SPUC revisited

A few years ago I was riled into writing about SPUC in less than complimentary terms following some less than charitable remarks about Catholic Voices, the organisation of which I am proud to be a part, not being orthodox enough. Writing on his blog back in 2011, John Smeaton, Director of SPUC called for the voices of ‘real Catholics’ instead of our appeasing liberal heterodox ones.

Admittedly I was less than charitable in my reply, my irritation and indignation fuelled in part by pregnancy hormones. The accusations of heterodoxy and attacks upon Catholic Voices coming from John Smeaton, did cease, for which I think we are all grateful – after all when it came to the thorny topic of the redefinition of marriage, it was clear that we were all on the same side.

And when it comes to the aims of SPUC, I think we’re all on their side, we all wish for a successful pro-life lobby group in this country. It is very disappointing for ordinary Catholics in the pews that by and large our leadership seems to be quiet on the subject of abortion, with a few notable exceptions and that there seems to be no specifically Catholic pro-life organisation, which is why SPUC occupy a weird hybrid position, ostensibly being a secular lobby group and not a registered charity, with no official Catholic endorsement. To be fair to SPUC they are simply filling a gap.

SPUC has two problems, the first one being that in order to gain any serious political traction, any pro-life movement, be that in the realms of abortion or euthanasia should not be perceived as a purely religious movement. To use the cliche, if I had a penny for every time I’ve trotted out the phrase that life issues, including contraception and IVF for that matter, don’t actually require any sort of religious belief or recourse to theism to be valid ethical positions, neither do they fit into any sort of left/right-wing praxis, then I’d be a seriously rich woman by now.

One of the accusations trotted out by those angered by my original post was that my criticism came from self-interest, I had my eye on staging some sort of coup and emerging as a female pro-life leader. One of the reasons that I have absolutely no intention or desire to lead any sort of movement (aside from the fact I am not a natural leader and have never been comfortable in these sorts of positions and have more than enough on my plate at present) is because as a lesser-known Catholic, I’d never be able to move beyond the ‘religious agenda’ template. The future of pro-life in the political sphere in any event, needs to be able to bust the religious zealot/wingnut frame and led by someone who has kept below the radar.

LifeCharity has a Catholic founder and chairman in Jack Scarisbrick and admittedly employs practicing Christians of all denominations, but it also employs those of other faiths and none. It is this wholly secular, non-religious flavour of the organisation which has enabled it to make some inroads in terms of being invited to participate in policy forums. It is precisely Life’s lack of overt religiosity, it refuses to endorse or alternatively condemn 40 Days for Life for example which makes the pro-choice lobby spit with fury as the tired accusations and tropes simply don’t work. This is why organisations such as Education for Choice, do their damnest to undermine them in other fields, such as pregnancy counselling and education. It isn’t LIFE’s secular nature that protects them from such attacks, let’s face it, there’s a whole plethora of people whom it would suit, from professional lobby groups to big Pharma groups or anyone with any sort of financial interests in contraception and abortion, who want pro-lifers kicked out of schools and not being allowed anywhere near a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. The lack of religiosity makes the smear merchants’ job much harder as well as enabling LIFE to reach a wider audience who would perhaps be more willing to lay their prejudices about religious organisations aside and listen.

The second problem is that the UK Catholic church should have a dedicated pro-life movement throughout the country. It’s very hard for Catholics to donate to secular pro-life charities who make appeals in church, when they emphasize the non-religious nature of their work. Now there’s no reason why religion should come into fields such as crisis pregnancy counselling or sex education especially for the wider world, but neither should Catholicism be excluded, particularly when we are talking about Catholic schools or parishioners.

I’m proud to publicly state my support for 40 days for life (as has Pope Francis), I believe that respectful, dignified silent prayer vigils with specialist trained and experienced crisis pregnancy outreach workers are an excellent witness to the faith. But it’s very hard to support an organisation who comes into my church and says ‘we don’t stand outside the abortion clinics’ in lofty tones signifying disproval.

There is a need for a Catholic organisation not only to support prayer vigils, but to do all of the grass-roots and outreach work to change hearts and minds which is every bit as vital as the politics. SPUC are quite good at some of this. My father-in-law is a member and is always exercised into action by the literature that comes dropping through his letterbox at regular intervasl from SPUC. He made an appointment to see his MP about same-sex marriage on their advice, rang them up and had a ‘very long helpful conversation for at least half an hour with a girl from there’ which briefed him in terms of what to say and what to expect.

