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If you read the Universe or follow me on social media, you may be aware that I have just returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

One of the things that struck me about this particular trip is the response of my children, especially that of my ten year-old and four year-old. I guess this is how ‘indoctrination’ or enculturation really works – not by verbal barracking or proselytising but what Pope Francis would probably term a ‘culture of encounter’. My experience demonstrates why accusations of indoctrination against Catholic schools are so far off the mark. If a family does not practice the faith at home or introduce their children to Catholic traditions, then any seeds planted in school are likely to fall upon fallow ground.

If we begin with the ten year old, when asked what her favourite part of the trip (which included hotel party nights and lots of opportunities to socialise in a small group consisting of children her own age) her response was ‘doing the high stations of the cross’. For those who have never been, there are two sets of stations of the cross in Lourdes; one high up on a hilltop which give an imposing aerial view of Lourdes which I’ve never done, the steep slope rendering them impossible for wheelchairs and buggies, the other on the flat plain, adjoining the river. The lower stations are huge modern interactive sculptures, designed to be touched, whereas the high ones consist of larger than life tableaus, which really bring the Passion to life. Both are beautiful.

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Jesus falls the first time, High Stations of the Cross

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The Crucifixion, low stations of the Cross

I have to confess that upon hearing that her favourite part had been the Stations, I did shed a few tears of both pride and joy and no doubt any non-Christians reading this would cite this as proof of emotional abuse, ‘fancy,’ they would say, ‘making a ten year old walk in Jesus’ bloody footsteps and gruesome death on her holiday, how deranged and bizarre, robbing her childhood and imposing your ideas upon her’, but the point is that she was given the choice whether or not to do the more grown up version and chose to do it on her own. Furthermore, the Stations of the Cross, while constituting the penance that Our Lady requested that pilgrims to Lourdes must make, are invariably joyful – they have a happy ending and demonstrate Christ’s love for us. The Passion, the crucifixion is a central tenet of our faith. It does pre-teens no favours to infantilise them and in any event, the figures, while incredibly lifelike, go nowhere near as far as the realism of the Mel Gibson, Passion of the Christ movie.

So anyway, the other things that our eldest child enjoyed were the torchlight procession, perhaps unsurprisingly, what child would not enjoy walking with lit candles through the twilight and darkness, and full immersion in the baths, again, something that I have never done, both on health grounds (last time I went I was 37 weeks pregnant) and the logistics of 3 under 5s. In terms of the baths, again (and I know this reads like a smug mother post, really I don’t care) I was delighted that one of the adult helpers commented upon how quiet and thoughtful she was during the two hour wait, joining in with all the prayers and actually setting the tone for the other children. She didn’t think it was a weird thing to do at all, Our Lady asked for pilgrims to bathe in the spring and so that is precisely what she did. At the service of reconciliation, her age group was taken off to have some age-appropriate preparation prior to confession; she was one of the last to queue up and make her confession because according to the leader she wanted to have a little bit more time to think about things, rather than rushing straight up to get it over with.

Now I certainly can’t take the credit for producing such a thoughtful and reflective child, but I do believe that having a family that practices our faith at home, not in an ostentatious way, but just in little everyday habits, along with being away with a group all with a similar attitude towards Christianity, has definitely helped, in a way that being lectured at would not, which most children find deathly boring and is counterproductive.

The big surprise of the trip however, was not my eldest child, but the response of the four-year old, who tends to stubborn, wilful boisterousness and what this has to demonstrate towards the Church, particularly those who make certain assumptions about the young and ‘traditionalism’.

While away I read Joseph Shaw’s excellent blogpost on children and Latin whose experience mirrors my own. One of the things that the eldest loved while on the torchlight procession was being able to join in with all of the Latin chants. She may not know what every single word means, but in a procession consisting of several languages, whenever the Salve Regina, Paternoster, or Gloria Patri cropped up, she was able to join in and belt it out with gusto, a smile of recognition and excitment lighting up her face. This is what we sing at home, and wow, we are singing it here. She loves this whenever we go to a certain N.O. Mass here in Brighton. What we sing should never be about how it makes us feel, but given that this is cited so much as justification for ditching the Latin and plainsong, I suspect like most children, mine loves it because being able to join in makes her feel included and actually the Latin, quite grown-up. Children savour big words, they adore feeling as though they are adults, words like consubstantial make them feel all clever and sophisticated, like they too have been let in on a secret.

So on to the 4 year old, and also the 3 year old. Most of the basilicas in Lourdes, frankly aren’t very inspirational, especially the basilica of Pope Pius X, which resembles a giant underground car park, draped with flags of the saints in an attempt to give the place a spiritual air, but which from a distance could pass off as advertisement posters. The children absolutely loved the place. Why? Because it gave them licence not to concentrate and to run about in several different directions. Church meets play area, the low benches providing plenty of opportunity for imaginative young minds to double as hurdles, balance beams, places to hide underneath, swing off and climb over. Their attention wasn’t focused, all they could see was the play potential of the place.

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Interior of Pope Piux X basilica – lots of potential for adventurous toddlers and not much to capture their attention

On being informed however, that our final mass would take place in the Our Lady of the Rosary basilica, I have never seen the children so excited. For the uninitiated, this is the Church that Our Lady requested was built, on top of the grotto where she had manifested to Bernadette Soubirous over a period of 15 days. The building itself is incredibly imposing and ornate, decorated with irridescent gold mosaics, surrounded by statues and topped by a golden crown, signifying that of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven.

Catholic bling for children - a golden crown, what's not to like?

Catholic bling for children – a golden crown, what’s not to like?

The children could not wait. It was for them, like going to Cinderella’s castle, all week long they had been pestering us to climb up and down the stairs of the side of the basilica going to the ramparts, the Church was a source of amazement and fascination, like something out of a fairytale. They were drawn to it and dying to go inside, knowing that it was a special place, ‘guarded by statues.’

Move over Disneyland, exciting looking Church - who's inside...

Exciting looking Church – who’s inside…

When inside, they were not disappointed. Every single wall is covered with a gold mosaic, depicting one of the mysteries of the rosary. We were seated by the Nativity mosaic, to which the children went running up to “look mummy I can see Baby Jesus…and the wise men…and the angels”. They were transfixed, not knowing where to look next, but engaging with what they could see, instantly recognising the scene, despite the fact that some would claim that Byzantine iconography upon which the tableaus are based isn’t child-friendly, and wanting to walk around the church and stare. And stare. Inevitably towards the end of the Mass, they did begin to get fidgety, due to the prolonged announcements, but there was a considerable period of time where they were happy just to sit and gaze in wonder, and a curiosity was aroused to ask more – what’s that picture over there, who’s that, why are the windows round, and so on.

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Part of the Nativity scene that my children instantly recognised

During the Eucharist, presumably the ciboria belonging to the Basilica were used, and again, they were an object of wonderment to the children, having an obvious golden lustre. ‘What’s in there mummy’, asked the 3 year old, ‘is it treasure?’, ‘well actually yes it is’, being my response, ‘it’s the body of Jesus’. ‘Can I have it too’ she asked for the very first time.

