Clerical celibacy and clergy wives

Taken from the Catholic Universe 17 November 2013



The topic of clerical celibacy has been hotly debated on the letters page of the Universe of late and I’ve been intrigued to note the general theme has been overwhelmingly in favour of the notion that the Catholic Church ought to change her discipline regarding whether or not priests may marry.

It’s an issue in which I have a degree of personal investment; as my bio notes, my husband is currently in the process of formation awaiting ordination to the Catholic priesthood, following fourteen years of ministry as an Anglican vicar.

While one might automatically assume that I would be a natural advocate for a married priesthood, the reality is that I find discussion of the subject rather uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, not least because I am not wholly convinced that a married priesthood is in the best interests of the church, and because I find myself agreeing with St Paul not least in terms of the divided heart. Which arguably makes me something of a hypocrite!

From the point of view of a clergy spouse, one of the most irritating aspects is that the whole debate centres around the man himself and the benefits to him and thus his vocation of priesthood, of being married, many of which raise the canard of the benefits of a regular sex-life. The pedophile scandal has propagated a flawed narrative which holds that if a man is married he will therefore be enjoying frequent bouts of sexual activity and therefore less likely to go out and abuse children.

Leaving aside the fanciful notion that marriage is a guarantee of regular sex, statistics demonstrate that married men are just as likely to commit sexual offences as those who are single. There is no evidence to suggest that healthy heterosexual men develop erotic attractions to children or adolescents as a result of abstinence and even if there were, this would not excuse the heinous crime of sexual abuse. The other disturbing aspect of this line of thinking is that it validates the misguided idea that sex is a basic human need, on a par with food, water, shelter and rest. I’m yet to hear of the case of a man or woman who died as a direct result of lack of sex, and it’s more than a little insulting to the many millions of people who manage to live happy and fulfilled lives of celibacy, to suggest that there may actually be something wrong with them for not desiring sexual intimacy. The message that sexual intimacy is a necessary part of adult life runs is in direct opposition to Catholic teaching and one we should strongly reject.

 From my perspective, what I find enormously offensive about all of the arguments surrounding married priests is that no matter how well-meaning people are, they inadvertently take on a misogynist tone, in that the clergy wife herself is never considered as person, she is always reduced to the status of a chattel and often by those who would no doubt otherwise consider themselves bastions of a progressive attitude. It is beyond abhorrent to be referred to as some sort of faceless sexual object, there to fulfil one’s husband’s sexual needs in order to make him a more rounded person. Christ set the standard of celibacy, I don’t remember anything in the Gospels about needing to use women as either sexual or domestic objects in order to build up the Kingdom of Heaven.

 What is never mentioned and definitely needs to be borne in mind is that being a clergy wife is a tough call and a vocation in and of itself. Wives have to innately understand the demands of priesthood, this is not merely a job to put bread on the table, it is an indelible mark on the soul, your husband has responsibility for the care of souls and therefore it requires more self-sacrifice than in other marriages. On a practical level you have to accept that your husband probably won’t be there most evenings, a phone call or knock at the door means that children’s parents evenings will need to take second place to administering the sacrament to the sick or dying, weekends will be a wash-out, especially during the summer wedding season, you’ll need to run an open-house, keep a well-stocked larder, take full responsibility for childcare and accept the fact that your husband will not be able to retire until he is 75. In addition you will feel under constant scrutiny and pressure to be modelling the perfect example of family life and domesticity at the same time as trying to make oneself as inconspicuous as possible, in order not to be seen to be trailblazing a path or making some kind of political point about the merits of a married clergy.

Being married to a priest means that one needs to be able to support and not impede his ministry, so that on the terrible day of judgement, I will not be complicit in having prevented my husband in shepherding his flock. That’s not a responsibility, I, or any clergy wife I know, take lightly.

I never imagined I would wind up married to a Catholic priest, but life as an Anglican vicar’s wife has been a good preparation for the role. Convert clergy wives go into this with their eyes open and have to endure a great deal of personal upheaval and sacrifice before their husbands are even ordained.

 The laity may well believe that Father ought to take a wife. But whether or not he can find one that not only wants to marry him, but is prepared and equipped to deal with the unique and demanding life of being Mrs Father, one which has a potential to strain a marriage, is another matter entirely.

Nano Nagle – a beacon for 21st Century Catholic women

Taken from the Catholic Universe 10 November 2013


Having stated last week that it was possible to be both a Catholic and a feminist, my heart leapt at the announcement from the Vatican this week that Nano Nagle, the Irishwoman who founded the Sisters of the Presentation Order is to be declared a Venerable, the next step on the path to Sainthood.

Born to Irish Catholic gentry in Ballygriffin, North Cork in 1718, Nano (who was Christened Honora) was born against the backdrop of Ireland’s notorious penal laws, that were designed to subjugate and oppress Catholics, with the aim of wiping out the practice of Catholicism within Ireland. In the words of Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, politician and philosopher, Nano’s distant relative, “Their declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education”.

Eighteenth century Ireland banned the opening of Catholic schools and also forbade Catholics from travelling overseas to receive an education, therefore Nano’s family took some risks in smuggling her and her sister Ann to Paris where they were able to enjoy a full Catholic education.

It was witnessing the plight of the Parisian poor that inspired Nano to consider how she could best serve them and upon discerning a vocation, following advice from her spiritual director she decided to dedicate her life to providing an education for children in poverty.

The world is currently captivated by the story of the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban for her activism encouraging girls to attend school, against considerable cultural pressure and yet 250 years ago, a Catholic woman was displaying the same bravery and pioneering spirit in terms of overcoming a cultural bigotry and prejudice that was enforced by law. When Nano’s brother accidentally discovered what she was up to, his initial reaction was anger as she was placing herself and the family under considerable risk.

