Dog collars and wedding rings

happy couple

According to Damian Thompson, the next Pope must think seriously about married priests. It may be that Damian has a point, as we all know celibacy is a discipline and not a doctrine of the Catholic church, the Church will ordain married men who have previously been in ministry, the discussion is a perfectly valid one, however I imagine that before such a far-reaching move were considered, the opinions of existing clergy spouses would be sought and taken into consideration.

Here’s my fourpennorth, speaking from the point of view of someone who was a clergy spouse and will shortly be one again – it’s interesting, we don’t often hear from the point of view of the clergy wives, who tend to quietly keep their heads down and get on with life, which should give something of an indication of the nature of the role.

Damian distinguishes between the vocation of priesthood and that of celibacy and says that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. He may well be right in that, but priesthood entails that one fashions and patterns one’s life around that of Jesus Christ, who was himself a celibate male. The apostles were admittedly married, but this was prior to their call to follow Jesus, there is absolutely nothing in the Gospels that suggest that they married subsequent to this. Celibacy should therefore be the norm, it’s a gift that my husband has begun to really appreciate as he has be drawn closer into the Catholic church and though he does not wish either myself or his children away, he is acutely aware that celibacy is a gift that he cannot give, although if I were to predecease him then he would not be allowed to re-marry, which is something that he has had to consider carefully. Celibacy affords a freedom that is simply not available to married men, on both a practical and spiritual level. Fr Terry Martin, the Vocations Director for the diocese of Arundel and Brighton, puts it beautifully:

a celibate discovers again and again the truth that he finds everything he needs in God .

It isn’t simply about the practical consequences or the being free to serve and pour oneself out fully in the service of your people, which is a functional consequence of celibacy, but it’s about having a heart to dedicate fully in the service of the Lord.

Does this mean that my husband is going to be less of a priest, or not a priest in the fullest sense? No, because like all priests, once ordained he will have an indelible mark on his soul, there is only one sacrament of ordination, it does not have first or second-class orders, but the church recognises the duality of vocation in those cases of convert priests who were not brought up in the tradition that they would need to choose between marriage and priesthood, as well as recognising and honouring the previous ministry.

Married priests have a lot to bring to their ministry, they will have personal and direct experience of married life and often physical fatherhood. Having had a few years out of ministry prior to ordination was an enormous gift to my husband, not only strengthening his call back to the altar, but also the experience of a full-time lay profession and juggling the demands of a young family, perennially pregnant wife along with keeping up with his spiritual formation, prayer life and volunteer work, will stand him in good stead, in terms of understanding the pressures and challenges for Catholic families, who are desperately trying to keep the faith. He also understands the great challenges and enormous gift of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and will be able to communicate that in a very open and honest way that might perhaps prove more difficult for a celibate priest.

But there is, as both Fr Tim and Fr Sean Finigan note, a duality of heart at play here. Exlaodicea also has some poignant insights.  Though one should not focus solely on the practical nature of a married priesthood, it would have consequences, not least who on earth is going to support all these married clergy, most of whom, would presumably have a fair few children, for obvious reasons. Not all presbyteries are sprawling Victorian piles, some are very functional 2 bed houses, built in the 50s and 60s when the time of the housekeeper was beginning to decline. Suitable accommodation, ideally near to decent Catholic schooling needs to be found. A married priest with children simply cannot be moved in and out of various parishes at will, as to do so would disrupt the childrens’ education, so a bishop will find that he has far less flexibility. He’ll have to find a parish or ministry able to support the married priest and his family, together with a suitable house, and leave him in situ there for quite some time, or at least until the children have flown the nest.

Those are really minor issues in the grand scheme of things. A clergy spouse has to understand that her husband does not have a job but a vocation, regardless of denomination. This entails a couple of points. Firstly, a priestly wife is going to have to share a deep love of the faith. A cafeteria Catholic or generic go to Church once a year Christian is simply not going to be well suited. An Anglo-Catholic vicar friend describes his frustrating experience of dating an Evangelical. She was, by all accounts a lovely girl, but didn’t understand or agree with concepts such as infant Baptism or Eucharistic adoration (why are you worshipping a piece of bread) which made for some fraught moments, when he felt that perhaps he was being inadvertently attacked, or just didn’t want to engage in apologetics in his own home. I guess we all search for someone who innately understands us and shares our goals. Antoine de Saint Exupery has a wonderfully apt quote about love – it does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

So if a spouse has the same devout faith as her priestly husband, she is going to understand that vocation will often need to come first and before her needs and wants and sometimes above the family. An example might be an RCIA class on Valentines Day, or an evening interview doing marriage prep with a couple on her birthday. Agape will often need to trump eros. It’s also quite a scary thing being a clergy spouse. You don’t have care of souls, but you share your life with someone who acts in personae Christi. On that terrible day of judgement you will be asked to account as to whether or not you helped or hindered in the care of souls and there is really no excuse for spiritual laxity.

A clergy spouse has to understand that whether she likes it or not, to some extent she has to keep an open house and be happy to accept visitors at all hours and be ready to feed multitudes at the drop of a hat. I remember one occasion when Robin (bless his cotton socks) had no idea what it might be like following the birth of a new baby and announced when child 2 was about 6 weeks old, that we had 14 deanery clergy coming for lunch the next day and would I be able to rustle up a spot of lunch! (Gosh did I feel smug when I managed it, baby lay in her Moses basket in the middle of the living room likes a sacrificial lamb, surrounded by several clergy, whilst one elderly Father sat in my special breastfeeding rocking chair, noting that it was the most comfortable chair he’d ever sat in and asking where I bought it, to which I despatched him off to Mothercare!)

