Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Home Front, Catholic Herald 1 July 2005

As the teenagers in my life get older, it occurs to me that society is extraordinarily prejudiced against provisional licence holders. Why on earth should they have to drive with a full licence holder sitting next to them, for example? How uncool is that?
And what pernickety old fuddy-duddy laid down the arbitrary rule which insists that the qualified driver accompanying the provisional licence holder must be 21 or over? Isn’t this condemning a person, against their will, to actually-like-y’know talk to some sad crumbly, innit?
As for car insurance! The unfair animus against drivers who happen, through absolutely no fault of their own, to have only turned 17 last week, continues to be a major human rights atrocity on the otherwise well-adjusted landscape of loss adjustment.
This glaring prejudice can continue through a person‘s whole life. I mean, just because a person hasn’t got round to passing their driving test by the time they are 45 doesn’t mean they are necessarily a bad driver, does it? They might just be too busy to book a test. Those crypto-fascist dictators in Swansea, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, are just ripe for a swift dose of statue-toppling if you ask me.
And why not? The Government is now planning to change the law substantially to wipe out any “disadvantages” which remain for couples who live together without being married. The disadvantages include not being able to inherit a share of the partner’s pension, not having full parental rights, no claim to financial support; these are all considered to be out of line with “society’s attitudes”. Society says: why discriminate against a couple just because they never like, y’know, found a free Saturday afternoon to get married?
It is usual to blame the feminist movement for the attacks on marriage; I now read of one of the movement’s leading lights in America having a massive change of heart. Stephanie Coontz, as the founder of the Council on Contemporary families, has spent years trying to push the traditional family out to the side of the picture. But in her latest book, the scholarly Marriage: A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Ms Coontz looks at the past 3,000 years and concludes that marriage is the most powerful way of “building a village” - in other words, of creating a society where people work for each other as much as for themselves.
There may be other ways, she argues, to organise child-rearing, care for the elderly and passing on property: but marriage “is the only way to get in-laws”. The creating of new ties of kinship, she points out, is something marriage does which other social rule systems do not do.
I do not know of a dedicated, longitudinal study of modern Western cohabiting couples which looks at whether they entail strong bonds with networks of in-laws; but the fact that Ms Coontz, who has spent years enthusiastically promoting non-traditional families, now, in 2005, declares that the creation of such bonds is a special virtue of marriage, seems fairly strong evidence to start from.
And, surprisingly for an American feminist, Ms Coontz gives the Catholic Church a little pat on the back for transforming marriage from a materialistic joining-together of property into something more personal. The Church’s doctrine of consent supported the idea of a voluntary bond between two people, not just between two families. And though the consent of young folk was often seen as an expendable luxury at the top of the social scale, by the 15th century the idea of marriage as monogamous and voluntary on both sides was firmly established.
Thanks to the evolution of the ideal of marriage, however, the marriage debate now tends to be so focussed on the couple, that we forget that network of in-laws stretching out into the distance. As Coontz avers, marriage is not a personal pastime: it builds the fabric of our survival.
We do not allow provisional driving licence holders the same privileges as fully qualified drivers, because we can see that lives are at stake. I wonder how long it is going to take for us to re-discover the fact that marriage, too, is an important safeguard for other road users?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Home Front: Catholic Herald 23 June 2005