Embodying the spirit of the Gospels, Nano’s first school in Cove Lane, Cork, admitted thirty children, from the poorest and most deprived backgrounds, by the time she died in 1784, a whole network of schools had been established, teaching over 400 pupils in seven different parishes, all funded by her own inherited wealth. The schools taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic alongside fundamental catechesis. She also introduced classes in practical skills such as needlework and lace-making in order to enable girls to be able to earn their own living and lift themselves out of poverty.

When her personal fortune ran out, she began begging on the streets on behalf of her schools and eventually founded her own order of religious sisters with the constitution of educating the poor. As the penal laws were still in force, instead of being able to be called Mother Superior or wear a habit, Nano was known as Miss Nagle. A hundred years before the work of Florence Nightingale she became known as the the Lady of the Lantern and her sisters known as ‘Nano’s walking nuns’, her love of the poor not confined to the education of children, but she extended her work to visiting the homes of the poor and doing rounds in the backstreets of Cork.

At a time when the media, the Irish media in particular and public life is preoccupied with sneering at Catholic Religious Orders, it is worth highlighting their contribution to Ireland and the world at large. Presentation Nuns alongside other orders were the first to provide Irish people with the opportunity for an education when no Government or other public body was willing or able to do so and at great personal cost to themselves. Through the foresight of those such as Nano Nagle, and the thousands of religious who dedicated their life to this work, generations of pupils were given a first-rate education, equipped with skills and thus able to elevate themselves out of poverty and contribute to the common good.

Today, many Catholic religious orders continue to provide education, often the only education available in some of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world, such as in Africa, Latin America and in Asia, a fact that is sadly all too often overlooked or ignored, even by Catholics. Nano’s Sisters of the Presentation Order has spread as far afield as Peru, Chile, Ecuador, India, Pakistan, Slovakia, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Nano Nagle, set down the foundations of the education system in Ireland and inspired generations of educators to come, including a number of notable women who founded their own religious orders and network of schools. Those who so often rush to accuse the Church of misogyny ought to examine the history of Nano and her spiritual descendants, recognising and celebrating their contribution and the contribution of the Catholic Church to the education and empowerment of women.

Nano Nagle’s lantern became the symbol of the Presentation Sisters all over the world. Now her life has been officially recognised as being heroic in virtue, she continues to remain a beacon for twenty-first century Catholic women, showing that fighting for the causes of women and social justice do not need to be mutually exclusive.

There’s absolutely no contradiction between being a feminist and a Catholic

Taken from the Catholic Universe 3 November 2013

Syrian Christian women facing persecution

I was privileged to be asked to participate in the BBC’s 100 women conference this week, which was the culmination of a season of programming and online features designed to highlight and propose remedies for the inequality still faced by women around the world.

At times the conference felt surreal in that being part of what appeared to be a conference mainly perpetuated by prolific middle-class women, most of whom had achieved either professional or personal success, hence coming to the attention of the BBC, the idea that we were all still somehow unequal, being discriminated against or not being listened to by the world at large, seemed contradictory.

To give the BBC their due not every woman was a notable or big name and it was particularly humbling to meet women such as Joyce Ako Aruga, a Kenyan woman currently studying to be a teacher at university, who had to fight every step of the way for her education, only being able to attend school, once she had escaped from her marriage at the age of thirteen.

 The overwhelming narrative was that of women as victims, which when one listens to stories such as those of Joyce’s, or Feresheth, a blind Iranian musician whose parents have threatened to burn her if she sings in public, is hard to disagree with.

Which is where Western feminism needs a wake-up call. Upon introducing myself to fellow delegates as a ‘Catholic feminist’, the responses from fellow delegates and activists ranged from a politely raised eyebrow to open-mouthed horror, people being unable to process that the two were reconcilable, as indeed are many of my co-religionists, feminism being thought of as a total anathema.

But as I reminded the assembled women, Catholic social teaching demands that we listen to the demands of the marginalised and oppressed, which is complementary to feminism when it is women who are particularly targeted by poverty and who have their rights and dignity as human beings, continually violated, with practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriages, being sold into sexual slavery and gender selective abortion.

To echo the words of Cardinal Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice Peace, ‘it must not be forgotten that today extreme poverty has, above all, the face of women and children, especially in Africa.’ Amongst the UN Millennium goals is the aim to reduce global poverty which identifies gender inequality and women’s access to employment, education and health care as economic problems. The majority of those who live on less than one US dollar a day are women and therefore putting food on the table, especially when it comes to feeding children, is predominantly a women’s issue.

There are many ways in which Catholic feminists can act in solidarity with these women, while at the same time explicitly rejecting the other Millennium goals regarding population control which are used to coerce women into taking potentially harmful contraceptive measures and in some cases act as justification for enforced sterilisation and abortion. Development efforts such as micro-loans for women, co-operatives and education programmes are key strategies for development which can all ethically be supported- it is a proven and widely accepted fact that economies grow where women’s conditions improve.

Another important issue when it comes to women’s rights is that of law enforcement for crimes relating to sexual and domestic violence. All too often in countries where the dowry system operates, various agencies turn a blind eye to dowry-related violence or so-called honour killings, with the perpetrators of such terrible crimes not pursued or given extremely lenient sentences. When sexual offences are treated as being of little consequence by the authorities, this further reinforces a culture of disrespect towards women, which is epitomized in the practice of gender selective abortion and the implicit acceptance that a girl’s life is of lesser value.

Where women are treated as a lesser species and denied basic human rights, then there is plenty of scope for Catholics to consider themselves as feminists. So why is this concept treated with such unmitigated horror by the contemporary feminists of today?

