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Archive for January, 2015

reversed rabbit

Perhaps his advisors had informed him that the rabbit comments had the unintended effect of upseting significant swathes of the faithful, or perhaps he had even read Joseph Shaw’s blog, but I suspect that many Catholics will have been mollifed by Francis’ General Audience this morning in which he extolled the virtues of large families in what could be termed a reverse-rabbit.

“It gives me consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a true gift from God,”

“I have heard it said that families with many children and the birth of many children are among the causes of poverty. It seems to me a simplistic opinion. I would say that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed the person from the center and has placed there the god of money, an economic system that always excludes children, the elderly, the youth.”

So keep calm and make babies! But the whole affair raises some interesting points.

The example of the woman facing her eighth sections being repeatedly held up as an example of irresponsible parenting made uncomfortable reading. If the Catholic Church wishes to demonstrate her female-friendly credentials then the supreme pontiff criticising a woman for her reproductive choices, really isn’t the best way to go about it.

That was really the thing that made me baulk, because actually we do not know anything about this lady and pastoral sensitivity ought to dictate that delicate conversations of this nature ought to remain private. Admittedly we do not know the context of the exchange whether or not the lady was a visitor to Rome, or if she was seeking some advice or affirmation from the Pope, but to put it bluntly I would be none too chuffed if following a conversation with any cleric, they then used it as a preaching opportunity, holding me up as a negative example, in such a way that I would be bound to hear about it. Being held up as a paragon of irresponsible parenthood for attempting to follow Church teaching in front of the world’s media, isn’t the compassionate or merciful response which Francis so often urges.

The other problematic aspect of this particular lady is that we know nothing of her circumstances. As Tanya, from ‘larger family life’ noted some time ago, the number of sections each woman can have varies enormously and is entirely dependent on individual case history. There is no set number. Medics won’t advise this route, because all other things being equal, a cesarian section poses a greater risk to mother and child than a natural delivery and the more cesarians you have, so the risk of injury to the mother increases. Every section increases the amount of scar tissue that surgeons need to slice through, along with the risk of multiple adhesions whereby the internal organs stick together and with each section the risk of uncontrolled blood loss increases. The risk may only be slight, but it would be irresponsible and misleading to claim that all women can happily have 7 or 8 sections with no problem.

Actually what the case of the woman with 7 sections demonstrates is the wisdom inherent in Church teaching on responsible parenting and family planning. The Church does not specifically lay down a number of sections after which it is permissible to use permanent abstinence, because this will differ on a case by case basis. Some women would be advised to stop after one, others after 5 or 6. What we are called to do is discern what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us, taking individual circumstances into account.

So this woman could be amongst those who have excellent blood vessels, strong muscles and minimal scarring. She might well have made an informed decision to have another baby. Or perhaps she had an unplanned pregnancy, despite assiduous charting. Without a fuller knowledge, who are we to judge?

When Francis said he chided her, I can’t take too much umbrage, because charity must dictate that he did know the circumstances, although it’s not clear what he hoped to achieve by such a scolding – locking the stable door after the horse has bolted is the phrase that comes to mind.

When I announced my pregnancy on FaceBook a Catholic priest didn’t admonish but asked whether or not I wanted all these children and suggested that we ought to consider abstinence in the future. I didn’t take it awry but as a sign of paternal concern because obviously we do have a lot on our plates as a family. But were he to have held me up as a public example of irresponsible parenting, due to having lots of children close together, yes I would have been extremely peeved.

Whereas Dr Shaw thinks that Francis used an extreme example with which no-one could disagree, I am not so sure. Multiple sections are becoming the norm these days, there are whole internet forums devoted to the topic and when I gave birth to our fourth child, a lady in the bay opposite had delivered her seventh child by section. Aside from needing an emergency blood transfusion, she seemed none the worse for it.

The thing that I think Francis was touching on, is that there is a lot of shaming which goes on within Catholic communities, as well as outside of them, in terms of family size. I’ve had the examples of women who have had 7 cesarian sections and been totally fine thrown at me more times than you could mention, in an attempt to justify why I am being a wimp, stopping after child number 5. Equally, as I said in my previous blog, I’ve had people tell me albeit sympathetically, that they have had 12, or refer to their Great Auntie Bernadette who had a similar number. When I limped into the Easter vigil Mass in April 2011, 3 hours after being discharged from hospital, still bearing the gauze and tape from the recently removed cannula, proudly clutching my 4 day old baby, people peered at the bundle, saw a glimpse of pink and said “oh well, never mind, you can start trying again soon” while I wept into the cardboard candle holder. A similar scenario happened with baby number 4 and again this time, no sooner does someone learn that you are pregnant or the sex of your unborn child, then the questions and opinions start pouring forth about whether or not you ought to have another.

