Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The why do we bother file - an Australian diocese institutes female lectors...

Somehow or other, I always seem to strike some abuse or undesirable event when I go to Sunday mass these days.   Mostly its the normal stuff - those annoying jolting moments inherent in the novus ordo ritual; odd breaks in the ritual to remind us that it's all about us, not God; altar girls; suspect sermons and so forth. 

But today's was a classic - on the same Sunday that the bishop of this diocese was over at the traditional Latin Mass community conducting some confirmations (if I were of a machiavellian mindset I would speculate that the date might have been set in the hope that most of the likely troublemakers would be elsewhere - except that I'm almost sure this wasn't the first occasion on which this has occurred), the administrator of his Cathedral was (illicitly) instituting four women as lectors.

Now women can of course, under the current Code of  Canon Law, receive temporary assignment to the role of lector.

And the Synod on Scripture held last year certainly put the idea of allowing women to be called to the stable ministry of lector on the table.  But unless I missed it (and I'm pretty sure I didn't), that hasn't actually been agreed yet, and remains prohibited by Canon Law.  Given the concern around the world the idea raised, I wouldn't be betting on it happening any time soon either.

Now it may be that what I saw yesterday wasn't really the institution of lectors, but some faux ceremonial around the temporary calling of persons to fill the role.  If that was the case, it should have been made clearer, so as not to give rise to scandal. 

Because while I'll admit that the institution of lectors is not a ceremony that I'm familiar with (though I've looked up the ceremonial on the net), it certainly seemed to be just that.  It started with the naming of four people 'called to the ministry of lector'.  Involved some prayers with narry a mention of temporary, or extraordinary minister or anything to indicate that it was anything other than a permanent ministry.  And it included them all being given the Bible.  Then everyone clapped.

Strange happenings indeed.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Le Barroux nuns' Decca CD

Le Barroux's nuns (where Australian Sr Mechtild is a novice) have been signed by Decca records, with an album coming out in November.

You can listen and learn a bit more about them and the project here:

Monday, 26 July 2010

Of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings: two competitions on tv last night

A week into the election campaign and some of my readers still seem to be under the impression that participation in our democracy is an optional extra.  So herewith a little catechism that issue.

Does the election matter?

Last night 3.4 Australians tuned into the surprisingly polite and staid but important Federal election debate.  Actually that's not bad ratings-wise for an event of this kind.  Far more like an old-fashioned school debate than any recent political gladiatorial event though, it had me sighing for the good old days of Paul Keating-esq rhetoric. 

Instead, Abbott did his best to try and convince us that he doesn't really foam at the mouth, while Gillard did her best to try and convince that her policies are exactly the same as Abbott's - unless it comes to industrial relations.  Both more or less succeeded in their aims at least with those of their own gender (though not the opposite one), making it hard to call a winner (though the worm apparently gave it to Gillard).

Perhaps the studied niceness was real (we know Abbott and Gillard actually do get along); perhaps they were taking their cue from the main event, the Masterchef finale which at its height had some 5.7m looking in on the Masterchef finale at its peak, and 3.9m watching the battle between Callum and Adam (the ultimate winner).  It too was filled with hugs and kisses, and not just policy air kisses.

Presumably, the commentators on my previous post who seem to regard our Government and participation in our democracy as something catholics can just opt out of were amongst the Masterchef watchers rather than the worm-followers. I do hope not though.

Can we opt out of Government?

Some commentors on my previous post have been arguing that we don't have to vote either because the right not to vote is an inherent right, because our Government is so immoral as to be no true Government, or because a liberal democracy can never be in the common interest.   Frankly all three of these views seem to me to be seriously out of court for any reasonable catholic.

Cardinal Pole has helpfully set out the arguments on why Australia's compulsory voting laws are reasonable laws.  Let me set out some first principles.

Presumption in favour of the Government

The Church's teaching is that Catholics have, prima facie, a duty to honour their civil rulers and obey their governments.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church for example states that:

"Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country..." (2240).

The Catechism of Trent makes the point that the fact that our rulers might be wicked and unworthy does not remove this obligation (see the discussion under the fourth commandment). 

It is true that if they pass unjust or immoral laws, we should not obey them.  So we should resist any laws that permit abortion for example.

That does not mean however that we have the right to reject our Government or system of Government, or simply to opt out altogether.

When can we legitimately resist a Government?

It is worth remembering that the Scriptural injunctions to respect Government (such as Mt 22:21, the various injunctions of St Paul and 1 Peter 2:13) were all written in the context of a Government that permitted both infanticide and abortion, amongst many other morally reprehensible laws.  Christians resisted laws that were unjust - but, unlike the Jewish people of the time, did not attempt to overthrow the Government.

Instead they prayed for it and their rulers, and worked for change.  And that is the obligation we have as well.

There are of course cases at the extreme where it is permissible to reject a Government or system of government, and the Catechism sets them out (2243) - certain, grave and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; all other means have been exhausted;  resistance will not make things worse; well-founded hope of success; no better solution reasonably foreseeable.

It is hard to see that these conditions could possibly be considered satisfied in the Australian context.

So please, let's stop this silly debate and focus on the actual issues at stake in this election...

Sunday, 18 July 2010

And it is on: Australia goes to the polls on August 21

Australia's three week old PM Julia Gillard pulled the plug yesterday, announcing an election for August 21, some three months short of a three year 'full' term (and well short of the maximum possible length the Labor Government could have run - she had until April 16 next year in theory).  Oh for fixed term elections!

Voting is compulsory in Australia, and potential voters have until Monday night to make sure they are on the electoral roll (and thus avoid a fine) - you can check whether or not you are correctly enrolled by going to the Electoral Commission site.