I digress, but what that means is often, in effect, it can be difficult for a clergy spouse to work – she can’t rely on her husband to help out with childcare and thus to a certain extent her ministry has to revolve around his. She has to be flexible, discreet, patient, diplomatic and tactful. So when Ethel says to you “oooh you had a late night, I saw you had your light on reading til 1am” or it takes 3 hours to get around Sainsburys after being buttonholed by half the parish who seem to take an unnerving interest in what you might have in your trolley (oooh Fr Robin, he does like his lemon meringue pie) or have folk sweep in and out of your home, which is often used to hold meetings in, you just have to smile sweetly and accept it and make the tea and sandwiches for whoever has come a knocking at whatever time of the day or night. On one memorable occasion a former parishioner attempted to quiz me on our intimate life – being a clergy wife seems to hold particular fascination in that respect for the prurient. Oh and don’t expect weekends to be your own either, for obvious reasons.

That’s not meant as a litany of horror, but rather a jolt of realism, being married to any clergyman is a vocation itself and puts a unique pressure on a marriage. In the Catholic church it is recognised that married priests do indeed have a dual vocation so technically they are never in charge of a parish, but still there will be times when a priest is pulled in two directions and may need to prioritise his family. Plus no-one has mentioned the kids – having a Catholic priest as a dad does put quite a bit of pressure and expectation upon them. We’ve heard of David Burrows MP having had his children bullied at school as a result of his homophobia. Being an RC priest is about as counter-cultural as it gets, and things can be even more complicated if you are a governor of or affiliated with a school, in which your children are getting a hard time. And there might be times when the children often have to miss out on their dad’s presence at things – simply due to the erratic hours that a priest might work. One can’t refuse the dying the sacrament of the sick due to a parents’ evening or school play.

So the idea that a married priesthood is going to be a wonderful thing and make priests so much happier, is highly dependent upon him finding a spouse who is going to be wholly supportive of his vocation. What happens if she isn’t? Is it fair for a parish to be dealing with the fallout of their priest’s marital breakdown?

And we all know that the idea of a married clergy being less likely to abuse, is a canard. The argument doesn’t make sense – in the UK less than 1% of people were shamefully abused by Catholic priests. The NSPCC states that as much as 24% of the population are victims of abuse that took place in childhood or adolescent , of which 65.9% was perpetrated by those under the age of 18. Clearly then, the majority of the blame for the abuse cannot be laid at the door of the Catholic Church, let alone celibacy, given that the vast majority of abuse is reported as taking place in family situations. Even in the US where the number of clerical abuse victims rises to 4%, this is a lesser figure of abusers than, say teachers. Most of those responsible for abuse are those who are permitted sexual relationships with others and celibacy does not account for the abuse that has taken place within the Church of England. That’s not to undermine the seriousness of the offences that did take place, but there is nothing to suggest that celibacy is responsible for abuse, the evidence points firmly away from drawing this conclusion. Which leads me nicely into the next point.

The idea that sex is a need that must be fulfilled otherwise it will lead to abuses is one that must be fought as it seeks to shift blame away from the abuser themselves. All of us have self-control and there can be no excuse for sexual assault. Furthermore those who look towards marriage as a being some sort of cure for these tendencies not only ignore the statistics on married men and abuse, but are deluded if they think that marriage is any sort of guarantee against sexual frustration. Even the happiest marriages go through periods of abstinence, for a variety of reasons and most married couples, especially those with busy lives and/or young children will testify that they aren’t swinging from the chandeliers seven nights a week. This post-modern idea of sex as a basic human need, such as food or water is one that must be fought back against. There are many non religious celibates who live happy and fulfilled lives and to treat a wife as a vehicle with whom to overcome sexual frustration is wholly contrary to Catholic teaching on marriage. Clergy spouses will have read the canonist Ed Peters on marital continence with alarm.

The other point of contention in Damian’s piece is that it wholly relies on his anecdotal evidence – most suburban priests in various Western areas are gay (which ones) and most clergy in Africa have at least one secret wife. It’s impossible to verify or discount these statistics one way or another. It’s definitely true that no vocations crises exist in Africa, seminaries are turning away candidates due to lack of space.

The happiness of a married priesthood hinges on a very narrow definition of marriage being all about sex and is mooted as a false panacea to the abuse crisis. Personally I am extremely grateful that the Holy Father has been generous enough to grant exceptions on a one-off basis, but as part of this process, I needed to pledge my whole-hearted support, knowing full well what this would entail. The happiness of a married priesthood is wholly dependent upon a good quality relationship and a wife who can get 100% behind her husband’s vocation, and places an additional burden on the priest himself who will always have divided loyalties.

That’s not to say that a married priesthood can’t work, the Eastern Rite and Orthodox churches have good approaches, but we should be in no rush to lift this and it is difficult to see how celibacy could be promoted as the ideal standard, were priests suddenly allowed to marry. One also has to note that all this speculation seems terribly unfair and unkind to those seminarians currently being formed in the expectation of celibacy as well as existing clergy. One of the problems around the time of Vatican II was that there was very little formation of this nature – everything seemed to be up for grabs and the process of formation was not as thorough as it could have been, seminarians were ill-equipped to quote with the pressures of the then emerging sexual revolution. These days seminarians are well aware as to the temptations of the modern world and have at least six years to consider their vocation.

I hear on the grapevine that Mrs Newton was a little taken aback by Damian Thompson’s piece. I’m not surprised, I expect she greeted it with mixture of delight (how flattering to have a piece in a broadsheet newspaper calling into question the discipline of celibacy based on a brief dinner encounter) and horror. Opinions on the merits of celibacy should not be hung off the back of individuals. Though many congregations are open and welcoming of married Catholic clergy as Damian notes, there are still some people that see marriage as an impairment to Father’s ability to be at their beck and call and make their feelings known, quite vociferously and at deliberately unsocial hours. At the other end of the scale, one acts as an unwilling or unintentional ambassador or advert for a married priesthood, such as in the case of Mrs Newton.

