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Archive for August, 2013

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 25 August 2013

(Since this piece was written, I’ve lost well over half a stone in weight and my nutritional intake consists solely of sips of flat coke, water and bites of white bread, further reinforcing the original view.  At times I’ve been almost bedridden and barely able to leave the house, thank goodness for a supportive husband who is carrying the majority of the load during his holiday, whilst I languish like some gothic Victorian heroine. How women are supposed to function normally let alone make rational decisions in this condition is beyond me. Once again I am reminded why abortion must seem like an attractive option to those who may already be overburdened and find the crippling nausea and fatigue almost too much to deal with). 

First-Trimester-Symptoms

My Catherine Earnshaw moments are rather less glamourous!

Much to our delight, we discovered a few weeks ago that we are expecting our fifth child who is expected to put in an appearance some time in March.

The response, even from Catholic quarters has been interesting and is one from which lessons can be drawn. Many people have questioned whether or not I am correct to announce things at this relatively early stage in the first trimester. “Do people tend to go public before 12 weeks, I thought it had to be top secret” asked one colleague in good faith , which made me realise that a taboo pervades when it comes to the subject of early pregnancy.

I’ve therefore decided, perhaps rather foolishly, to lead by example and announce the happy news to the world at large. This pressure to keep mum about being mum, seems to me to be doing women a major disservice under a misguided notion of compassion.

There are really only three main reasons why a woman may wish to keep her pregnancy news to herself. Firstly, she is concerned about the risk of miscarriage, secondly she wants to be sure that the baby is healthy following her twelve week scan and thirdly, she might be undecided and not want to have to face the public stigma of abortion. Which goes to debunk the notion of choice, because surely if the unborn child is not really a person but a bundle of cells, if the decision is hers alone, to do whatever she likes with her body, then why the urge to keep silent? If pro-choicers are wishing to remove the stigma of abortion, to discuss it in terms of need, then why are they wishing to buy into the silence that surrounds early pregnancy?

Regardless of choice, there can be absolutely no doubt, that for most women, the first trimester is a physically and mentally exhausting time. Added to the worry about potential miscarriage, the majority of which take place in the first trimester, women, if they are anything like me, have to face the trauma of perpetual nausea and sickness, loss of appetite, food and scent aversions, (my children currently smell appalling much to my horror), crippling fatigue, periods of feeling faint, accompanying breathlessness along with headaches, with the skin and temperament of a moody adolescent as huge amounts of progesterone go crashing through your body.

In short, one is a wreck. It’s not surprising, as the first trimester is when all of the baby’s major development takes place. By 4 weeks, all of the baby’s major organs and body systems are in place and beginning to form. By 12 weeks all bodily organs and systems are fully-formed and ready to grow. It’s no wonder you’re shattered! There’s an incredible amount of building work taking place inside you, it’s only after 12 weeks that the placenta takes over in terms of supplying the baby with vital nutrients. Before then, it’s one’s body doing all the work in constructing this tiny human, which will naturally deplete your existing resources.

 It therefore seems crazy to keep this quiet when the first trimester is the time that a woman requires most support from her partner, family, friends and employer. You need people to exercise due care and understanding and even if one’s  symptoms are not all that severe, it is likely that at some point, a woman will need some leeway and understanding. To keep things quiet forces a woman to conform to the expectations and demands of others, whilst suppressing her own needs, which is not an ideal model of womanhood.

While it is understandable that a woman may not wish to publicly announce the loss of a child if she were to miscarry, it is far more likely that she will get the time off work and compassion she needs from others, if she has previously made them aware of her pregnancy. By suppressing the news, a woman inherently buys into the prevailing zeitgeist which holds that a child is only a child if it is wanted and once it has reached a certain stage in development, whereas biology tells us that a life is formed from the moment of conception.

Why should women be forced to suffer the grief, pain and loss of a child in early pregnancy alone and unsupported? Friends of mine who have experienced the tragedy of multiple  early miscarriages have testified to experiencing enormous stigma for wishing to mourn the loss of their little ones, because an abortive mentality tells us that this is not really a child or person.

To keep news of a pregnancy silent until one finds out whether or not the baby may have any abnormalities, heaps further pressure on the disabled who live in our society and upon the parents who may be faced with some very difficult news. The silence serving as a shroud with many parents not feeling able to discuss their news with anyone who might be able to give them a more positive vision than a gloomy clinical prognosis, which talks only in terms of pathologies.

A woman who is undecided needs even more compassion in a society which endorses abortion as an acceptable and even responsible option. If she is struggling with a terrible dilemma whilst in the throes of feeling absolutely dire, how does a conspiracy of silence help her to be able to talk through her options with someone other than the worker at the abortion clinic, who will in all probability consolidate her doubts and offer a swift concrete solution.