Upon leaving the church, the children asked if they could go there every time they went to Mass and have repeatedly asked the same thing since returning home.

This is what the iconoclasm of the Reformation and to some extent the post-conciliar era, have deprived our children of – their cultural heritage which they are hungry for and able to engage with, which needs no dumbing down. I’ve never ever seen the children so excited about a church before, nor indeed so willing to engage. Not only with the basilica, but the whole spirit of the place; despite some of the tacky tourist overtones, the holy sites themselves in Lourdes retain an aura of great reverence, this really is the place where the veil between this life and the next is extremely thin. The 4 year old asked us whether or not Bernadette was sad when she never saw the beautiful lady again and insisted upon the lengthy story being read to her every night at bedtime, proving that when she wants to concentrate and engage, she is able to. To put things into cultural perspective, I was sent to a Catholic secondary school but had no idea who Bernadette was, what had occurred at Lourdes, other than it was something to do with Catholic superstition and the name of Madonna’s daughter!

For those who would say that the Church ought to concentrate all of its resources on the poor and embrace simplicity in all things, including buildings, vestments, ciboria and so on, I can only point to John 12:5. Yes, we must help the poor, but not to the exclusion of everything else, it helps no-one to lift them out of poverty if we then exclude them from the richness of the Gospel. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are here to serve God, spread the Gospel and not just get caught up in single issues, whether that be the pro-life cause, or fighting to get rid of poverty, something which in any event, will never be accomplished.

The money is well spent, if, as with my children, the surroundings of a building really helps draw them closer to God and want to engage with and understand what is going on inside. The fact that a 3 year old thought that a ciborium contained treasure, demonstrates the importance of the symbolism. No complex theology was needed to draw her eye to and cause her desire for the Eucharist. She could see how important and valuable it was for herself.

Reflecting on this later with an older religious sister, she disagreed and said what a shame it would be if the Church were to go back to a more formal liturgy, roman chasubles and so on and doubted whether or not altar servers ought to wear robes. She thought that a modern style was so much more universal and engaging, especially for the children. When I told her my experience, she was rather lost for words, believing that my children had a unique privilege due to their parents, but actually our family faith and habits are no more sophisticated or complex than the average Catholic, 50 or 60 years ago. There is nothing difficult, elite or complicated about being able to repeat a chant that you hear regularly in Church. Nothing deeply erudite about saying grace before meals, bedtime prayer or having a holy water stoop by your front door, or some statues or icons somewhere in your house, which can be picked up extremely cheaply.

The main objection seemed to be that traditionalists (as good a description as any can be found here) are concerned with ritual, rubrics and nothing else, whereas charismatics have their heart of fire for Christ. To me this seemed grossly unfair, why is a traditionalist deemed incapable of burning with love for Jesus and the Gospel, simply because they prefer the Extraordinary Form? The two traits are not mutually exclusive.

My children aren’t traddies, we don’t go to the Extraordinary Form often enough, none of us wear mantillas (so as not to draw attention to ourselves as much as anything else, although I bet the girls would love them) but they certainly responded far far better to a traditional version of Catholicism and the simple piety on offer in Lourdes, than anything they have in this country, although when we do go to a NO Mass at local church in Brighton which does celebrate the EF, their behaviour is markedly improved – the solemnity with which Mass is celebrated and the disposition of the other Mass-attenders has an impact.

A young seminarian whom I discussed all this with on the train journey home, posited that we need a new word to describe a new culture, noting that the pendulum is still swinging back into position since the extremes immediately following V2 and that nothing yet is settled, we are still on shifting sands. He coined the phrase “tradismatic”, a combination of traditionalism and the overt burning passion and fire for God manifested by the charismatic movement.

I’ve been rather taken with the phrase and the idea. The future’s bright, the future’s tradismatic! I hope it takes off.

Back in 1967, the Abortion Act was passed following a passionate and heated debate in the Commons. Baroness Knight’s speech against the motion was greeted with uproar and derision, when she stated that this bill, if passed, which was framed around compassion and cited difficult cases, would lead to wholesale abortion on demand. Her statement,

“once we accept that it is lawful to kill a human being because it causes inconvenience, where do we end?”

was mocked as being over-emotive and full of exaggeration. The Abortion Act had built-in safeguards, required the signature of two doctors to stop coercion or forced abortion and was only to be applied in limited cases to help desperate women who really had no other choice.

The parallels with the rhetoric surrounding Lord Falconer’s assisted suicide bill are striking. Forty-five years later, the architect of the bill has said that he never envisaged it would lead to abortion on demand, almost 200,000 abortions take place every year and repeat abortions are on the rise with some women having as many as 9 in their lifetime.

The two doctor safeguards have been thrown out of the window, undercover investigations have discovered doctors are not even examining their patients and have pre-signed stacks of abortion forms up to four years in advance and the Department of Health have outsourced the business of aborting babies to private companies, who claim to be charities and yet who receive millions of pounds from taxpayers for the medically awkward and messy task of terminating the lives of babies whose existence would cause an inconvenience to their parents.

The past forty-five years have seen doctors abuse procedures and break the law with impunity and enjoying immunity from prosecution or professional sanctions. In all likelihood thousands of babies have been aborted because they were female, others were aborted because their disability meant that their life was deemed to be of less value or worth, and some have been terminated, way beyond the point of viability. As one report last week pointed out, babies can be and are killed up to the point of birth for easily treatable conditions.

Medical prognoses have often been proven to be incorrect too. Babies predicted to have disabilities have been born perfectly healthy, in some cases a condition has proved easily manageable and no barrier to a good quality of life and some babies with absolutely nothing wrong have been aborted due to a mistaken diagnoses. The problem with any prognosis is that it is always phrased in fairly stark medical terminology with probabilities and scary official-sounding words like co-morbidity, the language often requiring a medical dictionary or interpreter. The language is devoid of joy, happiness or personal fulfilment but replete with potential difficulty and obstacles. There is only ever probability, never certainty and never any existential or metaphysical dimension to any sort of medical or clinical discussion.

Like the abortion laws, the assisted dying bill is backed by a host of rich, powerful and wealthy celebrities. With abortion a host of well-paid self-identifying ‘feminists’ both male and female come out in favour, with the same tropes – rights, compassion, autonomy.

But it isn’t the rich well-paid people who by and large are having abortions. Statistics worldwide demonstrate that is the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of society, especially certain ethnic minorities or immigrants who are resorting to abortion, because they find that they have no other choice.

Thinking about the UK for a moment, Tamara Beckwith, the millionaire trustafarian IT-girl of the 90’s, one of the Tara Palmer-Tomkinson stable, had a baby aged 19. For her, money was no object and she choose life, because she did not have a financial barrier. Equally we have former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, soap star Clare Sweeney and various other Daily Mail celebrities having babies and enthusiastically embracing and promoting single-motherhood because they can. They have the resources and the lifestyle to accommodate children and the perennial approval of an all-adoring public.

People such as these can argue for a position of choice, because they had the rare luxury of being able to enjoy it. Having a baby would not have been a game-changer for them in terms of money, resources or career.

But this situation is rare for us lesser mortals. We have to limit our family size or resort to abortion because it feels like there really is no other choice and we do not have a celebrity career or have to face the disapproval of friends and family for choosing to wreak havoc upon ourselves for having a baby.

