Civil and religious marriage are best kept separate

While I was living in Europe a few decades ago, I remember a Belgian friend going home to get married. I recall being very surprised when I learned that he would have two weddings.

One was according to the laws of the state and the other followed the ritual of the Church. The two marriages were separated by several weeks. They were conducted by different celebrants, at separate venues. Each had its own guest list and reception afterwards.

After a while I realised that it was normal to have two weddings in such European countries. And it made sense. One was to satisfy the law of the land and the other was a sacrament of the Church. Two distinct means to achieve separate purposes.

In Australia, we don't properly appreciate this distinction. As a result, we tend to conflate the two. That is despite the fact that the way we conduct marriage is actually not that much different to the Europeans.

What happens for Australian couples opting for a church wedding is that the priest or minister facilitates both the legal and sacramental marriages. He or she is separately licensed by the state and the Church, and the tasks performed for each of these bodies are almost mutually exclusive.

But by conflating the civil law with religious ritual, we create confusion that makes it easy for the Church to claim authority that rightfully belongs to the state. In other words, the Church makes demands regarding sacramental marriage, which of course is OK. But it often weighs in on civil marriage as well, which is different.

Therefore I think it is problematic for religious leaders to be urging a no vote in the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. The Survey has nothing to do with their domain of sacramental marriage, and they are being disingenuous if they act as if it does.

If the state weighed in on sacramental marriage and required church celebrants to marry same sex couples, the Church would cry foul. In any event, this would not happen because the Church is protected by existing religious freedom legislation that allows it to discriminate against same sex couples.

If, on the other hand, the Church believes that it can insist on its definition of civil marriage because it has a stake in the 'moral order' of society, the Survey will provide an interesting test for the moral authority it retains in the wake of its conduct regarding the sexual abuse of children it was responsible for.

Did priests really support schoolboy lovers Tim and John?

I rewatched part of Remembering the Man on iview yesterday after it was screened on ABC2 on the weekend.

It is the 2015 documentary interpretation of the tragic love story of the Melbourne Catholic schoolboys Tim Conigrave and John Caleo. They fell in love at Xavier College in the 1970s and continued their same sex relationship for most of the time until they both died of AIDS in the early 1990s.

Remembering The Man poster

The documentary followed Tim Conigrave's highly successful memoir Holding the Man that was posthumously published in 1995. It was later dramatised on stage (2006 and subsequent productions) and in a feature film (2015). The novel developed a legendary status as one of the '100 Favourite Australian Books' of all time. It is also regarded as essential reading for young males exploring their sexuality.

It's of particular interest to me because Tim and John were in my class at school and all of the archival footage in the first part of the film brings back memories of my own school days.

I'm currently assessing my school days, in the lead up to the 40th anniversary dinner on 1 September. Because I have mixed feelings about my school days, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be there. I'm relieved that the decision not to attend has been made for me by the date's clash with my forthcoming sojourn in Tokyo.

Xavier Public Schools athletics team c 1976

I was in their class, but I was not part of Tim and John's immediate circle of friends. I was privy to few of the details of what was going on. But I knew the context very well and understand what others with preconceived notions of Catholic education at the time find hard to believe.

That is how a same sex relationship could be implicitly supported by some of the religious teachers at the school and by an ostensibly homophobic sport focused peer group. One theory is that it was because the 'renaissance man' ethos of Jesuit education prevailed at this school. This was in practice, not just in theory, and among staff and students alike.

Of course that argument is contentious and simplistic. The open minded attitude of the Jesuits at the school has as much to do with post Vatican II liberalism and confusion, and the winds of change that challenged social norms in the years that followed the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972. There's also the unexplored question of whether the attitudes of the two Jesuits as depicted in the story represented what their Jesuit colleagues were thinking at the time. Probably not.

Remembering the Man reenactment - Priest discovers boy lovers in bed Oh morning boys

In my early days as editor of the Jesuit publication Eureka Street in 2006, I reviewed the first stage production of Holding the Man. I wrote in celebratory terms about what I saw as the school's implicit affirmation of the school boys' same sex relationship.

