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I’ve been meaning to revisit the topic of NFP or, as I would prefer to call it, NFA and Joseph Shaw has provided me with the perfect opportunity, with a blogpost critiquing this rather natty little video, promoting the benefits of NFP, as opposed to conventional contraception.

First off, I think Catholics need to stop referring to NFP (Natural Family Planning) and instead refer to NFA – Natural Fertility Awareness. The semantics here are important: the former term implies a contraceptive mindset, validating the secular mindset that every family needs to be meticulously planned in terms of timing and number of children, whereas Natural Fertility Awareness is more accurate in terms of the (more often than not) Catholic mindset of those who adopt this attitude towards their sex lives.

Unlike the secular rigidity of the term Family Planning, favoured by our state health agencies, the phrase Natural Fertility Awareness conveys something of the fluidity and indeed flexibility, of the process. Moreover one does not need to be sexually active in order to monitor one’s own fertility and I’m a great advocate of young women (and indeed young men) being versed in the basic principles, before they may actually need to practice it.

There is nothing inherently immoral about teaching young women how to be aware of and chart their individual fertility – the process takes a few months to get to grips with and do so accurately. The engagement period tends to be a busy and frenetic time. observations can be missed or mistaken. It isn’t unreasonable for a married couple to wish for a short honeymoon period where they aren’t plunged straight into the trials and tribulations of pregnancy at a time when they may be attempting to consolidate financially, especially if they have not previously been cohabiting or sexually intimate.

Indeed if more young women were to monitor their fertility then arguably potential problems could be identified and treated more swiftly. Even, Sir Robert Winston, the IVF pioneer has argued that too many women are being automatically referred for IVF treatment after a failure to conceive, when cheaper and more effective treatments may be available. (Such as for example, the NaPro Centre in Ireland).

Natural Fertility Awareness is scorned by the vast majority of the medical profession, who do not understand it and believe it to be some sort of outdated rhythm method from 50 years ago as opposed to a rigorously scientific method, based on a woman’s own individual fertility, rather than the standardised version assumed by manufacturers of hormonal contraception. This leads to a passive attitude adopted by woman, who are taught to believe that their natural fertility is an out of control monster which needs to be medically  suppressed in order for them to stay healthy.

Last week my youngest daughter came up with an alarming looking rash, (it turned out to be some sort of pityriasis) which needed swift checking out by a medic. Unable to get a GP appointment within a few days, I took her instead to the walk-in centre in central Brighton so she could be seen swiftly. This particular centre also happened to be an anonymous walk-in sexual health and GUM clinic. I was particularly struck by the larger -than-life size posters advertising their sexual health and contraceptive services. Basically there was nowhere you could look without seeing adverts for sexual health prominently displayed. (Which is understandable when you consider Brighton’s considerable LGBT population and the location of the clinic, next to the railway station. You can pop in for an anonymous HIV test).

I was sat in front of an enormous six foot banner stand, which displayed a photograph of a clean-cut, wholesome-looking, causal but modestly dressed, pretty young blond woman, advertising “reproductive health services.’ The image has stayed with me precisely because as I thought at the time, the model was obviously chosen for her ordinary look. The message was crystal clear, all young women will be having sex and therefore they need to ensure that they do not have an unwanted pregnancy or contract any sexually transmitted diseases.

It was precisely the sort of image that I identified with as a teenager or in my twenties, just a normal-looking young woman, probably a professional of some sort, living a normal adult life, in sexual relationships and needing to make sure that she was healthy. Sexual health being just one more adult responsibility that she had to deal with. Take the pill, use condoms with new partners, get checked from time to time to make sure you haven’t inadvertently picked up anything nasty – no big deal, all part of being an empowered grown up.

I had bought into that entire mindset which is why the poster really struck a chord with me.  I too was that ‘empowered’ young woman who believed that all romantic relationships ought to involve sex and that consensual one-night stands were no problem. Sex was  a fun and exciting thing to do and most people who had an unplanned pregnancy had been a bit stupid. (Until it happened to me). Everywhere young women go, they are subtly indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking about sex and their sex lives. The poster was deliberately designed to feature a bland image of an everyday, normal attractive woman, with whom most woman would identify. No doubt in other areas, the models used would vary according to demographics.

Which is why it is so important that women are introduced into another way of thinking about their fertility, namely monitoring their own individual cycles instead of being duped into a passive acceptance of long-term hormonal suppression as being the norm.

This is why I don’t have so much of a problem as Joseph Shaw does, in terms of the secular nature of the video, which is perhaps designed to reach beyond the Catholic faithful.

I’ve personally found NFA to be so enriching for my marriage, despite not always managing to avoid pregnancy, that I want to share it with others because it’s a great thing in and of itself, and as Dr Shaw notes, the fewer people pumping estrogen into atmosphere or suffering from potential side effects, the better. Sceptic readers could do worse than read Sweetening the Pill. In January 2014, Vanity Fair published a 10,000 word expose of the Nuvaring, which has been responsible for thousands of avoidable blood clots and hundreds of deaths, all suppressed by the manufacturers who are now facing lawsuits. Wanting to get women off this stuff is an act of charity and mercy.

Advocating NFA to non-Catholics is the perfect example of graduality – get women onto a more natural and healthier way of avoiding pregnancy and it may well prove a useful first stepping stone in terms of evangelisation. It also might do something to engender better attitudes to sex and the rejection of female instrumentalisation, which has to be in the interests of the common good. I cannot emphasise how much of an uphill battle it is to overturn the entrenched attitudes hammered into children by well-meaning but ultimately ideologically blind professionals, since pre-adolescence.

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Every secular priest ought to read this too. Ideally have a copy on hand to lend to couples.

