How I can be both pro-life and pro-choice

I have just read Catherine Marshall's powerful Eureka Street article 'Trump moves against vulnerable women'. It is about his recent executive order that health organisations receiving funding from the US must not provide abortion services or advice, even if the money is not used to fund these services.

It has reminded me of my own inner struggle with regard to abortion. I am resolutely - but not proudly - pro-life.

In my own personal world, I cannot accept that any human being has a right to choose when to end the life of another (born or unborn) human life. That is God's prerogative.

But I am in favour of the current civil laws permitting early term abortion if the mother's physical or mental health is at risk. These are the vulnerable women that Catherine is talking about in her article.

I also think that it is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic publication like Eureka Street to advocate pro-choice positions in this way because they are pro-tolerance positions.

Tolerant Catholics - including me, I hope - do not impose their religious views on others. That is what religious extremists do. I accept that my particular religious views are out of step with the common sense reality of the community I live in. I don't mind that. In fact I cherish it. I like living in a multicultural, multifaith society.

Why I am not proud to be pro-life is that those who are proudly pro-life are often intolerant of the views of others. They are bigots. I like to think that I am not a bigot.

I might try to pretend that abortion is not my business. That it's for women, and perhaps couples, who are having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. But if I think of it, that's not fair on unborn human beings, who are defenceless. They need the state to advocate on their behalf.

The only point of contention is a big one. It's when human life begins. My religious belief is that this point is the moment of conception. But I don't have a right to impose that on anybody else. In reality, I support the common sense definition that life begins when the foetus is at an advanced stage of development, as determined by the state.

Without considering myself an expert, I think the state - Australia - has got it about right. Until a week ago, America had it about right. That this has changed is reason for protest and civil action.

The rapture on New Zealand's South Island

How to make sense of the beauty of nature on New Zealand's South Island. That is what I'm about at this moment, as I look through the window of our AirBNB accommodation bedroom at the clouds hanging over the snow capped mountains.

I can admire the people here on the South Island. Especially their plucky approach to facing the challenges of the natural environment. The Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes of the last few years, and the 'weather bomb', as they call it, that has hit them in the past week, closing roads and disrupting lives.

But its magnificence is another thing.

Yesterday my travel companion Bernard had a word that described his experience of it. Rapture.

I had a mixed reaction to that. What comes to mind is the end of times event from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. According to the prediction, Christian believers who have died will be raised to heaven and those still living will meet them in the clouds.

That doesn't help much. This kind of thing is the preoccupation of those who belong to some very weird branches of Christianity.

But it's a different story when I seek out its various dictionary meanings. A feeling of intense pleasure or joy. | A state of being carried away by overwhelming emotion. | A mystical experience in which the spirit is exalted to a knowledge of divine things.

I wonder where Bernard got this word from. It turns out that it's from the Australian writer Robert Dessaix, describing his experience of the sublime in the highest mountain passes in the world, in northern India.

'All I can see is snow and rock. I am thrillingly unhoused, yet snug. I am nothing, I am the whole world. The desolation is complete, the rapture not just beyond words, but thought. This is what abandonment means.' (The Saturday Paper, 1 Nov 2014).

We stayed in Arthur's Pass last week, the day before it was hit by the 'weather bomb' and isolated from the rest of the world. Then on Friday we drove through Haast Pass on Friday, on a beautiful sunny summer's day.

Were those experiences of the South Island mountain passes rapturous? Not exactly. But they do give me some understanding of what Dessaix is getting at.

We all have our particular moments of rapture. Their intensity varies, but they are still rapture.

For me during this trip, it was the orange rain clouds at sunset in Christchurch on the night of our arrival (some would see an allusion to the end of times meaning in the Book of Revelation!). For Bernard, it was the mirror reflection on Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier on the West Coast.

Being rapt is about being stopped in our tracks. Being suddenly able to see more than the mundane. A glimpse of what the divine is for us.

You don't need to be an afficianado of the Book of Revelation to experience rapture. Or even conventionally religious. It reaches many cultures, including youth culture. This is the Urban Dictionary's definition of rapt: 'Australian surfer slang, means excited. "oooo dude im so totally rapt".'

A visit to the Christchurch earthquake reconstruction zone

An earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale devastated the centre of Christchurch at 12:51 pm on 22 February 2011. It was one of a series of earthquakes that struck the city within a twelve month period, with a death toll of 185.