A change to the rules is one that needs to be approached with due caution. Being a clergy wife is a difficult path to navigate, particularly in a world where celibacy is the norm. Behaviour that would be acceptable in the Anglican church, is not possible in a Catholic setting, where wives are unusual and tolerated. It is not your ministry and one has to be extra careful not to tread on toes or offend a myriad of people or be seen in any way as interfering or taking over. I guess a suitable parallel could be drawn to my sixth form, which at the time was integrating girls into a formerly all-boys school. In my year there were 15 girls to 115 boys and many of the masters did not see our presence as a positive thing. It’s unfair to say that existing clergy have been anything other than welcoming, all of them have been, but all Catholic clergy wives I am friends with know that we are an exception, not the rule and have no desire to trailblaze or queer the pitch for any future former convert wives, or extol the virtues of a married priesthood. Our situations are as unique and individual as we are, and we are able to testify to both the positives and negatives.

Just as a vocation to priesthood is a calling, one could argue the same of a clergy spouse. A priest requires years of formation, one could argue that a clergy wife needs similar, she certainly learns things as she goes along on the job, often getting things wrong and making gaffes along the way. Unlike her husband she is not in receipt of any sacrament, and yet she is subject to similar scrutiny and certain standards and expectations of holiness and behaviour. She knows that her marriage and conduct will, whether she likes it or not, be held up as an example, for good or ill as will her appearance and the behaviour of her children. She knows that her husband’s vocation is ontological in a way that her marriage is not – she will no longer be married in heaven, her husband will still be a priest.

There’s quite a lot of pressure on her shoulders, it is neither a panacea nor a situation for the feint-hearted. Most of us love our spouses on account of who they are, not their job. A clergy wife loves her husband for who he is and that includes accepting, welcoming and embracing his vocation, no matter how difficult or counter-cultural. She will often need to accept that a career may not be possible for her and neither will a permanent home. Like those original fishers of men, she will need to follow the Lord wherever he is leading or calling her husband.

I never thought I’d wind up married to a Catholic priest, I think the nuns at my school would have a blue fit were they ever to find out where my life has led. But at least I knew what I was getting into when I married a man with a vocation, which I accepted as being part of who he was and impossible to separate out, being integrated into his identity given he’d felt the calling from a very young age.

It’s worth looking up the work of American sociologist Andrew Greeley who discovered that celibate priests scored much more highly on the happiness index than their married Anglican counterparts. The challenges that face the priesthood are not celibacy-related. Everyone should know exactly what they are getting themselves into, before getting carried away by notions of dog collars and wedding rings.

The Cardinals and reverse psychology

Papal Conclave-005

The words of the Secretariat of State seem particularly prescient in the light of the damaging allegations that have surfaced regarding Cardinal Keith O’Brien in this morning’s Guardian.

Once again the media seem to be disregarding the rules surrounding natural justice and due process that would be followed in any criminal court, namely a presumption of innocence until proof to the contrary, and are commenting upon these allegations as those they were established fact, with the usual suspects rubbing their hands in glee, not least those who thought Cardinal O’Brien’s Bigot of the Year award, fitting.

With regards to the allegations, the following questions present themselves:

  • Why are they only being made now? If the concern has to do with whether or not Cardinal O’Brien should be allowed to vote in the Conclave, why given the age of the alleged incidents, did the accusers not make known their concerns prior to the conclave of 2005, or even earlier in 2001, when it was announced that O’Brien would be elected to the college of cardinals?
  • Do the comments surrounding priestly celibacy have anything to do with this not least in terms of the media exposure of Cardinal O’Brien of late? Does Cardinal O’Brien’s stance on gay marriage have any part to play on behalf of those who would seek to expose or out him? It ties into the first point – the timing seems peculiar.
  • Who leaked the nuncio’s emails to the Guardian and why?
  • If these allegations do turn out to be sadly true, it would not appear that any criminal offence has been committed. These would appear to be consenting adults – there are no accusations of assault. Surely this would be an internal church matter and not within the remit of secular authority? Cardinal O’Brien is due to retire in a month’s time, what action are the priests expecting the church to take? An individual’s sexuality should have no bearing when it comes to prayerfully discerning whom the Holy Spirit might be guiding into the Chair of St Peter. It sets a very dangerous precedent to assume that clerics are guilty of any allegations without due process being followed and neither is it for the secular world to interfere in the internal processes of the church. So far, we have had one side of the story and it would seem very much as though Cardinal O’Brien is subject to trial by media.

All of which brings me neatly onto Cardinal Mahony, who due to his mishandling of priests guilty of sexual abuse in his diocese, is also subject to similar calls to stay away from the conclave. Let’s be clear. Cardinal Mahony, though guilty of severe negligence is not a pedophile or abuser himself. It’s hard to get one’s head around why he didn’t report these abhorrent crimes to the police, or at the very least lock the perpetrators up in a remote monastery somewhere, but as has been documented, times were different then. The psychology of abusers was not understood in the same way, it was genuinely believed that therapy could cure a disordered sexuality, and the abusers’ professions of repentance were taken at face value.

There’s a whole essay into the factors contributing to the abuse that took place and its subsequent cover-up by local diocesan bishops and parallels to be drawn with what happened in other non-Church institutions such as for example the BBC, but it isn’t fair to imply, nor is there evidence to suggest, that those who did cover-up the scandal, did so because they didn’t care about the victims or because they thought that abusers were likely to re-offend and simply didn’t care, what enquiry after enquiry has demonstrated is that they were misdirected out of love for the church and actually ignored the regulations that were already in place which directed bishops to report these crimes to the police. There is no basis for the claim that various bishops simply didn’t care – the credible answer is, that as prelates such as Mahoney have testified, they simply didn’t get it.

