Tuesday, 31 July 2012

First prosecution of bishops in Australia?

The Sydney Morning Herald reports today that a 'brief of evidence' and an investigator's report in relation to the cover up of a series of cases in Maitland-Newcastle diocese will be given to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the next few weeks.  According to the SMH, it will name Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, now retired Bishop Malone of Maitland-Newcastle, and ACBC General Secretary Fr Brian Lucas (also named in the current Armidale Fr F case investigation).

The case relates to the laicization of Fr Denis McLinden, alleged perpetrator of abuse against many girls in the diocese over several decades, in the early 1990s.  The then bishop, Leo Clarke apparently promised protection to the abuser:

"Your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process", despite "your admission to Father Brian Lucas and other evidence".

"A speedy resolution of this whole matter will be in your own good interests as I have it on very good authority that some people are threatening seriously to take this whole matter to the police," Bishop Clarke's letter said.

The alleged knowledge of Archbishop Wilson (immediate past  President of the Australian Bishops' Conference) of other Maitland-Newcastle cases (he was a priest of Australia's most notorious diocese so far as the abuse scandal goes for over twenty years, notary in the McLinden case and Vicar General there from 1987) has been the subject of an ABC Four Corners Report.  According to the SMH, he has exercized his right to silence and declined to be interviewed by police on the McLinden matter.

McLinden died in 2005, and Bishop Clarke died in 2006.  Bishop Malone resigned at the age of 71 last year.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Life and wisdom of St Benedict/10 - To deny oneself in order to follow Christ

The tenth of the 'tools of good works' from Chapter 4 of St Benedict's Rule is to deny oneself in order to follow Christ.


The saying is clearly echoes Scripture.  In St Matthew, it follows the scene in which St Peter is granted the keys, and then seeks to dissuade Jesus from the cross (16:24): Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."

But in the monastic context, the story of the rich young man who is told if he wants to be perfect to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and then come follow Christ (Mt 19: 21) is particularly important.

The idea of denying ourselves, of giving up our own will in favour of God's is always hard, but perhaps particularly so when we live in such an affluent society devoted above all to the pursuit of individual pleasure.  We need new saints and leaders today to inspire us to the heights practiced by St Benedict!

St Gregory on the impact of St Benedict

In earlier parts of this series on the life of St Benedict I noted that St Benedict himself first fled the decadence of Rome, and then even a small Christian community when his fame became too much of a danger, and became a hermit in the wilderness of Subiaco.  There he wrestled with his soul until he obtained mastery.  Inevitably, many in the surrounding countryside were inspired by his example, St Gregory the Great relates, and became his disciples.

Later at Monte Cassino, he also inspired a following of what we would now call oblates, or lay supporters of the monastery, who also undertook great penances - sometimes!

"A brother also of Valentinian the monk, of whom I made mention before, was a layman, but devout and religious: who used every year, as well to desire the prayers of God's servant, as also to visit his natural brother, to travel from his own house to the Abbey: and his manner was, not to eat anything all that day before he came thither. Being therefore on a time in his journey, he lighted into the company of another that carried meat about him to eat by the way: who, after the day was well spent, spoke to him in this manner: "Come, brother," said he, "let us refresh ourselves, that we faint not in our journey": to whom he answered: "God forbid: for eat I will not by any means, seeing I am now going to the venerable father Benedict, and my custom is to fast until I see him."

The other, on this answer, said no more for the space of an hour. But afterward, having travelled a little further again he was in hand with him to eat something: yet then likewise he utterly refused, because he meant to go through fasting as he was. His companion was content, and so went forward with him, without taking anything himself. But when they had now gone very far, and were well wearied with long travelling, at length they came to a meadow, where there was a fountain, and all such other pleasant things as use to refresh men's bodies.

Then his companion said to him again: "Behold here is water, a green meadow, and a very sweet place, in which we may refresh ourselves and rest a little, that we may be the better able to dispatch the rest of our journey." Which kind words bewitching his ears, and the pleasant place flattering his eyes, content he was to yield to the motion, and so they fell to their meat together: and coming afterward in the evening to the Abbey, they brought him to the venerable father Benedict, of whom he desired his blessing. Then the holy man objected against him what he had done in the way, speaking to him in this manner: "How fell it out, brother," said he, "that the devil talking to you, by means of your companion, could not at the first nor second time persuade you: but yet he did at the third, and made you do what best pleased him?"

The good man, hearing these words, fell down at his feet, confessing the fault of his frailty; was grieved, and so much the more ashamed of his sin, because he perceived that though he were absent, that yet he offended in the sight of that venerable father.

The next part of this series can be found here.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Ordinariness of the Ordinary Form: the sins of the people

There is an interesting debate swirling around blogdom about the problems of the Ordinary Form at the moment sparked by a talk by a keynote to the US Church Music Association by Msgr Andrew Wadsworth, Executive Director of ICEL.

Liturgical abuses in the Ordinary Form

At one level there is nothing new about what he is saying: it is pretty much an apologia for the reform of the reform agenda.

