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Archive for April, 2012

In advance of tomorrow’s inevitable annual explosion of Gerard Manley Hopkins May Magnificat all over the Catholic blogosphere, today’s glorious sunshine and vibrant displays of spring tulips, turned my thoughts to one of my favourite Hopkins’ poems; Spring.

Oh, nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
That nothing is so beautiful as Spring.

The lilting alliteration, the assonance, the echo, internal rhyme and imagery, so rich and evocative, are every bit as gorgeous and lift the spirits almost as much as the reality.

Technical skill aside, what I love about this poem is the dense imagery, how Hopkins’ deploys his Ignatian training in order to invite the reader to share in his sense of wonderment of this God-created world. He prefigures the spirituality of St Theresa of Lisieux, taking time to appreciate God, the extraordinary in the ordinary, in everyday and in everything. These are not simply thrush’s eggs, but they are reflections of heaven, and even the birdsong, like the dews on the grass is reminiscent of the waters of baptism, rinsing us clean and making us new.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.

As Balthasar notes, Hopkins’ poetry was sacramental, his then groundbreaking language, a “theological phenomenon”- everything is fashioned and determined for Christ. Perhaps that’s why so many modern readers find him so difficult as to a non-Christian he is almost unintelligible. He was determined to revalue and re-equip language to expresses the unique and extraordinary in order to use this to direct the reader towards God, regardless of critical reception.

Though he initially struggled with the notion that expressing oneself in written form could be a holy endeavour, burning all his early work in 1866, he eventually came to see that far from being a distraction to his priestly vocation, poetry was vital to expressing his religious belief. He saw God everywhere and in everything. His poems were just another instrument to prayer. Like St Ignatius himself, Hopkins recognised that if everything is directed towards God, everything is prayer. Perhaps that’s a lesson from which Christian bloggers can all learn.

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Vocations Voice

As it’s vocations Sunday today, it seems appropriate to post Robin’s talk on vocations given at 3 Masses at a parish in the diocese. 

This is my second time discerning a call to ministry. My experience of vocation began as a child within the Church of England.  I remember discussing this sense of being called with people in my church when I was about eight. It wasn’t clear cut, but a sense that there was something about my experience of being in church and watching our parish priest at the altar that drew me; that said – maybe this was something that I was supposed to do with my life. As I grew older I wanted a really clear message from God, perhaps an angelic visitation. I prayed about it for some years and when I was about fourteen and attending the ordination of a deacon coming to our parish had a spiritual experience. It seemed that the sermon at that ordination mass, which was all about accepting God’s call to service, was speaking directly to me as if I was the only person in Church. It was actually quite scary, and I thought and prayed it over wondering if perhaps God really wanted to give me some other vocation than priestly ministry. But I came to the conclusion that this was what God wanted and that if I didn’t pursue it I would always be nagged by the feeling that there was something missing in my life. So I took all this to my parish priest and began the formal process of discernment within the Church of England. I was selected for ordination while at university and spent 13 years as an Anglican priest before becoming a Catholic.

That’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say that having been a Catholic for a year and a half that sense of vocation has not gone away. So here I am, asking the Church if God is calling me to fulfil that original sense of vocation. Asking if God is calling me to a more complete ministry of priesthood within the Catholic Church.

My story isn’t very unusual and contains a number of elements that would be recognised by others exploring a vocation to priesthood.

  • I was already in the Church, worshipping, praying, seeking to develop my Christian life when I heard this call from God. If we are to hear God speaking to us we need to be first and foremost living a fully Christian life and listening to him in prayer.
  • Although it took a while to become clear my sense of vocation was specific. For me, seeing the priest at the altar, at the Eucharistic heart of his ministry, made it clear that this was where I should be. If God is calling you to a specific ministry he will make it clear.
  • The call was persistent – that sense of vocation lasted over the years while I was discerning, even when I wasn’t sure what God wanted from me – or that I wanted to say yes!
  • I took my personal sense of calling to the Church so that others could help me discern if this was really God’s will.

That’s some of my story but how does this affect you?

Firstly, I ask you to pray for all those who are exploring a vocation to priesthood at the moment and that all those God calls will be enabled to say yes. We often hear about a crisis of vocations. I firmly believe that God is calling men to the priesthood, we need to help and encourage people to respond.

Secondly, I ask you to practically encourage young men you think could have a vocation to priesthood. I might never have offered myself for priesthood either within the Church of England or the Catholic Church without the encouragement of others.

Thirdly, I would encourage any young single men here to ask themselves what God wants from them. So many of us drift through life without asking ourselves that all important question. Maybe God is calling you to marriage, which is a holy and wonderful vocation. But maybe instead he is calling you to the priesthood, to a different sort of Fatherhood. Whatever his call God is knocking at the heart of each one of us. We need to listen and discover how he wants us to respond to his loving call.

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Something I was thinking about last night when pondering whether or not to pursue police action was that it’s a very telling indictment of society when a concerted online bullying campaign can tip a person over the edge into depression, so much so that she can contemplate aborting her baby and this would be perfectly legal.

Tom Chivers from the Daily Telegraph wrote a thoughtful piece on bullying yesterday and how words can really hurt – they trigger an intuitive evolutionary response and can do real damage.

