Thursday, 26 July 2012

What about actually looking after kids?

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian have each published prominent articles on child care in the last 2 days.

Starting with the Herald, it blurted out the headline “Childcare fine for babies”. Hooray, Hooray, Hooray for us all!  A mother was interviewed and happily confided in that she no longer needed to feel “guilty” (hooray etc).

Now what caused all this commotion?  A couple of studies.  These found that a kid kept in a childcare since being a baby didn’t show any real difference in behaviour to a kid introduced into childcare as a toddler.  The moral – don’t feel bad about putting babies in childcare. 

Of course, the story didn’t consider any of the following:

·        How is this information relevant to whether a child deserves to be cared for by its parents from birth?

·        Assuming that all toddlers are the same after being in the prison yard for a few months, how does this justify putting them there in the first place?

·        Are the child’s wishes relevant?

All nonsense.

Next the Australian. This story was a bit more realistic and serious.   

It turns out that kids whose parents split, and are required to live half their lives with each parent (called “shared care” in the biz), don’t find that any too secure (thank goodness someone worked this one out).  According to the study, what gives security is a child feeling that the child’s and the parents’ lives are integrated.  The report emphasised that parents need to understand that concepts like ‘equality of time’ (so as to create a perceived fairness between the parents) do not translate to the child’s world. 

Isn’t there another debate going around where we hear adults crying about ‘equality’. It’s a pity that a national paper cannot write a similar story about that situation.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Mercy and children

This is not an upbeat post, but that is often the nature of mercy.

Western countries still have procedures for 'pauper's burials'. These take place where the deceased either has no survivors or where the survivors do not have the means to bury the departed.

The processes are all much the same - the dead are gathered at a mortuary and once a sufficient number are 'collated', they are buried (or in Australia usually cermated) together in mass graves. In New South Wales, the number to a grave is 6, but in other countries it can be many, many more. There is no funeral service and the grave is left entirely unmarked.   

In New York, pauper's burials take place at Hart Island, known as the 'Potter's field'.  Over 850,000 people are buried there, with about 1,500 being added each year, even to this day.  To save on expenses, prisoners from a nearby island-jail conduct the burials and maintain the island. 

Cruelly, many of the dead are children, either born (and died) in poverty or found dead after being abandoned.  A cross erected on the island brings the situation into relief. Simply reading the inscription on the monument leads one automatically to prayer.   This is about as an anonymous end to a life on earth as could be imagined.

Upon learning of all of this, I began to understand that there is something merciful in burying the dead, a traditional corporal work of mercy.

Of course one of the most tragic of all cases of destitute burial (as it is known in Australia) is where the body of an abandoned newborn baby is discovered. When this occurs in the city where I live, it often makes the news, and in the end there is sufficient public feeling for a proper funeral service and burial to be mercifully arranged. But that is not always the case.

In South Australia there is presently legislation being considered to create what is often known as a 'baby safe-haven' scheme. The idea is that mothers who either abandon their newborn babies, or worse kill them, often do so in very confused psychological circumstances. (These circumstances are such that infanticide can act as a partial defence to undiluted murder in New South Wales.)  The purpose of the scheme is to allow distressed mothers a place where they can anonymously leave the baby which will then be adopted out.  The child, sadly, is unlikely to ever learn who its mother is, but it will be alive and not joining those in the pauper's grave.

This is one part of the world in which we live so easily forgotten, if ever learnt of in the first place. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Attachment parenting – attachment marrying

Attachment parenting is becoming quite popular, if only as a parenting buzz word. It earned a recent Time magazine cover and a corresponding SMH story attracted hundreds of comments.

A recent article in The Catholic Herald published by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia contained a fresh perspective on atachment. 

It is written by Elizabeth Foss, a homeschooler and Charlotte Mason devotee. Elizabeth, as an undergraduate at the university of Virginia was taught by Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist known for her work with respect to emotional attachment between parents and their children.

The article begins with a disturbing statistic - most divorces occur when the kids are old enough to leave home. The parents are left behind to find, adopting the words of Pink Floyd, that "we have grown older and we have grown colder and nothing is very much fun anymore".  Elizabeth anecdotally recalls a vividly seared memory of the collapse of a seeming successful marriage in such circumstances. Marriages ending this way mirror the slow collapse of a star:

“[Such] marriages die the slow death of emotional distance over time."

She further comments on one contributing cause of this

"Marriages fail because spouses are not attached to one another. Marriages fail because couples reach out to one another and find no one there.”

Elizabeth the suggests that ‘attachment theory’ should be capable of being extended to marriage, because couples like children need to know that someone is there for them:

“They need to know that when the winds blow, they can find safe harbor in each other’s arms. They need to know that God has brought them together to be ministers to one another and that He won’t abandon them in their earnest seeking to shelter each other’s souls.”