Let me demonstrate how abortion, sold to Parliament as a compassionate choice to be used in limited circumstances with the signature of two doctors has been incorporated into the health care system. I’ve been pregnant once or twice now. The first thing you have to do (in my area anyway) is make an appointment with the GP to ‘confirm your pregnancy’. This entails telling the doctor that you have taken a positive pregnancy test and in my case asking to be referred to the midwife (and thinking that the whole business of saying hey doc I’m up the duff is a waste of everyone’s time and NHS resources).

See that. You cannot just book in directly with the midwife at my practice. No, you have to ‘discuss’ it first with a GP. Why? So that abortion can be discussed with you and offered if necessary or if you are undecided. In some cases, including mine, it has been suggested as a solution, to severe morning sickness and anxiety. This has happened to me with my third and fourth children. I’ve requested to be booked in with the midwife to get the whole ante-natal plan working and been asked whether or not I’m sure and reminded that there is plenty of time.

You offer someone abortion, or assisted death and there it is, straight away, on the table, like the big fat elephant in the room. When a doctor suggests it or even hints at it, it has added gravitas and instantaneously the pressure mounts, no matter how firm you might be feeling in your own mind. The impression is given that somehow you are being demanding, burdensome, irresponsible and reckless.

Since the legalisation of abortion every single pregnant woman now feels keenly aware of her ‘choice’. It’s a decision that hangs heavily in the air, every single day of an unplanned pregnancy, and even sometimes when one is planned, if there is a sudden change in circumstances. When employers become terse and uncooperative, if family or friends are unsupportive, the unspoken question, circles your head “am I doing the right thing”. When someone indicates to you that you are not, the pressure of social affirmation or expectation can prove almost irresistible.

Those diagnosed with a life-limiting condition or who suffer from a number of illness, if this bill is passed will every day have to confront this choice. “Should I just end things here and now? Am I selfish for wanting to stay alive? Am I a burden on family and resources?”. Could a bad day now lead to their premature demise thanks to a bout of depression or despair. I know, I’ve been there in pregnancy, wanting to do anything just to make the sickness end. Composer and peer Andrew Lloyd Weber has said that last year he was on the verge of joining Dignitas thanks to excruciating pain following 14 leg and back operations, but having come through the experience appreciates that to have killed himself would have been reckless and irresponsible.

Just as we see certain sections of the media and press demonise those with larger families on benefits or single mothers, because they didn’t take the option of abortion and now receive state benefits, will we now see the same said about those with multiple disabilities?

It certainly seems likely, when you have writers such as Polly Toynbee cheering on those who might feel that they would be a burden, ‘yes you will’ she says , it’s no bad thing if the terminally ill or medically dependent feel pressurised and Baroness Warnock barking that people with dementia have ‘a duty to die’.

Like abortion, the advocates for assisted dying are rich, famous and well-paid celebrities like Cilla Black, Richard and Judy and even now Lulu, seeping into the nation’s consciousness, introducing and reinforcing misplaced fears about death, dying and burdens.

They won’t have to face a cash-strapped NHS which will offer them euthanasia as a cost-saving and compassionate measure as an alternative to treatment which would prolong life. Like celebrity single mothers they really can choose between life and death without having to face censure or opprobrium for choosing the former. Meanwhile the rest of us are made to feel guilty for wishing to continue our existence.

It’s staggering when you look at the statistics surrounding birth, people are having babies later and later, partly due to financial pressures and partly because they perceive that they need to be a in a perfect chocolate box situation. Hand-in-hand with that, the idea of bodily autonomy (which is specious, no-one truly has this, you can’t force a doctor to chop off your leg) means that now we are all tuned in to the unrealistic idea of the perfect or ideal birth.

The same concept will inevitably creep in to the dying. Death will have to be further clinicalised, managed, perfect and ‘dignified’, and sold as being something which we deserve. Perceived quality of life will determine respect and value given to other people and where do you draw that line?

We are fundamentally treating our existence as passive consumers of an experience in which we are control freaks determining that everything has to be perfect according to our personal dictats and tastes, from relationships, careers, sex, pregnancy, birth, family circumstances and death. It’s hardly surprising that as society has become more prosperous and wealthy, people have become proportionally more selfish and fearful of becoming dependent on others or having others dependent on them.

Life is not perfect, it is fundamentally messy and we have to accept that everything has its season. We are on an unavoidable journey of dependence, independence and dependence once more. The fear and refusal to accept inter-dependence between parent and child now manifests right at the start of life, with parents desperate to put children in child-care and to rush their independence in order that they can be free of the burden of 24/7 child-rearing and resume their previous lives, with the child treated little more than a pet which needs training and in whom the state needs to have a stake. Is it any surprise then, when children similarly treat their parents as the state’s responsibility when they get older or that parents have a fear of intimate dependence?

There is never a perfect time to fall in love, never a perfect time to have a baby and never a perfect time to die. We must not licence doctors to build killing into our heath care system as part of a palliative care approach, but rather enable patients, just as we should pregnant women, to accept and reconcile themselves with what is going to happen, all the while offering comfort and support, rather than a violent way out.

I often muse that a woman is pregnant for 9 months as that period is a time of acceptance, anticipation and growth. The same should be applied to the dying, who deserve more than a validation of their fear, inner turmoil and despair.

Abortion was never intended to be an integral part of a woman’s healthcare needs, promoted in schools and offered as a routine and morally neutral choice. Neither was it believed by parliamentarians that society would promote abortions as desirable amongst certain classes of people, like single mothers , ‘chavs’ or those with chaotic personal lives and/or addictions. What makes Lord Falconer and his chums fool themselves into believing that assisted dying will not be applied to the poor and vulnerable in the same way?

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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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Taken from this weekend’s Gay Pride event in London. Genetic pre-disposition or social conditioning/choice?

Julie Bindel, bete noir of the LGBT activists scene is back, having written an interesting book Straight Expectations, one chapter of which examines the question of the ‘gay gene’ and whether or not homosexuality is a choice.

I never got an opportunity to debate Bindel  in any of the same-sex marriage media debates much to my regret. I’d like to meet Julie, though no doubt she would vehemently disagree with me. She’s highly intelligent, feisty and ferocious and in my opinion one of the most challenging writers on the entire subject. Her writing is all the more compelling for the conservative Christian when one considers that she does not share or endorse our creed, particularly in the area of sexual ethics.

Out of every single opponent I was put up against, including Peter Tatchell, whose main response was to screech ‘bigot’ by way of retort, none of them seemed to match the intellect of Bindel, nor did their  arguments go beyond the whole ‘equality equals sameness’ schtick. Intermingled amongst the disappointment of not debating Julie, was a sense of relief in that her arguments offered a genuine critique of the institution of marriage as a whole – which is a deft re-frame.

No doubt she would consider Catholic ideology as batshit extreme and outrageous as I consider some of her radical feminism, however what both positions have in common is that they are, if nothing else, entirely reasoned and logical. One of my colleagues appeared on a few programmes with her, and said that though her overall position was outre, he also conceded that she was very good and did actually make some sound points.