For Catholics struggling with NFA, I strongly recommend Simcha Fisher’s Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, which is unashamedly written from a Catholic perspective. The book does not tell you how to chart, it does not give the pros and cons of NFA, it does not moralise, or tell you how many children you ought to have, but rather it acts as a spiritual accompaniement purely in terms of the sex and relationship issues related to NFP. If only it had been written two years ago when I was struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, in extremely challenging circumstances. Not only should married couples read it, but anyone involved in any sort of ministry involving engaged and married couples and yes priests, I mean you – it’s not a heavy theological tome, it’ll take a couple of days at most, but most definitely a decent use of your time.

Like Joseph, Simcha identifies the notion of being ‘baby-phobic’ but nonetheless she expclicity rejects the idea of the ‘contraceptive mentality’ that many Catholics using NFA have supposedly adopted. Certainly every Catholic I know who uses NFP, does so with a prayerful mentality and to accept NFA is also to accept that sex could always result in a baby, something that our experience has taught us.

In the aftermath of the Synod, there is a troubling narrative doing the rounds, namely that Catholics who avoid children must have a critical reason for doing so. As I said last year, this is explicitly, not the case, and to get hung up on the ‘grave and serious’ reasons for avoiding conceptions, ignores the actual teaching of Humanae Vitae.

What I said in August 2013, still seems pertinent.

Ultimately if a faithful Catholic couple is using NFP then they are still accepting and participating in God’s plan for creation. NFP/NFA accepts that no method of pregnancy avoidance, bar total abstinence is 100%. It is hugely unlikely that such a couple would then opt for abortion or reject an unplanned pregnancy. Practicing NFP constantly reminds one that this is always a possibility which is why NFP encourages spouses to care for and take responsibility for each other.

We should not berate those who use it in good conscience, procreation is one of the missions of marriage but not the sole mission, there are other ways of building the kingdom, the church does not treat children as a moral good to be pursued at the expense of all other moral goods. Gaudium et Spes 50 suggests that having a large family would be the generous thing to do, but also states that it is up to couples to decide.

But berating those for using NFP to avoid in good conscience, or discouraging discussion of using NFP to plan a family responsibly, is not the way to go, particularly for those encountering these concepts for the first time, which sadly seems to be a not insignificant proportion of the faithful.

To be clear, Joe Shaw did not advocate that everyone should have 10 children, nor did he insist that the reasons for avoiding children ought to be life-threatening, but he was stating that the vocation of marriage must include openness to children. The challenge is how to communicate this beyond the Catholic faithful.

Postscript for the sake of transparency

I am extremely happy to go on record as saying that following the birth of our fifth (God willing, living) child in March, I am no longer open to pregnancy.

I should not need to justify this to the Catholic faithful and it speaks volumes that I immediately feel defensive about this decision. Couples ought to be trusted to prayerfully discern what is right for them in their particular circumstances without having to defend themselves to random shouty online strangers.

For those wishing to ‘judge’ my Catholicity, the reasons are as follows:

  1. As I age, pregnancy is exacting an increasing toll on my body physically. This is in turn having an impact on the rest of the family as I am constantly exhausted and unable to function at full capacity. Due to the transient nature of our living circumstances over the past few years, there are no family or friends close by to help pick up the slack. While pregnancy is only a temporary stage, this recent piece from First Things notes that Catholics should not shy away from accepting and validating its difficulties. I am one of those women for whom pregnancy is a form of the Passion.
  2. I am facing my fourth cesarian section. While I know of women who have had as many as seven, 4 is considered the upper limit for this to be performed safely by most surgeons. During the birth of our youngest daughter there were some difficulties in terms of scar tissue and a large amount of adhesions; this next procedure is expected to be complicated and may well result in some damage to surrounding organs or emergency hysterectomy. A recent ante-natal appointment resulted not in discussion of the wellbeing of my unborn baby, but my being exhorted to accept sterilisation while I was on the table. An option which I have declined.

So no doubt in being very clear that we wish to avoid pregnancy – we fall into the scandalous contraceptive mindset. Perhaps the difference is that it’s not that we reject the idea of further children, but of further pregnancies?

However if the Catholic Church really wishes to throw off her image of misogynistic judgementalism, perhaps advocates of the vocation of marriage, ought to embrace the positive instead of loudly critiquing what they believe to be the motivations of the imaginary minority. I don’t need some shouty man imagining that he can persuade the world to tell me how I need to put my health and family at risk if I wish to save my soul or trying to engage me in online discussion about how married couples need to be open to life 100% of the time. Actually this is one issue where the feminists have a point, there is something particularly grating about a man who does not ever experience the physical tribulations of pregnancy and childbirth telling women how they ought to feel about the subject, no matter how logical, rational or theologically correct he may be.

Using NFA requires trust and a whole new way of thinking. Let’s encourage people to do that without telling them exactly what their decisions should be or implying that they ought to have fifty children until their uterus drops out.

Stop-Gendercide-banner

In 2012, an investigation by the Telegraph uncovered several abortion clinics where doctors were prepared to carry out abortions for women who had discovered that they were carrying a baby girl.

Opinion appears to be divided on whether or not this practice is actually illegal in the UK, back in February the health minister Lord Howe, said guidance would be sent to all abortion clinics warning them that the practice of sex-selective abortion is illegal, however both the BMA and BPAS (the UK’s leading abortion provider) dispute this interpretation of the law, the BMA claiming that there could be mental health grounds and BPAS believing that the law is silent on the matter. This is a view backed up by Neil Addison, Catholic barrister and director of the Thomas More Legal Centre.

In order to clarify the situation, a cross-party group of MPs, led by Fiona Bruce, are putting forward a Ten Minute Rule Bill on 4 November. The Abortion (Sex-Selective Bill) would not only remove all doubt about the legality of gender-selective abortion, but would also allow the Government to find a way to offer help to women who are seeking gender-selective abortions.