When I presented the article for approval, I was requested to make changes. This was because of continuing raw emotions on the part of John's family and the fact that my interpretation of the events - and that of the play - was regarded as contentious and possibly damaging to the reputations of individuals who were still around.

I would be interested to know how such an interpretation of events would be treated by the censor eleven years down the track. There's no doubt it will be talked about at the dinner on 1 September.


Links: iview trailer website Eureka

The 7150 nuns who declared Trumpcare a moral outrage

Yesterday a friend sent me a Washington Post opinion piece about 7150 'socially minded nuns' declaring Trumpcare a moral outrage.

The article was written by E.J. Dionne, who's well known to Australians because he's often interviewed on the ABC's Radio National.

The 7150 nuns who fought against Trumpcare - from the Washington Post

He praised the three Republican senators who thwarted Trump's plan to deprive millions of Americans of health coverage. But also mentioned the nuns' much less publicised intervention, which labelled the Senate GOP's core proposal 'the most harmful legislation for American families in our lifetimes'.

The nuns cited Pope Francis' insistence that 'health is not a consumer good, but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege'.

Dionne's point was not to argue that the nuns influenced the outcome, but that most people are not aware of how wrong religious stereotypes can be.

'This is important because religion and the political standing of believers are badly harmed by the reality that so many Americans associate faith exclusively with the conservative movement. Large numbers of young people are abandoning organised religion (and particularly Christianity) altogether. A key reason: They see it as deeply hostile to causes they embrace, notably the rights of gays and lesbians.'

It's not widely realised that some of the strongest arguments for marriage equality can be found in religious teaching about social justice. As Dionne points out, Pope Francis is insistent that the Church be associated with justice and mercy rather than cultural warfare.

I think that it can be argued that the Australian Catholic hierarchy's opposition to marriage equality is a hangover from the cultural warfare of the previous popes and that the position of the bishops is essentially out of step with the present pope.

Calls to rein in ABC and SBS - from The Australian

I believe that this and many other debates are wrongly characterised as being between secular and religious interests. Rather it's entrenched interests (such as big business) against ordinary people who rely on human rights promotion for their basic survival.

That's why the Murdoch press waged a successful campaign to discredit and remove the head of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs. Yesterday the issue they chose to give voice to was the call from commercial media chiefs to reign in the public service broadcasters ABC and SBS, which take human rights reporting seriously.

It's regrettable that a surprising number of people continue to believe that religious interests line up behind the conservative establishment against the so-called socialists of the left, who are thought to be godless.

The Catholic Bishops feed that perception when they demonise the Greens, usually for opposing their own institutional interests such as Catholic education. Even taking into account the Greens' positions on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, I would suggest that the Greens are far more in line with the teaching of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church than the conservative parties that most people instinctively link to religious positions.


Links: Dionne ABC/SBS

Pastor to Catholics disconnected from the Church

Today's Eureka Street article is about Catholics who take their faith seriously but don't go to church.

It mentions Pope Francis' non-judgmental distinction between those who 'take part in community worship and gather on the Lord's Day' and those 'who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship'.

The article's writer Kevin Liston identifies himself as part of the latter group and so do I.

Anna Kuceras Sydney Morning Herald photo of Father Peter Maher at St Josephs Newtown

During the 24 years I've lived in my inner Sydney street, I've maintained a sporadic but enduring connection with the local parish church, St Joseph's Newtown. Because I rarely attend mass, I occasionally check out what's going on by going to their 'Faithworks' blog. I did that this morning and made an unnerving discovery.

For a while I'd been preparing myself for the shock of the retirement Father Peter Maher, the parish priest for nearly all of my time living here. He told me last year that he'd found retirement accommodation in the suburb where he grew up. He's not old for a retired priest, but he's very measured in his approach to his commitments, and it was clear to me that he was about to make a sensible choice to retire.

I was nevertheless shocked to read in the blog the text of the homily at Peter's 'Thanksgiving Mass on Retirement' last Friday. I don't know why I was shocked. I think I was less shocked when the previous parish priest ended his tenure after he disappeared when the plane he was piloting went down over Bass Strait in 1995.