My husband, who has no idea who’s who in the media and chattering classes sent me a text the other day, saying that he had listened to Start the Week on Radio 4 on his way into work and heard this woman, whose name he couldn’t recall, whose overall position he didn’t espouse, having some disastrous ideas, but who was, in his opinion, nonetheless interesting. He urged me to download the programme or listen on Iplayer as he thought it was absolutely fascinating. Having checked out the synopsis, it was indeed Bindel discussing her new book and he was right, she did make some excellent and compelling points. If nothing else, Bindel is always interesting.

The Independent has published an interview between the respected establishment gay male voice Patrick Strudwick and Bindel, in which Bindel steadfastly and robustly defends her point of view that being gay is a choice. The dislike, frustration and contempt emanating from Strudwick is palpable. He deliberately chooses loaded comparisons, referring to her as an “Old Testament Maven from Tennesse” thereby planting and reinforcing the Levitical laws cliche, neatly aligning Bindel’s views with the Deep South redneck caricature.

Strudwick attempts to dismiss the issue of why some people have a different sexual orientation as being irrelevant and a preoccupation of bigots, forgetting that human diversity will always hold fascination for scientists and athropologists alike. It’s not bigoted wondering if there is a biological or evolutionary reason for various difference and by and large it is those very same bigots who would fight vociferously for the rights of gay people to be born should a test ever be developed which could identify the gay gene or sexual orientation in utero.

Bindel’s definition of choice is complex – it certainly isn’t of the “I think I’ll be gay to be fashionable”, or picking a sexual identity off the shelf, if one were to apply the word in a consumer context.

“Because I think the opposite of having an innate, biological explanation [for homosexuality] – there’s no evidence for that – has to be some kind of choice, as well as some deep-rooted, embedded responses that developed through different experiences in our childhood.”

That would appear to make sense, twin studies, appear to demonstrate that there is some kind of biological root, while there may be some kind of genetic disposition, gay men share some genetic signatures on the X chromosome, this is not the whole story. Biological factors could perhaps be mediated by childhood experiences, according to one clinical psychologist. Another theory is that environmental factors outside our control could affect gene receptors, meaning that they are either triggered or switched off in certain people, which always goes some way to explain why some people can smoke and drink inordinate amounts and yet still live to a ripe old age, free of related cancers.

The interesting thing is that these biological factors only seem to have been prevalent in men; Bindel may well have a point when she talks about lesbianism being chosen, and she’s also correct not to want to lump those who do not subscribe to hetrosexual norms, (including asexual people) into one homogenous mass. which if nothing else, is a form of de-humanisation. Actress Cynthia Nixon made a similar point about her lesbianism being freely chosen a few years ago, but was forced and  shamed by the liberal media into making a later retraction.

The quest for knowledge is not in itself bigoted and neither is there evidence to suggest that the scientists who Bindel believes to be ‘obsessed’ with the question are necessarily pursuing an agenda, whether that’s to definitively confirm the presence of a gay gene, or to use the idea of choice as a stick with which to beat gay people.

Strudwick puts his finger on the nub of why Bindel arouses such horror amongst some of the gay community because he believes that he stance will give ‘bigots comfort and fuel their agenda’.

They will say that even a prominent gay-rights campaigner agrees that it’s a choice, I counter.

“But I don’t agree with them! They wouldn’t use an argument from me in a million years!”

Strudwick is right, up to a point, there are those, including myself who believes that the personal testimony of a lesbian woman bears weight and there does seem to be an innate biological difference between lesbian women and gay men. Anecdote is not the plural of data, but I can think of several lesbian women of my acquaintance who have embarked on relationships with women after long-term relationships with men and sadly in some cases, of women who have decided that they were lesbian or preferred women following traumatic childhood cases of sexual abuse by men.

I’d also be inclined to agree with Strudwick in his identification of biological differences, gender is not merely a social fluid construct as Bindel would contend. Gender theory relies solely on ideology not an any established scientific fact. Julie’s position is a political one.

Given the numerous accusations of ‘bigotry’ leveled at those who did not wish to see the law changed and have a new definition of marriage imposed upon us, my support of Bindel will reinforce Strudwick’s conviction and unease about Bindel’s opinions.

Strudwick would do well remember that the endorsement of those with ‘undesirable views’ of a certain position, doesn’t alter the facts at hand and shouldn’t be allowed to poison or close down the discussion. Society and the media must allow for the free exchange of ideas and ignore the fact that haters on both sides of the sexual conservatism/libertinism debate or culture wars will grasp whatever is available to fuel their prejudice. The issue of whether or not being gay is freely chosen or an involuntary one, down to biological factors alone will continue to intrigue people until its satisfactory resolution, which would appear to be some way off.

The mainstream debate about same-sex marriage did not in any way centre around the causes of homosexuality, it was rightly irrelevant. What was under discussion was the institution of marriage, not the behaviour of non-heterosexuals.

Even in Catholicism that most ‘bigoted’ of religions the issue  does not ever figure, the Catechism observes that it is is not known why people have a different sexual orientation, and in event everyone ought to be treated with the dignity and respect that they are due. Straight or gay everyone is urged to act with appropriate sexual restraint. Being straight does not mean that one has no other choice other than to have sex with those to whom you find yourself attracted. Having consensual sexual intercourse or indulging in sexual acts will, always be a choice.

What is missing however, is that personal choices of this nature are rarely straightforward and almost never made in a vaccum. It doesn’t really matter whether or not homosexuality is chosen, what should be recognised is that even if this is the case for some people, even if a tiny minority do make a conscious choice to be of a certain orientation, this is completely irrelevant. We don’t stigmatise and demonise post-abortive women on account of their choices, the same principles must be applied to the gay community.

For those wondering why a Catholic is writing about or endorsing a LGBT writer, the answer is pretty simple. You can’t reject a point of view with any credence unless you can engage with it critically. Julie Bindel offers a radical critique of LGBT culture from a unique perspective.

Imagine for a moment, that I were to start writing and campaigning about obesity and its effects upon children.

The usual trolls would descend, claiming this to be somehow religiously motivated, would take some obscure Levitical verse as being my motivation and bang on that I believe in the ludicrously outdated notion of sin, in this particular case, gluttony. No doubt I’d also be accused of lacking compassion for the overweight and made to take responsibility for any fat person who felt ashamed, was driven to diet or who suffered from any bullying or mental health difficulties.

There may be no religious conviction underpinning the current crusade against obesity and sugar in particular, which is rapidly replacing tobacco as the next thing which must be banned or regulated, but certain health professionals are pursuing the cause of weight and obesity with a zeal which would put Torquemada to shame.

So, hot off the back of the mooted ‘sugar tax’, the normally sensible Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chairman of the select Health committe, appeared on Good Morning Britain to state that all primary school children ought to be weighed in school, a call which was promptly reinforced by Britain’s loudest self-proclaimed voice of reason, Katie Hopkins.

No-one is denying that obesity or sugar is bad for us, or that being overweight can have a negative impact upon health. According to the World Health Organisation, even being slightly overweight can increase the risk of health problems. And by and large we know that being overweight is a preventable condition, we all need to take more care over what we eat and increase the amount of exercise we take. Fewer saturated fats, less sugar and thirty minutes of regular moderate activity every day. Simples!

