Love is in the air


It might have made for a great headline and photo opportunity, but parish priests across social media were raising their eyes heavenwards at the story of the impromptu wedding conducted by Pope Francis between a steward and stewardess on the papal flight over Chile today.

While clergy are always grateful when a happy couple has chosen to plight their troth in a Catholic church, ensuring that their union is sacramentally binding, the last thirty years of the ever-burgeoning wedding industry means that many couples are increasingly treating churches and clergy as though they are just another customer-facing business and as such, priests and deacons find themselves subject to increasingly wild and whacky demands.

My husband is fortunate to look after two photogenic Catholic churches in the Surrey hills, both of which are close to local wedding venues. Many engaged couples from the London area who can’t afford the extortionate cost of a wedding in their vicinity thereby decide to book at one of these (still expensive venues), before then hunting around for a church in the locality and alight across ours, not least because the various venus have informed them of our presence, if they are wanting a religious service.

With the date booked, they ring up, asking questions like “we’re booked to get married on x date and we’re just thinking about the church, does yours have bells?”. Or, “I’d really like a religious element to our ceremony, I’m getting married to a Zoroastrian in a civil ceremony but I’d like it to reflect my Catholic roots, so could Father please come out and do some kind of blessing at Ye Olde Countrie Manor”.

To my non-Catholic readers, these requests all sound perfectly reasonable, surely the church should be glad of bums on seats etc, but trust me, they will leave Fr gnashing his teeth in frustration, because the business of getting married in a Catholic Church, especially if it’s not your local parish church, is far from straightforward, requiring reams of paperwork and preparation.

Before telling the bride about bells, or whether or not she can have specially trained owls fly down the aisle to deliver the rings (yes really, and no, Hedwig is not welcome on our turf and neither can Father dress up as Dumbledore, and I don’t think that the organist has a copy of the theme of Harry Potter), the first question is ‘are you and your fiancé both baptised Catholics and are you free to marry’? We might then get down to the nitty gritty of explaining that the couple will need to have the permission of their parish priest to marry here and all of the other legal and canonical formalities before opening the diary to check if the date is even free.

It’s not inconceivable then, that this in-flight wedding is going to open the door to “well Pope Francis did it, why can’t I?” To which of course, your parish priest is going to consolidate his reputation as being a rigid ogre, by pointing out that he does not  possess the same authority as the pope, these were exceptional circumstances and enquiring whether the bride and groom have similarly seen their local church destroyed in an earthquake.

But your parish priest is, or at least should be, robust enough to cope with the unrealistic expectations of engaged couples who stopped attending church once they had made their First Holy Communion. Weddings and marriages are ripe opportunities for evangelisation and so any diligent Father will do his best to make sure that they are properly prepared for their momentous lifelong commitment which goes far beyond the day itself.

The trouble with Pope Francis’ cute little stunt, is that it does somewhat trivialise the nature of marriage; weddings ordinarily ought to take place in a place of worship and ideally include a Nuptial Mass.  This is a solemn and reverent sacrament and as the dear old book of Common Prayer used to say, a Holy Estate which “therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God”. I’m not sure Cranmer had a pressurised compartment, 36,000 feet in the air, in mind.

And lest we be in any doubt, this absolutely was a stunning bit of PR. Why? Because as a loyal son of the Church, there is no way that the Pope, or indeed any parish priest, would summarily agree to marry a couple on the spot, who came to him to ask that he bless their civil union.

You’d need to know whether or not they were both baptised Catholics (although perhaps his Petrine office could automatically dispense with any disparity of cult, regardless of whether or not he knew about it), you’d need to know that they were both free to marry, i.e. that none of them had ever been married before (which needs checking out) and you’d at least want to have a little chat with them. Maybe check that the two children that Paula Podest Ruiz and Carlos Ciuffardi Ellorriag had begat in their eight years of civil marriage had been baptised and were being raised as Catholics and also maybe invite them to have made their confession, as Catholics ought to do before they enter into the sacrament?

Now we don’t know precisely the nature of the conversation which took place, but is it really likely that the Pope would just marry someone on the spot, having taken their word for it, without having checked out the necessary, like whether either of them had been married and divorced before. I mean, it might be just a tad awkward if an ex spouse were to unexpectedly pitch up in the media over the next few days, claiming their union wasn’t valid.