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As the interview above demonstrates (click on the picture for the link) gender-selective abortion is an issue faced by many women in the UK, which is often under-reported. It is by no means a callous decision, women feel that they have little other choice when faced by cultural pressure and often domestic violence. Criminalising the practice would send a firm signal that discrimination and violence against women and girls is not to be tolerated. The anonymous interviewee, “Asher” still shows signs of trauma; she clearly isn’t reconciled with her allegedly free choice, 18 years later. This is not the empowered decision sold by the feminists, but a woman accepting and validating patriarchal attitudes, having witnessed first-hand how much worse life is for girls in some communities. Women, especially feminists ought to be rolling up their sleeves and fighting the injustice that demands baby girls are treated as lesser human beings. Not only that, but most women who undergo sex-selective abortion are forced to endure an additional horror of a late-stage abortion entailing giving birth to a deceased baby, as scan techniques identifying the gender are not effective until around 16 weeks at the earliest.

When defending late-stage abortions feminists claim that the nature of them means that it is only the very desperate who seek them. Expecting a child of a particular sex should not put one in a desperate situation in any progressive society.

A recent investigation commissioned by the Independent in January 2014, estimated that as many as 4,700 girls could be missing from the 2011 Census data, but according to Rani Bilkhu, spokeswoman for the Stop Gendercide campaign and founder of women’s rights organisation Jeena International, this figure is conservative.

I’d love to see white feminists and outspoken proponents of abortion right up til birth, Kate Smurthwaite and Sarah Ditum attempt to defend this situation, telling Asian women that it’s quite alright for them to abort their baby girls to satisfy cultural and familial male expectations.

Every woman should be allowed to have a daughter. While this is predominantly a problem which affects a minority culture in this country (hence the silence) gender selective abortion is not confined to Asian communities. Anecdotally I’ve come across a few white women who have aborted children in order to achieve family ‘balance’.

I am currently 19 weeks and 6 days pregnant with our fifth child, being mother to 4 beautiful girls. Over the last week the baby has begun to really make their presence felt, I regularly feel the baby moving about inside, kicking or reacting strongly to certain stimuli.

On Tuesday I have the 20 week scan in which we definitely intend to discover the sex of the baby. Many many people have asked or assumed that we have deliberately conceived this baby in order to ‘try for a boy’. This must be our last child, for a whole host of reasons. Many people have throughout the course of my pregnancies expressed disappointment on behalf of my husband that I am yet to produce a male. I even had a parishioner once reduce me to tears when I hobbled into the Easter vigil a few hours post hospital discharge with a newborn 4 day old girl who said “oh no, how disappointing, not another girl, you’ll have to try again and give him his boy”!

If I were to discover this baby is a girl, legally I’d have another 4 weeks in which to abort the baby with no questions asked. Is this what it means to be an unborn child in 21st Century Britain? In order to survive and be awarded basic human rights, you must be, amongst other things, of the correct gender?

To support the bill please lobby your MP, via stop gendercide and spread the word on FaceBook and social media.

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The celebrity witch-hunt following the revelations about Jimmy Savile has cause something of a problematic backlash.

Establishment liberal luvvie Stephen Fry, who couldn’t resist leaking some outrageous tidbits from yet another set of memoirs he’s flogging, said on BBC’s Newsnight, that 14-year-old children who had sex with rock stars were not victims, because even with the benefit of adult hindsight now they are in their ‘50s, they would not categorise themselves as such.

The thing is with sexual abuse is that by its very nature it involves an element of coercion, and therefore even the 14 year olds who thought that they wanted sex with the gorgeous rock star whose poster had adorned their bedroom wall, in all probability probably didn’t.

14 year olds tend to have rather vague fantasies towards their objects of affection, or at least they did back in the day when 24 hour internet porn was not available and they were not programmed into believing that self-worth was tied up with sexual attractiveness and ability to perform the sophisticated tricks of a Parisian courtesan.

That’s not wishful thinking. it wasn’t so long since I was 14 and certainly at that stage I had not been party to hardcore porn, the most we did was a bit of teenage giggling over illicit copies of Jilly Cooper. Some of us did get coerced by older boys into doing things which we later regretted (perils of sex being a complete taboo topic at home and school and no-one ever attempting to have any sort of sensible conversation about you with boys and sex) but it’s interesting to note that it was the Lower and Upper Sixth who were conducting relationships with the Fourth Year. In today’s money that’s Year 12 and 13 eyeing up the Year 10’s. In some ways that’s not a new thing, most 14 year olds will believe themselves more grown-up and cool with the attention and flattery of an older boyfriend, especially when one considers that boys tend to physically develop later than girls.

But even when I was a teen in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there simply wasn’t the expectation that going out with someone meant that you were having sex with them or having sexual contact, which is perhaps why nobody talked about it. Funnily enough I was having a conversation with someone in their ‘70s the other day who told me that when she was in her teens and twenties she had loads of boyfriends. ‘I couldn’t say that now’  she told me, ‘because everyone will think that I slept with them all because that’s what having a boyfriend means these days. When I was young having a boyfriend meant that you went out with them a few times, let them buy you a drink or go to a dance with them and then when you got bored you’d move on! There was always someone who might try to get fresh with you, but you’d tell them to get lost and warn all your friends about them!’ There may have been stigma about previous sexual partners, but not boyfriends or dating.

Of course teenagers have always been having sex as well as being seen as rife for sexual abuse, but surely in a progressive society, one that recognises that an adult psyche is not fully formed in adolescence we ought to be preventing this? A 14 year old girl or boy is one who is still in the process of maturing both physically and emotionally, and the presence of sexual characteristics does not indicate a psyche to match. An 11 year old who has begun her periods is technically ready to bear children, but no-one in their right minds would suggest she is capable of consenting to a sexual relationship.