Part of the answer lies in the infallible teaching of the Church with regards to the male priesthood. The general public fails to get its head around the difference between job and vocation as well as the theology that disbars women from ever being able to be ordained. Being a priest is falsely perceived to be the only way of exercising any power or leadership within the church and the fact that a large proportion of the faithful are women who are completely happy with this state of affairs and not acting from a sense of oppression, seems to have escaped many.

But perhaps more crucially is that the feminist movement has rooted itself in the ideology of reproductive rights, despite the fact that abortion has done more than any other single measure to harm the cause of the woman.

 When it came to the final debate of the day centering around the issue of whether or not faith and feminism are compatible, thankfully most women were keen not to be seen to be excluding those of us who had a faith, particularly due to the many participants who were wearing the Muslim hijab. It’s a rum kind of sisterhood that is only open to those with a lack of religious belief and more like a club for self-identifying intellectual elites

 Ultimately feminism goes beyond albeit important issues of pay and workplace parity, frankly smashing the glass ceiling is irrelevant to the majority of women, for whom we should be ensuring that the floor is steady beneath their feet. By concentrating on the issues of reproduction and equal pay, the feminist movement have forgotten the deeper philosophical issues which should underlie the movement. Who is woman? What are her roles and responsibilities and what is going to lead to her freedom, happiness and flourishing?

 Which is why it is imperative that Catholics do not simply reject feminism as mere victim identity politics, but fight for more a more holistic and authentic movement.

Catholic Annulments: Prevention better than cure

Taken from the Catholic Universe 27 October 2013



There has been a lot of speculation that divorced and remarried Catholics may  be allowed to receive Communion following Pope Francis’ remarks on the flight back from World Youth Day in Rio in July, when he said that a synod would need to explore the ‘somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage’, including the thorny issue of divorced Catholics.

Speaking from the perspective of someone who has had a former attempted marriage declared invalid by the Catholic church, I have to confess to having mixed feelings on the issue.

 The subjects of annulments is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented facets of the Catholic faith and many’s the time I’ve rolled my eyes heavenwards on hearing the hoary old cliche that annulments are the equivalent of Catholic divorce or involve a secretive process which is only available to for the rich and well-connected.

 A Catholic annulment is not a dissolving of a marriage, rather the statement that while civil legalities may have occurred between a couple, something was missing that enabled the relationship to be considered a marriage in the spiritual sense of the word and that no sacrament ever existed.

 It’s a very difficult teaching for many to swallow and can seem rooted in sophistry, how can someone who observed all the legal formalities of marriage, who went through a wedding ceremony, later claim that they were not in reality, married? One can see why many might consider annulments a convenient piece of clever rule-bending, as they are subject to a strict code of canon law, couched in legal and theological language which is not easily understandable.

The reason why the annulment process remains shrouded in mystery is because not many of us make recourse to it, the subject only raises its head when a Catholic embarks upon a subsequent relationship and wishes to remarry. Personally I found the procedure incredibly healing, far from being an exercise in rubber-stamping or greasing the palms of officials, faced with the truth about the Catholic teaching on marriage, I was able to go through a process of self-examination which helped me to lay the past to rest, experience personal growth and finally move on.

It was not an easy time, I had to face up to my own faults and failings in terms of how I had approached the relationship, there was certainly an element of penitence, not least because as a Catholic I had married outside of the church without permission, ignoring and disregarding her teaching on marriage, but this only served to strengthen my resolve in terms of ensuring that were I to marry in the future, not only would it be sacramental, but that any potential spouse would share my understanding upon the nature of a Catholic marriage, that it is permanent, exclusive and open to life. In addition they would also need to support me in the practice of the Catholic faith.

It is therefore extremely annoying to hear that annulments are either far too complicated to obtain or being dished out indiscriminately to those who know how to bend the system, according to whom you listen to. I entered into the process in good faith, throwing myself on the mercy and judgement of the Church who acted pastorally, compassionately and above all, fairly.

The Church cannot change her teaching on the dissolubility of marriage, she cannot re-write Scripture and this is why Archbishop Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has this week sought to dampen down the expectation that the rules on remarried Catholics receiving communion will be altered. Furthermore the German diocese of Freiburg in Germany which issued new guidelines making it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion has been instructed not to implement them.

This seems right and just on the one hand, but on the other it can seem lacking in justice and compassion for those who have been left in impossible situations. Is it really the right thing to expect a spouse to remain permanently bound to another, who has left them for another partner? Why should someone be forced to make a choice between finding another lifelong partner, someone who could in many instances act as a supplemental parental figure for their children giving them much needed stability and security, and their relationship with God?

The adage hard cases make bad law comes to mind, divorce may be becoming far more commonplace, however that does not mean that the Church should sanction or encourage it or relax her rules regarding annulments. The permanence of marriage needs to be upheld for the good of individuals and society as a whole.

But where does that leave those in heartbreaking and complex situations? Pope Francis’ announcement of a more pastoral approach is certainly welcome, those who are unable to receive communion need to know that they are still loved and welcomed by the Church and not excluded. Hopefully some pastoral solutions can be sought whether that be through extending the practice of annulments whilst keeping their rigorousness intact or some other unforeseen remedy. The Eastern Orthodox Church allows for remarriage in the spirit of penitence, in which the formerly married partner stays away from communion for a short period of time, but Archbishop Muller seems to have ruled this out for now.

Prevention is better than cure however, so rather than going with the spirit of the age in terms of attitudes to marriage, the Church needs more than ever to reinforce and explain the importance of the sacrament. There is no way of avoiding all marital break-ups but armed with a full understanding of the commitment and responsibilities of marriage as well as the circumstances that constitute validity, we stand a much better chance of not needing to be rescued from messes of our own making.