Except it isn’t. We know that people have a complex often psychologically unhealthy relationship with food, and that something which sounds so straightforward often isn’t. We also know that metabolisms differ and that in some of cases people really are unable to shed weight easily, for a variety of medical reasons and conditions. To attribute a weight problem to ignorance,  laziness or some kind of psychiatric disorder is a glib attitude of the smug.

The idea of weighing children in school is a horrifying one, which will set them up for a lifetime of negative body image issues, overt paranoia about weight and creates fertile ground for a culture of bullying, which as most parents will know, teenagers do not need any encouragement with. I have bitter experience of this, though never technically overweight, I came in at the top end of the scale, and the regular weigh-ins were a form of torture, along with the inevitable playground comparisons and competition. The process was equally traumatic for those at the lower end of the spectrum. It’s no surprise that almost all of my school friends  struggled with eating disorders and food issues at some point in their lives.

This is no longer the feminist issue perhaps it would have been a generation ago, although people of a certain age will remember Roland from Grange Hill, demonstrating that overweight children is not a new phenomenon. A quarter of people affected by an eating disorder at a school age are boys.

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Clamping down on homophobic bullying in schools, telling children it’s okay for them to be exactly how they are, lacks sincerity and is undermined by measures which tell children precisely the opposite. You may not be able to help being gay, but to be fat or overweight is completely unacceptable and must be stamped out.

In many ways this current crusade about weight is linked to the culture of death. We are sending the message that your life is of more value and of a better quality if you are thin, whereas actually the stereotype of the fat happy person might actually have some truth to it, according to research, the obesity gene is linked to happiness.

If the state were to charge for contraception and abortions, there would be an outcry about how they were attempting to interfere with people’s personal lives, getting in the bedroom along with the usual ridiculous, hysterical and factually inaccurate rhetoric of poking about in women’s wombs. Acres of column inches would be devoted to how the state has no place as a moral guardian, attempting to dictate and impose moral values about how we should conduct our sex lives, the fact that they already do this in terms of nudging young women towards Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives, and men towards condoms, having escaped the attention of most.

Why is no-one questioning the ethics as to whether or not the state ought to be complicit in  moulding and encouraging its citizens into a homogenous size and shape? Is there really so much difference between this and the proscribed haircuts and clothes of the North Koreans, or is state intervention in our eating habits and sex lives a necessary and desirable trade-off  and inevitable consequence of the existence of the NHS? If we were all responsible for bearing the costs of our own health-care would the nation’s size still be seen as an urgent and pressing public health concern, which the government must instantly tackle?

One can’t help but wonder whether or not by advocating and supporting state intervention into eating habits, including the involvement of schools we are conceding yet more control of our lives and feeding a cycle of co-dependence. This is where Catholic Social Teaching, with its emphasis upon the family as first and primary educators, with ultimate responsibilities to their children and non-delegable duties, comes in.

An interesting comparison can be made when we look at the drive to get more children into Early Years and nursery education. A few weeks ago I attended an induction session prior to my daughter’s entry into primary school in September. The school had helpfully provided a list of expectations, things which children ought to be capable of achieving independently before they start. Incredibly, the list included whether or not they could recognise their own name. Not in written format, but did they actually know what their own name was. Would they know that the teacher was actually calling to, speaking to or referring to them if their name was used in a classroom situation. Another was were they able to use the toilet independently – were they potty trained?

It beggared belief that children may be starting school without these basic skills, but seemingly there is an increasing tranche of parents who believe that this is the state’s responsibility. No wonder the government is wanting to get as many children as possible into nursery care, in order to be confident that children have reached a minimum standard before starting school. As the state takes more and more responsibility for our diet, our children, our sex lives, the more dependent we become and instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, or encouraging other people to, the more we expect someone else with spurious qualifications (like a City & Guilds in bottom-wiping) to take control and sort it out.

Arguably state intervention in terms of prescribing our diet and lifestyle is far more intimate and invasive than moves to discourage abortion and promiscuous sex, yet the latter remains taboo, the former desirable in the minds and consciousness of the public.

What the current moral panic about sugar and obesity demonstrates is that religion does not possess the monopoly upon attempting to proscribe certain norms of behaviour and employing morality and shaming tactics to those who do not conform. The new pariahs are no longer single mothers, divorced women, prostitutes or sex workers, but those who are overweight. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between children who were removed from their mothers on account of their marital status and those who are forcibly removed from their parents on account of their size or parents’ couch-potato lifestyle. Their crime,  in essence, being that of loving their children too much, or not being able to exercise tough love. Removing the child from their parents may conversely cause more long-term problems that it solves.

Stuffing down an entire tub of ice-cream or packet of tortillas in one sitting has become more shameful and sinful than a raunchy sex orgy with a group of random strangers picked up on the internet. When it comes to sex, ‘who are we to judge’: when it comes to food, you must be identified as being at risk, ridiculed, shamed and punished by higher food prices for wanting to do that which is wrong, bad for you and which fecklessness could cost other people money.

There’s an irony in that moderation is constantly touted as the key in terms of diet, but dare to apply that to the sexual appetite and you’ll be shouted down as a judgemental bigot.

Forget sex, that’s sorted. The new Puritans no longer care about who you choose to sleep with or how many abortions you have, how many families you break up by your freely chosen behaviour, how many embryos you freeze or how much strain you put on your body and your or the state’s finances by your choice to use IVF, it doesn’t matter how many children are affected by negative consequences of IVF, how many women you pay to bear children for you or how many kids you deprive of loving mum and dad or of a stable family.

You can do all of these things and should not expect to receive any negative judgement on any aspect of self-destructive behaviour. Unless of course, you are fat.

A sluggish evening

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From the “Beer in the Evening” website

My parents came to stay last night on their way back from a few days holiday in Devon. After supper, made all the more succulent by the fact that I didn’t have to cook it, we decided it would be a fine wheeze to take advantage of the beautiful summer’s evening and go for a stroll along the seafront.

The toddler is currently keeping unsociable hours, her sleep patterns are totally out of whack due to a combination of teething, the heat and that despite my best efforts she will insist upon falling into a comatose state around about 5pm and refusing to wake until early evening, whereupon she’s ready to party for the rest of the night.

‘Why don’t we put her in the pushchair and take her with us’ suggested my mother, wondering whether a blast of evening sea-air might make her drop off. So once the other children were settled down, off we trotted; me with the lolloping labrador in tow and my parents dutifully wheeling the buggy – the novelty and enjoyment of pushing a child in the pram has yet to diminish 8 grandchildren down the line, my mum will glad-hand it away from me at every possible opportunity.

Like Pooh-bear my mother is always in the mood ‘for a little something’, except the honey is replaced by coffee or if she is feeling particularly adventurous, a Kir Royale and so she thought it would be rather civilised if we were to find a convivial establishment in which to sit outside and indulge her favourite hobby.