An adult is always in a position of power over a teenager and never more so when they are the subject of teenage crush. Even if a 14 year old believes that she wants to sleep with a rock star, in the vast majority of cases she is unable to match him in terms of emotional maturity – there is a world of difference between a 20 year old and 15 year old, let alone a 30 or 40 year old. The older party will have learnt various techniques of emotional manipulation and flattery, the younger party being putty in their hands and very suggestible. The damage which can be inflicted by premature sexual contact ought not to be underestimated.

Bill Wyman aside (whose ex-wife admits that she had sex with him at 14 and bitterly regrets it, accepting that she was still a child), most older men are not interested in a long term relationship with teenage girls, or not a healthy one at any rate. It is a predatory adult psyche that wishes to conduct a sexual relationship with a child or teen who is unable to form a sexual relationships on adult terms. Adults are attracted to teens thanks to a combination of their physical appearance and psychological malleability.

This inequality is why boundaries exist between pupils and teachers or any adults with a level of pastoral responsibility towards children. Abuse is defined as ‘the improper usage or treatment of an entity, often to unfairly gain benefit’. While people are not entities, teenage girls and boys will have their sexuality and psyche harmed by those who violate their boundaries and refuse to respect  and accept their vulnerability.

It’s tempting to give Stephen Fry a free pass because he patently has no interest in teenage girls in the rock star/groupie scenario he would appear to be describing, but the same applies to 14 year old teenage boys such as those tempted into seedy rent boy type scenarios such as those which allegedly occurred at the now notorious Elm Guest House, and who are equally capable of being used as sexual objects by those with specific proclivities. Arguably a boy is even less capable of giving his consent than a girl if he is still coming to terms with his developing sexuality, but both sexes have not really got to grips with sexual maturity at the age of 14 and sex involves the projection and imposition of an adult fantasy on to them.

It’s also rather unseemly and crass to be attempting to grade levels of sexual assault. Regardless of what is done to the child or teen, inappropriate sexual behaviour is being forced upon them, which needs to be treated with the utmost gravity. How this is dealt with in terms of sentencing, is in the hands of the judge taking into account all the circumstances of a particular case that comes before them.

Fry is obviously correct to warn against the presumption of guilt in celebrity abuse accusations before the case has even gone to trial, and blogger Anna Raccoon is worth reading in order to give a balanced account of how some of these cases have been overblown. One suspects that in some cases, money is a motivating factor for people to come forward. Justice demands that all the evidence is properly examined rather than an accusation being enough to secure prosecution and subsequent conviction.

There’s also a delicate balance between ensuring that on the one hand historic sex abuse does not go unpunished and on the other, not punishing people who did not believe that they were doing anything illegal or immoral and were acting according to the sexual mores of their day.

There is something ironic that in these days of unfettered sexual liberalism, social boundaries seem to reverting (and rightly so) to those of a previous era, whereby sexual touching of someone you are not in a relationship with, is a taboo. The ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s seem to have been a time when people were still getting to grips with the sexual revolution, all boundaries were swept aside and literally anything went – everyone was seen as a target or potential sexual partner. Far from being liberated, women were turned into sex objects in a way that had never been so previously overt.

The pendulum is swinging back the other way – society is undergoing a correction. The problem with this is however that we appear to wanting to regulate every single element of a sexual relationship to conform with societal norms, namely frequent partners, but clinicalised, sterilised, devoid of life-giving potential and potential infection.

Fry’s almer mater has already introduced compulsory sexual consent workshops for students. Which begs the question – if 18 year olds are considered unable to fully understand what sexual consent is all about, then why are 14 year olds, regardless of whether their sexual partner is a famous rock star or someone their own age?

Nope, never had to do this guy a favour.

Nope, never had to do this guy a favour.

A few years ago this piece from Cristina Odone in the Telegraph would have had me reaching straight for the laptop to bash out a corrective response, but fortunately Joseph Shaw has beaten me to it.

Efficiently deconstructing her doublethink, Dr Shaw critiques her dismissal of the Church’s annulment process as being ‘dependent on money and contacts to unpick the marital knot’ as follows:

“This is extremely insulting to those many people who have been through the process of annulment in good faith, after marrying a person whose marriage vows were an empty sham.”

I am one of those people whom Cristina presumably believes used their money and contacts to unpick the marital knot. Except the whole process took six weeks and required an admin processing fee of under £20. Technically speaking for any canon lawyers who may be reading and wanting to nitpick, I did not receive an annulment, but was declared free to marry. No thorough examination needed to be conducted, the bare facts spoke for themselves.*

Nonetheless, an annulment is categorically NOT a Catholic divorce, It is a statement of fact that a marriage never existed in the first place. The judges involved in a tribunal case do not seek to apportion blame or guilt to a single party, they are there simply to examine the facts before them.

A tribunal panel does not in any way resemble a civil court process. Meetings are held in complete confidentiality and on a one-to-one basis. Where possible both spouses are asked to testify along with relevant witnesses. One does not need to spend money on hiring specialist Church, or canon lawyers. In terms of fees, all that is asked that a contribution is to made towards covering the admin fees and costs, but those who are unable to afford to do this, are not required to pay anything at all and neither will cases be prioritised according to wealth. Typically they are dealt with in date order and the reason that the process may sometimes take a few years is because it can often take that amount of time to get all of the relevant documentation and witnesses assembled. Pope Francis has already announced a commission to review whether or not the process may be simplified or streamlined, in advance of the forthcoming Synod on the Family.