Britain holding tyrants to account? It doesn’t look much like it to me?

Taken from the Catholic Universe 20 October 2013

Chinese Human Rights campaigner Chen Guancheng
Chinese Human Rights campaigner Chen Guancheng

In February of this year I was privileged to be invited to attend Parliament where the blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng was presented with the inaugural Westminster Award for his work in promoting human rights, human life and human dignity.

The whole of the packed Grand Committee Room rose and gave Chen a standing ovation as he was presented with the award by Lord Alton of Liverpool and Fiona Bruce MP, who described him as a ‘beacon of bravery’.

Chen came to the attention of the Communist regime when he used class-action lawsuits to defend the rights of rural farmers against corrupt and and tyrannical officials. In China one does not need to be lawyer in order to act as a legal representative in court and so he assisted others in filing and arguing cases in court. His campaigning spread from helping to campaign against a polluting paper mill, to exposing the discrimination of the sick and disabled and the violence of family planning officials who routinely arrest and drag women off for enforced abortions and sterilisations, under China’s one-child policy.

 As a result of his campaigning, Chen was sentenced to four years imprisonment, followed by permanent house arrest upon completion of his sentence. During this time both Chen and his wife were subject to regular beatings until they managed to escape to the USA. His family still in China still face persecution and are denied hospital treatment and medical care.

 Upon accepting his award, Chen’s voice trembled as he recounted the terrible abuses of human rights that he had been party to, whilst advocating for the rights of the vulnerable. In one particularly harrowing case, he described how the mother of a three-year old girl was arrested and detained for twenty-four days. The police ignored the mother’s desperate pleas to be allowed home to feed her child and arrange for her to be cared for by relatives. When she was finally released, the woman returned home to find the little toddler dead from starvation, having left a trail of bloody footprints around the house and the bone in her finger exposed from attempting to break through the doors and windows of the house.

 This brave activist explained the nature of the dictatorship of the ruling Chinese Communist Party ‘they can take your life as well as your property’. Since the one-child policy which began in 1979 was implemented, any respect for life has disappeared completely from China. Anyone who dares to speak out against the policy faces severe penalties, officials who state opposition will never receive job promotion and are subject to sackings. Those who violate the policy are subject to forced abortions and sterilisations, their families are persecuted, arrested, imprisoned or subject to swinging fines. In one city alone in 2005, there were over 120,000 forced abortions and sterilisations, including of women who were 8 or 9 months pregnant.

 Reports confirming horrific abuses of human rights in China have emerged in the mainstream British press, with horrific photographs of women lying in bed with their dead baby placed next to them or in a bloody bucket on the floor, to serve as warning to others as to the consequences of having more than one child. Recently government bulldozers were deployed in Shandong province to flatten local villages after population targets were not met. When local women attempted to protest by blocking the road, the bulldozers simply ran over them without making any attempt to stop. In another case a local farmer was beaten to death by local officials because he and his wife had three children.

 The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has been in China this week, together with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, trying to promote and encourage closer trading and business links. He has announced plans to allow Chinese banks to apply to set up branches in the UK and negotiated an £8 billion pilot scheme in which London-based investors will be able to apply for a licence to use chinese currency to invest directly in Chinese shares and bonds. This will afford China a much larger stake and status in London’s financial markets which play a leading global role, as well as putting Chinese banks on the High Street.

Using tortuous analogies referring to Harry Potter and the amount of Chinese viewers who allegedly watch Downton Abbey, Boris Johnson has attempted to overhaul China’s image, breezily dismissing concerns about human rights by stating that it is not his primary concern as Mayor of London, telling BBC Radio’s flagship ‘Today’ programme that ‘I don’t walk into a meeting and say ‘’ I say you chaps, how’s freedom doing’. According to Boris, it doesn’t matter whether or not people are living in fear, as long as they are able to watch English period drama!

Trying to Anglicise the Chinese psyche in order to downplay the terrible abuses of human rights that are occurring under the dictatorship of the ruling Communist Party is grossly offensive and racist. The UK has aided and abetted the brutal and inhumane one-child policy via the UN’s Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

The UK has an illustrious history as defenders of human rights from Wilberforce to the fight against the Nazis. We should not be indifferent to the plight of the ordinary Chinese citizen enslaved by their government.

We must not put economic interests above individual human rights. We have a duty to confront the brutality of the Chinese regime instead succumbing to the Chinese economic hammer. William Hague has stated that the UK Government ‘holds tyrannical and repressive regimes to account and we make every possible effort to ensure that we live up to our own values and obligations’.

It doesn’t look much like it from where I’m standing. Chatting with Chen Guangcheng, I told him how grateful I was of his advocacy of women, from my perspective of the mother of four girls. His response was to throw back his head and roar with laughter. “Four girls, how wonderful” he chuckled, before adding sadly “not in my country. But perhaps one day soon”.

Trust in God & Scripture in Schools

Taken from the Catholic Universe 13 October 2013

pietro-perugino-tobias-with-the-angel-raphaelHaving shared my pregnancy news with Universe readers in order to advocate breaking the taboo and stigma of early pregnancy, I am now reaping the downside of being upfront following the discovery during a routine scan that our unborn child had died in utero, right at the end of the first trimester.

As we were unable to verify the sex of our baby, born on the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, we therefore chose the name Raphael in honour of the Archangel, who in common with all angels is pure spirit and therefore neither male nor female in the earthly sense. Furthermore Raphael is also associated with the healing ministry of God.

When explaining the reason for our choice of name, I was taken aback by the amount of Christians who while aware of the name of the archangel, associated it more with the Renaissance artist and knew nothing of the Biblical connotations.

