ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
Grr. In the last couple of days the complete lack of maternity leave in the USA has come up a few times in conversations with American friends. And today one American friend said she has to go back to work on Monday. She gave birth just before the New Year. The leave she was given wasn't even mandated by the state, but instead was given by her employer. They could have given her nothing.

For comparison, in the UK by law women are entitled to 39 weeks of paid maternity leave - 6 weeks at 90% of full salary, and the rest at the statutory minimum of c.£130/week. (Many employers choose to give more generously.) Furthermore, women are entitled to unpaid leave, bringing their time off to a full year, with their job security guaranteed. Paternity leave is two weeks, which isn't a great deal but is better than many countries which offer none at all. Of course, compared to other parts of Europe the UK doesn't have particularly generous maternity leave provision.

One reason I get particularly appalled by the US's lack of maternity provision is the gross hypocrisy in a political community that is predominantly "pro-life". Unfortunately, in political discourse pro-life has come to be entirely concerned with abortion rights.

I would describe myself as pro-life. My views on abortion are given here - this entry is 2008 and I would adjust a few things now, but it is more or less reflective of my current views. I'll just quote a short bit that sums up my personal view about abortion:
In any biological definition, conception marks the beginning of a human existence. What people really argue about when they talk about life beginning is where meaningful life begins. B ... [A]lthough I philosophically place the value of each human soul as equal to another, I know that emotionally I would react differently to the loss of a child before it had recognisable human form to a still birth or to an infant death. But I also think that just because a human being is not yet in a state that it can live outside the womb, or because it does not yet resemble a human being, stops it being fully human in the most absolute sense - beyond questions of what the body or mind is or is not - and full of the grace that God has given it. Once a human being exists, it has the right to continue its existence, because each person’s life is only their own and God’s, regardless of their physical capacity, intellectual ability, moral worth or anything else.


I also note that despite this view on abortion, I would not mandate to ban abortion, as the human misery that results from abortion being illegal is too high a cost. And the reasons for abortion are extremely complex, and I do not feel as if I have the right to tell a woman that she should bear a pregnancy that is the result of rape, for example. So although my feeling about the act itself - termination - is one of moral revulsion, my feeling about the reasons for abortion are a lot more complex. And in a political community, one cannot govern by moral absolutes, any more than it is really possible to function as a humane member of a society and judge everyone by an absolute scale, either.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. My position on the right to life extends far beyond the issue of abortion. To be pro-life, as far as I'm concerned, is this:
Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. ... Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."

That's from the catechism of the Catholic Church, and it neatly encapsulates a whole range of important things. The right for human beings to live with dignity. Society as a whole's responsibility to protect and promote human rights. Our responsibility as individuals to work toward treating all human beings, without exception, with the same respect, regardless of what they have done.

This for me means, amongst many other things, that:

We treat our prisoners with respect - which does not mean we do not punish them, but that our punishments are proportionate to the crime, that they have a moral function based on justice rather than revenge, that where possible we seek to rehabilitate. That we do not under any circumstances allow the death penalty, that offers blood rather than justice.

That if we cannot avoid the possibility of war, that our conduct in war is just, and is merciful wherever possible, that we do not violate the dignity of the body and mind by performing torture.

That we protect the dignity of the most vulnerable in our society: the disabled, the very young, the old. That we treat our vulnerable members with compassion but also with respect: that we value them as individuals, not as problems, that we recognise that no physical or mental disability, no matter how profound, makes any person less perfectly human.

That we protect the family, by allowing parents to properly care for their children through provision of adequate parental leave and through economic and social assistance for families with complex problems. That we recognise that "family" is a broader concept than the nuclear family of 2.4 children for a husband and wife.

That rather than legislating against abortion, which seems to do little good, we turn to dealing withthe complex socio-economic circumstances that make unwanted pregnancy more common, for instance: that through education of our children we address head-on the problem of rape culture and of sexually dysfunctional behaviour, including issues of consent and "soft" coercion; that we develop foster care and adoption legislation so that children have better opportunities to be placed with loving families, and that we constantly review this legislation to ensure the needs of birth families, adoptive families and the children themselves are met; that we offer support to disadvantaged and struggling families.

That we protect human adults' rights to love and be loved by other consenting adults, including full equality of marital opportunity for adults of any sex over the age of eighteen.