Using social media to bully & harangue others is an increasing menace. I can well see how others could be driven to extremes and suicide. It’s a tightrope to be walked, but where someone has clearly transgressed the limits of acceptable discourse and actually tried to interfere in another’s real life (such as in my case) then we need to think again.

When a pregnant woman is driven into depression such that abortion is mooted as a solution, something needs to change. When social media is able to whip itself up into such a misguided frenzy of moral superiority, that a pregnant woman pleading with others to stop, for them to at least provide detailed charges and evidence of whatever it is she is supposed to have done as a matter of natural justice, is met with more bullying, derision and accused of using her unborn child as a human shield – something is seriously wrong.

When a well-known pro-abort blogger with a self-proclaimed mission of exposing liars in the media, sends a string of emails accusing you of making a malicious blog comment, evidenced by “it must be you it mentions your nana, don’t even try to deny it, does your good Catholic lawyer know what kind of a person you are”, it gets to you. When he says that he will publish something defamatory about you, but is just giving you the chance to respond, it gets to you. Why should I have to defend myself against something I haven’t done?

When fellow Catholics menacingly and repeatedly comment “tick, tick, tick your time is up” and admit they are working with this person to “expose” you, refer to you as a boil who needs to be lanced, as a person in need of public exorcism, that they are looking forward to seeing you suffer, they’ve bought popcorn, and then piously proclaim that it’s necessary, everyone must pray but I must be brought to my knees in order to repent and apologise, it’s sickening. Particularly when I haven’t done whatever it is I am vaguely accused of and there is nothing to suggest otherwise.

When people are willing to destroy my family through a misguided sense of “justice” something needs to change.

We talk about living in a progressive enlightened tolerant age. Quite how civilised is it to accuse, judge, condemn and punish a pregnant woman, to revel in taunting and abusing her, for the simple fact she has, in their opinion, got above herself and is trying to build a career?

I am a mother, a wife and a university student. My husband is a funeral director on minimum wage. Two years ago we had a lovely big rectory and garden, guaranteed income and lifetime stability and a wide circle of friends and a support network.

Today we are struggling, with reduced living space and no nearby friends or family. I have no idea what the future holds, where we will be living or what schools to think about for my children. Mothers and families crave security. I sometimes find it hard to get out of the house with 2 very small children. I don’t know many people nearby and am loath to invest in friendships locally in that I’ve no idea whether or not we will be living in the area for very much longer. It’s why I had become a bit dependent on the Internet as a support network as many of my real-life friends are there.

I actively encouraged and supported my husband in his decision to convert knowing precisely what this entailed. I knew the future would be rocky and uncertain. As a result of this unfounded hate campaign we could find ourselves homeless and without a job. A zealous Catholic has already described how my university’s Catholic Society has been contacted, to find out if they knew me. The fact that I was unknown (I attend a local parish instead) was held to be damning. There has been talk of contacting our diocese to exact an apology and prevent “scandal” which isn’t commensurate with the gloating over the alleged forthcoming “media sh*tstorm”. The charges are that I pretend to be bullied whilst using this as a cover to bully others.

It’s precisely to protect myself and my family that I am seriously considering what to do next. I didn’t start blogging to build a career, I did it because I enjoyed it and it tied in with some of the previous voluntary pro-life work. It’s a shame if it has to end, but I have to put my family first.

The bully has stated his intent that this “Mallory Towers Messalina”, this “Iggy Pop in drag” should be made to withdraw from the net. To do so is to let him win. Other people have kindly said that I write some of the best pro-life stuff around. I wish that were true.

Maybe the answer is just to solely concentrate on that. The last thing I want to do is cause scandal to the Church I love and the cause I am so passionate about. I’ve been accused of being a terrible wife and mother. I am told I am neglecting them as a result of blogging or tweeting in spare moments either at home or in the university library. It’s provided a great foil to Marxist gender theory. The Internet has been a source of comfort, spiritual inspiration and support.

There is nothing like Christian fellowship, with people who cry, rejoice and share in your sufferings and triumphs. At times of trouble they bear your burdens and lift you up in prayer. (Though it is fair to note that two people who have reached out and provided comfort have been skeptics and atheists.)

The wonders of Christian fellowship renders its failure even more painful. It is always hurtful when someone says horrible things about one, but when they are a brethren in Christ, the pain is magnified. Vulnerability is a key part of Christianity. We open our hearts to each other and to Christ in order to share in his suffering, this can be wonderful.

The word “vulnerable” derives from the Latin vulneris meaning “wounded.” If you’re vulnerable you’ve let down your guard, you are capable of being wounded, which means uncharitable words and deeds are not like water off a duck’s back but penetrate through and pierce your heart and soul.

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Limits

I am admittedly suffering from ante-natal depression at the moment. It’s a condition that has affected every single pregnancy, but this bout is particularly bleak. I am struggling to find a light at the end of the tunnel.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know why this has been exacerbated. I’m not going into the tedious specifics, but since the beginning of February I have been the subject of a prolonged smear and hate campaign which has hit me, whack full-on at a time when I am feeling especially vulnerable, for a multitude of reasons. I simply can no longer cope with the abuse and latent threats.

