Francis and the reverse-rabbit

reversed rabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Catholics and sex – business as usual

An unpleasant type of snobbery seems to be pervading certain parts of the internet at the moment, with bloggers such as Protect the Pope coming under fire for their continued and persistent promotion of life issues.

“Why can’t you widen your focus to include matters of social justice?” goes the refrain. Pope Francis’ recent interview having been interpreted by some quarters that Catholics need to stop focussing on issues arising from matters of human sexuality and instead concentrate their efforts on the poor.

Much ink has already been spilled over this, including my own in the Catholic Universe (apologies, recent events mean that I haven’t been up to date with posting my columns on the blog) but Francis has not said that we must abandon these issues, but that they must not be our only Gospel. Evangelisation does not begin with bashing another over the head for their shortcomings, or lecturing people solely on one area of doctrine while forgetting that the aim is to engender a love of Christ and a desire to focus on His message. Issues such as sexuality, abortion, poverty and hunger all flow holistically from the two main commandments of Christ, to love your God with all your heart and soul and then to love your neighbour as yourself.

This loving one’s neighbour as oneself means speaking the truth with charity. A love of one’s neighbour means attempting to stop them from falling into error, therefore we cannot ignore it when someone imperils their soul, we cannot validate sin by ignoring it, but rather act with love and compassion.

Figures such as Deacon Nick Donnelly and myself who have quite a strong pro-life bent to our output are not being urged to stop, or widen focus, but to remember what it is precisely that we are attempting to achieve. I can’t speak for Deacon Nick, but it’s something that I consider every single day and why at times, my writing can sometimes have a tortuous quality, in that I am trying to consider all angles and not alienate the very many non-Catholic onlookers who pop into the blog from time to time.

To those interlocutors who would urge me to concentrate on other matters of social justice, my riposte would be to “stick with what you are good at”. My particular vocation and charism when it comes to writing, blogging and speaking is that of issues surrounding the family, the unborn, human sexuality and the feminine vocation. In the spirit of Vatican II, if you perceive there to be a gap, then why not fill it yourself? If the wholesale killing of the unborn, the destruction of the family and the exploitation of the sick and elderly are not matters of social justice, then I don’t know what is?

I was someone who was brought up without any sort of understanding of what the Church taught regarding contraception. All I knew was that the Church said you couldn’t use the pill or condoms and not being the most intellectually curious of children, it didn’t occur to me to ask why. My mother used to tell me that the Church’s stance on condoms was wicked and it was a line I swallowed hook, line and sinker, even being so daring as to put it into an RE essay on one occasion, to which Mr Glynn smiled indulgently and said he thought that was a bit strong.

We had the mandatory SRE talk on contraception in what is now called Year 9 (third year in old money) and my thoughts were ‘oh wow, okay this is how it works, the pill seems like a jolly sensible thing, I might go and ask for it’ without any sort of guidance or comment, or even balancing biological information as to the downsides or risks. Of course in my day, the morning-after pill or long acting reversible contraceptives such as the implant were yet to be invented, but I’m sure that had they been, I would have thought them advisable and the Catholic church was just being silly and out of date. We were not even informed of the potential side-effects, contraception was ‘impartially’ presented as being an effective way to avoid pregnancy. There was no discussion about relationships whatsoever, aside from an unspoken sense that if you did have sex, be sure not to get caught.

Despite completing a GCSE in Religion with an ostensibly Catholic syllabus, the subject of contraception was never covered. Sister P once came out with the unforgettable statement that if you were having sex to round off the end of an enjoyable evening then you had no self-respect, a statement that never made any sense as an adolescent and needs further explanation. I would never insult any non-Catholics or leading feminist figures by claiming that a love of sex, or treating it as a recreational activity denotes a lack of self-respect. While I suspect that there are many women whose sexual behaviour does stem from a basic lack of self-respect, it cannot be said of everyone.

