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.

Learning about public nudity from other cultures

Australia's major state art galleries have blockbuster exhibitions for the summer holiday season. In November I saw the David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria. Yesterday I went to 'Nude: Art from the Tate Collection' at the Art Gallery of NSW.

I'd found the Hockney quite mesmerising, as I did the Tatsuo Miyajima at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney last month. But there were no surprises at the 'Nude' exhibition. It was as if the Tate had tagged their nude paintings and sent them to Australia, and they were exhibited in chronological order.

Pierre Bonnards Nude in the Bath 1925 left and Barkley L Hendricks Family Jules NNN No Naked Niggahs 1974 right

Although it was predictable, I had quite an enjoyable afternoon. The two works I liked best were Pierre Bonnard's 'Nude in the Bath' 1925 (left), and Barkley L. Hendricks 'Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs)' 1974 (right). Unlike the exhibition as a whole, these works challenge our conventional attitudes to nudity - the Bonnard depicts a cropped woman who was not a beauty while the African American man in the Hendricks is.

I'd been intending to visit the exhibition since it opened six weeks ago and was reminded to do so when I read a news story in the Huffington Post on Saturday morning. It was about resisting the overturning of conventional attitudes towards nudity. It featured the comments of a Queensland father who was angered after spotting nudists having sex on a beach.

He could have been a One Nation voter who doesn't like foreign cultures influencing ours. He made the interesting point that nudity in Australia 'promotes promiscuity', while in Europe it is 'part of the culture'. I agree with his analysis but I disagree with his insistence that we should resist change.

In a conversation I had last week, I was recalling how I was very fearful of nudity as an eight year old, much more so that the other boys in my class at school. Before my class went swimming at the local pool, I remember asking my mother to write to the teacher to say I couldn't go swimming. I was afraid of being nude or semi-nude in front of my classmates in the change shed. Thankfully she said no.

Now I am thoroughly unselfconscious when it comes to nudity. When I go to Japan and Korea, I seek out the traditional community baths (sento and onsen in Japan and jjimjilbang in Korea), because they are very relaxing and an easy way to experience the cultures away from other tourists.

Please Enjoy Sento poster from Japanese sento

After attending 'Nude' yesterday, I was thinking that the very idea of gathering together the Tate's nude artworks for an exhibition reflects the old Australian and Anglo Saxon attitude of nudity as exotic and not part of normal everyday life such as it is with Japanese and Koreans routinely going to wash and relax in the local community bathhouse.

From my experience of normalised nudity in Japan and Korea, I would suggest to the Queensland father that it is the Australian attitude of nudity as exotic or 'other' that promotes promiscuity, and not nudity per se.

The Catholic Church and homophobic bullying and violence

There was media coverage this week of a Queensland move to repeal the ‘unwanted homosexual advances’ defence for murder, commonly known as the 'gay panic defence'.

What I think is most remarkable about this development is that it was a Catholic priest - Father Paul Kelly - who heroically spearheaded the campaign that has been instrumental in getting the law reform to this stage.

Traditionally, and up to the present time, many Catholic priests have seen it as their duty to stand in the way of of justice for LGBTQI people. Some have even positively encouraged homophobic bullying or acts of violence.

Josh from ABC TV Please Like Me
Last year The Age revealed that the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying. It was titled Not So Straight and written by then Jesuit priest Father Peter Norden.

The archbishop said that use of the report in schools would 'either blur the clear position of the Church or by the use of terms such as "natural behaviour" imply a suggestion that alternative sexuality should be accepted.' He expressed the long held view that it was important to draw a line between behaviour regarded as normative and what the Church teaches is 'disordered'.

It was, and largely still is, regarded as important for church personnel to actively maintain this distinction, though The Age report does indicate that Archbishop Hart has softened his stance since 2007.

I have a clear personal recollection from the mid 80s of a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of 'sending out' his students to bully peers who were homosexual. The context was the AIDS crisis which, in his commonly held view at the time, had made it more urgent that homosexuals remain marginalised.

This priest had obviously become more candid and eccentric as he aged, but that only makes his boast more credible. He'd made it clear that he'd considered it his duty to promote homophobic bullying. Other priests would be more discrete or possibly repentant.

I think that this kind of blatant church denial of human rights for LGBTQI people has now given way to a culture of widespread and insidious self-censorship, which I was part of until a year ago.

As editor of Eureka Street, I would refer upwards editorial content that promoted a view of the acceptance of homosexuality as normative. A California based Jesuit had written an excellent and potentially groundbreaking article offering a theological basis for affirming transgender identity (eventually published elsewhere). I weakened the article in an initial edit, then received suggestions for further softening after the upward referral. Subsequently it was my self-censoring decision not to proceed with publication.

That's why I'm pleased to see that my successors appear less bound by self-censorship, as is evident with the publication of today's lead. Titled Queering the airwaves for TV diversity, it is an affirmation of the currently screening LGBTQI themed ABC comedy drama Please Like Me (pictured). Today's article strikes a much overdue Catholic Church initiated blow against homophobic bullying and violence.