Does that mean he should be disbarred from voting in the conclave to satisfy the demands of a baying press? I would posit that a Cardinal who has personally faced the scandal of clerical sex abuse and who has faced widespread criticism and rebuke not only from the outside world, but also from his peers, would be ideally placed to prayerfully reflect upon who should succeed Pope Benedict and which candidate may possess the necessary qualities. Cardinal Mahony indisputably knows the enormity of the scandal and the huge repercussions for those who may get it wrong. There can be no doubt that he does now understand the seriousness of it all. Perhaps a good comparison would be that of the airline industry? Whenever a pilot has been implicated as being at fault in a serious incident, such as the Kegworth disaster in 1989, British Airways always rush to offer that pilot a job, the First Officer in that tragic crash is now a serving Captain with them – the rationale being that they will never make that mistake again.

Cardinal Mahony may well have made a grievous mistake, one for which he has been disciplined by his successor, but that is no reason to doubt his judgement or ability to vote in the conclave. He may well be better placed than many of the others and have a valuable insight into the motivations and catastrophic failures.

Ultimately whether either of the cardinals attend is a matter for them, their consciences and their fellow peers. It is not for the media or general public to judge and were the Vatican to announce that they were succumbing to public pressure and the cardinals disbarred from voting, this would set a very dangerous precedent, besides which no-one has the authority to prevent their attendance. Only they can recuse themselves. No-one can make judgements about others’ hearts. O’Brien may well be innocent, only time will tell.

In the meantime, anyone wishing the cardinals not to exercise their rights, ought to learn the basics of reverse psychology. The louder the calls for non-participation, the greater the guarantee and likelihood that both Cardinal O’Brien and Cardinal Mahony, will attend, and no-one could blame them for doing so.

A fantastic infrastructure


Alright – forgive the obligatory disgusted of Tunbridge Wells tone, but remember how everyone scoffed at the idea that following ‘same-sex marriage’, the next step would be to follow in the footsteps of Spain and replace the terms of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ with Progenitor A and Progenitor B?

It would appear that, Elton John and David Furnish have decided to lead the way by declaring that David Furnish is the ‘mother’ on the birth certificate of their new baby son, Elijah as well as their elder son Zachary.

That’s right – David Furnish is officially recognised as a mother, despite the fact that he isn’t, he never can be given that he possesses entirely the wrong set of equipment. So not content with redefining marriage, we now need to redefine motherhood and fatherhood into one homogenous mass known as parenthood. Or is it that David Furnish recognises the importance of a mother, just as the LGBT lobby recognise the importance of marriage and has decided to reclaim it for himself? After all, why should motherhood be restricted to women on account of their sexual organs and reproductive ability? Isn’t that rather sexist? This is why we see the overlap between queer theory and feminism, because by declaring that gender is a separate entity to sex and performative in nature, it paves the way for boys to be girls, men to be mothers, girls to be fathers and vice-versa and everybody gets an excuse to indulge their own notions of self-identity.

And whilst I recognise that gender dysphoria can be a serious and debilitating condition requiring treatment of some sort or another, transsexualism or its younger sister transvestitism, is all very well and good, so long as it does not impact on other people, although on a very local level it will mean that when visiting my friends or taking the children to the beach at nearby Rottingdean, I’d better be sure not to drink too much tea as personally I am extremely uncomfortable using gender neutral lavatories in common with, I suspect, most women.

Causing a minor personal inconvenience or embarrassment is in a wholly different league however, to a sacred doctrine whose effects impact on vulnerable children. Men cannot be mothers, women cannot be fathers and to declare otherwise, no matter how legally binding one wishes to make this by declaring it on official documents, does children a massive disservice by seeking to deny them the links to their biological parents.

I am not ashamed to admit that the reason for my distaste and opposition to this, is like many forms of alleged ‘phobia’ , due to feeling threatened. It is threatening when on account of their sexual preferences other people seek to deny that my biology, the fact that I carried my 4 children in my womb myself, that I birthed them, that I breastfed them, that I held them, soothed them, sang to them and tended to them in a way that only a mother can, that they responded to me, from the moment they were born as being comfort and love- I only needed to pick up the newborns when they were crying for them to be instantaneously soothed; all of these things are irrelevant and none of these make me a mother. That, if necessary the state could determine that two men would be every bit as good for them as their mother and their father. It worries me on behalf of every single woman everywhere, that the unique and innate qualities that make women mothers, are now deemed irrelevant, motherhood is just now another form of childcare. Mothers are simply biological vessels and nothing more – something that’s bought into by a frightening amount of women, and was highlighted by Hilary Mantel’s critique of the Duchess of Cambridge. The image she projected was not one that Kate’s extended family have imposed onto her, but one that she has imposed upon Kate, and one can’t help but note that Hilary Mantel has herself suffered from unfortunate infertility problems, which might perhaps explain her disdain towards child-bearing women.

Biology must not be written off in order to satisfy the whims of sexual identity for a minority. To do so is the first step in a dangerous process of dehumanisation. By degrading motherhood, feminism has managed to wipe thousands of years of evolutionary history off the map, a woman’s unique ability to give birth does not render her in any way special, deserving of extra protection or elevate her in any way, it rather weakens her and her womb is something of an encumbrance that makes her not as good as men.