Sadly there isn’t anywhere open on the Hove/Shoreham stretch of the promenade on a summer’s evening, so once we’d walked a fair way along the seafront we went back into central Hove on our way home. Walking past the Slug and Lettuce in George Street, my mum spied empty coffee cups on an outside table, surmised they served coffee and went inside to be served, whilst my dad picked a table. We had a fair bit of choice, every single outside table was empty and indeed the bar inside probably only had about 1 customer, something which suited us quite well. The toddler had fallen asleep and the puppy is yet to outgrow his over-friendly and boisterous tendencies.

My mother approached the barman and asked for 3 large coffees and was met with a curt “I’m not serving you, you’ve got a child”. Not wishing to argue the toss or have an embarrassing scene, she promptly left, surmising that the chap just couldn’t be bothered.

As we trundled disappointedly back towards home, I wondered aloud whether or not it was a licensing issue, which didn’t really make any sense seeing as we were sat outside and hardly likely to cause a problem, especially with the baby asleep. My dad thought that the person clearing the tables had heard me deliberating whether or not to order a G&T and was being over-zealous or a nannying fuss-bucket, and was taking a “I’m not serving you alcohol when you’ve got a child to look after” attitude.

We were completely baffled and rather humiliated to boot. We were told that our custom was neither wanted or welcome, on account of having a small sleeping child in a pushchair, with no explanation given as to why her presence posed such a problem.

Reflecting on it later, the encounter proved rather useful, in that it was a timely insight into how Michael Black and John Morgan might have felt when turned down for a double room at Peter and Rosemary Bull’s guesthouse. They felt that they had done nothing wrong and yet were made to feel like irresponsible pariahs, thanks to the religious views of the proprietors, to which they did not subscribe.

It’s very much how I felt, perhaps like the Bulls, the Slug and Lettuce do have a very good reason for refusing to serve customers with babies, a friend from these parts who is a vicar’s wife recounted a similar experience of being denied a hot drink due to having a baby when returning from an evening service at the church which is almost next door, but whatever their reason is, the surly barman didn’t bother to communicate it properly and made my mum and myself (being the person who has responsibility for said small person) feel about 6 inches tall.

It’s not the first time I’ve been turned away from an establishment, in my decadent hey-day as a trolly dolly, cabin crew, certain gay clubs would have the effrontery not to admit women, which similarly was often rather embarrassing if you were on a night out down-route with your colleagues (being stranded in the middle of Amsterdam, Cologne or Bangkok is no joke), but I always took it in my stride. Their gaffe, their rules and if having a small group of women was going to cause a problem or upset their clientele, then fair enough, trying to gain entrance in the first place required some brass neck.

But just like LGBT clients who encounter retailers who won’t provide them with various services such as cakes, flowers, photography or cars for their weddings, I felt ‘judged’ and found wanting in the balance. Obviously there is something very wrong about wanting to sit outside a bar on a pedestrianised street in the middle of Hove with a sleeping baby in a buggy. I should instead have gone home and glugged my way through one of Waitrose’s finest wine-boxes free from the eagle-stares and disapproval of the imaginary other customers in the outside seating area.

Of course if I had a thicker skin, I would have not given two hoots. What does the opinion of a misanthropic barman and the management of the Slug and Lettuce matter? It was admittedly humiliating and mildly inconveniencing, we’d been looking forward to a drink after our walk, but lives were not lost. All they did was to tap into an innate insecurity and neurosis about what other people might think of me, for slightly unusually being out and about with a young child at a late hour. Which is I suspect closely related to the type of insecurity experienced by gay couples in terms of not liking it when their choices are not affirmed. I’m charitably assuming that the bar does have a good reason for not serving customers with children, even if they are lacking the skills to communicate their policy. At the end of the day, no matter how uncomfortable I felt, it’s still their prerogative.

Next time my parents come, we’ll know better and head off to one of the more friendly local establishments or hang the adventure, go to one of the Cafe Neros which stays open til late.

Readers won’t be surprised to learn that when I got home, I did what all self-respecting people with an axe to grind about customer service in this day and age do, namely moan about the service on Twitter as a result of which the Slug and Lettuce have invited me to fill-out an online form with my complaint and promised to investigate. People can make up their own minds whether or not to give the bar their custom.

It all seems a lot easier than taking someone to court, suing them for compensation, attempting to put people out of business and getting the law changed to ensure my feelings are never hurt in this fashion again.

Alternatively, a move to the Italian riviera seems the best solution all round.

So it seems that the narrative about the bodies of 800 babies ‘dumped in a a septic tank’ in the grounds of the former children’s home in Tuam has finally unravelled as I predicted last week.

The post met with an overwhelming response – it was never my intention to garner or generate controversy, let alone defend the indefensible, but to cast a critical eye over what seemed to be some very implausible headlines.

It seemed beyond belief that nuns who were purported to be in the grip of religious fervour, would ignore its basic tenets, rites and rituals and simply tip the corpses into the sewage pit. Nothing is impossible, but an examination of the logisitics and historical evidence to the contrary (such as the tender for coffins) showed that the story was the result of febrile imaginations and a confirmation bias. A gruesome motif symbolising the brutal, vicious Catholic monsters of popular imagination.

The story was not so much of a hoax, there was no deliberate intent to mislead, but innate prejudices combined with a journalist’s desire to create a splash and prove his mettle as a top investigative reporter, meant that the only thing being consigned to a septic tank were basic principles of fact-checking.

I was lambasted for suggesting “it was the builder’s wot done it” but in most situations, Occam’s Razor ought to be the default position. The nuns would have had to have gone to an awful lot of trouble and inconvenience to be opening up a septic tank on a regular basis; it would have required a degree of determined and willful cruelty from all involved. It’s inconceivable to think that such an abomination would have been able to have been kept secret for over 53 years. Other people such as the lay staff at the home would surely have known.

In any event two further possibilities emerged this week.

Firstly, the Irish Times published an important letter from Dr Finbar McCormick from the school of Geography, Archeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Sir, – The media should be very wary of using the term “septic tank” to describe the structure containing the child burials at St Mary’s mother-and-child home at Tuam. It is offensive and hurtful to all those involved. The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe.

In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries. The stone could be temporarily removed to allow the addition of additional coffined burials to the vault. Such tombs are still used extensively in Mediterranean countries. I recently saw such structures being constructed in a churchyard in Croatia. The shaft was made of concrete blocks, plastered internally and roofed with large concrete slabs.

Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital. It was not a tradition until very recently to return such deceased infants to parents for taking back to family burial places.

Until proved otherwise, the burial structure at Tuam should be described as a communal burial vault. – Yours, etc,

The RTE journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes bears a lot of responsibility for the misrepresentations of the story. He strenuously denies ever stating that there were bodies in the tank, but he certainly strongly implied it, with reports posing the question “what lies beneath”, along with posts and maps demonstrating that the spot where the boys discovered bodies was in the area of a former septic tank, and linking to photographs and highlighting awareness of a protest for ‘the babies in the bog’.

The misrepresented headlines did not appear mainly in foreign publications, as Philip claimed, they were published in UK media such as on ITV, the Belfast Telegraph, the Times and were reported as fact on BBC radio and TV and Sky news bulletins throughout the day.

Philip may not have claimed that there were bodies in a septic tank, but he did go some way to stoke the hysteria.