Much as Papa Francisco likes to rip up the rule books  I can’t see him agreeing to wed a couple without having  confirmation of their freedom to marry. or without the most rudimentary of checks. Here’s the other thing. Said couple were rostered on the same flight together. What a coincidence. It rarely happened to any of the married couples on the airlines for whom I worked, and indeed for obvious reasons of health, safety and making sure that any dependents didn’t lose both their mum and dad,  married couples were rarely deliberately rostered on the same flight.

The groom’s best man happened to be the airline’s CEO, who was traveling on the flight. What a coincidence! Even more fortunate was that Pope Francis just happened to have a pair of beautiful matching rosaries kicking about in the pockets of his cassock to be able to give them as gifts!

So how likely is it that this couple just happened to be crewing this flight, along with the airline’s CEO, who just chummily stood in as a best man in front of the assembled press? In the days, when this humble commentator was a flight attendant ferrying the great and good, as well as politicians and celebrities about, approaching them for autographs or favours would be a sackable offence, but the couple just thought they’d chance it and sidle up to the Pope and ask them to bless their union. Something that he was unable to do, because it wasn’t actually a union which he could bless.

This smells suspiciously like a PR stunt. Especially when one considers that the couple had been married for 8 years, albeit civilly and could easily have approached a priest for their marriage to be convalidated. Being charitable, I suspect that what happened was that they had their date booked in the Cathedral in Santiago, the earthquake and tsunami hit and destroyed the church,  the preparations were in full swing and they decided it would be easier and simpler to have a civil ceremony and maybe do the religious bit later,  given that the save the dates had gone out. And then, as happens, life got in the way. My guess is that they weren’t what the Catholic online community would consider as ‘serious Catholics’ but I’m not going to make uncharitable assumptions about their faith or whether or not they were regularly attending Mass and so on.

With all that in mind, I still think that this sweet little ceremony at altitude isn’t such a bad thing. Why? Because it highlighted that if you are Catholic, you are not married in the eyes of God and the Church if you have a civil ceremony. It was a nice piece of Evangelisation with the Pope reportedly telling the couple, ”This is the sacrament that is missing in the world, the sacrament of marriage. I hope this motivates couples around the world to marry.”  I hope it does so too, but preferably not in a smelly aircraft after a period of cohabitation. For those who asked why he couldn’t have just blessed the couple, the Catholic Church doesn’t do wedding blessings. It’s all or nothing. Though he could of course, have invited them back for a private ceremony at the Vatican later in the year.

The whole thing may have been pre-arranged, but the couple obviously had a pang of conscience and wanted to make their marriage right in the eyes of the Church. And Francis duly obliged. Which seems to me to be the very essence of pastoral accompaniment, bringing people back where they ought to be. They received the grace of the sacrament, had an extremely special moment with the pontiff, 15 minutes of fame and glory and an experience they will treasure for the rest of their lives. Good luck to them, may they enjoy a long happy and fruitful marriage.

And as for a PR stunt it was just gold. There I was thinking that the Vatican’s communications department really need to pull their fingers out and what do we have? A lovely little interlude to take our minds off the child abuse scandal still rocking Chile and the relatively low-turnout for the pontiff. Something to warm the cockles of the hearts. Love is the air, couple on cloud nine, the opportunities for social media memes and witticism are endless.

Lest Greg Burke, the Vatican Comms Director gets too complacent, it seems that someone is off-message.  He has contradicted the couple’s account that the spontaneous ceremony was the pope’s idea, and has told the press that “it wasn’t the pope’s idea, but he was happy to do it”. Hmm. Happy to marry a couple whom he knows next to nothing about? Whatever you say squire!

Anyone who raises reservations about the whole process – they are obviously the grumpy sourpusses we hear so much about. Couple get married by the Pope. What’s not to like? At least we’re no longer talking about the scandal of the Holy Father handing out papal honours like party bags to pro-abortion activists. 

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.

Francis, Catholic families and Rabbit-gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“takes into consideration their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church.

