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Many years ago an idle moment on google led me to discover a blog, written under a nom de plume, which had clearly been penned by someone who had attended my preparatory school. (Caution, while side-splittingly amusing in part, said blog is disparaging of religion and contains some fruity language).

Having avidly read through pretty much the whole thing in search of familiar names and a nostalgia fix, my mirth turned to horror when it dawned upon me who the author was (she left a trail of inadvertent clues) and I learned about precisely how dysfunctional her family and upbringing had been.

In one post, (which I think has been deleted, it shows up on Google’s cache, but I am not going to link to it out of respect for the author’s wish for anonymity) she details her family history as follows. Apologies for the strong language.

child-stress

“A potted history of my family. You might want to go and have a wee first, or make a cup of tea, as this may take a while. And you might get to the end of it feeling a little uncomfortable, or maybe sorry for us. Don’t – it’s such a well-worn story now that it holds no emotions, and I’m not out for pity. Cash donations are always welcome, but pity ain’t.

It all started in the late sixties. My mother and my father were still married to each other (in my mother’s head this is still the case, in whatever weird parallel existence gets her through the day. She announced at lunch a couple of months ago that it would have been their forty-fifth wedding anniversary that day. They’ve been divorced for thirty-seven years but hey, who’s counting? If I had stayed at school I’d have been there for twenty eight years this year. It’s that sort of thing…) and my brother was born. He was followed by beloved sister Fifi, and then along came me in the early seventies. I was what’s euphemistically known as a band-aid baby, in that I was supposed to glue my parents’ marriage back together. However, me being me, this didn’t happen. Not even a bit. When I was two, my father ran off with the Avon lady, in a terrible middle-class cliche. Said Avon lady was married with a small daughter at the time. Not to be outdone, my mother hooked up with the Avon lady’s now-ex husband, and the fun began in earnest. I’m not entirely sure how much of this was known to any of the parties at the time; did my mother already have, ahem, knowledge of Avon lady’s husband even as she was getting it on with my father? Did any of them know about the other indiscretions? Was it all a big jolly liberated seventies wife swap? Of all the possibilities I like the last one the least. Uurgh. So, as is the nature of these things, decisions had to be made. Between the two couples there were four children, with another on the way (happily gestating away inside the Avon lady). This is another part of my history that I really don’t understand, particularly as a mother myself. There ensued a process that in my mind took the form of picking teams for netball. My father ended up with my brother, sister Fifi and the impending new addition. My mother gained me and the Avon-lady-ex-husband’s daughter. My brother was seven, Fifi was five, I was two and a bit. My soon-to-be-stepsister was four. So the adults, satisfied with the arrangements, all went off and set up home and got married, and concentrated on raising the kids with an eye to minimising any damage caused by the events of their early years. Well, my father and the Avon lady did anyway.

My mother and stepfather chose to either tell me, or to simply let me believe, that my father and stepmother were my uncle and aunt, and that my brother and sisters were my cousins, with my stepsister being my only “true” sister. We used to get together at Christmas and on a couple of other occasions throughout the year – lord only knows how that worked as far as the grownups went – a lot of polite small talk I expect. In addition to this familial obfuscation, my mother and stepfather set about drinking themselves into a coma at every possible opportunity. As their relationship worsened, so our evening and weekend routines evolved until my stepsister and I were cast in the role of peacemakers, endlessly placating and fruitlessly refereeing drunken rows. To this day I can’t sleep if there’s noise, only because part of me is still listening to make sure an argument doesn’t break out. I first heard the “c” word aged seven, when my stepfather burst into my room in the middle of the night to tell me I couldn’t go and stay with my school friend because I was a spoiled little cunt who thought I was better than him.

We weathered Christmases in which the only salvation was that my stepfather would pass out at four pm, and social gatherings where we were lucky to arrive home alive, such was the frequency of drunk driving. I have a vivid recollection of sitting in the back of the family car with my stepsister, as my mother complained bitterly that the car had broken down. My stepfather was unconcious in the passenger seat, having rounded off the evening at a schoolfriend’s parents’ house by collapsing backwards over a low wall, knocking it down and taking a garden bench with him. It transpired that the car was fine – my mother was simply so drunk that she was pressing the brake instead of the accelerator. Armed with this helpful knowledge, she changed feet and drove us home. This and a thousand other horror stories that I won’t bore anyone with now mean that I’m fairly sure that stepsister and I drew the short straw….