And, if any more proof were required as to how this new child of Elton John and David Furnish has been commodified, their comments are extremely telling, due to a ‘wonderful nanny, fantastic paediatrician, all the great support’, they had found Elijah far more easy to cope with.’

‘Now we have that wonderful infrastructure in place so we can just sit back more and enjoy the little person themselves without the worry – or as much worry.’

Most of us don’t have the luxury of nannies and paediatricians or even great support, particularly if we are not living near our families. Our children are not little pets to be cooed over, admired and enjoyed, no matter how enjoyable or rewarding raising them can be, children are little human beings requiring infinite love, patience, time, energy and self-sacrifice and in those early baby days, enjoyment is not top of the list. You do what you can to get through the back-to-back breast feeding, nappy changing, endless walking up and down stairs to get them to sleep, waving toys and rattles at them, blowing bubbles to cheer them out of their grumpiness, whilst trying to fit everything else in around that. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with a smile of recognition or a soft purring that would indicate they are sleeping contentedly, you’ll feel your baby’s soft cheek against your flesh, gripping on for dear life and comfort whilst they sleep, and that is a reward in and of itself. A baby is not something to sit back and enjoy whilst everyone else gets on and does the hard graft.

Most people don’t need to buy a fantastic infrastructure and that’s because they already have it – a loving mother and father.

Vigil vigilance

Thinking about this whole vigil issue, I’ve just had a bit of crucial insight, courtesy of a friend who was also thinking out loud. Being so close, I just couldn’t see how a peaceful pro-life prayer vigil, especially one that helps women in desperate situations, could be perceived in a bad light by other pro-life groups, or how they undermine education.

The answer is all to do how with how they’ve been framed by a frantic pro-choice movement desperate to discredit and how this narrative has been picked up by a sensationalist media.

40 Days for Life are being portrayed as a weird fringe activity, dangerous Americans have been conflated with prayer vigils and then education has been chucked in, to make the whole pro-life movement appear as one threatening mess. Prayer vigils are the hinge that allow the pro-choice movement to discuss the importation of American methods and we all know that Americans kill people, American culture is innately evil and all traces of it must be stamped out lest it corrupts and ruins our society.

Groups such as Education for Choice, (who are owned by the Brook sexual health charity) are campaigning for pro-life groups such as SPUC, LIFE and the Right-to-Life trust to be kicked out of schools, claiming that children deserve to be taught about ‘individual choice in a safe environment’ and who promote ‘enabling easy non judgemental access to abortion’, have openly called for parents’ rights to remove children from sex-education lessons to be removed as they are ‘neo-Victorian’. Abortion eduction in schools needs to be vastly improved, in their considered and wholly unbiased position as consultants to abortion providers, opinion. It’s worth reading how they single out SPUC’s campaign against same-sex marriage here.

This passage from their toolkit for best practice, makes disturbing reading for anyone who may be concerned about women or young girls being coerced into abortion and should surely make anyone who would claim that abortion is a woman’s right to choose, bristle:

If a young man has or goes on to have experience of unplanned pregnancy with a partner, it is important that he knows who he can talk to and where he can go for help and support, as well as being able to signpost his partner to appropriate agencies. This is especially important when a couple are not agreed about what the outcome of a pregnancy should be, which can be a very difficult situation for a young man to face. Signposting to young men’s services is an important part of abortion education.

It’s worth looking at that toolkit in full – here’s another passage that stood out, warning schools about inviting in pro-life speakers and telling them to check the organisation’s website as an outside speaker can be lent weight and credibility by their invitation to speak:

For example, some websites promote abstinence as the only effective way of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; understate the efficacy of condoms and hormonal contraceptives; cite emergency contraception as a form of abortion; stigmatise homosexuality; and overstate the risks of abortion, in relation to physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Without stating the blindingly obvious here, we can see what pro-life groups are up against and how they could do without the bad press of prayer vigils.

I’ve unpicked the inherent racism and ill-conceived myths about America and the pro-life movement previously. In a country which has a wholly different political demographic, not to mention very liberal gun laws, atrocities will sadly occur, as they will all over the world. It is not the vigils themselves that incur and incite violence – it is a handful of unhinged individuals who take the law into their own hands. 8 individuals in the US abortion industry have been killed since Roe v Wade in 1972. That’s 8 too many, pro-lifers abhor violence of any sort and believe all life to be sacred, (the clue is in the name), but this isn’t a case of big scary gun-toting fundamentalists regularly shooting at folk. It’s actually those who are on the vigil who regularly put themselves in the line of fire, being shot at and fire-bombed in some cases, by those from within the abortion clinic. Just as the LGBT lobby distanced themselves from and condemned the individual who shot at a worker at the Family Research Centre last year, pro-lifers equally condemn any who defile their cause by the use of senseless violence.

That prayers and vigils are an important part of pro-life work goes without saying. They matter profoundly and we should not have a situation where one part of a cause undermines another – this should not be an either/or and one of the strengths of 40 days for life is that it has managed to unite many of the different sections within the pro-life movement and bring together Christians of all denominations.

I can well understand the antipathy, but we have to bear in mind, this is not purely a political or educational effort, there is a spiritual dimension and this highlights one of the downsides of a purely secular pro-life group, who wish to distance themselves from the publicly praying weirdos.

I think what those of us on vigils have to do and keep on doing, is what we’ve always done, just quietly and continually pray and know that our witness will eventually shine through. The lies and the conflations of the abortion industry can easily be disproved, BPAS or Marie Stopes have admitted that there is no need to provide clinic escorts, they know full well no harassment, let alone violence takes place, they have cameras constantly trained upon those on the vigils and there have been no arrests or requests to move on and neither do volunteers engage with or respond to any insults or abuse. Neither do they hold up any judgemental or inflammatory slogans or material – there is simply a verse from scripture and a sign which states ‘we are here to help’. If women entering clinics feel bad, it is because their own conscience has been pricked or because they cannot cope with a physical manifestation that not everyone is prepared to validate abortion, as opposed to anything that the volunteers may say or do.