 In 2012, 91% of abortions were carried out in first trimester, compared to 57% in 2002. It’s no wonder the abortion industry want to keep early pregnancy hidden and behind closed doors. Pregnant women should not feel silenced.

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This week’s Catholic Universe column – 18 August 2013

Pope Paul VI

A man ahead of his time.

This summer has marked the 45th anniversary of one of the most important Church documents of the twentieth century, namely the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, that re-affirmed traditional Church doctrine regarding sexuality and marriage and controversially rejected all forms of contraception as being a moral evil.

It was a teaching that proved very hard to swallow by certain members of the Catholic faithful, published when the sexual revolution was in full swing, going against the the tide of both public opinion and views held by many theologians in academe – 600 of whom dissented, signing their names in a public statement, but many of whom later recanted.

Pope Paul VI’s words have nonetheless proved eerily prophetic, as he made four major predictions about what would happen to individuals, families and nations if the widespread use of artificial contraception was allowed.

The first being, “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” 

If anyone were in any doubt about this, according to the latest statistics from the ONS,  it is estimated that 42% of all marriages in England and Wales, are expected to end in divorce. 22% of marriages that took place in 1970 had ended by their fifteenth anniversary whereas  33% of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period, i.e. by 2010. Marriage figures are an at all-time low, with many couples instead opting for cohabitation. The proportion of children born to unmarried mothers hit a record 47.5% in 2012, up from 11% in 1979 and it is predicted that by 2016, the majority of children will be born to unmarried parents. A study by the Marriage Foundation calculates that cohabiting couples who have children are twice as likely to split up as their married counterparts and that more than half of the children born today will have been through at least one family break-up by the time they are 16. The idea of being ‘unhappily married’ would appear to be a myth – 93% of couples whose relationship is still intact by the time their children are teenagers, are married. The increase  in family breakdown being disastrous for children’s prospects and society as a whole.

Pope Paul VI’s second prediction was as follows; “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” 

According to the charity Women’s Aid, 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, many of these on a number of occasions. One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute. On average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

The widespread acceptance of the use of pornography is further evidence as to how both men and women have been reduced to mere objects of sexual gratification, with young women forced to sexually objectify themselves to compete for male attention and increasing numbers of young men caught in the throes of a pornography addiction with devastating effects for their future wellbeing.

The third prediction was perhaps the most chilling, warning of what might happen should the power of preventing births, fall into the power of the state: “Careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. . . . Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” 

One only needs to think of the catastrophic effects of the draconian one-child policy in China which has led to forced abortions, sterilisations, increased rates of infanticide and accompanying child-trafficking. China is now facing a demographic timebomb. Lest we think that this is confined to areas outside of the Western World, it’s worth considering, the recent UK government proposals to cap child benefit for two children, a policy which if implemented ,will hit the poorest families.

The final prediction is obvious: ‘Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions   – limits, let it be said which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed . . . .” 

Our hubris has replace natural human reproduction with IVF, cloning, embryo experimentation, creation of hybrid organisms and most recently 3-parent embryos.

Humanae Vitae simply proclaims the messages of nature and the Gospel, that by going against the laws of nature and of God, we inflict almost irreparable damage upon ourselves and society at large. Speaking in 1988, one of the original dissenters, Dr William E. May, said this “I began to realise that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed.”

The Church urges responsible parenthood, which means allowing families to prayerfully discern how many children they may be able to accommodate according to individual circumstances. Family Planning is not in itself a sin but Humanae Vitae urges us to find a way of achieving that which still respects our inherent human dignity as created children of God.

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Rowan-Williams_2553898b

A few days ago a lovely young non-Christian girlfriend of mine messaged me on Facebook. “Would you ever consider getting a nine to five job?” she asked. “Sure”, was my response, “I’ll need to get a job at some point, but probably not until all of the children are at school”.

“Aren’t you worried” she said, “that your views on gay marriage will hurt you?”. Very telling from someone who has been, if not an advocate of “gay marriage”,  has certainly openly supported it, seeing no problem with gay marriage in a civil context, but vehemently disagreeing with those who would wish to have it imposed on religious institutions.

She has a good point. The two professions which I have oscillated over entering over the past few years, namely midwifery and teaching, I have to accept are no longer avenues that would likely be open to me on account of my views.