What is unusual, even controversial though, is his acknowledgment of the widespread presence of abuses in the celebration of the OF. 

Indeed, as Fr Tim Finigan's entertaining commentary on the talk points out, he is criticising is the Ordinary Form as it is typically celebrated, even at major events like the recent Dublin Eucharistic Congress.  Indeed, he provides a detailed list of liturgical abuses that took place in the closing mass of the Congress!

In particular, Mgr Wadsworth calls for the enforcement of the actual General Instructions on the Roman Missal:

"I think we have to ask such questions and indeed to surmise that the influence of former barons of the liturgical establishment has found a new and conspicuous arena of activity in which to model their example of poor liturgy. There can be no talk of the reform of the Roman Rite until the GIRM is enforced as the minimum requirement. If it remains a largely fantasy text at the beginning of our altar missals then 'the rebuilding of the broken down city' will take a very long time."

OF vs EF

Some would argue that the difficulties in conveying a sense of God-centred worship, of transcendence, as opposed to self-worship, are inherent in the Ordinary Form, the result of deliberate attempts to destroy the faith. 

That may be so, but we should, in my view, put the motivations of the liturgical revolutionaries to one side: in the God's protection of the Church must protect her liturgy from error, and that protection surely extends beyond the mere validity of the sacrament.  Indeed, one only has to attend a well-celebrated OF Mass somewhere like the Brompton Oratory to know that it is possible to celebrate it in a manner in keeping with the tradition of the Church.

Unsurprisingly though, those of a certain generation don't much like even the mildest attempts to make the mass more reverent,  as a A Priest Downunder has found.
The abuses of the people
Indeed, one of the curious things about the typical OF Mass is that many of the liturgical abuses are actually effected by the congregation not the priest (albeit typically either actively encouraged or at the very least uncorrected by him).
Last week I started a series on common liturgical abuses, so here is today's list, focusing on one's on the part of the congregation that I encounter pretty regularly...
1.  Wrong words for the responses
Yep, there is always someone who insists on continuing to use the old version of the Missal rather than the currently approved one.  The odd mistake is one thing; refusal to learn or use the new ones is an abuse. 
2.  Rushing around the Church at the sign of peace.
Now I admit that the sign of peace is one of my pet hates at the best of time, as it completely disrupts the most solemn part of the Mass.  It is optional, and I wish more priests would take the option of not including it, especially at weekday masses!
But what is absolutely an abuse is the meandering around the Church and chatting that so often occurs at this point of the Mass.  Redemptionis Sacramentum instructs:
"It is appropriate “that each one give the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner”."
3.  Use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion
  All of the legislation on the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion make it clear that they are only to be used in unusual circumstances.  If there are other priests, deacons or instituted acolytes present, they should distribute communion, not EMs.  A prolongation of the Mass is not in itself enough to justify their use: only a really long delay.
Yet these days it is hard to find a mass at which there are not several, even at poorly attended weekday masses!
One of the most common reasons for the use of EMs seems to be to provide communion under both kinds.  Yet that seems insufficient to justify it: communion under both kinds is supposed to be restricted to Sundays and major feasts according to GIRM, and while bishops can in Australia give permission for a wider use,  it is not obvious that the desire to provide communion under both kinds justifies the use of EMs. 
Indeed the Instruction Redemptionis Sacrmentum states that:
"Only out of true necessity is there to be recourse to the assistance of extraordinary ministers in the celebration of the Liturgy. Such recourse is not intended for the sake of a fuller participation of the laity but rather, by its very nature, is supplementary and provisional...Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason." (151, 158)
4.  Self-intinction and related abuses
Self-intinction is a very serious abuse indeed, such that Sacramentum Redemptionis instructs that if there is any risk of it occurring, communion under both kinds should not be offered at all.
Yet for a while I saw it happening at virtually every mass in my parish.  And it was dealt with, not by discontinuing Communion in both kinds, but by inserting an instruction in the parish bulletin on how to receive Holy Communion (together with a quite erroneous assertion as to the virtues of communion in the hand).
5. Disregard of the conditions for reception of Holy Communion
One only assume that most modern congregations are composed entirely of saints given the short duration of confession times at most churches.
6.  Use of canned music
This was banned long ago (with only a very limited exception for children's masses), and there is no reason to think that the older legislation on this subject has been overturned.  Yet one of the evening masses in my parish has a ministry of the sacred cd button pusher...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Towards Healing as best practice: how would we know?

A correspondent on a previous post has been vigorously arguing that Australia's 'Towards Healing' processes represent world 'best practice' in dealing with sexual abuses cases.  But on what basis does the claim rest?

Here is why I think our bishops are not doing enough to address the abuse crisis.

The most recent evaluation of Towards Healing, done in 2009 by Professor Patrick Parkinson of Sydney University, has not been publicly released because of resistance to its findings by the Salesians.

Nor is there, as far as I can discover online, any public reporting of the outcomes it is achieving.

What is 'best practice'?

First a bit of context.

It is important to understand that the term best practice has a technical meaning when referring to policies and processes.  'Best practice' does not just mean better than anyone else has.  It means something has been demonstrated to work - a practice that is evidence-based.