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

Perhaps not the best Western Catholic cultural stereotype.
Perhaps not the best Western Catholic cultural stereotype.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annulments in the Catholic Church – it’s not who you know!

Nope, never had to do this guy a favour.
Nope, never had to do this guy a favour.

A few years ago this piece from Cristina Odone in the Telegraph would have had me reaching straight for the laptop to bash out a corrective response, but fortunately Joseph Shaw has beaten me to it.

Efficiently deconstructing her doublethink, Dr Shaw critiques her dismissal of the Church’s annulment process as being ‘dependent on money and contacts to unpick the marital knot’ as follows:

“This is extremely insulting to those many people who have been through the process of annulment in good faith, after marrying a person whose marriage vows were an empty sham.”

I am one of those people whom Cristina presumably believes used their money and contacts to unpick the marital knot. Except the whole process took six weeks and required an admin processing fee of under £20. Technically speaking for any canon lawyers who may be reading and wanting to nitpick, I did not receive an annulment, but was declared free to marry. No thorough examination needed to be conducted, the bare facts spoke for themselves.*

Nonetheless, an annulment is categorically NOT a Catholic divorce, It is a statement of fact that a marriage never existed in the first place. The judges involved in a tribunal case do not seek to apportion blame or guilt to a single party, they are there simply to examine the facts before them.

A tribunal panel does not in any way resemble a civil court process. Meetings are held in complete confidentiality and on a one-to-one basis. Where possible both spouses are asked to testify along with relevant witnesses. One does not need to spend money on hiring specialist Church, or canon lawyers. In terms of fees, all that is asked that a contribution is to made towards covering the admin fees and costs, but those who are unable to afford to do this, are not required to pay anything at all and neither will cases be prioritised according to wealth. Typically they are dealt with in date order and the reason that the process may sometimes take a few years is because it can often take that amount of time to get all of the relevant documentation and witnesses assembled. Pope Francis has already announced a commission to review whether or not the process may be simplified or streamlined, in advance of the forthcoming Synod on the Family.

Another thing Cristina omitted to mention is that this process is not only open to Catholics but to anyone who wishes the Church to investigate the circumstances of their marriage, say for example an Anglican divorcee who now wishes to marry a Catholic. The Church will examine the circumstances surrounding their marriage and determine whether or not it was valid.

Any decision does not have any bearing on the civil law, nor does it decree that a civil marriage never existed. Hence any children born from that union, are not deemed to be illegitimate, in case any bigots still care about that these days.

Cristina’s attitude is symptomatic of that I have experienced from non-Catholics. One woman even came onto this blog to decry my selfishness. I was so desperate to get married in a Catholic Church that I deliberately made my daughter illegitimate.  A gay man, who is so invested in the issue of gay marriage, deliberately briefs people that I have a child from another man, as proof of my alleged inconsistency and hypocrisy. A Twitter account was set up in the name of @realfarrow which stole my photo and accused me of adultery. And they say that Catholics are judgmental? Fact is I once made some errors of judgement and committed some sins, (several actually) long since confessed, along with every other Catholic on this planet. It doesn’t invalidate the truth of the matter at hand, nor does the fact that I failed to live up to Catholic teaching, mean that it is therefore wrong. I didn’t know what it was!

It’s also worth noting that prior to getting sacaramentally married, even though the wedding took place in a Catholic Church, the permission of the former Bishop of Chichester needed to be sought. He agreed that my former marriage was not valid, purely on the grounds of my ex not being open to children, and gave his consent for my marriage to Robin to go ahead, but noted that he did not value my Catholic annulment. Like Cristina he believed it to be a process for the rich and well-connected which was both infuriating and distressing. By contrast the Anglican church does not have any formal process for investigating validity of former marriages, instead operating a postcode lottery depending on the personal opinion of the minister involved. There’s something very reassuring about having one’s case independently and formally assessed.

How does one obtain an annulment? Simple. Approach your parish priest and ask for his help and advice. Every single diocese in England and Wales has their own marriage tribunal department who will investigate these matters for you. The priest will help you to fill out the paperwork and will then send it to the local office. Only in the extremely rare cases of Pauline and Petrine privilege, does anything need to be approved by Vatican bureaucracy. No palm-greasing, rolling up of trouser legs or funny handshakes involved.

