Margaret Court's narrow focus then and now

I remember growing up in Margaret Court's home town of Albury-Wodonga at the height of her success in the 1960s and 1970s. We'd drive past the lawn tennis courts where she'd honed her skills.

Her family lived opposite and she would crawl through a hole in the fence to practise, in her determination to succeed and be the best. She reminisces about growing up a tomboy in a neighbourhood full of sports mad boys with whom she would compete.

Margaret Court

My father would cite her example of working hard to achieve a goal. He even paid for me to take tennis lessons from her coach Wally Rutter.

Dedication to a specialised task inevitably involves a narrow focus. This does not have to be a bad thing. But if I had to sum up what I think of Margaret Court today, I would say that she is in a very narrow place, hopelessly deluded in a way that causes harm to young people.

She's a fundamentalist who focuses on a literal and narrow reading of the Bible. She says marriage is 'a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible'. But the Bible also sanctions practices she would disapprove of, such as polygamy and the use of slaves as sexual concubines.

Margaret Court in 1964

I was interested to read the conciliatory remarks of Court's nephew Phil Shanahan, who runs the Margaret Court Tennis Academy in Wodonga. He's suffered abusive 'bashing' on his door during the middle of the night, and there have been vitriolic attacks on the Academy's website and social media pages.

He distances himself from his aunt's remarks. He advocates a marriage equality conscience vote in parliament and affirms those involved in the academy who identify as gay. But he insists that she is entitled to express her opinion.

'Marg says that's what the Bible says and she's a pastor, she believes that and is committed to that'.

Margaret Court and Phil Shanahan - centre - at Margaret Court Tennis Academy

However insisting on her right to say what she thinks is in itself damaging to the self esteem of young people working out their sexuality. Why can't he just say that he loves his aunt but she should not express these opinions because they destroy young people's self esteem and cause them to self-harm?

After previous homophobic remarks made by Court in 2012, comedian Magda Szubanski spoke of having suicidal thoughts while struggling with her homosexuality as a teenager.

It seems that Court's Victory Life Church could be well on the way to becoming a local version of the proactively homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in the US. These churches actually advocate violence. Last week in North Carolina, a woman was found guilty of leading 30 parishioners to attack and beat a gay member of the church in order to 'expel his demons'.

Links: tomboy fundamentalism nephew wrong Magda demons

Harm minimisation and judging the behaviour of other people

Late last week tabloid columnist Andrew Bolt berated the 47 year old Greens Deputy Leader Scott Ludlum, who 'broke the law' when he used recreational drugs while he was in his 20s.

The details of Ludlum's past were gleaned from an interview with Ludlum in the latest issue of the men's magazine GQ.

Bolt was accusing Ludlum of being hypocritical in taking a hard line against tax evaders who break the law while being unrepentant about having broken laws against recreational drug use.

Scott Ludlum in GQ Magazine

My view is that Ludlum's personal testimony that recreational drug use 'didn't do a lot' for him is more powerful than any attempt to prosecute drug users.

He talks about the dysfunctionality of his life when he was in his 20s and he experimented with drugs. I could talk about the dysfunctionality of my life when I was in my 20s and I experimented with religion.

They're the things that you fall into. They might give you a certain dubious or perhaps real quality of life, or they might cause you harm. I'd suggest they do both. Ludlum doesn't seem to regret that he tried drugs and I don't regret that I tried religion.

I don't know whether he's completely sworn off all mind altering substances, but I haven't given religion away. In fact Pope Francis' 'Who am I to judge?' attitude informs and affirms my approach to behaviours of other people I find hard to accept.

But back in my 20s I was 'driven', and I suspect he was as well. That's what happens before you eventually settle down from the excesses of your 20s. What we do while we're young sets us up - for better or worse - for our middle and later years, and makes us the people we become. Hopefully we like the people we have become. I do.

It doesn't seem fair that Ludlum's experimentation was regarded as a crime, while mine was at the time associated with a position of honour in the community. That's why I believe in harm minimisation and the prosecution of drug dealers but not than the users they exploit.

It wasn't always that way. I remember struggling with radio talkback programs on Triple J that treated recreational drug use as normal. I was still at a stage when I would 'judge' drug users, as I think they would have judged me for my choice of a religious way of life.

I came to appreciate the value of harm minimisation strategies, whether it was the advice of experts on the radio or the medically supervised drug injecting centre that the Uniting Church established at Kings Cross in 2001.

