An unpleasant type of snobbery seems to be pervading certain parts of the internet at the moment, with bloggers such as Protect the Pope coming under fire for their continued and persistent promotion of life issues.
“Why can’t you widen your focus to include matters of social justice?” goes the refrain. Pope Francis’ recent interview having been interpreted by some quarters that Catholics need to stop focussing on issues arising from matters of human sexuality and instead concentrate their efforts on the poor.
Much ink has already been spilled over this, including my own in the Catholic Universe (apologies, recent events mean that I haven’t been up to date with posting my columns on the blog) but Francis has not said that we must abandon these issues, but that they must not be our only Gospel. Evangelisation does not begin with bashing another over the head for their shortcomings, or lecturing people solely on one area of doctrine while forgetting that the aim is to engender a love of Christ and a desire to focus on His message. Issues such as sexuality, abortion, poverty and hunger all flow holistically from the two main commandments of Christ, to love your God with all your heart and soul and then to love your neighbour as yourself.
This loving one’s neighbour as oneself means speaking the truth with charity. A love of one’s neighbour means attempting to stop them from falling into error, therefore we cannot ignore it when someone imperils their soul, we cannot validate sin by ignoring it, but rather act with love and compassion.
Figures such as Deacon Nick Donnelly and myself who have quite a strong pro-life bent to our output are not being urged to stop, or widen focus, but to remember what it is precisely that we are attempting to achieve. I can’t speak for Deacon Nick, but it’s something that I consider every single day and why at times, my writing can sometimes have a tortuous quality, in that I am trying to consider all angles and not alienate the very many non-Catholic onlookers who pop into the blog from time to time.
To those interlocutors who would urge me to concentrate on other matters of social justice, my riposte would be to “stick with what you are good at”. My particular vocation and charism when it comes to writing, blogging and speaking is that of issues surrounding the family, the unborn, human sexuality and the feminine vocation. In the spirit of Vatican II, if you perceive there to be a gap, then why not fill it yourself? If the wholesale killing of the unborn, the destruction of the family and the exploitation of the sick and elderly are not matters of social justice, then I don’t know what is?
I was someone who was brought up without any sort of understanding of what the Church taught regarding contraception. All I knew was that the Church said you couldn’t use the pill or condoms and not being the most intellectually curious of children, it didn’t occur to me to ask why. My mother used to tell me that the Church’s stance on condoms was wicked and it was a line I swallowed hook, line and sinker, even being so daring as to put it into an RE essay on one occasion, to which Mr Glynn smiled indulgently and said he thought that was a bit strong.
We had the mandatory SRE talk on contraception in what is now called Year 9 (third year in old money) and my thoughts were ‘oh wow, okay this is how it works, the pill seems like a jolly sensible thing, I might go and ask for it’ without any sort of guidance or comment, or even balancing biological information as to the downsides or risks. Of course in my day, the morning-after pill or long acting reversible contraceptives such as the implant were yet to be invented, but I’m sure that had they been, I would have thought them advisable and the Catholic church was just being silly and out of date. We were not even informed of the potential side-effects, contraception was ‘impartially’ presented as being an effective way to avoid pregnancy. There was no discussion about relationships whatsoever, aside from an unspoken sense that if you did have sex, be sure not to get caught.
Despite completing a GCSE in Religion with an ostensibly Catholic syllabus, the subject of contraception was never covered. Sister P once came out with the unforgettable statement that if you were having sex to round off the end of an enjoyable evening then you had no self-respect, a statement that never made any sense as an adolescent and needs further explanation. I would never insult any non-Catholics or leading feminist figures by claiming that a love of sex, or treating it as a recreational activity denotes a lack of self-respect. While I suspect that there are many women whose sexual behaviour does stem from a basic lack of self-respect, it cannot be said of everyone.