Anyone can have a policy in place.  If you are the only ones who have one - and given that most Bishops' Conferences missed the Vatican deadline for having such a policy, Australia is well ahead on this count - that does not in itself constitute 'best practice'.  It may just mean you have a fig leaf in place to attempt to cover your nakedness!

When assessing policies and practices, there are in fact three main categories commonly employed: promising practices, good practices, and best practices.

Many organizations have practices in place, or introduce new ones from time to time in order to meet changing condition or perceived needs. 

Where there is some objective early evidence that they seem to be working, they may constitute promising practices. 

When they have been properly evaluated and shown to be working, they become good practices. 

When they are genuinely evidence-based and shown to work better than other good practices, they constitute best practice.

Are there examples of best practice in this field?

In fact a quick google will reveal that there are both promising, good and best practices that have been identified in the context of other organizations in the fields of child abuse prevention, engagement with victims, and treatment. 

Are they being used in Towards Healing? 

Frankly, it is impossible to know as the Towards Healing Guidelines are very high level indeed.

It is impossible to assess just from reading them for example, whether the processes promote empowerment and collaboration, and communicate and sustain hope and respect, for example.

What one actually needs is some hard data on outcomes!

Towards accountability and transparency

So what are the kinds of  outputs and outcomes one would want to see reported on for Towards Healing?

A good start would be a bit of transparency and accountability in order to build confidence that the processes are working effectively. 

How about providing just some basic facts on outputs, such as:
  • how many cases are dealt with in each State/diocese each year;
  • what years the claims relate to;
  • what happened to the priest/religious/church worker while the case was being considered - was he stood aside, etc;
  • how many claims were upheld, how many rejected;
  • how many cases relate to the same person;
  • how many resulted in or related to cases where there was also criminal or civil proceedings;
  • how long cases took to be resolved (consider for example the AB Hepworth case, dragged out over several years.  How many others are in this situation?);
  • what the immediate outcomes of cases were - average size of payments made; how much other support (spiritual, psychological, practical); what happened to the perpetrator or accused.
When dioceses, Church State level bodies, or the Church's National Committee for Professional Standards start putting this data up on their websites we can start taking claims about the effectiveness of the processes seriously, and Catholics in general will be in a better position to put the abuse crisis within the Church in a proper perspective.

But to really know whether or not Towards Healing is doing what it is supposed to, you would also need to assess things like:
  • the degree of satisfaction of victims with the process - was their claim dealt with in a timely, respectful basis, etc?;
  • the extent to which victims maintained contact with, or were reconciled with the Church  - did the process enhance their spiritual health?
  • the extent to which the victim was provided with sufficient psychological and other support to deal with the impacts of the abuse and the process - how many went on to commit suicide is relevant here! 
  • the extent to which justice was served.  In the case of false accusations, was the priest's reputation properly rehabilitated? Because in too many cases, this doesn't seem to be particularly well managed.  And conversely, in the case of claims upheld, was he properly punished, did he make any apology and/or reparation?
  • the extent to which new processes have successfully weeded out inappropriate candidates for the priesthood/screened out Church workers who pose risks to children; and
  • the extent to which Towards Healing has promoted a recovery of the sense of the importance of morality in general, both within the priesthood and amongst the laity.
Has this kind of assessment actually been done? 

Well if it has, it hasn't been released to those of us who continue sit (or actually mostly squirm) in the pews. 

Clericalism continues to reign...

And for a nice analysis of the effects that the abuse crisis has had on the provision of a social safety net in the US, and erosion of the Church's moral authority such that the gay 'marriage' debate could even occur, a reader has drawn my attention to an excellent article over at Real Clear Religion.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Pastoral Letter from the Bishop of Armidale

The diocese of Armidale has at last a website (thanks to the Cooees for the alert).

It is only a temporary site at the moment, but a welcome demonstration of a commitment to transparency and accountability.

From it, here is Bishop Kennedy's excellent Pastoral Letter on the Fr F case.

Pastoral letter

Over the past fortnight the approach of the Catholic Church and the Armidale Diocese to historical allegations of child abuse has been the subject of significant media attention. I am very much aware that this must be a source of great pain and justified anger for you, as it is for me.

We remember, however, that our pain and anger must be as nothing when compared to that of the abuse victims and their families. To them I extend my deepest sympathies. I share the community abhorrence of all child abuse and desire to see justice achieved. It is my hope that the independent review I have established will demonstrate my commitment to an outcome of justice.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI addressed the issue of child abuse when he was in Australia for World Youth Day in 2008. I repeat his words here since they accurately express my own thoughts too:

“Here 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.

It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people.”

Our Responsibilities

I invite all of us as a Church community to:

1. Recognise and publicly acknowledge the historical reality of child abuse in our Church

2. Work to provide support to abuse victims and to those who have been affected by abuse

3. Cooperate with relevant authorities in investigations of abuse allegations

4. Maintain child protection programmes to maximise the safety and wellbeing of our children

5. Encourage & support your local Parish Priests ‐ who feel deep shame for the sins and crimes of their brothers

6. Scrupulously pursue truth and justice


Please join me in praying for the victims of child abuse; may they receive justice, healing, and peace, and may this terrible scourge be forever removed from our midst. And please join me in working to ensure that this is the case."

