Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn: The Mulligan Sermon

12 May 2013

Ice cream is my favourite dessert. Rather, it used to be. That is until I read about the case in 1932 which made the parable of the Good Samaritan so significant for the legal profession.

For me, ice cream will now always be associated with the dreadful experience of Mrs. Donoghue during a day away from Glasgow in Paisley. It’s a story you know well. When Mrs. Donoghue poured some ginger beer from its opaque bottle over her ice cream, out popped, she said, a decomposed snail! Afterwards, the poor lady suffered a badly upset tummy. She made a claim against the maker of the ginger beer – and won her case.

I am now wondering if I can claim damages! Surely there was a duty of care towards my love of ice cream which has now thoroughly disappeared consequent to receiving the invitation to give the 2013 Mulligan Sermon.

But seriously, I am delighted that the Rt. Hon. Sir Maurice Kay, the Inn’s Treasurer this year, asked me to deliver the Sermon. I also wish to express my gratitude to the incumbent Preacher, the Rt. Reverend Michael Doe, for his gracious hospitality and kind assistance. I must confess, however, that I feel somewhat flattered to have been asked to preach. The previous Sermons are full of a learning and insight I fear I cannot match. In this regard, you may remember the Sermon given by Cardinal Hume in 1991. And I am very grateful that the collection today is for the Cardinal Hume Centre. Nevertheless, I will try my best not to be negligent in the duty of meeting the task set by James Mulligan, Bencher and former Treasurer of the Honourable Society, who provided the endowment for this Sermon bearing his name. By God’s grace, may I, at least to some degree, satisfy Mulligan’s desire that the Sermon inspire us to greater goodness of life.

But I return to the case to which I alluded at the beginning of my Sermon, Donoghue v Stevenson.[1] When I looked at Lord Atkin’s answer to the question of the lawyer in the parable, “Who is my neighbour?” I thought I had a brilliant idea for today. “Atkin’s answer’s not at all the one demonstrated by the Good Samaritan! That’s what I’ll tell them.” For although Atkin, in seeking to establish a more universally applicable approach, did (so I’m told –and I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’ve got it all wrong) open up the way for duty of care to spread to new situations, it was not the “opening of the flood gates” feared by  Lord Buckmaster. In fact, Atkin, as you are aware, gives the question a restrictive reply. But the command to love my neighbour knows no limits.


However, the insufficiencies of Atkin’s legal understanding of neighbourliness compared to the parable’s were brilliantly highlighted in the impressive Sermon given by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon last year.[2] He convincingly argued that we cannot walk on by anyone who suffers, claiming “it’s someone else’s problem”. To do so is to walk on by the image of God. Because every human person is created in the image of God, we just cannot exclude anyone from making a claim on our love. We see in that traveller left for dead by his brutal assailants on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho nothing other than the image of God. We must recognise, to use the Rabbi’s words, “the image of God in bruised flesh and broken bones,”…no matter to whom they belong.

So back to the drawing board!

Another idea came to mind. Many people think that “God” should have no place in the laws of this land. Perhaps, then, I could explore how the Catholic Church’s understanding of “law” can be a fruitful partner, and not a foe, to those who frame and implement the Law in a pluralist and, some may say, secular society. Let me see if I can offer an understanding of “law” that need not mention God.

I turned to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and there I found, in paragraph 1976, citing St Thomas Aquinas (see ST I-II, 90, 4), this definition:

“Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by the one who is in charge of the community.”

This notion of law as a rule of conduct, in accord with reason, enacted by a competent authority for the sake of the common good, seemed promising. There’s no mention of God. Reason is central. It’s an understanding of law based on the conviction that we have the power to grasp what serves our well-being as individuals and as a community. We have the capacity to know what is good and to choose to seek it; so too to know what is evil and to choose to avoid it. It’s an understanding which means that the laws promulgated by the competent civil authority must promote a culture in which the human community and its individual members might flourish.

However, these civil laws, according to this view, have as their necessary foundation natural law. They may be derived from natural law either as a conclusion from a premise or as specifications of general principles. By “natural law” I do not mean the laws of nature investigated by empirical sciences: such as laws governing our physical environment; or regulating the lives of plants, animals and many dimensions of our own human lives. Rather “natural law” speaks deeper truths about who we are as human persons, rational animals possessing intellect and will. It concerns how we are to act for our complete well-being; what we must do to be truly and fully human. Its principles established by reason and inscribed in the heart of everyone, express our dignity and determine our fundamental rights and duties towards self and neighbour. Natural law is indispensable for the building of the human community.