So, here we are. The Surly family tree contains a father who I don’t call Dad, a stepmother who has been more of a mother to me than my natural mother despite never living with me, a stepfather who I haven’t spoken to in nearly twelve years, a mother who I couldn’t even begin to describe, a brother, a sister, a stepsister and a half sister. My stepsister is everyone else’s stepsister as her father was married to our mother, and her mother is married to my father. My half sister is everyone else’s half sister, as she shares a father with me, my brother and sister Fifi, and a mother with my stepsister. My mother and stepmother are sworn enemies owing to my mother’s treatment of my stepsister when we were small. My stepfather has apparently gone a bit churchy in his old age. My mother is mental. My brother and half sister are the only children who haven’t been through some sort of therapy, giving all the parents a better than fifty percent strike rate in officially fucking their kids up.

It’s a wonder I’ve turned out so normal, isn’t it?”

This story has been playing on my mind an awful lot over the past few months as it could potentially do much to undermine my oft-stated narrative that where possible, children ought not to be removed from their biological parents and that young children need their mothers.

I’ve also been wondering what has happened to the blog author who tragically for her avid readership stopped blogging back in 2009. She regularly made the top ten lists of the most popular British blog and while her style may not be to everyone’s taste, since inadvertently discovering her blog, I’ve always fostered a sneaking sense of pride. She was in the year above me and  I remember her rebellious humour, sarcasm and curiosity even as a young child. What shocked me upon reading her story, was how, as children, we too had absolutely no idea what was going on behind closed doors in that family, even though my elder sister was best friends with her elder sister until the friendship petered when they went to different secondary schools. My parents were teachers at the secondary school the girls attended and never noted anything amiss with family – the mother by all accounts, was very good at putting on a front.

Anyway in this case, clearly all of the children would have been better off had the divorce not happened at all and the parents had attempted to work together for the good of their children, and arguably, my friend would have fared better remaining with her natural father and stepmother instead of the peculiar arrangement which did take place.

The whole thing is utterly mind-boggling and baffling, particularly as she notes, to anyone who has ever been a mother. How can children be divvied up as though they were chattels or possessions? How could anyone be so cruel? How could a mother use a romantic relationship or entanglement to justify parting with her young children in order for another woman to bring them up as her own? I get bad enough separation anxiety when leaving the children in the car to go and pay for petrol!

Same-sex couples would be completely justified in using stories such as these to point out that sometimes heterosexual parenting can fall extremely short. Being in a male/female relationship doesn’t guarantee that you aren’t going to make a disastrous hash of parenting.

But actually what this sorry tale shows us is that children do actually fare better when they are brought up by both biological parents who have an interest in them. What happened in this situation, as in so many cases of divorce is that the adults selfishly put their own needs first and the children became an afterthought, which is hardly surprising. No doubt they went through all kinds of mental sophistry in the process of self-justification, surely no parent could be so blind or callous to think that the children wouldn’t be affected in some way?

I am reminded of the compelling book Jephthah’s Daughters, edited by Robert Oscar Lopez (noted academic and author of the English Manif blog) in which several children brought up by same-sex parents give their testimony as to what life was really like growing up deliberately removed from one biological parent. They report similar tales of abuse, alienation and anger as adults, when they realise how damaged their childhoods were and their poor resulting mental health.

I am not saying that the above fate will inevitably happen to every single child brought up by same-sex parents, nor am I claiming that every child of divorce will have such a calamitous experience, but that the above account is what happens when adults choose to put their own perceived romantic or relationship desires above and beyond the emotional needs of their children.

Divorce, as I know, is always disastrous for kids and any subsequent action is always about mopping up or attempting to mitigate against the negative consequences. Sometimes situations do require a civil divorce, not least for reasons of safety, but this is still not as ideal as a stable, loving couple in a long-term committed permanent relationship raising their biological offspring together. The caricature of the evil step-parent exists for a reason, the Cinderella effect is an uncomfortable reality. In several countries, stepparents beat very young children to death at per capita rates that are more than 100 times higher than the corresponding rates for genetic parents. My friend’s experience is not that uncommon; step-parents or partners of biological parents are far more likely to be perpetuators of physical or emotional abuse. A potentially embarassing and difficult admission for someone in my position – my husband is a loving and doting stepfather to my eldest daughter. I’ve said before, that from her perspective it would have been preferable had her parents been able to stay together and both of us have had to work very hard to ensure that she has not been forced to unduly suffer as a result of her genetic parents’  folly.

