Friday, May 22, 2009

Archbishop, media, abuse ...

Can you make up a sentence using these three words? I can think of several.

Yesterday, as we all know, Vincent Nichols was instituted as Archbishop of Westminster. A splendid ceremony, a thoughtful homily (and carefully pointed) and an all-round great occasion.

But later, as I watched the late night news on the BBC News channel I was a little surprised that the installation rated not even a mention. Ah, well, I thought, it's done now. Not much more for the media to say. And then I began to reflect on who was there - Guthrie and Murphy representing Crown and Government - people I'm not sure I'd even heard of before. The Archbishop thanked the BBC for transmitting the ceremony live, I remembered, perhaps that in itself was remarkable ... and after all his homily itself in part at least a plea to civil society to take religion and religious belief seriously. Perhaps this very media-savvy archbishop is stating this as a kind of manifesto ... and I am quite sure we will have a much more visible and eloquent voice for the Catholic Church in this country in future.

But there is a small cloud on the horizon. Though I have heard nothing on the radio news about the Archbishop today, in the blogosphere there is an almighty row stirring. Its about a very serious matter. but it seems to have enveloped not the archbishop, but the two leading commentators on religious matters in England. When the journalists become the story it gets really interesting.

The story runs like this.
1. On ITN news last night, one of very many interviews which Archbishop Vincent gave yesterday was broadcast. The archbishop was asked to comment on the child abuse scandals in Ireland which have been in the news in the past week. He said the following words:

"It's very distressing and very disturbing and my heart goes out today first of all to those people who will find that their stories are now told in public... Secondly, I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they'd rather not look at.

"That takes courage, and also we shouldn't forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did."

Should the abusers be brought to justice? 

"Yes they should, no matter how long ago it happened.

"In this country now we have a very steady and reliable system of co-operation with police and social services who actually now hold us in good regard. They know that we are reliable and trustworthy partners. Those that abused the trust that was placed in them should be brought to public account."

Now I understand the archbishop's statement to say that the perpetrators should be brought to justice and that religious orders and dioceses should be given some credit for confronting the dark deeds of the past which tend to overshadow the good work which most of their members did. However, not everyone - willfully or not - took his comments in this way.

2. The Guardian then ran a piece on their mobile website (but oddly not the main one) outlining negative reactions to the archbishop's comments. These comments clearly take the courage and the good work comment to be referring not to the orders in general, but specifically to the individual abusers. Now, although that may be a possible interpretation of the words on paper, as one who knows Archbishop Vincent well, I am very confident that is not what he meant. I think the context makes that very clear, but if you want to spin his words, well you can always find a way to, I suppose.

3. Now that might have been the end of it, but the baton is then taken up by the Times, and a more interesting twist develops. Firstly an article appears saying that the archbishop is 'engulfed in Catholic abuse row', and then later the story is updated to add an 'attack' on the newly installed Archbishop of Westminster by the Archbishop of Dublin.

4. And now my metaphorical baton becomes a baseball bat (sorry if the image is annoying) as Damian Thompson of the Telegraph slams the Times by saying it 'disgraces itself' by twisting the Archbishop's words.

5. The story then takes a further twist, as Thompson claims (rightly, it transpires) that an earlier, more sympathetic (i.e. accurate) story by the Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill has been altered and twisted by her editors: "this shabby juxtaposition of Irish scandal and Westminster installation was forced on her by what a source inside the Times (not Ruth) tells me is a very anti-Catholic newsdesk". Gledhill then posts a comment on Thompson's blog, admitting that the story was rewritten (though she agreed to the changes) and alleging bullying. Thompson then adds a further comment to his blog, saying "Gimme a break".
And so, while the Archbishop's spokesman issues a brief clarification and the rest of the newsmedia happily return to a cosy world in which religion is a minor and infrequent distraction, two top religious commentators (who usually praise one another's work) have a rather public spat.

6. But that is not the end. It gets worse, for the comments to Damian Thompson's blogpost - in which, remember, he suggested the Times has a very anti-catholic agenda - become infected by anti-semitic posts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion kind, basically alleging that the entire newsmedia is infected by Jews, which is why it is anti-Christian. I find this very unpleasant, and Thompson refutes the claims, but the offensive comments remain on his blog.

And the moral of the story is ...?

Well, I don't think there is a moral, but there are some possible observations. Firstly, the whole incident shows that even careful comments can be manipulated and twisted, and that otherwise well-meaning, good people can provide meaty quotations on the basis of reported comments.
Secondly, it shows how careful those in public life must be when commenting upon such sensitive issues, especially when these are outside their own sphere: the horror of historic child abuse affects us all, but perhaps, just perhaps the otherwise very wise Archbishop Nichols would have been wise not to comment on another archbishop's problem - particularly in the middle of a media storm, and especially as the record of the orders is in trying to conceal information (rather than reveal it) much to the distress of the victims. And thirdly, while I agree with Thompson's interpretation of this particular incident, I am rather appalled that long and detailed unpleasant comments are not removed from his blog. It may well be this is not Thompson's fault but it is rather newspaper policy. It is still nasty.