Recently there has been a ridiculous furore amongst Catholics (who should frankly have better things to do with their time) on Twitter over the use of pseudonymous tweeting and blogging. One tweeter, whom I shall decline to name, has been leading something of a one-man crusade against “sock-puppets”,  demanding that every new pseudonymous account provides him with their name and address and some form of credentials in order to prove that they are not in fact, a ‘fake’. Anyone who declines to do so, is instantly decried and publicly denigrated as a fraud,  pseudonymous tweeters should, in his humble opinion, be banned, either one should tweet in one’s own name or not at all. If you have something to hide, then you should not be on Twitter,  Catholics should be out and proud, happy to be derided and martyred for their views along with the likes of St Thomas More.

Which is all very well, but what when those views could seriously interfere with one’s job prospects, or result in your being sacked? I can well imagine that if I was still in some of my former jobs, this blog would result in my dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct. Not that I have said or done anything scandalous, but simply being ‘out there’ as an opponent of things like abortion, surrogacy, IVF and gay marriage, would cause colleagues to feel uncomfortable, as though they were being ‘judged’ and an employer may consider that their reputation could well be damaged as a result of having an employee who held such scandalous and counter-cultural views.

It cannot be much of a surprise that the majority of non-clerical Catholic tweeters and bloggers employ pseudonyms which they zealously guard; being considered up there with St Thomas More is wonderful, the consequences of which may not be martyrdom, they could certainly impact on others such as vulnerable young family members. While losing your job may do wonders for one’s Catholic credentials, it doesn’t exactly put bread on the table for your children and certainly will affect one’s future job prospects. I wonder whether even a company like Tescos, former sponsors of Gay Pride, would give you a job stacking shelves in these days where one’s name and entire history can be easily googled?

Clearly, unless one has a ‘Catholic’ or even ‘Christian’ job, it’s inadvisable to be open about one’s faith on the internet. It’s not the same as being shot at in Eygpt or beheaded in Syria, but free-speech is limited for serious Christians, like it or not, which is in itself a form of persecution. Should Adrian Smith, the housing officer who was demoted over comments made about gay marriage on his personal Facebook page, have simply shrugged his shoulders and “grown up” as the former Archbishop of Canterbury would appear to suggest?

What about the pro-life GP hounded off Twitter by the Irish pro-abort crowd who reported him to the GMC and NHS because using his real name, he expressed pro-life views? Should he too just accept that his beliefs are incompatible with his profession (to save lives not take them) and therefore his freedom of expression is limited and he should just ‘man-up’?

Freedom of expression, is clearly not as serious as threats to livelihood, but it is very much tied up with freedom of association and the right to earn a decent wage in the profession of one’s choice.

Being a Christian is not just a ‘hobby’, it’s not like being a Stars Wars fan, or doing the odd bit of voluntary work, we are compelled to live our faith, which is more than simply going to Church on a Sunday or holy days of obligation and keeping our mouths firmly shut the rest of the time. Faith is not simply that funny habit which mummy and daddy have that we take out of a box and parade as necessary before putting back, but something that needs to be lived, daily, in our thoughts, in our words and in our actions. Faith is not something we leave in the pews on a Sunday. We are commanded to evangelise, and part of that has to be, at some stage, expressing our views, grounded as they are in compassion, hope and charity, not keeping our mouths shut out of fear. Obviously there is a time and a place to do that, no-one wants to be pounced on by fierce evangelisation, a colleague quoting Revelation and fire and brimstone at 9am round the water-cooler on a Monday morning, but neither should we be afraid to put forward or propose our views in the public square, as appropriate.

But increasingly, that is what we are having to accept and what the likes of the National Secular Society are wanting to impose upon us as well as removing our rights to educate our children in accordance with our faith.

I have to accept that even if I were to delete this entire blog tomorrow, due to my Catholic Voices work and my writing for the Catholic press, any future employment prospects outside of the Catholic or pro-life sphere, are limited.

Rowan Williams misses the point when he tells Christians to grow up if they are made to feel uncomfortable or made fun of.  When you look at my most persistent trolls and aggressive interlocutors, the verbal violence has stemmed from the fact that they are made uncomfortable by my writing. By rejecting their views and offering an alternative, I am, by their logic, rejecting them, rejecting their lifestyle decisions and by not unconditionally agreeing that abortion, gay marriage, promiscuity or whatever else is perfectly acceptable, I cause enormous amounts of anger and hate to be directed at me.

Surely it is those who cannot accept that everyone will approve of their choices, who should grow up, instead of seeking to silence opponents?