 Raphael makes an appearance in the Book of Tobit, one of the books of the Apocrypha, in which he is sent by God to heal, protect and guide Tobit and his son and daughter-in-law Tobias and Sarah. The story of Tobit’s family is one of the hidden gems of the Bible, the message of which is that God is just. Tobit, Tobias and Sarah suffer many trials and difficulties but yet remain steadfast in faith during their time of testing and enjoy God’s blessings and mercy, with St Raphael being sent to them as answer to their prayers for deliverance and making the longest recorded speech of an angel in the entire Bible!

Like Tobit we are called to trust in God and live in accordance to his plan. Suffering is not a punishment but a test, it is not our struggles that define us, but our response to them – do we rail Job-like against God, or put our faith in him, trusting that though he has not willed terrible things to happen, he will work to bring good out of our pain.

 The book of Tobit is a great guide to Catholic spirituality, presenting the sanctity of marriage, angelic intercession, a reward for good works as well as emphasising the importance of prayer, almsgiving and fasting in our daily lives.

Upon re-reading it this week and explaining its significance in the choice of our baby’s name, it once again struck me as what a tragedy it is that so many of us Catholics don’t seem to know our bible as well as we ought. Not only does this mean that we are often left floundering especially when in conversation with our evangelical brethren, but that our faith and knowledge can lack richness and depth. Christianity is a revealed religion, about what God has shown and told us, most of which can be found in scripture.

If our knowledge of the bible is sketchy, as well as hindering and impairing our faith, it also means that we are missing out on a wealth of cultural richness. As a former English literature student, I was frequently taken aback at how much my fellow students were missing out on, by having almost no knowledge of the basic Old and New Testament stories which were a staple of basic education only a few generations ago. Without a good grip on the bible, it is impossible to appreciate staples of the English canon such as Beowulf, Chaucer, Blake and DH Lawrence to name but a few.

 This week the schools watchdog Ofsted have reported that more than half of England’s schools are failing pupils on religious education. A great deal of this has to do with the manner in which RE is now taught, in an impartial and objective fashion, laying out the tenets of different faiths from which children are taught to take a pick and mix approach, drawing out strands of truths from various religions, without being equipped with the basic knowledge to be able to make such critical decisions.

I was lucky enough to have old-fashioned scripture lessons at primary school, which was akin to a period of story-telling, music, art and drama. I remember the class sitting with rapt concentration to tales of King David, singing songs about the walls of Jericho tumbling and drawing vivid pictures of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot, the memories of those lessons remaining with me today, almost thirty years later. Despite attending a Catholic secondary school, my knowledge of the Apocrypha was until quite recently, limited to being purely theoretical, even though it is a key part of our Catholic cultural inheritance.

If Religious Education teaching is lacking, it is time to reintroduce unashamed scripture lessons, which as my experience shows does not need to be an exercise in aridity, in order that all children are not denied the richness of their country’s spiritual heritage, regardless of whether or not they are adherents to what is still, our national religion.

 We cannot be surprised or shocked by the current proposals that the Bible should be removed from courtrooms, how can we swear a serious oath of truth upon it, or how can grieving parents or those suffering with the burdens and trials of life, absorb the messages of  consolation and hope from the Bible, if we don’t know what is contained therein?

After Francis is it time for Pro-lifers to Pipe Down?

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 2 October 2013


The heart of pro-life work
Francis’ pro-life intentions in action

As someone whose writing has a predominantly pro-life focus, one of the questions that I have been continually asked since the papal interview is whether or not Catholic pro-lifers now need to focus their attention elsewhere instead of consistently discussing issues surrounding abortion, euthanasia and human sexuality.

Nothing better summarised the media’s confused attitude to Francis, than the reaction of the Associated Press, following his address to a group of gynecologists and obstetricians at the Vatican, in which he rejected the discarding of ‘defenceless‘ human persons through abortion. “Every unborn child, although unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s face,” said the pope, comparing the rejection of aborted children by the world, to the rejection of Christ and reminding doctors to ‘spread the Gospel of Life’.

The Associated Press subsequently reported the story as the Holy Father reneging on his word, a day after telling Catholics not to obsess about abortion, he allegedly did just that, by instructing doctors not to perform them. Francis’ speech was a deliberate reinforcement of his previous statement that he is a son of the church therefore doctrinal change is not on the agenda, but blindsided those who were hoping for a moratorium from the Catholic Church regarding abortion. Of course he was going to address the topic when talking to a gathering of medics whose specialism is pregnancy and childbirth, not to have done so would have been not only peculiar, but a gross dereliction of duty, it would have been the  enormous great metaphorical unspoken-of elephant in the room, what else would he have discussed – the potential for pelvic injuries sustained by the unsavoury activity of twerking?! The dangers of Miley Cyrus? It is absolutely nonsensical to think that abortion would not be top of the agenda in a gathering of Catholic medics.

 But there’s still a question as to whether or not those of us who would appear to be preoccupied with abortion, should now pipe down a little and shift our focus and efforts elsewhere, such as directly helping the poor or getting more involved with other aspects of Catholic Social Teaching? Should we put abortion or euthanasia on the back-burner, whilst we concentrate more upon direct evangelisation?

 The answer is wholly dependent upon discernment. St Paul informs us that there are a variety of gifts which can all be put to good use in service of Christ and so there is still a n important place within the Church for those who feel their vocation is defend the sanctity of life. In a country which is witness to 200,000 abortions a year and a rich and powerful celebrity-backed lobby group who are repeatedly attempting to get euthanasia on the statute books, it is imperative that the pro-life lobby continues to speak out to prevent and raise awareness as to these atrocities. We must not forget our duty of care to the most vulnerable in society and who could be more defenceless than the unborn and the elderly, terminally ill and dying?