Same sex 'marriage'

PS The website also has an outstandingly good pastoral letter on same-sex marriage - by far the most persuasive not only of any of the bishop's statements I've read thus far, but also sitting well above most of the articles around on the subject.

I'll blog on it separately when I get time, but I do urge you to go read it - it deals with the issue of homosexuality head on, and the likely consequences for religious liberty drawing on concrete examples from overseas.

I'm thinking of moving dioceses!

Monday, 23 July 2012

The way forward on handling abuse cases...

The abuse story bubbles on. 

The dioceses of Parramatta and Armidale have released the terms of reference for the Inquiry into the 'Fr F' case.  They look to cover the ground appropriately, while leaving it open to be able to comment on any other matters of relevance.

The Age has a story today of another failure by police to pursue action against a priest, this time Melbourne's infamous Fr Pickering. 

Based only on what is in the public domain, it is pretty clear that there are several more of these, highlighting the need for the Church to get in front of the issue, and pro-actively and transparently identify any cases that may not have been handled properly in the past.

On the more positive side, it is not often I can recommend an article over at Eureka Street (or agree with many of the commenters over there!), but today's article on this subject by Fr Peter Day of Canberra is a very constructive contribution indeed.

The bottom line, as the article suggests, is that:

"It is not good enough to adopt a siege mentality by blaming an 'aggressive anti-Catholic media'. It is not good enough to say 'that happened a long time ago under someone else's watch'. It is not good enough to say 'that's an Irish problem, that's a Boston problem', or that it is 'disloyal' to raise these matters publicly.

There has to be a collective, universal response: to remain silent and passive is to perpetuate the effects of the abuse on both victims and the Church."

Fr Day makes a number of concrete suggestions, all worth considering.   And some of the commenters add some important points to that.  Fr Mick Mac Andrew in particular, notes that:

"There has to be a collective, universal response..." and it can only begin if us priests are seen to be doing it, renewing our own personal lives of belief and action. We need to be seen and known for taking days of prayer, attending spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, engaging men of our parishes in asking their support as we live chaste lives..." "

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Weekend reading...

There are a few articles around that have caught my eye by way of weekend reading...

What if the liberals won?

Commenter 'PM' drew my attention to his great piece from the New York Times on the collapse of those churches that have adopted a liberal agenda.  Salutary reading for all those advocating that the Church continue to 'update' and act on a social justice agenda indistinguishable from the secularist one.

Science, religion and philosophy

PM also drew my attention to the nice exposition by Neil Ormerod over at the ABC Religion and Ethics site on the distinctions between physics, philosophy and theology in the context of the verification of the existence of the Higgs boson.

Manliness and punctuality

A few weeks ago the priest at Mass uncharacteristically apologised for being late and promised Mass the following week would start on time.  It was a joke - he was going on leave, and a supply priest was going to be saying it (and it did indeed start on time)!

So I have to say I was quite entertained when I cam across this article on manliness and punctuality.  Now call me a rad fem, but I have to admit that I struggle a little with the attempts to construct a narrative around manliness - most of the virtues claimed as particularly 'manly' seem to me to be applicable to both sexes.  This one is no different - punctuality just seems to me to be primarily about respect for other people.  Nonetheless, this post does a good job of putting punctuality in the context of notions of  things like dependability, integrity, humility and more.

The fight back on families

I'm often critical of the Australian Church for not speaking up enough on some issues (and too much on certain others!).  But two pieces to applaud.
  • Joel Hodge of ACU over at The Drum on Melinda Gates' 'Family Planning' Conference has generated a lively discussion; and
  • an article in the Catholic Weekly from last week by Archbishop Hart suggesting that this year's Social Justice Statement will actually be on a really central set of social justice issues, around the family.
The re-evangelization and the new media

There is a lot of rhetoric around re-evangelization (aka the New Evangelization) around at the moment.  But few actually attempt to draw on the lessons of past successful and unsuccessful re-evangelization methods, take a really hard look at what it takes to make an impact in the current environment, and the barriers to doing so.  This post does, and points to a key barrier one entirely within the control of the Church, viz copyright restrictions on things like the Catechism.  It argues, amongst other proposals, that all Church doctrinal documents should be made public domain.

St Catherine of Siena on Purgatory

And because we got a cracking sermon today on why we should be doing our best to avoid purgatory (think pain beyond anything we have experienced in this life) and remembering those who may be there in our prayers and good works, here is a link to St Catherine of Siena's  treatise on the subject.  It is a reminder as to why we should strive, as St Teresa of Avila urges, to be great saints, and not be satisfied with aiming to just scrape in...

You might also want to read or reread St Thomas Aquinas' treatment of the subject.