The polls put the two parties pretty close, and it is certainly hard to separate them in many ways.  In the few short weeks of Gillard's Prime Ministership we've seen a continuation of the current Government's incompetence when it comes to actually delivering policy, with its overly rushed and misguided asylum seeker policy that has (as I predicted) quickly unravelled.  And we've seen a rush to the middle ground on a range of other issues.  The question is whether Labor does actually have any areas of genuine policy leadership it plans to unveil.

On the other hand, the erratic path of announcements from the colourful Opposition leader Tony Abbott  doesn't really lend a great deal of confidence that the other side would be much better, that they have learnt the lessons of Opposition.

Expect over the next few days some key policies to be announced and the lines of demarcation to become clearer.  Should be an interesting few weeks.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Who then can be saved? Traditionalist and modernist heresies and the scope for legitimate theological debate Part I.

One of the issues that keeps coming back in the context of modern theological debates is the question of how broad the scope of salvation potentially is. 

The debate

It is an important issue, because liberal promotion of the idea of almost universal salvation (encouraged by theologians such as von Balthasar and his concept of an empty hell) have served to completely undermine the idea that we must hold to and practice the Catholic faith and proclaim it to others.

But as ever, heresy holds sway at both extremes of the debate, with sede vacentists and other 'extreme traditionalist' heresies such as feeneyism also gaining ground in some circles.

Somewhere in the middle?

On the conservative side, some traditionalists want Vatican II teachings on the scope of salvation condemned.  A recent article on Romano Amerio's (of Iota Unum fame) latest book by Sandro Magister, for example, cites the idea that "the pagans to whom the Gospel is not proclaimed, if they follow the dictates of natural justice and try to seek God with sincerity, will go to the beatific vision" as an example of an error that they claim has long been condemned, and should now be condemned ex cathedra. 

That is certainly a position that stands in stark contrast with that taken in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  The Compendium of the CCC, summarises the position as (No 262):

"Since Christ died for the salvation of all, those can be saved without Baptism... all those who, even without knowing Christ and the Church, still (under the impulse of grace) sincerely seek God and strive to do his will can also be saved without Baptism (Baptism of Desire)...."

Is the CCC's position reconcilable with tradition on this subject?

In fact I think it is.  The Roman Matyrology recognises many Old Testament figures as saints.  Dante placed some of the great pagan philosophers in heaven.  And fully traditional texts such as the Baltimore Catechism go so far as to allow that those who through their own grave fault do not know that the Catholic Church is the true Church can in fact be saved.

But this is an area where both traditionalist and modernist heresies currently run rife.  And one that it is difficult to get a good handle on because it is one of those areas of theology where there have been relatively few dogmatic teachings defined, and thus there is a large area for legitimate theological debate.

So I thought I'd have a go at sketching out some of the nuances of this debate over a couple of posts, not least to attempt to clarify my own thinking on the subject.  Feel free to leap in and correct me if you think I've got it wrong (or simply don't agree).

It is worth setting out first the outright errors.

'Traditionalist' heresies

There are more than a few 'extreme traditionalist' heresies and potentially erroneous opinions around on this subject, so let me set them out as a starting point, before I turn to the other end of the spectrum.

1.  The Church doesn't mean the institutional Church.  Actually this is one of those heresies that afflict the liberal end of the spectrum as well, but let's talk about the traditionalist version of it first.  Last week I got a message on my phone from some sede vacentist nutter (thanks so much to whoever gave him my name and/or number) that I at first took to be a comment on a post I wrote recently, because it started out with a firm admonition that 'outside the Church there is no salvation'.  But perhaps not, since he then went on to inform me that all those in the Vatican were heretics...

Of course it is possible that individual members of the curia could be heretics.  As Catholics though, we have to believe that the doctrine of the indefectability of the Church, of the protection accorded to the successors of Peter.  In particular, we need to believe that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost that enables the Church to teach (correctly, albeit within some limits), sanctify (ie the sacraments must be valid if performed in accordance with the decrees of Rome) and rule (govern) the faithful in the name of Christ (see the Baltimore Catechism no 3, no 143).

2.  Anyone not baptised and not a visible member of the Catholic Church cannot be saved (feeneyism): Feeneyism is another popular heresy on the extreme traditionalist side of the ledger. It is a heresy not least because it denies the notion of 'baptism of desire' (those who die before baptism but with a desire to receive it) and 'baptism of blood' (martyrdom for the faith on the part of the unbaptised). 

The real area of theological debate that I think does remain open to some legitimate debate alluded to in the Magister article mentioned above is just what constitutes baptism of desire - how explicit a knowledge of God, the Church and the faith, for example, is required, or can it be entirely implicit?  A sub-set of this debate goes to the question of whether the Islamic God is the same as as the Christian God - and hence whether Muslims can be saved.  I'll come back to these questions in a later post.

Modernist heresies

At the other extreme comes the idea that (virtually) everyone is saved.  The argument goes that Catholics have to believe in the concept of hell  (true) - but not that there is anyone in it (but doesn't that make the concept utterly meaningless?).  There are a number of variants on this that are worth setting out.

1) Von Balthasar's idea that hell is empty - which has been comprehensively demolished and shown to be heretical in a book by Alyssa Pitstick.  A great exchange on this subject in the journal First Things is alas no longer available online unless you have a subscription to that journal, but a useful explication of von Balthasar's arguments and why they are wrong can be found at New Oxford Review.

2) The almost empty hell - for example because everyone gets another chance to repent at or after the moment of death.  The Catholic teaching is that anyone who definitively persists in mortal sin (including rejection of the faith) will be condemned.  So some have conjured up the idea that we get one last chance to change our minds, thus no need even for the deathbed repentance.  A variant of this idea is that since God is outside of time and space, we can pray for those who might perhaps have been in a state of mortal sin at their death, and potentially change the outcome for them.  It's a comforting thought.  But there is absolutely no Scriptural or traditional basis for it, so you wouldn't want to depend upon it!  And while we can certainly pray for the dead in the hope that they are in purgatory and thus need our prayers - we are not God, and do live in time.  Once particular judgment has been passed, which occurs immediately after death, it is out of our hands!