I commented in an earlier post about Monsignor David Bohr’s excellent book ‘The Diocesan Priest’. One chapter of the book discusses the indelible mark left upon the priest’s soul upon the conferring of Holy Orders. ‘Indelible’ such a powerful word, reminiscent of baptism, and no doubt an awesome and fearful experience for a young priest. Elizabeth develops a similar idea in relation to the sacrament of marriage (which of course binds for life), which creates a bond between the souls of the wedded, and which can be enhanced by attachment:

“We [Catholics] believe that the sacrament of matrimony confers grace. We also believe that it forges a bond between husband and wife. With this bond, a moral change occurs in our very souls. We are called to cling to one another. To attach. Sacramental marriage is attachment at its healthy best.”
She then finishes by reminding the reader of the importance of the attachment between parents. I remember reading parenting books emphasising the importance of the child seeing that their mother’s and father’s first love (after God) is between themselves. Elizabeth puts an attachment spin on this idea:

“We often think of the attachment between mother and child as the deepest human attachment. Perhaps we should reconsider. In marriage, God calls a man and a woman to a deep and permanent union where they can cooperate with Him to bring new life into the world. They are called to grow ever closer to one another and to God as they live sacrament day to day in their homes, secure in the knowledge that marriage itself is a channel of divine grace. They create an enduring domestic Church, a haven of secure love, and together they are a testament of faith to the world.”

Elizabeth Foss has a strong internet presence and lots of valuable resources for attachment parenting and homeschooling at


Friday, 13 July 2012

The Church in China

I’m reading a (somewhat surprisingly) interesting book at the moment, The Diocesan Priest by Mons David Bohr – only about $7 on Kindle.

Some nice themes come through in the book. One of the first is the way that in the very early days of the Church, its members were enveloped in it. These men and women were the ones who had to (just simply had to) spread the Church. While the rank and file were theologically led by Apostles and their successors, given the (lack of) size of the Church and the newness of its mission in the world, it was up to all the members to spread its word. An analogy can be made with my cricket team (or indeed Dachshund breeders). There is a core group of about 10 of us. People come and go from time to time, and if we want to keep the team going, we have to do something about it. There is no one else. It is our team - our flame to maintain.

The next theme (which is still being developed – I am not finished the book) occurs as time passed and circumstances changed. The Church ceased being ‘grassroots’ and had to become more institutionalised as it grew in size, acceptance and territory. Public and specifically defined roles began to develop. Church activities came to take place in more specifically defined and public places. With this growth, there was a greater emphasis on the role of the clergy as being the persistent public face of the Church, and church buildings came to be the public place of the church. I take that it slowly became possible (not necessary) for the laity, in public church matters, to sit back. The consecrated religious became the public mission-pushers. (Of course, in private, it is always the married laity who raise the next generation, and hence supply the next candidates for the public mission, and hence are central to that mission.)

It seems trite that the Church today in much of the world is still in this institutionalised stage. Moreover, modern Australian society easily facilitates (almost forces) lifestyle compartmentalism so that instutional involvements can be isolated and need not mix with other public activities. For instance, in the workplace there is usually no real need for anyone to know what religious belief you hold. It is not even clear how someone would know your creed simply from your external signs (religious artefacts aside). This is a shame and a challenge and not a great reflection on Sydney circa 2012.

Considering the above, it is particularly refreshing to read of a modern day place where the Church’s institutionalised structure is not strictly established and where being a Catholic is likely to be noticed, so that if you wanted to (or had to) you would probably need to go to some effort to keep it hidden (or underground). The place I have in mind is China, in particular Shanghai.

The Diocese of Shanghai recently ordained a new auxiliary bishop - Bishop Ma Daqin. As far as I understand the news stories,  as a priest Bishop Ma was associated with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association . That Association is government controlled and in tension with the Holy See. Upon his ordination as a bishop, he announced to his congregation that he was now leaving the Association to concentrate on his new responsiblity. The Bishop’s move is essentially an act of defiance. He has not been seen since, and is thought to have been detained. Now that’s not compartmentalised living.

It is also worth reflecting on the building in which this announcement took place – St Ignatius Cathedral. Built by Jesuits in the early 1900s, it was seized by the Communists in the 1960s, suffered extensive vandalism including the tearing down of its spires, smashing its windows and then turned it into a grain warehouse. In the late 1970s it reopened. The first Mass in the vernacular was celebrated in 1989, and the cathedral is still undergoing repairs.

Isn’t this a different perspective on being a Catholic in society.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Nuns, orthodoxy and the media

More about nuns and media
Apologies if this rambles a bit, but I would like to start collecting some of these ideas.

