it’s not so. The message of the Gospel is for everyone. I once spoke to a priest in a small parish who said that he didn’t have much to do. I had great trouble not exploding angrily at him.  He had forgotten that you and I are meant to share the love and hope of the Gospel with everyone we meet. You in your ordinary life wherever you go, even on holiday, and Bishops and Priests most especially in our special role as men of prayer and prophecy. We may wish we could just speak to the faithful like you who are at Mass today, but we actually have a lot more responsibilities than that!

One of the areas where we must speak is an area where there is much argument at the moment. Modern medical technology has done wonderful things for us all, but it has also brought new challenges. Doctors can keep us alive in ways that were unimaginable a hundred years ago, so when should we be allowed to die? Human embryos (what I would call tiny human babies) can be conceived outside the womb and preserved alive for a very long time, and then discarded if not wanted. Is this a good way to treat human life?

In order for our Bishops to tackle such questions they need to know a lot more about the actual medical situations that we are talking about, and that is one of the reasons why our Bishops here in England and Wales want us to support the Anscombe Bioethics Centre which is actually based in Oxford. This organisation was founded by Catholic Doctors and Professors of Medicine along with Catholic Theologians and Philosophers who came together back in 1977 to create this Centre, where together they could look seriously at the new problems modern medicine was facing, and then provide intelligent and well-worked out answers that are faithful to the Gospel.

Faced with someone dying slowly of some awful illness, it is all too easy to suggest a simple solution, like allowing them to kill themselves, without realising the full implications of what we are saying. What we allow one person to do affects us all, and once human life can be taken in the case of one person, then it opens up the possibility for others. Perhaps you might not be so happy if your children began to suggest death to you just because you were becoming old!

We Catholics ought to realise however that it is also wrong to strive to keep someone artificially alive. Remember that Pope John Paul II eventually said – No more medical interventions, just let me die – and he was being, as he always was, true to Catholic teaching. Equally doctors will prescribe increasing doses of diomorphine to those in great pain, and provided their intention is to relieve that pain and not to kill, then the fact that the diomorphine may bring people to a slightly quicker and mainly pain-free death is perfectly OK.

The Anscombe Centre also looks at the way Human Embryos are treated, and has shown us that much of the preservation of such embryos until they can be thrown away, if not wanted, is also unnecessary. All this talk of embryo stem cells being needed to help others who are suffering is being contradicted by the increasing use of adult stem cells and other medical advances.

Much of the detail of this is beyond me and beyond our Bishops which is why we need well-informed Catholic doctors and medical scientists who know their stuff and can argue the Catholic case wisely and well. All this the Anscombe Centre helps to provide, so if you are a Catholic doctor or someone involved in that world then you should look at the Centre’s Website and see what kind of resources are available to help you think through these things.

Yes, we are all – Bishops, Priests, Doctors and all of us –  called to be Shepherd in one way or another, and we need all the help we can get. 


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