If 40 days for Life are being portrayed as a bizarre fringe movement, the absence of Catholics only serves to reinforce the image and allows the pro-choice movement to dictate the frame. If however, they prove by their witness, actions and lives that they save, that the only threat vigils pose is to the abortion clinics’ balance sheet, the general public will begin to see behind the lies.

I understand the concern, the vigils are being used as a hook on which pro-choice groups are seeking to get pro-lifers out of education, as theirs is the only voice to be tolerated, but this attack upon freedom of religion and attempt at one-sided indoctrination in which abortion is presented as a preferable option in some situations and at worst as morally neutral, must be resisted on the strongest possible terms and shown up for its inherent and ironic illiberality. Prayer vigils should have nothing to do with whether or not children ought to be given a wholly one-sided and relativistic view of sexual morality and neither should they be banished from our streets due to a misconceived fear of US style ‘culture wars’. The UK is not the US and culture wars feed upon an atmosphere of intolerance. The UK is thankfully a largely tolerant country without the same divisions as exist in the US. The issue of abortion is not split so evenly along political lines and 40 Days for Life is not a political protest or one that seeks to denounce women or those with a pro-choice mentality.

The only ‘war’ here is the cultures of life versus death and we should not allow fear to drive prayer out of the public square. The battle for education goes way beyond the activities of those praying for an end to abortion outside a clinic.

A Battle between Heaven and Hell


I went to see David Bereit, one of the founders of the 40 Days for Life movement, when he came to give encouragement and support to those involved in the vigils outside the Wistons clinic in Brighton, at a talk last night.

There were many positive and encouraging stories of what the movement has achieved, how a simple one-hour prayer vigil by a group of 3 friends outside a clinic in Texas in 2004 has rapidly expanded to become a worldwide and global movement, and the importance of the UK in this effort. Colette, one of the volunteers I met in London during the last campaign had travelled here in order to be a part of it, having been so impressed by what she’d read and has now taken the campaign back to her home country of South Africa. Another volunteer has also taken the campaign to Russia; the UK is seen as an international hub or a global gateway, what happens here influences other countries, so seen in this context its not surprising that the opposition has been quite so vociferous.

David talked about a seminal moment in his pro-life journey which sent shivers down my spine – whatever the explanation for events, there could be no doubting his sincerity and it certainly played well with the mainly Evangelical attendees.  David sees the mass slaughter of the unborn as the great spiritual battle of our age and attempts to rouse people out of their apathy and reluctance. Abortion is, he says, the defining crisis of our generation, it is literally a battle between  life and death, a battle between heaven and hell and what we will be accountable to God for. What we did and what we did not do.

In terms of the eschatological terminology I think he definitely has a point. Though many of the topics of this blog are unpalatable to many, it is without a doubt, the posts regarding abortion and the 40 days for life movement in particular, that arouse the most anger, vitriol and abuse, especially anything where I might write about pro-life witness. Someone once said to me ‘Caroline, you’re really rattling the cages of hell here’ and whilst I would eschew any description that would attempt to paint me in any sort of saintly, righteous or pious light, knowing that I am very very far from being pure in heart, it does sometimes feel like there are dark forces at work, not least in terms of anger and various attempts to prevent or put stumbling blocks in the way of 40 Days for Life, which has three elements at its heart – prayer and fasting, clinic vigils and community outreach.

Had the local feminist collective known about last night’s visit, they would no doubt have been protesting outside, with banners about ‘slut-shaming’ and removing their rights, we would have been seen as a group of moralisers seeking to oppress them and violently force them into gruesome births or seedy filthy backstreet abortions involving coat-hangers, whereas actually the discussion revolved around women’s welfare, what more could be done to help, how to make outreach compassionate and effective. There was no judgement about the women themselves let alone their sexual morality. This was a group of Christians wanting to bear witness and demonstrate caritas in action.

40 Days for Life was chosen as a result of its many biblical references – Noah was in the ark for 40 days and nights whilst God punished the world with a flood, Moses spent 40 days and nights on a mountain with God on two occasions, Goliath taunted the Israelite army for 4o days, God was planning to destroy the city of Ninevah in 40 days, before he saw the acts of repentance of the Ninevites and had compassion on them and in the New Testament, Jesus was fasted and was tempted by the devil when he was at his weakest after 40 days and 40 nights and of course following the Resurrection, he appeared to his followers and disciples for a period of 40 days before He ascended into heaven. Forty days is then a time of testing and a time of transformation.

Forty days for life is living God’s vision as if we were being salt and light. The clinic vigils take place because we know that whenever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is there among them. It is to bring Christ’s presence where it is most needed – outside the abortion clinics and to awaken the conscience of the Christian community. The frequent turnarounds (there have been at least 10 already in the past 8 days in London) show that sometimes God can reach the heart of the mother.

Which brings me on to the hard part. There is something troubling my conscience about which I have agonised over, in terms of whether or not to remain silent. I mentioned that last night the meeting was mainly attended by the Evangelical stalwarts of the campaign. Only 4 Catholics attended, including myself and the head of the Worthing branch of SPUC, despite the fact that Brighton and Hove is a thriving deanery. The Wistons clinics conducts 4,000 abortions every year, equivalent to two and half classes of schoolchildren every week, in the heart of our city.

One of the attendees. Michael Petek (who comments here on Protect the Pope) discussed his disappointment having read on a local parish newsletter, that the local deanery clergy were in consensus that Catholics should not attend the 40 Days for Life vigils because of the negative press coverage and because it undermined the educational work of other pro-life charities such as LIFE.