Now I like to believe that nothing should be off limits but everything should be subject to a harm minimisation strategy. But that kind of thinking belongs to an ideal world, and in reality certain actions like tax evasion and drug dealing need to be proscribed by laws that ultimately judge those who carry them out.

Australia's migrant clampdown and religious fundamentalism

Frequently at dinner parties, I look around and realise that I am the only Australian born resident at the table. It's a good feeling.

When I travel elsewhere in Australia - as I did at Easter - I notice that the population is much more 'white' than I'm used to.

I'm always pleased to arrive home in inner city Sydney, where the foreign born population is far in excess of Sydney's average of 39 per cent. Sydney has Australia's largest percentage of migrants.

Postwar Migrants to Australia

I felt depressed this week when the Prime Minister announced a clampdown on immigration to appease and secure political support from One Nation and other right-wing voters. I know that the changes are largely cosmetic because it would be too damaging to our economy if they were significant in real terms. But that is no excuse.

It was about messaging and it was very rude. He said: 'Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard'.

It's as if most migrants don't do these things already.

For me, the greater privilege is having my own values and cultural practices informed and enhanced by the presence of migrants in my life. It is my education.

Those Australians who are hostile to migrants and the pattern of migration in recent years share many of the characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which thrives on willful ignorance.

This week I read an excellent article linking religious and secular fundamentalism. It was written by the anthropologist and Marist priest Gerald Arbuckle in The Good Oil, the online publication of the Good Samaritan Sisters.

What I found most disturbing is his demonstration that there is no effective conversation or dialogue to be had with fundamentalists.

Gerald Arbuckle - Fundamentalism A Threatening Global Reality

'Because fundamentalism is at depth an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change, fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. Here in Australia there is a political fundamentalist movement to preserve the "pure, orthodox Australian culture" from the "endangering ways of foreigners", particularly Muslims. It matters little to adherents that such a culture has never existed.'

Indeed the Anzac Legend, which features prominently in the now more rigorous citizenship test, was confected for political purposes, largely in the Howard era after 2001.

Because much of this new fundamentalism is recent and superficial, my hope is that it will disappear as quickly as it arrived, even if the motivation is self-interest. The prime minister knows it and hopefully he can lead Australians to the realisation that the enviable standard of living Australians enjoy is a result of migration.


Eating chocolate as Embodied Spirituality

I have just read Newtown Nutrition's latest blog inviting us to 'tune into food textures'.

One of their nutritionists writes about hot cross buns. She says we can enjoy their crunch by toasting them. Or we can use the microwave and savour them by appreciating their chewiness.

Hot Cross Buns

The principle applies to all foods. We can munch on raw carrot sticks with hummus or some other flavoursome dip. Or we can enjoy the sweet honied sensation that comes with steaming our carrots.

She's encouraging us to consider how we interact with food in order to maximise our sense of pleasure and nourishment in eating. It's about trying to undo the damage some people have done to their relationship with food through a long history of self-denial with dieting.

Recently I recalled some advice her colleague gave me a few years ago, which was to eat 'raw' chocolate. It happened as I was waiting at the checkout at Harris Farm Markets in my local shopping centre and I spotted a strategically placed selection of raw chocolate. So I made an impulse buy, a good one as it turns out.

Raw chocolate is minimally processed so that it offers a higher level of antioxidants. It's also expensive, with six tiny squares costing $6.49. That means you buy less of it and consume it thoughtfully over a much longer period of time. I eat one square at a time and savour its firm outside and soft interior and the flavour that endures for hours.

Raw Organic Chocolate

I find myself wanting to fit ordinary daily activities such as eating into 'the right order of the universe' by studying spirituality and remembering my past exposure to it.

I recall the Application of the Senses in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. He suggests that while contemplating scenes from the Christian Gospels, we might 'smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness'.

Ignatius also stresses the need to take time out during our day to identify moments of heightened awareness, which obviously include taste sensations.

Recently I've been reading about 'Embodied Spirituality', which focuses on bodily sensations as stepping stones towards our experience of wholeness as human beings.

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis speaks of the 'warm physical body which smells of sea, soil, and human sweat'. He then puts it in the context of Christian spirituality. 'The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand - when I can smell, see, touch.'

Describing the culture that produced church sexual abuse

A friend recommended I watch this week's ABC TV Compass documentary 'The Judas Iscariot Lunch Part 1', which I did. It featured 13 Irish former priests who looked to be in their 70s, speaking candidly about their training and ideals as young men and also their own humanity and experience of celibacy.