Culture encourages us to treat sex as a meaningless recreational activity at the same time as promoting the god of personal autonomy and self-respect. To have multiple sexual partners, to engage in outrageous sexual practices, does not automatically denote a lack of self-respect, rather the opposite. Indulging one’s own sexual proclivities, no matter how deviant or potentially physically and psychologically unhealthy is seen as a good.
So it makes no sense to be telling adolescents or adults that to succumb to their sexual appetites and cravings denotes a lack of self-respect and is not an affective or appealing argument without further exploration. It certainly didn’t chime with me.
But by not being taught about what we should aspire to, because no-one held chastity up to me as a goal or a good, because abortion was never explained in anything more than abstract philosophical terms, and never explored in any detail, I was profoundly hurt and damaged in my teens and twenties and subject to a lot of unnecessary heartbreak and mistakes.
Funnily enough once I embraced the church things turned good and fell into place, but not without forays into co-habitation and an attempt at marriage in which I lacked all understanding of what marriage actually was and what it meant, never having received any guidance or preparation.
A combination of parents’ embarassed silence on these issues and a school whose attitude was ambivalence, indifference and turning a blind eye to the obvious sexual escapades of their pupils, (unless they were caught when sanctions had to be seen to be applied) meant that I was extremely susceptible to the influence of women’s lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan, whose dissonant message has not changed over the past 30 years. Have as much sex as you want, with whomsoever you want, here are some tips to make it spicy, if you’re not swinging from the chandeliers or not wanting to swing from the chandeliers, you are doing something wrong and in all likelihood sexually repressed, besides which you need to make sure you are good at it if you want him to call you again.
These two articles demonstrate the dissonance nicely – a Telegraph columnist deliberates on how soon one can call a relationship a relationship without scaring off a man, but unashamedly admitting that a long-term relationship is the goal, and this piece in the Daily Mail gives women tricks to please men the first time that they have sex, in order to please him and keep him interested. This is really the tip of the cultural iceberg, basically women are expected to sexually objectify themselves, there is an admission that sex makes us vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line, not to mention risking pregnancy and STDs and IF we do things right, look great, are not too emotionally clingy and are sexually pleasing and financially independent, then eventually we might find a man who might want to commit to us. Although be careful not to bore him, if he has an affair, it might well be your fault. Women are being sold a paradox of sexual self-objectification in the name of sexual empowerment with an admitted price tag of physical and emotional vulnerability. Getting naked and swapping intimate bodily fluids with someone does not give us license to claim any sort of romantic relationship or emotional attachment to them, until they deem it appropriate. Having sex no longer entails any sort of responsibility towards the other, an attitude underlined by contraception and the wholesale availability of abortion. Wanting a long term relationship as a result of having repeated sexual encounters with one person is perceived as a sign of weakness or dysfunction, unless the other person desires it too. Women who want to get married are an embarrassing anachronism.
At time of writing, I am engaged in a twitter exchange with the political editor of the Daily Mail and the social media editor of the Wall Street Journal, the latter of whom thinks that sexting amongst teens should not be considered shocking as ‘it’s no longer 1998’. Sexting encourages already vulnerable teens to open themselves up to abuse, harassment and coercion. We should not be normalising it as a harmless adult practice. But by speaking out, one risks being written off as a joyless puritan.
We are marinading in a toxic cultural sewer and unless we have an alternative vision to aspire to, a healthy culture of sex and sexuality, a better vision of equality, based on sound moral principles, then it can hardly be a surprise that so many people sink into the squelchy immoral morass that masquerades as healthy adult behaviour and suffer as a result. I should know, I was one of them. if we stop talking about these things then there is nothing to counter the very powerful lobbies that seek to entrench and profit from a culture of sexual libertinism.
Through the grace of God I managed to turn my life around and I can testify to the joy and fulfilment of living out a female Catholic vocation. Those of us who have been hurt and let down as a direct consequence of not having been passed on the beauty of the church’s teaching in all her fullness and glory, feel a duty to continue to speak out in order that no-one else should have to learn the hard way and it’s precisely love for one’s neighbour as propounded by the Gospel, which motivates us to do so.