Re-reading what happened to my old friend (whose blog is still out there) I wondered whether or not the ‘families come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes’ narrative would have been trotted out as justification by these archetypal and surreal seventies wife-swappers?

But the purpose of this post is not to use an example of disastrous hetrosexual parenting to attack same-sex couples, if anything it shows how male-female parenting is equally capable of going horribly wrong. Here we have a case of children being instrumentalised, used as commodities, treated as possessions way before the idea of surrogacy, gamete donation and IVF to create same-sex parents was even possible, let alone accepted by the mainstream.

What it does demonstrate is what happens when individuals put their own individual wants and desires above everything else, including child welfare and attempt to obfuscate or deny the good of the traditional family unit or the need of a child for their biological mother and father. As my friend’s situation demonstrates, quick, easy no-fault divorce was the harbinger of doom in terms of bringing about situations where children could be treated as irrelevant or as of secondary importance to the rights of adults to do what they pleased. No sooner had legislation been passed recognising that children had basic human rights and ought not to be exploited in factories, workplaces and up chimneys and should be entitled to an education, then we promptly undermined it by saying it was acceptable for them to be deserted by their mothers or fathers in their pursuit of personal happiness.

This week Cardinal Nichols talked about how the Synod on the Family ought not to be thought of as a battle, because collateral damage is one of the worst and most tragic consequences of hostilities. When it comes to the issue of divorce, children are the collateral damage and tragedies such as the one so bleakly outlined by my friend on her blog, occur. Which is why the 461 priests were right to publicly uphold the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. When permanence ceases to be a fundamental part of marriage or its key purpose of child-rearing is ignored, it is children who are the innocent and unwitting victims, even if the intention is supposedly a good or merciful one.

I do hope my friend is alright. I wonder if she’s deleted various entries after being alerted to various searches on it over the past few weeks? Last I heard she had embarked on her second marriage, as had her step-sister and natural sisters. None of them were speaking to her mother who had split up from step-father  almost twenty years hence.

She mentions that her step-father has now become ‘a bit Churchy’ in his old age? What message would it send to her and her family were the Catholic Church to extend a vision of mercy which effectively said that the past actions of these deeply flawed and selfish adults did not matter one iota and the destroyed lives and relationships were irrelevant? All that matters is their current happiness and sense of not feeling ‘excluded’?

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You may have seen the recent letter from more than 450 priests in support of the Church’s teaching on marriage.

We would like to invite you to sign the letter below, to be sent to the press in support of them, and to encourage others to sign it.

To sign, please leave your name and your diocese in the comments box below, or if you prefer email them to me or to one of the coordinators:

Mark Lambert (mark@landbtechnical.com) or Andrew Plasom-Scott (andrewplasom_scott@me.com)

The Letter:

Dear Sir,

We, the undersigned, wish to endorse and support the letter signed by over 450 priests in the recent edition of the Catholic Herald.

As laity, we all know from our own family experiences, or those of our friends and neighbours, the harrowing trauma of divorce and separation, and we sympathise with all those in such situations.

It is precisely for that reason that we believe that the Church must continue to proclaim the truth about marriage, given us by Christ in the Gospels, with clarity and charity in a world that struggles to understand it.

For the sake of those in irregular unions, for the sake of those abandoned and living in accordance with the teachings of the Church, and above all for the sake of the next generation, it is essential that the Church continues to make it quite clear that sacramental marriage is indissoluble until death.

We pray, and expect, that our hierarchy will represent us, and the Church’s unwavering teaching, at the Synod this autumn.

 Yours faithfully,

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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.

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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!

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web-patten-getty

According to a report in today’s Financial Times, Chris Patten has been appointed by Pope Francis to take on the new role of improving the Church’s Vatican media  relations.

As former Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten should have a lot of experience in terms of advising the Vatican how to overhaul their communications department and in particular their media outlets, which let’s be honest, need bringing up to date. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of communicating both the Gospel message and using the media as a form of Catechesis has already been done by enterprising American apostolates. The Vatican has, for some years now been lagging behind, the Church’s own media agency is never the first port of call when it comes to catching up on Papal news and events, or what’s going on in the Catholic world,  unless you are a well-connected Vaticanista or official reporter looking for confirmation of facts. The Vatican still needs to get its act together when it comes to stopping a lie from travelling half way around the world, while their press operation is still switching on their fax machine.