They called their lunch club after Pope Paul VI's suggestion that those who left the priesthood were betraying the Church.

The Judas Iscariot Lunch

However I didn't think they harboured any particular bitterness towards the pope or the Church. They were just telling it as it was. The Church offered them a way out of the oppressive social and economic circumstances of Ireland at the time, as an alternative to emigration.

As one of them put it, 'a way of dodging growing up and dodging Ireland'. It's what they wanted at the time, and what they got.

So were they suggesting that they never grew up? Possibly. At least not until after they left the priesthood.

They referred to celibacy as a gift. As a priest, you either had the gift or you didn't. In other words, celibacy worked for some but not others. If it didn't, things went awry. 'People sometimes took to the drink. Loneliness became a big problem'.

Put simply, that is what happens if you're part of an institution that allows you to dodge growing up. Instead of the usual 'growing up' preoccupations that define the lives of most young people - working out relationships and sexuality - these trainee priests would be focused on listening to and obeying '12,000 bells over [up to] 12 years' of formation.

Of course the elephant in the room was sexual abuse, which I suspect they will discuss in more depth in Part 2. But in a way it was better they left that alone because it allowed the documentary to describe more dispassionately the culture of the Church that made the ground fertile for sexual abuse.

It reminded me of the term 'thick description', which was developed by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his influential 1973 work The Interpretation of Cultures. His idea was that the setting or context for particular behaviour is more meaningful than the acts of behaviour themselves.

Trainee priests

Participant observation - such as the accounts of these ex-priests - is the key to evaluating a culture. This, he argued, was what anthropologists doing field research needed to pay close attention to.

I think that it is also crucial in achieving justice for church sexual assault victims. It provides a clear answer to the question of whether the blame lies with a 'bad' culture or 'rogue' priests. The implication is that if it can be established that a bad culture that produced rogue priests, the more appropriate course of action is redress from the institution that embodies the bad culture (i.e. the Church), more than locking up the perpetrators.

Too often media accounts let the Church off the hook by demonising the abusers. They focus on the experience of the victims at the hands of the abusers without painting a picture of the particular way of life that was the precondition for the abuse.

Messing with the Mass alienates Catholics who might return

In February, Eureka Street published an article titled 'Time to repeal "ugly" Mass translation'. It was written by Gerald O'Collins, an Australian Jesuit who has been one of the most recognised and respected theological voices in the English speaking Catholic world of the past 50 years.

He welcomes the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to revisit the Vatican document that shaped what he calls the 'ugly, Latinised translation foisted on English-speaking Catholics' by the 'clumsy, difficult' 2010 Missal.

The 2010 Missal that is currently in use replaced the accessible English of the 1969 translation. It opts for 'supplication' over 'prayer', 'wondrous' over 'wonderful', and 'oblation' over 'sacrifice' or 'offering'.

Such terms do not have currency in today's spoken English and I believe that their use in the liturgy amounts to a winding back of one of the major breakthroughs of Vatican II.

Gerald O'Collins is arguing in favour of instituting an 'incomparably better' translation from 1998 that was never used. But my view is different. I would prefer to see a reinstatement of the 1969 translation, largely for selfish reasons.

I accept his expert assessment that the 1998 is a better translation. But the 1969 is what my generation grew up with. And I am a member of what is arguably the most significant generation of Catholics that has been largely lost to the Catholic Church.

I say that not just out of baby boomer arrogance. I believe that, for various reasons, we are the ones who are the most likely of any generation to return to regular Mass attendance at this time. Yet the new translation - any new translation - alienates us as soon as we walk in the door and Mass begins.

Sometimes I even tell myself that it was intentional. We rejected the Sunday Mass obligation, so they don't want us back.

I know that's not true, but paranoia feeds my sense of alienation from the Church, as if it is a sect like the Exclusive Brethren, where you're either in or out. Cardinal Pell always criticised what he called the 'smorgasbord Catholics'. He was referring to those who wanted something from Catholicism but were not content with accepting all the teachings and rituals of the Catholic Church as a 'package deal'. That's me.

In common with many of my generation, I resented being forced to go to Mass as a child. It made me 'hate' the Mass. So I deal most effectively with my childhood trauma by choosing not to go to Mass as an adult. It's that simple.