3) Living a 'good life' is enough - Some take the view that one religion or denomination or another is as good as belonging to the Church, or even that no religion at all is fine so long as someone lives a 'good' life.  A famous variant of this idea is the theologian Karl Rahner's idea of  'anonymous Christians', potentially including even those who have explicitly rejected the faith.  That is clearly not the teaching of the Church in my view.  The Church does allow that God can give graces to those outside the (fullness of the) visible Church through no fault of their own.  But the fullness of the means of salvation belong to the Church, and the Church provides the safest means to achieving salvation.

More anon.

Serious Crimes in the Church: the new rules

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith have finally published new norms to deal with serious crimes including child abuse, crimes against the sacraments, heresy, apostasy and schism. 

The media focus will naturally be on the child abuse provisions.  But it is surely significant that the prospect of prompt and serious action for other important crimes is finally being put back on the table.

The Vatican press release provides some commentary on the decree.  There is also a useful commentary on it by Fr Z.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Feast of the Emperor St Henry II

I've been reminded that today is the feast (in the 1962 calendar) of St Henry, 6 May 973 – 13 July 1024, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1014.  St Henry is, among other things, patron of Benedictine Oblates, and you can read a nice piece on him over at Vultus Christi.

And a happy name day to all those named in his honour (and one of my friends in particular, as his saint must clearly influenced me in posting the piece on the Summa earlier in honour of the day...!).

Tweeting the Summa....

I have to admit I am on twitter (you can follow me @ozterra), and do find it vaguely useful in alerting me to new articles that other blogs and webpages are putting up.  But its brevity means its more useful in referring you to a full page rather than much of a conversation (other than of the texting generation superficial kind).

But ingenuity when it comes to the social media has no limits it seems, and so now (thanks to Fr Finigan for the alert) you can follow St Thomas' Summa tweeted an article a day, by @summatheologiae.  Hmm...

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Feast of St Benedict

Today is one of the two feasts of St Benedict in the Benedictine calendar, and the date that his feast was celebrated in the pre-1962, and is celebrated in the 1970 roman calendar.  It marks the translation of his relics to the monastery of Fleruy in France.  It is a first class feast in Europe, by virtue of his patronage of Europe, and in many churches and monasteries dedicated to the saint, although it is squeezed out of the calendar by the Sunday elsewhere.

St Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica were born in the town of Norcia, pictured below, in 480.  An English speaking monastery there now celebrates the traditional Office and Mass under both Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.

As a young man St Benedict went to study in Rome. 

He quickly became disillusioned with the decadence of the city however, and left to join an informal community at Affile.

A miracle performed to assist his nurse led to his fame spreading however, and he fled to the wilds of Subiaco to escape the attention of well-wishers and live as a hermit.  He received the habit from a monk from a nearby monastery who secretly sneaked him food.

Over time he gathered followers, and established a group of twelve monasteries in the surrounding area.

The jealousy of a neighbouring priest however led him to take the decision to abandon his monasteries and head off to make a new foundation at Monte Cassino.  On his arrival, he took over the site of a pagan temple and converted it to a chapel and church dedicated to St John the Baptist and St Martin of Tours. With the support of those patrons, he set about converting the people of the place, and establishing the famous monastery.  During his lifetime,  Monte Cassino became a major pilgrim centre, and central to exchanges with many other monasteries on the development of the monastic life.  His sister also established a monastery nearby, starting the tradition in the Order of twinned men's and women's monasteries. 

Monte Cassino was destroyed for the first of several times in the decades following his death, but the monks fled to Rome, taking the Rule with them, and spreading Benedictine monasticism there, inspiring amongst others, the young man who was to become Pope St Gregory the Great.

St Benedict performed many miracles during his lifetime, many recorded in the Life written by Pope St Gregory, and died a holy death, propped up in the chapel for the Office, in 547.

On this feast day you might especially say a prayer for Australia's mostly rather sadly declining Benedictine monasteries (save for the rather more successful Benedictine inspired Tyburns), and for those who have left Australia to join more traditionally oriented monasteries, including former Adelaidians Br. James Middledorp, due to make final profession at Clear Creek in the US on 6 August, and Sr Mechtild, a novice at Le Barroux in France.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Notes for young philosphers IIC: a dialogue with Matthew continued - the Old vs the New Testaments

Back into the fray again on the nature of Christianity now that school musicals are successfully over! 

This post is a response to a comment from Matthew (highlighed in sections below for ease of referral) in our ongoing dialogue on the nature of Christianity and the demands of morality.  In case anyone else wants to jump in, previous exchanges and the full comments can be found here (Part I), here (Part IIA), and here (Part IIB).

 1. Regarding the character of Jesus, I don't agree that your stories support your point. Certainly people are intimidated by him, but I would interpret that more as their legitimate fear of the supernatural than as an aspect of his personality. Is the story in John 6 not Jesus declaring himself the Son of God and most of his disciples disagreeing and leaving for something less controversial.

I do agree that there was a legitimate fear of the supernatural working at some points, though some seemed to be completely blind to it. But the John 6 story is about his demand that they eat his flesh, something realized in the Last Supper and for us in the Eucharist, when the bread and wine become truly the body and blood of Jesus at the Mass. The point is that his demands and teachings were often hard to understand, intimidating to be asked to comply with, and often seemed quite harsh.

2. And how can you say the Old Testament god has the same personality as Jesus? The Old testament was full of plagues and famines and holy wars and smiting

The catholic view is that ‘the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New’. In essence, the Old Testament prepares the people for the New, and we can only really understand the Old Testament properly except in the light of the New.