Whatever the answer the fact that Christians are increasingly afraid to speak out under their real names on the internet (my mother is terribly anxious as a result of my writing), the fact that some feel silenced at work and that faith can prove a barrier to gainful employment in a chosen profession, is in itself a form of persecution. Whilst it’s helpful to keep this in perspective and remember that the situation is not as dire as in other parts of the world, we should not succumb to victim top-trumps, but neither should we deny that this is happening, turn a blind eye, shrug our shoulders and giggle whilst people are losing their livelihoods or are too scared to speak their minds.

Injustice is injustice, regardless of the semantics that one wishes to employ to describe the situation, but to try to pretend it is not happening, in a vain attempt to shore up our existing position and win popularity, is to co-operate in our own persecution. Losing your job for refusing to teach secular sex ed or gay ‘marriage’ might not be up there with getting one’s head cut off for apostasy. But that’s scant comfort to those who are in the firing line. Being disbarred from a job is more than feeling ‘mildly uncomfortable’.

Next time someone tries to smear my mental health or imply that my children are at risk and should be removed as a result of my ‘homophobic’ and pro-life views, as has happened frequently in the past, I’ll just giggle. I’ll accept that we could never be considered as suitable foster parents and give some temporary stability to needy children later on in life, due to our faith. Next time I see a job advertised that I could do with my hands tied behind my back in a local authority or a non-Catholic institution in Brighton, I’ll accept that it’s pointless to put in an application. It’s all my own fault for expounding my Catholic views in public, in today’s tolerant society.

If being grown up is about accepting, condoning, ignoring and laughing at inequality of opportunity as a result of faith, I’d rather be an idealistic child. Of course, when one’s entire ministry has consisted of serving God, when one’s religious views have led to positions within the highest echelons of academia at one of the country’s most prestigious universities and indeed when one as risen to the highest possible rank within one’s church, it is naturally very difficult to conceive of what persecution might look like for your rank and file Christian countryman.

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Taken from the Catholic Universe – 11 August 2013

The subject of internet trolls is once again back in the news, following the vile and horrific abuse including threats of sexual violence, received by Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist campaigner who successfully lobbied the Bank of England for the re-inclusion of a female figure on the back of a banknote. Any high profile female MPs or journalists who supported Ms Criado-Perez or her campaign, such as the MP Stella Creasy or the historian Mary Beard, also found themselves at the receiving end of seemingly sexually motivated threats of violence and death.

In other, related news, Melissa Porter, a BBC TV presenter told of how internet trolls had maliciously misinterpreted a perfectly innocent advertisement she had appeared in with her son, leading to a social services investigation which could potentially have seen him removed from her care. She was wholly exonerated, what the social workers were unable to tell her was that they were almost certain that this was a vexatious report, but needed to check out given the gravity of the allegations.

The most tragic case was that of 14 year-old schoolgirl Hannah Smith who was found having hanged herself, by her 16 year-old sister, after months of taunts and abuse on the popular website ask.fm. There are now calls for the website to be shut down, Hannah’s death being the latest in a string of teenage suicides linked to online bullying from this source.

As a parent, these tragedies increase my desire never to let my children anywhere near social media until they are well over the age of 18 and have the emotional maturity to deal with online interaction. While perhaps the abuse that I have received in my capacity as a Catholic blogger and tweeter, hasn’t quite reached the stage of alleged bomb threats, I have encountered more than my fair share and even at my ripe old age, I still have difficulty coping with it and summoning up the correct response, so I cannot begin to imagine what this would be like for a vulnerable teen.

When pregnant with my third daughter, a particularly vicious pro-choice advocate expressed a wish that I might be struck down by God and hopefully at the hands of an abortionist with rusty scissors and in my fourth pregnancy, I was subject to a violent sexual threat at the hands of a gay ‘marriage’ campaigner, who justified his call for me to hunted down and sexually violated, on the grounds that it was clearly a ‘joke’. In addition, another woman claimed that I secretly wished my unborn baby to die in order that I might profit from the attention and gleefully told shocked onlookers that I ought to stop snivelling. Backed up by a motley group of pro-choice activists and gay rights sympathisers, along with some disaffected members of the faith, they proceeded to make my online life a total misery with a very nasty personalised and directed campaign, in which every single element of my life including my appearance, my children, my husband and my mental health was publicly derided and mocked.

I dealt with it no better than the average teenager, tearfully imploring the attackers to stop, appealing to their better nature and hoping that whatever their grievances, could they not see that I was pregnant and vulnerable. Our daughter was delivered early at a significantly lower birthweight than the others, due to pre-eclampsia, the stress of online abuse thought to be a contributory factor.