Even though I only saw him a couple of times a year, Peter was my ideal parish priest. Earlier this month, his comments in a Sydney Morning Herald article on Sydney's most godless suburbs confirmed my appreciation of his approach to the decline of religious practice in Australia. Non-judgmental and inclusive.

Losing Our Religion graphic from Sydney Morning Herald 2 July 2017

At St Joseph's Newtown, I felt as welcome as a non-regular as I would have if I was a weekly mass goer.

I remember deciding that Sunday Mass was not for me back in 1991 when the priest's homily at a church elsewhere in Sydney took a very judgmental attitude to women who chose to have an abortion.

I was keenly aware that Peter took exactly the opposite stance in his work as Chair of the Rachel's Vineyard post abortion ministry. This was just one of the 'programs promoting acceptance and diversity' for which his service was recognised with an OAM in the 2014 Australia Day honours. Another was the Friday evening mass he celebrated for the LGBTIQ group Acceptance.

As editor of Eureka Street, I would collaborate with him in his work as co-editor of the National Council of Priests quarterly magazine The Swag. But my favourite initiative of his was the InterPlay sessions he would conduct in the church on Saturday afternoons several times a year.

Father Peter Maher at Burkett Foundation Dinner 5 November 2017

InterPlay is a personal development movement, about movement of the body and its relationship with the mind. It has nothing to do with the Catholic Church or religion, and Peter's adversaries in the Church probably criticised him for conducting the sessions on church property and for being on the Board of its Sydney organisation. If you wanted to, you could describe it as godless.

Yet more than many other activities, I think it holds the key to the rebuilding of the Catholic Church after the sexual abuse crisis, in its promotion of a right relationship with the body. Its stated goal is to 'unlock the wisdom of the body... [to] enable you to find your creative power, collaborate with others, expand your personal awareness and discover your full potential'.


Links: Liston Faithworks Herald InterPlay

 

Digital disruption fails to diminish Camino pilgrimage

This morning I read two articles. One was about the prospect that software and artificial intelligence will disrupt most traditional industries and professions within the next few years. The other was about the eighty fold increase over the past three decades in the number of pilgrims travelling the various routes of the Camino to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Camino article from La Croix

The first is one of those presentations on disruption that itself sets out to disrupt the way people feel, think and act, and relate to each other. It has a deliberately scary title: 'Must read article on how our lives will change dramatically in 20 years'. It suggests that some people will have their way of life destroyed while others will benefit from access to new opportunities to improve their lives, especially in health and education.

What uber and airbnb have done to the taxi and hotel industries is just the beginning. Many lawyers and health professionals will lose their jobs as tools such as the IBM Watson natural language question answering computer system take told.

Must Read article on digital disruption

We'll have legal advice 'within seconds, with 90% accuracy compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans'. Meanwhile solar power will give us cheap electricity, and that will give us abundant water with desalination. Everybody on the planet will eventually have as much clean water as they want for nearly no cost.

The shift to reliance on software and artificial intelligence is largely a transition from the analogue to the digital world, probably the most dramatic change in the history of human civilisation.

But we're faced with a condundrum. Our problems are solved in a flash but our lives have become less satisfying because we are less tactile and grounded in the way we live.

Perhaps this has something to do with the statistic about the eighty fold increase in the number of Camino pilgrims. that I read in the article in La Croix International. In the digital age, spiritual quest and our continuing need to put 'boots on the ground' are still important for most people.

Camino pilgrims graph

What is most interesting to me is that only a third of the Camino pilgrims are doing it 'strictly for religious reasons'. That refers to observance of the Catholic rituals associated with the Way of St James that dates back to the Middle Ages.

I infer from this statistic that the two thirds majority have either a non-sectarian spiritual purpose, or they're using it as a digital detox, literally putting their boots on the ground.

This month the French and Spanish bishops issued a pastoral letter that expressed both their alarm at the Camino statistics' evidence pointing to dechristianisation, and excitement at the opportunity this represents to evangelise the non-believing pilgrims.