The Wisdom and Life of St Benedict/9 - Not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself

A priest shares his Easter meal with St Benedict
Il Sodoma, c1505

Today's saying from Chapter 4 of the Rule of  St Benedict is the Golden Rule.  It can be found in Scripture in several places, most notably Tobias 4:16; Acts 15:20, 29); Mt 7:12; and Luke 6:31.

The Golden Rule

In Tobias (Tobit), it forms part of the instructions Tobias gives his son before setting out on his journey:

"Hear, my son, the words of my mouth, and lay them as a foundation in your heart. 3 When God shall take my soul, you shall bury my body: and you shall honour your mother all the days of her life: 4 For you must be mindful what and how great perils she suffered for you in her womb. 5 And when she also shall have ended the time of her life, bury her by me. 6 And all the days of your life have God in your mind: and take heed that you never consent to sin, nor transgress the commandments of the Lord our God. 7 Give alms out of your substance, and turn not away your face from any poor person: for so it shall come to pass that the face of the Lord shall not be turned from you. 8 According to your ability be merciful. 9 If you have much give abundantly: if you have little, take care even so to bestow willingly a little. 10 For thus you store up to yourself a good reward for the day of necessity. 11 For alms deliver from all sin, and from death, and will not suffer the soul to go into darkness. 12 Alms shall be a great confidence before the most high God, to all them that give it. 13 Take heed to keep yourself, my son, from all fornication, and beside your wife never endure to know a crime. 14 Never suffer pride to reign in your mind, or in your words: for from it all perdition took its beginning. 15 If any man has done any work for you, immediately pay him his hire, and let not the wages of your hired servant stay with you at all. 16 See that you never do to another what you would hate to have done to you by another. 17 Eat your bread with the hungry and the needy, and with your garments cover the naked, 18 lay out your bread, and your wine upon the burial of a just man, and do not eat and drink thereof with the wicked. 19 Seek counsel always of a wise man. 20 Bless God at all times: and desire of him to direct your ways, and that all your counsels may abide in him."

St Benedict quotes it elsewhere in two places: in the context of accepting monks from another community without the consent of their superior (RB 61); and in the context of anyone venturing to punish another without the abbot's permission.

A priest shares his Easter feast with St Benedict

St Gregory the Great records a curious incident in the life of St Benedict of the Golden Rule benefiting the saint when he was still a hermit living in a cave at Subiaco:

"At length almighty God was determined to ease Romanus of his pains, and to have Benedict's life known to the world as an example, that such a candle, set upon a candlestick, might shine and give light to the Church of God. 

Our Lord appeared to a certain Priest dwelling a good way off, who had made ready his dinner for Easter day, and spake thus unto him: "Thou hast provided good cheer for thyself, but my servant in such a place is afflicted with hunger".  Hearing this, the priest rose up, and upon Easter day itself, with such meat as he had prepared, went to the place, where he sought for the man of God amongst the steep hills, the low valleys and hollow pits, and at length found him in his cave.

After they had prayed together, and sitting down had given God thanks, and had much spiritual talk, then the Priest said to him: "Rise up, brother, and let us dine, because today is the feast of Easter."

The man of God replied: "I know that it is Easter with me and a great feast, having found so much favour at God's hands as this day to enjoy your company" (for by reason of his long absence from men, he knew not that it was the great solemnity of Easter).

But the reverent Priest again did assure him, saying: "Verily, to-day is the feast of our Lord's Resurrection, and therefore meet it is not that you should keep abstinence, and besides I am sent to that end, that we might eat together of such provision as God's goodness hath sent us." Whereupon they said grace, and fell to their meat, and after they had dined, and bestowed some time in talking, the Priest returned to his church."

This series continues here.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Bishop Fisher on the Fr F case

Bishop Fisher of Parramatta has put out a statement to the people of his diocese on the Fr F case.  Looks pretty good to me at least! 

Message of the people of Parramatta

Here it is, with a few boldings and comments:

"My Dear People,

Today’s readings open with the words: “Doom for the shepherds who allow my flock to be destroyed and scattered – it is the Lord who speaks!” (Jer 23:1). They are challenging words to hear at any time, but in our current context they echo forcefully around our parish churches.

We were all shocked by the terrible story of ‘Fr F’ reported recently on Four Corners. It has resulted in public scrutiny of his behaviour while serving in his home Diocese of Armidale, of his time in our own Diocese of Parramatta, and of the adequacy of the Church’s response to allegations about him. It has reignited public condemnation of clerical abuse and criticism of the way it has sometimes been mishandled.

I would like to state my own position clearly on this matter. All sexual abuse within and without the Church is a grave sin before God, a crime and to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. I am acutely aware that the harm it does to victims is incalculable and often irreparable. Child abuse must be eliminated from our Church and everything possible done to bring justice and healing to the victims.

As you will have heard, Bishop Michael Kennedy of Armidale and I have decided jointly to commission an independent inquiry into the matters recently drawn to public attention. We have appointed a distinguished lawyer and former Federal Court judge, Hon. Antony Whitlam QC, to conduct this inquiry. We are determined that justice be served in this case. For many years the Diocese of Parramatta has enjoyed a close working relationship with NSW Police and the NSW Ombudsman which we value greatly. At this critical time we will be co-operating fully with the Police to ensure that any criminal conduct is investigated and dealt with appropriately.

