Debate: Is it helpful to describe British secular society as a ‘culture of death’?

The Houses of Parliament (Photo: PA)

This week Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said that British society was being threatened by a “strangling counter-culture of death”.

In a powerful address after he was consecrated as Bishop of Portsmouth he said:

We must offer this salvific message to a people sorely in need of new hope and direction, disenfranchised by the desert of modern British politics, wearied by the cycle of work, shopping, entertainment, and betrayed by educational, legal, medical and social policy makers who, in the relativistic world they’re creating, however well-intentioned, are sowing the seeds of a strangling counter-culture of death.

The phrase has already prompted some criticism. Michael Walsh, a papal historian, argued in the Tablet that a real “culture of death” would look very different from modern Britain. Another academic, Dr Gemma Simmonds, a lecturer at Heythrop College, also suggested it was too negative, saying: “The theology of Vatican II makes clear that the Holy Spirit speaks within contemporary culture and in many voices outside as well as within the Church.”

Many Catholics believe the phrase is a useful shorthand term for destructive practices such abortion, euthanasia and IVF. But is it too negative to be persuasive for non-believers? It has in the past provoked outrage. In 2010 Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs for the Diocese of Westminster, described Britain as the “geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death”, and got into trouble for it.

But the term has a good pedigree. Blessed Pope John Paul II introduced it in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae; Americans Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Burke and Cardinal O’Malley have all used it more recently. It gives society a shake. It conveys a sense of urgency and crisis. Non-believers will have a hard time brushing it off as irrelevant.

So, is it helpful to describe British secular society as a “culture of death”? Or do non-Catholics find the phrase too offensive to engage with it properly?