Of course the very last thing that Pope Francis needs right now is the services of a spin doctor, which I suspect he’d eschew, but if Lord Patten is going to use his expertise to help the Vatican in terms overhauling their digital output (which has markedly improved over the past few  years), or getting Vatican radio, TV and newspapers more up to date and able to better maximise the opportunities presented by the rolling news cycle, it will be no bad thing. Patten is a canny operator, in possession of a sharp intellect with a passion for public service and by all accounts a very personable and charming individual. Whatever one may think of the BBC’s editorial policies, their output is of a consistently high quality.

That said his tenure at the BBC wasn’t free of controversy, there was the disastrous coverage of Queen’s diamond jubilee river pageant which Patten admitted was ‘not the corporation’s finest hour’. Also was the affair of the over-generous pay-offs to executives which revealed a chaotic management with no-one willing to take responsibility, and there’s also the issue of the shiny new refurbishment at Broadcasting House (a project which came into being prior to Patten’s tenure) which came in millions over budget. Anyone whose visited there can’t help but to admire the place, I was struck between the transformation between October last year and just last month, the building seemed more high-tech and glossy than ever-before, all the lifts have been replaced and modernised, the recording studios are more spacious and comfortable, but nothing had previously seemed to be screaming out for improvement. I was nonetheless amused to learn that despite the billions spent on the place, apparently bits of the set on the news studio have a tendency to fall off. Perhaps it’s a deliberate retro-70s effect? BBC News meets Crossroads.

One doubts whether or not the Vatican, which is currently engaged in a Curial streamlining and efficiency exercise will have the inclination or surplus cash to play about with in the same way as the BBC – they simply don’t have large amounts of liquidity at hand, nor can I see senior Cardinals and prelates or lay officials getting together for a blue-sky media brainstorming mind-map session followed up by spot of team-building – although the sight of archbishops blind quad-bike racing or rock climbing in St Peter’s Square might be rather fun!

And of course, the big elephant in the room when it comes to the BBC is the Savile affair, although taking heed of the lessons learned in the Catholic Church Lord Patten stated that the BBC must tell the truth and face up to the truth about itself, no matter how terrible. He is no stranger to an institution rocked to its foundations by an abuse scandal and the need for confidence to be restored. At the beginning of this week BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell launched a scathing attack on Lord Patten’s ‘ignorance’ in apparently ignoring talented female broadcasters and presenters, so it might be that this appointment is further grist to the feminists’ mill.

Lord Patten oversaw arrangements for the phenomenally successful Papal visit of 2010, and in September of 2010, The Tablet named him as one the UK’s most influential Catholics, such an accolade being something of a double-edged sword. Perhaps that’s why Damian Thompson appears to have little time for him, describing him in one tweet as being as Tory, as Tony Blair is Catholic. Ouch! It’s a theme reiterated by Damian in several posts, along with the fact that Lord Patten is a trustee of the Tablet, a Chancellor of Oxford University and  seemingly much trusted by the Bishops Conference in England and Wales, as a safe pair of hands.

Still, who are we to judge? He’s an experienced media operator, businessman and politician. For those understandably cautious about his orthodoxy, (he isn’t going to be responsible for formulating or promulgating the message, only the medium by which it is transmitted), let’s pray and wish him and the Vatican media operation, well.

Update:

It looks as though Lord Patten will be leading an extremely senior and experienced international team, according to the Vatican Press Release, which includes the very highly regarded Monsigner Paul Tighe, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Relations and Gregory Earlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, so the Media Committee set up to consider reforms is not a mere quango and neither is Patten’s appointment some sort of English Catholic establishment political coup d’etat as might be claimed. Chris Patten is not acting as a Mandelson-style personal advisor or spin doctor, as reported in the Mail and his role is a voluntary, unpaid one.

The dry nature and visual format of the press release and the fact that the FT has so far been the only outlet to pick up the news, neatly proves the point about the need for reform.

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A few years ago I was riled into writing about SPUC in less than complimentary terms following some less than charitable remarks about Catholic Voices, the organisation of which I am proud to be a part, not being orthodox enough. Writing on his blog back in 2011, John Smeaton, Director of SPUC called for the voices of ‘real Catholics’ instead of our appeasing liberal heterodox ones.

