When church teaching says Confession should be killed off

As a junior bishop during the Church's World Youth Day in 2008, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher angered many when he suggested that raising historic cases of child sexual abuse amounted to 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds'.

Nine and a half years later, he's made another statement that is memorable for the wrong reasons. At his media conference following yesterday's release of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said that 'killing off confession is not going to help anybody'.

He was responding to the Commission's recommendation that a new law be passed to require priests to report cases of child sexual abuse that they learn about while administering the sacrament of confession. Such a law would conflict with the 'seal of confession' of the Church's own canon law.

Archbishop Fisher fears it would 'kill' confession. But Melbourne canon lawyer Ian Waters suggested last night to viewers of ABCTV's The Drum that priests hearing confession have infinite room to move pastorally and that there are means of ensuring abuse is reported to police without necessarily breaking the seal. Where there's a will there's a way was his message.

If a priest did find himself breaking the seal, he would easily find reassurance from Pope Francis himself. Francis has become well known for his insistence that the imposition of church law and doctrine must be qualified by a demonstration of love and mercy towards those who are most vulnerable.

Ten years before Francis became Pope in 2013, the leader of the Australian Jesuits Father Mark Raper made clear to viewers of the ABC's 7.30 Report his view that the Church as an institution is less important than the people it cares for.

Responding to the suggestion that rejecting legal advice by apologising to a child sex abuse victim would be costly to the Church in terms of financial compensation, he said: 'Well, the assets are not as important as the people that we seek to serve. What is the point of doing what we're doing if that's not the case?'

Yesterday my thoughts turned to the principle of 'subsidiarity', which is the bottom line of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity, which is most commonly applied to workers' rights, insists that any regulation of economic and social affairs must give priority to the dignity and rights of individual persons.

The principle of subsidiarity is not usually mentioned in the context of sacramental theology. But for me, it's enough to give confidence that 'killing off confession' is justified if the dignity and rights of sex abuse victims are at stake.


Links: Waters | Raper | Subsidiarity

 

Mothballing the clerical collar will help prevent clergy sexual abuse

About 15 years ago, I was editing the Catholic Church's online news service CathNews when stories about clerical sexual abuse were beginning to appear in significant numbers.

It was usually difficult to find a photograph or other visual image to illustrate the abuse stories. But eventually I settled on one generic image that I felt would suit all of them. It was a plain and simple graphic depicting a priest's clerical collar.

I recall that we stopped using it following representations from more than one bishop.

The first was a gentle plea. We were tarnishing the good name of the clergy and damaging the reputation of the Church. Then came the more heavy handed 'cease and desist' order that gave us no choice.

There had been no protracted deliberation involved in my choice of the image. Like a lot of decisions editors made on the run, it was intuitive. But in hindsight - as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wraps up - it seems prescient.

I say this after seeing this week's issue of the email newsletter from Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of its headlines was extracted from a story published in the National Catholic Reporter in the US: 'Australian bishop urges end to clericalism'.

The article features the views of Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta based on a talk he gave in August that was published in the December issue of the National Council of Priests newsletter The Swag. It points to the culture of clericalism as a major cause of sexual abuse.

'In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model...which promotes the superiority of the ordained. ... Abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered.'

It is often possible to know a priest's views about power and privilege in the Church simply by looking to see if he is wearing a clerical collar. In many circumstances, priests will make a deliberate choice whether or not to wear the collar, knowing its symbolic power.

I remember being a Jesuit novice in the late 1970s and the intense speculation about which of us would choose to wear a clerical collar rather than a suit, when we took our first vows at the end of the two year noviceship.

In retrospect, I think it was the most powerful statement we could make concerning whether we believed we were entering a life of power and privilege or one of service.

Indeed I can now suggest with confidence that an attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely.

I think it's now time for the Church to consider mothballing the clerical collar. This would be a fitting follow up to Bishop Vincent Long's suggestion that 'we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture ... of power and control that has been our cultural captivity'.


Link: newsletter

Tribalism and Australian marriage equality

This morning I was listening to a podcast from US National Public Radio on the topic 'word of the year'. The commentator Geoff Nunberg chose 'tribalism' as his word of the year and focused his explanation on the politics of identity.