In fact, often on a Sunday morning, I will pause briefly to give thanks to God that I have been mature enough to make an adult decision and not go to Mass. How perverse is that? The fact is that I cherish my self-given freedom from the Sunday obligation and it feels good.

The tragedy is that we all need public ritual in our lives, and the Catholic Church is the most powerful and significant source of ritual and community that is easily available to people like me. I do think about going to Mass. My local parish is blessed with one of the most gracious and creatively intelligent priests I know. But I know that the moment I enter that beautiful stone church, I will hit the brick wall of the unfamiliar Mass translation.

Helping the poor without a social work degree

I remember spending six weeks ‘helping the poor’ of Sydney’s eastern suburbs at the end of 1978. I was a Jesuit novice, and two of us were seconded to work with a small Australian order of nuns that specialised in providing nursing services and material assistance to those living on the margins.

Within the order there was tension between one of the younger nuns, who had a social work degree, and some of the older sisters, who believed such degrees were a distraction from the order’s core mission of providing aid.

The younger nun and her supporters argued that the order needed to adapt its mission towards lifting people out of poverty. What they'd always done - providing ongoing stopgap assistance - was keeping them marginalised.

In retrospect, I think they were getting into a discussion of liberation theology, which was then dividing the Catholic Church in Latin America in its efforts to make the church socially relevant.

The Sydney order was Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, also known as the Brown Sisters. The young nun in 1978 was questioning the teaching of the order’s founder Eileen O’Connor. O'Connor was reflecting the thinking of the time when she told her sisters in 1913: ‘The cause of a person’s poverty is not yours to question. The fact a person is poor is the reason you help’.

Last week I was reminded of this debate in the order when I read a report in Fairfax Media questioning the work of the 22 year old founders of the Orange Sky free mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless.

In January 2016, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett were awarded joint Young Australians of the Year for their social entrepreneurship. But the Fairfax reporter set about putting their remarkable achievement into perspective by seeking comments from professionals in social work and related disciplines.

University of Queensland social work academic Cameron Parsell told Fairfax that services such as Orange Sky undermined people’s dignity when they were forced to shower and wash in public spaces, ‘particularly when we know that ending homelessness is possible and cost-effective’.

Parsell’s research showed it cost the taxpayer more to keep a person chronically homeless ($48,217 each) than to provide permanent housing ($35,117).

Meanwhile the acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, urged philanthropists and organisations such as Orange Sky to consider where to channel their energy and funding.

‘The reality is that ending homelessness starts with boosting affordable housing, not providing comfort measures,’ she said.

The professionals’ point was well made, even if it misses the point that Orange Sky’s core mission is to connect people. Orange Sky would say that many people with a roof over their head are lonely and do not feel spiritually and emotionally whole.

One of the young entrepreneurs - Nic – responded: ‘Lucas and I are two young blokes who are volunteers and by no means are we experts in the homelessness sector.’

It could be that their passion and experience makes these 22 year olds perfect candidates to enrol in social work degrees and become experts in the homelessness sector.

My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.

A view of the Royal Commission from the End of the World

Yesterday I caught a bus to the End of the World. It was not exactly how I usually imagine the end of the world. More heaven on earth than hell on earth.

It took the form of a large open air seafood restaurant named the End of the World. It was at Teluk Bahang, near a fishing village in the relatively remote north western corner of the island of Penang. The original restaurant has been destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and subsequently rebuilt and relocated to higher ground.

I selected my live red snapper from the fish tank and had it served to me steamed Hong Kong style, with garlic, ginger, light soy sauce and rice wine. But my thoughts turned to the hell on earth experience of the victims of child sexual abuse in Australia and the justice that could be around the corner for them.

As I enjoyed my snapper, five of Australia’s Catholic archbishops were fronting the Royal Commission in Sydney. I was thinking of the brief conversation I’d had with a friend in Sydney on Sunday, hours before my departure for Malaysia. My friend is a mental health professional who has counselled many victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

He was angry with Archbishop Fisher after reading a long interview with him in the previous week’s Sunday Telegraph. The thrust of the interview was contained in the archbishop’s description of the sexual abuse crisis as a ‘kick in the guts’ for the non-offending majority of good priests. The archbishop said they had felt ‘contaminated, betrayed and demoralised by the paedophiles in the church’.

My friend was dismayed that the archbishop appeared to have minimised the suffering of the victims.