Culture encourages us to treat sex as a meaningless recreational activity at the same time as promoting the god of personal autonomy and self-respect. To have multiple sexual partners, to engage in outrageous sexual practices, does not automatically denote a lack of self-respect, rather the opposite. Indulging one’s own sexual proclivities, no matter how deviant or potentially physically and psychologically unhealthy is seen as a good.

So it makes no sense to be telling adolescents or adults that to succumb to their sexual appetites and cravings denotes a lack of self-respect and is not an affective or appealing argument without further exploration. It certainly didn’t chime with me.

But by not being taught about what we should aspire to, because no-one held chastity up to me as a goal or a good, because abortion was never explained in anything more than abstract philosophical terms, and never explored in any detail, I was profoundly hurt and damaged in my teens and twenties and subject to a lot of unnecessary heartbreak and mistakes.

Funnily enough once I embraced the church things turned good and fell into place, but not without forays into co-habitation and an attempt at marriage in which I lacked all understanding of what marriage actually was and what it meant, never having received any guidance or preparation.

A combination of parents’ embarassed silence on these issues and a school whose attitude was ambivalence, indifference and turning a blind eye to the obvious sexual escapades of their pupils, (unless they were caught when sanctions had to be seen to be applied) meant that I was extremely susceptible to the influence of women’s lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan, whose dissonant message has not changed over the past 30 years. Have as much sex as you want, with whomsoever you want, here are some tips to make it spicy, if you’re not swinging from the chandeliers or not wanting to swing from the chandeliers, you are doing something wrong and in all likelihood sexually repressed, besides which you need to make sure you are good at it if you want him to call you again.

These two articles demonstrate the dissonance nicely – a Telegraph columnist deliberates on how soon one can call a relationship a relationship without scaring off a man, but unashamedly admitting that a long-term relationship is the goal, and this piece in the Daily Mail gives women tricks to please men the first time that they have sex, in order to please him and keep him interested. This is really the tip of the cultural iceberg, basically women are expected to sexually objectify themselves, there is an admission that sex makes us vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line, not to mention risking pregnancy and STDs and IF we do things right, look great, are not too emotionally clingy and are sexually pleasing and financially independent, then eventually we might find a man who might want to commit to us. Although be careful not to bore him, if he has an affair, it might well be your fault. Women are being sold a paradox of sexual self-objectification in the name of sexual empowerment with an admitted price tag of physical and emotional vulnerability. Getting naked and swapping intimate bodily fluids with someone does not give us license to claim any sort of romantic relationship or emotional attachment to them, until they deem it appropriate. Having sex no longer entails any sort of responsibility towards the other, an attitude underlined by contraception and the wholesale availability of abortion. Wanting a long term relationship as a result of having repeated sexual encounters with one person is perceived as a sign of weakness or dysfunction, unless the other person desires it too. Women who want to get married are an embarrassing anachronism.

At time of writing, I am engaged in a twitter exchange with the political editor of the Daily Mail and the social media editor of the Wall Street Journal, the latter of whom thinks that sexting amongst teens should not be considered shocking as ‘it’s no longer 1998’. Sexting encourages already vulnerable teens to open themselves up to abuse, harassment and coercion. We should not be normalising it as a harmless adult practice. But by speaking out, one risks being written off as a joyless puritan.

We are marinading in a toxic cultural sewer and unless we have an alternative vision to aspire to, a healthy culture of sex and sexuality, a better vision of equality, based on sound moral principles, then it can hardly be a surprise that so many people sink into the squelchy immoral morass that masquerades as healthy adult behaviour and suffer as a result. I should know, I was one of them. if we stop talking about these things then there is nothing to counter the very powerful lobbies that seek to entrench and profit from a culture of sexual libertinism.

Through the grace of God I managed to turn my life around and I can testify to the joy and fulfilment of living out a female Catholic vocation. Those of us who have been hurt and let down as a direct consequence of not having been passed on the beauty of the church’s teaching in all her fullness and glory, feel a duty to continue to speak out in order that no-one else should have to learn the hard way and it’s precisely love for one’s neighbour as propounded by the Gospel, which motivates us to do so.