I am primarily disengaging from Twitter for a while for my own mental health, I may still tweet the odd link, but it’s best, in the short term to concentrate on my own well-being and upon the odd blog post, which I find therapeutic, carthatic and healing. If it’s inspirational or informative , that’s simply a bonus.

Due to the issue of abortion being firmly back on the political agenda – and yes abortion is a political issue, it always has been, those campaigning in favour of the 1967 Act were more than happy to politicise the matter, once again the notion of acceptable time limits is under discussion. There has been a massive sea-change of opinion since the incredible advances in very detailed 4D diagnostic imaging pioneered by the likes of Professor Stuart Campbell. Babies of only 12 weeks gestation can be seen playing, smiling, sucking their thumbs, exercising, in minute detail. It is increasingly difficult to deny the humanity of the unborn child and the vast majority of the public favour a reduction in the abortion limit to 20 weeks. Over half of UK women believe that the current abortion laws are too lax, according to a recent YouGov poll conducted in January 2012. A more recent Angus Reid poll from March 2012, shows that over half of the respondents and 3 in 5 women believe that the current limit of 24 weeks should be reduced.

Discussing abortion limits is a minefield for pro-lifers and Catholics who believe that all abortion is the taking of innocent life, a viewpoint with which I am very much in accordance. To campaign for a lower limit seems to concede that it’s perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn baby at an earlier stage. Most abortions performed in the UK are now under the 12 week mark – to imply otherwise is misleading and disingenuous. Honesty and integrity matter when discussing such ethical topics. The problem with implementing a reduced limit, is not only does it imply that earlier stage abortions are acceptable, but it may also rush a woman into making a premature decision, aware that the clock is ticking. Another factor that comes into play is that the earlier the abortion is performed, the more straightforward and thus less risky the procedure. A surgical abortion at 12 weeks will be less physically traumatic for a woman than a procedure at 22 weeks. So if we’re looking at women’s welfare, its something of a double-edged sword. An earlier procedure may well be better for her (not the baby) but the existence of a time limit may not give a woman enough time to properly consider her different options.

Pro-choicers on the whole aren’t keen on any delay, they believe that a woman should be able to have swift access to abortion as soon as she “requires” it. Whilst this logic is understandable, most women faced with a crisis or unplanned pregnancy do need to be able to take some time to fully consider their options and not be rushed into an abortion by clinics, relatives or abortion limits. At the end of the day an abortion results in the end of a life, regardless of whether or not one wants to play around with the semantics of whether it is a real life or simply a potential for life. I know where I stand on that scale, but that’s an argument for a different time. An abortion cannot be undone ,therefore women must not be rushed. As the law stands, if a woman has made up her mind that she wants an abortion, she can go and book one for the next day, without counselling if that be her wont. If, however, abortion is this difficult decision that is only arrived at via a lot of soul-searching, then it seems right not to exert any undue pressure with time limits. Clinics already do enough of that in terms of rushing women into taking the abortion pill, because for them, this is a less costly and riskier procedure, regardless of whether or not the abortion pill is the right option for a woman. Let’s say, for example, I discovered at 6 or 7 weeks in pregnancy that the developing fetus had died. Would I opt to take a pill to induce a traumatic miscarriage or would I go for the surgical option under sedation or anaesthetic? The answer would most definitely be the latter – but surgery isn’t the option that is promoted for women in the early stages of pregnancy for obvious reasons.

An aborted baby/fetus, whatever terminology one wishes to use is just that, it can’t be magically revived, whatever stage of development it is at. Obviously, when we come to pregnancies post 2o weeks, there is the hotly disputed issue of fetal pain, awareness and viability. The general public are as a whole a lot more squeamish about later stage abortions because of the huge advances in neonatal care. Babies born at 24 weeks can and often do survive. This baby girl survived being born at 21 weeks and 5 days. At 22 weeks a baby has a 0-10% chance of surviving, increasing to 10-35% at 23 weeks and 40-70% at 24 weeks.

Ideologically speaking, limits should be something of a red herring, either abortion should be on demand right up until birth or it should be against the law, unless abortion is a necessary side effect of a procedure undertaken to save a woman’s life.

If only life were that simple. I admit to a personal heavy investment in the notion of reducing the limit, which I firmly believe would reduce the number of abortions. Not that there should be an acceptable number or quota, but one life saved is better than none. Someone close to me aborted healthy twins at the 23 week stage. She had already taken the decision to keep the babies following a 19 week scan, kept things quiet until she was 21 weeks, but was coerced due to an enormous amount of family pressure, led by an overbearing and dominant mother who was concerned about the shame that would be brought upon the family. The ironic thing being was that the pregnancy was already known about by most people and there was more shame, stigma and distress in the late stage abortion of twins than there would have been in actually giving birth to the babies. The situation was heartbreaking and no blame should be attached to the vulnerable 19 year old who was put in an insufferable position and convinced that an abortion was the only solution. Were the limit lower, then this would not have happened.

Time limits act as a cut-off point, beyond which it is deemed unacceptable to abort a baby, which is why for many they are an irrelevance. The very existence of a limit gives a protection to the unborn child beyond a certain age. It stops people from “unnecessarily” aborting their babies. I was won around to the idea about half an hour ago.