They want to 're-spiritualise' the journey by promoting a 'Christian' hospitality that is distinct from ordinary non-sectarian hospitality. I hope it leads to much conversation between believers and non-believers. Also market research on the part of the bishops, as they seek to find out why the Camino is relevant to the majority of the pilgrims but the Church is not.


Links: Camino disruption Wikipedia

ABC set to remove punch from religious programs

The Australian newspaper is always looking for an excuse to attack the ABC. But it is on more solid ground than usual this week, with articles yesterday and today criticising moves by management to replace the specialist editor for religion and ethics Jane Jeffes with a non-specialist.

Specialisation is what gives public service broadcasters their punch. It distinguishes their output from the infotainment programming of their rivals, at least by degree.

ABC Religion cuts from The Australian

Specialists are equipped to go beneath the surface and give the public an understanding of issues they would not otherwise get. For instance how to distinguish Muslim fundamentalists from those who are simply trying to live their faith in the Australian community and maintain their heritage.

ABC management has been trying to kill its religion specialisation for at least three decades. I remember battles from my own time there, when I worked in ABC religious radio for four years from 1988. There was a familiar pattern in which religious programs were threatened, church and other religious leaders would vent their outrage, and there was subsequently a reduction in the scale of planned cuts.

Can that happen again this time? Probably not.

With the sexual abuse scandals and the recent Census statistics charting a significant rise in the number of non-religious Australians, church and other religious leaders don't have the authority they once had.

However ABC management would be doing Australians a disservice if it exploited this as an opportunity to kill specialist religious programs. For the religious unit services non-religious 'searching' Australians as much as it does those who are formally religious.

It is been doing this for years. In 1987, the visionary head of the religion Dr David Millikan commissioned Caroline Jones to present the radio program The Search for Meaning.

It was a departure from traditional religious programming that had a wider impact. After it ended in 1994, Caroline was invited back to ABC TV to help foster a reflective, values-based approach to news and current affairs programming in the long-running Australian Story.

This more inclusive style was also evident some time ago in the coupling of religion and ethics in the brief, and formal designation, of the 'religious' programming genre.

While the article in The Australian seems to suggest that this represents a weakening of the religious programming strand, I believe the opposite is true. Indeed the study of philosophy and ethics was an integral part of my Jesuit religious training, as it is in other Catholic and some Anglican traditions.

The idea is that it helps to remove religion from the religious ghetto. The participation and leadership of specialists ensures that there is an informed conversation between religious and non-religious Australians. That is why the ABC needs a specialist to oversee its programs in this area.


Link: yesterday today

Cardinal Pell's preference for spin doctors over truth tellers

Cardinal George Pell told the media in his short but candid statement yesterday that he was returning to Australia to 'clear my name'. He repeated that phrase, 'clear my name'.

That came after his double barrelled opening reference to the media's 'relentless character assassination - relentless character assassination'.

He did not say that he was coming to Australia so that justice could be achieved or truth uncovered. That was left to Pope Francis, whose reference to the 'foster[ing of] the search for truth' was conveyed immediately after Pell's statement.

The cardinal did not mention truth or justice.

Cardinal Pell at Vatican media conference

What he said at the media conference was perfectly consistent with his attitude and actions with regard to the media all along. Arguably an indifference to, or even fear of, their role in the search for truth in the context of justice.

The evidence for this is in his habitual hostility to media practitioners who see their role as uncovering and reporting the truth regardless of the consequences for the good name of a person or an institution. He was true to form when he began yesterday's statement with a criticism of the role of the media in the laying of charges against him.

One of his first actions after becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 was to close the Archdiocese's Communications office.

Over the years, Catholic Communications had gained considerable respect, particularly from its secular media peers, for its practice of objective journalism in radio and TV production. That is where I learned my first principles of journalism and media practice in the 1980s.

The sacked director of Catholic Communications Peter Thomas had a Vatican II view of the 'pilgrim' church of the people. In media terms, this translated into practice that owed a lot to that of public service broadcasters like the ABC and the BBC.