Anyone who has gone through a divorce will testify that not only is it an extremely painful experience but that it requires a great deal of soul-searching and brutal honesty. The Church walked with me throughout this process, never once judging or telling me what I ought to do, but instead offering compassion, practical help and prayer.

I had to face up to the fact that I had made mistakes through a combination of my own emotional immaturity and ignorance. Had I not fallen away from the faith or been woefully unprepared for marriage, not least in terms of my understanding, then a lot of heartache could have been avoided.

With that in mind, it was the experience of an unplanned child combined with a difficult relationship which facilitated my return back to the Church. Once I fully understood Church teaching and the vision of marriage on offer, it was obvious that I had been living in a pale imitation without any of the graces conferred by the sacrament.

There isn’t a day that goes by when I am not grateful for being given the opportunity to live out the true vocation and vision of marriage in contrast to my previous experience. My life is now lived in the fullness of truth, instead of self-deceit, in glorious high-resolution technicolor, not fuzzy black and white.

I threw myself on the mercy of the Church, hoping and praying that she would indeed recognise that I was free to marry, but that involved having to accept that she may rule otherwise.

For internet trolls to throw ignorant uniformed insults about is one thing. When seasoned Catholic journalists and leading Anglican clerics intimate that you have done some dodgy deal to buy yourself out of a spot of bother and valid union it is quite another. But hurt feelings aren’t the main issue here. By propagating incorrect myths, not only about divorcees not being able to receive communion, but by misrepresenting the annulment process, Cristina Odone puts people’s spiritual welfare at risk, both by deterring people from presenting themselves for communion and also by preventing them from accessing the natural justice to which they are entitled.

*(As a baptised Catholic I married outside of the Church without a dispensation, or to use the lay term, permission, meaning that it was illegal according to Church law. With that in mind, had matters gone to tribunal, given that I was married to a divorcee who had explicitly and repeatedly stated to myself, friends and family that he did not ever want children, and who still confirms that to be the case, then it’s fairly obvious which way things would have gone.

Couples who are in an illegal marriage are able to get the Church to formalise them later on, however in my case this would have been impossible. )

Francis appoints Lord Patten to improve Vatican media relations


According to a report in today’s Financial Times, Chris Patten has been appointed by Pope Francis to take on the new role of improving the Church’s Vatican media  relations.

As former Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten should have a lot of experience in terms of advising the Vatican how to overhaul their communications department and in particular their media outlets, which let’s be honest, need bringing up to date. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of communicating both the Gospel message and using the media as a form of Catechesis has already been done by enterprising American apostolates. The Vatican has, for some years now been lagging behind, the Church’s own media agency is never the first port of call when it comes to catching up on Papal news and events, or what’s going on in the Catholic world,  unless you are a well-connected Vaticanista or official reporter looking for confirmation of facts. The Vatican still needs to get its act together when it comes to stopping a lie from travelling half way around the world, while their press operation is still switching on their fax machine.

Of course the very last thing that Pope Francis needs right now is the services of a spin doctor, which I suspect he’d eschew, but if Lord Patten is going to use his expertise to help the Vatican in terms overhauling their digital output (which has markedly improved over the past few  years), or getting Vatican radio, TV and newspapers more up to date and able to better maximise the opportunities presented by the rolling news cycle, it will be no bad thing. Patten is a canny operator, in possession of a sharp intellect with a passion for public service and by all accounts a very personable and charming individual. Whatever one may think of the BBC’s editorial policies, their output is of a consistently high quality.

That said his tenure at the BBC wasn’t free of controversy, there was the disastrous coverage of Queen’s diamond jubilee river pageant which Patten admitted was ‘not the corporation’s finest hour’. Also was the affair of the over-generous pay-offs to executives which revealed a chaotic management with no-one willing to take responsibility, and there’s also the issue of the shiny new refurbishment at Broadcasting House (a project which came into being prior to Patten’s tenure) which came in millions over budget. Anyone whose visited there can’t help but to admire the place, I was struck between the transformation between October last year and just last month, the building seemed more high-tech and glossy than ever-before, all the lifts have been replaced and modernised, the recording studios are more spacious and comfortable, but nothing had previously seemed to be screaming out for improvement. I was nonetheless amused to learn that despite the billions spent on the place, apparently bits of the set on the news studio have a tendency to fall off. Perhaps it’s a deliberate retro-70s effect? BBC News meets Crossroads.