Past posts on this site have been critical of unorthodoxy in religious life, including with some nuns. They will probably continue to be so – but it should also be considered that dissent from orthodox positions is not always harmful, certainly need not be so, and can sometimes be of benefit to the orthodox position.

American nuns
I recently watched some interviews with Sister Joan Chittister, an American Benedictine. She is a regular (secular and religious) media interviewee, very intelligent and well spoken. She also conveys a natural sense of compassion and mercy in the way that she interviews, which I find sort of makes you want to agree with her. 

Also, and like anyone who notices the religious media, and of course the secular media when religious issues boil over the divide, I am aware of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ dissent against the Church’s criticism of aspects of their views following an apostolic visitation and doctrinal assessment. This has lead to a nun-driven US bus tour (‘Nuns on the bus’ - only in America, which also protested some Republican proposed budget measures) and a secular media flare-up following the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s censure of Sr Margaret Farley’s book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

Sr Margaret Farley is also reported as being a particularly genuine and reflective person, which I imagine is true.

Nonetheless, these women raise issues that do not fall squarely within Church doctrine. What I would like to examine here is how this matter is approached publically. That is, what are the circumstances in which you and I come to hear about it, as we most likely do not know any of the protagonists first hand.

Firstly, there is the way in which such issues are presented in the secular media. Secondly, there is the way in which the Church itself, without recourse to the secular media, approaches views of members in dissent. The first of these – the secular media approach – only seems to have the capacity to distort reality and divide. The second, which probably cannot be successfully presented in the secular media, can be of benefit to all Church members for different reasons.

Media issues
Needless to say, the issues raised by the Church and the nuns have found themselves in the secular media. Why is that? I think it is because it allows presentation of a dispute which is attractive to subscribers to that media. The general approach, so it seems to me, is for the doctrinal issues raised by the Church to be portrayed as a cruel and calculating bishop-driven, out-of-touch-Vatican stomping upon innocent, lovable nuns (Get Religion has many posts on this, see also Russel Reno’s recent post on First Things ). This style of reportign was probably best exemplified with the press coverage of Sr Farley’s book

It should be trite to observe that such coverage seems to benefit nobody. I suspect that it must also offer the ‘darlings’ of the story the temptation of power – they are media currency and can have their views expressed in the public (for a time) seemingly at will. An Australian exemplar of this occured a few years ago with (the now former) Fr Peter Kennedy – the parish priest of St Mary’s in South Brisbane who lost the plot (including placing Buddhist statues in his Church), and became an ABC favourite for a few weeks, only to now be forgotten. In respect of the recent US nuns issue see here for example, ).

And now for the good in all of this
I do not agree with Sr Joan’s positions on most matters, and nor with Sr Farley (not that I am a scholar of either of their views in any depth). However, I regard their positions to be of value for two reasons.

The first is that these women seem to me to present their views in a respectful and non-confrontational manner. They also appreciate that their views on some issues are not those of the Church. That they can present their views shows that the Catholic Church is a broad church in which people can express different views which can be discussed. This does not change the Church teaching, but it shows that the problem to disagreement is not simply to silence or expel people, or for people to think that have no recourse but to break away (as it feel is more of a pressure point in the Anglican Church).

It reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem A Minor Bird:
I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

A chance for spring cleaning
The second point is that serious consideration (not acceptance) of such positions should be taken seriously as a means to reaching a deeper orthodox theology and understanding of the Church. Quoting from Michael Novak’s recent book No One Sees God (considering confronting atheism), arguments that try and cut across your own position can often be beneficial.

“[They] awaken [you] from complacency, force [you] to confront new arguments and to think more deeply about older ones. It tempers the hubris, self-satisfaction, and unreasoning enthusiasm too often visible among people of faith. It pops balloons of airy assumptions and facile answers. It hoists complacent believers on the petard of their carelessness self-contradictions. It invites the minds of believers to become firmer, sharper and tougher."
In other words, carefully considering the arguments of those opposed to you, you gain the chance to strengthen your own position by dealing with your opponent’s view of the matter, which you may not have realised to that point in time.

An abortion example
I think one current example of this, but from the other side of the spectrum, is Peter Singer’s position on abortion.

As I understand Singer’s argument, he differs from most (at least from my experience) pro-abortion people. Singer does not assert that an unborn child is not deserving of legal protection on the basis that it is not a living being. He accepts that it is, and
regards arguments otherwise as resorting
“to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive.”

I take it that such an argument is unorthodox to pro-abortionists. If it was put by a pro-lifer, it would be a heretical pronouncement, since (as I imagine it) for the pro-abortionist if the unborn are living, then much of their argument is undermined. But if considered as an argument by Singer (someone in their camp), it can be considered as something with which they seriously need to contend. It needs to be weighed up. (Hopefully, it would be accepted, but that this would lead to a pro-life position on the basis that they could not then accept Singer’s next proposition that morally some life does not warrant protection.)