One effect of this is that we need to be a bit careful – references to God’s wrath and so forth in the Old Testament often anthropomorphize God and shouldn’t be taken too literally. All the same, the lesson we should draw from the plagues, famines and smiting and so forth was that there are real consequences to rejecting God’s ways. Indeed, one possible interpretation of global warning (that I favour) is that it is a similar reaping of the consequences of modern worship of the idols of consumerism and self-indulgence, and could be legitimately written up in exactly the same way as some of those OT consequences of sin stories....

It is also important to realize though that the Old Testament also teaches that God always has plenty of compassion - where compassion is warranted.

Consider for example the story of Jonas. He was sent to warn the people of Ninevah that they were going to be destroyed for their sins. As these people were enemies of the Jews, and the Jews were God’s chosen people, he tried to avoid giving them the message, thought they should be treated like the outcasts of Jesus’ day were treated by the elite, and left to die. When he finally was forced to deliver the message, he sat around waiting to enjoy the coming smiting. Except that the people of Nineveh repented and did penance, and so God, much to Jonah’s disgust, spared them.

By contrast, consider the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. When Abraham learnt of God’s plan to destroy the city, he tried to bargain God out of it, getting him to agree to spare it if he could find even ten righteous men there. But in fact the people of Sodom proved to be totally evil and so were destroyed.

The moral is, it's not a one way street, God calls and we must respond or take the consequences.

3. I'm not saying he was some beatific, emotionless machine, but he was certainly compassionate and caring! …., and then Jesus came along with his God-given message of "disregard that!" and started preaching forgiveness and love thy neighbour, socialising with the outcasts of Jewish society, and washing people's feet...

Can you cite a passage where Jesus says ‘disregard all that’? Because my read of the New Testament is that Jesus actually generally demands an even higher standard of Christians than the Old Law, as the sermon on the Mount makes clear – instead of an eye for an eye, we have to forgive; instead of allowing people to move on from failed marriages for example, he says there shall be no divorce.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus lacked compassion and caring!

Of course he was compassionate. But is Jesus’ approach any different to that attributed to God in the Old Testament? I don’t think so. He socialized with sinners, as Luke tells us, because the healthy don’t need the physician, only the sick do. He washed the disciples’ feet despite Peter’s protestations to teach his priests and bishops them the necessity of an attitude of humble service.

Most importantly, he didn’t say ‘Go and continue to sin’, he said ‘Go and sin no more’. And he repeatedly warned of the consequences of failing to obey that injunction. Take a look for example at the story of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16, or at the parable of the wedding feast (Mt 22), which tells of those thrown out into the outer darkness. At Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17;Matt. 25:41; Matt. 25; Mark 9:47-48; 2 Thess. 1:6-9; Jude 6-7 ; Rev. 14; and Rev. 20:10.

4. What's your actual position on who's going to hell then? You've given a whole lot of different perspectives and ideas, but is there one in particular that you believe?

As to who is saved and who will end up in hell, I don’t think I’ve arrived at a firm position as yet. I’m still listening to the arguments.

But I think our starting point has to be to take seriously Jesus’ repeated warnings that getting into heaven is actually quite hard: many are called few are chosen; eye of the needle and all that. And we have to take seriously the injunctions about the necessity of repentance and baptism, of eating Christ’s body.

I’m inclined to take some comfort in the notion of ‘invincible ignorance’ – that if you truly haven’t had a chance to know the fullness of the faith through no fault of your own, but truly seek to the best of your ability to know God and do his will, God may be gracious and merciful even in the case of the unbaptised. And in our day and age, I suspect many people brought up even in Christian countries, as nominal Christians or in various denominations, probably do suffer from invincible ignorance in some respects. Still, heaven is a gift God offers us, not an entitlement, so I'm not one hundred percent sold on this.

I also think that without the graces that come from the sacraments and teachings of the catholic church, especially the Eucharist and confession of sins, it is pretty hard (though clearly not impossible) to be a consistently righteous person and get to heaven.  From that stems the duty to evangelise and pray for the conversion of friends, family and indeed everyone as much as we can!

And I’m pretty convinced that those who explicitly reject God because they hate the idea that there is someone superior to themselves to whom they owe worship, or because they just want to indulge their own vices, will go to hell. Because I think we all instinctively sense that justice will ultimately prevail.

One of Richard Dawkins’ more bizarre arguments in my opinion, is the idea that man’s ‘sense of God’, pretty much universal to every era and culture, could have evolved in the absence of a corresponding reality behind it. Because evolution just doesn’t work that way as far as I can understand it. We developed eyes because there was something to see and it was useful for us to be able to do so. We developed ears because there was something to hear. We don’t develop senses or organs to do things without their being some real behind them. I think the universality of the idea of justice, of God, of the natural law reflects an objective reality that we all have the ability, to greater or lesser degrees, to find for ourselves, and we are accountable for whether or not we do so.

5. I disagree, trying to improve oneself and trying to achieve perfection are not at all the same thing! I'll always have flaws, and there'll always be things about me and things I've done that I'm not proud of. On the other hand, I did oversimplify things as far as morals go, and you've done a good job of giving a basic illustration of the dilemmas of modern ethics. I can't really say much more than I have about how I try to act; I suppose I'll have to give that some thought...

I think we have some definitional issues to deal with here on what perfection means.

First, being perfect doesn’t mean that we haven’t done things in the past that we are ashamed of. Many of the Church’s greatest saints – starting with St Peter and St Mary Magdalene – committed great sins. The point is that they were sorry for what they had done, begged forgiveness, picked themselves up and then did better. More, for most of us, Jesus talks about forgiving people for their sins seventy times seven for a reason!

