Review by Valerie Stroud

AMRUTHA. What the Pope's man found out about the Law of Nature, by John Wijngaards

Review in RENEW, quarterly magazine of Catholics for a Changing Church, no 161, February 2012, p. 16.


Valerie Stroud leading an international group in St. Peter's Square, Rome, on the occasion of the 'Synod of the People of God', October 2001.

Back in the autumn, Jackie and John Wijngaards told me about John's new book, "Amrutha". As is customary in my world, came up trumps and it duly arrived, and that is as far as it went for weeks. I was reading other books at the time and the picture on the front cover seemed to tell me that it might well be one of those rather salacious tomes about the clergy. I read a few pages and consigned it back to the pile. Then, as happens, curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. I found my admiration for its learned author growing page by page.

'Natural Law' is a philosophical concept, like any other but in Catholic circles it is bandied about as the final solution. If one accedes to it as a moral guide it works, but, like any other moral theory it has its limitations and is not the beginning and end. It is a mistake to adhere to it just because an eminent gentleman or two demands that one does so. One must make up one's own mind and act accordingly. Dr Wijngaards explores this in a story that once begun has to be read to the last page.

The book reminded me of a tutorial during a Moral Philosophy course - in which we were studying issues of life and death. We had rejected Kant's Categorical Imperative as being deeply flawed but we agreed that we found favour with Utilitarianism which we conceded was a good way to live. Our tutor set out to test us. He invited us to discuss the case of an elderly lady whose life had become unendurable and who had become just a lonely body in a hospital bed, with no relatives or friends to visit her. She was virtually unconscious most of the time. Her carers and the medics counselled that it would be best for her and for all if she quietly 'slipped away'. Our Tutor proposed that this was morally acceptable within Utilitarian: principles and a hot debate began. He used persuasive argument; he offered bribery and even resorted to a little intimidation. Gradually, one by one, ten of the group agreed with the proposition, leaving two of us to face the rest of them. We stuck to our guns on the grounds that it was completely unacceptable to kill someone especially when they had given no indication that they wanted to die. Even faced with the prospect of failing the course unless we agreed we remained firm and our tutor finally explained that the exercise had demonstrated the psychological barrier to a moral theory. One can test it to the stage where the practical application of the theory is just not acceptable: one's informed moral conscience will not permit one to act no matter what the inducement. Like Utilitarianism, Natural Law is found wanting when one puts it to the ultimate test and the author illustrates this brilliantly.

I made the assumption that the woman depicted on the front cover of the book was Amrutha. I believe it was, in fact, a very clever choice. The initial perception that here was a woman of possibly light virtue changed as I read to an appreciation of a representation of a woman who was highly intelligent, free, courageous, loving and fulfilled. Dr Wijngaards leads the reader to explore and understand better the attitudes and prejudices in the major world religions against women and our own anatomies.

I did not warm to Monsignor Seamus McKenna at the beginning of the book and I am not sure how much warmer I felt towards him at the end, but it cannot be denied that a cold ontologically ­ different being engaged in objective research into the nature of woman turned into a warm and spontaneous human person at the end. To say more would begin to reveal the story.

"Amrutha" is a novel. It is not autobiography yet it contains eminent truths and it challenges one to think about one's attitudes, perceptions and prejudices. Some of the book, in my opinion, is a bit far-fetched and is fantasy but one realises that there was no other way to test Natural Law theory to destruction. The story is engaging and once one is into the book one is swept along.

Valerie Stroud, coordinator of We Are Church UK

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