The extremely painful lesson I learnt was the old adage – do not feed the trolls, which is so much easier said than done and feels counter-intuitive. The other option was of course, to ditch social media, which can prove to be something of a time-sink, it certainly wasn’t proving a constructive or pleasant experience at times, but given my online activity tends to predominantly promote Catholicism and the pro-life cause, I was reluctant to let myself be silenced by the bullies.

Being the target of a prolonged campaign of cyber-bullying (which continues to this day) has given me a certain insight into the potentially destructive nature of the internet which also has tremendous capacity for good. Perhaps this is why it has its darker side – evil wants to distort and destroy all that is beautiful and true. We can see what a potent tool the internet can be in the cause of the New Evangelisation, it cannot be a surprise that human sin has the potential to undo the good work that can be done.

Social media makes ‘stalkers’ and ‘obsessives’ of us all, if we are not careful. Whereas in real life we know that people may be talking about us and remain blissfully ignorant of that fact, social media enables us to check up on what others may be saying. It takes an enormous amount of self-restraint not to look, when one knows one is being referred to and even more not to hit back. It is dreadful to see lies, abuse and calumny writ large against you, your heart starts beating faster, you can feel your blood pumping, your stomach feels as though you have been punched as the nausea and bile rises into your throat.

But to fight back, or even acknowledge the bullies, gives them a power that they do not deserve and validates their behaviour. Ultimately one has to accept that one is totally powerless, we have not yet got a grip on the internet, the police are often not inclined to help unless one is a high-profile celebrity victim and the bullies have developed very crafty mechanisms of hiding IP addresses and couching various threats in such a way that they skirt the line but don’t cross it.

We can fight for a politer more civilised discourse, we can encourage platforms like Twitter to clamp down on abuse and take swifter action against miscreants, but we have to accept that it is unlikely that we will be able to rid the internet of abusers. It is not the platforms  that are to blame, but the users themselves. We are all still getting used to the internet and thus codes of conduct and practice are still in their infancy but the best way of targeting abusers is to deny them of their power and platform.

The internet is an additional weapon in our enemies’ armory with which they can use to attack us. We cannot control the behaviour of others, but we all have the power to control our reactions. This is where true liberation from all calumny lies, whether it be online or in real-life. An invocatory psalm or two also helps. But better law enforcement in cases of serious and prolonged online harassment would certainly not go amiss either. And never forget Matthew 5: 11-16.

* Since the article was published, additional information has come to light about the case of Hannah Smith.

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This week’s Catholic Universe Column – 4 August 2013

Pope greets bishops as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Rio's Cathedral of St. Sebastian

There has been much talk in the Catholic media this week of how Pope Francis’ visit to Rio for World Youth Day has de-toxified Catholicism; the witness of three million young people gathered together on Copacabana Beach will bust open the popular myth of an organisation that is out of touch with the young people, the world at large and consists of a bunch of evil hypocritical zealots who conspire to cover up child abuse.

It’s a testimony to the shallowness of today’s culture that Pope Francis is being heralded as a breath of fresh air, someone who will reinvigorate the Church, his papacy is being reported as a radical departure and yet he has said or done nothing that demonstrates any deviation from the Church doctrine that was so lucidly articulated by the Pope Emeritus. Francis is going down a storm, simply by virtue of the natural charisma that he possess in bucket-loads.

This is by no means a bad thing, although we Catholics are rather nonplussed at the rapturous reception our Holy Father is receiving in the press; the idea that the media might actually be willing to present Catholicism in a positive light is a novelty to say the least, however before we get too acclimatised to this new state of affairs, it’s worth remembering how human nature loves to build people up, before pulling the pedestal from beneath their feet. One of the joys of Pope Francis however, is that although he can see the wisdom of engaging with the press and does so in an impromptu and unscripted fashion, no doubt giving poor Fr Lombardi the Vatican’s press officer palpitations, he is also down to earth enough to not give two hoots for the fickleness of the world’s media. What we see with this Pope is what we get and Francis’ pronouncements are in great contrast to those of Pope Benedict, whose towering intellect meant that every public statement was carefully considered and full of theological nuance and depth.

That’s not to dismiss our former Pope whom, I hope history will remember with great affection, his was a gentle, thoughtful and cerebral papacy, it would take a lifetime to read and disseminate his great works of theology, the suggestions that he will one day be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church are well-founded, but Francis seems to have refreshed the parts that others failed to reach.

This week I found myself explaining the concept of indulgences on BBC radio in Northern Ireland and was incredulous to find myself defending the Church from accusations of cheapening itself by encouraging people to use social media in order to follow World Youth Day as part of the conditions of gaining a plenary indulgence. The presenter seemed to wish the Church to remain fusty and remote, as opposed to being actively involved in the activities of the world, which in this day and age, has to include the internet. “Tweet your way out of purgatory ?” spluttered the presenter indignantly. “If only” I thought, wistfully, my Twitter habit being one I wish I’d never acquired!