These are times of soul-searching for all Catholics. It is my prayer that this wound in the Body of Christ can be healed radically, now and for the future. I call on all Catholics in our Diocese to pray and offer penance for the purification of the Church from this and all sin, and in particular for the victims of such grave misconduct (cf. Pastoral Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 March 2010, n. 2).[Couldn't this be made into a more specific proposal?]

I urge you, my dear people, to love and to support your priests, the vast majority of whom are dedicated men, loyal to their mission as priests, and do not deserve to be tarnished by association with the perpetrators of these crimes. Our priests need your prayer and support more than ever at this time.[Fair and important point]

In our first reading the Prophet Jeremiah dreams of a virtuous descendant of David who will be the Good Shepherd for us. He also promises that God will raise up other shepherds after the heart of that Good Shepherd, shepherds who will care for us and whom none need fear. Sure enough, in St Mark’s Gospel, we see the advent of that Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who takes pity on a crowd who were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). As He was the model for His apostles, so He is the model for all true pastors. We turn to Him in prayer today. I will pray for all of you in this difficult time that we may adhere ever more closely to the Person of Jesus Christ.

But is it enough?

All the same, the question remains as to where there are more 'Fr F's' sitting out there in the community, their cases inadequately dealt with for whatever reasons.
Each diocese surely needs to take stock of this issue, and do it in an open and transparent way, to ensure that there are no more such revelations to fuel further anti-catholic sentiment in this country. 
And speaking of transparency, the bishop of Armidale also put out a pastoral letter last weekend.  Alas, however, it does not appear to be available online at Cath News or anywhere else as the diocsese still has no website.

The bishops on the Northern Territory Intervention: bah humbug!

Since I'm on a public policy spin at the moment, let me register my complaint about the bishops' continuing condemnation of the Northern Territory Intervention.

Undermining the teaching authority

This is one of those classic areas where the social teaching of the Church offers some principles we should consider.

But it simply does not support, in my view, a clear conclusion one way or another, because there are different judgments that can be arrived at depending on the relative weight you put on those principles and your assessment of the actual factual situation. 

And in those circumstances, putting out endless press releases on the subject just undermines the bishops' teaching authority in other areas where there is no room for debate.

Bishop Saunders

The latest salvo is from Bishop Saunders of Broome in his capacity as Chair of the Catholic Social Justice Commission, in the Catholic Weekly.

Let's take a look at what he says:

"The Gillard Government’s 10-year extension of the Northern Territory intervention is not only a “huge betrayal”, but a “giant step backwards” in relationships with Aboriginal people, says Bishop Christopher Saunders, chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council."


“It doesn’t solve the problem that it purports to solve,” he said.

The 'problem it purports to solve', according to the Government website on it, is the wide gap in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. 

And actually the evidence suggests that some inroads into this are being made, albeit slowly.  The latest evaluation found, for example, that 75% of people felt safer in their communities, and that there were improvements in health, education, employment, education and housing.

Indeed, the Bishop Saunders' claim directly contradicts the ACBC Press Release on the Stronger Futures legislation that acknowledged that:

“The Northern Territory National Emergency Response has achieved some success and we can learn from these successes. We see this success particularly in housing, employment and education."

Outcomes are still way below those for other Australians of course - but this is hard stuff, and that is why it is a ten year program.

Income support and child neglect

“And secondly it deprives indigenous people of the dignity of being able to control their own money.

First let's be clear.  What we are talking about here is not wages or earnings from selling arts and crafts.  It is not the result of entrepreneurial effort.  It is income support from Government.  It is not in fact 'their' money but rather taxpayers'.

Secondly, we need to understand just why income management is so important in some communities: it actually enables individuals and families to protect their income from those who want to sponge off them, and are often prepared to use alcohol-fueled threats and violence to achieve this.  What we are talking about here is the practice of 'humbugging' that plagues so many communities and is major reason why many children, have, in the past, failed to get enough to eat and thrive.

The policy of 70% income management provision in cases where child neglect has been identified is intended to help prevent children having to be removed from their parents.

And in fact many Aboriginal women support income management, as reflected in the current proposal from the troubled APY lands in South Australia to have income management extended to them.

“Decisions are made about Aboriginal people by unqualified junior bureaucrats who have the arbitrary power to put people on to this and take them off, as though somehow passing a public service exam qualifies them for making judgments about the character of adult indigen­ous people...”

This really seems a bit disingenuous.  Relatively 'junior' bureaucrats (and junior bank clerks, and many other 'junior' workers in a wide variety of spheres) make judgments about all sorts of issues impacting on individuals and families, including decisions to remove children in cases of neglect, cut people off from unemployment benefits and more.  The issue surely isn't whether or not they make decisions, but whether or not they are making the right decisions.  If they aren't, then perhaps the Church should be working with them to improve the processes?