Admittedly I was less than charitable in my reply, my irritation and indignation fuelled in part by pregnancy hormones. The accusations of heterodoxy and attacks upon Catholic Voices coming from John Smeaton, did cease, for which I think we are all grateful – after all when it came to the thorny topic of the redefinition of marriage, it was clear that we were all on the same side.

And when it comes to the aims of SPUC, I think we’re all on their side, we all wish for a successful pro-life lobby group in this country. It is very disappointing for ordinary Catholics in the pews that by and large our leadership seems to be quiet on the subject of abortion, with a few notable exceptions and that there seems to be no specifically Catholic pro-life organisation, which is why SPUC occupy a weird hybrid position, ostensibly being a secular lobby group and not a registered charity, with no official Catholic endorsement. To be fair to SPUC they are simply filling a gap.

SPUC has two problems, the first one being that in order to gain any serious political traction, any pro-life movement, be that in the realms of abortion or euthanasia should not be perceived as a purely religious movement. To use the cliche, if I had a penny for every time I’ve trotted out the phrase that life issues, including contraception and IVF for that matter, don’t actually require any sort of religious belief or recourse to theism to be valid ethical positions, neither do they fit into any sort of left/right-wing praxis, then I’d be a seriously rich woman by now.

One of the accusations trotted out by those angered by my original post was that my criticism came from self-interest, I had my eye on staging some sort of coup and emerging as a female pro-life leader. One of the reasons that I have absolutely no intention or desire to lead any sort of movement (aside from the fact I am not a natural leader and have never been comfortable in these sorts of positions and have more than enough on my plate at present) is because as a lesser-known Catholic, I’d never be able to move beyond the ‘religious agenda’ template. The future of pro-life in the political sphere in any event, needs to be able to bust the religious zealot/wingnut frame and led by someone who has kept below the radar.

LifeCharity has a Catholic founder and chairman in Jack Scarisbrick and admittedly employs practicing Christians of all denominations, but it also employs those of other faiths and none. It is this wholly secular, non-religious flavour of the organisation which has enabled it to make some inroads in terms of being invited to participate in policy forums. It is precisely Life’s lack of overt religiosity, it refuses to endorse or alternatively condemn 40 Days for Life for example which makes the pro-choice lobby spit with fury as the tired accusations and tropes simply don’t work. This is why organisations such as Education for Choice, do their damnest to undermine them in other fields, such as pregnancy counselling and education. It isn’t LIFE’s secular nature that protects them from such attacks, let’s face it, there’s a whole plethora of people whom it would suit, from professional lobby groups to big Pharma groups or anyone with any sort of financial interests in contraception and abortion, who want pro-lifers kicked out of schools and not being allowed anywhere near a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. The lack of religiosity makes the smear merchants’ job much harder as well as enabling LIFE to reach a wider audience who would perhaps be more willing to lay their prejudices about religious organisations aside and listen.

The second problem is that the UK Catholic church should have a dedicated pro-life movement throughout the country. It’s very hard for Catholics to donate to secular pro-life charities who make appeals in church, when they emphasize the non-religious nature of their work. Now there’s no reason why religion should come into fields such as crisis pregnancy counselling or sex education especially for the wider world, but neither should Catholicism be excluded, particularly when we are talking about Catholic schools or parishioners.

I’m proud to publicly state my support for 40 days for life (as has Pope Francis), I believe that respectful, dignified silent prayer vigils with specialist trained and experienced crisis pregnancy outreach workers are an excellent witness to the faith. But it’s very hard to support an organisation who comes into my church and says ‘we don’t stand outside the abortion clinics’ in lofty tones signifying disproval.

There is a need for a Catholic organisation not only to support prayer vigils, but to do all of the grass-roots and outreach work to change hearts and minds which is every bit as vital as the politics. SPUC are quite good at some of this. My father-in-law is a member and is always exercised into action by the literature that comes dropping through his letterbox at regular intervasl from SPUC. He made an appointment to see his MP about same-sex marriage on their advice, rang them up and had a ‘very long helpful conversation for at least half an hour with a girl from there’ which briefed him in terms of what to say and what to expect.