Secondly, it doesn’t mean we are without flaws. Flaws are inherent in the nature of the (fallen) human condition. Striving for perfection just commits us to attempting to overcome those flaws as much as possible – to conquer our tempers or whatever our particular problems are. Perfection means achieving the best possible with what we have been given as a starting point, so that ‘grace perfects nature’; it doesn’t mean a totally different creatures is created.

And really I think true perfection can only be achieved in heaven – where we will automatically do the right thing automatically with complete ease. Still, the path to perfection now means constantly struggling to do the right thing, something that at first is very hard, but becomes easier as we form good habits, and as grace ‘enlarges our hearts’.

But let’s come back to this, and eventually to a particular topic like abortion or homosexuality (both could be good discussions!) when we’ve finished working through the above…

Gillard's Pacific Solution is a fraud

New Australian PM Julia Gillard has quickly ticked a few boxes since she came to office - she has affirmed her opposition to same sex 'marriage', revamped the resource tax and argued against the 'big Australia' (read lots of immigration) policy of her predecessor. 

But her latest policy announcements on asylum seekers, toughening her party's stance on boat people once again, though no doubt politically apposite, is thoroughly bad policy, and almost certainly impossible to implement in any case.

On the plus side

The positive side of her announcements yesterday, in a speech to the Lowry Institute, was an acknowledgement of the tiny size of the asylum seeker problem: according to lawyer Julian Burnside Australia has around 4 million visitors a year; this year around 3500 have arrived by boat.  Gillard agreed with his assessment.

She also pointed to some of the holes in Opposition leader Tony Abbott's policies - 'turning the boats back' won't work given that no country will take the boats, and experience has shown that desperate people will do desperate things faced with the prospect of failure to reach our shores.  Children may not have been thrown overboard in the infamous Howard era incident - but they and other would-be refugees have ended up in the water on several occasions both before and after that event, and lives have been lost.  Gillard is right that Australians cannot and will not stand for this.

Why Abbott's version of the Pacific solution is a dud

She didn't go on to point out, however, just why Mr Abbott's version of the Pacific solution is so flawed.  Not surprising, since her own plan suffers from many of the same problems. 

The most central issue is that, in essence, no matter where you process asylum seekers, if they have managed to reach Australian territory, Australia has a treaty obligation to accept any who are genuine refugees.  It doesn't matter whether or not they have papers (many genuine refugees don't).  It doesn't matter where you process them. 

Howard tried to persuade other countries to take some of the refugees.  No one was terribly interested.  The reality is that the overwhelming majority of Howard era boat people who ended up in Nauru or Manus Island were ultimately found to be genuine refugees and were resettled in Australia.

Processing refugees might have a small, short-term deterrent effect - but as long as the refugees know that they are ultimately going to end up in Australia, they will, as Mr Howard discovered, keep trying to come.

Cost and logistics

And that leads us to the other big problem with the pacific solution: the huge cost and difficult logistics. 

Setting up and managing a detention camp anywhere is expensive.  Put it on what is literally a morally and economically bankrupt banana republic like Nauru - where the Government has been in caretaker mode (and now a state of emergency) for the last three months following failure to reach a resolution after two attempts at elections - makes the costs truly extortionate and the logistics extraordinarily difficult, as a perusal of the documentation accumulated on the Howard experiment amply demonstrate.

The problem is, what country other than one desperate for Australian aid and cash would take on such a function? Almost certainly not one like East Timor I suspect we will find!

And quite aside from the huge financial costs and difficulty of providing a truly humanitarianly run processing service under such conditions, parking persecuted people on a Pacific island must surely increase the psychological costs - and reduce the hope of them ever successfully integrating into society - enormously.

Gillard's version of the plan could make the problem worse

Abbott's plan is to take any boat people who arrive in Australia to Nauru or Manus Island.  Gillard's differs in that anyone who wishes to get to the hypothetical regional processing centre under their own steam will also be considered part of the 'queue'.

The theory is that this undermines the incentive for people smuggling by boat, and thus makes it safer for the refugees themselves.  But unless the regional agreement she is seeking includes Indonesia, which is the major transit country involved, it is hard to see why the incentive is taken away.  So far, Indonesia isn't even in the loop on this one. 

And for that matter, why not just do the processing in Indonesia in the first place?  Presumably because they have already refused, or Australia has been unwilling to make the kind of commitments to taking the genuine refugees that will be required.  Hard to see, on the face of it, why it should be any harder to get an agreement to do it in Indonesia than in East Timor.

More, actually creating a genuine 'queue' (which Howard rhetoric aside does not currently exist) will surely encourage more of the world's 10.4 million refugees under UN mandate to try and find their way there.  The size of the refugee problem could in fact rapidly escalate.

A three star solution?

Some papers are claiming Gillard's approach a three star solution compared to Abbott's one star because, unlike Nauru, East Timor is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and she plans to involve the UNHCR.  So far of course this is all just talk, and not much more than one phone call at that, so there is no guarantee, or even likelihood that any of this will actually materialise.  Howard, if you will recall, made much the same noises and it all came to nothing.

Moreover East Timor's signatory status in fact makes no positive difference in reality - Manus Island after all is part of PNG which is also a signatory.  In fact it just makes the prospect of getting an agreement harder. 

Because if refugees went directly from, say, Indonesia or Sri Lanka to East Timor, it would be East Timor's Refugee Convention obligations that would be engaged, not Australia's. 

And why would a struggling young country want to run the risk of being stuck with a large group of displaced Afghanees or whoever, even if Australia paid up for the costs of hosting them?  Presumably Australia (and New Zealand if they could be persuaded) would have to offer a guarantee that anyone who turned up would be resettled elsewhere, as well as a lot of sweeteners to the deal...and just how does this differ from Nauru?!

A failure of leadership

This is all unfortunately deja vu to me, revisiting the most disgraceful eras of Australian public policy making I've had the misfortune to be involved in.