I’m having a very hard time, I am struggling mentally. That is not pure hyperbole, it is fair to say that I am on the edge. I find pregnancy difficult enough as it is. I am daunted at the prospect of coping with the demands of a breastfeeding baby, a hen 16 month old and 33 month old in a bungalow the size of an average flat. I am terrified by the prospect of another cesarian, my 3rd in 3 years. The last two were no walk in the park. I don’t know whether or not I will cope. My degree will need to be deferred – again. At any other time, I might be more mentally equipped to cope with the sheer undiluted spite that has been flung my way over the past few weeks, and that is no exaggeration, but coupled with everything else, it’s all proving far too much to cope with. I am having moments of panic, despair, darkness and anxiety. I am exhibiting signs of severe depression, losing appetite, finding menial tasks overburdensome and dreams filled with anxiety. I wake up drenched in sweat after being chased by an irate female client from my old job or troubled because I’ve had to sit an exam which I didn’t previously know about and for which I’ve done no revision.

Perhaps this is too much personal information, I’m not putting it out there to play victim as often accused, but to say look, I’m a normal bright intelligent woman with no previous history of mental illness (contrary to the 16 unsolicited emails sent to a lawyer advising me) but the strain of pregnancy coupled with a few months bombardment of internet harassment has proved too much. There should be no stigma or shame, I know I’m bent out of shape at the moment and I am fortunate to have a loving husband who is encouraging me to go and seek the help that I need. That is not an admission of any wrongdoing of which I’m accused either, I don’t want any amateur psychologists putting two and two together and making the invariable five. I am a very stressed and vulnerable pregnant woman. I am well aware of that, which is why I know that I have to take a break from Twitter which is proving enormously self-destructive. It’s like a sore tooth that I keep worrying away at, I keep hoping that it will get better, that I will get the much longed for apology or retraction, and am freshly hurt every time the invective recommences.

So, with all of that in mind, I’ve just come off the phone to someone well meaning. The conversation consisted mainly of me crying, which is what I have spent most of the past week doing. Either crying or getting into a blind rage, which is what those who are winding me up, want to happen. The next few months will be tough. There is a light at the end of the tunnel in that I’ve never suffered from post-natal depression, normally once the baby is delivered and the breast-feeding hormones kick in, I’m in my element.

The person to whom I was speaking recognised that I’m in a dark place and that life is difficult. They are really worried. I am 22 weeks and 3 days pregnant. I regularly feel my baby girl squirming around inside me. We’ve chosen her name. Doubtless several clinics would be prepared to carry out a termination on the grounds that this baby will probably be my last and is my fourth girl. At some stage it might have been nice to have a boy. It’s lucky I’m not married to a Tudor monarch or living in a culture that puts little worth on the life of girls. But anyway after repeatedly expressing the sentiment that it was a great pity that I did know when the baby was conceived because otherwise I could have taken the morning after pill, well meaning person came up with a solution. They were so worried about me that they had found a clinic, made preliminary enquiries and discovered that there was availability/feasibility for me to have an abortion next week, around the 23 week mark. I can see why it seemed an answer. I can also see why, to a person who is worried, anxious and suffering from depression it might seem the only way out.

Up until 24 hours ago, I thought I was managing fine. Today I’ve realised that isn’t the case. I am experiencing a crisis. Were I of a a less tenacious and stubborn persuasion or less affirmed in my beliefs about the sanctity of human life, then I can see how at 22 +3, a late stage abortion might seem appropriate. If I were to have an abortion next week (rest assured I won’t) it would be because the law says I could. My baby is healthy and moving, she is literally alive and kicking.

There is a myth that says late-stage abortions are necessary and only occur in the case of babies with life threatening abnormalities and it is for these reasons that the limit stays at 24 weeks. Given the law also shockingly states that it is fine to abort a disabled baby up until birth, something that should be an anathema to most people with any sense of a moral compass, there is a pressing case for a reduction in limits, provided no other grounds are ceded.

If I were to abort now it would be a short term solution that would generate longer term mental health difficulties. To abort would be a gruesome sticking plaster and panacea. If the mental health of pregnant women is of such pressing concern, surely more resources need to be put into making sure that they can cope, that they have the medical, emotional and practical support that they need? Surely that has to be a better solution than traumatically ending the life of a baby with a chance of survival outside the womb? Would an abortion be the answer for a woman in my situation? There is only one way to find out, and that’s a decision that cannot be undone. With a 20 week limit, a woman in a similar situation would not be faced with a choice. There would therefore be no other option for her other than to seek the support that she needs. With a lower limit fewer women are pressurised at a later stage, if circumstances suddenly and traumatically change, i.e. a partner walks out or the family faces redundancy. No woman should have to abort her baby because she feels she has no other choice. Would more women be pressurised prematurely, I think that’s unlikely. The later the limit, the longer the opt-out clause which some people will always leave til the last minute.