Of those who fled the city seeking refuge elsewhere, some were too traumatised to return, and Christchurch lost its status as New Zealand's second most populous city to Wellington. Those who did come back were very much determined to reconstruct the city, and their efforts are only beginning to take shape.

Walking around the city centre on Sunday, I could see that much of the area was fenced off and yet to see significant reconstruction activity. I could sense the panic and suffering that took place in this area and was struck by the relative lifelessness there is today.

The 'green shoot' that was most evident to me was the Transitional Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch, better known as the Cardboard Cathedral.

The NZ$5m A-frame structure was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and opened in August 2013 on a site located a few blocks from the original cathedral that was destroyed by the quake.

My visit transformed what was for me quite a desolate experience of the city centre. I appreciated the beauty of the construction, the welcome of the volunteer guide, and the pervading hope that the whole city centre will one day come back to life. There was the very unusual and mesmerising architecture, and also simple touches such as the flowers in the garden beds in front of the main doors.

I can't recall ever visiting the scene of a natural disaster in the interim period between clean up and major progress in reconstruction, and I did feel quite paralysed by the experience. But it was a Sunday, and I imagine that it could be a much more optimistic feeling if I go back there today when where will be more activity.

It did make me think about the concept of disaster tourism, which is defined as the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter or curiosity. This can include 'rubbernecking', or travel with the specific intention of paying respect, or something in between.

I remember being in New York in December 2001, a little more than three months after the 9-11 terror attacks. I had no thought of going to Ground Zero but I did talk to a local who said that residents were disturbed by tourists visiting the scene to take a look. In time Ground Zero has become a destination for those wishing to honour the victims of the disaster.

A tale of two media takeovers

Two Australian media takeovers have caught my attention this summer. They were both predictable and representative of changes in media culture and values that have evolved over the past decade.

But they are revolutionary in that, over this time, both organisations have, as I see it, made a 180 degree switch from objective reporting to a firm control of the message.

The media outlets of the organisations are the pay TV channel Sky News Australia and the Catholic church news service CathNews. The extent of the parallels is interesting, and perhaps chilling.

The ownership of Sky has shifted to Rupert Murdoch from Australian News Channel, a consortium established in 1996 that already included Murdoch. That of CathNews has moved to the Catholic Bishops Conference from Church Resources, a consortium established in 1997 that already includes the Bishops.

Most Australians do not consume either and have probably never even heard of them, especially the latter. But they do have a very large and loyal following within their respective niches - politics nerds and serious Catholics.

I could go on with this cute comparison, and I will. But first I should mention that I was the founding editor of CathNews in 1999 and continued in that role until the beginning of 2006.

The Jesuit entrepreneur Father Michael Kelly had asked me to devise a mechanism to allow his group buying co-operative Church Resources to communicate regularly with its constituency. CathNews did this daily and turned out to be quite successful. When I moved to Eureka Street, the professionalism of CathNews was enhanced by bringing in experienced personnel from Fairfax (Christine Hogan and Michael Visontay).

But by this time, the Bishops had started to realise that CathNews was effectively competing with them in shaping opinion about Catholic news and current affairs. From the beginning, CathNews' philosophy had been to uphold the values of objective reporting that were evident in the content of overseas Catholic publications such as the London Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter in the US.

However the Australian Bishops' desire was more for a 'corporate communication' model, where they controlled the message. The Vatican used to call this 'propaganda', approvingly. CathNews' editorial policy and practice was subsequently brought into line with these values.

Meanwhile the journalism of the various outlets in the Murdoch empire had evolved from the objective reporting that had long dominated secular media, towards 'campaign' journalism. This is a form of corporate communication where the opinions of the owner are given priority over objective truth, and their publication is sustained and coordinated in order to mould and control public opinion.

In recent years, the content and style of Sky News Australia has evolved to echo Murdoch's The Australian newspaper by day and his US FoxNews TV channel by night. With the change of ownership, the comparison will become more pronounced.

It is not entirely coincidental that the term 'post-truth' has become so prominent at this time. What is most worrying is that what it represents has come to be normalised and that these changes in ownership don't appear to be causing too much alarm.

The blessed duality of the Catholic Church

Yesterday Fairfax published an unlikely article by columnist and occasional Catholic Joel Meares. It was titled 'Growing up gay, Catholic school was a haven for me'.

He was thanking the lay teachers at his Catholic school for 'nurturing [his] difference'.

He said: 'These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.'

