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.

Feminists are sissies?

Calah Alexander, a young American Catholic convert who writes the provocatively titled Barefoot and Pregnant blog seems to have caused something of a minor brouhaha with her most recent post. She is currently 4 months pregnant, found herself in need of a maternity bra, so went out shopping wearing a t-shirt bearing the ‘offensive’ slogan stating that Birth Control is for Sissies and then had the audacity to write about the reactions she rerceived.

Though not partial to slogan t-shirts on anyone over the age of 5, I have to admire her chutzpah and bravery, having some sympathy with the sentiment expressed. As Calah is well aware from her post, wearing any kind of ideological slogan on clothing does invite a response, particularly when it is as obviously counter-cultural as denouncing birth control; combined with the physical manifestation of her belief, i.e. her emerging bump, the image and statement was especially potent.

The post was quite lighthearted in tone,(though Calah pulls no punches in terms of choice of phrase, I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of her), she describes the relief and transformation in discovering the effects of a well-fitting bra, the trials and tribulations of shoe-shopping and buying ice-cream with the kids, but she also describes the reaction she received from others whilst out shopping wearing said shirt, which tended from the incredulous to the downright hostile,  and ending on a humorous note, when she bumped into another mother, who recognised her from Church.

All in all, a quirky and touching blogpost from a typical American Catholic mom, sharing some of her life with us. Nothing to get offended about surely?

WRONG. As @kathleengreenwood pointed out, it spawned an entire 7 page hate-fest on a forum full of self-professed snarky mothers. The blogpost spawned comments such as “what a f*cking b*tch”, “I want to slap her across the face”, “I hate people like her, I’ll take my pill…you f*cking b*tch”. Yeah, kudos to the sisterhood! They then congratulated themselves on how morally superior they were to this ignorant fundie, encouraged and incited others to leave comments pointing out the error of her ways, and then became downright obsessive, trawling through her blog to see what other thought crimes may have been committed to the blogosphere, venting their vitriolic spleen and bile.

It seems Calah has previous form. On one occasion her little boy got rushed to hospital with severe anaphylactic shock requiring them to pay $280 for an epi-pen. They didn’t have the money, so took it out of the children’s’ Christmas present fund, thinking that a life was more important than presents and that their kids would be well catered for by the extended family. She made the heinous statement that it seemed mightily unfair that under the vagaries of the US healthcare system she had to pay a substantial amount for something that was absolutely necessary in terms of saving her son’s life, the state would not assist, however they will provide contraception and birth control free of charge, something that she feels is unnecessary, as if you don’t wish to get pregnant there’s a simple answer. She has a point, one might not agree, but it does not necessitate the level of hatred. Every detail of her life was poured over in an attempt to prove what an awful person she really is and discredit her point of view. She is obviously a liar who puts herself before her children, as evidenced by the fact that she went to a relatively upmarket department store. Her finances and entire lifestyle were subject to scrutiny.

“Her house seems nice are they really running so short they can’t buy gifts and meds? Shouldn’t they have been budgeted out or don’t they have emergency funds for sh*t happens”.

“That confused me too. I feel like it was her way of getting pity. ‘Our poor children didn’t get Christmas gifts BUT at least they have their brother’ !!! I also find it odd that they couldn’t scrounge up a little extra cash to get one or two gifts for each child  yet she now is buying decent bras and dress shoes for the kids at the mall”.

The thread reads like it’s been taken over by the below-the-line comments on the Daily Mail. How very tolerant. How very inclusive. How very pro-choice! The ernest feminists seem to have utterly missed the point. It. was. a joke. I thought that the t-shirt was rather good. It didn’t even need to be a Catholic or ideological statement, it could just have been highly ironic or self-deprecating. Ah, I forgot, I’m dealing with Americans here. One commenter noted that she would have refused to serve a woman who was wearing such a t-shirt and, she pouted, she would have been backed up by her boss. Gotta love those all-American land of the free and home of the brave values on display there. The most ludicrous comment was that the t-shirt was deliberately ‘homophobic’ with its mention of the word sissy.

Needless to say it all rather resonated. This forum made clear that they were not prepared to tolerate this woman, they hated her and all they believed that she stood for. I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not she would have elicited that reaction had she not been a Catholic?