I effectively have no choice, I’ve not had a choice since the moment I’ve discovered I’m pregnant. That is not necessarily a bad thing and has been the case of millions of women since the dawn of time. Choice should not be mistaken for the Holy Grail or defining value of our age. A lack of choice forces me to find the help and support that I need. I’m no superhero. If I was a better, stronger and more heroic woman I wouldn’t be struggling quite so much, but stoically, quietly, patiently enduring and offering up my suffering and glorying in the miracle that is reproduction and the privilege of carrying my own baby. The fact that I am not coping is a testament to my own shortcomings and so if I can get through this, then anyone can.

But prayers much appreciated in the meantime.

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Warning: this post contains discussion that could upset those who have experienced stillbirth or late-term abortion.

There was a lot of publicity in Ireland this week surrounding the Private Member’s Bill to provide limited access to abortion in the Republic, following a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that makes abortion legal in circumstances where there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother. The bill was defeated by 111 votes to 20, reflecting the views of the Irish population, 89% voting against the legalisation of abortion in an online poll held on behalf of the Irish Labour party. The Republic of Ireland, incidentally boasts one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Whilst it goes without saying that I support the decision of the Dåil, this particular story certainly gave pause for thought and should prove challenging to even the most committed of pro-lifers. Here are four women, not seeking to campaign for abortion on demand, they stress that their stories are not typical of debate, but that they discovered that their unborn children had anomalies incompatible with life and thus felt forced to compelled to seek abortion outside of the republic. They further state that they do not see this issue as a party-political issue but one of human rights. Their stories are compelling, tragic and heart-breaking. They aborted much-wanted pregnancies because they could not withstand the trauma of having to endure another 20 weeks of pregnancy only to have the baby die in utero, shortly after birth, or alternatively go through gruelling courses of medical intervention and surgery with a small chance of success.

It would take a heart of stone not to weep with these women and grieve both for them and their children.

“Having to walk around Birmingham for five hours when you’ve just ended your baby’s life, you’ve had an anaesthetic and are bleeding and cramping . . . I believe in a loving, caring, understanding God and that I won’t be damned for what I did . . . I want to say to people who would judge us – Where is your compassion? Where is love in all this?,” she says, her voice cracking.

For these women, their grief was compounded by their need to travel. No-one should judge women who find themselves in these situations, even though we may objectively be able to disagree with their decision.

This story had an added dimension for me, coming shortly a week after my own 20 week anomaly scan. I know how nerve wracking these scans are and precisely the types of anomaly that are being looked for. The first time I had such a scan was in a London teaching hospital, the baby was in perfect health and in an excellent position, so I was asked if I would allow some students to come in and have a try, whilst the scan was repeated with detailed explanations and precise definitions of what could be seen and what sonographers should be looking out for. In one of my pregnancies, the 20 week scan was delayed due to a problem having been detected in the preceding patient, the couple eventually emerging in floods of tears.

I always opt for the 20 week scan on the grounds that it is better to be prepared for what may follow and in order that, if necessary, any neonatal teams can be on hand, but many are not prepared for the eventuality that their baby may be seriously ill or die. Despite the fact that I could never abort my unborn child for any reason, had I discovered that this baby would be seriously ill and/or die, I would have found it almost impossible to cope in my current situation. I do not blossom in pregnancy, far from it, this one has been the worst yet, for a multitude of reasons and I am having moments of severe self-doubt when I really don’t know whether or not I will be able to cope. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have to endure 20 weeks of getting bigger and bigger, feeling more and more uncomfortable with all the aches and pains of late pregnancy, feeling your baby kick and move, knowing that you are going to have to go through the ordeal of birth (and yes, it is an an ordeal for many) only to have your baby die. I don’t know how I’d manage to keep going, to explain it to my 8 year old, to explain it to the toddler and then go through the grief and heartbreak.

I would undoubtedly do it, but it would take a lot of strength and courage and therefore no-one can sit in judgement upon those who have taken different decisions. My faith would give me the resources to do it, as would my husband, but no doubt I would be under a lot of pressure, social, medical and environmental to take a different decision. What I think would give me hope is knowing that when my baby died, it would be in its mothers arms, it would hopefully die peacefully surrounded by love and comfort. Unbearable though it would be, I would rather give my child that chance of life, no matter how small and know and feel the comfort of its mother rather than the pain and torture of the abortionist’s instruments. The much-derided Rick Santorum movingly describes how when their son Gabriel was born prematurely, he lived for two hours and for those two hours the baby knew nothing but love. As a mother, I can see no greater act of love or sacrifice; as Christian I can see parallels of Christ. For me there would be no other choice.

Should I deny this “choice” to others? Hard cases make bad law. Were these women wrong, should they be condemned? Whilst I cannot condone their actions, to issue an outright condemnation displays a total lack of empathy and compassion. It is quite one thing talking about the principles and ethics involved, quite another when you consider that there are real humans, real lives and real emotions involved. The problem is with passing laws for these types of situations is that it sends the signal that it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn baby because it may be born severely disabled and/or die. It is not surprising that many disabled people are feeling increasingly uncomfortable living in today’s society that seeks to reject unborn children who are less than perfect.

Even where a baby has a definite incompatibility with life outside of the womb, this seems to give licence to the medical profession to put pressure upon the expectant mother. It’s a very utilitarian attitude – the baby will die anyway, much kinder (and cheaper) now, for all concerned. But is it? The mother still has to live with the grief, but coupled with guilt and defensiveness. Many women will find the experience of giving birth to their child and holding and soothing them helps them to heal and reconcile with their grief.