Thing is though, as I said before, I’m still not convinced that this was the best use of their time and resources, it’s fighting a battle on too many fronts. Too many members of the general public were baffled by SPUC’s response to same-sex marriage whose point was that anything that undermines marriage therefore leads to the collapse of family life which then results in social consequences such as abortion, was too sophisticated and nuanced to work effectively. Marriage had already been weakened over the past few decades, notably with the introduction of no-fault divorce – an adulterer’s charter, there are consequences for the unborn child in terms of trying to state that every couple has the right to marriage and children, but most people could not see beyond the straw-man argument of causation and asked how two men or women getting married would then cause a third party to have an abortion.

The work that SPUC did in terms of briefing my father-in-law, could and should have been done by a different agency. If we’d had a cohesive official Catholic life movement, then they would have been able to pick up the slack.

The trouble is that because John Smeaton seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time attacking the Catholic bishops and hierarchy on his blog along with LGBT issues, it doesn’t make the Catholic church inclined to work with him, further fuelling his annoyance and thus the cycle of recrimination continues and nothing gets done.

No doubt lots of people will say to me in the coms box, yeah Caroline, but John Smeaton was right to criticise the bishops because of xyz. Specifically on this issue of Archbishop Peter Smith’s statement asking the government not to automatically convert civil partnerships into marriage and abolish them, which John Smeaton has blogged about, I would have a slightly different take. Yes, the CDF did issue guidelines against civil partnerships back in 2003, identifying correctly that they would lead to the introduction of marriage. The Archbishop was however speaking in the context of 2014, when civil partnerships are a reality. His point was the same as it was back in their introduction in 2003, being that civil partnerships do afford some important legal protections for same-sex couples. You really would need to be an unreasonable bigot to deny people the right to live with whom they choose and to be able to have that person given a special legal status as a significant companion, regardless of whether or not they are having an intimate sexual relationship. It isn’t beyond the bounds of imagination to suggest that there could be some Catholics living a chaste life within a civil partnership who do not wish to see them become marriages.

After attacking the Archbishop for his perceived deviation from Catholic teaching about civil partnerships, John then goes into a long diatribe about the lack of condemnation for homosexuality or homosexual acts from Peter Smith and whether or not civil partnerships or gay marriages are deemed to be sexual in nature, quoting an Anglican barrister for support!

It frankly appears prurient and petty minded. We know that there are problems with the legal definition of gay marriage, sexual consummation is necessarily missing, but the Archbishop was neither promoting gay marriage nor encouraging people to have extra marital sex. Stating the legal protections of civil partnerships is not the same as encouraging people to enter them. Does an Archbishop really need to take every opportunity to specifically denounce and reiterate Catholic teaching on homosexual acts? Aren’t we all already more than aware of what the Church says about sex outside of marriage? Besides which the Catholic church welcomed the Wolfenden Report which led to the de-criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and have also called for homosexuality to be de-criminalised throughout the world, as acts of private morality should not be subject to criminal sanctions.

People are rarely converted to Christianity simply by preaching; clever reasoned, compelling and logical arguments are all very well, but there also needs to be some element of personal encounter as St Paul demonstrates. I recently attended a session with the Catholic Labour MP Rob Flello, who entered the Commons as an atheist, where he talked movingly about a very personal encounter with Christ which led to his conversion.

Continually preaching about homosexuality or reiterating Catholic teaching on it does nothing to bring about the joy of Christ. Surely these discussions are best held on a one-to-one personal basis? In any event context is everything, at a time when Catholics are fighting to have our voices heard in the public square, denouncements of homosexual acts as immoral and disordered in a document concerned with protecting the legal rights of those in civil partnerships is not only irrelevant, but risks any remaining credibility or opportunity to be heard.

But to get back to the point, SPUC have done some good work and do number some good people in their organisation. It’s just a tragedy to see them continually arguing themselves into irrelevance and alienating themselves from official Catholic endorsement and support with their leader’s relentless focus upon homosexuality which is often picked up on by mainstream media, along with criticism of the Catholic bishops. I’m not saying that the bishops should be exempt from criticism where it is merited, but as ever it really isn’t the remit of a secular lobby group.

