SPUC Youth Conference 2015

Mikey relaxing in anticipation of the brain food he was about to ingest.
It is so wonderful to be a father. Every stage of parenthood is different and with a sixteen and a eighteen year old at the top end of the family age group, I find myself challenged regularly as they form their ideas and test them against the logic and reason in my arguments. I think this helps me grow as a person as well as facilitating a constant development of ideas against new and sometimes challenging perspectives and scenarios. Of course, not everything they encounter is new and innovative and often the discussion will revolve around perennial problems and issues we are all familiar with. This weekend one of my boys dragged me along to a Pro-life conference where we both tested our knowledge and understanding of some of the most important issues we face in society today.

So I write this as I have just returned from Southport and the SPUC (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) 2015 Youth Conference with my son Michael. It was a great joy to be in the company of so many passionate and intelligent young people; it gave me great hope for the future of our Church to see how many of our youth have taken up the pro-life challenge! Of course the pro-life narrative is profoundly counter-cultural today. It goes against the majority and the mainstream. This means it takes some intellectual engagement to be able to discern why it is worthwhile to take a pro-life stance, because society, culture, your teachers and your peers all probably agree with abortion, euthanasia, and other culture of death issues. I am incredibly proud of Mike in that he has thought about these issues and has really recognised the tragedy that the modern perspective constitutes for culture and society.

The conference took place at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. I was very impressed with the quality of the venue, it was rather unusual in my experience of such events and made the whole weekend a rather comfortable experience. We had a typical Friday night journey from Leigh-on-Sea to Southport and so missed the first talk by Mary Doogan, one of the brave midwives who stood up to the government's directive that they must supervise abortions, which apparently had everyone in tears. We did manage to make it for the latter part of the quiz though and immediately made some friends.

The speakers were of an extraordinary calibre and although I have been around these issues all my life, I felt inspired and informed by what I heard. Our first speaker was Obianuju (Uju) Ekeocha, founder of Culture of Life Africa. Uju travels all over the world promoting the defence of human life in Africa, which is under huge pressure to cede to the Western practices of abortion and contraception. Uju, who is a biomedical scientist, was a superb speaker, extremely passionate and knowledgeable about her subject and able to communicate with great warmth and humour. This was essential, because she covered extremely touchy ground, explaining her feelings as a black woman about slavery, and then drawing a powerful parallel between this practice, which branded whole sections of society as sub-human, with abortion. She did this with personal anecdotes, facts and figures, and a good smattering of valuable history, asking young people ultimately whether they wanted their personal legacies to be like that of David Steel, or William Wilberforce. The parallel drawn was one I had not previously considered and was made incredibly pertinent by Uju's anecdotes about her own experiences.

Paul Tully, SPUC's general secretary, addressed us on the incredible mis-certification scandal. Although more than 90% of abortions are certified as being done to safeguard the mother's physical or mental health, it is widely recognised that the majority of these abortions are actually performed in response to social rather than medical problems, thus despite the legislative safeguards, abortion in Britain is effectively practised on demand.

Dr. Adrian Treloar
Dr. Adrian Treloar, Consultant and Senior Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry, gave a talk entitled Wanted & Valued which I found one of the most valuable of the weekend. It was a deeply intelligent consideration of medical ethics at the margins of life. Adrian insisted we must oppose killing and neglect and we must promote good medicine, and we must be vocal in our witness that we want and we value every single human life, because every single person of this planet has value. It was very moving and one of those lectures where you just could see clearly the truth and reason of his position.

Ira Winter is fully trained as a Creighton Model Fertility Care practitioner and has been managing the Life Fertility Care service since 2007. She gave an extraordinarily powerful presentation which aimed at an overview of the potential and impact of natural fertility.