Society and the medical profession must exercise more compassion and less judgement to enable women to make this decision rather than hasten them to the abortionists. Pro-lifers must equally respect the horrendous circumstances that these women face and offer the appropriate sensitivity. Furthermore, instead of talking the sheer ethics of the matter, we must not neglect the reasons why mothers decide that they would not be able to cope with a disabled baby? It’s one thing saying that disabled babies must not be aborted, it’s quite another voting for any government that takes measures to make life for the sick and disabled infinitely more difficult and services either non-existent or difficult to access. Put simply we must place ourselves in the shoes of the expectant mother, as well as the mother of the child with severe disabilities.

As for having to walk around Birmingham for 5 hours after you’ve ended your baby’s life, bleeding and cramping, or having to travel back home to Ireland in order to deliver a dead infant, there can be no words sufficient for the horror. Where was the love, duty, concern and compassion shown by the abortion clinics on these occasions? How can any establishment that professes to care about women’s welfare, kick a woman out of a clinic who is post-anaesthetic, groggy and bleeding to walk strange streets for 5 hours. I know where my anger would be directed.

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Calah Alexander, a young American Catholic convert who writes the provocatively titled Barefoot and Pregnant blog seems to have caused something of a minor brouhaha with her most recent post. She is currently 4 months pregnant, found herself in need of a maternity bra, so went out shopping wearing a t-shirt bearing the ‘offensive’ slogan stating that Birth Control is for Sissies and then had the audacity to write about the reactions she rerceived.

Though not partial to slogan t-shirts on anyone over the age of 5, I have to admire her chutzpah and bravery, having some sympathy with the sentiment expressed. As Calah is well aware from her post, wearing any kind of ideological slogan on clothing does invite a response, particularly when it is as obviously counter-cultural as denouncing birth control; combined with the physical manifestation of her belief, i.e. her emerging bump, the image and statement was especially potent.

The post was quite lighthearted in tone,(though Calah pulls no punches in terms of choice of phrase, I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of her), she describes the relief and transformation in discovering the effects of a well-fitting bra, the trials and tribulations of shoe-shopping and buying ice-cream with the kids, but she also describes the reaction she received from others whilst out shopping wearing said shirt, which tended from the incredulous to the downright hostile,  and ending on a humorous note, when she bumped into another mother, who recognised her from Church.

All in all, a quirky and touching blogpost from a typical American Catholic mom, sharing some of her life with us. Nothing to get offended about surely?

WRONG. As @kathleengreenwood pointed out, it spawned an entire 7 page hate-fest on a forum full of self-professed snarky mothers. The blogpost spawned comments such as “what a f*cking b*tch”, “I want to slap her across the face”, “I hate people like her, I’ll take my pill…you f*cking b*tch”. Yeah, kudos to the sisterhood! They then congratulated themselves on how morally superior they were to this ignorant fundie, encouraged and incited others to leave comments pointing out the error of her ways, and then became downright obsessive, trawling through her blog to see what other thought crimes may have been committed to the blogosphere, venting their vitriolic spleen and bile.

It seems Calah has previous form. On one occasion her little boy got rushed to hospital with severe anaphylactic shock requiring them to pay $280 for an epi-pen. They didn’t have the money, so took it out of the children’s’ Christmas present fund, thinking that a life was more important than presents and that their kids would be well catered for by the extended family. She made the heinous statement that it seemed mightily unfair that under the vagaries of the US healthcare system she had to pay a substantial amount for something that was absolutely necessary in terms of saving her son’s life, the state would not assist, however they will provide contraception and birth control free of charge, something that she feels is unnecessary, as if you don’t wish to get pregnant there’s a simple answer. She has a point, one might not agree, but it does not necessitate the level of hatred. Every detail of her life was poured over in an attempt to prove what an awful person she really is and discredit her point of view. She is obviously a liar who puts herself before her children, as evidenced by the fact that she went to a relatively upmarket department store. Her finances and entire lifestyle were subject to scrutiny.

“Her house seems nice are they really running so short they can’t buy gifts and meds? Shouldn’t they have been budgeted out or don’t they have emergency funds for sh*t happens”.

“That confused me too. I feel like it was her way of getting pity. ‘Our poor children didn’t get Christmas gifts BUT at least they have their brother’ !!! I also find it odd that they couldn’t scrounge up a little extra cash to get one or two gifts for each child  yet she now is buying decent bras and dress shoes for the kids at the mall”.

The thread reads like it’s been taken over by the below-the-line comments on the Daily Mail. How very tolerant. How very inclusive. How very pro-choice! The ernest feminists seem to have utterly missed the point. It. was. a joke. I thought that the t-shirt was rather good. It didn’t even need to be a Catholic or ideological statement, it could just have been highly ironic or self-deprecating. Ah, I forgot, I’m dealing with Americans here. One commenter noted that she would have refused to serve a woman who was wearing such a t-shirt and, she pouted, she would have been backed up by her boss. Gotta love those all-American land of the free and home of the brave values on display there. The most ludicrous comment was that the t-shirt was deliberately ‘homophobic’ with its mention of the word sissy.