In one issue of The Independent this week, several pages were devoted to the looming “fertility time bomb” poised to hit the United Kingdom. In ten years one couple in three could be needing fertility treatment to enable them to have the family they believe themselves entitled to have.
The main causes of the collapse of women’s fertility are obesity, chlamydia (a sexually transmitted disease you do not know you have had, until it is too late) and pressures on women to delay having babies until later in life.
Now the wonderful thing about these three causes is that they can all be dealt with, and we all know in our hearts how to deal with them. Obesity is solved, mirabile dictu, by eating less and walking more. Chlamydia would drop if women just slept with fewer men before settling down with the man of their choice. The late-baby issue is a tougher one: but the French are offering tax breaks to younger women if they stop work to start a family, and apparently the policy is working.
All these solutions are staring us all in the face. Our bodies are clearly telling us that constant self-indulgence, whether with food, casual sex or the decision to choose a smarter car over getting pregnant, exacts a cruel price.
I had always understood that modern medicine favours treating causes, rather than merely the symptoms, of disease. Yet all the scientific community can think of is dishing out fertility treatment - which is treating the symptom, not the cause.
In the same edition of the newspaper another report described how brain scans have shown that women don’t fully enjoy sex unless they feel “protected and safe” with their partner. Isn’t that kind of situation another name for marriage?
The women and men who edit The Independent are dinosaurs. They live in a 1970s Peter Sellers farce where sex is only fun if freely available and adulterous. I assume this, because in the same edition of the same newspaper it had been decided to publish an article “explaining” why “alpha males” - a fine example, by the way, of the questionable pop-psychology habit of applying a zoology term to human society - feel compelled to commit adultery: it‘s because they are so successful, you see. Few males, from alpha to omega, reading this article would have missed the subtext: “if you are unfaithful, it proves you are successful”.
And despite all the evidence on pages 1, 2 and 17 showing that promiscuity is neither wise nor worthwhile, the very same paper carries a column by a pert young pundette called “Sleeping Around”.
They just don’t get it, do they?
My heart was in my mouth when the new, turbo-charged Dr Who series ended last Saturday, and not merely because it meant saying goodbye to the piercing, smouldering blue eyes and endearing sticky-out ears of the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston.
No, what was worrying me was that I had urged Catholic Herald readers to watch the series, only to discover - too late - that the final episode would include, of all the un-Dr Who-ish things, a gay kiss.
As things turned out, the gay kiss was dispatched snappily and could have easily been mistaken for something merely a bit Mediterranean. But in the final denouement, the Doctor’s old enemies, the Daleks, suffered what the series’ writer in chief Russell T Davies clearly considers the ultimate degradation - in other words, they had got religion. And what a confused theological soup it was.
“Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” squealed the homicidal pepper-pots, before ordering the Doctor to worship their God, a 20 foot pepper-pot. This was bad. After a lot of very complicated plot and emotion, it turned out that not the pepper-pot, but the Tardis was God, or at least the source of a heavenly glow which made everything come right in the end. This, apparently, was OK.
I don’t mind Russell T Davies, who is a proud atheist, having a go at those who misuse religion or worship false gods - but I think I draw the line at being asked to worship a souped-up 1960s police telephone box. Let's applaud Davies heartily for putting the concept of family entertainment back on TV...but could someone please send him round some G. K. Chesterton?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On Mother Kelly's Doorstep: Catholic Herald 16 June 2005

About half of working mums with young children would rather be at home caring for their own children. About a quarter of the younger teenage boys who come back to an empty home after school every day say they would really prefer a parent to be there to give them a hug and a biscuit, and to nag them to get down to their homework. Both these figures were revealed in recent surveys.
The Government’s response? To make it easier for parents to look after their own children at home, by, for example, allowing them to transfer their personal tax allowance to their working partner?
Nope. Instead, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, announces the 10 hour a day, year round school - the “wraparound” school, providing affordable (cheap) child care for children up to 14 from 8 am to 6pm.
With all its good intentions, the wraparound school looks like a final judgement on the parents of Britain: you’ve failed. Your children are feral, fat, and don’t know what a leek is. Hand them over to the Government: leave them, as the old song says, on Mother Kelly’s doorstep.
On paper it looks exciting: children will be given a wholesome breakfast in the morning and later on kept happy and active with “painting, DVDs, board games, snooker, table tennis”. After a snack, the homework club gets going, with “football, basketball, computing, art, drama, chess, cookery” laid on until 6pm.
If you believe this will be the programme in all schools, think again. Who exactly will be staffing these after school clubs? Will a crowded inner city primary school be able to offer the same pleasant facilities as a country comprehensive? Will there be any help for larger families?
In schools where the average parent cannot afford £5 an hour for the top quality trained play leader, you can forget about the board games, the basketball and the chess, for a start. Many carers, I confidently predict, will do exactly what tired, uninspired parents do - plonk the kids in front of the TV.
How will it feel for the bullied, teased or just mildly unpopular child, after being tormented by Gavin in Year 5 all day, to have to endure his taunts right through until 6pm? For the young girl with period pains who needs to be curled up with a hot water bottle at home? How will larky lads in the summer react to being stuck in a hot city playground when they could be at the local pool or in the park, cooling off?
Enough moaning. Wraparound schooling is not ideal. But as a church, we can make it work for the good of our children by grasping the opportunities it represents.
Ms Kelly has indicated that schools should consult parents. Catholic schools in particular have a duty to involve not just parents, but also local parishes in deciding how to set up after school care. I hope Catholic parents won’t wait to be asked, but will step right up and make their wishes known.
As long as parents and parishes are allowed to influence individual school programmes, after school clubs could become a new location for catechism and faith building, for bringing generations closer together, for encouraging skills and invention.
Why not request that the after school session includes ten minutes of quiet prayer time, perhaps with some peaceful, devotional music playing? Why not offer to come in once a week to say the Rosary? Why not offer first communion and confirmation classes as part of the programme?
Will older, retired members of the local congregation be encouraged to offer themselves as after school carers? Many schools already use retired people as classroom helpers, doing useful and kind things such as listening to younger children reading. An after school club would be an ideal place for a retired person to offer their services passing onto children the skills that they have. Come and teach the kids to scramble an egg, to knit, to sew on a button. And while you do so, tell them about your own childhood, help them to see that you were once like them…and reminisce about the days when children were allowed to go home and watch whatever TV channel they wanted.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Does religion make people cruel to children?