Another thing Cristina omitted to mention is that this process is not only open to Catholics but to anyone who wishes the Church to investigate the circumstances of their marriage, say for example an Anglican divorcee who now wishes to marry a Catholic. The Church will examine the circumstances surrounding their marriage and determine whether or not it was valid.

Any decision does not have any bearing on the civil law, nor does it decree that a civil marriage never existed. Hence any children born from that union, are not deemed to be illegitimate, in case any bigots still care about that these days.

Cristina’s attitude is symptomatic of that I have experienced from non-Catholics. One woman even came onto this blog to decry my selfishness. I was so desperate to get married in a Catholic Church that I deliberately made my daughter illegitimate.  A gay man, who is so invested in the issue of gay marriage, deliberately briefs people that I have a child from another man, as proof of my alleged inconsistency and hypocrisy. A Twitter account was set up in the name of @realfarrow which stole my photo and accused me of adultery. And they say that Catholics are judgmental? Fact is I once made some errors of judgement and committed some sins, (several actually) long since confessed, along with every other Catholic on this planet. It doesn’t invalidate the truth of the matter at hand, nor does the fact that I failed to live up to Catholic teaching, mean that it is therefore wrong. I didn’t know what it was!

It’s also worth noting that prior to getting sacaramentally married, even though the wedding took place in a Catholic Church, the permission of the former Bishop of Chichester needed to be sought. He agreed that my former marriage was not valid, purely on the grounds of my ex not being open to children, and gave his consent for my marriage to Robin to go ahead, but noted that he did not value my Catholic annulment. Like Cristina he believed it to be a process for the rich and well-connected which was both infuriating and distressing. By contrast the Anglican church does not have any formal process for investigating validity of former marriages, instead operating a postcode lottery depending on the personal opinion of the minister involved. There’s something very reassuring about having one’s case independently and formally assessed.

How does one obtain an annulment? Simple. Approach your parish priest and ask for his help and advice. Every single diocese in England and Wales has their own marriage tribunal department who will investigate these matters for you. The priest will help you to fill out the paperwork and will then send it to the local office. Only in the extremely rare cases of Pauline and Petrine privilege, does anything need to be approved by Vatican bureaucracy. No palm-greasing, rolling up of trouser legs or funny handshakes involved.

Anyone who has gone through a divorce will testify that not only is it an extremely painful experience but that it requires a great deal of soul-searching and brutal honesty. The Church walked with me throughout this process, never once judging or telling me what I ought to do, but instead offering compassion, practical help and prayer.

I had to face up to the fact that I had made mistakes through a combination of my own emotional immaturity and ignorance. Had I not fallen away from the faith or been woefully unprepared for marriage, not least in terms of my understanding, then a lot of heartache could have been avoided.

With that in mind, it was the experience of an unplanned child combined with a difficult relationship which facilitated my return back to the Church. Once I fully understood Church teaching and the vision of marriage on offer, it was obvious that I had been living in a pale imitation without any of the graces conferred by the sacrament.

There isn’t a day that goes by when I am not grateful for being given the opportunity to live out the true vocation and vision of marriage in contrast to my previous experience. My life is now lived in the fullness of truth, instead of self-deceit, in glorious high-resolution technicolor, not fuzzy black and white.

I threw myself on the mercy of the Church, hoping and praying that she would indeed recognise that I was free to marry, but that involved having to accept that she may rule otherwise.

For internet trolls to throw ignorant uniformed insults about is one thing. When seasoned Catholic journalists and leading Anglican clerics intimate that you have done some dodgy deal to buy yourself out of a spot of bother and valid union it is quite another. But hurt feelings aren’t the main issue here. By propagating incorrect myths, not only about divorcees not being able to receive communion, but by misrepresenting the annulment process, Cristina Odone puts people’s spiritual welfare at risk, both by deterring people from presenting themselves for communion and also by preventing them from accessing the natural justice to which they are entitled.

*(As a baptised Catholic I married outside of the Church without a dispensation, or to use the lay term, permission, meaning that it was illegal according to Church law. With that in mind, had matters gone to tribunal, given that I was married to a divorcee who had explicitly and repeatedly stated to myself, friends and family that he did not ever want children, and who still confirms that to be the case, then it’s fairly obvious which way things would have gone.

Couples who are in an illegal marriage are able to get the Church to formalise them later on, however in my case this would have been impossible. )

A few weeks ago I wrote an article published by Mercatornet comparing how abortion, which was brought onto UK statute books, supposedly for emergency and desperate case circumstances only, with the so-called safeguard of requiring the signature of two  independent doctors, has been automatically built into the health care system, meaning that in all stages in pregnancy women are presented with the virtue of our age – choice.

It’s inevitable that if assisted suicide is eventually enacted into legislation, euthanasia will drift exactly the same way. Any decent or civilised society should not be putting the option of whether or not to kill another person on the table, let alone committing the act for you.

I mentioned before how this incorporation of abortion into part of the package of ‘health care’ options offered to pregnant women, not only violates the Abortion Act itself, under the terms of which one might expect the request to be led by the woman herself, rather than suggested by the clinicians. My experience of the past few weeks, which to be fair is no different or more outrageous than in previous pregnancies, more than illustrates this.

This time I have been fortunate, there has been no doctor or midwife attempting to hector or pressure me into considering abortion on the grounds of not having adequate spacing between the children. Two years ago, I remember sitting in tears in the midwife’s office as she loudly tutted and suggested that I really ought to think about what I was doing and consider counselling for abortion and sterilisation while I attempted to pacify two bored and noisy toddlers as I hadn’t been able to arrange childcare for that particular appointment and had been told that there wouldn’t be another slot available for another 5 weeks. In the pregancy prior to that a self-identifying Catholic GP had proceeded to lecture me about how the Church was wrong about contraception and abortion and again suggested abortion, this time as a cure for acute morning sickness.