That said, his blogpost of yesterday appears to have shed more light on exactly what happened to the bodies of the children who died and seems to be the most likely explanation, although of course we still do not know precisely whom the bodies in the tank or shaft, discovered by the boys 40 years ago, belong to.

A woman has come forward who has related to me a credible first hand account of falling into a burial plot at the rear of the home in in the mid 70’s where she discovered a large amount of infant remains wrapped in swaddling.

Her interview suggests that one of the two spots where baby and child remains were placed could not have been a septic tank.

The Mail on Sunday has identified two sites side by side each other in its radar survey. Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney discovered one as boys in 1975. The Mail called it Plot B.

Plot A is the square shaped one Mary Moriarty says she fell into in the 1970’s when the ground subsided. A child was found playing with a baby’s skull and when Mary and neighbours investigated she discovered a large underground space with shelves from floor to ceiling stacked with infant bodies. She says she saw in excess of 100 tiny figures swaddled and guessed from the size they were newborn or stillborn.

Subsequently she talked to a woman called Julia Devaney who had been a resident of the home and later an employee. By then in her late seventies she told Mary how she had assisted the nuns carrying dead babies along a tunnel running from the back of the home to this vault.

Now obviously it will take excavation to confirm any of this but her description of the space and the possible existence of a tunnel used to access this burial plot would suggest that plot A (whatever of Plot B) at least was not a septic tank.

Boucher-Hayes goes on to say that unanswered questions remain such as why were the babies buried there instead of the municipal graveyard over the road where there was an ‘angels’ plot’ for unbaptised babies. I suspect the answer is cost, we know that the rate-payers were already unhappy at having to fork out for ‘illegitimate’ children along with convenience. We do not know whether or this vault was consecrated at any point or whether or not it only contained babies.

It’s been exasperating and amusing in equal measure to watch how media organisations including the BBC refer to how the babies and children were ‘routinely denied baptism’. Firstly, why should the BBC even care about whether water was splashed over a child’s head and received a religious sacrament which will probably be nothing more than superstition to an impartial secular state broadcaster.

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that such a thing did routinely happen, if anything the childrens’ circumstances of birth would have made their baptism seem doubly important to those religious running the homes and there are plenty of accounts of children attending Mass and receiving First Holy Communion, a sacrament it is impossible for the unbaptised to receive. As yet there is nothing to suggest that baptised children were not buried in consecrated ground, but as ever it’s a subtle way of reinforcing contempt for these sisters and placing the finger of blame upon their religion, by portraying adherents as uncaring hypocrites who tried to exclude children from the faith. The evidence to support this just isn’t there.

This is why campaigners have been so keen to attempt to repeatedly hammer home other unpalatable facts, in particular the high mortality rate experienced at Tuam’s children home which was in common with the mortality rates for infants and children born out of wedlock and in institutions across Ireland. This, they believe, is evidence of deliberate cruelty and maltreatment, in which the home at Tuam, being run by a Catholic order, would have undoubtedly participated.

Mortality rates and Vaccine trials

Lurid claims that the children in some homes were subject to horrifying trials of vaccinations without consent, along with other claims of abhorrent practices are precisely why an inquiry needs to be held, in order that, as the Archbishop of Dublin has said, the truth may come out. The vaccine trials element seems to be especially concerning, in that this would have involved the complicity and silence of the manufacturers and medical profession, who to some extent must have been driving this initiative. Did no-one in the medical profession, including those who received the results of such research think to ask questions about the appropriateness of testing them upon children or the ethics of using or recommending a vaccine that had been developed in such a fashion? What is the involvement and complicity of big Pharma along with the state’s medical officers who supervised and administered the trials. Why are they not being pressed about this issue in the same way? Do pharma companies still use institutionalised children and prisoners as has been suggested? It seems that there is still an issue in terms of obtaining informed consent from patients for drugs trials in poorer countries, but without the addition of monstrous demon nuns, the interest is limited.

It is not good enough to blame atrocities upon the age or the time, those who ran Christian institutions ought to have known better – Christianity is uncompromising about sexual ethics, but it is equally demanding on the principles of forgiveness, reconciliation and treating one another with love. Strictures about due care of widows and orphans appear to have been wholly disregarded.

However, justice is not best served by trashing the reputation of a particular order of deceased nuns on the basis of scant evidence, supposition and confirmation bias. All parties deserve better than for Tuam’s children to be treated as a convenient totem. As yet there is nothing to suggest the deliberate or willful cruelty at this one institution.

So if the story about the septic tank is wrong then what else is wrong? If you’re going to fashion a stick with which to beat the Catholic church, it would be better not to use papier-mache as your raw material.

This leaflet produced by the Committee for the Children’s Home memorial in Tuam, describes not only how children were receiving Firstly Holy Communion but also how one of the problems facing the children were that they were boarded out to unsuitable homes, where foster parents were happy to take the money from the government to look after the children, but treated them like slaves, in many cases not giving them enough to eat or even clothing them properly.

How responsible were the sisters for vetting the homes into which the children were sent? The Mother Superior complained that the home was not suitable or designed for large numbers of children and that there were not sufficient numbers of staff to look after and raise them all. Whose responsibility was it for ensuring the wellbeing of the children once they left the home?

I am not saying that the nuns were not in any way at fault, but what has emerged is a picture of a home which never left the hands of the state who were struggling with rising costs, a delapidated building, a council reluctant to put its hands in its pockets and an elderly doctor on the point of retirement. According to this report, the medical officer in the Tuam Home was probably “Ireland’s oldest doctor”.

Some of the many causes of death were listed as follows: whooping cough, anaemia, influenza, kidney inflammation, laryngitis, congenital heart disease, enteritis, epilepsy, spinal bifida, chicken pox, general odeama (dropsy), coeliac disease, birth injury, sudden circulatory failure and fits. As anyone living in any sort of close proximity to another knows, it only takes one member of a family to come down with a lurgy and within 24 hours the whole household is struck down, with whatever nasty is doing the rounds. Conditions like gastroenteritis could quickly prove fatal in the absence of decent medical care, hygiene and medication. I’ve had to take two of babies to hospital for dehydration.

There are many issues arising from child mortality rates, Irish blogger Cathyby has compiled some useful charts which put these into sombre perspective and ought to be considered as part of the inquiry.

Speaking on RTE’s morning show, historian Ann Matthews who has written a book on the mother and baby homes made some interesting points. She reminded listeners that under discussion were isolated high mortality rates in the ‘20s. In 1933-34 the mortality rates of children in one home spiked to 40% due to a measles epidemic,  but by 1934-1935, due to help from the local government and the sweepstake, 4 homes had dedicated maternity hospitals built and they started to slowly get on top of keeping the spread of infection down, stopping the spread of measles and trying to feed young women.

What is overlooked is that there were clusters of young girls aged 14-18 coming into the homes completely malnourished, barely capable of carrying a successful pregnancy to term and unable to breastfeed the baby so that it would have little chance of thriving. Some reports blame nuns for forcing women to breastfeed, which is commonly accepted as best for the baby, others berate them for encouraging bottle feeding which would have put the babies at increased risk of deadly gastroenteritis.