This isn’t confined to Catholic congregations: family, friends, mums at the school gate believe they need to proffer an unsolicited opinion on whether or not your womb should be occupied for another time, and often in extremely hurtful terms. I had to bite my tongue when a school secretary impertinently joked that we ought to buy a TV and said amusingly “oh you do know there’s a special pill you can take to stop that” on spying bump number 3 or was it 4 – they all seem to merge into one! Or when a dad jocularly said “oh you’re churning them out” and then a mother said “but I saw you on TV defending it. At least you scrub up well”. Aaaaargh!

I guess people do this because it’s part of the rich tapestry of life, communities are always interested in their neighbours’ affairs and feel they have a right to helpfully comment.

But the fact that some Catholic church-goers do feel the need to shame or play child top-trumps with each other, the more children one has being a sign of devoutness, piety or attempting to claim a better place in the hierarchy, shows that there was an element of truth in what Francis says. I don’t know whether or not as Joseph Shaw claims, he was attempting to wrong-foot those who attack the Church (and I am in agreement with some of what Dr Shaw says on this) but it is clear that dutifully having children out of a misplaced sense of obligation, because you think that is what Catholics ‘do’ is not acting as full co-operators with God, nor is it likely to engender a healthy spiritual life, but rather foster a sense of resentment and disillusionment.

Having multiple children to validate your personal identity or prove self-worth may not be as serious or even as widespread as the contraceptive mentality, but it still exists as a problem. The temptation to judge other people on a smaller family size can prove particularly hurtful for those who would have liked to have had more, but have been prevented from doing so, from circumstances beyond their control. Equally there are those who regard large families with a mixture of pity and irritation.

The other issue highlighted by ‘rabbit-gate’ is whether or not responsible parenthood is relatively new, only coming in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and perhaps that the Church ought to stick to her centuries old doctrine that couples ought to have as many children as possible unless there are sufficiently ‘grave and serious’ reasons not to do so.

Grave and serious is relative – one person’s serious is another’s trivial, which is why couples are left to discern for themselves, this really is a case of ‘who are we to judge?’ Furthermore the Church has been addressing the issue of contraception and population control since it first came to the fore in the nineteenth century. Casti Connubii issued in  1930 may not have been as detailed as Humanae Vitae or Gaudium et Spes but it did nonetheless spell out that parents’ rights to reproduce, carried accompanying responsibilities, such as education. Prior to that, the Roman Penitentiary and the Holy Office repeatedly outlined that contraception was impermissible and suggested periods of abstinence instead.

Contraception has been addressed by the Church from the outset of it being suggested as desirable public policy in the nineteenth century and the Church has always accepted that some couples may need to avoid children.

Humanae Vitae and Gaudium et Spes were not wrong, or misguided but addressed the fact that widespread, seemingly effective contraceptive methods were becoming commonplace and proposed how Catholics could respond to the challenges of the sexual revolution while remaining true to the Magisterium. Catherine of Sienna’s parents may well have had 26 children, but times were very different then, as was child mortality. More is known now about how the human reproductive system actually functions. While it’s extremely noble to die in childbirth, whether or not one ought to be encouraged to actively pursue this path in the course of sanctity, is another matter entirely. Most confessors would probably suggest not, especially if there are multiple existing children. As we now know how the the reproductive system functions, even more so than in the ’60s and have developed highly effective systems of fertility monitoring (though modern medicine must do more to investigate causes of infertility as opposed to circumnavigate them via IVF), we ought then to use this knowledge as a God-given gift to with which He has armed us to counter contraception.

Jesus might well have chided the woman who had seven sections, but He is the only one who is allowed to do this. What rabbit-gate has demonstrated is that there is still an inordinate amount of ignorance and unpleasant judgementalism occurring both inside and outside of Catholic circles, all of which has stemmed from decades of non-existent catechesis.

Those who do practice periodic or permanent abstinence ought not to feel ashamed or fear the judgement of others,  but if they state they have no plans for another baby for a few years or ever again, they need to set an example and be clear about why this is the case as well as why they reject contraception.

If more regular church-goers knew precisely what the Church teaches and why, we’d have less reliance on impromptu papal pronouncements and far less judgementalism towards others, whatever the size of their families. Perhaps that’s what all of us need to work on instead of fostering a sense of righteous defensiveness about our own situations – myself included.