It is wholly appropriate that Pope Francis should encourage young people to use the internet to join their prayers with those of others around the world. This is, after all, what the Church actually is, not merely the Vatican City State, but actually the body of Christ, the family of believers from around the world. The granting of a plenary indulgence to those who joined in with World Youth Day on a spiritual level (subject to the usual conditions) was an ingenious and innovative notion. It was affirming the concept that the Church is one large global family of believers all praying for each other, the indulgence merely being the formal process in which the Church is showing that she is adding her powers to bind and loose, to invoke Christ and the Saints in order to speed her members passage to heaven.

The internet can be used to spiritually unite believers as never before and is used predominantly by the younger generations, it makes perfect sense to use it as a tool for the New Evangelisation. Speaking in his homily at the final Mass, Pope Francis reminded pilgrims of Christ’s commandment to make disciples of all nations. He urged the young, not to remain locked up in their lives or in small self-affirming communities, but instead to share their faith widely and passionately.

At a previous Mass he called upon the faithful to be bold, to be audacious. He has certainly proven that he possess those qualities in abundance, manifested right from the very beginning of his Papacy with his choice of name, a marked departure from previous tradition, but nonetheless entirely apt, a fusion of two great evangelisers, of the East and West, St Francis of Assisi and St Francis Xavier.

The visit has been overshadowed by the extraordinary extemporaneous press conference given on the flight back from Rio, in which Pope Francis reiterated Church teaching on homosexuality, reminding journalists that no-one should be marginalised on account of their sexuality and that the Church seeks an integrated society, one which fosters love for our brothers and sisters, rejecting the notions of ugly identity politics and factions competing for power.

While not a departure from doctrine, let alone the radical one being lauded by the press, it says a great deal that this has received such overwhelmingly positive coverage. If the church has been contaminated by the appalling clerical abuse scandal, the doctrine regarding sexual relationships is further grist to the mill. If Pope Francis has managed to find a way of reconnecting a cynical secular society to the intention of caritas that lies behind church teaching, then he has already in a few short months, rendered the soil fertile for future growth, opening minds to listen and hearts to receive.

In a world where the distinction between public and private is becoming increasingly blurred, thanks in part to the proliferation of social media, Pope Francis’ has managed to embrace the spirit of the age without succumbing to it. He is, in short, a permanent good news story. We had better get ready, the Catholic revival has begun!

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I always appreciate receiving feedback and so I was most grateful to receive an email from Edmund Adamus, the Director for Marriage and Family Life in Westminster Diocese.

I have with his permission, published his email in its entirety below. In a stroke of providence, the 2008 Theology of the Body Lecture in Westminster which was delivered by Janet Smith for the 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, was one which I attended with Robin and was one of those key moments in his journey towards Catholicism. Janet’s talk should, I think, be delivered in every school and parish up and down the land. Also Mark Lambert has written an interesting response, here.

Dear Caroline,

Thank you for your post on August 1st

A most articulate piece. Janet Smith and I have been in continuous correspondence since she delivered the 2008 Annual Theology of the Body lecture in Westminster to commemorate the 40th anniversary of HV. She and I both agree that the phrase ‘responsible parenthood’ doesn’t adequately reflect a faithful translation of the original Latin in the Encyclical. “Conscious parenthood” would render something closer and with one stroke it would extricate the Church from ‘buying in to’ [albeit in an unintended manner] to the culture that treats conception and birth like a pathology.  You may find the quote below useful at some stage in your work. It is certainly one I intend to use again when I address the annual national ‘NFP’ conference on October 12th. *

“It is said that when seeking ways of regulating births, only 5% of you consult God. In the face of this unfortunate fact, we your pastors have been remiss: how few are there among you whom we have reached. There have been some couples eager to share their expertise and values on birth regulation with others. They did not receive adequate support from their priests. We did not give them due attention, believing then this ministry consisted merely of imparting a technique best left to married couples. Only recently have we discovered how deep your yearning is for God to be present in your married lives. But we did not know then how to help you discover God’s presence and activity in your mission of Christian parenting. Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraception technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: ‘follow what your conscience tells you.’ How little we realized that it was our consciences that needed to be formed first. A greater concern would have led us to discover that religious hunger in you”

(Professor Janet Smith, Contraception – Why Not? Westminster Cathedral Hall, March 5th 2008).