Pell's ecclesiology represented a retreat from Vatican II to a more 'top down' hierarchical model. For him, the Church was more like a corporation that was best run along business lines. That is why he replaced Catholic Communications with an outsourcing of the work to corporate communications firm Royce Communications. I would suggest that this represented a decisive and deliberate shift from truth tellers to spin doctors.

Cardinal Pell's actions and attitudes towards the media over the years have demonstrated a lack of appreciation of its role in truth telling. If, as he stated yesterday, he is innocent of the 'false' charges laid against him, it is in his interest not to condemn the truth telling media but to trust and embrace it.


Link: statement

The spirituality and moral purpose of 'no religion'

I remember where I was when I first heard that Catholics had overtaken Anglicans to become Australia's largest religious denomination numerically. I was with a group of Jesuits at a school in Adelaide in 1979 and one of them said that he had read it in The Australian newspaper.

However religious sociologist Gary Bouma contradicts that in The Conversation yesterday. He says it was 1986.

Whatever the year of that particular milestone, yesterday's big news was that the 2016 Census data revealed that Catholics themselves had been overtaken by a new group called 'No Religion'.

No Religion Census Data graphic from The Conversation

I think it is significant that it is not being mis-reported that atheism is the majority. At least not by Bouma, who gets it right when he makes this distinction:

'Declaring "no religion" does not mean that someone is anti-religious, lacking is spirituality, or an atheist. It means they just do not identify with a particular organised form of religion.'

It seems that this middle ground majority is reluctant to identify with the various mainly Christian denominations that are associated with their particular cultural or ethnic heritage. The 'Irish Catholics' of a generation ago now see themselves as 'no religion'.

They are the ones who count themselves out when Cardinal Pell and other conservative church leaders declare that being a Catholic is a 'package deal'. These leaders say that you can't be a 'cafeteria Catholic', which means accepting some teachings while rejecting others.

This view reflected these words of Pope John Paul II in 1987: 'A large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic", and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error.'

Today the majority of Catholics including myself are cafeteria Catholics. I like to think that we are nuanced in our practice of the faith, combining conscience with guidance from credible moral leaders, whoever they may be. This group does not think twice about using artificial contraception or supporting marriage equality.

But its members are still concerned about issues of social justice. They send their children to Catholic schools believing they will develop a moral compass to guide them through life.

Even so, they won't be told what to do by the Bishops and other church leaders, whom they see as having covered up child sexual abuse to protect the Church. They look elsewhere for guidance on important issues that are not cut and dried, such as to Andrew Denton on euthanasia.

Denton is an entertainer who has become a credible moral leader because religious leaders have given up the ground. I don't agree with him on euthanasia but many Catholics do.

Pope Francis has shown the world what moral leadership from religious leaders can be about. Locally there is a handful of contrite church leaders with a credible moral and social message, such as Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta. But it will take at least a generation before there is a possibility that the Catholic Church as a whole could make up the lost ground.

Last year I declared myself a Catholic on the census form because I think it's important for 'nuanced' Catholics like myself - and indeed my confreres from other Christian traditions - to claim our damaged religious brands in the hope that they can eventually be rebuilt to reflect the more inclusive spirituality that is currently described as 'no religion'.


Links: Bouma cafeteria Denton

Planning my inurnment

I spent the weekend staying with relatives in their home by the beach on the coast at Gerroa, in the Illawarra region south of Sydney. Yesterday I accompanied my cousin when he went to the Memorial Garden at his local church to carry out an inurnment.

I'd never heard the word before. It refers to the placing in a 'niche', or some other resting location, a person's cremated remains that are contained in an urn.

Memorial Garden at St Marys Star of the Sea Gerringong

Following a ceremony at the end of Sunday Mass, my cousin dug the hole in the designated niche and put the urn in place before covering it with dirt and planting flowers over it.

The Memorial Garden was constructed and opened eighteen months ago. It is a variation on the form of the traditional labyrinth or maze and was inspired by the labyrinth in the Vatican Gardens.

It was suggested by my cousin's 91 year old mother, who had an urgent need to find the right resting place for the cremated remains of her husband - my father's cousin - who died in 2007.