And finally, for all the hoo-ha, will the profile of religion in a generally apathetic and sometimes hostile media actually rise?

Let's wait and see.

A prophetic image?

This is, of course, Archbishop Vincent Nicholas of Westminster (not - despite what you may read, the 'leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales') walking to Westminster Cathedral for his enthronement yesterday. I'm willing to bet some photographer (not sure where this picture appeared first), deliberately staked out the location for just this image.

Is it likely to be prophetic? Only time will tell.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Care, or just repair?

There is an alarming article in this week's Catholic Herald by Simon Caldwell headed Death by Starvation about the increase in death's in hospitals due to malnutrition. It reminds me of a comment made by Alan Bennett in his diaries Untold Stories when he recounts the descent of his mother into dementia. She was sustained by a strong and healthy appetite (and someone to feed her) which certainly kept her alive for much longer than others in the same nursing home. Caldwell draws the clear conclusion that nutritional care of the elderly is not given the attention it should be, and that while food may be brought to patients, there is no one to ensure that they eat, nor indeed is there anyone to sit with them and feed them.

Caldwell suggests that this is a kind of creeping euthanasia, devaluing the elderly and effectively encouraging them to starve to death. It may be so. After all if the patient were a young victim of a motor accident, and immobilised, someone would certainly ensure that he or she were fed.

However, as one who frequently visits hospitals and nursing homes, as well as seeing people in their own homes, I tend to think that this is less conscious policy than a simple distortion of priorities. Let me explain.

We all know that the technological advances of health care are extra-ordinary, and that treatments are possible now that were inconceivable previously. Surgery can be performed more easily and more effectively. Drug treatments can address conditions that may have been untreatable in the past. Major operations, such as heart bypasses and joint replacements are now routine. Hi-tech equipment is a feature of the modern hospital and other places of treatment.

From our own lives we know the consequences. Hospital stays are very much shorter than they used to be. When I was born in the late 1950s, my mother spent a fortnight in hospital after the birth, and most of that in bed. When I had a hernia operation in 1990 I stayed in for 10 days. But when my father has a heart bypass much more recently, he stayed in hospital just four days. My daughter had a baby a few weeks ago and was discharged only a few hours later.

Much of this is good. If we can be at home, most of us would prefer to be. But there is another side to this. The human body is being treated like another piece of technology in need of repair, and nursing has become focussed on the technical process.

So there is very little actual nursing taking place. Treatment is usually an intensive process to ensure the technical aspects of care are all undertaken. The human contact, the time spent talking to the parient, the befriending and empathising - no it hasn't gone, because the nurses are caring human beings - but it is no longer seen as what is really important. We could blame the 'managers', I suppose, but that is too simple. I think it is a general drift in what is and what is not health care.

And this doesn't just affect the care of the elderly. There have been concerns at the lack of support new mothers are now given after birth, frequently - like my daughter - being sent home within 6 hours of the birth. In Stoke-on-Trent there have been stories of a baby lost after a first-time mother in labour was sent home and the horrendous situation at Stafford hospital.

Of course there are outstanding exceptions. The care shown in hospices is a shining example of what nursing, caring for the whole person is really all about. Chaplaincy teams (when they are not sidelined or devalued by hospital management) also provide care well beyond those of their own religious groups. And those who do the nursing are often, usually, highly motivated and compassionate people. Yet until all involved in managing, planning and carrying out health care realise that the body is far more than just a machine, but is the manifestation of a person, then stories like this will continue to come.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Pay peanuts - get monkeys

If you pay peanuts, as they say, you get monkeys.

It is a cynical view, but one with a lot of truth in it. If you are employed by someone else, then you expect a proper reward. When the situation is not so good, then commitment falls considerably. When you work for someone else, you may take pride in your work, but fundamentally, at the end of the day you can walk away.

On the other hand, if it is your own business, your own idea, your own vision, you are highly motivated. You want it to succeed. You work long hours. You will even work for peanuts. Your commitment is entirely different.

In the Gospel this weekend, Jesus hits on this very point. The hired man runs away when confronted with danger - the good shepherd cares for his sheep. You could say it is the parable of self-employment, or the small business. But it is also the parable of vocation.

Because there are times when in a job our commitment is not like that of the hired man. When we are doing something which gives us a sense of vision and purpose, When we are caring for others, When we are sharing our skills or our knowledge: in all these situations we may work outside hours, for little or no pay, because we are committed to what we do. It is no longer a job given by someone else, but a job owned by us. And it is owned by us because it is an answer to the call of God within in. It fulfils us not so much because we have chosen it, but because it has chosen us.

And this is what Vocation is all about.

A job may be given to us by another human being, but a vocation is given us by God. And the trouble is we follow the devices and desires of our own hearts (some readers may recognise the phrase), rather than listening to God.

This Sunday, Easter Four, what we call Good Shepherd Sunday, is the day when we pray for Vocations to the Priesthood and the Religious Life. We pray that our hearts may be open to the voice of God, and that men and women may respond to God’s call to service. Pray for vocations. Pray for priests. Pray that men and women may hear the voice of God, and respond to it.

This is adapted from my Sunday Homily: more homilies here.