One doubts whether or not the Vatican, which is currently engaged in a Curial streamlining and efficiency exercise will have the inclination or surplus cash to play about with in the same way as the BBC – they simply don’t have large amounts of liquidity at hand, nor can I see senior Cardinals and prelates or lay officials getting together for a blue-sky media brainstorming mind-map session followed up by spot of team-building – although the sight of archbishops blind quad-bike racing or rock climbing in St Peter’s Square might be rather fun!

And of course, the big elephant in the room when it comes to the BBC is the Savile affair, although taking heed of the lessons learned in the Catholic Church Lord Patten stated that the BBC must tell the truth and face up to the truth about itself, no matter how terrible. He is no stranger to an institution rocked to its foundations by an abuse scandal and the need for confidence to be restored. At the beginning of this week BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell launched a scathing attack on Lord Patten’s ‘ignorance’ in apparently ignoring talented female broadcasters and presenters, so it might be that this appointment is further grist to the feminists’ mill.

Lord Patten oversaw arrangements for the phenomenally successful Papal visit of 2010, and in September of 2010, The Tablet named him as one the UK’s most influential Catholics, such an accolade being something of a double-edged sword. Perhaps that’s why Damian Thompson appears to have little time for him, describing him in one tweet as being as Tory, as Tony Blair is Catholic. Ouch! It’s a theme reiterated by Damian in several posts, along with the fact that Lord Patten is a trustee of the Tablet, a Chancellor of Oxford University and  seemingly much trusted by the Bishops Conference in England and Wales, as a safe pair of hands.

Still, who are we to judge? He’s an experienced media operator, businessman and politician. For those understandably cautious about his orthodoxy, (he isn’t going to be responsible for formulating or promulgating the message, only the medium by which it is transmitted), let’s pray and wish him and the Vatican media operation, well.


It looks as though Lord Patten will be leading an extremely senior and experienced international team, according to the Vatican Press Release, which includes the very highly regarded Monsigner Paul Tighe, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Relations and Gregory Earlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, so the Media Committee set up to consider reforms is not a mere quango and neither is Patten’s appointment some sort of English Catholic establishment political coup d’etat as might be claimed. Chris Patten is not acting as a Mandelson-style personal advisor or spin doctor, as reported in the Mail and his role is a voluntary, unpaid one.

The dry nature and visual format of the press release and the fact that the FT has so far been the only outlet to pick up the news, neatly proves the point about the need for reform.

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.

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.

Does the Church need to renew its relationship with women?

Hot on the heels of the initiative which allows Catholic women to pledge their support for Catholic doctrine (the aim of which is to present Pope Francis with a significant number of signatures as well as present a forum for Catholic women and apologetics), Catherine Lafferty has written a piece for the New Statesman’s version of Comment is Free, which suggests ten ways in which Pope Francis can renew the Catholic Church’s relationship with women.

It is no secret that I have personal issues with Lafferty. Many people witnessed her behaviour towards me last year when I was pregnant, with alarm and dismay. The episode caused considerable distress and much prayer is needed because I still struggle with forgiveness and coming to terms with it all.

This should be borne in mind when reading my critique of Lafferty’s piece – this isn’t about ad hom or personal attack, I wish to lay my animosity to one side and engage with and critique what was written, but it should be noted that perhaps understandably, I find it extremely hard to be objective towards someone, who I believe caused actual harm to my health and that of my unborn baby with a campaign of unfounded and malicious allegations and whose repeated presence in my timeline has been an occasion of sin at the start of the Triduum.

The article’s premise is that the Church needs to renew its approach to its female followers with regards to sex and reproduction. This would seem to be a little misleading, not least because it implies that the Catholic Church somehow needs to change its doctrine, something which is impossible. Secondly, it buys into the myth that most Catholic women are unhappy with the Church, especially in relation to the doctrine on sex and reproduction. This is a myth that I’m looking to disprove.