Catholics cannot deny the link between abortion and the deviation from God’s plan for human flourishing. Perhaps it’s time for the UK church to propose that case a lot better than in the past and then maybe SPUC can concentrate solely on how best they can fulfil their remit of specifically protecting the life of the unborn child, for which purpose they solicit donations and support.

Credit where Credit’s due

One of the valuable lessons I learnt last year is that sometimes it’s better not to air one’s grievances publicly. The internet is still a new tool and all of us are learning as we go in terms of how to most effectively utilise it. This time last year I made some criticisms about SPUC which resulted in a very unpleasant fall-out. Whilst I don’t regret what I said, and stand by many of my concerns, I also accept that I was blogging in a state of anger (never a good idea) fuelled by what I felt was unfair criticism and aided by a huge dose of pregnancy hormones. Hopefully SPUC of all people, should be able to understand that a woman experiencing her third pregnancy in as many years, coming 8 months after the birth of her previously unplanned child, was perhaps not in the best place emotionally and took the criticism rather too personally.

Therefore I ought to apologise for the intemperate nature of those posts, feelings were running high and admittedly I was being cleverly manipulated by a behind-the-scenes agitator, suggesting that I should blog. Mea culpa.

I still have reservations about the wisdom of whether or not it was a wise idea for SPUC to use its resources in defence of  marriage, but in the interests of balance, I ought to admit to an interesting conversation regarding with my father-in-law, who is still technically an Anglo-Catholic and long term member of SPUC. He informed me that he was having a meeting with his MP in the middle of January in order to discuss same-sex marriage. He doesn’t expect to get anywhere, given the MP is a Liberal Democrat, but felt the issue was important enough to make his views known.

I asked him what prompted this, to which the response was “I had an URGENT letter from SPUC, which said that something had to be done, so I straight away phoned up the young girl in their office, had quite a long in depth conversation and then made the appointment to see the MP”. So fair dos really. SPUC do seem to be rallying some grass-roots activism, which is no bad thing.

To be honest, I still believe their campaigning and strategy needs some updating and revisions. The fact that they were successful with my father-in-law is because he is pretty typical of the average SPUC member, i.e. over 65, a staunch Christian, not net literate (he doesn’t use the internet at all) and he tends to get very worked up by the angrily typed letters and edited handwritten slips of paper which look like they have been produced on an old-fashioned duplicating machine, that drop through the letterbox, containing their latest foreshadowings of imminent danger or deadly peril and urging strongly-worded letters and street petitions. I think SPUC’s appeal lies mainly with the retired reactionary Tory voters as well as the young traddie Catholic movement and at some point they will need to broaden their focus, but you know what, fair-play.

How many Catholics reading this have lobbied their MP yet? And if not, why not? I’ve just moved to Hove, so I’m wondering whether or not to have a bash at Mike Weatherly, the Tory Hove MP who narrowly won the key marginal from Celia Barlow, the former Labour incumbent and within a year of his election, lobbied David Cameron to shut down churches in his constituency who won’t conduct same-sex marriages. Modernise or close down was his rallying cry. Is two bites at the cherry (given I met with Caroline Lucas back in October) a little greedy, or is there no point? Incidentally I’m more than a little peeved – a Tory vote was recommended in the key marginals, if I recall correctly and it turns out that Celia Barlow had a much better pro-life record than I should imagine Mike Weatherly will have.

But I do endeavour to be fair-minded, so err yeah, credit where credit’s due. Although quite what L’Osservatore Romano’s reviews of Skyfall, have to do with a secular pro-life lobby group is beyond me. I’m not sure I agree with the sentiments therein, a group of seminarians and priests I know went to see the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. Didn’t someone say something about being in the world and yet not of it? If we want to warn youngsters of the dangers and pitfalls of life as a secret agent, or the false glamour espoused by James Bond, then doesn’t it help if we’ve actually seen the material in order to be able to engage effectively with it and view it critically?

But anyway let’s not go there again.

The finest Basildon Bond
Don’t forget your finest Basildon Bond

What’s the plan, Stan?

So, I said I’d do one final post, before a break of a few weeks, and here it is. As will become obvious I do want comments to continue to pour in as I think that this could actually prove very constructive.