But the statement on the t-shirt and its reaction does bear a little analysis. Why is it so hateful? Taken on face value it is a statement that proclaims that pregnancy and motherhood is difficult, not for sissies, not for the feint-hearted, but the truly heroic. Which is precisely why it upset the feminists with their “we are the strong tough fearless Amazonian pioneering women” self-vision quite so much. It implies that anyone who deliberately avoids motherhood is somehow a weaker specimen. And therein lies the paradox and antagonism at the heart of modern feminism. On the one hand it strives to be the Xena warrior princess, fearless, brave and bold goddess, stronger, bigger, bolder and better than men, yet on the other, in order to survive it also has to tap into the vying narrative of victimhood. Hence lots of outraged comments along the lines of how people would have to take hormonal birth control, otherwise their uterus would fall out, and obviously Calah, with her outrageous ideas that women can actually refuse to have sex if they don’t want to get pregnant, is slut-shaming and blaming, wishing to impose Victorian morality and blame on women. Either as women we are strong and in control, or we are not? Or is it that we want to be, but are still oppressed by the patriarchy and so have no choice other than to have sex, so must protect ourselves any way we can?

I can’t help but hearken back to that statement by Mary Wollstonecraft who saw abortion as being a consequence of women becoming weaker than they would otherwise be, if they had not been subject to sexual objectification.

“Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being taken into account, that of bearing and nursing children, have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom do so with impunity”.

Pregnancy and childbirth are at the very core of femininity which is why feminists fight so hard for what they believe is control over their own bodies. The paradox being that this physical control admits, encourages and coerces female subordination. Female fertility is a problem, something that must be repressed and overcome, the body must be stopped from carrying out its natural functions of monthly ovulation and potential to bear children. A society that continues to view women’s fertility as a problem to be solved, is a society that does not value women and places unfair expectations upon them. Whilst society continues to view female fertility and childbirth as a problem, then women will never achieve true equality. Empowerment is an illusion in that a woman is only ever empowered if she can be 100% sure that her contraception will work and is entirely happy with the notion of aborting an unwanted unborn child in case it doesn’t. Are any feminists truly happy that most women chose to abort because they feel that they have no other economic or social choice? After all we are always being told that women don’t stroll into the abortion clinic as if it were Starbucks?

Bibi Lynch tragically and bitterly captured the essence of  how it can feel to be a childless woman in the Guardian last week.

“You won’t heal – because this is deep in you. What you’re supposed to do. What’s inside us to do. What we’re born to do. And you didn’t do it.”

Motherhood is without a doubt the most joyful and rewarding experiences there is. That does not mean that it is easy. Pregnancy is often a struggle, multiple young children at times demanding and stressful, even if one does stay at home. It may not be the same type of stress as the demands of a career, but it is nonetheless challenging at times. Responding to the catty comments of Hilary Rosen that she was somehow a lesser or inferior species due to not having worked, but instead been a stay-at-home mum or to use the now un-PC term, housewife, Romney said that just because they had not financially struggled, her life as mother of five children, has not been without its fair share of struggle, including fights against cancer.

Being prepared to endure pregnancy and childbirth, being prepared to die to self for the needs of others, is a sign of great strength, not weakness or oppression. Child-rearing entails a great deal of sacrifice, physically and emotionally.

Not using birth control is a sign of strength, it is a sign of responsibility and being prepared to accept and endure the consequences of having sex. It is not a fatalistic mentality, but a working with the feminine rhythms of your body, not attempting to counteract them. It is an exercise in self-control and potentially standing up to a partner keen to get amorous.

Why did Calah Alexander attract so much hate? Because she dared to go against and question a feminist mantra and by doing so demonstrated that she is stronger than others who (for perfectly legitimate reasons) have decided not to have more children. Anyone who cannot cope with a humorous slogan on a t-shirt that has a grain of truth and challenges a deeply cherished orthodoxy and is so moved to incite and spew tirades of loathing and spite, is not as tolerant and pro freedom of choice as they would claim. Anyone who feels so defensive as to chuck indiscriminate hatred and wish violence upon a total stranger because they disagree with a point of view is a bigot. Why have they reacted so strongly? Because they feel ‘judged’.

All of which proves that Calah was right all along. They really are sissies.