Common ground between reason and religion, where God need not necessarily be mentioned, is perhaps discernible in the text from Leviticus to which we have listened during today’s act of worship. The instructions it sets forth would, I think, sound reasonable to all people of goodwill, including those who do not believe in God. Although the command neither to harvest to the end of the field nor gather the fallen gleanings is from an ancient agricultural setting, does it not also apply to the contemporary business culture? Caring for the neediest is more important than maximising profit. The injunction to pass just, impartial judgments, is particularly relevant to this congregation, resonating well as it does with your motto, “Integra Lex Aequi Custos Rectique Magistra Non Habet Affectus Sed Causas Gubernat" (Impartial justice, guardian of equity, mistress of the law, without fear or favour rules men's causes aright). It is also one about which both believers in God and atheists may concur.

 I could speak further about natural law providing a sure foundation for the fruitful partnership between those who believe in God and those who do not in the task of formulating precepts which ensure justice for everyone. However, I do not want to be silent about God. After all, this is a Sermon. Instead, I would like to explore the idea that rather than God being an embarrassing problem to be removed from our thinking about the Law, there is a divine presence at the very heart of it, irrespective of whether or not this presence is explicitly acknowledged. Indeed, the Catholic Church’s teaching on natural law in the Catechism does not exclude talk about God – and could not do so.

I say this because natural law is the participation of human reason in eternal law, to which all law is to be related and compared as its first and ultimate truth. The exercise of our natural, human practical reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is bad, is a sharing in the divine mind. God’s mind illumines and satisfies our practical reason, grounds it objectivity and is its attracting motive. Human and divine come together, the human in the divine and the divine in the human.

This participation in eternal law means that we play a special role in divine providence, God’s all-embracing plan for his creation. God has brought into existence, and keeps in being, all creatures with their manifold diverse activities for some definite purpose. Yes, even snails came to be for a God-given reason: though if it was to bring about a momentous development in tort law, I do not know. What I do know is that through his governance, or providence, God cares for his creation and guides it toward the end for which he loved into existence. Regarding human beings: by his fatherly solicitude, by his law, God instructs us so that we may fulfil our nature, become ever more whom he made us to be. By virtue of our intellect and will, by which we have a certain mastery over ourselves, a certain capacity of self- governance with a view to our true good, we have a marvellous vocation: to participate in God’s goodness and wisdom, to participate in the fulfilment of God’s wonderful design for us and all creation.

This idea of partnership with God is very much present in the Hebrew conception of Law; a conception rooted in the awareness that God has freely drawn his people into a covenant. Although totally Other, God has raised up his chosen people into an intimate relationship with him. He has descended to dwell in their midst, forming them into a community whom he leads to liberty. The Law, flowing from the Covenant, protects and nurtures this living relationship of the people with God and with one another. In short, the purpose of the Law is to make the people holy.

“Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.” This imperative is found in the first verse of Leviticus, Chapter 19 - the same chapter from which our first Scripture reading came. “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.” This seems an unreal expectation, way beyond any mere human. Yet this verse and the verses read at our service form that part of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code. This Code seeks to bring together practical ways in which holiness can be lived, ways of sharing in the very holiness of God through all our relationships: familial, social, economic, and especially those with the weak, the vulnerable. The Law, dealing with every day earthly realities, grants access to the heavenly realm, to the divine.

Thus we come to our Gospel parable and the lawyer’s question. Not “Who is my neighbour?”, but “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Admittedly, not a question asked frequently in courts of law nowadays; nevertheless an excellent question for lawyers and for everyone to ask, even if the answer ultimately highlights the insufficiency of human laws, and of the natural law on which they are founded.

To explain why I say this it helps to look at the setting of the Catechism’s teaching on law. It comes within the part of the Catechism entitled ‘Life in Christ’. More particularly within the section called ‘Man’s Vocation: Life in the Spirit’, the third chapter to be exact, headed: ‘God’s Salvation: Law and Grace’. This begins by stating: “Called to beatitude but wounded by sin, man stands in need of salvation from God.” In setting its exposition of law within this context, the Catechism follows the path taken by St. Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica, only after reflecting on beatitude – the vision of God, the complete fulfilment of the human person – does St Thomas begin his treatise on law.

Yes, the purpose of all law is to help us reach our final end, eternal life, perfect communion with God, beatitude. However, neither human law nor natural law alone, or even together, is sufficient if we are to reach this ultimate, supernatural goal of our existence. They provide an orientation toward that goal, but do not identify it as entering into the very life of the Triune God. Nor do they instruct us as to how to achieve it. Although presupposing and perfecting natural law, revealed divine law is required. Without destroying either natural law or our humanity, rather in and through them, revealed divine law takes us beyond the capacities of the natural and the human.