She high-lighted some of the extraordinary anomalies in the modern understanding of natural fertility methods and the way they are misunderstood and thus not even seriously considered. Her main focus, perfectly, was within a culture of life, aiming at conception rather than prevention, but also putting responsibility of parenthood in an appropriate context (Humanae Vitae 10). The short address (just one hour) gave an incredibly nuanced perspective which covered the medical/ physical/ emotional/ practical and spiritual dimensions of natural fertility. My main observation was incredulity as to why we do not teach this in our Catholic schools and parishes? Michael was juxtaposing this information with its deep social and spiritual context, with the secular, mechanistic pedagogy he has experienced at school. He was particularly interested in this lecture as he was virtually completely ignorant of the subject. Ira held a workshop on Sunday and we both attended hungry for more information. Mike was ultimately evangelical about this aspect of the weekend, which flies in the face of the culture of death; contraception and abortion that he experiences every day in school. Ira was incredible, confident and deftly able to deal with even the most difficult inquiries. I hope we can use her skills more in our diocese in the Marriage and Family Life Ministry.

David Paton, professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, gave a fascinating break down of the official statistics which record that teenage pregnancy rates are at a record low (reported on the BBC, 24 Feb). The fall in teenage pregnancies have been attributed to the previous Labour government's Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, or TPS for short, which involved increased sex education and free availability of contraceptives. Professor Paton explained:
"It is completely implausible that the TPS is behind this effect. If anything, the evidence is the opposite: for the first 8 years of the TPS there was very little change in underage conceptions. Just as the TPS was winding down and complaints were being made about cuts to teenage pregnancy services, rates started to go down significantly. The further we get from the TPS, the faster the decrease accelerates! There is little doubt that education in schools has been the key, along with demographic change and also the general shift towards less risk taking behaviour amongst teenagers (lower rates of smoking, drugs, alcohol and crime)."
It was really interesting to see some cold hard facts that spoke strongly and directly against the received opinion that the answer to the UK's high teenage pregnancy and abortion rate is more sex ed younger, and more free access to contraceptives. I found this almost counter-intuitive data particularly interesting in the light of last week's news that there is little evidence giving teenagers more information about drugs actually works and could in fact be counter-productive. Bringing policemen into classrooms to warn children about the consequences of taking drugs may be failing to have an impact according to information given to the Home Secretary by The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD] which warned ministers that many popular prevention techniques are “ineffective at changing behaviour” and “may even increase the risks of drug use”. Of course, it seems inconceivable that the same might be true regarding the sexual health and development of our children?

Cardinal Burke addresses Conference.
Patrick Buckley gave us an overview of some of the trials and tribulations faced lobbying the UN, but I didn't envy his position in the schedule, placed as he was before the arrival of His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke. Cardinal Burke has increasingly become an icon of recognisable and authentic Catholic teaching over the last couple of years and I can not help but feel there is a great weight on his shoulders currently as more and more confused Catholics turn to him looking for comfort and guidance. It was really rather strange being in the same room as a man you have read, watched, and followed for years. The conference room is a particularly intimate setting in this regard. I really wanted to go and say hello and thank you, but so did everyone else, so I just stayed back and watched with a big smile on face as so many young people went up and met the Cardinal. He was calm and genial, posing for "selfies" and answering questions.

His talk really was a master-class in the New Evangelisation of the fallen Christian West. He clearly set out where we are, how we got here, and how to proceed. His lecture began by acknowledging SPUC as an organisation and the valuable work it does, and also praising SPUC CEO, John Smeaton. He drew the map by asserting how the faithful of Europe have forgotten God & become hostile to his law. He said that the task then for us is like that of the first disciples, we face a culture forgetful of God. The plan for dealing with this is the same as ever, and found in the Person of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ - it does not change with time and culture.

Cardinal Burke then affirmed the family home as "the cradle of life" asserting that there was a Crisis of Christian culture in the West evidence in such realities as the "Wholesale murder of the baby in the womb". The Cardinal also clearly affirmed Church teaching in that there is no such thing as "alternative sexualities", only sexuality as enshrined by God in human nature.

He called us to a generous & selfless obedience to the moral law in response to crisis in the West. We must not settle for shallow religiosity, we must strive for personal holiness because, quite simply, it is Personal Holiness of life which is the programme for the New Evangelisation. How simple and true is this statement? We are sinners, but we are called to be Saints (Matthew 5:48). We must never cease to strive in our efforts to be the best we can be. Fortified by Grace and the Sacraments, we know from our Mother Mary that we can make the journey into God. I think one of the problems we face as a community before God is that we have lost sight of the need for humility and penitence. Cardinal Burke explained how this humility must be our tool and weapon. Daily examination of conscience and act of contrition which aids us in preparation to receive the Eucharist and acts as a powerful impetus to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is this fundamental dimension of humility which then translates into a real, not contrived mercy, in our every day lives. It is recognition of our own failings and falls on the journey which allow us to reach out to others who fall with real love and help them ever onward in their journey towards Christ. It is this then that constitutes a personal holiness, an intentional discipleship, which seeks God always and seeks to bring others closer to His mercy.