Needless to say it all rather resonated. This forum made clear that they were not prepared to tolerate this woman, they hated her and all they believed that she stood for. I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not she would have elicited that reaction had she not been a Catholic?

But the statement on the t-shirt and its reaction does bear a little analysis. Why is it so hateful? Taken on face value it is a statement that proclaims that pregnancy and motherhood is difficult, not for sissies, not for the feint-hearted, but the truly heroic. Which is precisely why it upset the feminists with their “we are the strong tough fearless Amazonian pioneering women” self-vision quite so much. It implies that anyone who deliberately avoids motherhood is somehow a weaker specimen. And therein lies the paradox and antagonism at the heart of modern feminism. On the one hand it strives to be the Xena warrior princess, fearless, brave and bold goddess, stronger, bigger, bolder and better than men, yet on the other, in order to survive it also has to tap into the vying narrative of victimhood. Hence lots of outraged comments along the lines of how people would have to take hormonal birth control, otherwise their uterus would fall out, and obviously Calah, with her outrageous ideas that women can actually refuse to have sex if they don’t want to get pregnant, is slut-shaming and blaming, wishing to impose Victorian morality and blame on women. Either as women we are strong and in control, or we are not? Or is it that we want to be, but are still oppressed by the patriarchy and so have no choice other than to have sex, so must protect ourselves any way we can?

I can’t help but hearken back to that statement by Mary Wollstonecraft who saw abortion as being a consequence of women becoming weaker than they would otherwise be, if they had not been subject to sexual objectification.

“Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being taken into account, that of bearing and nursing children, have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom do so with impunity”.

Pregnancy and childbirth are at the very core of femininity which is why feminists fight so hard for what they believe is control over their own bodies. The paradox being that this physical control admits, encourages and coerces female subordination. Female fertility is a problem, something that must be repressed and overcome, the body must be stopped from carrying out its natural functions of monthly ovulation and potential to bear children. A society that continues to view women’s fertility as a problem to be solved, is a society that does not value women and places unfair expectations upon them. Whilst society continues to view female fertility and childbirth as a problem, then women will never achieve true equality. Empowerment is an illusion in that a woman is only ever empowered if she can be 100% sure that her contraception will work and is entirely happy with the notion of aborting an unwanted unborn child in case it doesn’t. Are any feminists truly happy that most women chose to abort because they feel that they have no other economic or social choice? After all we are always being told that women don’t stroll into the abortion clinic as if it were Starbucks?

Bibi Lynch tragically and bitterly captured the essence of  how it can feel to be a childless woman in the Guardian last week.

“You won’t heal – because this is deep in you. What you’re supposed to do. What’s inside us to do. What we’re born to do. And you didn’t do it.”

Motherhood is without a doubt the most joyful and rewarding experiences there is. That does not mean that it is easy. Pregnancy is often a struggle, multiple young children at times demanding and stressful, even if one does stay at home. It may not be the same type of stress as the demands of a career, but it is nonetheless challenging at times. Responding to the catty comments of Hilary Rosen that she was somehow a lesser or inferior species due to not having worked, but instead been a stay-at-home mum or to use the now un-PC term, housewife, Romney said that just because they had not financially struggled, her life as mother of five children, has not been without its fair share of struggle, including fights against cancer.

Being prepared to endure pregnancy and childbirth, being prepared to die to self for the needs of others, is a sign of great strength, not weakness or oppression. Child-rearing entails a great deal of sacrifice, physically and emotionally.

Not using birth control is a sign of strength, it is a sign of responsibility and being prepared to accept and endure the consequences of having sex. It is not a fatalistic mentality, but a working with the feminine rhythms of your body, not attempting to counteract them. It is an exercise in self-control and potentially standing up to a partner keen to get amorous.

Why did Calah Alexander attract so much hate? Because she dared to go against and question a feminist mantra and by doing so demonstrated that she is stronger than others who (for perfectly legitimate reasons) have decided not to have more children. Anyone who cannot cope with a humorous slogan on a t-shirt that has a grain of truth and challenges a deeply cherished orthodoxy and is so moved to incite and spew tirades of loathing and spite, is not as tolerant and pro freedom of choice as they would claim. Anyone who feels so defensive as to chuck indiscriminate hatred and wish violence upon a total stranger because they disagree with a point of view is a bigot. Why have they reacted so strongly? Because they feel ‘judged’.

All of which proves that Calah was right all along. They really are sissies.

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It was with a sense of dismay that I read the posts over at Father Z and The Deacon’s Bench, regarding the issue of whether or not children should be given blessings during the distribution of the Eucharist. My initial knee-jerk reaction was “oh no, not another thing I’m doing wrong, gosh these traddies ARE strict and it does seem rather mean-spirited”.

The arguments against not giving children blessings are however logically coherent. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it is not in the rubrics. Whilst it may not be the most serious of liturgical abuses, it needs to be remembered that the liturgy is at the centre of our faith and as Cardinal Burke noted last year we must ensure that the Eucharist is entered into properly , according to Church norms, if we are not to weaken or lose our faith.