The fullness of revealed, divine law is not found in weighty, legislative texts, but in a person: Jesus Christ. He is the end of all law. Christ not only teaches and bestows the justice of God, but enables us to become partakers in God’s own righteousness. He embodies The Covenant between God and humanity. The man Jesus is God dwelling in our midst. He leads us into the very heart of God. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, received in faith, we are united to Christ’s humanity and assumed into his divinity. Our earthly, human everyday activities and our relationships become holy: we truly become holy, as the Lord our God is holy. However, though needing our co-operation, such holiness is a gift, the work of grace.

The lawyer asked: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was “anxious to justify himself”. But most fundamentally it is not what I do that is most important: I do not justify myself. I can never do so, no matter how hard I try. The love of God enjoys primacy. Eternal life is more about what God does. What I and each one of us must do is let God love me, love us. We must recognise our need of His love. Before we can be the Good Samaritan, we need to accept we are the ones in need of his help.

In the man who fell among thieves, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine saw fallen Adam. In that poor man, they saw all of us deeply wounded by sin. And in the Good Samaritan they saw Jesus himself, who with such generous love and tender compassion heals us. Commenting on this insight Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

“Jesus is the Son of God, the one who makes present the Father’s love, a love which is faithful, eternal and without boundaries. But Jesus is also the one who sheds the garment of divinity, who leaves his divine condition to assume the likeness of men (Phil 2: 6-8), drawing near to human suffering [and] filled with compassion, he looks into the abyss of human suffering so as to pour out the oil of consolation and wine of hope.”[3]

It is only when we have let Jesus, the Good Samaritan, the love of God in human flesh, heal us, permitted ourselves to experience, “the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin” (to borrow a beautiful phrase of Pope Francis when he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires)[4] that we fully come to understand and practice the command to love God and neighbour.

I have spoken of the Good Samaritan representing Jesus, but I now wish to return to Rabbi Gordon’s moving vision of “the image of God in bruised flesh and broken bones”.  This truth points to the Christian belief that Jesus is seen in the one left for dead. Jesus is the God who took on our “bruised flesh and broken bones.” “Who is my neighbour?”   Whoever suffers and so calls forth my love. “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus, God-with-us, in the one who suffers. It is Jesus, God-with-us, whom we love in loving our suffering neighbour.

But please permit me to emphasise again: the parable (at least in my reading of it) is not primarily about what I do, about justifying myself – even when I love God and recognise his presence in my neighbour. No, it is Jesus, God, in the suffering neighbour, who first of all liberates us from the selfishness that enslaves. He who in our human flesh and bones was not only left for dead, but died, moves us to give ourselves in love rather than walk on by. It is he who raises us up to be in the most supreme manner, a manner far surpassing our human reach, partners in the practice of the eternal law of divine love. In doing this, it is Jesus, it is God, who gives us life eternal.

To end, I must confess that I was not entirely honest, actually not all honest, when I claimed that since being asked to give the Mulligan Sermon my love of ice cream has disappeared. In fact, it very much remains. And I wish to assure you that I will be delighted if, by some happy chance,  at the meal we’re soon to enjoy, ice cream is served - though without the snail, please. Thank you.

+Vincent Nichols

Archbishop of Westminster

[1] [1932] All ER Rep 1; [1932] AC 562

[2] See GRAYA, no. 126 – Hilary 2013, pp. 33 -38.

[3] Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the Twenty-First World Day of the Sick (11 February, 2013) paragraph 3, citing St Ambrose’s Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, 71-84 and St. Augustine, Sermon 171 (

[4] A quotation cited  by John Allen in

Latest news
  • Parishioners at Our Lady of Lebanon Church in London (Mazur/ prays for people of Beirut

    Following the devastating industrial blast in Beirut on Tuesday 4 'I watched with deepening horror the unfolding news of the dreadful industrial explosion in the centre of your beloved Beirut. The widespread devastation it has caused has brough...

  • Cardinal welcomes announcement on resuming collective worship

    Cardinal Vincent welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement on 23 'As Catholics we now look forward to being able to celebrate Mass together again from 4 'It is important that we continue to abide by the guidance, given by the Government, on app...

  • Cardinal and Archbishop Welby pray together on first day of church opening

    On Monday 15th June, to mark the reopening of churches for individual prayer, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby prayed together in Westminster Cathedral and Abbey to mark this 'moment of grace,' as the Cardinal sai...