One other less known fact of history is that ;

 

‘The term ‘Natural Family Planning’ or ‘NFP’ was coined in 1971 at a joint meeting of federal public health officials [in USA] and international leaders of the nascent NFP Movement, and made its first appearance in print in 1973. The implications of this verbal merger were not lost on the population control establishment, which was quick to publicize the idea that the Church had adopted the concept of ‘family planning’ and that the only remaining area of disagreement was over methodology. . . .’ The Final Plague: Sex Education by Randy Engel . Pan Books 1993, footnote 400.

 

Hence my own personal and professional preference to refer to fertility awareness or as you say NFA….   But for now nfp will do when we are starting slowly to reverse a culture …

 Edmund

* The title of Edmund’s talk is “Fertility Awareness; Naturally Serving the Communion of Persons.”

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Francis Philips made some excellent points in her Catholic Herald blogpost this week, asking whether the Church has succumbed to an anti-family culture and reminding Catholics that they should not feel the need to limit their family size.

She quotes one Christopher Gawley who posits that while the Church abhors the small-family contraceptive mentality, it does not present the true message of Humane Vitae, namely the obligation of married couples to have children and not to limit their family size. According to Gawley, this is because the Church does not teach NFP properly, citing it as the natural alternative to artificial contraception and thus couples fall into the contraceptive mindset, using NFP as a form of contraception in order to avoid pregnancy.

That’s certainly a criticism that has cropped up a lot in my combox over the years, with non-Catholics claiming that NFP is merely semantics or a form of sophistry, NFP it is claimed, is just another form of contraception. To be fair, one cannot blame the non-catechised for taking this view, it can be confusing, especially considering that NFP is even described as a form of contraception by the NHS. We Catholics can also play into this perspective, when trying to persuade others of the efficacy and morality of NFP compared to other forms of contraception. There can be little doubt, that religious principles aside, there are compelling reasons for a couple to use NFP, which is entirely natural, leaves no ecological footprint and does much to enhance the relationship between husband and wife on both a physical, psychological and for Catholics, spiritual level.

Which is why we should probably attempt a Catholic boycott of the phrase and instead plump for something along the lines of NFA, Natural Fertility Awareness which is the essence behind NFP for Catholics. It’s not simply about planning one’s family in a utilitarian fashion, but a couple together monitoring a woman’s fertility and every month making prayerful decisions as to the best course of action.

I do not agree that the Church is implicitly buying into the contraceptive mentality by the way it teaches and presents NFP, because let’s be honest here, sadly many practicing Catholics are using contraception and actually see no problem with this, such as for example, the former editor of the Catholic Herald, Cristina Odone. The problem is not, in my experience, that the Church is not teaching NFP or Humanae Vitae correctly, the problem is that it isn’t really being taught at all. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I think I’ve heard it alluded to once during a homily over the past five years. I once spoke at a neighbouring parish on the theology of NFP, together with a practitioner who did the mechanics and once I’d got over the embarrassment of telling a group of engaged and co-habiting couples that they ought to consider chastity, what was clear was that none of them had ever really considered the doctrine on contraception, let alone the reasons behind it or even putting it into practice.

We are really fooling ourselves if we believe that the reason that Catholics are having small families is because they are misusing NFP. those Catholics who do use it, are the ones who fully understand it and tend to have larger families anyway. In the absence of stats, it’s impossible to make generalisations, but the priority should not be Catholics with say two or three children, who may be using NFP with a contraceptive mentality.

The expert moral theologian in this area, Janet Smith, says that often, the graveness of the valid reasons for avoiding pregnancy can be overstated. I would tend to agree, because what constitutes ‘grave and serious’ reasons is entirely subjective and depends upon the individual couple. While childbearing shouldn’t be postponed for trivial social reasons such as planning a holiday for example, it is totally valid for a woman who has given birth in the last year, for example, to use NFP/NFA to space out her children and give her body adequate time to recover before the next pregnancy. That may not come under the life-threatening implications of ‘grave’ but so long as she doesn’t postpone indefinitely and the decision is taken carefully and prayerfully, it isn’t one that should attract censure. Janet Smith suggests that ‘just’ reasons would be a more suitable phrase.