Secondly, the blessing of children seems to have its roots in a very Anglican practice, namely that all are welcome around the Lord’s table. Wonderful as this sounds, the Eucharist is no mere symbol, it is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He offers himself to all however we have to ensure that we are in a state to receive Him and not guilty of mortal sin. Whereas in Anglican churches sidespeople enthusiastically shepherd all members of the congregation to the altar, row by row, either to receive communion or a blessing, there is reason why this practice does not occur in Catholic churches. The responsibility remains on the communicant to decide whether or not they should present for communion, as to partake of communion in a state of mortal sin or not believing in the real presence is an offence against God himself as it profanes the Eucharist.

This is why it is important that not everybody is herded up en masse to receive as to do so places undue pressure upon those who may not be able to receive for a multitude of reasons, such as not having observed the Eucharistic fast or perhaps already having received the Eucharist twice that day already. If everyone is always encouraged to traipse up to the altar then those who must not receive the Eucharist may well receive out of either habit or fear of what others may think.

To take children up to the altar during communion can foster a misleading attitude in terms of how we think of the Eucharist. It is not simply about us, but about God meeting with us, not something to which we are entitled, but something which is freely given, of which we must ensure that we are worthy of receiving.

I can identify with Fr Cory Sticha when he says:

“One of the arguments frequently given in defense of blessing children is, “They feel like they get something.” Yes, because we wouldn’t want our children to learn how to do something without getting something in return.”

On the occasions where we have attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, my eldest has got quite indignant that she has been instructed to stay behind in the pews, “it’s not fair” being the refrain, she feels excluded and of course all children of a certain age want to join in with what their parents are doing. Whilst it is undoubtedly character building, given the practice goes on in the Novus Ordo, it’s another (minor) barrier for us in terms of exploring the Extraordinary Form. The eldest hates it, has no idea what is going on, finds it unintelligible and she’s not even allowed to join in for a blessing.

I’m not sure whether or not I agree with the sentiment that often parents want the children to go up because it gives them the warm and fuzzies. Whilst this may be the case in some families, the eldest went through a prolonged shy period until she was about six and I had no desire to trundle up a truculent child, ensuring that she kept her arms in the requisite crossed position or didn’t shy away from being touched like a scalded cat before eagerly dashing back to her seat, but we did so, not knowing any better, thinking it was the done thing. I’m not particularly comfortable with the blessings distributed by the extraordinary ministers of communion either. But then again I’m not entirely comfortable with extraordinary ministers of communion distributing the body …

On the other hand, when one listens to the blessings that are given out to the children, they are certainly not priestly or sacramental, being somewhere along the lines of “God bless you dear” or “May the Lord Jesus bless you and keep you safe”. They are carefully worded to ensure that there can be no confusion that this is a sacramental or “official” blessing. In which case what on earth are blessings doing during the distribution, particularly given that they are wholly unnecessary, a blessing is given to the entire congregation at the end of the Mass?

There’s also the issue of very little children such as ours. If the baby is left in her car seat during communion, she wails inconsolably fearing permanent abandonment and disturbs the peace of the others; if the toddler is not firmly manacled or forcibly velcroed to an adult during communion, she will run off to begin disassembling of the Easter garden or the shrine to our patron saint. We have very little practical choice other than to take them up with us. So of course when faced with my beaming brood of Botticelli cherubs any priest with half a heart will naturally want to give them a little blessing…And why not?

The formidable Elizabeth Scalia has reminded me of why I don’t eat peanuts in bars, when she questions the hygiene aspect of the practice – the priest will touch little Xavier on the head or face prior to to dipping his hand back into the ciborium to dispense the Body to the next person. Not something that is worth dwelling upon in any great detail. The Church should not be stingy with blessings she argues and sits on the fence, blessings of children, is not something that we should get het up about either way, it should be an individual matter for each parish.

I’m not sure that I agree. Whilst not to bless children seems very much against the spirit of Mark 10:14, it is not as if the children are being forbidden from getting to know Christ and building a relationship with Him. It is precisely because of the reverence in which the Church holds the Eucharist that it prescribes the certain conditions under which one is eligible to receive. We are not telling children that they are exempt from the Eucharist or the altar for ever, in fact we are teaching them a valuable lesson in terms of its importance.

What is important pastorally is that there is consistency, i.e that practices and customs do not vary from parish to parish and priest to priest, causing confusion, upset and hurt. It would therefore be helpful to see some official clarification from the Vatican one way or another. Technically this should be a piece of cake next to Summorum Pontificum. But then again, as my husband and countless clergy will testify, some of the biggest causes of fallings out amongst congregations are where precious offspring are involved. Perhaps this is one of those battles that just isn’t worth fighting?

Update:

Joseph Shaw has written a detailed post that outlines precisely how this practice contravenes the rubrics. A few important points come to light, firstly that the blessing of children was never outlined in the list of liturgical abuses described by the Blessed John Paul II, which means that secondly, the majority of the faithful are unaware as I was, that this should not be customary.

One of his commenters raises a point that I was thinking of when writing the post. Many non-Catholics and/or those not permitted to receive communion often come to receive a blessing in good faith, as a sign that they are making a spiritual communion. Indeed the celebrant often invites them to do so. In the light of this it seems that official clarification and pastoral advice is overdue.

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