I've been thinking a lot about tribalism this year, trying to decide whether it's a good or bad thing. Nunberg says people often 'use "tribal" to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty' and that this can lead society to become 'fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy'.

At various moments of the debate on same sex marriage in Australia, I could see this kind of 'we are right you are wrong' attitude on both sides. So I was heartened that the 'yes' case supporters in the public gallery of Parliament House chose 'I am Australian' when they broke into song after the vote was passed last Thursday.

The song's refrain - 'we are one, but we are many' - specifically recognises the legitimacy of tribes beyond our own. It implicitly affirms identities that are centred around many commonalities including gender and sexual preference. Thursday's cause for celebration was the successful passage of the bill that meant our nation's marriage law would now include identities it had previously excluded.

In the lead up to the postal survey, I found it interesting to read an article in The Conversation identifying tribes within the GLBTI community that were notably unenthusiastic about voting 'yes'.

These groups were composed of predominantly older GLBTI people who were proudly countercultural. They feared that marriage 'would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy'.

As I understood it, these groups were not denying the legitimacy of GLBTI people wanting to get married. They just hoped that equal marriage supporters would return the favour and recognise the legitimacy of their rejection of marriage as a lifestyle choice. I believe that they got their wish, at least to the extent that they did not suffer criticism from the 'yes' supporters.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it has to be argued that the majority of bishops supported a position that exemplifies the negative characterisation I quoted above. That is a non-recognition of the distinction between solidarity and blind loyalty that leads to a denial of the legitimacy of those with opposing views.

It was therefore gratifying that so many Catholics followed the lead of the few bishops who advocated a vote according to conscience on what they insisted was in any case a secular matter. This turned out to be a demonstration of the good that can exist in tribalism - solidarity and qualified loyalty.


Links: Nunberg | The Conversation

Parisian attitude that is nurturing

It's time to return to Sydney after being in Paris for most of October and November. Somebody asked me if I felt I could stay longer or if it was time to move on.

I said that I was looking forward to being back in Australia but pleased that I am coming back here in three or four months time. I went on to explain that life for me is not complete in Sydney and neither is it complete here in Paris. But between the two cities it is.

Tuilleries

I'm very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to establish myself in two cities. I believe it's important that we all use our imagination and resources to seize the opportunities and challenges that our circumstances offer.

I think it's about finding an equilibrium in my state of being, which is something we all need. The term sure-footed comes to mind. I feel that I am excessively sure-footed in Sydney and not at all sure-footed in Paris.

Lego ptisserie at Les Halles

People face this kind of challenge in various ways. Some establish themselves in their professions and social circles, and then they welcome children into their lives even though they know it will upturn their established order. Others don't have children and look to extend themselves in different ways.

I find it easiest to write these letters when I feel there is order in my life. That is why they've been few and far between during these two months.

Here my energies are focused on tasks such as getting the right pieces of paper that will allow me to establish accounts with the electricity utility and the bank. My bank account works but I still have to jump through one more hoop before the debit card they sent me will work in ATMs and supermarkets.

Performance art exhibition at Richelieu Library

Years ago I used to hear it said that the French are rude and unhelpful. My experience has been the opposite. I have found them nurturing.

I remember telling a shop assistant that I did not need a bag. I said 'pas sac', and he corrected me by indicating that 'pas de sac' is how it's said. His tone was nurturing, not a put down. That experience was repeated multiple times, most recently when the woman at the Bastille Market told me I wanted 'une carotte', not 'un carotte', which is how I'd put my request.

I feel affirmed by these exchanges, and each is a small step towards becoming more sure-footed in my new surrounds.

Jewelled slippers

Years ago I remember feeling small after an offhand remark from a guide at the United Nations building in New York City.

'Is this where you get to see how the UN works?', I asked, stating the obvious because that's what came into my head. 'That's the general idea' was his put down response, which reflected the kind of attitude that I'd grown up expecting to get from the French.

The value of intransigence in Paris fairyland

This morning a Facebook alert welcomed me to Paris, four weeks to the day since my arrival.

I've easily engaged with the fairyland version of Paris that the tourists come to see. I have come to see that as well.

Paris market venue Place of the Innocents

But on Saturday, I walked past the shopfront of the Parti Socialiste and was reminded that the main reality is something else. The rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people visible on the streets are part of a society increasingly divided into haves and have nots. Just like Australia.