Humane Vitae admittedly uses the terms ‘serious’ and ‘grave’, as follows:

“If we look further to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who, guided by prudent consideration and generosity, elect to accept many children. Those are also to be considered responsible, who, for serious reasons [seriis causis] and with due respect for moral precepts, decide not to have another child either for a definite or an indefinite amount of time.” (HV10)

Certainly, there may be just reasons [justae causae] for spacing offspring; these may be based on the physical or psychological condition of the spouses, or may be based on external factors.” Further on it states the spouses may have worthy and weighty justifications (argumenta . . . honesta et gravia); defensible reasons (probabiles rationes); and just reasons (iustae rationes) for limiting their family size.” (HV16)

So in planning family size, a couple needs to think about ALL their commitments, to each other, to their existing children, to other family members who may be dependents, such as an elderly parent, basically, the decision has to be defensible, and not selfish, but directed towards a good beyond their own comfort. There are a multitude of good reasons why a couple may decide to use NFP and their decision to do so should be between themselves, taking into account Church teaching on the matter, based on prayerful discernment. The external factors referred to in HV16, obviously refers to compelling financial and social reasons, and can in themselves be a defensible reason, i.e it does not need to be a matter of life and death.

Gaudium et Spes 50 has a passage which is also helpful in discerning what constitutes a just decision.

“takes into consideration their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church.”

On the matter of how many children one should have, John Paul II had something interesting to say:

“The family is an institution created by procreation within the framework of marriage. It is a natural community, directly dependent on the parents for its existence and functioning. The parents create the family as a complement to and extension of their love. To create a family means to create a community, since the family is a social unit or else it is not a family. To be a community it must have a certain size. This is most obvious in the context of education. For the family is an educational institution within the framework of which the personality of a new human being is formed. If it is to be correctly formed it is very important that this human being should not be alone, but surrounded by a natural community. We are sometimes told that it is easier to bring up several children together than an only child, and also that two children are not a community – they are two only children. It is the role of the parents to direct their children’s upbringing, but under their direction the children educate themselves because they develop within the framework of a community of children, a collective of siblings.”

So ideally, a family should constitute more than two children.

It seems to me that getting too hung up on the grave and serious nature of reasons for avoiding childbirth, ignores the actual teaching of Humane Vitae. I also think that to do so, encourages us to fall into the trap of judging others on the basis of their family size. There’s many a time that I look at some of these marvellous Catholic families with 6 or more children wistfully and wish I’d met my husband when in my twenties so we could have got going a lot earlier and had plenty more, but such is life. We’ve not been doing too badly in the reproductive stakes, to put it mildly.

But we shouldn’t be too keen to judge a family’s Catholicity on the basis of family size. A family may only have one or two children for reasons that are unknown to the outsider and could well be a source of pain for them. A small Catholic family is not a scandalous situation and neither should we hector those who prayerfully chose to employ NFP to achieve or avoid pregnancy, the two being different sides of the same coin.

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

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

The subject of children and family size is a fraught one to which we must be sensitive. I’ve been hurt by thoughtless comments from well-meaning Catholics, concerning the sex of my children, or suggestions that I ought to be trying for more to set a good example, when in fact we had very sound reasons to be thinking about avoiding. Tip, the last thing one should say to a woman with a newborn baby girl staggering into Church following her third cesarian is “oh what a pity, when are you going to try again”?!

Using NFP takes courage in this day and age, where most have us have been conditioned into wanting to and believing that we can control every aspect of our lives, including childbearing. NFP is liberating and empowering it paradoxically puts a woman in charge of her own fertility (far more so than artificial methods of contraception) but with that liberation comes a submission to God’s will. One innately understands that ‘accidents’ can happen and when they do, you are in a far better position to be able to make the heroic sacrifice required.

There is still so much work to be done in terms of catechesis and educating the faithful on this matter, far better to evangelise on the spiritual goods and moral imperatives of NFP as opposed to be hammering home the message that Catholics should expect to have as many children as humanly possible, continuing to reproduce like rabbits until their uterus falls out.

Yes, generosity is expected and required and this is something that we should be passing onto our children by word and example. But having a large family is not the only way in which one can exercise generosity and perhaps it’s a case of carrot and stick. Once the faithful have been convinced of the good of NFP, constant reminders of the grave and serious reasons to avoid may well become superfluous. Once you’ve understood the teaching in its entirety, not simply the logistics or mechanics, then the rest follows on holistically.

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

Postscript

Upon reflection it occurred to me that Christopher Gawley, the writer referred to is American, where it is normal pastoral practice for couples to receive NFP instruction as part of their marriage preparation. Perhaps Gawley is justified in critiquing the way this is taught if it only focuses upon the method itself as opposed to the underlying theology. This isn’t the problem in the UK where qualified NFP practitioners are in short supply and NFP is barely mentioned in many parishes or schools.

I still feel that faithful couples practicing NFP should be treated in good faith. It is highly likely that an orthodox couple who are using NFP to avoid pregnancy or space their children will be sufficiently motivated and well informed to understand their obligations in the light of Church teaching.

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