The real scandal is Joyce's schooling

One of the friends I caught up with at the weekend is a therapist who has just published a book titled Kind Man, Strong Man. 

I bought it for my Kindle and read much of it last night. It is about violence in men towards their intimate female partners. The author – Eric Hudson – worked for five years providing emotional support at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

From my reading, his book is about attitudes and values that contribute to a society in which women are not respected or treated as equals. The question of physical violence is often irrelevant.

Hudson says: ‘I remember so clearly the moment when a woman said to me, “You know, he has never hit me, never laid a hand on me, but there are some times when I wish he would hit me! Because then I would have the bruises on the outside where they can be seen, not on the inside where no-one can see them.”’

The recent commentary about Barnaby Joyce that has resonated most with me has centred around the words ‘power imbalance’. It suggests – rightly or wrongly – that we are dealing with male abuse. In other words, the circumstances in a man’s life where all the women are not respected or treated as equals to men.

I don’t think it is helpful to judge Barnaby, especially in the way the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did on Thursday. It’s better to focus on a critique of the culture. 

We can hope that Barnaby and other influential men will see the reality of how they treat women and act for change. There’s no point in provoking them to try to defend the indefensible.

It is true that Barnaby’s personal choices appear to have caused immense suffering in the lives of the women in his life. But because he is the product of a culture that has little respect for women, the odds are that his actions will reflect that. 

I would say that it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that he was schooled to treat women as second class citizens. 

It was the same for me. He was a country kid in an all male Jesuit boarding school, St Ignatius College Riverview in Sydney. Just a few years earlier, I was a country kid in another all male Jesuit boarding school, Xavier in Melbourne. For months at a time, we did not have girls around us to relate to as fellow human beings and equals. 

Girls were always on our minds, as sex objects. It is not surprising that boys from similar schools graduate to institutions like the infamous St John’s College at the University of Sydney, where the ritual humiliation and abuse of women and less macho men was not questioned until recently. That is the real scandal.

Joyce’s leadership of the Nationals may be no longer tenable, and the Nationals are having to deal with that. But the best thing our political class can do for the long term is to make laws that foster respect for women.

LINK: Kind Man, Strong Man

Who really killed confession?

Amidst the negative publicity the Sacrament of Confession received after last Friday's release of the Child Abuse Royal Commission final report, one positive moment stood out for me.

It was the religious broadcaster Noel Debien making a personal allusion on Friday evening on ABCTV's The Drum discussion panel. He 'outed' himself as a practising Catholic who goes to Confession.

He was suggesting that his practice of the faith, including Confession, was a means of enrichment in his life. That struck a chord with me and I felt that I too would like to go to Confession when the opportunity presents itself. But on my own terms.

I think that most Catholics have stayed away from Confession for decades because the thought of it has made them feel small and unworthy. Good on them.

It's not dissimilar to the dynamic of sexual abuse, which made its victims feel small. It is part of what critics of the Church see as a power play that is designed to tighten the screws of the institution's psychological grip on its faithful.

But it needn't be the Church at its worst. Confession can offer a pathway to wholeness and growth. 'I can and want to be a better person.' Who does not have that aspiration in their life?

The good news is that ethical and moral virtue is within our grasp.

I felt this yesterday during a phone call with a friend who is a spiritual mentor in another context of my life. We were discussing the Royal Commission report and Confession and my sense of how cathartic it can be when done right.

As if to demonstrate my point, I mentioned some of my actions from last week that I wasn't particularly proud of. I manifest them to him and owned them. Then, right on cue, I felt I'd taken a step up the ladder towards virtue nirvana. I'd become more whole as a person.

I questioned why the Church cannot seem to give us that experience.

After Vatican II, it was on the right track when it renamed Confession the 'Sacrament of Reconciliation'. It was as if it was offering us our own personal truth and reconciliation commission. The kind of thing they have when they want to right wrongs and make a fresh start in countries where there have been human rights abuses.

Then came the pullback of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. It reverted to Confession and the rhetoric once again implied the play in which the Church and its officials make us feel small and that this is somehow for our own good. They killed it.

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

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