Gillard has called for a public debate.  We need it.

Sadly it seems our politicians have learnt nothing from the Children Overboard and the scandalous history of the so-called Pacific 'Solution'.

Sadly, none of the major parties seem to think they can afford to be rational on this subject.

Gillard has failed her first test of real leadership.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

When even economics is overrun by food fetishism...

It's official - food fetishism, courtesy of Masterchef Australia - has overtaken the world. 

Henry on the tax revamp

Take the commentary in today's Australian on Treasury bureaucrat Ken Henry's Senate Committee comments on the revamped resource tax.  A year ago most of us wouldn't have known what molecular gastronomy was.  Today, its a piece designed to make us snort:

"KEN Henry has the demeanour of a man who designed a degustation tax menu worthy of the great Spanish restaurant, El Bulli, only to have a customer demand a Chiko Roll.

Yet the Treasury secretary came to a Senate hearing yesterday not to condemn Julia Gillard’s triumphant new regime, but to offer compassion.

Was the tax guru disappointed his high-art tax reform installation had been subjected to the lash of her Bamix before being embalmed in puff pastry?

...When he last appeared before Senate estimates, his cucumber foam creation of a 40 per cent mining resources rent tax combined with a cut in the company tax to a 25 per cent rate, lay only partially molested.

On releasing the Henry review, Wayne Swan had watered down Henry’s original recommendation of a 25 per cent company tax rate to 28 per cent. Then, Labor added lashings of superannuation reform to the recipe, a move that Henry had not demanded.

Finessed by his own tax reform inquiry, his original mining tax measure was declared “elegant” by respected economists including Ross Garnaut.

Then the nation watched slack-jawed as Kevin Rudd turned the tax debate into a slow-motion train wreck, ending with his own ritualistic beheading.

Finally, Gillard slashed the headline 40 per cent tax rate to 30 per cent and shaved the company tax cut to a meagre 29 per cent, before chucking the lot in the deep fryer.

...El Bulli was once billed as the greatest restaurant in the world. Author Anthony Bourdain described chef Albert Adria’s creations as inspiring “fear, awe, and wonder” among pastry chefs.

“I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines they will ask themselves ‘What do I do now?’ “

It’s already clear that Julia Gillard doesn’t feel the quite the same way about Ken Henry’s creations, as much as she might respect her sous chef’s advice."

Ken Henry's role

The Australian's write up of Henry's testimony is actually much kinder to him than the SMH's, which has him (unsurprisingly) dissing the deal.  And many might think that Julia's pragmatic revamping of the tax is more akin to Jonathon's winning deconstruction of the chiko roll (Beef and Vegetables with Reduction and Corn Pastry) than shoving one in the deep fryer.

In reality Henry was in an unenviable situation by virtue of the silly process that saw him heading the review in the first place, rather than providing arms-length input to it or impartial advice on it.  And then compounding the problem by going out in public and advocating for his proposals under Rudd.  It is the kind of blurring of the line between bureaucrats and politicians that Labor (rightly) criticised the Howard Government for. After the election, surely Henry has to go....

Because I imagine that many of us react to the analogy as we did to seeing some of the weird creations on Masterchef Australia like last night's tower of pink and purple macaroons - it is all very well as performance art, but can all those chemicals, fat, sugar and weirdo ingredients really be good for you?  And was there really any real point to sticking the macarons onto a perspex tower in the first place?  It might be fun for the odd special occasion, but do we really want this sort of thing on our plates every day of the week?  I think not.

The Masterchef money maker

I actually quite liked the first season of Masterchef Australia - though I only caught a few episodes until near the end, it seemed to be a show with a positive tone that encouraged people of all ages to actually have a go and cook, and fostered virtues such as perseverance, team work and mutual support. 

The current series unfortunately, has moved away from being a cooking show into a full-on reality show where the contestants are constantly quizzed not about their 'food dream' but about how much they want to win. 

And with that move has come an awful lot of bullying (the producers and judges who seem to particularly delight in tormenting Aaron) and negativity.  That has been coupled with an increasing emphasis on the weird and wonderful: mystery boxes with snails as the main feature; endless attempts to persuade us to try black truffles (Oz truffles are available online at a mere $170 for a minimum order of 50 grams); pigeons; and other expensive exotica.

No longer are we being taught the basics (indeed the contestants seem to fail badly whenever they are asked to make things like sausage rolls, scones or a family style dinner); instead it is all about nitro, edible flowers and microherbs.

As others have pointed out, it is still strangely addictive unless you make an active effort to resist.

But the addiction comes I think from the watching a train wreck phenomenon.  The ability of our wanna-be chefs to produce 'winning' frankenstein-esq creations such as Alvin's 'Snails on Egg Net with Pickled Rhubarb and White Chocolate Salad', while failing on basic cooking skills is a telling metaphor for our society as a whole. 

Why worry about obesity and upsurge of diet related disease when we can be learn to cook eggs benedict with a butter infested ham hock terrine and hollandaise sauce?  Why worry about killing off our resources sector when one can have the world's most pure and elegant tax?  Why not consume half a kilo of butter and a tonne of cream, topped off by gold leaf, in an elaborate 'gateau opera' rather than worry about whether we really want to introduce a big new tax at all - however pure and worthy - at a time when the world's economies continue to teeter on the edge of recession?

Gladiatorial games to distract the masses while Rome falls.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The New Evangelization and the counsels of despair: attending mass at my local parish

Last week the Pope announced the formation of a new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.  Though I have my doubts as to its likely effectiveness, it is clear that no country needs it more than Australia, as the experience of attending Sunday Mass at my parish church yesterday attests.