Let’s be honest. There is no coherent pro-life movement in the UK. I have spent hours pouring over pro-choice literature, academic studies, political analysis, I follow them like a hawk on social media and I have to concede they are expert operators with cogent strategies, smooth PR machines who are able to drive headlines and influence public opinion. I know one or two people who have attended their meetings incognito. I’ve thought about doing the same, with the addition of a black wig and my glasses. What I have been told is that the pro-choice lobby are friendly, very well-organised and above all democratic, transparent and accountable.

What do we have to counter that? A disparate bunch of well-meaning squabblers, and I admit in some respects I may not have helped, but it pains me beyond belief to see the mess our side are in; whilst we squabble, bicker and fight, countless die.

I know all the arguments about Catholic teaching, about Christian teaching and so on and so forth, there is a time and a place to evangelise and I don’t simply mean in Church, but trying to base legislation upon Biblical, Scriptural or Magisterial Authority has not worked since before the Enlightenment. I think we have to draw an important distinction between Christian evangelisation and attempting to achieve our goals. Of course the two are inexorably linked and should complement and support each other, but campaigning for the dignity of the unborn and sick and elderly does not necessitate or require theology or biblical exegesis. We can draw on that to other Christians or in the course of general apologetics, but appealing to God, whilst trying to convince an atheist as to the horror of abortion, or why it is not right to put to death terminally ill or elderly people, is simply not going to wash.

It seems to me we have two options:

Option one

We all agree that I am a cheeky bumptious upstart who has no business sticking her opinionated nose into pro-life politics. If I want to do something I can rattle some collecting tins in Church, attend coffee mornings, bake cakes for pro-life charity sales, maybe do a bit of typing for the Pro-Life times or some such, but generally get back to my life of witness by continuing to have as many babies as I can until my uterus falls out.

In the meantime, the internecine squabbling continues, positions are more firmly entrenched than ever before, pro-life groups carry on doing what they’ve always done, groups are as polarised as ever before, John Smeaton retires in ten years time and passes on the family firm to his son, whilst LIFE carry on doing what they do. Both groups do some things well, but no real progress is made, things just tick on as before, it’s all about the damage limitation.

In the meantime, Dorries pushes for the 20 week reduction and fails miserably, much to the cheers of her detractors. Bouyed up by Nadine’s failure, the pro-choice lobby, decide to push on with their agenda, the requirement for the second doctor’s signature is removed, pro-life groups are no longer allowed to present in schools and are barred from carrying out any pregnancy counselling. Marie Stopes and BPAS build more and more clinics, abortion numbers go up, more sex education is thought to be the solution, more condoms and morning after pills are given out and so the cycle continues. Who knows, they may challenge for an overturning of the abortion pill to be administered in a clinic and will probably start hawking mobile abortion services, or even dial-an-abortion whereby a woman can have her consultation over the phone and the pill delivered by courier.

In short, doom and death.

Option 2

How about a meeting? (I won’t come, I promise, I’ll be too busy skulking or giving birth or something, besides I don’t want to be lynched by anyone). I know this seems incredible, I know we aren’t going to get x, y and z to actually sit down together in a room and begin to talk, dear me no, that could never happen could it, because of things that happened 20 years ago.

How about a team of professional mediators and ALL the major pro-life players and when I say ALL, I mean ALL? Not just representatives from SPUC, LIFE, Right-to-Life, but everyone, from people like Peter Saunders, to John Smeaton, Jack Scarisbrick, to Phyllis Bowman, Josephine Quintavelle, Ed Rennie, heck even Lord Alton, EVERYONE, lets get them all together to sit down, agree common goals and talk, to see where we can all go from here.

What I would love to see is a consolidation of all groups, – one huge group with different arms and focuses, say a euthanasia arm, an education arm, an outreach arm, a political arm, a research arm and so on and so forth. Consolidation has to be the name of the game in this day and age. It’s a clunky analogy but look at the airline industry. All the little airlines could not survive single handedly, routes were being duplicated, losses were being made and so we’ve seen some mergers in order to ensure survival. I know that the pro-life movement is not a business, but surely if we had one movement, one that was democratic, transparent and accountable, then certainly Catholics would know to whom to donate in good faith, as would Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, people of all faiths and none. We seem to have so much duplication and wastage and yet no coherent strategy.

