TRIGGER WARNING: The following blog post includes a discussion of the harsh treatment experienced by a Roman Catholic chaplain, and issues of religious liberty, common sense and Christian compassion. Its content is disturbing and its conclusion distressing, so readers are encouraged to prepare themselves emotionally and spiritually before proceeding. If you believe that it may be traumatising for you, then you may choose to forgo reading it. You will still, however, be responsible for your inability to weigh alternative views, and for your ensuing continuing ignorance.
Fr David Palmer, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, is currently touring the TV studios and occupying hundreds of column inches because he has been ‘cancelled’ as a Catholic chaplain at Nottingham University, of which he is an alumnus. The story being churned in the media is that he has been blocked from taking up his post (and demoted to guest ‘visiting’ status to celebrate Mass) because of his objections to abortion and euthanasia. Those who support the priest (which seems to be everyone on the side of freedom) are appalled that he his being hounded for his orthodox Catholic faith. Nottingham University insists that has absolutely and categorically not been blocked for his beliefs on abortion and euthanasia: “Our concern was not in relation to Father David’s views themselves, or the tenets of the Catholic faith which we fully respect, but the manner in which these views have been expressed in the context of our diverse community of people of many faiths,” they said.
When Fr David asked them specifically which expressions of his moral worldview were problematic, they explained:
You may believe that he has every right to express his faith robustly, and that such Christian zeal should be welcomed and encouraged in a university context (especially), where the exchange of theological views and debates about moral controversies should not be subsumed to over-sensitive interpretations of diversity and inclusion, which some call ‘woke’.
He should especially be free to express such views, you might aver, because none other than the former CEO of BPAS, one of the UKs largest private abortion providers, has come to his defence.
One wonders if Ann Furedi would take the same view if she realised that chaplains are not only there to fellowship with their co-religionists: Christian chaplains in particular are called to offer care and support to all who may seek them (“of all faiths and none”), and a Roman Catholic one, being rather more than a talking therapist, would naturally seek to dissuade any young woman from slaughtering her baby terminating the product of conception in her womb. Spiritual health care isn’t restricted to or by denomination; it is a front-line ministry of listening deeply with and to one another which requires people of a particular disposition, especially in a religiously-diverse and increasingly secular context of equality and inclusion. And chaplains are considerably aided in their mission because they are often perceived to be independent of their religious institutions, and pastoral/spiritual relationships flourish as a result.
What if Fr David Palmer has been denied recognition as a university chaplain not because of his views on abortion and euthanasia, but for not meeting the occupational requirements?
It is one thing to have the endorsement of one’s faith community, but quite another to earn the trust and recognition of the receiving institution which is responsible for the protection of those under its aegis, many of whom may be vulnerable. Chaplaincy isn’t about causing distress and upset, which (let’s be honest) referring to abortion as the “slaughter of babies” may certainly do – especially for a young student who has recently undergone such a procedure or may be thinking about it while crying herself to sleep every night, racked by guilt or profound regret. If she were seeking guidance and were to glance at the Twitter feed of Fr David Palmer, she might not detect much Christian compassion for her plight.
You may argue that Twitter isn’t the place where chaplains do their care and compassion: it is where people express their views tersely and without equivocation, and so where a Roman Catholic chaplain should be free to write ‘robustly’ about his mainstream beliefs, which may also be common to other Christian denominations and faiths.
You may also take the view that it isn’t the University’s place to ‘police’ a priest’s expression of Catholic moral teaching on pro-life issues, or, indeed, to dictate how they express themselves on any matter of theology or dogma at all.
But what if he had tweeted:
Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law, and anyone experiencing them is called to chastity. The inclination is an objective disorder: if you have gay sex, you are sinning and may go to hell.
This is a robust statement of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on homosexual tendencies and genital acts, and you can’t beat a good bit of virtuous truth-telling, can you?
The chaplaincy team at Nottingham University is multi-faith and ecumenical: it includes Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, MBLC (Majority Black Led Churches), Jews and Muslims.
What if the Anglican chaplain had tweeted:
There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.
(cf Westminster Confession of Faith).
…who this whore of Babylon?
“The woman which thou sawest is that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”
Now what other city reigned at that time or at any time since, over the Christian kings of the earth, but only Rome? Whereof it followeth Rome to be the seat of Antichrist, and the Pope to be very Antichrist himself.
(cf Thomas Cranmer, A Confutation of Unwritten Verities).
What if the MBLC chaplain had tweeted:
What if the Methodist chaplain had tweeted:
Students shouldn’t drink alcohol! Drunkenness, adultery, and murder go together. Will you run the hazard of committing all manner of villanies; and this only for the poor pleasure of a few moments, while the poison is running down your throat? O never call yourself a Christian!
(cf John Wesley, Word to a Drunkard).
What if the Muslim chaplain had tweeted:
Jihad is not only a duty of personal piety; it is ‘holy fighting’ against the politics, culture and warfare of the kafir. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and let there prevail justice and faith in Allah.
(cf Surah 2:193)
Wouldn’t the authorities at Nottingham University be justified in questioning their suitability for chaplaincy? By all means let them be faith leaders in the world, and let them be free to articulate their views robustly and offend whomsoever they wish in the process. And let them be invited to visit the University’s departments of Theology and History and Sociology to stimulate debate and provoke enlightened discourse as is within the law and wholly appropriate to a seat of academic learning.
Twitter speaks what the heart is full of.
You may not agree than people should be judged by the quality of their tweets: we are all so much more than 280 characters expressed brusquely, if not trenchantly and offensively, of course. But chaplaincy is a vocation which calls for a listening ear and the capacity to impart sensitive spiritual guidance and emotional support. And it demands the perception of those qualities in and by the world. If that means God’s love must be filtered through the lenses of equality and diversity, and God’s word must be purged of anything which may be interpreted as ‘hate’, then that is what is required.
The University has a duty of care to its students, and considers that referring to abortion as the “slaughter of babies” and assisted dying as license to “kill the vulnerable”, is (to put it politely) insensitive and inappropriate. The young student may already be over-burdened with guilt about the termination of their pregnancy or for helping grandpa fly out to Dignitas in Switzerland, and the chaplain’s task is to comfort the lonely, depressed, isolated and fearful.
Chaplains should be beacons of love, mercy and compassion. If St Paul can live like Jew when working with the Jews, or like a Gentile when working with Gentiles in order to win them for Christ (1Cor 9:20ff), shouldn’t the university chaplain share in the suffering and immerse themselves in the mindset of their students in order to minister to their needs? And shouldn’t that extend to refraining from barking sin and judgment on Twitter, or preaching they’re all going to hell in a handcart?
Is it really helpful for a Roman Catholic chaplain in a university to heap red-hot coals of judgment on the heads of vulnerable youngsters? How many of them are likely to attend a church service when they graduate? What might hinder them from doing so? If you are called to represent Christ in an educational context, what is wrong with a little youth-minded pastoral sensitivity in your Twitter preaching?