I can't understand much about French politics when I watch the news on TV, as I imagine the French scratch their heads when they hear about the possible fall of Australia's government because some of its members are dual citizens of another country.

Sign in the window of Parti Socialiste Paris

But I did get a sense of it when my vendor put me in touch with a young Ukrainian-Russian immigrant who was passionate about politics. I enjoyed the conversations we had when we visited bars on two occasions before he returned to his family in a village near Lyon.

In our discussions, we discovered that we shared a lot of common ground. We bemoaned the fact that nations across Europe - and also Russia - were becoming increasingly divided because their governents were catering more for entrenched elites than the good of the whole.

From the Louvre - Louis Lopold Boilly 1761-1845 People Entering to See a Free Show at the Ambigu-Comique Theatre
But I didn't like what I heard when I asked him who he supported in this year's French election and he said Marine Le Pen.

When I spent my first weekend in Lille, I admired my Australian friend for choosing an immigrant neighbourhood to buy an apartment for his part-time residence in France, even though I did not feel safe walking the streets.

He could have opted for something smaller in a more salubrious part of Paris. Like me. But I assume he was following the principles of the Catholic workers movement that he has been involved in and is the subject of his academic study.

Wall in Rue Foyatier Monmartre

My contact with reality has more to do with getting connected to the utilities and services that will allow me to live here part-time. On Friday I walked 40 minutes to the nearest shop of the majority state owned electricity company EDF. But they were closed, having had Thursday and Friday added to Wednesday's All Saints Day public holiday to make a five day long weekend.

I was consoled when it reminded me of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 'old Europe' insult when France refused to sign up for the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a sign that America had not completely exported its 'can do' culture to France.

Be Loud Be Proud wall art Paris

I think that, despite the frustrations, there is something to like about intransigence that weakens productivity but upholds the rights and conditions of the ordinary people whose efforts achieve it.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité and inferior coffee

A friend referred to the image of Parisians 'smoking Gauloises and reading Le Monde with their coffee and croissant'. I've always been fascinated by the portrayals of Parisian cafe culture, especially in the French New Wave movies of the 1960s, which are more concerned with atmosphere than story.

But the reality is now different. In 2017 you don't see Gauloises packets because French cigarettes now come with olive green plain packaging like Australia's, and Parisians look at smartphones rather than newspapers just like people everywhere.

Night time crowd around Fountain of the Innocents

I'm reluctant to make too many observations, as they will be superficial and inconclusive because of the short time I've been here. I've also been consumed by mundane activities such as getting a bank account and an insurance policy. However it's arguable that consumer norms and practices tell you more about a country than just about anything else.

However I do notice signs that there are values worth noting and prizing. Among the magazine posters on the sides of the kiosks in public places, the more prominent are promoting specialist titles on subjects including philosophy, psychology and sophisticated political satire (Charlie Hebdo).

There is obviously a market for these things, or the posters wouldn't be there. They have equal billing with sport and gossip that are more dominant in other countries. It's probably true that Parisians sitting together in cafes are more likely to be discussing philosophy than Australians. But I'd suggest that most don't, and that it's effectively confined to a niche, albeit a much larger one than in Australia.

Square in front of Sorbonne University

One of my favourite places to loiter is the square in front of the Sorbonne University (pictured), with its philosophy bookshops and cafes. Twice when I've been there I've noticed film crews recording interviews with learned professor types probably discussing philosophy.

There are certain things we want to believe that are not entirely true. Philosophy is in fact discussed in cafes around universities in Australia, and the cafe culture in Sydney and Melbourne is also vibrant. It also has to be said that the coffee is far superior to that in Paris, which is notably underwhelming.

But I like it that learning and human rights and open discussion seem to be a valued, along with good food and dress.

Libert galit fraternit on public building

The words Liberté, égalité, fraternité adorn French public buildings in the way references to the monarchy are attached to public institutions in the UK and Australia (in Sydney I live near the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital).

When buying my property here, my vendor said to me a few times 'French people don't stand for this kind of thing. They are aware of their rights'. An awareness that could come from philosophy being more in public consciousness.

The good life in Paris might be sustainable

Yesterday was the two week anniversary of my new part-time life in Paris.

