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

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

Queer Art at Tate Britain

The exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 has recently opened at Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery in London that was renamed to distinguish it from the separate Tate Modern.

I went there on Friday with mixed feelings, sensing that it could be more of an ordeal than a pleasure to see a show designed to highlight acting on same sex attraction when it was a criminal and social taboo.

Sure enough, I was pleased to get out of there when I'd given it the once over.

I saw too much that was either troubling or confusing. There was photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden's turn of the 19th century portraits of naked Sicilian 10-20 year old boys posing as classical athletes. I wasn't sure how this was different from the kind of child pornography that exploits and damages minors and is now a serious offence to possess.

Wilhelm von Gloeden 1856-1931 Head of a Sicilian Boy

The exhibit's descriptive label refers to a writer who had a packet of van Gloeden's images and 'peeped at it again and again', but then provides context.

'To our eyes, there is a troubling power dynamic between the wealthy von Gloeden and the impoverished Sicilian community, and the uncertain age of some of his models gives an uncomfortable undercurrent to his work'.

If that was a bit edgy for me, the exhibition did include quite a few insights into aspects of social history that were new to me.

There was a painting of social reformer Henry Havelock Ellis, who spent his early adult years in Australia before returning to England to study to become a physician. He was also a writer and his most famous book Sexual Inversion (1897) was an objective study of homosexuality that did not present it as a disease, immoral, or a crime.

Henry Bishop 1868-1939 Henry Havelock Ellis

Currently Tate Britain also has a major David Hockney exhibition. I chose Queer Art because I'd seen the National Gallery of Victoria's Hockney show in Melbourne last November. But it occurred to me that a visit to the Tate's Hockney instead would have given me a much more grounded and celebratory experience of queer British art that was at the same time not lacking in edge.

Van Gogh Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear

A suprise later in the day was The Courtauld Gallery near Australia House in the Strand. I'd never heard of it before, but my sister had recommended it.

The Courtauld has a large collection on four levels, ranging from Medieval and Renaissance to 20th Century Modernist. These included many classics such as Van Gogh's 1889 Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear. A painting with huge appeal to the mainstream that would have once been regarded as quite challenging.

Links: Queer von Gloeden Ellis Courtauld

Remembering The Little Red School Book

While spending the weekend staying with friends in Canberra, I visited exhibitions at Old Parliament House and the National Archive. Among the National Archive's current featured exhibits are documents related to The Little Red School Book.

Publication of this book was the subject of intense debate in Australia in 1972. It was banned in several countries but the Federal Minister for Customs and Excise Don Chipp eventually allowed its publication here.

The Little Red School Book

The book's Danish authors encouraged school students to use their initiative against what they portrayed as the authoritarianism of the time. School teachers and other adults needed to be regarded as 'paper tigers' who 'can never control you completely'.

Discussing school education, the authors criticised the majority of teachers who 'think it's unnecessary to explain to their pupils why they must learn certain things'. With regard to sex and drugs, the issue in the minds of the authors was safety, not morality (i.e. harm minimisation). They emphasise technical explanations and advice about the risks of drug addiction and STDs.

Documents in the National Archive exhibit include a protest letter from the president of an Adelaide branch of the Presbyterian Women's Association, who wrote that she was 'appalled by the polution of the mind' represented by publication of the book.

Another correspondent, from South Yarra in Melbourne, commended the Minister for resisting the protestors, who'd sent 'unsigned filthy notes ... worse than the publication that they are complaining about'.

Presbyterian Womens Association

I was drawn to the exhibit by a recollection from when I was in Year 7 at high school. It was 1972 and there was a rare non-conformist Christian Brother who quietly lent me the copy of the book that he'd managed to source.

As a 12 year old, much of it went over my head. But I remember perusing its content and writing a review to enter in a book review competition being organised by the school librarian. I won the competition because mine was the only entry. I'm not sure how the librarian managed to avoid censure from the principal, but that wasn't my concern.

Now when I think of the furore over The Little Red School Book in 1972, I'm inclined to compare it to the recent debate over the controversial Safe Schools Program, which in its own way is also designed to foster student responsibility and to avoid conflating safety with morality.

In contrast to their Coalition forbears who debated and approved The Little Red Schoolbook 45 years ago, it seems that members of today's Federal Government have shown a conspicuous lack of backbone in yielding to pressure from the right wing and acting to gut the Safe Schools Program.

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.