The best method of evangelisation is not by proselytising alone, but by caritas in action and this is best demonstrated by unashamedly Catholic pro-life apostolates such as the Good Counsel Network in London and the Cardinal Winning project in Glasgow, who while not afraid to speak out about the injustice of abortion upon religious grounds, also provide vital necessities such as food, shelter, rent, help with finding work, baby equipment and emotional support for women facing crisis pregnancies. Furthermore it is Catholic organisations who provide non-judgemental support and healing ministries for women who have been hurt by abortion. Francis is not suggesting for one moment that organisations such as these need to close and if anything they are actually fulfilling the heart of his call for Gospel-based evangelisation.

What groups such as Good Counsel do, is wholly in tune with the Gospel as they address  and help each individual according to that individual’s physical and spiritual needs, whilst never once straying from the truth. Pro-life work is not just generically about dogma, but also about actually listening to people and attempting to address their needs and concerns, such as for example the post-abortive woman, instead of a mere insistence that ‘abortion is evil’ and a refusal to listen or acknowledge past wounds.

For pro-life writers and apologists such as myself, Francis’ words are challenging, although I am constantly aware that it is never enough to simply write about being open to life, one must also live this in our daily lives, which is often difficult. On one level it is simple enough to be pro-life, pro-family and to advocate this, although multiple pregnancies are no breeze, but actually pro-life writers must not forget that such a mindset includes being pro-poor and pro-immigrant. We must also ensure that we fight against less obvious political anti-life initiatives, such as the cutting of disability benefits and services, or the cuts  housing or other benefits that could adversely affect the vulnerable.

 What the pope has reminded Catholic pro-lifers is that we cannot be pro-life in isolation from our Catholicity. Just as Jesus commanded us that we must love God with all our heart and soul and from that a love for our neighbour will flow, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are pro-life because it is part of the Gospel. Not because the pro-life cause is our sole Gospel.


Francis’ wise words showing that the Holy Spirit is working in the heart of the Church

Taken from the Catholic Universe 29 September 2013



Pope Francis has once again hit the headlines with a sensational 12,000 word exclusive interview given to Jesuit publications, in which he gives fascinating insight into his spirituality and character, as well as dropping several hints as to how he intends to govern the Church.

Of most interest to the mainstream press was the pronouncement that the Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and use of contraceptive methods” which has been widely reported as the pope indicating that there will somehow be a softening of the Church’s stance on these matters and that the church has previously been unhealthily obsessed with sexual doctrine.

As Francis made clear in the sentence that immediately followed this statement church the teaching of the Church is clear and he is ‘son of the church’, there will be no change of doctrine, however ‘it is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time’.

As someone who is frequently tasked with speaking to the media on a regular basis about precisely these issues, these words had me cheering with delight. The reason that Catholics find themselves talking so much about the Church’s teaching regarding sexual morality, whether that be on national television or simply around the water-cooler in the office, is precisely because this seems to be all that others are interested in.

What Francis has indicated is not that these issues are somehow no longer important, but that they are not what defines our faith, which is primarily about Jesus Christ, Son of God, Redeemer of the world, who suffered and died for our sins and rose from the dead. Catholicism is not a list of negative commandments but rather a message of salvation and hope, it is an offer and promise of eternal consolation and joy, not limited to an elite few, but to every single person here on earth, regardless of past sins, race, colour, gender or sexual orientation.

Francis is plugging Catholics back into the key message of our faith, one that makes the heart soar, not sink. He is urging us to engage in the New Evangelisation, to reinvigorate and excite both lapsed and non-Catholics with the message of the Gospels, which must always be relayed with love and compassion. Catholic Christianity is an invitation to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, not a set of random strictures.

While Church teaching on sexuality must not be forgotten about or discarded, it must not be those issues which define our faith, which should always be Christ-centred. What should be remembered however, is that the Holy Father is speaking from his perspective as a Catholic from South America, where vast swathes of the population are well-catechised, unlike perhaps liberal Europe, where the teachings of the Church are not so well-known or understood. Whereas most onlookers in Buenos Aires would understand what was happening if they were to witness a Corpus Christi procession for example, even if they did not participate, the same could not be said about the population of a typical UK city.

We should ensure that Church teaching, especially on matters where it is easy for people to make mistakes is clear, but what Francis is reminding us, is that it is the Gospels that must come first, we must set people’s alight, make ‘the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus’. Once we understand the message of joy, hope and forgiveness that emanates from the Gospel, then the rest will flow holistically. Being a Christian is not simply about blindly following a code of sexual ethics, which no matter how important, are ultimately meaningless if they do not reflect the message of Christ. It is in this context that Francis reflected that without God, without Christ, an emphasis that is only upon personal ethics ‘the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gosepl. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow’. It is imperative to put God’s love and mercy first and this must determine our interaction with others.

One of the most striking things about the interview was the tone which was overwhelmingly gentle, conversational, thoughtful and pastoral. It is this openness, compassion and willingness to engage which is proving to be one of the hallmarks of Francis’ papacy.

Perhaps one of the most important and overlooked motifs was the image of the church as a field hospital after battle. Not a remote pristine institution removed from the real lives of her members, but there in midst of troubles, actively attempting to help and heal everyone in their times of greatest need, regardless of their individual background. A field hospital is not there to serve the needs of an elite few, but to save and serve as many as possible and this must be the mission of the Church.

This is a vital image to those who are currently struggling or feel excluded by the church due to their personal circumstances, such as the person who has same-sex attraction or the remarried divorcee, who must be reminded that they too can be admitted to this field hospital. No-one should be excluded.

