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

Don’t blame the poorest Jamie, for wanting what everyone else can afford

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 1 September 2013 

With apologies for the delay in posting

Jamie Oliver

It seems hard to disagree on face value with Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver’s controversial remarks designed to promote his upcoming series Jamie’s Money Saving Meals. 

Speaking in an interview to the Radio Times, Oliver says, “but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

To many it seems that Oliver has a good point, it’s difficult to keep a straight face when discussing poverty levels in the UK, when many of those who are portrayed as facing dire financial circumstances would appear to be in possession of luxury or frivolous items, such as the ubiquitous flatscreen TV or expensive smartphone. Can people whose diets consist mainly of expensive and unhealthy take-away food really be justified as being poor?

One of the things that Pope Francis seems to be continually attempting to do is to shake the faithful out of our attitude to complacency to the poor. We therefore should not buy into this easy stereotype of a feckless and undeserving class who are unable to effectively budget or prioritize, spending their money on the wrong things.

Food spend in the UK has rapidly shrunk over the past few decades to eight per cent of total household income, across all social classes, which when considers it, is staggeringly low, for something that is absolutely vital to our health and wellbeing. Food prices have risen 12% in real terms over the past five years, combined with median income which has fallen by 12% for households in the lowest decile. Fruit and vegetables are now 22% more expensive in the UK, than the EU average and have risen by 25% in the past five years.

 Low income households are buying fewer fresh meat products, fewer fruit and vegetables, fewer fish and instead more flour products, but are not able to trade down to cheaper brands as they were already buying the cheapest available. Furthermore the lowest 10% of earners have increased the proportion of their expenditure spent on food. As we face the beginning of a new academic year, reports are coming of squeezed parents having to spend hundreds of pounds on new school uniforms. Incomes are already on a knife-edge, often convenience or low quality foods are packaged under value brands to appear cheaper.

 Looked at in this light, it’s hard to maintain the idea that low income households are being more irresponsible than anyone else, it’s simply that the middle-classes have far more flexibility in terms of making choices. Those on lower incomes should not be lambasted for wanting the things such as TVs or take-away meals that others can more easily afford, but instead all of us should be looking to live more simply and less wastefully and consider do we really need the latest smartphone or gadget, despite its alluring glitter.

 Where Jamie Oliver is correct, is in his identification of healthier eating habits of other cultures, referencing a Sicilian street cleaner who “has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and packet of spaghetti and knocks up the most amazing pasta for 60 pence”. This is precisely the mentality that we need to cultivate across the whole of society, encouraging people to cook high quality cheap meals from scratch as an everyday habit, for the good of our health and the economy, instead of relying on cheap over-processed nutritionally empty junk.

 One of the factors has to be a reintroduction of good old-fashioned home economics lessons in schools. As the person in charge of the culinary department in our household, I know all too well how difficult it is to feed a growing family of six, a wholesome and enjoyable diet on a low budget. It’s a skill I’ve had to learn from necessity; coming from an affluent family of two, my dessert making skills are second to none, but a mean lemon meringue pie or pavlova won’t really cut it.

 Cooking should not be thought of as a middle-class hobby but a basic life skill with which everyone should be equipped. But teaching people to source healthy ingredients and cook is only part of the picture. We need to change shopping habits and end the reliance on supermarkets, who bear a massive responsibility in terms of how their profit margins make items such as fresh fruit unaffordable to so many. I recently switched to my local greengrocer whose produce is not only vastly superior but also significantly cheaper. But the government is actually encouraging supermarket dependence as it is only the big chains who will accept the government-issued vouchers specifically for fruit, vegetables and milk for those with children on low incomes. There needs to be more support and funding if necessary for other means of getting good-quality, affordable food to more people, via markets or local food co-operatives, an initiative that was often promoted by Pope Benedict XVI as an alternative to rampant capitalism and a solution to world hunger.

 Instead of blaming people for making bad choices, the government needs to support and enable people to make better ones.



First Trimester Taboo – why keeping mum is a bad idea

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 25 August 2013

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

My Catherine Earnshaw moments are rather less glamourous!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanae Vitae gave us a roadmap to mankind’s failures

This week’s Catholic Universe column – 18 August 2013

Pope Paul VI
A man ahead of his time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet trolling – lessons learned the hard way

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 11 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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