Sister Wendy Beckett, the art critic and contemplative nun who lives the life of a hermit in a caravan next to a Carmelite convent, was on Desert Island Discs just before Christmas. I enjoyed listening to her – but, like the curate’s egg, only in parts. Asked by the presenter, Kirsty Young, about her interest in art, she replied that “If you don’t know about God, art … can set you free.” She believes that we are all born with an instinct for art, “a kind of disguised God”, and she hopes that in her small way she might have helped some people “find God in beauty”.
I agree with all this, but I also recall reading the 19th-century French art critic, the Abbé Brémond, who pointed out that the humblest prayer is more significant and enduring than the greatest poetry ever written. Beauty can be seductive as a supreme cultural experience yet unaccompanied by what we call “grace”.
Towards the end of the programme Kirsty Young asked, as presenters usually do when confronted by a Catholic, what were Sister Wendy’s views on “condoms”. At this point I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Sister Wendy might talk about another kind of “beauty”: that of marital, self-giving love. She didn’t. After a long pause and choosing her words carefully, she implied that the wheels of the Church turned very slowly and that therefore it would take a long time before it would change its stance on this subject. What was one to make of this? It was confusing to the listener as nothing was quite spelt out – but the implication was as I have indicated: that in the passage of time the Church would change her teaching on birth control. If this is what Sister Wendy intended to imply, she gave some scandal to her listeners, including Kirsty Young who appeared quite satisfied with what she said.
What she should have stated, simply and clearly, was that the Church cannot alter her fundamental moral and ethical teachings as they are not hers to change; her task is to re-present them to each new generation for the beauty, truth and goodness they contain. A friend who also listened to Sister Wendy and who is very well up on Church teaching, emailed me to say she could not make head or tail of the nun’s response. My view is that Sister Wendy should stick to art, about which she knows a great deal and about which she communicates very lucidly – and leave questions about the “c” word to those better qualified than her to explain.
One of those so qualified is the new bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan. On the Sunday after Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, he actually circulated a pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae, a subject he agreed was “challenging and controversial” (which is why Kirsty Young raised it, naturally). He pointed out that the two big debates in our society today revolve around “sex and authority. What is the truth about human sexuality? And who can tell me how to live my life?” He described Humanae Vitae as a prophetic document for emphasising that the “two aspects of sexuality – love and life – cannot be divorced”, and pointed to the “catastrophic consequences” for society, 45 years on, now that sex has been reduced merely to a “leisure activity”.
As Bishop Egan says, Pope Paul’s encyclical has become the “elephant in the room” that no one mentions and he urged everyone in this Year of Faith “to discover again the Church’s wonderful vision of love and life, as expounded in the Catechism”. I think Kirsty Young should invite Bishop Egan to be a guest on Desert Island Discs and that Sister Wendy should ponder his pastoral letter. More even than the contemplation of great works of art we need, as the Bishop writes, “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our land [so that] the people of England find their way to salvation and happiness in Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, ever present and active in his Church”.