20 December 2013
The Vatican survey on family life missed the point
Biteback publishing launched the autobiography of John Biffen last week. Biffen, lest anyone forget, served as a minister under Mrs Thatcher. The book is particularly striking as it reveals - for the first time and six year’s after Biffen’s death - that throughout his political career he faced debilitating depression.
Such a revelation of agony endured in secrecy not only holds a mirror up to the face of our anguish-denying British culture, but should also send a signal to the leaders of English Catholicism as they process the thousands of responses sent in by lay Catholics to the Vatican survey on issues around relationships and the family. The results of that survey are intended to help in the preparations for next autumn’s Synod on the Family, in Rome.
The Catholic Church claims to be able to speak profoundly about the purpose of human character and flourishing. And yet its ability to address mental ill health, which forms a core part of our human condition, is palpably inadequate: if a leading parishioner suddenly disappears from view and cannot explain why, should they run the risk of the parish cognoscenti treating them as unreliable when they are in fact drowning, either in their own troubles of those of a family member for whom they are caring? We cannot assume that Mass-goers are immune from such troubles. Yet for some reason the new English Mass no longer allows us to pray “protect us from all anxiety”.
While John Paul II had the courage to touch on the question, even he could only major on depression as a one-dimensional “spiritual crisis”. I have heard lay Catholics suggesting that the lifelong auditory and visual hallucinations endured by some victims of clerical child abuse (and war and rape trauma) are somehow “diabolical”.
Meanwhile, how often in sermons and parish conversation has one heard the terms schizophrenic, bi-polar, mad or demented tossed round carelessly just as words that now shock, such as nigger, spastic and retard, once were?
Apart from the work Catholics do with people who are homeless, support for those with mental health issues is under-represented as a proportion of total global Catholic voluntary action. And specialist pastoral care in this field is almost absent. No wonder priests, parents, Religious and whole extended families with mental ill health challenges are more afraid than gay men and women or divorced mums and dads to “come out” to the Church.
Even if they did it is unclear where the at least 25 per cent of families globally facing mental ill health might articulate their experiences in the questionnaire our bishops circulated ahead of next autumn’s Synod. This is why the English and Welsh bishops, as one of the few bishops’ conferences globally ever to address mental ill health with their Day for Life initiative, now have an immense responsibility to advance mercy and solidarity. They might do well to talk further to the head of Mind, Paul Farmer, a Catholic, and encourage the Church to call on his skills and those of another Catholic and former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Baroness Sheila Hollins. How might they provoke a global Catholic breakthrough? How might they truly give voice to these voiceless within and beyond their Church?
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