Francis is a pope for our times as he kick starts global Catholic revival

This week’s Catholic Universe Column – 4 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread a little happiness

(Perhaps this is what the Archbishop has in mind?)

Archbishop Vincent Nichols must be feeling quite justified. He gives a homily in which he appears to denounce blogs, saying that people are attracted to them because we love to hear complaints and are attracted to gossip, followed by a sentence saying that they should have no place in the Church, and surprise surprise, the Catholic blogosphere goes apoplectic and complains about it, thereby proving his point quite nicely.

The problem is twofold. Firstly the sentence “They should have no place in the Church” is placed (perhaps deliberately) after the sentence which explains why we are attracted to newspapers and blogs. It therefore creates an ambiguity. Is Archbishop Nichols talking about newspapers and blogs having no place in the Church, or rather gossip and complaints? Or both?

He (Pope Francis) knows that we live in a society in which complaining and gossip is a standard fare. They sell newspapers and attract us to blogs because we love hear complaints and to read gossip.

But Pope Francis is clear: they should have no place in the Church

But actually the excellent homilies from Pope Francis to which the Archbishop refers, makes no mention of newspapers and blogs, he talks about how complaining dashes hope, as well as the evils of gossip.

But is Archbishop Nichols really saying that newspapers and blogs have no place in the Church? I don’t think this can be the case, not least because the Vatican has its own newspaper and blog. It might have been more helpful had he been a little more precise, i.e. newspapers and blogs that are solely devoted to gossip and complaining have no place in the Church, although this too would have aroused ire. The Archbishop in a bit of a no-win situation whatever he says regarding blogs and the internet.

The other problem is in the assertion that people are attracted to newspapers because they are attracted to gossip and like to hear complaints. This assumes ill-will or bad intention on behalf of the reader which is not always present. I don’t read the Catholic Herald, for example, because I want to hear gossip, (not that the Herald publishes any) if I wanted ecclesial or clerical gossip there are much juicier sources, but because I like to read about what’s going on in the Catholic world as a whole and read some informed, educated and orthodox commentary from those whose opinions I might respect. The same goes for the blogs, my favourites being the priest bloggers (Valle Adurne is a particular treat, I love Fr Sean’s gentle perspectives) and the blogs I regularly read which are written by the laity, again are the opinions of those people who I respect and might well be able to add a different perspective or dimension to an issue which I have not thought about, the most recent that comes to mind is Counter-Cultural father’s outstanding posts on abortion. Likewise I don’t think one can accuse Mark Lambert‘s weekly scriptural reflections as being full of complaints or gossip. Many blogs are genuinely a place of spiritual nourishment.

So, I can well see that backs have been put up by this homily, not least because it assumes bad intent on behalf of bloggers and their readership. Frs Ray and Henry both do a good job in explaining the importance of blogs in democratising the Church as well as explaining the difference between good and bad gossip. Gossip tinged with calumny is the food of Satan.

With all that in mind, I am going to say a few words in defence of Archbishop Nichols and it is very telling that I slightly nervous and mindful of doing this. What kind of situation are we in when an orthodox Catholic is concerned by the reaction that she might receive from the blogosphere, when it comes to defending the most senior Catholic in England and trying to act in good faith?

I understand where ++Vincent is coming from, even though I don’t agree with him. Most members of the CBCEW still don’t quite ‘get’ the internet, although it’s heartening to see Bishop Egan tweeting and blogging. I suspect this is partly a generational issue as well as a not inconsiderable workload. The priest bloggers don’t blog every day, they have their flock to attend to and I’ve been watching the pattern of blogging and noticed (yes priest bloggers, I’m stalking you all) that almost all of them tend to blog in the evening, when they can finally snatch a bit of down time. I suspect that many bishops just ‘don’t get it’ and therefore all they hear about the internet is the bad stuff, i.e. the complaints, the grumbling, the ‘somebody must do something’ and it has perhaps unsurprisingly, coloured their judgement, they don’t get the positive benefits.