Luke 10: wipe the dust of the unhearing city off you

The Gospel for the novus ordo yesterday was on the sending out of the 72; but the main lesson the Dominican priest drew out of it was that if people don't listen to the message, it isn't necessarily our fault. 

He was looking out at a sea of grey haired parishioners - I saw one young family and maybe there 10 people in total, including me, under 50,  and maybe half a dozen more under 70 of the hundred or so people there.  And he reflected on the pain of this ageing generation at the absence of their children from the mass; their concern over their unbaptised grandchildren.

But beyond the duty of us all to preach the message of God, he offered no message of hope.

And why would they come?

Yet the hard reality is that it is partly our fault.  Or at least the fault of all of those who have resisted the Pope's push to restore integrity to the liturgy and continue to promote casual indifference to the ceremonies of the Mass. 

True, no matter how hard we counter the myths of secularism, no matter how hard we argue our case some will not listen.

But Luke 10 also points to the need for signs and wonders, of the need for joy to convince.

How do we undermine those signs, that joy? 

Through choirs who continue to sing trashy 1970s hymns.  Choirs who consistently insist on being overambitious.  Or fail to practice and get right the essentials in order to focus on the flashy stuff instead. 

We undermine the sense of the sacred with the insistence on communion under both kinds received standing (even in churches where one must virtually trip over the Extraordinary Ministers to return to your seat). 

And with sermons that are either counsels of despair rather than attempts to kindle fervour anew, or are  outdated meanderings imported wholesale from some other culture altogether.

To get people to come to Mass, to believe, one has to convince them of the value of the time, to instill a special sense of the sacred, of true worship.  The sermon needs to fire the congregation up, whether or not they agree with it, to make them think.  And that was absent, as it has been from so many masses I've attended, trad and novus ordo alike.

This particular mass was actually slightly better than past ones I've attended there.  The perspex 'altar' was thankfully disguised by a heavy altar cloth.  The singing by the choir was in tune and not overambitious (they simply said the things often done badly by a cantor).  Texts and even music of the mass was made available to all even if not many actually sang (unlike the other non-Dominican parish nearest to me which doesn't even bother with hymnals for the congregation).  There was even one non-schmaltzy, quite traditional hymn (Be thou my vision, admittedly in a modern text) as a recessional.  And unlike my other nearest parish which is otherwise generally more reverent in tone, the altar server was male.

Yet there were still jarring moments.  The make-up your own approach to the confiteor section of the mass, for example, promoted the instant canonisation of the congregation (we were invited to reflect on the grace that makes saints rather than worry about our sins!).  And most jarring of all, the priest suddenly interrupted the flow of the mass to ask (twice) the congregation whether we had a collection now (why he couldn't have quietly asked the ageing acolyte wasn't clear).  Now it is true that the priest was obviously a visitor, filling in for the regular priests.  But the style of sudden interjections of the profane in ways designed to interrupt the sense of the sacred is something I've unfortunately come to expect from the Dominicans (though in fairness, it probably isn't particular to them) who run several of the parishes and chaplaincies on my side of town.

And without a sense of the sacred, one goes out of obligation.  But that is not enough to sustain most people, or bring in new converts.

Nor is the traditional mass necessarily the answer: at my local alternative, the excruciatingly bad singing of the chant (and occasionally polyphony), sabotage from novus ordo users of the Church (at Ascension a rival choir insisted on practicing at the back of the Church all the way through the sung mass), an excruciatingly ugly Church, and many more factors I could list, don't add up to much of a positive experience. 

Now I'm probably more concerned with the aesthetics of the Mass than many.  But if re-evangelization is to have any hope of making inroads, we have to make the Mass actually attractive to attend, and I don't mean with sideshows and diversions, but with real engagement.

The new Pontifical Council

The new Council has been charged with the task of "promoting renewed evangelisation in countries where the first announcement of the faith has already been heard and where there are Churches of ancient foundation, but where a progressive secularisation of society is being experienced, a kind of 'eclipse of the meaning of God'."

It is not, in my view, a positive sign that its head is Archbishop Fisichella, who lost the support of many members of the Pontifical Academy for Life.   A more obvious solution might have been reinvigorating the existing Congregation for Evangelisation of Peoples - but presumably the Pope regards that as a lost cause, not least because it is currently under investigation for financial malfeasance!

But let's hope that the renewed focus on re-evangelization - aided by the revised missal and rumoured forthcoming 'reform of the reform' motu proprio - have some impact at the local level.  Soon.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Archbishop Hart's Pastoral Letter on sexual abuse

Archbishop Hart of Melbourne has released a Pastoral Letter on sexual abuse. 

An adequate response?

It is good to see another bishop actually acknowledge that there is a problem.  Unfortunately, one comes away yet again with the impression that the problem as the bishops understand it is not the processes and procedures that are or were in place, but the PR problem, and the consequent crisis of faith on the part of the laity.

The letter does hits a number of key bases well: it contains a direct and straightforward apology; acknowledgement of the seriousness of the sins involved; and touches on some of the Pope's comments about the need for purification and penance. 

More controversially though, it also includes a strong defense of the much criticised Melbourne Response.  And while it gives some figures on the number of victims who have received compensation and the number of priests involved, it gives no information on what punishments the priests involved received.

Most disappointingly, it gives no commitment to concrete measures to undertake the necessary purification and penance, and ensure that these problems can never re-emerge. 

Once again it seems to take the line that it all happened way back when, there is no problem now, and we've fixed it. 

I only wish the rest of us could be as convinced that this is true. 

The text of the letter

"My Dear People,

We are all painfully aware that our Church is now going through a terrible time of suffering and self-examination. The full extent of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and religious continues to emerge, not only here in Australia but throughout the world.

Once again, therefore, I express my deep sorrow and offer a sincere and unreserved apology to all those victims who have suffered the pain and humiliation of sexual abuse and to their families.

