Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Opus Domi

Catholic Herald, 12/5/06

Today I am waiting in for the dishwasher man. Six weeks of living without a functioning dishwasher have been salutary. Apart from the fact that our electricity usage took a nice little dive, it was interesting to discover that our children, despite annual no-frills holidays, still do not know how to wash up. Nor do they see any reason why they should wash up as long as their parents seem able and willing to do it for them.

“We teach our children almost nothing beyond cleaning their teeth,” fulminated the kitchen guru Prue Leith in the Financial Times at the weekend. “We cherish the freedom to live in a mannerless tip…yet schoolchildren are so overprotected out of the home that they many not go on a swing unless it has a cushioned floor beneath it.”

Ouch. It was with a chastened heart that I went along to the first Excellence in the Home conference at a grand Kensington hotel, where Mrs Leith was booked to expand the theme of her wonderful Financial Times article.

This is the kind of thing I normally dread. It should have made me feel inadequate and scruffy. A sea of well-groomed catering and education and corporate professionals in suits and pearls (though fewer pearls on the men) greeted the inspirational speakers: Ms Leith herself; a brilliant keynote speech on the balance between body and soul, from Tom Hibbs, a Texan professor of ethics; even a “chefs forum” on what professional chefs get up to at home.

And here’s the funny thing – I didn’t feel inadequate and scruffy at all. Well, I felt a little scruffy – maybe my favourite birdwatching anorak isn’t quite Royal Garden Hotel style. But otherwise I felt energised and inspired. On the bus home, I found myself devising a five-day crash course in self-maintenance and home skills with which to keep the sixteen-year-old busy when he’s finished his GCSEs. I now feel utterly determined to get my children learning to cook, to shop wisely, to keep their home and selves clean and comfortable because I’d been made to realise that home skills matter. Yes! The skills I’ve wasted so many years trying to cram into as little time as possible before doing “real” work really, really matter.

Excellence in the Home, which looks like becoming an ongoing series of events, is taking the Jamie Oliver phenomenon a step further; it is the sort of event which the Women’s Institute ought to be organising, but doesn’t. Also it has a genuine international dimension – there were delegates from all continents, even New Zealand.

So who organised it? None other than the Dawliffe Hall Educational Foundation, which has an excellent background in organising inspirational speaker meetings and conferences of a smaller scale, but has never done anything quite as big as this before. DHEF organises the kind of events which you drag yourself to thinking, “Why on earth do I want to spend a day listening to speakers talking about parenting?” and afterwards skip home crying “Hallelujah! There are other parents having the same problems as me – and we can solve them!” Which of course, you knew all along but didn’t quite believe.

Now, as some readers will know, the DHEF is – how do we express this? – inspired by Opus Dei. It would be inaccurate to say it is “run by” Opus Dei. But I do not think DHEF will quibble if I say that it is part of the Opus Dei family. Its energetic leading lights are all Opus Dei stalwarts.

This fact was not mentioned in any of the Excellence in the Home literature. Even the guest speakers, I discovered in conversation with one of them, had not been informed of it.

Meanwhile the film of the world’s worst-written and most obnoxious thriller, The Da Vinci Code, is opening all over the country. A whole generation of gullible people will believe from this month forwards that (a) Jesus married Mary Magdalene and (b) Opus Dei is staffed by murderous monks.

Well, I looked very hard round the Excellence in the Home conference and I swear I did not see one murderous monk, albino or no; yet at a time when their reputation needs all the help it can get, Opus Dei seem strangely, pointlessly even, reluctant to allow their connection with an entirely laudable initiative such as Excellence in the Home to be known.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why get married?

When the Commission for Social Justice, the highly praiseworthy organisation set up by the Catholic MP Iain Duncan Smith as soon as he had been released from the shackles of being the leader of the Conservative Party, announced last week that according to its researches, “family breakdown” was a big problem, it was quite hard not to think, “Mmm, yes, we had noticed, actually.”

But to do the CSJ’s Family Breakdown Group justice, they made a much more forceful point than most politicians have been prepared to do for many years.

Thanks to the twin political monsters of fear of discrimination (on the Left) and a fervent belief in libertarianism (on the Right) politicians of all colours have had a habit of regarding the break-up of relationships as a personal matter in which the Government has no business making judgements.

The worst thing you can do is to “stigmatise” someone (interesting religious analogy, that) – especially a poor single mother. Following on from that it has been standard practice, in issues of public policy, to lump together all single parents as being equally vulnerable and deserving of special pity: from the vulnerable teenage mum whose baby gives her the total love she has never known from anyone else, all the way to the face-lifted trophy wife suing her husband for £5 million after kicking him out to make room for her personal trainer.

And following on from that, the problem of couples not sticking together tends to be regarded as just one of those things in society that we have to get used to.

No, says the CSJ. We do NOT have to get used to it. Even more, we have to stop it happening. “Public policy goals, such as the elimination of child poverty and improvement in educational standards, are being undermined by what has happened to the two-parent family.”

So instead of treating the fact of family breakdown as an unfortunate side-show and child poverty as the main event, a Government should regard family breakdown as the main problem to be tackled. This is a refreshing departure from the sticking-plaster attitude of most public policy on social issues; let’s hope that the Tories and other parties take notice of it.

The CSJ makes the important observation, that divorce is no longer what splits families – because there are fewer people getting married in the first place.

Couples who never marry are five times more likely to split up than married couples, and couples rarely stay unmarried and together for over ten years – they generally either split up, or decide that after ten years they finally know each other to take the great leap of marriage.

I have the impression that a great deal of Church energy has been directed over the years at the issue of divorce and remarriage as regards the gravity of the sacrament. But I wonder if this long debate has been at the expense of getting another, more urgent message across: the reasons why couples should get married in the first place.

Once upon a time it was too obvious to mention. But time has worn away the obvious reasons so that they are not immediately apparent to children, or even to people in their twenties and thirties.

There is an entire industry besieging young people with advice on marriage; books, magazines, websites, entire consultation services of every possible type. But nobody ever seems to bother to spell out to them why they should get married. Nearly all “relationships advice” has to tiptoe round the fact that marriage is better for everyone – men, women and – especially - children.

Much damage has been done by our accursed addiction to embarrassment: The term “partner” has more or less replaced “spouse” not for reasons of accuracy, but because we are afraid to assume a couple are married when they are not.

It is a mystery to me why we don’t work a little harder to explain to the wider public why marriage works. Standing up in public announcing an intention to stick together is still the best method ever devised of cementing a couple. The Church’s answer to the glib “why should we get married?” should always be – “But why not?”