Plus, whilst the internet does enable voices to be heard and important concerns to be aired, as we’ve seen with the Gosnell case this week, it does also enable keyboard warriers and online zealots. The internet is a big place which has its fair share of ‘characters.’ Whereas twenty years ago folk would write letters in green ink, now we have the internet which needs discernment and filtration. Here’s a helpful piece that illustrates the usefulness (or otherwise) of Twitter for a mainstream journalist, referring to the aftermath of this week’s tragedy in Boston. Most parishes have at least one, really dedicated and loyal parishioner, who has a particular bugbear who regularly gives anyone who will listen a good earbashing about it. The problem is, that by permanently complaining and finding fault, no matter how legitimate the grievance, over time, repeated grumbling loses its impact.

Those bishops who look upon the internet with scepticism, probably equate it with a troublesome parishioner who never stops grumbling and who never has anything good to say, at least to him, only seeing the difficult or troublesome aspect. If any of them look at the comments boxes on some of the major blogs, their suspicions are confirmed, even the Catholic Herald has its share of ranters. Some coms boxes put me in mind of the bar in Mos Eisley from Star Wars. As Obi-Wan says to Luke Skywalker, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” It’s fair to say that charity is sometimes lacking.

So look at it from Archbishop Nichol’s point of view. Bloggers seem to be forever telling him how awful he is, what a terrible job he’s doing and speculating over whether or not he will get, or deserves a red hat. No matter how deserved bloggers might think their criticism, the Archbishop is human, as well as our father in God, that kind of thing would seriously cheese me off too, particularly when they are always threatening to complain to Rome or the Nuncio. We all need not to get carried away by a sense of power.

It’s also fair to say that there are certain blogs and bloggers who do seem to revel in gossip, naming no names. This does have the potential to be dangerous and lead people into error. We have to remember that if we are going to publish a rumour, that there are always two sides to every story, there have been occasions when I’ve read stuff and realised it to be utter bunkum, but I’m not in a position to disabuse it, because to do so would entail breaking confidences and be just as bad as the original piece. It is nevertheless frustrating to see rumour, which like all good gossip has a grain of truth in it, propagated like it is Gospel.

Should anyone be in any doubt about the attraction or power of blogs, Robin, like many Anglo-Catholics, both present and former, used to absolutely devour the blogs, especially Damian Thompson’s, at around the time Anglicanorum Coetibus was issued. It drove me absolutely potty, but is a habit which he has long since eschewed. The reason being, was like many in his position, he had no idea what was going on, didn’t actually know that many real-life Catholics or Catholic clergy and wanted some idea of what was happening and what kind of a welcome or reception he might expect from the Catholic Church should he convert, and also just to get a sense of it. Which is why again, bloggers need to be careful, many of us have crossover readers, internecine squabbling (of which I have been guilty) doesn’t create the best of impressions of UK Catholicism or do much to further the Kingdom. What frustrated me about the blog-checking habit was that to me, what bloggers were saying was utterly irrelevant as to where the Lord might be calling, but I can well see that at a time one feels out of control and uncertain about events, sinful nature leads us to try and be masters and controllers of our own destiny.

Ultimately, if we want to be taken seriously as a force (and I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else here) we need to exercise discernment and ensure that our output is always balanced, reasonable, charitable as well as orthodox and not merely a place for discontented rants or to air personal grievances, again something that I’ve learnt over time. Accusations of clericalism go both ways, neither the hierarchy, nor bloggers and the blogging community should consider themselves beyond reproach or untouchable.

We have to ensure that whatever we do on the internet lives out and advances Gospel values. Otherwise, as Pope Francis says, we run the risk of not recognising Christ walking alongside us.