So actually this time has been a picnic, but nonetheless abortion has been subtly suggested as an easily accessible and acceptable pathway. Many readers will note this approvingly, however when so many women find this such a difficult and heart-wrenching decision and suffer agonising physical and emotional consequences, it is worth asking on those grounds alone, along with the  irrefutable fact that abortion ends a life, whether it ought to be treated so lightly on the NHS. It’s always there, always looming over you as an option, and for most women has the effect of adding pressure and really having to justify continuing with a pregnancy.

So let’s consider what happened to date. Firstly, I couldn’t manage to get the obligatory GP appointment wherein I turn up and say “OK doc I’m pregnant, I’ve done a positive test” and they say “right okay and you are fine with that?”, I confirm, it gets typed in on the computer screen along with dates, and from there I am allowed to proceed to book in with the midwife. The GP appointment does nothing useful for the pregnant woman, there are no blood tests, no care plan suggested, it’s nothing other than a gatekeeper appointment for those who have perhaps experienced an unplanned pregnancy or are undecided. If you are pregnant, happy about it and want to proceed straight to midwife, in my surgery, it is not allowed. With 4 children and a lot on my plate, it’s an unnecessary hassle.

Due to holidays and an early threatened miscarriage I managed to circumvent that particular rigmarole, helped by the fact that I had presented at the Early Pregnancy Unit who had directly booked me in for a 12 week scan, rather than having to go via midwife. It meant that a swift appointment needed to be found with a midwife to ensure that I had a set of notes with me and so they managed to slot me into a cancellation without first seeing a GP.

But even at the Early Pregnancy Unit, before I had even been scanned to find out what was actually happening with my uterus, the very first question I was asked, was whether or not the pregnancy was planned, which seems something of an insensitive irrelevance when a woman wants to know exactly what the status of the embryo or foetus (from 8 weeks) is.

I wanted to know whether or not the baby was miscarrying. Did it really matter at that point whether or not it was planned, or would it have affected my treatment? The only possible reason for that question was to discuss abortion options if necessary or work out whether or not it was worth attempting any preventative action which could save the baby.

The next question was “do you accept the pregnancy?”, which was fatuous. Either a woman is pregnant or she is not, regardless of whether or not she accepts the fact. It’s a clear euphemism and again presents an option on the table for a woman to think about. Why should the first thing that a woman anxious that she might be miscarrying a baby be asked, is whether or not she planned her pregnancy and whether or not she ‘accepts’ the baby.

I’ve said before, this question always reminds me of the questions asked of parents in Baptism and is for me a public confirmation and affirmation of the life inside, but nonetheless it was a disconcerting irrelevance. Would this happen in the diagnosis of a terminal disease. “Do you accept the prognosis and traditional plan of palliative care?”. Putting a big fat elephant in the room as to whether or not you are truly making a ‘moral’ choice by selfishly continuing with your life until its natural end.

From there on everything proceeded smoothly and as I said earlier in the week on Conservative Woman, I declined the option for Downs Syndrome screening.

One of the comments in which a woman claimed that I had no idea what I was talking about, did give me pause for thought as she outlined how a diagnosis could be helpful even if you were not planning on abortion, as Downs carries lots of risks for the child in utero. Technically a care plan should be tailored to ensure the safety of both mother and child, but when you are faced with the screening options, this is never specifically outlined in terms of your decision making and many women report being given very little in the way of positive support or information when told that their child has a genetic abnormality.

 Indeed the leaflet warns that once you have had the screening, you cannot turn the clock back and that unless you are prepared to cope with the stress of knowing that you have an increased likelihood of a child with Downs, or are prepared to consider a further diagnostic test (with a 1-2% chance of miscarriage) then you might be better off not having the screening at all.

Screenshot 2014-08-29 10.08.10

I declined because I didn’t want to be worrying about it. If the baby has Downs then while it will be far from easy, especially  as I already have a number of children. I’d rather meet the challenges and difficulties as and when they come, rather than spend sleepless nights worrying about hypothetical scenarios. Furthermore the leaflet states that the primary purpose of all the risky invasive tests is to detect Downs Syndrome, although other conditions may be discovered.

Screenshot 2014-08-29 11.13.01

So the scan went ahead yesterday. As predicted, I was asked to confirm whether or not I wished for the nuchal translucency test for Downs, which combines a screen result with a further blood test. When I said no, I was pretty candid about it, stating that the only thing that I was hoping to see on the monitor was a live baby after what happened last year.

The sonographer was very sympathetic, but nonetheless they said that she would still measure the nuchal translucency, i.e. the amount of fluid behind the baby’s neck to see whether it was within normal parameters. An increased amount of fluid is a strong indicator of Downs Syndrome. If the measurement was high, she would inform me in order to give me the option to change my mind about having the full screening!

It turned out that the measurement was well within normal limits. That doesn’t mean that the baby definitely does not have Downs Syndrome, but in all probability there is a lower risk.

I’ve been left feeling disconcerted as though I somehow went back on my word. When they told me that they would measure the fluid anyway, I should have firmly stated “look I’m not interested either way” but at that point, when you are lying on the table, there is a sense of having ceded control and powerlessness. I just wanted them to hurry up and switch on the equipment so I could see whether or not there was still a heartbeat.

I also have to confess to a slight sense of relief which goes to show that even the most pro-life amongst us are not immune from the insidious pressure and notion that a Downs Syndrome diagnosis is a catastrophic thing. All of which adds to the stigma, both for sufferers themselves and their parents, which Dawkins did his best to stoke, adding unrepentantly that he’d only upset a small minority, in any event. If the NHS didn’t make such an issue of flagging up Downs Screen for pregnant women, going so far as to suggest that it can be such a problem that women ought to consider risking their baby’s life, most probably wouldn’t give it much of a thought.