Plan for Memorial Garden at St Mary Star of the Sea Gerringong

After the parish subsequently took up the suggestion and completed the design and construction, his remains were placed in niche 407. Adjacent niches are reserved for other family members and friends.

Yesterday I made a spontaneous decision to purchase niche 406, as I have become increasingly conscious of the need to specify what I would like done with my remains after I die.

Actually I've never had any particular wishes in this regard. For whatever reason - possibly to do with residual lack of self esteem - I've had an 'I don't care' attitude.

But increasingly I've felt concern for those around me when I die. They would be scratching their heads wondering what my unexpressed wishes were, and perhaps justifiably frustrated or annoyed that I had remained silent on the matter.

As of yesterday, this is resolved.

inurnment at Memorial Garden St Mary Star of the Sea Gerringong

But it does cause me to reflect upon the changing sociological profile of the community and the reality that many people including myself no longer fit neatly with established church or other traditional rituals surrounding death and how they would like to be remembered.

I don't know how this plays out in practice. But I imagine that the circumstances for many people become awkward when they have not expressed what they would like to occur when they die, and have never been asked. How do you pay respect to a person who was single or lived a life that was singular?

This happens to people at all levels, with many not part of a traditional family when they die. They may be comfortable with that - as I am - but there's no pro forma, and it's important for us all to accept that we are worth remembering and to decide how we would like this to occur.


Link: Memorial Garden

How the Catholic Church came to embrace its enemy Anthony Foster

This morning a State Funeral will be held for Catholic Church child sexual abuse victims advocate Anthony Foster, who died suddenly on 26 May.

In her tribute to 'the man who was integrity personified', fellow campaigner and Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy says there wouldn't be a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse without Anthony and and his wife Chrissie.

Anthony and Chrissie Foster

'Anthony Foster's integrity left him devastated by the Catholic Church, but it also made him one of its most devastating and formidable foes.'

In earlier days I was not a fan of the Fosters. I did not like the way they treated the Church as the enemy. I was aware of the Church's often unsung role in standing up for victims of abuse in many other areas such as sexual slavery.

I knew that the Church was fundamentally on the side of victims of all sorts of injustice. So I did not understand why the Fosters couldn't work with the Church rather than against it in achieving justice for the victims of the rogue priests.

I was naive and wrong. Eventually I came to accept that sexual abuse was a sin of the Church itself more than the 'rogue priests', whom I believed were themselves victims.

I became convinced that the Church's culture stunted the priests' growth as sexual beings and that child sexual abuse was the result. The Church as an institution had to own responsibility for sexual abuse, and change its culture.

The Fosters were right. The Church could not be trusted to achieve justice for abuse victims using its own processes. The perpetrator of the evil of the abuse was the Church itself, rather than a few - or even more than a few - bad apples. Don't put Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

So I came to believe that the Church was indeed the enemy of the people, as it had been portrayed by the Fosters and the media. If it was really the champion of the poor and marginalised - as I'd previously believed - why was it using its considerable financial resources to engage the best lawyers to fight the hapless victims in court?

If the Church itself was taking an adversarial approach towards victims, why shouldn't victims' advocates like the Fosters take an adversarial approach towards the Church? I was fully on board with the Fosters.

Fortunately the Fosters and other victims' advocates had fellow travellers within the Church. Some were courageous and competent individuals in positions of influence such as Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council. He was not afraid to slap down the Bishops - his employer - until they joined him in insisting that the Church's culture must change.

That is now happening, with some of the strongest and most moving statements and actions coming from bishops themselves. I think Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long's tribute to Anthony Foster must be the most notable. He reveals that he was quietly working with the Fosters to achieve justice for victims while some of his fellow bishops were fighting them in court.

Now others are joining him. These include Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who personally castigated the Fosters during World Youth Day 2008 for 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. These words of Bishop Long speak for themselves. The Church's own theological term metanoia (conversion of heart) comes to mind.

'At the end of the Royal Commission hearing of the five Metropolitans, the Fosters met with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. After he had left the meeting, Anthony [Foster] became very concerned how deeply affected Archbishop Fisher was. He contacted me and asked if I could check and make sure that the Archbishop was OK.'


Links: funeral McCarthy Long wounds