 Particularly poignant was the reminder that far from the perceived hatred of homosexuals, the Church is there for them and wants to walk with them through life and that contrary to the impression given by certain fundamentalist Christian sects, God never rejects or condemns anyone on the grounds of their sexuality. We must always attempt to look on others with the eyes of God and consider their innate dignity. As Francis said ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence or this person with love, or reject and condemn this person. We must always consider the person. Here we enter the mystery of the human being’.

The reality is that the Church holds gay people in far higher regard than the secular media, we believe that that like the rest of us, deliberately made and deliberately love and destined for eternity and Heaven, and of course, like everyone else, are free to reject that. This is not a new concept, previous Popes have said similar things, but what is new is the manner in which this is being articulated, gone is the theological and philosophical language of the Catechism which can sometimes appear cold or lacking in emotion, replaced by a far more considerate and sensitive manner of speaking. The gay community is not a hypothetical academic concept but a group consisting of individual human beings.

Key to the theme of salvation, Pope Francis concentrated upon the sacrament of reconciliation which must not be akin to a ‘torture chamber’ and highlights the duel dangers for confessors of either taking too rigorous or legalistic approach or alternatively being too lax with penitents by trying to pretend that various errors do not really constitute sins. If the church is a field hospital, then it is via the confessional that wounds may be healed and transformed, but always with due care and attention.

Catholics are being encouraged to adopt a back-to-basics approach, to look at the bigger picture, if we put the message of Christ first in our dealings with others, instead of concentrating on the peripheral issues, in order to warm hearts and win souls. Francis is wanting to steer us away from the cultural wars which are so frequently damaging to relationships with others and have the potential to divert us from Christ himself.

 Despite the pope’s image of being impulsive or spontaneous, with his many breaks from previous protocol, those with an eye on Vatican affairs and church governance will have been reassured by Francis’ admission that he is wary of hastily made decisions, preferring to take his time and discern the correct course of action. One of the items top of the agenda at the time of the conclave that elected Francis was the reform of administrative functions and processes within the Vatican, but the pope has made clear that he will not be rushed and that those who were hoping for sweeping changes may be disappointed. Francis discussed attempting to see everything from the point of view of God, when it came to issues of governance but echoing the words of his predecessor John XXIII, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little’ preferring in this area, to concentrate upon the small changes. The decision not to implement dramatic and potentially antagonistic sweeping changes, could well prove prudent and is a telltale mark of the shrewdness of Francis’ Jesuit order. That said, the movement towards more collegiality, and ‘thinking with the Church’, ensuring local Bishops are better empowered to deal with issues instead of referrals to Rome, will be welcomed by many.

Most endearing was the admission that like all of us “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner”.  With a fresh new strategy accompanied by refreshing frankness, Pope Francis’ new style of papal communication and evangelisation is perfect for our age. The shepherd who lives amongst and innately understands the flock of which he is still a part.

 I would encourage all Catholics to read the interview in full for themselves, which is both inspiring and uplifting. A demonstration as to how the Holy Spirit is still at work right at the very epicentre of the Church.

Banning the Burqa: Why Catholics should be wary of imposing their views on Muslims

Taken from the Catholic Universe 22 September 2013



The contentious subject of whether or not Britain ought to impose a ban on the wearing of the burka has been reignited this week, following a judge’s ruling that a Muslim woman could not give evidence at her trial wearing a full face veil. The woman will nonetheless be permitted to wear her veil in court, but it must be removed during those parts of the trial in which she is required to give evidence.

The judge’s decision is a model of common sense in that while he insisted that it was crucial for the jury to see the woman’s face in order to assess her demeanour and expression (she is accused of witness intimidation), he also made a series of entirely sensible concessions to her religion, allowing her to give evidence via live video link or behind a screen shielding her from the wider courtroom, so that only the judge, jurors and counsel would be able to see her face. In addition he ordered that no artist should be allowed to produce a sketch of the defendant while her face is uncovered. The decision was a model of balancing religious freedom of conscience with the needs of the state to effectively deliver justice.

Various MPs have now called for a public debate on whether or not the state ought to impose a ban upon whether or not face veils ought to be banned, under the auspices of protecting women and girls from oppression.

It’s not an argument that holds much water for a variety of reasons. Firstly, although it can certainly be argued that the niqab or burka is often used as a vehicle of oppression, which I have first-hand knowledge of, having spent considerable amounts of time in Middle-Eastern countries, it is a patronising generalisation to assert that all women who choose to adopt full face-coverings are doing so because they are either ill-educated or coerced. Like many Catholic women, I’ve faced similar charges from those who cannot comprehend why I may choose to do something as counter-cultural as eschew contraception, from sheer free will. How many times have Catholic women heard the familiar accusation of being brain-washed by a patriarchal church that wishes to subjugate its women?

Undoubtedly some women will be wearing a face covering due to cultural pressure, but it should not be assumed that is the case for all women and it is certainly not a good enough reason to ban it. Should we ban swimwear, bikinis or certain styles of clothing or uncomfortable shoes, because Western women feel under cultural pressure to conform? One of my closest Catholic friends was joyfully telling me what a liberating experience it is to wear Islamic swimwear on the beach, despite the fact she would be able to carry off a skimpy costume with aplomb. While the interpretation of boundaries may differ, we are similarly called to modesty not least as an act of charity to others. Western cultural values put so much worth on physical appearance, women are encouraged to turn themselves into objects of male desire – it’s no wonder we feel self-conscious. The idea of not having to display a beach-perfect body, or be constantly worrying about an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction is extremely appealing!

It was interesting to note that when I mooted the subject on social media, all of the women, including a wide cross section of faiths, ages and politics on my timeline were resolutely against the idea of a ban, whereas all of the men were either staunchly in favour or sitting resolutely on the fence. The idea that a burka ban was required in the interests of women, being firmly rejected by every single self-identifying feminist. The irony of men deciding what women need is rescuing from their perceived oppression, being lost on them!