With some degree of understatement, he then acknowledged that his story was not everybody's story.

This reminded me of the blog I wrote last month in which I mentioned my personal recollection from 1980s of 'a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of "sending out" his students to bully peers who were homosexual'.

I put that in the context of a Fairfax report from 2015 that revealed the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying.

I don't live in Melbourne and I've only met Archbishop Hart once or twice, but I've heard him characterised as a doctrinal hardliner who is capable of empathy with marginal Catholics.

This is obviously not true of all clerics. Fairly or unfairly, Hart's erstwhile colleague Cardinal George Pell is often regarded as a narcissistic hardliner not capable of showing empathy to marginal Catholics.

Pope Francis has famously shown signs that he wants to 'include' LGBTIQ and other marginal Catholics in the life of the Church. That's what he was about when he proclaimed 2016 the 'Year of Mercy'. But he's also made it plain that he does not intend to change the doctrine.

In other words, the lives of LGBTIQ Catholics will still be 'objectively disordered' in the eyes of Catholic doctrine. But in practice, he wants LGBTIQ Catholics to be encouraged and affirmed, as Joel Meares was in his Catholic school.

Understandably many angry LGBTIQ ex-Catholics are not impressed by this wondrous contradiction. They ask why the Church's doctrine cannot be brought into line with its pastoral practice. They will have nothing to do with the Church until it is, and they will be waiting a long time.

My answer to them is that they should allow themselves to enjoy the blessed duality that is the Catholic Church. The supportive 'haven' Meares' Catholic school was for him as he grew up. Let the actions of the Church's quiet pastoral achievers hold sway over its loud clerics and the declining relevance of particular sections of doctrine.

Peter Singer on what's wrong with empathy

Recently I read Peter Singer's review article 'The Empathy Trap' on the 'opinion page' website.

Singer is the Australian philosopher most famous for applying John Stuart Mill's 19th century utilitarianism principles to modern ethical dilemmas. My study of ethics and moral theology in 1980-81 coincided with the publication of his classic text Practical Ethics. Singer was the bête noire of my teachers and I have since regarded his thinking with both interest and suspicion.

I was captivated by the social justice advocacy and activism of the time, which also featured prominently in the secondary school religious education curriculum. I remember Wendy Poussard's school text book Walk in My Shoes, which was used to teach students empathy with the poor.

Poussard's text represented the view that there were particular values that were non-negotiable. They could not be subjected to any kind of utilitarian calculus. The argument against this is that the ethics of empathy can be extraordinarily subjective. We can put ourselves in the 'shoes' of whales, but what about other animals or human beings? As Singer argues, 'empathy makes us kinder to [beings] with whom we empathise'.

He says: 'Trump, in his campaign speeches, made use of the tragic murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant to stoke support for his anti-immigrant policies. He did not, of course, offer any similarly vivid portrayals of undocumented immigrants who have saved the lives of strangers, although such cases have been reported.'

Singer's review article relates to the the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, written by Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.

He supports Bloom's argument that our ability to reason has a crucial part to play in ethical decisions, and empathy is just as likely to lead us to do the wrong thing. 'Animals with big round eyes, like baby seals, arouse more empathy than chickens, on whom we inflict vastly more suffering'.

I notice that The Conversaton has today begun a series on empathy, including the question of whether doctors and other professionals need more empathy, and when it can be counter-productive. It gets into questions of how empathy can be measured and contained, and whether it should be.

In December The Conversation had an article on Matthew Flinders' encounters with Indigenous Australians. It looked at genuine evidence for his feelings of empathy and sense of morality but concluded that they were always contained by his sense of duty, which was to explore and map the Australian coast and keep his ship's company safe.

If Flinders' empathy was relative to his sense of duty, Singer's empathy is subject to his own particular kind of rationalism. In other words, Singer's rationalism is limited in the way that economic rationalism is subject to the principles of free market economics. He can't pretend that his is the king of all rationalisms. I think that we need to agree with him about the absurdities that he points out regarding the manipulation of empathy, but use art and spirituality to supplement the dominant rationality in our society.

Does intercessory prayer work?

I remember when I was a Jesuit novice in the late 70s, that we would drive around Sydney in an orange VW Kombi van. When we needed a car parking space, two of the seven in my year believed we would find one if we said a prayer to St Gerard Majella. Two - including myself - thought that was rubbish, while the other three were somewhere in between.