I've been absorbed with making my small five square metre room my own. For me that means throwing things out rather than acquiring them. It had most of what I needed but was full of excess bedding and crockery and other space fillers that didn't fit my minimalist aspirations.

Michael in his Paris room

I think the most important thing to do when you're in new surroundings for any length of time is to establish a routine to frame your life and give it some continuity and purpose. To this end, my early morning in-bed activity is to spend about half an hour doing French language exercises with the Duolingo app on my smartphone.

Unfortunately it has displaced writing this letter. But I hope that is temporary and the language work will find some other time slot in my day. The app's 'nag' feature to get users to do the daily exercises is too effective.

I am quite relaxed in my approach to learning the French language, which is really building on the grounding I got at school. Duolingo says I'm 59 per cent of the way there, but I don't think there is a point in which I will be able to say I have acquired French.

Looking from Chatelet towards Eiffel Tower

I get a small thrill when I say something in French and am understood. I like to watch TV with the French subtitles intended for the hearing impaired turned on. More and more I can understand what's going on. They are my 'trainer wheels' and eventually I hope to be able to turn them off.

The other thing that's important to me is the food and the culture.

The front door of my building is less than a minute's walk to the square around the Fountain of the Innocents. Currently it's the location of a two week exposition and market of food from various French regions. On Sunday evening I took the opportunity to sample a dozen snails, which is something I'd always wanted to do.

For me the intensity of the sensation was equal to that of good oysters. I especially like to wrestle with food to get the taste. They give you a small plastic fork for this purpose. One end has a single prong to extract the snail from the shell, while the other has three for eating.

Snails

Every day I go to a patisserie and ask for a 'demi-' (half) baguette. Before coming here, I'd not eaten bread regularly for more than a year. Being white bread, baguettes have almost no nutritional value and too many calories. But I can't resist them - and a cake - each day at the patisserie and boulangerie.

I like to think that this enjoyment of the good life is sustainable, which is why the other part of my routine consists of an ambitious goal of 20,000 steps each day and an hour at the gym in the late afternoon.

My tiny room in the centre of Paris

Years ago I remember a friend telling me that he'd just bought a house in a NSW country town for the price of a car. I've just done something similar with my purchase of a tiny room in the centre of Paris for less than the price of a car parking space in Sydney.

At the end of April, I spent three days staying in an airbnb maid's room near the Luxembourg Gardens. I'd just arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and I was headed to England to spend a month with my sister.

I thought to myself that I would like to own a room like this. I mentioned that in conversation with a friend in Lille who once worked selling real estate in Sydney. He's bought and sold several apartments in France, and he told me that it was easier than I imagined.

So with his help, I found online a five square metre room on the sixth floor of a building without a lift, for sale for 65,000 euros. It's in Châtelet in the First Arrondissement, a few minutes walk from either the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. One of Paris's priciest locations.

I had my offer accepted in late June and signed the final papers and received the key at the notaires' office in Paris on Monday.

The room has a single bed, a shower, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a fridge, a wardrobe, and not much else. Just about all I need.

Five square metres is about the size of the bathroom in most Australian houses. I've stayed in capsule hotels in Japan in the past, and the room I lived in when I spent five weeks in Tokyo around August measured exactly five square metres.

Most buyers would probably classify the property as a renovators' delight. I could spend tens of thousands of euros gutting the room and engaging professionals to transform it into a designer showpiece. But I like it the way it is, at least for now.

It's too small to rent legally, and the low purchase price means I don't have to earn an income from it. I will just spend a few months here each year getting to know Paris, and offer it to friends who don't mind simple accommodation for one person in a ramshackle building.

The notaire was intrigued and described the purchase as 'interesting', the same word an Australian lawyer friend used a couple of months ago. Before I signed, he also warned me of some of the things that could go wrong. For example the Marais - the Paris City Council - could decide that it is too small for human habitation and force me to rent it as a storage room.

It seems it's not wired to make it easy to connect to fast internet. So until I find a better solution than my current 3G mobile phone data plan, my online life will be in the slow lane. Which doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Visiting a Flemish region that speaks French

On Friday I found myself arriving at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport after a flight from Sydney, for the second time in six months. I have a commitment in Paris on Monday and decided to spend the weekend visiting an Australian friend who lives in Lille, an easy 55 minute journey north from the airport on the TGV fast train.