This has been weighing really heavily on me since I saw the announcement myself on a pewsheet on Sunday and it’s caused me many tears and anguish for a number of reasons. Firstly I know the clergy of the deanery, they are good wise and holy men and I have no doubt as to their integrity or that this is a considered decision. Secondly, I don’t want to be seen as an agitator or denouncer and someone who doesn’t know her place. The thing is that I’m very much of the WSIWYG school – what you see is very much what you get with me, I wear my heart on my sleeve much more than is probably wise and it’s why I would never consider a career in politics or the diplomatic service. I am worried that I am the wrong person to speak out on this one, for a variety of reasons, but what I would say is that my concerns and hurt are not personal grievances with individuals.

Like many Catholics, I respect, trust and look up to our clergy. If they advise me as to a course of action, I will follow their guidance. Therefore if they are advising people not to join the 40 Days for Life vigils, it feels like something of act of disobedience to participate. Whilst I know that clergy are not infallible and we have to be aware of clericalism, to participate in a prayer vigil, now feels like an open act of defiance. It will certainly deter many of the faithful from getting involved, knowing that the diocesan clergy seem to have reached a consensus (according to the notice) that the vigils are not a good thing for Catholics.

Personally I can’t help but feel very hurt and almost betrayed, given that I do volunteer a lot of my precious spare time and energy to this cause trying to shake people out of their apathy, which is obviously seen as being unhelpful and counterproductive. One of the other Catholics who attended last night’s meeting, kept repeating in disbelief,’ is this really what was being said’, such was her incredulity. Catholics, innate defenders of the unborn, are being urged not to publicly pray outside abortion clinics, because of what other people might think and because it might obscure the pro-life message in schools.

Think about that for a minute. Priests are telling Catholics not to pray in public, for fear of public opinion. It just feels so innately wrong and if nothing else, hands a huge victory to the pro-choicers. I am not clear as to how 40 days for Life might damage the work of LIFE in schools either.

I don’t wish to sow discord or more factionalism. I am more sad and hurt than anything else, but to me this seems symptomatic of the spiritual battle we are facing, one which I think we will win and one that I am proud to play my part in, despite the smears of those who would wish to portray  us as fundamentalist nutters looking to harass and threaten, when we, along with others, know the truth. Compare and contrast what the Good Counsel Network are offering with what the pro-choicers are offering.

Unborn children are saved, they may be small in number, but they are every bit as precious and valuable. Hearts and minds are changed by peaceful prayerful witness and surely as Christians we believe that God answers prayer and in the power of vigils? I cannot get my head around Catholics being asked to stay away from public prayer vigils for the unborn in this Year of Faith, by those who have care of souls. I am deeply deeply troubled and scandalised, whilst not wishing to cause scandal or escalate matters. I am writing this with a very heavy heart indeed.

As I said, I am no saint, but I have been praying here to Bernadette Soubirous, someone else whose public prayer was discouraged by the clergy. To me, this is simply yet another manifestation of David’s words, this is spiritual warfare, this is the battle between heaven and hell and I pray to God that I’m on the right side. One day my children and grandchildren will ask me ‘what did you do in the fight against abortion’ and I hope to be able to tell them how I tried my best, I wasn’t afraid to be painted as a nutter and face public vitriol and abuse for praying for the unborn, that I tried to reach out and help women and change hearts and minds.  I hope to be able to say the same to my Creator as well.

And before complaints come flooding in about the diocese or particular individuals (which won’t be published) I will state that this is an initiative that seems to be being supported by our diocese. 

Please join me in prayers that it isn’t too late to change hearts and minds in Brighton. And let me know your thoughts from a Catholic perspective.

Joining the dots

I did a couple of media appearances yesterday (as my friend said, I’m getting to be like David Jason, always on the telly) regarding the revised NICE guidelines which propose that the NHS should now offer one free cycle of IVF to couples between the ages of 40-42. I didn’t get to expand upon my points about more effective techniques, ideally I would have liked to have discussed the success rates of NaPro technology and neither was it the forum to launch into apologetics surrounding assisted reproductive techniques.

Without going into a lengthy discourse as to the ethics and wisdom of IVF as a whole, one thing struck me as being missing from the entire debate. We, in the Western World have some very confused, peculiar and disjointed notions of female fertility, which are tied into the shortcomings of a society based on moral relativism, whereby personal autonomy is king and every choice is equally valid, regardless of consequences.

One of the recurrent themes of yesterday, was not that women were choosing to have their children late, simply that life didn’t pan out the way that they wanted – Mr Right didn’t turn up until their late ’30s and early ’40s by which point, female fertility is rapidly diminishing. Whilst on the one hand I totally sympathise, having made more than my fair share of romantic mistakes, I also think this must cause us to question the prevailing mentality with regards to female choice and autonomy, without wishing to remove any of those options from women.

Suzanne Moore makes some salient points here, not least emphasising the low success rates of IVF and echoing some of my themes around society’s attitudes towards the right age for motherhood. The Holy Grail of female choice, has paradoxically led to a situation whereby women feel that they have very little choice and control when it comes to the timing and amount of children. The everyday expectation for women is that following education they should go straight into the world of work, spend some time establishing financial independence and their career and only once secure should they then begin to think about potential offspring. The problem is that building up a successful career requires a substantial amount of time and effort which leaves precious little emotional and physical resources for the business of finding a life partner, which these days is treated as an optional extra to the all-consuming world of work and career. Add in the whole business of setting up and maintaining an independent home, it’s no surprise that most women aren’t really paying much attention to any sort of long-term game plan in terms of marriage and children. It’s all about surviving on a short-term basis, particularly in these days of austerity and hoping that the future will sort of magically fall into place, once everything else is established.