If women are unhappy with Church doctrine on these issues, the blame can largely be laid at the door of poor or inadequate catechesis. This would certainly be an area that one could argue is in need of renewal, but the Emeritus Pope Benedict did much in terms of sowing the seeds in this regard. The growing Juventum movement is packed with young women as well as men. A newer, younger generation of orthodox faithful Catholic women is emerging. Before claiming that the Church needs to take action to renew its relationship with women, some evidence as to this fractured relationship needs to be provided. A more accurate assessment would be to say that the Church needs to engage with lapsed Catholic women and evangelise better. It needs to send positive and joyful messages of female sexuality as well as remind everyone of the beautiful teachings of John Paul II, in Theology of the Body and Mulieris Dignitatem.

Here’s my take on the some of the suggestions:

  • Use the reform of the Curia to promote female excellence in the corridors of power. Hard to argue with this one, it’s a point that I have argued and would do much for the Vatican in terms of its perception. With that it mind, it should be remembered that the pursuit of power is not a goal that should be encouraged, for any Catholic in good conscience. Secondly, whilst female excellence should be encouraged, the Vatican needs to be extremely careful to ensure that it does not engage with secular identity politics that are contrary to Catholic teaching which teaches that our identity lies in our dignity as created beings in the image of God. If women are promoted it needs to be because they possess requisite competence and fulfil the criteria of any given position, not solely because of their sex. Woman quotas should be avoided because they are a form of unfair discrimination and buy into the idea that the Catholic Church is somehow oppressive or patriarchal as demonstrated by the priesthood. Whilst it would be good to see more women in the Curia, this should not be for the sake of political correctness. The Catholic Church is not a political party or democratically elected institution.
  • This bureaucratic reform should be extended downwards to Bishop’s Conferences and diocesan offices, which should also become more efficient and productive with professional staff and dragged out of ‘sleepy backwaters’ with a similar drive for female excellence. This seems primarily a comment on the Catholic Church in the UK. I’m not sure that the same could be said of other countries, such as America for example, and who knows what the situation is in the far-flung corners of the globe. We need to be wary of accusing hardworking diocesan staff of ‘complacency’ or not doing their jobs properly. Many dioceses, such as Portsmouth have in fact, recently undergone restructuring, the Catholic Church works on a model of subsidiarity to which diocesan bishops are key. Where failures are identified, it should be up to the individual bishop to take appropriate action, rather than for centralised guidelines – every diocese will have different requirements. Furthermore some of the staff working in and supervising diocesan offices are stipendiary priests who are unpaid. Many parish secretaries, admin and finance staff are also unpaid volunteers. Instead of replacing them with a professional bureaucracy, which will prove costly, additional training would seem to be the answer in areas where there are gaps in knowledge or experience. There are admittedly diocesan roles that require paid professionals, standards matter and dioceses do conform to employment laws and norms, so I think we need to be careful before making sweeping statements or wholesale accusations of inefficiency. The same sentiment as above would apply when it comes to promoting female excellence. Replacing priests and unpaid volunteers with a professional bureaucracy would cost a considerable amount of money at a time when we know that many dioceses are running a deficit. In any event most diocesan offices are filled with the laity.