Thing is though, as I said before, I’m still not convinced that this was the best use of their time and resources, it’s fighting a battle on too many fronts. Too many members of the general public were baffled by SPUC’s response to same-sex marriage whose point was that anything that undermines marriage therefore leads to the collapse of family life which then results in social consequences such as abortion, was too sophisticated and nuanced to work effectively. Marriage had already been weakened over the past few decades, notably with the introduction of no-fault divorce – an adulterer’s charter, there are consequences for the unborn child in terms of trying to state that every couple has the right to marriage and children, but most people could not see beyond the straw-man argument of causation and asked how two men or women getting married would then cause a third party to have an abortion.

The work that SPUC did in terms of briefing my father-in-law, could and should have been done by a different agency. If we’d had a cohesive official Catholic life movement, then they would have been able to pick up the slack.

The trouble is that because John Smeaton seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time attacking the Catholic bishops and hierarchy on his blog along with LGBT issues, it doesn’t make the Catholic church inclined to work with him, further fuelling his annoyance and thus the cycle of recrimination continues and nothing gets done.

No doubt lots of people will say to me in the coms box, yeah Caroline, but John Smeaton was right to criticise the bishops because of xyz. Specifically on this issue of Archbishop Peter Smith’s statement asking the government not to automatically convert civil partnerships into marriage and abolish them, which John Smeaton has blogged about, I would have a slightly different take. Yes, the CDF did issue guidelines against civil partnerships back in 2003, identifying correctly that they would lead to the introduction of marriage. The Archbishop was however speaking in the context of 2014, when civil partnerships are a reality. His point was the same as it was back in their introduction in 2003, being that civil partnerships do afford some important legal protections for same-sex couples. You really would need to be an unreasonable bigot to deny people the right to live with whom they choose and to be able to have that person given a special legal status as a significant companion, regardless of whether or not they are having an intimate sexual relationship. It isn’t beyond the bounds of imagination to suggest that there could be some Catholics living a chaste life within a civil partnership who do not wish to see them become marriages.

After attacking the Archbishop for his perceived deviation from Catholic teaching about civil partnerships, John then goes into a long diatribe about the lack of condemnation for homosexuality or homosexual acts from Peter Smith and whether or not civil partnerships or gay marriages are deemed to be sexual in nature, quoting an Anglican barrister for support!

It frankly appears prurient and petty minded. We know that there are problems with the legal definition of gay marriage, sexual consummation is necessarily missing, but the Archbishop was neither promoting gay marriage nor encouraging people to have extra marital sex. Stating the legal protections of civil partnerships is not the same as encouraging people to enter them. Does an Archbishop really need to take every opportunity to specifically denounce and reiterate Catholic teaching on homosexual acts? Aren’t we all already more than aware of what the Church says about sex outside of marriage? Besides which the Catholic church welcomed the Wolfenden Report which led to the de-criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and have also called for homosexuality to be de-criminalised throughout the world, as acts of private morality should not be subject to criminal sanctions.

People are rarely converted to Christianity simply by preaching; clever reasoned, compelling and logical arguments are all very well, but there also needs to be some element of personal encounter as St Paul demonstrates. I recently attended a session with the Catholic Labour MP Rob Flello, who entered the Commons as an atheist, where he talked movingly about a very personal encounter with Christ which led to his conversion.

Continually preaching about homosexuality or reiterating Catholic teaching on it does nothing to bring about the joy of Christ. Surely these discussions are best held on a one-to-one personal basis? In any event context is everything, at a time when Catholics are fighting to have our voices heard in the public square, denouncements of homosexual acts as immoral and disordered in a document concerned with protecting the legal rights of those in civil partnerships is not only irrelevant, but risks any remaining credibility or opportunity to be heard.

But to get back to the point, SPUC have done some good work and do number some good people in their organisation. It’s just a tragedy to see them continually arguing themselves into irrelevance and alienating themselves from official Catholic endorsement and support with their leader’s relentless focus upon homosexuality which is often picked up on by mainstream media, along with criticism of the Catholic bishops. I’m not saying that the bishops should be exempt from criticism where it is merited, but as ever it really isn’t the remit of a secular lobby group.

Catholics cannot deny the link between abortion and the deviation from God’s plan for human flourishing. Perhaps it’s time for the UK church to propose that case a lot better than in the past and then maybe SPUC can concentrate solely on how best they can fulfil their remit of specifically protecting the life of the unborn child, for which purpose they solicit donations and support.