One of my suggestions was that women need to take into account the fact that fertility begins to decline frighteningly early at the age of 27, and begins to drop rapidly from the age of 35. Women (and men) need to be giving some thought as to starting their families earlier and we as a society need to be implementing solutions to make life more feasible for working women with children, seeing as we are in an economic situation which necessitates dual-income households. I also think that we need to readjust attitudes towards younger mothers, whilst no-one should be encouraging young teenage mothers, there is a palpable snobbery and distain towards mothers under 25. Whilst no-one should be making value judgements in terms of the age of parents, both the old and the young cohorts have their advantages and disadvantages, my experience has been that younger mothers tend to be much more flexible and adaptable in terms of their attitude to their children, and far less prone to stress as a result. Young mothers are less likely to have become perfectionist control freaks, stuck in their ways and tend to be able to take various setbacks or the less palatable aspects of childrearing in their stride, with patience and good humour – children being just the next exciting adventure. Having had a child in my twenties and then a progression of three in my mid thirties, each pregnancy becoming progressively more tiring, difficult and risky with age, I certainly think that youth has something of an advantage here.

Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London, felt that I was being overly prescriptive in terms of suggesting that women need to think about marriage earlier and it certainly could appear like a reactionary solution, but given not only the low success rates of IVF, but also the physical and emotional pain involved as well as the financial cost, society has little other choice and neither do women who need to accept that one day, it is likely that they are going to want to give serious consideration as to trying for a family.

Whilst Moore is indeed correct that society needs to be welcoming and accepting to mothers of all age, whether that be the teenage mother or the grandparent unexpectedly cast into a parental role as a result of unforeseen circumstances, she, in line with society as a whole, has got the whole issue back to front in terms of framing this issue of being solely about women, understandable when it is indeed women who bear the brunt of the responsibility for pregnancy and childbirth. The whole situation in terms of the growing problem of infertility, the costs of IVF and the rise in the age of the average first-time mother highlights the limitations of a society that is based solely around individualism and doing only what is right for oneself, in that our decisions always have some impact on others, especially if, as in the case of delaying motherhood, they result in others being asked to bear the cost.

Instead of thinking purely about women’s individual needs or even rights to have children, we need to start giving more consideration to children’s rights and needs in conjuction with our own.That children ideally need a loving mother and father in a stable relationship and with a permanent home is indisputable. We need to be putting that as our starting point, whilst factoring in that women have a limited window of opportunity in which they are able to conceive a child. That is not to usher people into hasty or unsuitable relationships, but that both sexes need to be giving the whole notion of finding a life partner, more thought much earlier than is currently the case. After all, who on their death bed, gives thanks for the hours spent in the confines of the office and which is a better legacy – a career as an HR manager or procurement officer for a paperclip company in Worthing, or a legacy of love and laughter in having brought and nurtured the next generation into being?

One of the whole perplexing aspects of this entire debate is that on the one hand women are being given a (worthy) ideal of being able to be in control of their reproductive destiny and then on the other, they are presented as victims who were passively and patiently waiting for Mr Right to come along. Actually I think there are several Mr Rights – Plato got this one wrong. Most women and men who marry older admit to having had several partners in their past with whom they could have had a happy and successful marriage and children, but that they had other priorities and lacked the maturity and desire for long-term commitment.

We have a situation whereby women are being enculturated into suppressing their natural fertility with long-acting hormones, (which take the body a long time to get back into sync and recover its natural rhythms of fertility), we have the NHS funding almost 200,000 abortions a year on the basis that it is not the ‘right time’ for a woman to have a baby and then on the other, they are shelling out copious amounts of cash for those who have unwittingly sleepwalked into infertility.

Female fulfilment is not solely to be found in the act of giving birth as feminists are always trying to tell us, some inelegant commentator tried to suggest that childbirth was no different to the act of defecation, but reproduction is clearly a sensitive issue that is innately and inexorably linked to our gender, which is why the feminists tie themselves in knots about it. Someone suggested that be it abortion or IVF, the whole issue is shrouded in blame in terms of women who have made the so-called ‘wrong’ decisions. Women are, according to this mentality, victims of their own Fertility with a capital F, either a rampant beast that needs to be tamed or an elusive will-o-the-wisp – but either way it should be ours to capture, pin down and use to our own ends.

Whichever way, we need to learn that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. The promotion of an ideal is not the same as shaming those who fail to achieve that, neither is it a judgement upon others’ morality, other than to note that scarce resources should not be spent on elusive and unlikely solutions that have come about as a result of a lifestyle choice, particularly when the condition does not cause an immediate and pressing threat to a person’s life, or impair their ability to go about their day to day life. The myriad of issues surrounding IVF is symptomatic of what results when sex and procreation are separated. IVF is simply a modern society’s attempt to find a solution for a self-inflicted problem. When are we going to join the dots?

A little treat

It’s rare for me to diverge from my usual blither into the more esoteric territory of sacred music, not least because I’m bound to offend at least one person, but this delightful new setting charmed my socks off!

Absolutely glorious. Can we have more of this please?  You don’t even need the accompanying choir or harmony, the top line in itself is beautiful and relatively simple.

For those who haven’t already come across this – it’s the Mass of the English Martyrs, by Jeff Ostrowski. Sublime. How do we make this mandatory in all Norvus Ordo Masses? The score is free, no copyright issue – choirmasters start downloading and get singing. It’s even been scored for higher and lower voices.

A perfect Mass setting for the ordinations of those to the Ordinariate or indeed former Anglican, convert clergy…

Enjoy. (h/t chant cafe)