It’s not that I reject the idea of pre-natal screening or wish to demonise those who opt for it, but surely it ought to be offered purely for theraputic reasons, to alleviate and treat conditions, either in utero if possible, or to prepare future healthcare strategies and plans for mother and child, rather than continually  present the issue of whether or not the child ought to live. Screening the unborn for disabilities does nothing to help advance research into therapies to help sufferers.

It doesn’t feel as though the NHS has got the balance right, when they are being so proactive in terms of continually presenting abortion as a consideration.

Blogging apologia

Eagle-eyed readers may have notice that I have updated my previous strapline, which was typically flippant and suggested by my husband as a joke, when I couldn’t think of any better way of describing myself.

I never set out to write A Catholic blog, the cassock-loving thing was a play on the fact that I was married to a man who wore one and also to give a small hat-tip in terms of liturgical preferences.

A Catholic woman blogging about life, suits me, and the flavour of this blog much better. It was never my aim to write about liturgy, ecclesiastical politics, lobby for any political cause (the pro-life stuff just happened organically), give theological or homiletical insights (way beyond my skill-set) or show-boat my superior humility, modesty and piety!

No, the impulse that triggered this blog, was 1 Peter 3:15. I just wanted to demonstrate that rather than being the perceived Amish smock-wearing recluse who forced her children to wake up at 5am for prolonged periods of bible study and blushed at the use of a naughty word and who had no experience of ‘the real world’, actually, like most of us, I’m a  seasoned and regular sinner.

This blog was simply to explain some of my weird beliefs in a relatively simple and straightforward way, initially to those who, when I explained how excited I was about Pope Benedict’s visit and defended the Regensburg address, promptly attributed this to psychotic religious fervour, brainwashing or madness.

That's Caroline Farrow that is!

That’s Caroline Farrow that is!

I never imagined that it would take off in the way that it did which was probably why I was so woefully unprepared for the negative sides to blogging or expressing your views in public, which in my case meant that I became subject to a prolonged and still ongoing obsessive hate campaign, the intensity of which has at times, utterly floored me.

But with the help of regular confession, prayer and spiritual direction, I’ve managed to pick myself up, restore my equilibrium and it’s thankfully business as usual!

Mary O’Regan has suggested that bloggers need to become more Catholic, a suggestion with much merit, which got me thinking.

While I might endeavour to make this blog more solidly Catholic, my focus has never been to write solely about Catholic subject matter, probably because others such as official news agencies and publications, can do that better.

My aim gentle reader is to continue as a Catholic woman, a wife, a mother, someone with a passionate interest in the pro-life cause, who is a bit of a news junkie, offering her outlook and perspective on current affairs, the world around us, interspersed with a bit of what’s going on in my own life and some of my own experiences. That’s it I’m afraid. Life as a normal Catholic woman.

For those who think well Caroline, your experience is not that of a normal Catholic because your husband, yadda yadda, in some ways that’s right, but then I’m willing to bet, in fact I know, that there are plenty of Catholic women who are far more pious in terms of daily spirituality and Mass-going than I am. I wasn’t brought up by a ostensibly Catholic family, so I’m having to learn a lot of basic habits and customs for the first time and make a conscious effort to integrate them into family life. Plus with 4 children and school runs and the like, daily Mass, even regular adoration is sadly unfeasible and an undreamt of spiritual luxury.

The Catholic blogosphere has turned rather meta of late, people blogging about not blogging. My output has been tailing off simply for practical reasons. I’m busy with the  family, busy with children, busy with the new dog who is a bit of a handful, busy with my weekly Universe column, busy with Universe Catholic Radio, busy with Catholic Voices, busy putting newly acquired public speaking skills into practice, busy with other writing work, in short it’s all go.

I haven’t got time or excess emotional energy to worry about mad trolls, what Pope Francis may or may not be saying or who the next curial appointment is going to be. Which  is  also why I’m not blogging so much.

Plus I’m pregnant again and due to my advanced age, am finding it’s exacting a much greater physical toll than it did a few years ago. I’m only just coming out of the woods in terms of being able to look at my computer screen.

So I’ll probably continue to blog as previously, namely whenever I get particularly exercised about something or other, from loony Lib Dem sex ed policy, deeply dippy Dawkins or Tina Beattie’s latest (definitely more on that anon), sometimes erudite, sometimes critical, sometimes political, sometimes analytical, sometimes flippant, sometimes even pop culture, but always from the perspective of a Catholic laywoman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, sister, friend, who loves God, loves the Church, loves the Saints, who does her best and who sometimes gets it wrong!

Last year, the prominent religious broadcaster Vicky Beeching (presenter of Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 and frequent reviewer of the papers on Sky News) asked me for an interview on Catholic perspectives for her faith and feminism website.

As is standard practice these days, she used the medium of Twitter to publicise her various interviews. At that point, my personal painful story of abortion was not common knowledge, however a former friend whom I had confided in, sent Vicky a series of messages in which she informed her of my secret and claimed it as proof that I had probably had multiple abortions (not true) and was secretly pushing a pro-choice agenda.

Again and again she messaged Vicky, her messages becoming increasingly urgent and demanding in tone, “what about her abortion, how can you interview her as being pro-life” the recurring theme.

Thankfully Vicky paid no heed and published the interview here, one which, I hope does give a good account of Catholicism in relation to women. Almost within 5 minutes of the interview being posted, another woman who has displayed obsessive tendencies in terms of her strong and frequently posted contempt for me, wrote a comment in which she too, mentioned my abortion, accusing me of hypocrisy, of sanctioning abortion for myself and no-one else, failing to understand that my experience of abortion made me realise what a terrible thing it is, for mother and baby alike.