There are lots more things, of course, but those are the things I mean when I talk about being pro-life. If being pro-life means you want to ban abortions and at the same time you sneer at poor people needing economic relief and say they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or you judge young girls who get pregnant out of wedlock and instead of offering them resources and assistance sneer at them for choosing what may seem like the only financially and emotionally viable option open to them, abortion, or you judge families for having more children than they can afford to raise, or you support businesses in not offering leave to mothers after the birth of their children: then as far as I am concerned, you have no respect for human dignity, and your right to the label pro-life is forfeit. And I don't blame pro-choice people a bit for thinking you are selfish and misogynistic, either. If, meanwhile, you want to ban abortions but you will work to promote human dignity in ways I have outlined, then while I'm not convinced that you are necessarily doing the best thing for society, because I still think illegal abortion poses a great threat, I will applaud you and support your moral standpoint.
ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
NOTE: THIS POST STARTS OUT AS A RANT ABOUT PERIODS THEN TURNS INTO SOME KIND OF CATHOLIC THING. JUST GO WITH IT. I posted this on my livejournal yesterday and it got a surprising number of comments, so let's stick it on Dreamwidth too.

I wish people would talk honestly and openly about menstruation. I don't mean in a "let's be positive about our bodies!" kind of way, or even in a "let's cut the blue-liquid tampon ad crap", but in the sense of actually talking about what the experience of menstruation is really like. Not just cramps, or menstrual disorders, but the whole everyday physicality of it, all the different things it does to your body. Girls get SO little education on what to expect.

There's such a taboo about talking about menstruation. Mostly it's about the blood, but it's not just that. Even people who are all cheerleadery about being open about the fact that yes, every few weeks we do tend to leak blood, shy away from talking about what else menstruation does. I mean, when you start your periods, unless you have a well-informed and willing-to-talk parent, how do you know that increased progesterone levels speed up peristalsis, so you might have to empty your bowels more often? Or that cramping doesn't just necessarily feature in the pelvic region but may radiate down the legs, the arms? That you might throw up because of your changing hormone levels? That the blood on day 1 may be completely different to on day 3 and day 5? That it smells different as well as looks different? No one really talks that much about the whole - shitting, pissing, pukingly physical side of periods. Things that aren't neatly enclosed by a floral-wrapped tampon and a handy box of Feminax. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. At the same time, you don't have to be all hearts-and-flowers about your period, using your blood to make (usually rather dreadful and terribly earnest) menstrual art. You can be grossed out and annoyed by your period, that's cool. I'm not saying let's all talk all the time about all the physical processes - I don't want to hear the ins and outs of people's bowel movements as a general rule, so why should that change now? But I do think it'd be healthy if there was more general awareness of how many things in one's life, physical and mental, menstruation affects.

with this in mind it seems hypocritical to cut, but someone might complain about BLOOD )

I was pretty annoyed, but it struck me this evening - as I rinsed out my knickers, good times - that really, I'm a lot better off than I used to be, given how painful my periods were in the past. I'm not really sure why in the last two or three years they've mellowed out a bit - it might just be age - but after 17 years of having periods I am glad for any slack I may get. This doesn't mean my periods aren't painful, far from it. I still take my prescription drugs, and my cramps are way too strong for a couple of regular ibuprofen to handle. But the agonising pain is rare nowadays, so I'm glad of that.

And I also thought, watching blood rinse away, how human I feel when I have my period, and that that's not altogether a bad thing. I've never been one of those women who get all IN TOUCH WITH MY INNER GODDESS over my period, and I shy away from the idea that menstruation = femininity, because there are, of course, many women who don't menstruate (and some men who do). Having a period doesn't put me in touch somehow with a mystical feminising power. But! I started thinking about - wait for it, kids - Jesus, and how maybe I can find spiritual connection through the processes of menstruation.

Back in the later middle ages, the body of Christ became a focus of particular devotion. People became fascinated by the physicality of Christ, and artists started focusing on his body - Christ as an infant, depicted with sweet folds of fat, with clearly delineated genitalia, sucking on his mother's breast; Christ as a crucified man, forehead and arms and side and feet bleeding. At this time there were a great many religious women who felt passionately connected to Christ's body. And there does seem, in some of these mystical writings, to be a connection between menstruation and Christ's wounds, a sense that the physical processes of medieval womanhood could be understood and in a way almost shared by Christ, who suffered in his body so terribly. Christ-as-Mother is not an outlandish concept to medieval mystics, and while Christ is never a woman, there can seem something liminal about his body. Perfectly human, Christ embodies lived experience, and medieval women, used to being criticised for being too much of the body anyway, seemed to find something very liberating in being able to both express their love for him through their bodies and believe that he shared in their bodily experiences. (There's a whole lot I could say about the sexiness of medieval spirituality, and how a sexualised element to mystical experience is quite common, but I'll save that for another time, if anyone's interested...)