The effect of maternal health upon the unborn child is a something that there is increased awareness of today – we know that conditions such as hypertension and diabetes need to be carefully monitored as they may affect mother and child. Teen pregnancies are more problematic from a health point of view, they at are increased risk of complications and premature birth. When you factor in the age and social strata of many of the girls presenting at the homes, it may go some way to explain the high mortality rates, along with other factors such as lack of  nutritious diet, antibiotics and adequate infection control.

According to Ann Matthews, meticulous records were kept at all the homes she studied, which are now in the hands of Ireland’s HSE.  All the information is there to enable the story to be studied and told in a non-judgemental and informative way. She claims that the religious orders were more than happy to assist her in obtaining the information and answering enquiries in the course of research for her book.

I do have some sympathy for the nuns especially the current sisters who have come under severe criticism for their decision to employ a PR firm. The fact that they have allowed this to be known, shows how ill-equipped they are to handle the media. The sisters have neither confirmed or denied reports of a mass grave because they are unable to. The home shut down 53 years ago and the records were handed over the authorities at the time. Their particular vocation is about caring for the sick and suffering particularly in hospitals, care homes and private homes, not running a slick PR operation. They have neither the time, manpower, nor expertise and this must detract from their vital and necessary daily work  of tending to the sick.

Any inquiry must examine, not only the religious institutions and how they were interconnected, but also the state organisations such as the state-run County Homes where up to 70% of unmarried mothers and their children ended up which is what historian Sean Lucey claimed in this week’s Irish Times. The scandal of the unmarked graves in the Protestant-run Bethany institution which was revealed in the same week as Tuam, received no global media.

It isn’t just the deaths of the children which are problematic, it’s the maltreatment, the vaccination programme, forced adoptions and boarding out. The inquiry should be far-reaching and ask why these homes were set up and include both the privately and publicly funded ones. It should also examine the young women and how they came to be there, including how they became pregnant, was it rape, family members or employers? It should also examine all of the individuals’ records.

One unfortunate consequence of the story is that it has proved enormously distressing to the survivors of these homes who have been left wondering whether or not their relatives were dumped in a septic tank or similar. It has also concerned those who do not wish for their personal histories and stories to become public knowledge as a result of the press coverage or any resulting criminal investigation. Much of the resulting coverage has been very insensitive and caused enormous hurt to the already vulnerable victims and survivors.

“You pro-lifers you don’t care about dead babies, only unborn ones – you have no compassion”

Some of the personal criticism I have received as a result of writing about this has included accusations of a lack of compassion and trying to defend wrongdoing. Let me be clear about this, as a mother of 4 children, the issue of how unmarried mothers and children were treated has appalled me and not just in Ireland.

Thinking about the physical conditions and shame that these women had to endure, along with how most of them were forced to give their babies up, produces a hard knot of nausea and panic in my stomach. It constitutes a form of torture for mother and child alike. My visceral response is one of violence, the type of violence that anyone would receive if they tried to remove one of my babies or children from me.

When it comes to the children themselves, it’s the small details that choke me, for the last week every time I brush my children’s teeth I can’t stop thinking about the children in the home, who was there to help them with basic tasks of self-care, who helped them to cut up their food, or hold a drink without spilling it, wiped their bottoms and so on. It isn’t just the harsh conditions, but the lack of a loving family and individual emotional nurture that is so heartbreaking, especially when you then consider how they were further stigmatised by the wider communities as untouchables.

Keep your nose out of Ireland’s business

lucky charms

The other criticism or implication coming from folk like Colm O’Gorman who was happy to welcome Nadine Dorries’ negative comments about the Irish Catholic church (on the grounds of her Liverpudlian family connections) is that as an ignorant Sasanach I really ought to refrain from commenting on this affair which is purely Ireland’s business and resulting from a particular brand of Irish Catholicism.

Whatever the particular causes, be it a Jansenist version of Catholicism which was practiced in Ireland, or that people were genuinely terrified as to the consequences of illegitimacy and poverty having experienced several famines, or that the newly established Free State was trying build a Utopia and using Catholicism as a moral arbiter, (though no Christian could condone what happened here), leaving aside the ubiquitous Irish family card (my husband’s family), or the fact that I write for a publication with a significant Irish readership, this story is of interest to anyone concerned with the rights and welfare of women and mothers.

As a pro-lifer I have a direct interest in attempting to understand attitudes which led women to be abandoned in institutes and caused suffering to them and their babies – these are the same attitudes which lead to abortion today. In the absence of serious indications to the contrary, mothers and babies always fare better when a mother is allowed to raise her own child. Adoption is a wonderful gift but it should only ever be a last resort.

As a Catholic there is also an interest in getting to the bottom of what happened. What people fail to understand is that the Church is the body of Christ, comprised of every single believer on the planet. When one part hurts, we all feel the pain as a collective. Therefore where abuses have been committed in her name, it is the responsibility of all of us. This is not just Irish history, but part of Catholic history. Communities are formed in part by memories and histories and so we have a duty not only to the victims, but also to future generations to ensure an accurate version of history is preserved.

But to write this off as purely an Irish tragedy or an Irish Catholic tragedy is short-sighted. The UK had more than its fair share of institutions which were little more than dumping grounds for unwanted mothers and babies. The website motherandbabyhomes provides a harrowing insight into life and conditions in such UK institutions. Jennifer Worth, author of the Call the Midwife series of books, relates how unmarried mothers were pressurised into giving up their babies for adoptions, in many cases being threatened with incarceration in a mental hospital if they refused and of false diagnoses of mental illnesses justifying the child’s removal.

David Quinn writing in the Irish Independent has highlighted how that liberal paradise Sweden forced unmarried mothers to have abortions and sterilised them along with other women thought to be at risk of producing illegitimate children. Even the good old USA, land of the free and home of the brave has something of a chequered history when it comes to forced programmes of eugenics and sterilisation of poor women.

We are deluding ourselves if we think these attitudes do not exist today – a recent UK example being the numbers of Downs Syndrome children aborted, whose existence was  forgotten, deemed unimportant enough for the abortion clinics to even record properly.

Equally the drive by successive UK governments to get unmarried and single mothers back into work as swiftly as possible instead of the all important job of raising and nurturing their children, echoes a similar desire for ‘penance’ and a Protestant work ethic.

The enquiry is both a blessing and a curse for Enda Kenny, on the one hand he can indulge his habit of berating the Irish Catholic society of 50 years ago thereby distracting from the pressing issues of Ireland’s healthcare system and the economy; on the other hand Ireland is currently skint, and one could legitimately ask whether or not an inquiry is the best use of resources.

In a scandal which has shades of Tuam, one child dies every fortnight in Ireland’s HSE care system, according to this report in November 2013. Old people are stigmatised and institutionalised in homes on account of their fragility and similarly complained about in terms of their cost.

To isolate Mother and Baby homes as being a symptom of twentieth-century Ireland combined with Catholicism is self-satisfying, sanctimonious, short-sighted and glib. The answer lies not in demonising Ireland or Catholicism, but returning to Christian teachings which identify flawed human nature and propose a definitive strategy in terms of how we should all be treating each other.

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