Though healed, at that time I was still in the early stages of the pregnancy with Raphael (who died in utero) and not ready for this information to be outed, especially not on in the comments box of such a public website.

I therefore asked Vicky to remove the comment and she immediately edited it, much to the chagrin of the original poster, who repeatedly hectored her on Twitter “why did you delete my comment about Caroline Farrow’s abortion”.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but shortly after the interview was published Vicky repeatedly found herself tagged into a series of vitriolic and very personal comments, about her appearance, her intelligence and her motivations by the person who had messaged her, using the pretext of something else Vicky had said publicly, with which she disagreed.

Vicky could, if she was unprincipled and unscrupulous have published all this information, in an attempt to show me up as a hypocrite and undesirable person whose position on abortion was untenable, especially as she herself has a pro-choice view. The fact that she didn’t speaks volumes about her honesty, integrity and decency as a person. As does the fact that she also passed a series of radio interviews my way about the forthcoming papal conclave back in 2013, feeling that I would make a better pundit on the subject.

I’ve only met Vicky in the flesh once, (when she told me about the trolling she had received in relation to me) but found her to be an immensely charming, genuine and sincere person, who has treated me with utmost Christian kindness, despite the fact that she must have found my views on same-sex marriage difficult to accept, and going by her interview in today’s Independent, in which she comes out as same-sex attracted, potentially quite hurtful.

A lot will be written by many Christian commentators about this, but I’d like to publicly offer my love, prayers, support and thanks to Vicky who has modelled Christian behaviour, tolerance, compassion and understanding to someone with whom she is ideologically opposed. I owe her at least as much.

To support Vicky in her coming out, is not to necessarily endorse any of the choices which she might make, but to accept that what she has done is extraordinarily brave, not least because many of her target audience will strongly disagree with her. There has been talk of boycotting her music and this admission could well affect her commercially, although I suspect it will consolidate and further her position in terms of mainstream broadcasting. It must also have been difficult coming out with parents who take the traditional and orthodox Christian view of homosexuality. I should imagine she will also be subject to a fair few salacious and sexually derogatory comments, especially from certain newspapers and media outlets.

Vicky’s experience of public exorcisms are not the way in the Catholic Church, most would agree that this is no way to help and support anyone struggling with feelings of same-sex attraction, however it does highlight the plight of many young Christians who believe themselves to be gay.

Reverend Peter Ould in his response on Facebook, offers some typically sensible thoughts:

1. It’s almost always better this side of the closet. Locking away such a huge part of your emotional life leads to the kind of stress Vicky describes. Being truthful about your feelings is normatively liberating and tends to be much more about living with yourself than living with others (and their perceptions of you).

2. Coming out as LGB does not necessarily mean endorsing a particular sexual ethic. It is perfectly possible to be open and honest about your sexual attractions and still hold to a traditional position on sex and marriage. The sign of an emotionally and intellectually stunted and repressed person is not that they don’t act on their attractions, but rather that they think a person has to act on their attractions and emotions in a particular way to be spiritually healthy.

3. Coming Out narratives, with their accompanying emotions, need to be reviewed with the passage of time. As C S Lewis so clearly indicates with the story of the Queen of Glome in “Till we have Faces”, the victim narrative many of us tell is in fact often a denial of responsibility for our own sinful decisions and responses that have shaped who we are today. It’s too easy just to ignore inconvenient facts from yesterday that distort (even contradict sometimes) the picture you’re trying to paint today.

4. When Vicky says “The Church’s teaching was the reason that I lived in so much shame and isolation and pain for all those years” and then describes that teaching as ” I am attracted to people of the same sex and I’ve been told God hates that”, it’s worth pointing out that such a teaching is not Biblical. The Bible has plenty to say about the sinfulness of some sexual practices but it does not say that God hates people for being gay. And if we shape our future theologies and lives on a reaction to incorrect previous ones, we need to pick up “Till we have Faces” again.

(The Catechism of the Catholic Church says similar and goes on to say that people should never be treated unjustly on account of their sexual orientation)

Peter goes on to note the choice of Patrick Strudwick as interviewer, who is certainly no friend to either the Evangelical or Catholic churches as a result of their teachings about homosexuality. A few commentators describe the choice of interviewer as a ‘punch in the gut’ and highly political.

Peter Ould wonders whether or not the Independent would be prepared to run full and front page spreads of the equally brave testimonies of those who publicly identify as having same-sex attraction but have chosen to live celibate lives?

I might disagree with Vicky about the direction in which she wants to take the Anglican church, but from her testimony it is clear that more needs to be done to help young gay Christians identify their true vocation and not to alienate them from God, who, as she says, still loves loves them regardless. If nothing else, certain denominations ought to seriously re-think the practice of public exorcisms or the idea that a sexual orientation is indicative of demonic possession!

I strongly believe that when it comes to Christians who are attempting to reconcile their sexuality with a strong love of the Lord, as in Vicky’s case, Pope Francis’ words are the most salient “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge”.

It is not for us to judge the heart and mind of another Christian, all we can do is explain our own stance and why we believe God has asked us to live a certain way and leave the rest to Him. I certainly can’t claim that my heart is any purer than any other Christian seeking to deepen their relationship with the Creator and who at the same time wishes for a lifelong partner.

I disagree with many of Strudwick’s narratives and assumptions, which are coloured by his personal judgement, but I am sorry that Vicky has experienced such a tortuous and painful time, including a debilitating illness and like many of my good Catholic friends, I have no interest in eschewing her on account of her sexual preferences.

Talking of her parents’ attitude to the theology around homosexuality, who disagree with her, but love her all the same she says “it’s a picture of what is possible, even when you don’t agree, that love can supersede everything”

A sentiment that we all ought to bear in mind.

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