Anyway, thinking of all this made me wonder about ways I can try to appreciate the processes of my body better as an act of faith. I'm not going to suddenly get all holy about menstruating, reverently wrapping up used sanitary towels and saying an Our Father over them before putting them in the bin (jaysis wept!), but I think this might be a useful thing for me to think about. Suffering is such a terrible mystery, and I've been back to thinking about it as a philosophical problem since reading The Sparrow. I know I'm never going to have an answer about it. But I wonder if thinking about the Crucifixion a bit more may help.
ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
I haven't written anything about the Pope's visit to the UK because mostly the press coverage and people's reactions have been giving me a headache. But here is a quick tuppence worth after reading the BBC's Have Your Say, which posed the question "what does the Pope's visit mean to you?" Most people replied "nothing". Of course, there was also a lot of invective about Catholicism in general, but the thing that struck me was just lots of people saying: "I don't care about this, why is it happening?"

So, let me just try to say why for me, as a British Catholic, it is important that this visit is happening, and why I feel sad I'm not on British soil today.

(Just to get this out of the way: I've blogged on this before, but to reiterate as it's bound to come up. I am, in the strongest possible terms, horrified by the paedophilia scandal, extremely disappointed in the Church's response to it, and understand completely why for a lot of people this casts a pall over the Church generally. I do think it's worth noting that the way the media has reported on this is probably not that helpful to future victims of child abuse, because it presents priests who sexually abuse children as "other" - men made abnormal by their religious vows and beliefs, and a lot of correlation has been drawn between vows of celibacy and sexual abuse. Actually, the men most likely to sexually abuse children are fathers and stepfathers, many of whom will be in a sexual relationship with adult women. This isn't to diminish the significance of what has happened, but it's time we started thinking about what social structures contribute to allowing sexual abuses to take place, rather than smugly acting as if they only happen within institutions we don't really like anyway.)

Right. As the BBC website says:

"The trip is the first to the UK by a Pontiff since John Paul II in 1982. It is also the first to be designated a state visit because the Pope has been invited by the Queen rather than the church."

This is about history. For many modern British people, the immediate response to what I'm about to say is "so what? All this stuff you're talking about happened years - even centuries - ago." But it's funny how long things are ingrained into the national psyche. I wonder how many people who have in the last weeks casually used the words "papist" and "popery" on Twitter, message boards and so on understand what historic prejudices they are drawing on. Let me be clear: I respect your right to dislike the Catholic Church. Objecting to hate language is NOT attempting to silence you. Here is a selection of tweets that use the word "papist" just within the last few hours on Twitter.



I still can't believe that it's 2010, and my city is preparing to welcome the world's premier Papist to it's environs.

pope + rapist = papist

pope + rapist = papist. The beauty of these simple confluences (and) elisions makes my life in the arse lane endurable.

I'm anti-papist I must admit. Mind you, I'm against most organised religions that have been forced by politics upon the masses.

Predictive text win: just tried to type Papist but my phone suggested rapist. Bloody clever phone this.


You can read just a little bit here about the historic use of the word "papist".

It was not until 1829 that civil rights for Catholics in Britain were (mostly) restored. The Catholic Relief Act, for instance, allowed Catholics to take office. There was vehement opposition to the Act both on a national scale and also in government, a lot of which was the result of anti-Irish prejudice. The resulting Act was a compromise, as it effectively disenfranchised the Irish peasantry (in Ireland prior to the Act, any man owning property worth 40 shillings or more had the vote; the qualification was raised to £10).