  • Turn all Catholic workplaces into centres of excellence for family-friendly employment. How do we know that this is not already the case? I can think of several positions in my diocese which are staffed by women and are part-time or job-share. As employers, Bishops are subject to UK laws with regards to unjust discrimination when it comes to employment and would legally need to demonstrate that they have the relevant policies in place, which means amongst other things, that women returning from maternity leave will already have the right to request family-friendly hours and parental leave. When it comes to building creches, that is entirely dependent on the size of the plant that a diocesan office may occupy as well as number of staff. There doesn’t tend to be a high staff turnover in diocesan offices, so a creche could quickly become obsolete.
  • Take a lead in providing affordable childcare. The Catholic Church teaches that couples should be open to the gift of life, a principle which is made harder to live up to by women’s economic needs. Lovely idea in theory. Pie in the sky in real life. The Catholic Church does teach that couples should be open to the gift of life, but she also teaches that parents should be the primary educators of their children. A mother’s economic needs revolve around providing food and housing for her children. Ideally speaking a woman should have the choice as to whether or not she wishes to work, countless surveys demonstrate that most mothers yearn to be at home with their children. Jonas Himmelstrand, a Swedish sociologist, is reporting that psychological disorders in children have trebled in Sweden, widely held up as being a childcare utopia, where over 90% of children under 3 attend full time nurseries. Having children in full-time childcare should not be encouraged. It is not in the common good to encourage or promote a system whereby mothers have little choice other than to become wage slaves. That mothers have always worked is undeniable, but traditionally women needing extra income did this inside the home, whether it be by a bit of extra farming, being a nursemaid, taking in ironing, sewing, craftwork etc. Whilst that is admittedly out of step for today’s era, the rise of the mumpreneur, or woman who works from home, whether that’s freelance writing, running a business on ebay, or whatever, shows that this is still seen as an ideal. Women should be their own bosses, as they always have been, working on their own terms, providing for themselves and their families in a way that fits around family commitments, and not wage slaves to outside employers, trying to split themselves between two masters. Ultimately, it tends to be the children who suffer, when mum has to put them in wraparound care 5 days a week, in order to keep working for an implacable inflexible boss who pays the wages.
  • Aside from the fact that the Catholic Church lacks the resources to provide free or cheap Catholic nurseries and ignoring the fact that such a practice would inevitably fall foul of laws regarding discrimination, there would bound to be some vexatious litigation surrounding the nature of such provision, encouraging mothers to put their children in nurseries would not renew the relationship with women, but could cause alienation and resentment. The Church would be sending a very definite message as to the desirability of work, and no nursery, no matter how wonderful or gleaming the equipment or activities on offer, can replace a mother’s unique love and care. Children aren’t objects, they should not be viewed as barriers or commodities to financial or economic success and to put one’s own self-fulfilment on the same level as their welfare, is directly contrary to church teaching. Whilst the Church recognises and argues that women should have equal access to public functions and roles, speaking in Familiaris Consortio, John Paul said this