So too it can be with the positions of the Sisters. Their arguments should give us occasion to sharpen our own positions by reflecting on their own.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Creeping insidiousness

Recently at work a colleague noticed me playing with a small string of coloured beads and asked about them. "My daughter made these.  It's a rosary ring."  No response besides a quiet 'oh' and a smile.

Why nothing more? In my office I have a few (non-religious) pictures by my daughter.  When first hung, these drew comments and conversation - how cute etc. But why silence when a religious artifact is presented?  I think there may be two reasons.  The first is that many people do not really know how to comment on religion when presented in the public square.  If you and a colleague walk past, say two Mormons, what is said between you?  It is something to be kept at home, in church grounds or maybe as a car sticker. 

Secondly, and I suspect that this probably applies more to the university educated believers in nothing (besides Westfield and evening television) - religious expression in a child is a cause for concern (as championed lately by Dawkins spouting indoctrination etc).  Over the next few weeks I may run a few workplace experiments in this respect to test my theory.

If the above is true, and there is a cringe factor in some circles about things like religious displays children etc, my suspicion for its cause falls on (not solely) media saturation of a particular point of view until you are berated into accepting it.  This morning I came across an instance.

A Federal member of parliament was commenting on marriage laws. He supports gay marriage but does not think it has the numbers to successfully pass as a new law.  He suggested (and note that this was the second story from the top all morning on Australia's public broadcaster) that the Federal government (of which he is not a member - he's in the opposition) try and pass a law about 'civil unions' for gays. He thinks that this law has some prospect of passing, and that it can serve as a needed step to acceptance of gay marriage - ie he suggests an incremental approach. 

Anyhow, and this is the insidious bit, the news story (like so, so many on this topic) was focused through a gay rights group's disgust with the proposal, along these lines:

Newsreader (in his most important voice): "A prominent gay rights group has slammed Malcolm Turnbull's suggestion that ..."

The point, of course, is that if this story is fed to you as a 'rights issue' in the sense of this being an unfair thing to say (because it was not 100% in support of gay marriage), and so to is every other story, and such stories are common, and such stories receive top billing in news, then how can it be long before it becomes very hard to resist this line of thought?  And more so for believers in nothing (besides Westfields).

I am  now wondering if the 'faint praise' or silent response to the rosary ring was an instance of a society manufactured response about religion. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The brand new Venerable

Fulton Sheen is now venerable: the Venerable Fulton Sheen.

No Catholic writer or speaker has had more influence on me than Fulty. 13 or so years ago, and with no real knowledge of Fulton Sheen, I purchased a cassette with two sermons from one of his 'open retreats' - 'Continuing Calvary' and 'Zealous Fools for Christ's Sake'. I must have listened to them at least 30 times. Fulton's words still haunt my thoughts.

Fulton Sheen had many, many themes, one of which was the way in which religious people should present themselves to the world. This had two aspects, the external and the internal, and both were important.

Externally, Fulton compared religious to ambassadors - they should have a certain pride in whom they speak for and represent, and this should be outwardly reflected. They should not (as he put it) 'denude' the collar or habit. They should be easily identifiable as standing for Christ and his Church. But this was not all - there was a danger in the love of the 'garb' alone, a false air about it (probably akin to the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ - always looking so proper but being so hollow). This was where the internal came in.

Fulton always pushed the internal: his daily holy hour; his insistence on having the tabernacle present so that you genuflect before Christ - "you're going to meet him as judge some day" he'd quip. There could not be one without the other.

It is this combination of an external Catholic presence tempered by an internal Catholic presence that I hope will now be revealed in spiritual biographies of Fulton. He has not become Venerable by being famous, but by living a life of heroic virtue, and it is discovering this that we can now look forward to. In particular, given his fame, we can hopefully come to see how the 'clay' that was Fulton kept it all in perspective. How, as he put it, he “kept his eyes on Christ”.

Now to finish - two final matters. The photo below is dear. It represents two great Catholic moments of the 20th Century touching - one era ending and a new one beginning. Blessed Pope John Paul II, fit and energetic, embracing a weakened and aged Venerable Fulton Sheen in St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. This was taken only months into JPII's papacy and months before Fulton's death. It is a baton change in the Catholic relay race.

Finally, the video below is the touching story of one of the miracles attributed to Fulton's intercession. It is pleasing to see a miracle openly discussed, and the way the evets are told gives an insight into the normality (albeit within a medical emergency) within which the miracle occurred - the request for intercession as a normal part of life.

Good on you Venerable Fulton and pray for us.