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The wheels of the papal flight have barely touched down and already both liberals and conservatives are rushing to misinterpret Pope Francis’ latest press conference, referring in particular to his words regarding birth control.

The National Catholic Reporter mistakenly attempts to claim that Francis is promulgating that Catholics have a moral obligation to limit their family size and Damian Thompson says much the same thing, yet allegedly from a more conservative perspective (although he too implies that he disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception).

But perhaps the esteemed Dr Thompson might actually want to stop and think twice before attacking the Pope for saying things which could be misconstrued by the media and remember the media drubbing that Benedict XVI took for his Regensburg address, which is now proving to be more salient than ever, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Also he might want to cast his mind back to how he rushed to reinterpret the former pontiff’s interview with Peter Seewald as being an indication that condoms were actually permissible in certain circumstances – an interpretation which respected Catholic scholars Jimmy Akin and Janet Smith were at pains to correct and which Damian himself later clarified, could have perhaps been hasty. And let’s not forgot the classic “Catholic teaching on homosexuality can, and I think will, evolve”. Given that evolution can never entail an 180 degree turn or contradict previous teachings, it’s difficult to see what it meant and arguably an irresponsible assertion from someone who would like to claim pole position as the UK’s leading Catholic journalist, in a newspaper which enjoyed an enormous national circulation.

The irony here is that Damian Thompson himself is guilty of the very thing which he claims that the press has a tendency to do – namely misinterpret papal utterings, to suit a particular agenda. In this case he runs with the hare and the hounds rather well, condemning Francis’ tendency to come out with what he calls “streams of consciousness” and stating that his remarks could be deemed to be insulting to Catholics with larger families, all of which will appease those who believe that Francis is the worst possible thing that could ever have happened to the Church since Pope Alexander VI. At the same time, he also throws a bone to the liberals with his implied disagreement with the Church’s ban on contraception and the alleged comparison of gender theory with the Hitler Youth. “He said what??”

Actually, it’s worth reading what Pope Francis had to say in full here, before chasing easy headlines. He talked about a number of worthwhile issues, including exploitation of the Third World and the poor and so perhaps we ought to be playing those up a bit more instead of buying into the boring obsession that the secular and media world has about Catholic teaching on contraception. We don’t permit it and are not likely to. Get over it.

But to address the great elephant in the room, there is absolutely nothing that Pope Francis said which could be deemed either to be in opposition to Church teaching and neither did he state that Catholics have a moral responsibility to limit the number of children they had.

I’ve wtritten about Catholics and family size before, here and here, and Francis re-affirmed the teaching of Humane Vitae, the prophetic vision of Blessed Paul VI and condemned what he called Neo-Malthusian population theories. Francis doesn’t have  a photographic memory or all the facts and figures to hand, so he referred in general terms to the collapsed birth rates in Italy and Spain and the predicted demographic crisis which will see an increased elderly population combined with a dramatically reduced younger generation who will be unable to afford to support them.

What we saw on the flight was a straighforward defence of Catholic teaching on the family, which has always urged responsible parenthood, with the decision as to how many children a couple ought to have being a matter for personal discernment. The Catholic Church has never taught that Catholics ought to ‘breed like rabbits’, or that every single sexual encounter must result in a baby, simply that no sexual encounter ought to deliberately seek to exclude the possibility. The term ‘responsible parenthood’ is not new to Catholicism, Gaudium et Spes 50, outlines the various considerations involved:

“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.

Francis specifically mentioned that couples ought to seek the guidance of the Church who has experts, marriage groups, and not least priests if they have any doubts about family size, because the decision is a purely personal one based on a number of individual factors. The Church does not have any generic policy on family size, because she understands that we are all different. Couples are urged to be generous, but also advised to prayerfully discern what is right for their family, seeking spiritual counsel where necessary. Furthermore the decision not to have further children needs to be kept under regular review.

Perhaps not the best Western Catholic cultural stereotype.

Perhaps not the best Western Catholic cultural stereotype.

Admittedly ‘breeding like rabbits’, the phrase that many Catholics may have taken umbrage at is unhelpful. Francis likes to deal in colourful idioms and coming from a South American perspective, he likely does not appreciate the Western ostracism and prejudice which exists towards those who have larger families. Not only have I been subject to some deeply unpleasant and uncharitable trolling about my own family size (which isn’t what many Catholics would consider large) but I’ve also had to put up with some thoughtless and unkind remarks in real life. People genuinely believe that how many children you have is somehow their business and that they have a right to comment. It’s not helped by the popular media narratives about ‘scrounging’ large families on benefits, government plans to cap child benefit beyond 2 children, or politicians such as Caroline Lucas and Evan  Harris  who condemn those with large families as being selfish, due to the an imaginary impact on the planet and resources. The Pope doesn’t come from a culture where being an orthodox Catholic or having a large family  means one is held up for ridicule on a daily basis.