While it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family.

Furthermore, the mentality which honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favoriung work in the home.

  • The Catholic Church can plough funding for research into fertility management which complements rather than compromises its core principles. No need for this. The technology, already exists, NFP methods such as Creighton are 99% effective. Pope John Paul II singled out the Pope Paul VI Institute, who are world leaders in terms of reproductive technology for special praise and worthy of support. Catholics have to accept however, that no method of contraception is 99% effective, and whilst couples may have serious reasons not to add to their families, they must also tread a fine line in terms of not falling into a contraceptive mentality. Where the Church needs to do better is at communicating its message on human sexuality to young men and women, which really needs to start at grassroots level. The technology exists, it’s just not promoted heavily enough and neither do many priests do a great job in terms of preaching about contraception or promoting the alternatives. Likewise NaPro technology, has success rates far and above those of IVF, treating the underlying cause of which infertility is just a symptom. A fertile married couple has to regularly think and pray when it comes to the issue of whether or not to add to their family, and not simply use NFP as an alternative form of contraception. It involves a wholly different mindset.
  • Put women and their needs at the heart of its Pro Life activism. This is what happens now. Organisations such as the Good Counsel Network and LIFE Charity do just that in terms of their activism, campaigning and actual pro-life work. A creaking Pro Life lobby is ill-equipped to consider why women opt to have abortions and what they need to continue their pregnancies willingly. The pro-life lobby in the UK may be creaking, but there are certainly signs of healthy rejuvenation, such as in the recent foundation of the Alliance of Pro-life students and the success of the 40 days for Life movement. Speaking at the launch of APS, Eve Farron their founder, explained how they made common cause with feminists on campus and forced campaigning and provision for pregnant students at certain universities to be drastically overhauled, so that students with a crisis pregnancy were presented with actual realistic options enabling them to keep their baby and continue studying. Again the Good Counsel Network help women on a day to day basis, they are well versed in the multitude of reasons why a woman may find herself at the door of an abortion clinic and provide help accordingly. A pro-life movement that lacks cohesiveness will find it hard to gain political traction, but that doesn’t mean that it is unable to discern why women may abort. Pro-life work does need to consist of a political element, not simply in terms of legislation surrounding abortion laws, but legislation to enact a society that is open to life and the needs of pregnant women, but this is not its only role. For Catholics, pro-life work consists of prayer, politics, practical action and PR. The pro-life movement is at its strongest when we recognise and hammer home the message that a life is a stake here and the injustice of abortion, to mother and child. Politicians will respond to the will of the people and even SPUC, an organisation of which I am highly critical, is extremely effective at marshalling and consolidating grass-roots support. This is vital.
  • as tough on the causes of abortion as abortion itself. Good soundbite, albeit a modified version of William Hague. But we need to very careful here. Whilst society must clamp down on those factors that contribute to a woman’s feeling that she has little other ‘choice’, the causes of abortion are very often complex, there is not one single factor. Women who abort their babies are not two dimensional creatures simply exercising a choice because they can, or because they see it as a form of contraception and not the taking of a life. Whilst some women undoubtedly do view abortion as a trivial matter, many don’t and abortion is arrived at via a contribution of factors, not least a society that advocates and promotes abortion as being ‘no biggie’ and certainly not something that one should feel guilty about. Whilst we have to work to bring about an elimination of those factors that conspire to make a woman have an abortion, human history shows us that there will always be women who feel they have reasons to abort. We cannot concede that a reason to abort is a justification and neither should we be giving any fuel to the notion that until reasons to abort are demolished, then abortion itself can be tackled. When we consider the causes of abortion, we have to be extremely careful not to play into the hands of pro-choicers, who will argue that abortion has always existed, there will always be a good reason to abort and so abortion must be safe and legal. People will always want to engage in destructive behaviour, sadly there will always be those who are compelled to hurt their fellow human beings and themselves, but that does not mean that society should legislate, normalise and accept harm, on the premise that it is a lesser evil. Whilst we must be tough on the cause of abortion, we must not lose sight of the fact that abortion is, to use the hated words, a moral evil. That does not mean that women who have abortions are morally evil, or of dubious character, but in our compassion, we must not forget what abortion is. We must continue to be tough on it and not fall into the hands of well-meaning pro-choicers who attempt to justify abortion. Being tough on various causes of abortion includes getting tough on lifestyles of sexual impropriety as well as on repeated abortions, and accepting that a woman’s judgement is not always sound or prudent, by virtue of her gender or reproductive organs. This is a always a flashpoint or bone of contention, no-one likes to be seen as finger-pointing or interfering in others’ sex lives, it plays into the Christian fundie fiddling with ovaries stereotype, but ultimately as Christians we are compelled to make moral judgements with regards to certain courses of action, including abortion.

The other points with regards to population control, education and women’s rights are fairly sound. But as I said at the beginning, the Catholic Church needs to be very wary about succumbing to identity politics. Women are signing up thick and fast at CatholicwomenRising to pledge their support for Church doctrine. To state that the Church needs to renew its relationship with women, implies that there is a schism, one that is only evident in the minds of the media. What the Church does need to do is continue to win souls of all ages, be they the elderly, middle-aged, or young. Part of this must involve evangelisation. But Church renewal is a question that each subsequent generation has to face – we have to enthuse our children and young people to lives of Christian witness and holiness. This is why identity politics is so irrelevant, because Catholic doctrine reflects that men and women were created equal but with different vital roles to play. Our strengths and weaknesses are disparate, we are not all one homogenous mass. The way we go about renewal is in two ways – firstly by how we live our lives and the examples we set to others, Pope Francis is leading the way here, and secondly by implementing decent catechesis and instruction at a local level.

That the Catholic Church in the Western world needs to find ways of countering the rising tide of secularism, atheism and the prevailing zeitgeist of individualism and renew itself is indisputable. But it has to start at catechesis and finding effective ways of educating its laity, be they male or female. Women friendly policies may make for fluffy soundbites in left-wing publications and make a convenient flag for Catholics to wave to show off their progressive credentials. But the New Evangelisation requires action that goes infinitely deeper.