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Kudos to the BBC. Earlier on today I once again participated in BBC World Have Your Say, where the topic of Emily Letts, the woman who filmed her abortion was under discussion. The programme has to be one of the most pro-life broadcasts I’ve ever heard on mainstream media, which would not have been their intention.

In order to act as a counter-balance to Emily (who had the lion’s share of airtime and dominated proceedings at the beginning) they invited on 4 other post-abortive women, including Catherine Adair, a former Planned Parenthood clinic worker, who was able to tell listeners the parts of the abortion procedure that Emily Lett’s video left out such as counting up and bagging up the missing body parts and Nancy from Silent No More, who was able to tell of the effect that abortion had upon her life.

Listening to these women’s brave testimonies was incredibly powerful and moving. From a Catholic perspective it once again struck me how much potential the pro-life movement has in terms of drawing people back into the faith. Pro-choicers talk about judgemental religious bigots and yet there are so many men and women who open their hearts to grace and allow their tragedy to bring them closer to God. I’ve never experienced any shaming, judgement or snarky asides from orthodox Catholics and Christians about my abortion. Anyone whom I have discussed it with have let me know how sorry they are that this happened, and offered unconditional love and prayer. Of course the sacrament of confession by its very nature means that you will approach in a spirit of penitence, but the priest won’t bellow “you did what”, neither will he tell anyone and neither will he force you to make some kind of public reparation. Confession for us Catholics is about reconciling and forgiveness. When my kids look up at me, knowing they have been very naughty and say sorry, it isn’t my job to make them feel worse, even if they have done something they know they were expressly forbidden to do. God is pretty similar and so are the priests whom he uses. They are just happy that you’re there and want to help you. If confession involved shaming, you wouldn’t see the queue of young people waiting outside the confessional at Westminster Cathedral, giving up their lunch break for a good ear-bashing! Nor indeed would anyone go ever, if priests piled on the guilt.

When you listen to former clinic worker Abbey Johnson, she tells of how when she left her employment as an abortion clinic director, she said to 40 Days for Life founder Sean Carney, ‘look I might have left the industry, but sure as anything I’m not becoming a Catholic’. Two years later she was received into the Church. Catholic teaching in this area is what draws so many back to the church and who are then able to convince other hearts and minds. The vineyard is rich – which is why anyone who speaks up either on abortion or human sexuality will find themselves under a form of attack at some point. This is spiritual warfare where souls can so easily be led astray.

One of the many things that irked me about Emily’s testimony (once again I had no idea that she would be defending herself on the show, I was gobsmacked to discover she was a fellow guest 5 minutes before we went on air) was that when it came to the topic of post-abortive healing, she kept urging people to go to abortion-related and/or secular organisations where they wouldn’t be ‘shamed.’

Had the mic come back to me I would have picked her up on this. Pro-life counsellors NEVER shame post-abortive women and neither does the Catholic Church. The only shaming I can see going on, is the shaming of those who feel shame. Counselling should be an opportunity to explore and examine your feelings and how to harness negativity to a positive effect. A woman should be allowed to discuss, own and explore feelings of shame. While a counsellor should never seek to make a woman feel ashamed, they can help her to explore and discover for herself if her shame or guilt is justified. Ultimately no-one can or should tell another person what to ‘feel’.

It is not the role of any counsellor to remove a woman’s feelings of shame, but work out how she might best resolve those feelings. Furthermore shame is an emotionally loaded word, implying social stigma, whereas in many women the feeling is not shame, but regret. A counsellor can help a woman to realise that there may well have been mitigating circumstances surrounding her decision to abort, but it isn’t their job to suppress whatever a woman is feeling or to remove her instincts, rather to help them resolve them.

I’d be extremely concerned by a post-abortive counsellor trying to tell a woman that her feelings are wrong or misguided. We cannot help how we feel, while we cannot or should not dwell unhealthily upon negative feelings, we do at least need to acknowledge and resolve them.

While we’re on the subject of counselling, just as pro-choicers throw their hands up in horror at pro-lifers carrying out pre-abortion counselling, I’m equally concerned by a woman who thinks that abortion is a happy, awesome, dopamine fuelled experience telling women not to worry about it, it’s all fine. There may not be cutting involved in an early stage surgical abortion but it still entails intimate surgery which is the main source of anxiety for women, along with the risk of damage to the cervix and uterus. If a pro-life counsellor were to have been filmed telling a woman how physically harrowing many women find an abortion procedure, there would be uproar. Why then is someone employed by a clinic who stand to profit from a woman having an abortion, allowed to tell them it’s all a shiny happy thing of joy and love?