There will be those who misinterpret his remarks, but then Catholics ought to be used to widespread misreporting and misunderstanding of the faith.  It’s disappointing if the Pope seems to be giving succour to our enemies, but then again, even ignorant (even if well-meaning) comments can be an opportunity to explain and evangelise.

Every bit as ignorant and irritating is when other Catholics try to make out that by only having 5 children, you aren’t being quite Catholic enough and mention great-aunt Cecelia who had twenty-two and was perfectly fine! Family size is a deeply personal matter and not for anyone else to pass comment upon – Catholic or not. In this day and age these enormous family sizes are simply not feasible for the vast majority of people. Speaking as someone who has a number of pregnancies over the past 6 years, I can verify to the enormous strain that these can place upon your physical, emotional, spiritual and material resources. Women are not expected to physically compromise themselves and their families by consecutive pregnancies.

Pope Francis was not saying that large families are ‘bad’ but advocating responsible, thoughtful and considered parenthood. You know as Catholics we ought to be aware that anything said or written down can be interpreted every and which way to suit a particular agenda –  which is precisely why we have the Magisterium.

Yes we can berate him for being a little insensitive, but then again, to focus unduly on one specific comment, which in context was affirming Church teaching, is to ignore all the good stuff that he did say and in which he confirmed that he most certainly is a Catholic.

There are several natural and licit methods of avoiding pregnancy – this did not refer to artificial birth control. Likewise he was not advocating the woman with 7 previous cesarian sections should abort her baby, but stating that the decision to conceive again could reasonably be construed as irresponsible- who is he to judge?

Actually, he has a point. I had to see my consultant last week to plan the forthcoming birth of our child, my fourth section. The risks to my life and health posed by a future pregnancy were explained in no uncertain terms. I was strongly advised to have a sterilisation at the same time as having a c-section. I declined, hardly being in a position to claim ignorance of the Church’s teachings and the reasons behind them, but I guess this is the kind of situation to which the Pope was referring when he asked for mercy. It would be irresponsible for me to attempt a future pregnancy and risk leaving my 5 children as orphans or putting myself in a position where I could end up severely physically incapacitated.

Modern methods of NFA are highly effective but a woman who is told that she potentially risks her life by a future pregnancy, ought to be treated sensitively and compassionately by the Church, hence confessors need to tread a fine line between both pointing out the error of ocntraception while at the same time, understanding the difficult position in which a woman finds herself.

Once again Francis was speaking in the context of Catholic teaching and addressing the uncatechised who mistakenly do believe that Catholics have an absolute duty to keep on having children, even though to do so puts them under intolerable strain. Ever since my blog began I have been stating that this is absolutely not the case, my choice of phrase being even less delicate than his. “You don’t have to keep on having children until your uterus falls out”.

The dismay of larger families is understandable, ‘breeding like rabbits’ does little to bust the false stereotype and perhaps dehumanises those with big families, but he was referring to the act of unthinking reproduction, those who have huge numbers of children, not with any sense of joy, delight or wonderment but out of a sense of duty or because they feel they have no other option. What he said was decidedly female-friendly and as Fr Ed Tomlinson points out, Francis has a tendency to say one thing for the Catholic faithful, while at the same time understanding that secular liberal non-Catholics need an entirely different message.

But you know what we’re not ultra-montainists. An impromptu press gathering is not official Church teaching. Faithful Catholics know what the Church teaches and will continue to practice and propagate it. Given some of the post-synodal commentary we ought to be grateful that the Church’s teachings are being so publicly re-confirmed, and indeed to Francis himself for making sure that this topic of Catholics and contraception remains firmly in public consciousness. And as for speaking out strongly on gender theory – good on him! The way this is being imposed on students as irrefutable fact in universities and schools with those who dare to question the liberal consensus being penalised and closed-down, is totalitarian in nature.

I suspect most of those critiquing the pope for the rabbits comment would strongly agree and furthermore they’d find that if their large families were ever to meet Papa Francisco, they too would be greeted and welcomed with warmth, generosity along with heartfelt thanks for their generosity. If, as a heavily pregnant woman with 4 young children, I can accept these comments with grace and without taking gratuitious or vicarious offence, or use them as grounds to claim that families size should be limited, so should everyone else.

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