And indeed the article itself reports that under the new Stronger Futures legislation:

"...only authorities that can give a notice to place a person on income management under the new state and territory referral measure meet specific conditions, including that they have appropriate review processes."

Conflating other issues

One of the other problems in the way the Church is playing on this debate is the way that it is conflating issues that have nothing to with the intervention directly or the particular proposals on the table.

The most recent ACBC press release (15 July) opposing the Stronger Futures legislation then before Parliament, for example, talked about bilingual education in the Territory.  That is a Territory Government matter, and nothing to do with the Federal legislation at all.

Unless of course the bishops are arguing that the bishops legislate so as to overrule the Territory Government's policy on this matter?  Now personally, I think the Northern Territory is demonstrably a failed state, and wouldn't object to this in the least, but presumably some will use the principle of subsidiarity (which seems to become an absolute when it suits some, rather than a matter of judgment) to argue that this is not appropriate...

Similarly it claimed that existing local level programs that are working would be jeopardised.  But if they've been operating under the Intervention for the last few years, what is it in the new legislation that will prevent them continuing to operate? 

In fact the new legislation, and associated policy developments such as the new 'Remote Jobs and Communities Porgram' (to replace the old CDEP) are intended to provide greater local autonomy and control, not less.  Indeed, a better question might be whether the new legislation expects too much of communities themselves rather than too little (under the new Remote Jobs Scheme for example, Ministers or bureaucrats will not be able to agree that a particular initiative will be funded, rather the initiative has to be approved by the community under its community plan).

Rights vs outcomes

In fact the real objection to the Intervention seems to be its collision with the 'rights' agenda.

But rights and self-determination can only operate effectively under certain conditions. 

When a community's culture has been totally destroyed by alcohol and drugs, by the removal of a generation of children, by the absence of jobs, is self-determination either possible or desirable? 

Moreover, giving rights to one person inevitably limits the rights of another.  The issue is what is more important: the rights of the men in the community to get drunk (constrained by the restrictions on even small amounts of alcohol in communities that the bishop objects to), or the right of the children of the community to have somewhere safe to go to at night?

The reality is that while every community is different, leaving it to the communities themselves will, in many cases, effectively mean consigning yet another generation to poverty and trauma.

Problems with the Intervention

I'm not suggesting for a moment that the Intervention in its current, previous or likely future forms is entirely unproblematic!

Personally I remain quite ambivalent about it.

The way it was introduced under the Howard Government poisoned support for even the measures that Aboriginal people on the ground actually agree with.

From what I've seen and heard, the bureaucrats and other agencies involved in it still don't always seem to be that great at taking on board what Aboriginal people themselves have to say.

And while a lot of money is being poured into the Northern Territory - and Stronger Futures has a $3.4 billion price tag - a lot of that is undoubtedly being wasted and going to be wasted on an inflated bureaucracy and badly designed and delivered programs.  The Northern Territory does not, after all, have a good track record in this area (remember the early disasters of the housing program of the Intervention?).

There are practical issues too, that still need to be worked through.

The APY women (and many others) have pointed out that unless income management type arrangements can be put in place for those with jobs in communities, there will be no incentive for anyone to actually get a real job, because of humbugging.

There are other issues to.  I've heard, for example, about communities where the women do their grocery shopping daily -  so that relatives and others can't engage in humbugging and make off with the week's food supply - but the problem is that if the EFTPOS system goes down, they then have no fallback, no way of feeding their families.  And in remote communities, computers trend to have a short shelf life (all that dust) and technological problems can take days to fix. 


All the same, most of these issues are things that can and are being fixed.
On balance, I don't think Bishop Saunders and friends have made the case to justify his claim that the intervention makes a “mockery” of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s  apology to the stolen generation.

We need constructive contributions to this debate, not just endless ideologically driven critiques that muddy the waters of the Church's teaching role.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Getting past that narrative: on being actually Catholic!

I've been laying off Cath News recently, not least because for a short while at least it seemed to be improving.

But oh dear, there have been a couple of pieces on Cath Blog this week in particular have been something of a shocker, in particular one on 'ecumenism', and one on the latest salvos from those rad fem nuns in the US!

False ecumenism and the world

Friday's effort was a classic effort on ecumenism, and its basic message is the catholicism (with a small c because we have apparently all moved beyond divisions on doctrinal issues these days!) has got nothing to do with actually worshipping God or getting to heaven, but instead is a kind of global movement against capitalism:

"Far from reducing ecumenism to church unity as an end in itself [an interesting interpretation given that the opening sentence of the Decree on Ecumenism actually states that "The restoration of unity amongst all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.  Christ the Lord founded one Church..."], much less a special interest for the eccentric few, the Council situated ecumenism in this much larger and more challenging context of a global, “catholic” unity, where ecumenism and catholicity meet, the church and the world embrace, “globalisation” is set free from its captivity to commercialisation, cultural superficiality and imperialism." [Let me just say that not one of those words actually appears in Unitatis Reintegratio!]