We would always get a park in the end, and it remained a moot point whether we had St Gerard to thank. I was never convinced. I'm less hard line in my skepticism these days, though I believe that intercessory prayer works if it is not seen as a 'get out of jail free' card but more akin to the power of positive thought and initiative. We don't expect St Gerard to do the heavy lifting for us. He's there more to encourage us.

Oprah Winfrey said: 'The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.' She would have been referring to major life goals and not trivial matters like car parking. But, according to her doctrine, if we believe we can find a park, and look in the right places, we will. The key is that it will be a result of our own actions.

My previous rejection of intercessory prayer was probably more in line with the reformed Protestant Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which rejects intercessory prayer out of hand.

I've always found it hard to understand how predestination is any different to fatalism, which is defeatist and undermining of human possibility. It's like the Filipino bahala na 'leave it up to God' laid-back attitude that could be responsible for that country's perennially poor economic performance.

This is in contrast to that of the US, where it was the father of free enterprise Benjamin Franklin who said 'God helps those who help themselves'. The paradox is that this self-seeking attitude contradicts the selflessness that is at the heart of the message of the Christian Gospel.

My thoughts about intercessory prayer were prompted by a friend from many years ago who wrote to me on Saturday about the tough time she's had in recent years. Sadly her Catholic faith has not delivered at her time of need. She said: 'I have stopped praying as not one prayer has been answered'.

When fear is used to teach meditation

Yesterday I wrote about breath awareness. Its purpose was to overcome the 'disturbing turmoil' of mind chatter during meditation. Later in the day I was reminded of my early attempts at meditation as an 18 year old Jesuit novice at Canisius College, Pymble, in Sydney, in the late 70s.

'Disturbing turmoil' is also apt to describe my experience when I told the novice master - my spiritual director - that my attempts to meditate were not working. I said that I just couldn't quieten my mind and that I would sit there and fidget. He yelled at me and threatened to expel me from the Jesuit training I'd begun a few months earlier.

Canisius College Pymble Sydney

In those days it was common to use fear as a technique in teaching and training in schools and various institutions, including those in which religious 'formation' took place. This novice master had been rector of the diocesan seminary at Werribee outside Melbourne for many years, where he was responsible for the training of several generations of priests for the dioceses of Victoria and Tasmania during the Catholic Church's vocations boom of the 50s and 60s.

He had a reputation for being quite a tyrant but was supposed to have undergone a transformation after moving on from his role at the seminary in the late 60s. It was the time of the 'flower power' generation and he grew his hair long and embraced a peace loving ethos as a fiftysomething university chaplain. He also took on with gusto the spirit of Vatican II renewal and it seemed to make sense to put him in charge of training Jesuits in their first two years of formation.

But a leopard does not change its spots, and he turned out to be quite a fearsome novice master, even though the content of his teaching was solid and nuanced and he was interested in, and taught, the latest thinking in psychology, and meditation techniques from eastern religions. There was a certain incongruity in having such an authoritarian figure teaching Zen Buddhist and other eastern meditation techniques, which had been made popular at the time by the Jesuits William Johnston and Tony D'Mello.

My response to his yelling at me for not being able to meditate was to retreat from my honesty. I used my imagination to construct elaborate but believable scenarios in which I falsely claimed to have had breakthroughs in my attempts at meditation. At times he seemed most impressed with the progress he believed I was making. In hindsight, I think it was a tribute to my creativity, and I look back on it with an odd mixture of pride and shame.

I was actually very interested in spirituality at an intellectual level and would do a lot of reading and pay close attention to what he would teach my group of novices. That is why it was easy for me to construct the scenarios and to tell him what he wanted to hear. I'd learned that it was not acceptable for me to tell him what he did not want to hear, and it seemed that the truth or otherwise of what I was saying was secondary.

I survived my two years of formation in the novitiate and was approved to 'take vows' and go on to the next stage. But needless to say, the actual daily meditation that is essential to the way of life I was embarking upon did not become a part of my life. Sadly I suspect that my experience was quite common and that it accounts for many Catholic priests and religious either abandoning their vocation or remaining but not living their vocation.

A time of peace and goodwill and breathing awareness

The words 'peace on earth' encapsulate the message of the Christmas season. But peace on earth is looking more remote this Christmas than at any Christmas I can remember.

In thinking about what to do about world peace, I think first about politics. I inform myself. I'm convinced that Australia must decide whether to get closer to America as the power that protected us during World War II, or pursue an independent foreign policy more open to a continuing relationship with our biggest trading partner China.