I know there are so many thorny issues to be thought through, I know there are many competing egos, but surely with professional mediators and then with the help of management consultants (sorry, but they would need to be a prerequisite) we could take stock of the resources and expertise available, consolidate and move forward? I know there are issues such as LIFE only do non-directive counselling and really Catholics must tell people the truth that abortion is the killing of a baby and morally wrong, but surely there has to be areas of consensus and commonality?

I really don’t think we can carry on as we are, it’s 2012, it’s time to finally sort this mess out, and getting everyone together in a room seems a good place to start. If the Irish peace process can manage to get Gerry Adams and David Trimble around the table, then there’s hope for all of us.

Which brings me to something that I’ve always wanted to do. One of those poll jobbies. Over to you. What do you think? Maybe the first thing we can organise is that long overdue rally?

Moratorium

I was speaking with my spiritual adviser earlier as a result of which I will be having a short blogging moratorium.

There are a few reasons for this, firstly I have three essays due in on the 10th January, secondly I am beginning to hit the exhaustion phase of early pregnancy whereby every muscle aches and yearns for rest and I’m downing the lucozade tablets for much needed energy and to keep going. Looking after 3 young children on my own in the week means I don’t have time to sleep, combine that with University work and I’m shattered.

One very unpleasant commentator suggested I am a dreadful mother who neglects her children, given the blog, but I tend to do my blogging when they are in bed, plus, I am an extraordinarily fast typist. Rest assured my children do not lack their mother’s attention.

I am also involved in another short-term personal project, that I cannot divulge, but which is proving spiritually draining, however it already seems to be bearing much fruit and a worthwhile use of my time.

I don’t therefore have the emotional energy to continue taking the constant attacks from others, both my husband and my advisor noted that I can’t be fighting on all fronts and I need to concentrate on my current short-term goals and suggested that the work I am currently doing needs to be prioritised.

I received a number of emails of support following my last two posts, from Catholic supporters with influence beyond the blogosphere, from past and present pro-life parliamentarians, newspaper columnists and heads of various organisations. All of them praised my “courage”, but to me there seemed nothing intrinsically brave about tapping out my opinion. My husband warned that I might have a hard time, but I was taken aback by some of the vociferous comments, a few of which were unnerving in nature. Having been exhorted to “take down your post and walk away, your friends aren’t helping”, then told “there will be repercussions”, I had rather an unsettled night. I subsequently woke up to a comment implying that I was peddling “a sack full of lies, half-truths, outright deceit and spin concerning Catholic teaching”.

All of this rather proves my point about a culture of fear. It seems to be acceptable for John Smeaton to blog his outrageous opinions and pronouncements upon others but not for others to respond. A few of my supporters asked me not to publically name them, a wish that I will respect, because as they said, they need to be above reproach and not enmesh their organisations in a personal feud. To get involved they said, would be in exactly the same error as John; it would conflate their views with that of their organisation, whereas I have more freedom, blogging purely as a private individual.

This is the joy of the blogosphere’s lack of regulation, it is a great equaliser and means people can be called to account. Let me be clear, if any Catholic blogger had decided to deride myself or my colleagues, I would have been equally hurt, I may have challenged in the comments box, but would probably have left it. The reason why I have taken issue is because John Smeaton’s blog is in his official capacity as SPUC Director, there is no comment facility and it is taken authoritatively. As some of my commenters have noted, he has sometimes not represented the full picture or has jumped to false conclusions on issues, alienating many in the process and sowing dissent amongst natural allies.

This is why i believe the hierarchy aren’t as keen on blogs as we bloggers. We are not all in full possession of the facts, I was not party to the discussions or expert advice presented to the Bishops in terms of the Liverpool Care Pathway and Connexions so I have to trust their judgement. Though there is room to ask whether or not certain things are wise, what is unfair is to allege that the Bishops’ Conference is intent on pro-life dissent. If any individual Bishop was in pro-life dissent, then they’d be out on their ear. As some of my commentators note, we cannot comment on the sensationalist stories we see reported, not being party to all the facts and nor can we present this as evidence of anything and then turn our fury upon others, without looking very foolish.