From the Catholic Herald 9 June 2005
Home Front

Why are people cruel to children?

In the case of the three East London adults found guilty last week of horrific cruelty to a little girl in their care, the reason was, on the surface, simple: they believed the child was possessed by evil spirits. The press seems to think that must be an end of it: they are driven to acts of unspeakable cruelty by their religion, and religion makes people do weird things, doesn’t it?

Yet this does not explain how the abusers had reasoned that starving, beating and torturing a child would affect the evil spirits supposedly living within her; or how they could fail to see that on the contrary, their own monstrous actions were driving them deeper and deeper into a pit of evil from which they could not hope to climb.

Nor does it explain why the media persistently describe the organisations which promote such actions as “churches” and casually link them with evangelical Christianity.

We have been here before, and will be here again. Which of us has not shuddered in the past 15 years at revelations of the abuse and cruelty to children by adults entrusted with their care - entrusted by the Catholic Church itself? And how often have we seen it glibly assumed that it is the religious nature of organisations such as the Christian Brothers which made their members behave abominably?

Not a single recorded word uttered by Christ could conceivably be used to justify any cruelty to children. What motivates cruelty to children, in my view, is something inherent in adult behaviour which Christianity is, in fact, ideally placed to defeat.

It is the inability to think outside oneself; the strange inhibition when it comes to recognising and understanding the feelings of others who are different from oneself. A child is so unlike an adult: smaller, weaker physically, therefore unable to fight back; also different mentally, emotionally.

A child is the perfect victim for the type of person whose warped inner self craves the justification that violence promises. An adult who is systematically abusing children may convince himself or herself that there are good reasons, whether “discipline”, demonic possession or the state of the child‘s immortal soul. But whatever the excuse, the inability to see the child as an equal, valid human being remains the same.

Another child cruelty story hit the headlines last week: the murky tale of a five year old allegedly “hanged from a tree” by a gang of older kids. For a few days the tabloids screamed in horror at the idea of these evil children. Then it emerged that it wasn’t at all clear what had really happened, and the story disappeared behind legal restrictions as quickly as it had appeared.

But it left an indelible impression of a public eager to demonise children, a public hungry for the satisfaction of pointing at a child and saying, look, there is the Devil incarnate!

Are the people who devour stories of evil children really so very different, in their imaginations, from the Hackney trio who convinced themselves that their little eight year old niece was a witch and must be drowned? Are the people who believe that the killers of Jamie Bulger should “rot in hell” and so on and so forth so very different in their inability to see the child as an equal human being from those who believed that constant beating was good for a child’s immortal soul?


We are relieved to discover that we should stop nagging the 15 year old to get up and go to bed early at weekends. An American study has shown that puberty affects the body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it difficult to go to sleep early. On the other hand, teenagers need 10 hours sleep a day and accumulate “sleep debt” which they NEED to “pay off” by sleeping until lunchtime at weekends.

Well, I have always been glad of the Catholic tradition of flexible Mass times. But I had never dreamed that Saturday vigil and Sunday evening Masses would turn out to be the key to the faith of the next generation.

Sunday, June 05, 2005