It is interesting, and it matters. If we choose the US, we will probably be a target in the event of a nuclear war because of how crucial the Pine Gap facility is to American defences (that is a reality about which our media are largely keeping us in the dark). If we choose China, we will ultimately have to dance to its tune because it is so much bigger than we are and becoming more inclined to throw its weight around.

Breathing aware Fitbit watch

I know that there is an important link between our concern for the health and wellbeing of the world and our own health and wellbeing. I have a hunch that many people who have given up caring about world peace have also given up caring for their own physical, mental and spiritual condition.

My thoughts about politics are actually a preamble to what is really my interest at this moment, which is the importance of stillness as the lynchpin of our wellbeing and a major factor in our ability to think clearly. By stillness, I mean a stillness of the mind (not the stillness of the couch potato watching the Boxing Day Test on TV).

Yesterday a friend sent me an extract from a Christmas meditation by the spiritual writer Richard Rohr. My friend is not conventionally religious but values the message of Rohr, who urges us to wait for a quietness within ourselves so that we can see the image of our God 'reflected in [our] own clear waters'. But only if 'the disturbing turmoil of thoughts dies down'.

The chatter of the mind is what disturbs my clear waters. It can make me angry and misdirect my passions and decision making. I am working at becoming still.

I'm finding that focusing the mind on my breathing rather than thoughts is a good start. My Fitbit fitness tracker watch has guided breathing sessions that monitor my biorhythms and give feedback. They can be helpful in training my mind to focus on the pattern of my breathing.

The stillness that this breathing awareness promotes allows a peace in our hearts that can gather pace as we mature. Another friend recalled yesterday that he was previously 'fuelled with rage and despair' but has now 'matured to a point where [he] can appreciate the humanity that connects us all'. I would guess that he now has more moments of stillness in his life.

Where Christmas is purely a religious celebration

Christmas is a celebration that I can take or leave, and it is one that I am free to take or leave. It is optional in that I have family available to me but no family obligations. I count that as my particular Christmas blessing.

Over the past 20 years, I've had some wonderful Christmas celebrations with parts of my family, and they've made it clear that I am welcome to join them any time but not expected. More often than not over the past decade, I've chosen to spend Christmas travelling, mainly because I was employed and required to take annual leave at the end of the year.

Nativity scene in Encarnacion Paraguay

I've spent Christmas Days in cities such as Hanoi, Toronto, Tainan (Taiwan), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Bandung (Indonesia), and Asunción (Paraguay). Sometimes with my travelling companion, sometimes alone.

My strangest experience of Christmas was in Latin America in 2009. Christmas there is understated because it is purely a religious celebration and not at all a commercial event. The absence of Christmas from public consciousness has nothing at all to do with the kind of political correctness in the US that Donald Trump is currently vowing to overturn.

In shopping malls, December is like any other month of the year. Decorations are only in churches and the homes of devout Christians. Paradoxically Christmas appears to be more prominent in some ostensibly atheist Communist countries such as China (though it is pointedly banned in North Korea).

While there were no signs of Christmas in the streets in Argentina and Uruguay, in Paraguay I saw nativity scenes (also called cribs or creches) in some public places. It's the particular tradition there, where the nativity scene is known as the pesebre. I took the photo above outside a bus station in the border city of Encarnación.

The nativity scenes there were obviously an indication of the exclusively religious nature of Christmas. But elsewhere it was different. I was in Montevideo a week before Christmas, and came across an early mardi gras procession. It had nothing to do with Christmas but was apparently quite normal in Uruguay.

December Mardi Gras in Montevideo Uruguay

In the public mind in these countries, Christmas is relative to other Catholic religious feasts. In Argentina, 25 December is a public holiday but so is 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Is the birth of Jesus that much more significant than his conception? Probably not.

On Christmas Eve in Asunción, the streets were deserted and restaurants were closed. Families were at home preparing for their own Christmas celebration and going to midnight mass. Eventually I found a hotel that was open and enjoyed a meal in the company other travellers from different countries.

It turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic in that we had a meal and a few drinks and then headed back to our various accommodation houses rather than looking for a church to take part in the celebration of midnight mass.

On Christmas morning, I recall lying in the swimming pool at the back of my guest house, somewhat more fittingly experiencing the solemnity of the day attuned to a stillness in the air that was breached only by the sweet sound of a choir singing Christmas carols somewhere in the distance.