The scourge of sexual abuse continues to cause great distress and in many cases a crisis of faith amongst Catholics. Every week seems to bring fresh scandals, as victims of abuse speak publicly of what they and their families have suffered.

As your Archbishop, I want you to know that I share in your desolation and sense of betrayal. The criminal offences and breaches of vows committed by some priests and religious bring shame upon the entire Church. How can we Catholics not be shocked and shamed? [True enough, but most of us are still wondering why it has taken our bishops so long a time to reach this position!]

With great humility we acknowledge that the crimes of the perpetrators have done great harm. We recognize that in the past we have not always dealt appropriately with offenders. [So how were they dealt with - are any of them still in the ministry?] We have had to learn from our mistakes, and continue to do so.

For me personally, this is one of the saddest times of my 43 years in the Catholic priesthood.

Sexual abuse in any form, and any attempt to conceal it, is a grave evil and is totally unacceptable. As Christ’s Church we must face up to the truth of these revelations and not attempt to disguise, diminish or avoid in any way the actions of priests and religious who have betrayed their sacred trust.

Although it has been said that the incidence of Catholic priests abusing their office in this criminal manner is no greater than that which occurs amongst professional classes in the wider community, the community quite rightly expects a higher standard of morality for clergy. Sexual crimes committed by clergy involve not only criminality but also hypocrisy and the betrayal of their sacred office and of those who trust them.

The public is rightly concerned about the way in which Church authorities have responded to complaints and proven offences, especially where those involved are under age. For this reason you may find it helpful for me to describe what we are doing in the Melbourne Archdiocese. In 1996, we introduced the Melbourne Response as the most compassionate way of caring for victims.

In the past 14 years, about 300 people have been compensated as victims of sexual abuse within the Archdiocese. Most of the complaints relate to incidents from thirty and up to eighty years ago. We receive few complaints of abuse that has taken place since the 1970s. [But that doesn't necessarily mean that abuse did not take place at that time - there may be a similar delay in people coming forward for good reasons.  And around the rest of the world, it is actually the 1970s when most of the abuse cases occurred.]

We have sought to do everything in our power to bring these victims aid, consolation and, if possible, reconciliation with the Church. They have been given access to compensation, on-going counselling and medical support.

Victims have had the unfettered ability to take their complaint to the Victoria Police. Indeed, they are encouraged to do so. We do understand, however, that not all victims want to go to the Police. Nor do all complaints involve criminal offences that the Police can investigate.

Of the victims to whom compensation offers have been made in accordance with the Melbourne Response, five have not yet accepted them. [Far more important than financial compensation is spiritual and psychological support - the real test of whether the Response has succeeded is surely is how many of these victims are practicing catholics today.]Eighty-six offenders have been identified over an eighty year period, of whom sixty were priests of the Archdiocese. Thirty-five of those priests are now deceased.

I have acted in accordance with every recommendation of the Independent Commissioner under the Melbourne Response in relation to the remainder. [And what were those recommendations?]

Of course, as a Church we must do more than provide justice to the victims of past sexual abuse. We must also work to prevent future abuse. Since 1996, we have introduced procedures to protect parishioners and children against sexual abuse, and processes have been developed and applied to deal with offending clergy. We ensure that there is rigorous screening of all people who aspire to the priesthood, and seminarians are required to undertake study of the Church’s code of conduct for priests and religious on integrity in ministry.

We cannot completely set right the wrongs of the past or take away the anguish of victims of abuse and their families. Nevertheless I believe that the Melbourne Response goes a long way towards addressing compassionately the issue of sexual abuse in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

I know that some of you will feel estranged or disaffected from the Church as the result of the current scandals. I can only invite you to reflect upon the vast majority of our upright and generous priests and religious who dedicate themselves to the care and pastoral needs of their people and the decent and dedicated Catholics whose selfless work in the interests of children, the sick and the underprivileged daily speaks of a generous faith and of a faithful Church.

In this regard it may help you to know that institutionally, Catholic education, health and social welfare organisations make a vital contribution to the Victorian community. At present in Victoria there are 385 Catholic Primary Schools, 95 Secondary Schools and 9 Special Schools.

We have 11 Hospitals, 63 Aged Care residential facilities and 16 Children’s Welfare facilities.

In my reflections on the sexual abuse crisis, I have been much encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI who has never shirked the issue, and has been at great pains to apologise to victims.

At World Youth Day 2008, Pope Benedict said in Sydney:

“I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country.

“Indeed I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their Pastor, I too share in their suffering.

“These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation. They have caused great pain and have damaged the Church’s witness.

“I ask all of you to support and assist your bishops, and to work together with them in combating this evil. Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice.

“As the church in Australia continues, in the spirit of the gospel, to address effectively this serious pastoral challenge, I join you in praying that this time of purification will bring about healing, reconciliation and ever-greater fidelity to the moral demands of the gospel.”

The Pope wrote in a similar vein in his pastoral letter to Irish victims of abuse and their families:

“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen.”

The Pope has more recently described the sex abuse scandals as “a terrifying crisis” that comes from inside the Church – not from outside – and which requires purification and penance if it is to be overcome.

He has pledged that the Church will do “all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring justice to those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future”.

In the Melbourne Archdiocese, we can draw encouragement from the Pope’s words.

In 1996, the Terms and Conditions of the Melbourne Response were formulated in consultation with Victoria Police. We are currently discussing with the Police how best we can continue to facilitate co-operation and assistance between the Archdiocese and the Police.

To those of you who cry out with Jesus from the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?”, I re-dedicate myself and the Archdiocese to serve and care pastorally for all of the Church’s people and the protection of all of its children.

At a time when our faith is sorely tested, let us remember together God’s word:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1).

Yours sincerely in Christ

+ Denis J. Hart,

Archbishop of Melbourne

1 July 2010