In examining the true nature of this Personal Holiness, the Cardinal also helped us to understand how there is a clear connection between justice and purity/chastity and affirmed the essential procreative nature of the conjugal act which necessarily leads us to conclude that contraception is fundamentally anti-life.

Cardinal Burke drew from many sources in his talk, citing Pope Benedict XVI, Pope St. John Paul II, numerous Church documents as well as the writings of the Saints and Sacred Scripture. He explained how a false understanding of conscience has grown up in the social milieu following the sexual revolution which took place after the Second World War. This false idea puts conscience as king, and, following a Cartesian teleology, holds to the primacy of self as the final arbiter of right and wrong. Obviously I really liked this bit, my blog is named after Søren Aabye Kierkegaard's great exposition of the consequences of this Cartesian "turning to self" which Western culture has experienced post Enlightenment.

Cardinal Burke went on to follow Pope St. John Paul II's great work Veritatis Splendor, which deals with these Consequentialist/ Utilitarian errors and asserts a true understanding of conscience. Consequentialism has created profound confusion within moral theology as in reality conscience must be formed in the light of the truth; a recognition of truth revealed by God and held by the Church. This is in direct contrast to the world's false understanding (relativism) which has been consistently condemned by Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Burke put special emphasis on his talk on the teachings of  St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. He offered the young delegates St Thomas More as a model for SPUC youth, a martyr for obedience in conscience to the moral law, without compromise. He urged us to make pilgrimages to the great Shrines in our Country, and especially to Walsingham.

At the end there was a brief question and answer session. It was incredible to see Cardinal Burke to calm and clear without any hesitation or prevarication on any of the queries raised. Perhaps somewhat predictably, in such a gathering of Catholics who are working at the coal face, taking the doctrine and theory out into the real world and trying to convince Secularists and Atheists of it's inherent truth and beauty, there was some consternation with regard to the lack of clear support and even in some instances contradiction to Catholic teaching, demonstrated by some Catholic prelates. Certainly one delegate asked how we are to deal with such an obvious lack of support, and even opposition from Catholic leaders. Cardinal Burke insists we act with charity and respect whilst insisting on the truth of the faith; he urged us not to be dismayed, but to remain "steadfast" in Catholic truth. He made it clear that we do not need to condemn the people, make audible and visible the truths of the Church as Pope Francis has said. He urged us all to give strong witness in a joyful way, and not to give in to the temptation to be embattled. We know our Lord has promised that the forces of evil will not prevail so we can be confident in that.

Cardinal Burke is incredibly in demand on this visit to the UK and has a packed schedule of visits and talks. It was a source of great encouragement for all present to see him at the SPUC Youth Conference and I urge everyone to pray for him, that he may retain the strength and courage to continue to give such sound and solid witness to Catholic Truth.

On Sunday, after Mass, we had a series of workshops. Mike and I went to Ira Winter's NFP workshop as I have already mentioned. We then had a talk from Robin Haig on Abortion and the Law, which Mike took copious notes at and no doubt will use in numerous debates at school in the next few weeks. We then had a talk from Fiorella Nash, an extraordinary young woman, who spoke about Euthanasia. She is a pro-life feminist, her intelligence is very evident in her oration and she is absolutely riveting to listen to.

Both of us came out of the weekend absolutely buzzing. As much as the content, and getting to meet Cardinal Burke, it is just so nice to spend a weekend in a "little Catholic bubble" where one is in the company of people who "get it". It is also great to be in that environment with your children, because you feel it makes them feel less embattled and more part of something valuable and worthwhile. Mikey is particularly interested in the pro-life movement and wants to get involved in an internship or Project Truth over the summer.

One of the great things about the pro-life movement is that it is a really practical living out of our faith. This weekend showed Mike how the philosophy and theology we discuss has real, practical and important repercussions in the real world. Lex orandi, lex credandi, lex vivandi.


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