In 1850, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England was officially restored, meaning, essentially, that Catholics once again had dioceses - and bishops. Prior to this, for two centuries English Catholics were overseen by Vicars Apostolic. The first Vicar Apostolic landed in secret in England in 1623. I'm just going to quote this bit from Wikipedia since it says it neatly enough: "The years from 1688 to the early nineteenth century were in some respects the nadir for Catholicism in England. Deprived of their dioceses, four Apostolic Vicariates were set up throughout England until the re-establishment of the diocesan episcopacy in 1850. Although the persecution was not violent as in the past, Catholic numbers, influence and visibility in English society reached their lowest ebb. Their civil rights were severely curtailed: their right to own property or inherit land was greatly limited, they were burdened with special taxes, they could not send their children abroad for Catholic education, they could not vote, and priests were liable to imprisonment." So the changes in the 19th century were welcomed enthusiastically by the Catholic population, and there was a significant Catholic revival from the late nineteeth century onward.

Still, the spectre of anticatholicism in Britain looms large. Those of us with Irish blood (which is quite a lot of British Catholics) will be particularly aware of this. There's not really room here (and I don't have time!) to really discuss sectarian violence in Ireland and how the popular trend at the moment to say "it's about politics, not faith" is a way of obscuring the complex web of prejudices (on all sides!) in Northern Ireland. But for those of you who think that anticatholicism is a relic of the past, please do consider 1972's Bloody Sunday, and wonder why it is that it took nearly 40 years for the British government to acknowledge that it murdered its citizens for the crime of being Irish Catholic men who wanted the same civil rights as their Protestant neighbours. They were shot as they crawled to safety. It could easily have been my uncles, my cousins.

I know that the Irish situation is more complex than "just" religion. I know. But I also know that for me, and for many other British Catholics, with history hard at our back, to have an official state visit by the leader of our Church - whatever one thinks of him, and trust me, many British Catholics are angry with him, but our many and varied discussions on the state of the Church today do not get covered by the mainstream media - after centuries of repression of our faith right into the late 20th century, it's a big deal. It's a really big deal. I hope that you can understand that.
ashwednesday: medieval tapestry (Tapestry desire)
Today a dear friend of mine announced her engagement. I am very happy for her and her intended! Also, she is one of my few Catholic friends, which means I can get a God-mention into my congratulations without it seeming creepy. Thinking on her marriage made me turn to The Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful books of the Old Testament.

Hark! my lover–here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!
“O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”
My lover belongs to me and I to him.
He says to me:
“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.”


This is one of the suggested readings for a Catholic wedding. People often misunderstand the Church's teaching on sexual love. (I'm not interested today in debating the Church's position on homosexual relationships; anyone who knows me knows how I feel about this, and I'd rather this not be sidetracked.) No less auspicious and, one would assume, conservative group than the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has this to offer about the appropriateness of this passage:

It is a love poem describing two young lovers discovering the beauty of their created bodies, and their desire to share it in love and mutual fidelity. Parts of the book express erotic love. The gift of sexuality is affirmed and portrayed without apology. There is radical equality with both lovers desiring to share in it with equal intensity. Love is seen as a communion of souls.


(Love as radical, sexuality as unashamed. Take that, naysayers!)

I am particularly taken with this translation of the text - stern as death is love. Often that "stern" is rendered "strong", which gives this text a more romantic and straightforwardly optimistic reading. Love conquers all. Here, however, the "stern" renders love into something more complex. Love is serious; love is as severe as death, as transformative. It is a shock to the body. It transfigures. It can be implacable. In these ways it is similar to death. But that "as" also sets it up as a contrast, a counterpoint. Death is a conqueror, but so is love. Love is fierce. Death takes us all, but love wins. Love does conquer all. That does not mean that love overcomes all obstacles; it means that the ability to love, that emotion which makes us as close to the divine as we can as mortals get, means we do not have to be debased by them. We do not have to be conquered. There are so many things in our world that kill us or disfigure us - in our hearts and souls as well as bodies - but our capacity to love is, I think, a reminder that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. That may not seem like much consolation in a barren time; the greatest truths are often bald, and the comfort they offer is of a severe sort. Love is stern. Love is a gift that is difficult to use.

It is a great and terrible challenge to decide to love one person as your spouse for the rest of your life. It is only one form of love, but in many ways it is one of the most difficult. It is a choice that must be made again and again. Anyone who believes in Happily Ever Afters is misguided; happiness does not just happen, but is made through our choices, day by day. But this, I think, is a good thing. For fairytales have an ending written into that happily-ever-after. And so I wish my friend not a happily ever after, but a great start on a transformative adventure called We.

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