Monday, 30 September 2013

In co-operating with evil, where is the line between reality and paranoia?

Yesterday, my brother Andy* and his girlfriend sat down and filled out a mortgage application. Every so often I was asked my opinion about what I thought certain questions were getting at. I did my best to answer them but mostly, given my total ignorance of mortgages, credit cards and money in general, I pointed them in the direction of more reliable answers. I found myself wondering whether I should refuse outright, be rather more non-comittal or launch into a lecture on how co-habitation is not in God's Plan for them, despite the fact that my big-sisterly-omniscience apparently doesn't extend to morals. Andy and Gertrude** plan never to marry (G wouldn't mind if A insisted, I am told, but A is against it) or have children (A would secretly like to but G is vehemently against) and wish to buy a house together so that they can live happily ever after. My other brother, Chris, married Adele*** earlier this year, and prior to this they had been cohabiting for two years in the house they bought together. Now, when Chris told me the two of them were moving in together I expressed my concern and talked about it with him. He was unreceptive, but there was no animosity. Chris and Andy are extremely different in their openness to different ideas, and Chris at least has some basic appreciation for Christian morals. It was worth a try. With Andy there would be no point.

This issue of what counts as co-operation has been on my mind for some time, and I have a tentative plan to follow up my post on healthcare professionals and the law with one on conscience. Here's the deal: Pharmacists have a conscience clause in our Code of Ethics. We can refuse to do something if it is against our moral or religious beliefs. However we must "make sure that if your religious or moral beliefs prevent you from providing a service, you tell the relevant people or authorities and refer patients and the public to other providers". In general, among pharmacists, it is agreed that a conscience clause is a good idea because healthcare professionals constantly have to make difficult decisions about what the best course of action may be. However, the fact that we have to refer the patient to another provider rather makes a nonsense of it: I won't give you the morning after pill but my colleague here/over the road will.
I often have conversations with people about how we should handle these ethical dilemmas. For practical purposes I think it is virtually impossible for a Catholic pharmacist to work in community pharmacy (ie a shop) because although 'Emergency Hormonal Contraception' is not an essential service under the NHS community pharmacy contract, it is locally commissioned by PCTs and unless you have the luxury of owning your own pharmacy its unlikely that you would be in a position to say that the pharmacy won't have anything to do with it, and in any case you would still have to tell the person where to access said service. In hospital pharmacy it is a bit easier to pick and choose what field you work in. Most hospitals do not supply contraceptives to in-patients (for obvious reasons), but if a patient is usually takes hormonal contraceptives, you still need to clinically check that prescription. So then what? Is clinically checking when you aren't going to supply a problem? Even if you work in geriatric medicine there is still the dispensary slot, the on-call time when you can't hand over to a colleague. Leaving scripts to one side for other pharmacists to handle is practically a hanging offence. One friend and I were shocked to hear that a consultant simply passes over the ethically problematic patients. For us, that is not how it works. Some people would say they wouldn't dispense Viagra, in case the person was not married, or having an affair, or other immoral behaviour...but surely there comes a point when you have to give someone the benefit of the doubt. What if the person is married and erectile dysfunction is placing a huge strain on their relationship? How far can we go down this line of thought: should we even be working in the NHS?
What should we be doing as Catholic pharmacists or other healthcare professionals? Where should we go and work? I don't think the answer is for us to seek out fields of healthcare without ethical dilemmas, because that would also limit our opportunity to transform all of the temporal order which is in contrast to the Gospel (always supposing such fields exist). And I think we definitely need Catholic healthcare professionals. Must we just accept that our career options will be limited, our colleagues will mistrust or despise us and that we end up doing an unfulfilling job because we need to provide for a family?
Answers on postcard, please.
*Not his real name; if I use a psuedonym myself I'm hardly going to reveal his identity.
**Obviously not her real name, but follows a pleasing pattern known only to myself.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Exciting happenings in Manchester this week

The first ordinations at the Manchester Oratory will take place on Wednesday at 5:30pm, with two men being ordained to the diaconate.

And the now annual Marian Procession through Rusholme and Fallowfield starts at 10.30am on Saturday 5th October. There have been about 1,000 people present at each of the last 2 years. Check out their video to find out more and if you live anywhere in the North West then go along and participate.

Please pray for all those involved in these two events (and for good weather on Saturday!).