What is in danger of happening at the moment is the blogosphere is in danger of turning in on itself and becoming an ugly spectacle which I do not want to be a part of. It is doing nothing for the Kingdom or Catholicism as a whole. It is why so many are so wary about the Internet as a medium. There is a danger of treating blogs or things we read on the net as truth and being unnecessarily scandalised. As a private individual I can only ever speak for myself and not, unlike others, in an official capacity which would lend misleading authority.

My advisor reminded me to remember humility, you may know you are right, but you don’t have to jump up and down to prove it, think of the patient monk who waits 7-10 years silently carrying on, before he is shown to have been right all along.

My husband says “the problem is Caroline is that you write very reasonable, rational posts and expect everyone else to behave the same way. We know human nature is flawed and sinful and not everyone will respond as you would wish and be convinced, so you have to accept there’s a lot of unpleasantness out there.” As he says, the irony about all of this, is that I am an orthodox faithful practicing Catholic, one who is happy to sign up to the Catechism in its entirety, therefore the animosity is unfounded. One only needs to look at some of the abuse I’ve taken for blogging on the key issues, to realise that.

The bloggers hold onto the fact that they are able to hold others to account and swiftly disseminate information. This is all I have done. Democracy demands that we are able to freely and openly discuss concerns without fear of “repercussions”. Apparently SPUC is a Limited Company. I can understand that it may not be able to be a charity because it might not be able to adequately meet the Charities Commission test of “public benefit”. To see the accounts a Companies House search of SPUC Pro-life Limited needs to be made. Of course being a Limited Company, raises questions like who are the shareholders, are the profits reinvested and is a dividend paid? I haven’t the energy to investigate further, but I would like to know more before I donate money or encourage others to.

Whatever SPUC’s alleged successes in the EU or UN, there is still no significant UK progress. Their projects may well be worth Catholic support, but why do they claim to be more worthy of support than others, especially when their leader is preoccupied with attacking Catholic leaders and upsetting prolific and influential supporters(it goes without saying I do not include myself in that)? Why should a Catholic support an organisation whose leader seems to sow dissent and who inspires a response that has made me fearful? If SPUC feel that the Catholic hierarchy are ignoring their concerns and are not as pro-life as they should be, then they need to look at the bigger picture. Why is there a lack of a coherent pro-life movement in this country, unable to hold anyone in check? Why are SPUC marginalised? Who do they have to blame?

As I said, I am going to post one more entry and then have a short moratorium whilst I concentrate on essay work and other things, but I don’t regret opening this up for debate.

Amongst all the to and fro, Tyler, came up with the following comment as a wonderful New Year’s Day gift. This is what makes blogging worthwhile, in a beautiful twist of fate, in delicious irony, it is an interlocutor or “troll” who has motivated me to continue. The Lord does move in mysterious ways.

I’m not going to lie. I came here to troll all over your site, as I had held you in a fair bit of contempt, after being directed here through an angry friend’s link. However, I was unprepared for the unusual and surprising quality of your reasoning and logic, which was far from the usual, “the face in the sky commands us to do A, B, and C, while prohibiting E, F, and G” sort of religious blog. Therefore, I apologize, and after thinking carefully about it, I also apologize for the trolling I would have done, had your blog been less impressive, as what I was going to do was rather ridiculous anyway since,to put it mildly, and to insult you would have been rather immature, regardless of what I found here.

In addition to this, I feel I must point out that I obviously do not agree with all that is written here. As I am not a Strong Catholic, this is unsurprising, but I am not so naive as to fail to realize that not all Catholics are drones, mirroring and reflecting the same precise beliefs, and I realize that your reasoning is constructed in a way that is open to debate (if one has suitable facts and satisfactory mental facilities to engage in a reasonable disagreement in the comments section), which is a significant factor in the quality of your posts, as you have clear substance in what you write. Thus, while our principles are not necessarily on par with each other, I believe the respect in your blogging rises above that, and presents itself as valid and important opinion, despite what my own beliefs are.

So, I hope you keep writing. Perhaps I do not hope that people will take what you say as the absolute truth but, perhaps, I hope that people will consider and weigh in on what you write. Because, honestly, the best argument is constructed with knowledge on something you don’t like, and your blog, at the absolute least, is an exemplary argument for anyone, religious or not.