GranPlus main square Lille

I'd had the impression of Lille as an uninteresting industrial hub. But a few months ago a friend surprised and intrigued me by describing it as a 'handsome' city. He was right.

The most interesting fact I learned about Lille is that it was once part of Belgium. Flanders to be precise. Long before Belgium was created. It was annexed by Louis XIV of France in 1668, a year after the Siege of Lille by his army.

As a result, aspects of Flemish culture remain. Most visible to me is the Flemish (or Dutch) gable at the top of the facade of many of the older buildings.

IMG_20171007_103019

Because Lille is only 16 kilometres from the Belgian border, I was interested in crossing that border and exploring a Belgian city. We decided to take the half hour regional train journey to Tournai, one of the oldest and most culturally significant cities in the country.

Language and ethnic identity are very complex in the artificial and much unloved administrative construction that is Belgium. I marvelled at the contradictory reality that Tournai is a French-speaking Flemish city. It is located just within Wallonia, the southern half of Belgium that is aligned to French culture.

There was a lot to do there. It is a beautiful city that could be made even more beautiful and spoiled at the same time if they decided to put it on the tourist map like Bruges.

IMG_20171007_103131

On our walk from the station, we came across a busy Saturday morning farmers' market, where my eyes first gravitated towards the strings of hanging garlic, some of which was smoked.

On the walk through town, I was struck by the number of patisseries. It was like towns in Australia and elsewhere that had a pub on just about every corner. There were also charcuteries, selling prepared meat and other products. Vol-au-vents, which appeared to be a local specialty were plentiful in both the patisseries and charcuteries.

Vol-au-vents in Tournai

I read afterwards that in France, vol-au-vents are served as an appetiser, whereas they're larger and a common main dish in Belgium. I saw both in Tournai. I wanted to buy one for lunch but the woman in the charcuterie insisted that it had to be eaten after heating in the oven at home, and it was not an option for me to buy and eat on the run.

But the main highlight of Tournai was the huge Cathedral, which we were able to enter even though it was under serious large-scale renovation. It is still a place of worship, and indeed adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place in a side chapel while we were there.

Le Cabinet du Docteur Caligari Cathedral projection

But like the rest of Europe, its congregation is obviously ageing and much diminished. It is good that large renovation and maintenance of cathedrals are being funded by bodies such as the European Union.

Increasingly in these post-Christian times, they are also being used for other cultural activities. I noted that the main coming event is not religious, but a projection of the 1920 German silent a horror film Le Cabinet du Docteur Caligari with accompaniment from the cathedral organ.

The pros and cons of screens in bed

It occurs to me that I don't really organise my day. Instead one or two particular circumstances give it a shape, and that may or may not help me to achieve goals for a given 24 hour period.

During my recent five week stay in Tokyo, my bed was a thin foam mattress on the floor. It was comfortable for sleep, but not to sit up and look at the screens of my tablet and phone.

So when I climbed into bed, I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up, I got up and went for a healthy eight kilometre power walk around the lake. I avoided the discomfort of being before a screen and so did not read and write in bed.

That was good, especially if there's truth in what they say about looking at screens in bed being detrimental to our general health and wellbeing.

sleep weekly overview pre-Tokyo

The sleep data in my Fitbit app showed that I was getting up to an hour's more sleep than when I'd been in my screen friendly bed at home. Comparing the 'before' and 'after' graphs (above and below) shows that staying away from screens in bed puts me on the cusp of being in the blue 'recommended' zone for my age group.

But it was not entirely good. What I'd done previously when I woke up was to research and write my blog. Doing the blog was no longer a natural wake up activity and instead became something of a chore. I'd have to choose to write later in the day and it would compete with other enjoyable activities such as sightseeing.

sleep weekly overview post-Tokyo

Nevertheless when I returned home to Sydney, I made a new rule for myself. No screens in bed. As a result, I've maintained my improved sleep patterns. Instead of walking around the lake in the morning, I've been exercising at the gym, something that had fallen away in the winter months before I went to Tokyo.

The blog writing is having to compete with other activities during the day proper. But I take the view that it is something I need to nurture like a plant that has been moved from one part of the garden to another.

But whatever happens, it will then be shaken up once more, when I transplant my life to another city for two months from early October.