Friday, 20 September 2013

Trivial problems with having 3 parents

One group of scientists have raised concerns that the three-parent IVF technique may lead to problems with fertility, learning and behaviour, the BBC reports. Other scientists say that the effects of a mismatch between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA must be trvial because otherwise we'd have noticed already. Aside from the fact that biologically we have two parents, and therefore I can't see why we would already have noticed, and the ethical minefiel (OK, so it's not a minefield because there isn't a way through, it's just a bomb shaped like a field) the political problems of having 3 parents should not be ignored.
My parents are divorced, my father is remarried. A lot of people are in this position. I get on fairly well with my dad's wife these days, but I rarely refer to her even as my stepmother, although she has referred to herself as a parent in relation to me. My poor sister-in-law has two women who consider themselves to be her mother-in-law (fortunately she is a keen cook and my brother is keen on eating so there is no danger of accusations of underfeeding). Between 6 step-siblings, we only have 4 names, which is a bit confusing at times. Birthdays, Christmas, funerals and now weddings require hours of discussion and planning dedicated to the 3 parent issue. These problems are time consuming, upsetting, complicated but esentially trivial: they do not touch on our identity. At least we are clear on who exactly our parents are, who we are and where we come from. To those who still struggle with these questions, and to those who are and will in the future be born as a result of 3 parent IVF and other bizarre human interventions, I offer the answer a friend of mine discovered as a teenager (very complicated remarriage situation): first and foremost, we are God's children.

A trip to the egg bank

On Tuesday the Mirror reported that an egg donor bank had opened in London; it has been operating on a trial basis since the beginning of the year. In my health news email digest, it stated that women would be able to choose characteristics of the baby, such as eye colour. (It has got a little more difficult to review these stories since the newspapers realised that people were accessing their articles free online and that they were clearly missing out and should start charging.)
Choosing eye colour might seem harmless enough, and I understand that a woman might well want a baby to bear some slight resemblence to her, but we have already seen the tragic consequences of sex-selection of babies, and allowing and encouraging any sort of picking and choosing definitely sets us on the path to designer babies. Having children is not a right, it is a privilege. Babies are not convenient: they do not sleep or smile or eat when we want them to, they are hungry and tired when we don't want them to be. They are people, and like all people they are creatures. We are created. We are fragile. We are dependent. There are some things that we don't get to choose because we are not in charge.
This was as far as I got when I actually went and read the Mirror's article. I was struck by the fact that the director talked about the 'needs' of people 'needing' donor eggs. Need is not the right word - children are a privilege, not a necessity. It would be more accurate to talk about desire and want. I also took note of the 53 year-old woman who said that she'd always wanted to have children but had never met the right person. There is in that statement a clear understanding that the 'right person' is a necessary part of the process of having children. There is no mention that she has now met that person, but she's decided to have a child anyway. In the same way that we have separated sexuality and procreation (see Humanae vitae and if you haven't read it, then read it) we have also separated the concepts of children and family. Sometimes there are ways of doing things which are just different. Other times there are right ways and wrong ways, and being created and finite we also don't get to choose what is right and what is wrong. We can choose whether to do right or wrong, between good and bad and frankly that is a complete misuse of the precious gift of our freedom. Right use of our freedom is using it to choose between good and better, not between good and bad.
It was at this point that I discovered the Telegraph's article on the same subject and realised how incredibly naive I am. It may be couched in terms of altruism, but this is not some benvolent institution, set up because of tragic needs which we cannot ignore (like, say, a food bank). The donors (something of a misnomer) will receive £750 for providing eggs. How long before we see young women funding their way thorough university by selling their eggs? And the profit margin is presumably quite high, as treatment (purchase of eggs) costs £10,000.
Whilst I have thrown words like right and wrong around, and asserted that children are a privilege and not a right, I do empathise with older women. And I do not wish to generalise or assume that it is only single women who seek IVF in later life, I know women who did not meet and marry their husbands until they were in their 50s and 60s and therefore never had children. My great uncle's second wife told me cheerfully that she had no regrets over not having met her husband sooner as he, a widower, had been married to someone else. There are also couples who are sadly, persistently infertile. Women are called to be mothers, whether biologically or spiritually, and the inability to answer that call for whatever reason must bring heartache. But we also need to remember that our actions always have consequences. The consequences of delaying children by prolonged, repeated use of contraceptives in order to advance a career, go on holiday more often and generally 'enjoy life' might be infertility. We are not in charge and we cannot have it all.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