I’m with the Anchoress on this one. To my mind this was counter-productive. It wasn’t a happy video at all, Emily looked strained and displayed signs of self-deception, such as by repeating her words, she parroted glib catch-phrases and seemed lacking in conviction. When it came to the procedure itself, there was no disguising it was traumatic – note the lift muzak to disguise the noise of the suction machine and the clink of surgical instruments. Emily’s singing was forced – it reminded me of a recording I once heard of the Captain of doomed Saudi flight 163, who was heard on the flight recorders singing and humming to himself, instead of taking the decisive action needed which would have undoubtedly saved the lives of 301 souls on board who all perished unnecessarily. Emily’s singing and expressions of “I’m such a lucky girl” were coping strategies to distract herself from what was really going on down there.

Interestingly Emily’s catchphrases were about women who shouldn’t have to suffer in silence – suffering, pain, grieving and loss were her key themes. Having an allegedly vaguely bearable abortion procedure doesn’t somehow circumnavigate those issues that many women really do face. For those women who have faced heartbreak over a reluctant decision to abort, feeling that there really was no other option, this video is a slap in the face, making light of what is for many, a tragic and unwanted last resort.

There were plenty of ways of getting people talking about abortion, sacrificing her own baby’s life, without much thought and without consulting the father, doesn’t seem to be the most constructive way of doing so. Hey I’ve got you all talking she said, gushing over how beautiful and awesome we all were, in perhaps the way that only Americans can. Fact is Emily, I’d much rather have shut my mouth if it had meant that your baby lived. There are plenty of other stories out there which all need to be heard. If abortion is about suffering, then why aren’t we doing what we can to avoid it, rather than false attempts to sanitise and gloss over what is at the very least, an emotionally raw experience?

Emily said that she didn’t mean to get pregnant but also that she was not bothering to use birth control either, she was haphazardly monitoring her ovulation cycles. Were she to have been doing that, then she would have known fine well when she was fertile, so one has to wonder what this was all about. She had no long term partner, but ‘things happen’ and she wound up pregnant! And this was a sex educator?! She could have chosen to go down the same route that I did and use the pill, which is normally advised at her stage in pregnancy when someone is dead set, but after talking to a friend who had already videoed herself using this method, opted for surgery.

When Josie Cunningham used the prospect of abortion to gain fame, she was demonised around the world and yet by and large Emily is feted and admired for her ‘bravery’. What’s the difference between the two women who both used abortion as a form of self-publicity which makes one the target of admiration and the other the lowest of the low? Probably the time limit had something to do with this, but also class and that the middle-class college-girl liberal activist making a feminist political point is more pleasing on the eye. Josie Cunningham has spade loads more courage than Emily, nonetheless. It isn’t brave to film yourself doing something that you were planning to do anyway and edit out the nasty parts to mislead  your audience. Raising an unplanned baby alone – now there’s selfless courage!

Emily’s repeated on-air exclamations of how great, awesome and inspiring abortion is, deeply unsettled me, because they sounded so hollow and empty. “Hey, yeah wow, abortion, awesome, trust women”. Women make mistakes with their bodies just the same as men. Gender doesn’t sanctify or validate an unwise decision. Trust women, cos they like never ever get anything wrong about their reproductive decisions, like err unexpectedly getting themselves pregnant in the first place. (And no, that’s not shaming, it’s fact. There’s a reproductive decision, that Emily got wrong).

With that in mind, I do wish her all the best and hope this conflicted young lady  doesn’t have a rough ride in the future, either in terms of future fertility or suffering from an emotional fall-out. Today was only the second time I’ve discussed my abortion on air and the first time I did so in any great detail. Putting yourself out there like that is tough, I hope Emily finds the support that she needs, whatever the outcome.

When Emily said that were her apartment to catch fire, the scan photograph of her baby would be the first thing she would grab, it underlined her dissonance. That she is marvelling over her (God-given) ability to make life and that she likes to be reminded of the fact that she made a life either makes her a complete psychopath or a tragic victim of the deceptive and destructive sophistry that seeks to uphold abortion as a good.

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