But Catholics need to tread extremely carefully when it comes to notions of the state deciding what constitutes acceptable religious dress, or intruding upon parents’ rights to bring up their children according to their own religious and cultural values.

Banning the means of oppression, does not in any event do anything to change the underlying attitudes. As Christians we need to be very wary of determining or imposing our interpretation of Islam on Muslims, the Golden Rule would seem to apply here.

It’s also worth noting that following the imposition of a face-veil ban in France, verbal and violent attacks upon Muslims increased by as much as 34%, state-sanctioned religious discrimination could have a similar effect in this country, especially in areas where tensions already run high. If the goal is liberation, it will not be achieved, as those women who are being coerced into wearing a veil will effectively be prisoners in their own homes, as they will be unable to leave the house with their face uncovered.

The best approach seems to be one which can balance the needs or the state or individual institutions with those of individual conscience. Businesses such as banks or airports must be permitted to compel clients to remove facial coverings for the purposes of identification. Ideally they would do so with sensitivity and discretion. Equally schools should retain the rights to determine school uniform policy, in accordance with the ethos of their institution.

We might recoil at the burqa because it is so culturally alien to us, but we should not deceive ourselves that this debate is about a benign paternalism or forwarding women’s equality. It is about the state determining what religious attire should be permitted in public.  Nuns who wear a traditional habit should watch out!

A tale of truth – Chris Huhne and Fr Ray Blake

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 15 September 2013

Chris Huhne
Lying – of no great import to the man who cheated on his wife

Chris Huhne, the disgraced former government minister who resigned following his conviction and subsequent jail sentence for perverting the course of justice over persuading his ex-wife to accept penalty points that he had incurred, came out with an astonishingly frank statement this week. Under pressure from the perennially brutal Jeremy Paxman with regards to his blatant and repeated public lies, he defended himself as follows:

 “Anyone who tells you that they have never told a lie is lying, the reality that white lies, small lies help in certain circumstances and avoid you hurting other people’s feelings.”

I was torn between amusement at the delicious irony of a former politician’s impassioned and honest defence of untruths and an instinctive horror, recoiling at the notion that lies, no matter how small, can ever be anything other than pernicious.

Lying, in the context alluded to by Chris Huhne, can never be justified because its purpose is always to mislead and to put it in theological and philosophical terms, lying goes against the God-given purpose of speech, namely to assert a truth about reality in order to communicate or convey the concepts in one’s mind. St Thomas Aquinas therefore describes lying as ‘a statement at variance with the mind’ and the Catechism reminds us that it is a sin because ‘to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error’.

Though Chris Huhne may be correct in observing that most of us will at some point have told an untruth, as human beings we are called to rise above the lowest common denominator. The actions or thoughts of the majority determine neither truth or even morality, which is the main flaw in any democratic system. That many people might have told a lie, does not render the action acceptable. The only person whom lies can ever benefit is the person uttering them, even if they believe that they are doing so with good reason, such as to spare the feeling of another, or for the greater good, but the ends never justify the means.

 It can be argued that in a few limited contexts we do not expect to hear the truth from another and not every literal falsehood is a lie. For example when someone asks ‘how are you?’ the response ‘fine thanks’ is a general pleasantry and not an attempt to deceive, but we’ve reached a pretty poor and dangerous state of affairs, if our cynicism to politicians is such that we always expect to hear untruths and thus they are therefore justified in misleading us.

Perhaps most disturbing is that Mr Huhne’s public apologia for lying seems to have been largely unremarked upon in the mainstream press, indicating that most of our political and media commentators are in agreement with him. A society that condones, accepts and even expects lies is one that is in grave danger and on a personal level, even the tiniest of lies can often spiral into tangled knots of deceit, angst and despair.

On the other side of the coin, this week has also seen Fr Ray Blake, a priest local to me in Brighton, slammed and vilified by the press both nationally and internationally for a searingly honest blogpost in which using the very same language as Pope Francis, he described the poor and homeless of his parish, which is right in the heart of the city and attracts many addicts, as ‘messy’.

 In a shameless misrepresentation of his original post, which was a theological reflection upon how we are called to treat the outcasts in society, a local journalist, who was seemingly already irritated by Fr Ray’s thoughts on marriage and looking for controversy, picked up on a recent article in which the priest had expressed the very specific challenges posed by the homeless with stark candour, describing how he has to clean up blood, excrement and used needles on a daily basis.

Far from attacking the poor as widely reported, Fr Blake was in fact reflecting upon his own shortcomings; the homeless challenge him he said, they shake him out of his complacency, he doesn’t always find the mess and chaos easy to deal with, but this is no bad thing, and reflects the message of the Gospels. We are not called to live comfortable lives of compromise, but to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty, which Fr Ray and his parish team do, with a soup distribution apostolate that runs 365 days a year.

 Rather than patronising the homeless, with a dewy-eyed romantic view, Fr Ray Blake expounded the issues surrounding their care with his typical mixture of forthrightness and compassion. To pretend that issues related to homelessness such as addiction and crime do not exist, does the very people in need of help a huge disservice. One can only assume that his words pricked too many consciences.

While Fr Ray Blake is now contemplating closing his blog as a result of the unfair press coverage surrounding his brave honesty, Chris Huhne is now reviving his career  as a journalist and commentator, off the back of being a convicted liar.

I wonder what the avowed atheist George Orwell would make of the fact that in 2013, a Catholic priest would prove his maxim, “in a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.

Telling an uncomfortable truth
Telling an uncomfortable truth