From bad to worse: politically correcting the hymbook

I have been promising myself this little rant project for some time and so this morning I borrowed a hymn book from (I did ask) and now I am sitting down to enjoy an objective moan (OK, maybe I will allow some subjective whining to creep in) about what they have done with the hymns. Our parish rejoices in Liturgical Hymns Old and New, the sequel to Hymns Old and New with Supplement which continued the trilogy begun with Hymns Old and New. The title is blatantly a rip off of the classic Hymns Ancient and Modern with monosyllables in order to make it easier for the people to understand. You see, I am getting annoyed already. Apparently (I quote from the foreword) 'the significant adjective "Liturgical"' is to do with 'the people...reclaiming the parts of the mass and the celebration of the sacraments that belong to them by wanting - as they should - to sing them'. Wow, I'm really starting to regret reading that page. Anyway, what I am about to say could probably be equally applied to most of the hymnbooks in current circulation. I should add at this point that Bruvver Eccles is doing sterling work on the subject of bad hymns, and today's rant is more about the updating of both bad and good.
The first section is Music for the Mass. This is now all completely out of date because we have a new, improved translation, although this isn't quite true as they do get credit for including the Missa de Angelis, Mass XVIII and Credo 3. However, they lose points for grouping together all the Kyries, all the Glorias etc which does lead to random picking and choosing of mass parts resulting in a lack of musical cohesion. Further points must be subtracted for including Agnus Deis with made up verses. What is it with making up words to the Agnus Dei? I know better than the Church and I don't think they've really got it covered with the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world?
This wasn't quite how I saw this post going. The next section is Hymns and Songs. I don't know if I know what the difference is, and I'm not sure they do either because there isn't a helpful little heading next to each composition saying which it is. Out of curiosity I've just looked these words up on (I have got an OED on the shelf but it's heavy) and apparently a song is 'a short metrical composition intended or adapted for singing, especially one in rhymed stanzas' and a hymn is 'a song or ode in praise or honour of God' which begs the question what are 'songs' doing in a book with the word 'liturgical' in the title?
What I was really going to look at was the way in which a lot of the hymns have been adapted, presumably to make them more 'inclusive', especially for people who can't pronounce their 'th's yet, for women, and because we are all one people and God can't show favoritism by conferring grace or blessings on any one individual over any other. There are problems with this, many of which can be illustrated using the updated version of My God loves me. This was not a great hymn to start with. It is never a good idea to set hymns to popular tunes (see the Hey Jude Kyrie). Maybe I am doing the editors a disservice. Perhaps their efforts on this hymn are to discourage the singing thereof. In this case, changing the first line to Our God loves us was a stroke of genius, making it tricky to locate if you rely on the alphabetical order of the hymnbook (although the inclusion of both options in the index makes me question their motives). Basically what they have done is replace all the singular pronouns with plural pronouns, hence my God becomes our God and he loves us not me. And here are the problems:
  1. Musically speaking, 'us' is not a great word to have on the end of a line. We can sing my God loves meeeeeeeeeeee with no problem. My God loves uuuuuuuusssssssss is difficult on two counts. The u-as-in-us does not lend itself to long notes, and where to put the s is a challenge even for experienced choirs, who annotate their scores to show where exactly it should be places. Our God does not, in fact, love us, he loves hissing.
  2. In terms of the rhyme we come to grief in verse 2, which once proclaimed that 'though storm-clouds threaten the day, he will set me free' which rhymed with the first half in which 'His gentle hand he stretches over me'. Me rhymes with free. Yr 1 phonics. Free does not rhyme with us. This is almost the only rhyme the writer managed to get right (wine/time and endures/secure featuring in verses 3 and 4 respectively) and it seems a shame to take that away from her.
  3. I admit to grammatical pedantry. It annoys me that while they have made the pronouns plural, they have not adjusted the nouns accordingly. Verse 4, therefore, irritates me profoundly, as it contains the immortal line 'and we will live like his child' whereas if we are going to live like anything, presumably it should be his children. Two many syllables.
Thou, thy, thee and thine are perfectly good words. They are not hard to understand. Except, apparently, in the hymn 'Breathe on me, breath of God' where they have been replaced throughout with you and yours.
I personally (subjectivism may creep in) have no objection to the use of man or men to mean all of us 'ere human beings. I do not feel threatened by the word 'mankind'. We have already seen that replacing a monosyllabic word with one of 2 syllables would upset the meter and so there is this rettible tendency to replace 'men' with 'ones' and so the verses of I'll sing a hymn to Mary now end with '... when wicked men ones blaspheme thee, I'll to love and bless thy name'. 'Ones' sounds completely ridiculous. (It is good to note though, that women are being given their credit for wickedness, blasphemey and other wrongdoing as well as the chance to receive peace, grace and love etc.) This is better than the version in Celebrational Hymnal for Everyone in which the end of this verse has been completed altered to remove all mention of wickedness and blasphemy, changing the words to 'O may I imitate thee and magnify thy name'. The same hymnbook also contains an astonishing song which begins 'Oh the Lord looked down from his house up in the sky and said, "I created man but I can't remember why"' which is, at best, anthropologically unsound and at worst, heretical. It's about Noah's Ark. Maybe I should be grateful that it's not in LH&N.
After Hymns and Songs comes Children's Hymns and Songs. I daren't look through this section. There is a lot about butterflies. Then I was excited to see a bit called Chants. DisappointingL it's mostly Taize. Then come the responsorial psalms. I have to say that at least this section should go some way to discouraging people from substituting random songs based on a psalm for the responsorial psalm.
Since the translation of the mass was improved, there have been a lot of complaints centred around the fact that 'we knew the old words and its too hard to change'. Apparently the same complaint doesn't apply to hymns which are to be changed and updated as much as possible.
Now I've got that off my chest, here's some serious advice for anyone planning to write a hymn or song:

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

In the public interest: Law and the healthcare professional

As I understand it from a quick look at the coverage of the CPS's seemingly (wait for it) bizarre decision not to prosecute doctors involved in sex-selective abortions, apparently this relates to two doctors (abortionists) who were asked to carry out terminations on the grounds of the child's sex, but did not do so and were not planning to do so. Prosecution is deemed to be not in the public interest, and better dealt with by the GMC. My Hunt has apparently referred the case to the attorney general. Leaving aside the matter of whether doctors who have not and do not intend to carry out illegal activities need to be disciplined by their regulating body I have been thinking about law, what it is for, and how healthcare professionals should and do see it.
I may be naive, but I have come to the conclusion that any laws we have should, at root, be in the public interest. Whether they protect or promote the rights of a minority, the majority; or regulate the workings of organisations; or stipulate the responsibilities of groups and individuals, all laws serve the public interest. This is not to say that I think all of our laws are right merely because they are laws, but our elected officials have made these laws on our behalf, and therefore they (the laws) presumably exist because of a belief that they are needed and are in the public interest. Therefore it is no great leap to conclude that those who break laws are not acting in the public interest. And, because of the way that the law operates, those who break laws receive some form of punishment, and perhaps the opportunity for public atonement (damages) or rehabilitation depending on the circumstances. (These consequences are, in theory, also in the public interest.) A quick flick through 1897-1927 of the Catechism reassures me that I'm working along the right lines here.
It would seem, then, that prosecuting those who break laws is in the public interest, by virtue of what law itself is. I removed the word 'always' from that sentence because I can see that spending a large amount of public money prosecuting a child who stole a bag of sweets from a supermarket would not be, and there is such a thing as legitimate protest which often necesitates a certain amount of disruption. Of course, in this case the Abortion Act, which permits abortion, is an unjust law and therefore not binding in conscience as authority has broken down (cf. CCC 1903), but I don't think that this immorality clause applies to the parts of the Act which are morally right (that is, abortion is basically illegal, according to the rule of law). I am not a lawyer or a theologian and if anyone would like to expand upon, clarify, or correct any part of this they should do so and welcome.
As an undergraduate I sat through a lot of lectures on Law relating to Pharmacy. Pharmacists are the 'guardians of medicines' and therefore at undergraduate and registration level we are required to pass exams which require intimate knowledge and understanding of the law (it should be noted that while the university standard is 40% for a pass, for the pharmacy law exams it is higher - I think 70% but I can't actually remember). The Medicines Act 1968 arose following the scandal and tragedy of thalidomide; along with the four other Acts we studied, the majority of this law is about making sure that only the people who need and/or are entitled to possess lethal, or potentially lethal, substances are able to do so. For pharmacists, and by extension for other health professionals, the law is important. And not just the law directly relating to our work: last month a pharmacist was struck off for stealing controlled drugs (codeine, morphine) to feed his own addiction, but a pharmacy technician was also suspended from the register for benefit fraud.
Healthcare professionals make life and death decisions on an hourly basis. Sometimes we pharmacists may not even realise the import of our actions, as we re-write the scrawled prescription, annotate the dose, check the patient's allergy status, cross off the duplicated items and manage the drug interactions (collectively known as 'supporting safe and effective prescribing'), but they really are that serious. We need laws which help us in and underpin those decisions because of the magnitude of those decision and the power we derive from our ability to make them. If laws are, in themselves, in the public interest then flagrant disregard of those laws by the very people who should be serving the public, in their capacity as healthcare professionals, is a grave matter indeed. Given that it is held that such people must respect the rule of law outside their professional field in order to function with integrity within their field, then surely a breach of law which impacts directly on their practice must be prosecuted in the public interest and for the public good.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Dating after discernment: teenage angst revisited after consecrated life