Upon reading the interview, my reaction was to be stunned at Archbishop Fisher’s apparent discounting of an underlying reality I thought the Church was gradually coming to accept. That is the argument that child sexual abuse is primarily a product of the culture of the Church, rather than numbers of rogue priests and brothers. But his message in the interview was that the priests who had ‘given their all’ had been ‘tarred with this brush’ that belonged to those who had physically carried out the abuse.

I was surprised that the archbishop would say these things publicly, even if this is what he thought privately. It was as if he had not learned from the public outcry that followed his infamous advice to parents of victims (the Fosters) during World Youth Day 2008 when he suggested they should get over it and not ‘dwell crankily on old wounds’.

However when he was before the Royal Commission yesterday, Archbishop Fisher did describe the Church’s response to victims as ‘criminal negligence’. He admitted that allegations were covered up in the past to protect the Church’s reputation.

My hope is that the Catholic Church will emerge from the Royal Commission contrite and not triumphant. In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Archbishop Fisher was still expressing pride in the Church’s role in building the social welfare infrastructure of Australia through its schools for the poor, its orphanages and hospitals ‘where there were none’. To me, it appears the Church was unwittingly constructing breeding grounds for child abuse for which it must now take responsibility.

In my view, Vatican II’s vision of a ‘pilgrim church in need of redemption’ must be realised. The Church’s theologians could take the Church’s doctrine of ‘social sin’ as the basis for admitting that the whole Church, including the ‘good’ priests and laity, should take responsibility for the abuse.

My final thought is prompted by the archbishop’s admission of criminal negligence, and it may or may not be too far-fetched. It is that child sexual abuse is a crime against humanity, and on that basis it could be fitting to take the Australian Catholic Church to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in order to secure ultimate justice for victims.


Sex abuse monster portrayal lets Catholic Church off lightly

I was interested in the Australian Catholic Church's release yesterday of data revealing the relative percentages of child sex abusers in the various dioceses and religious orders between 1950 and 2009.

What was most significant for me was that there were no mention of names of individuals - it was just dioceses and orders. In addition, there was a large disparity among the dioceses and also among the orders. For example, 40.3 per cent of the St John of God Brothers were subject to complaints while the figure for the Dominican Friars was only 1.5 per cent.

This tells me two things. The first is the recognition that child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is primarily a cultural problem - it has less to do with rogue priests or religious. The second is that child sexual abuse is a significant part of the culture of some dioceses and orders and not others.

It is the first time I can recall names of particular offenders being left out of the equation. I interpret this as a statement that the Church itself is the offender - and not rogue individuals.

This is qualified by the statistics that reveal that some dioceses and orders are over-represented. The Church is a confederation of cultures, some more conducive to child sexual abuse than others.

I think it is regrettable that until now, individual offenders and alleged offenders have been portrayed by the media as monsters, and punished as such. In my view, the media have played into the hands of the Church by demonising particular offenders and occasionally individual bishops and heads of religious orders.

Monster portrayal makes for better media stories and more effective community awareness of the problem. But as a result, the rest of the Church has got off lightly and the 'cultural' aspect of sexual abuse has been underplayed or even ignored.

Perhaps the best expert witness the Royal Commission didn't have - because he died in 2008 - is Professor Greg Dening. He was an ethnographic historian - Professor of History at the University of Melbourne - and for some years a Jesuit. His honours seminar History and Anthropology in 1985 was a highlight of my Arts degree.

In parallel with his academic research and writing, he wrote a number of histories of religious institutions - including Xavier College, Melbourne, and the Jesuit Parish of North Sydney - from the point of view of culture.

I would summarise culture as the range of practices we as a community do without questioning.

Dening explained in his North Sydney parish history that pre-Vatican II Catholics would hate themselves without questioning what they were doing. After Vatican II, the culture shifted to encourage them to love themselves humbly.

With reference to sexual abuse, it seems the St John of God Brothers would take sexual liberties with minors without questioning whether what they were doing was right or wrong. It was just the done thing. Sanctioned by the order's culture. For the Dominicans, the 'done thing' would not have included sexual liberties with minors.

I think the implication for this cultural view of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is that the punishment of individual offenders should receive less emphasis. And the Catholic Church as a whole, correspondingly more (with possible variations according to the level of offence within particular dioceses and orders).

The nature of the communal punishment is less relevant than the principle, but it could include property confiscation or loss of tax breaks and other privileges that were granted on the assumption that the Church would maintain its place of honour in the community.