Women as Witnesses

For those who haven’t seen it over there, here’s my thoughts on the remarks made at Pope Francis’ General Audience today. This theme of women and motherhood and what that means, is going to need much more analysis and apologetics.

Quite early on in this blog, I had several non-denominational Christians as well as general enquiries, wanting to drill down a bit further into the notion of women as mothers. The inherent dignity, importance and value of motherhood needs to be emphasised, whilst taking care not to alienate women who are not physical mothers, as being some sort of lesser beings, or somehow lacking in innate femininity. It’s a tricky tightrope, whilst the goods of motherhood must be reclaimed, care must be taken not to fetishise mothers in an unhelpful way either.

Here’s the post anyway.

Speaking in his General Audience today, Pope Francis emphasised the importance and role that women have to play within the Catholic Church, as unselfish communicators of the Gospel.

The women are driven by love and know how to accept this proclamation with faith: they believe, and immediately transmit it, they do not keep it for themselves. They cannot contain the joy of knowing that Jesus is alive, the hope that fills their heart.

Contrasting the implicit faith of the women who are the first human witnesses to the Resurrection with that of the male Apostles, Pope Francis says:

The Apostles and disciples find it harder to believe in the Risen Christ, not the women however! Peter runs to the tomb, but stops before the empty tomb; Thomas has to touch the wounds of the body of Jesus with his hands.

The very act of returning to the tomb, to anoint the body of Christ is a manifestation of this faith and also trust. Why did they return to the tomb? They would have been aware that the tomb entrance was sealed by an enormous boulder that would have been impossible for them to roll away without some assistance, as well as the fact that guards were posted at the tomb’s entrance, who were unlikely to have been amenable. And yet still they trusted.

Reinforcing the historicity of the Gospel accounts, Pope Francis reminds us of Christ’s radicalism. Women were not considered credible or reliable legal witnesses in first century Palestine, this was a role reserved to Elders or men over thirty, and yet it was to women that Christ first manifested his Resurrection, as a reward for their faith and in recognition of their love.

This is beautiful, and this is the mission of women, of mothers and women, to give witness to their children and grandchildren that Christ is Risen! Mothers go forward with this witness! What matters to God is our heart, if we are open to Him, if we are like trusting children. But this also leads us to reflect on how in the Church and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord, in following him and communicating his face, because the eyes of faith always need the simple and profound look of love

Beautiful and inspirational. What can be more important than being witnesses to the Resurrection and the love of God? Those very first witnesses, who were so convinced by what they had seen and so determined to spread the Good News, to the extent that they would lay down their lives and suffer the most excruciating and painful deaths, played a crucial and key role in the development of the faith. Women are called to witness, whether that be as physical or spiritual mothers, to pass down and impart the joy of the faith to their children and in their families, in a way that only they know how. That the Pope has chosen to affirm and link women with motherhood should not be overlooked.

Christ called Mary Magdalene by name in the garden in acknowledgement of her simple and uncomplicated love, faith and trust. Furthermore Mary Magdalene is no plaster saint or unrealistic model of womanhood. Her lack of inhibition and emotive displays are often embarrassing or discomforting and yet Christ loves because of her innate feminine authenticity and total lack of guile and self-awareness. Whilst Our Lady set the pattern of motherhood, in the encounter in the garden, we see Christ conferring a vital vocation upon St Mary Magdalen as the first female missionary.

Traditionally depicted as beautiful, sensuous and possessing an unrestrained yet totally pure love of the Lord, she accepts her vocation through a direct encounter with Christ, with no thoughts as to what may be in it for her in terms of status, earthly or material reward, and neither does she stop to compare herself with the Apostles. She has no need. Christ has already reaffirmed her equality, as St Mark awkwardly relates. Not only does Christ make his first appearance to a woman, but one who was once demonically possessed.

St Mary Magdalene allowed herself to be won over by Christ and gave herself over to him whole-heartedly and he rewarded, affirmed and entrusted himself to her in all of her femininity.  This is the message for contemporary women today.