Over at yesimcatholic, the Skinny Walrus has followed up her post on What (Catholic) Women Want with one on What (Catholic) Men Want. The former made me laugh quite a lot, especially the part about seminarians. And I agree with her seminarian friend who said that all Catholic men should go to seminary. For some time I have been of the opinion that at the very least all Catholics should set aside some serious time for discernment and also a good couple of years of solid Catholic formation, intellectual, psychological, physical and spiritual. (I not sure if I know what I mean by physical Catholic formation (Catholic physical formation) but we can't ignore the fact that we do have bodies so there should definitely be something.)
When I was discerning my vocation (the first time) I made friends with another girl who was likewise discerning. She had discerned with various communities on and off for years and told me that in between times she had dated quite a few ex-seminarians. There had been, she informed me, quite a lot of theology and not much romance (in case you're wondering, she's now married). I totally get it. If you have been seriously discerning your vocation, have been in community, have been in the seminary, you are bound to be drawn to others who have had similar experiences and have then discerned for marriage because you have been living the same kind of life, but there is bound to be a lot of theology/spiritual talk because you have a common frame of reference. You are going to have a lot to talk about, you are probably going to understand one another quite well, and very possibly you are going to be a little bit better at talking about what's going on inside because you've spent some time (a) working it out and (b) putting it into words. Having said that, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to be suited to marriage with each other. 
Personally speaking (and given that the whole depression and anxiety thing doesn't really help) I find it much harder (not impossible) to talk about much beyond the superficial with people who don't have those experiences. I'm not just talking about men, I mean everyone. I don't think one has to necessarily marry a Catholic to have a successful marriage (whoever you marry you should think about it carefully beforehand and the posts above do cover this topic fairly comprehensively) but when you are formerly consecrated it can be difficult to even have a conversation with a non-Catholic because you have to spend so much time explaining yourself and your life. My government-issue employment advisor is very happy and excited about the "unique selling point" on my CV (yes, the 3 most important years of my life come down to that: something more likely to get me a job interview). Some people think I went through a phase. My extended family don't talk about it. Other people say 'oh that's nice' and see it like some sort of gap year experience (everyone who has been to university in the last 15 years or so has met someone whose been to India/Bolivia/Thailand and found that it was a very spiritual place, who now sports hippy trousers and likes to eat rice and beans more often than perhaps is good for them).
But even among the Catholics it's hard work. If I say 'I've discerned for marriage' the majority assume I've met someone and walked out of my community and away from my commitments in order to get married/move in with someone (when did I have time for that?!). So now I say 'I discerned that God wasn't calling me to community life'. However, there are quite a lot of reasons I don't think that's a good way to put it. Firstly, God doesn't call us not to be something. He calls us to something. 'Not community life' isn't a vocation, although it might be a step on the path to finding your vocation. The other reason I don't like it is that a frankly astonishing number of Catholics assume that 'not community life' is some kind of code for 'I want to be a priest'. These are good people, practicing Catholics, many of them living comitted Catholic lives...apart from the part where they hope that maybe I'll be the Church's first female bishop because really the Church has got it so wrong and behind the times and the nice lady vicar next door at the C of E is definitely proof that women can and should be priests and so and so forth until I want to shout: STOP! and run away screaming. And you know what, I am not the only person who has had this experience. That is why sometimes it's easier to talk to the other formerly consecrated women I know, because it's a relief to be able to share these strange, slightly frustrating experiences with someone who understands where you're coming from.
So yes, the ex-seminarian is probably a good bet. Although he seems to have a lot more options than the ex-consecrated woman, with all the unmarried Catholic women queuing up. As a fellow 30something, formerly consecrated, female friend was saying the other day, aside from the fact that now is possibly not the time to embark on dating, there seem to be very few men of our age who aren't either married, divorced or carrying vast amounts of emotional baggage. But, as I try to remember (and succeed fairly well a lot of the time) getting married is not the ultimate aim in life. That would be holiness.