Nor does Pope John Paul II's Ut unum sint, also cited in the article, lend any support to the author's creative attempt to redefine the nature of the Church.  In fact Ut Unum Sint explicitly states that:

"In effect, this unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion."

It is true that Pope John Paul II saw ecumenism as the work of us all: but that is because he saw as all as missionaries, who should work to restore our separated brethren to that fullness of unity that they might share the truth with us.

Models of the Church?

But surely the most outrageous aspect of the article is the claim that:

"As long as our “concept of church” remains in practice defined as an institution that functions as a “multinational corporation” run by bishops who see themselves as its “branch managers” [the condemnation of this view of the Church in these very terms in fact originates with Pope Benedict XVI himself!]; as long as this institution focuses on itself and its own survival in a defensive and self-pitying posture with regard to the contemporary world [After five decades intent on secularization, with utterly disastrous results, the author thinks we haven't gone far enough!!]; it doesn’t much matter what theologically correct formulas we mouth about it being “the People of God” or “the Body of Christ” or “communio/koinonia”."

It is a worry that the author, Dr Drasko Dizdar, is apparently 'a theologian with the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office'!

Radical patriarchy?

Tuesday's Cathblog post, by Garry Everett, was an update on the stoush between the Vatican and the US peak religious women's body, the LCWR, and it is a classic of the genre.

It uses a little bit of classic marxist analysis to claim that since the Vatican are the one's in power, they must stand in the place of the Jewish establishment in Our Lord's time, and the sisters should just leave them behind:

"Using power to preserve unity did not serve the establishment well in the days of Jesus, and will not be truly effective today.

But the bishops are the successors of the apostles, not of the Jewish hierarchy.  And the Church's hierarchical authority is not equally allocated between the sisters and the Vatican as the writer tries to suggest, but is rather invested in the hierarchical structure of the Church!

The writer even has the nerve to suggest that the Vatican is like those towns and cities that refused to hear the message of the Gospel:

It must seem attractive to LCWR to “shake the dust from your sandals”, as Jesus advised when the disciples met with a lack of hospitality to their efforts."

Yes well, perhaps it would indeed be best if all those claiming to be catholic but who in fact do not recognise the historic continuity of the Church with that founded by Christ, reject its hierarchical structure as an example of Sr Joan Chittester's 'radical patriarchy' to be fought against, and reject the teaching authority of the Church and its duty to correct error did indeed just leave.  They are protestants in practice, why not be honest about it?

The reality is that the sisters status stems from the public recognition of their vows as individuals and their organisation by the Church.  If they want to keep that status, then they actually have to be part of the Church and obey its rules.  Time, perhaps for some 'radical obedience' and 'radical humility'!

Cath News must be reformed (or destroyed)!
But oh dear, why oh why does their persistence in error continue to be given airspace in a Catholic publication?

At the time of writing this (Friday afternoon), the poll over on the right of the blog page has 245 votes stating that Cath News needs to be reformed (126), or destroyed (112).  But interestingly only a third of those who have voted are willing to pray for the cause!

Even more disturbing I think is the rising number of those (currently 44) who have had comments rejected over at Cath News, particularly since around half of those think it was rejected because they stated the Church's (actual) teaching...

If you haven't voted yet, please do.

PS For a humorous take on this subject, do go and enjoy Acts of Apostasy's, take on this subject, Last Night at SCHISM Headquarters. 

Influencing public policy Pt 2 - People don't like change!

In my previous post on the series of public policy seminars I've been attending I talked about the challenges around tax reform in Australia at the moment.  Today I want to reflect on a more general seminar on the the policy process and contemporary policy challenges.

A new Kennedy School of Government?

The seminars I've attended this week have been put on by ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy to celebrate the launch of its new Institute of Public Policy under former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry as Executive Chair.

The Institute of Public Policy apparently has ambitions to rival Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in terms of influence and prestige (wasn't that what ANZSOG supposed to be doing? And more than a few other ventures since then have made similar claims...?). 

In any case, Tuesday's seminar was a series of presentations by some of the newly  appointed Public Policy Fellows (basically a rebadging exercize of assorted ANU academics), followed by a contribution from journalist Lenore Taylor and a panel discussion chaired by ex-politician and now (inter alia) ANU Chancellor, Gareth Evans.

There were a couple of extremely entertaining and insightful presentations - notably from Bruce Chapman (on the realities of the policy process), Gabriele Bammer (on why academics aren't good at some types of policy problems and the case for a new discipline of Integration and Implementation Science), and Peter McDonald  (on the demographics and effects of ageing of the population on countries). 

But some rather less so! 

Ken Baldwin, a scientist (or should one say climate change warrior?), presumably won't be reading this because blogs, or indeed anything not in a peer reviewed journal, have 'no value' in his view.   In his view, bureaucrats (and the media) should take the advice of the academy as to who the real experts on a particular subject are, and accept it unquestioningly!

Thankfully ANU Chancellor and Chair of the seminar Gareth Evans dubbed his approach the priesthood approach to science and challenged it.

Kim Rubenstein, a lawyer, tried to suggest that failed litigation appealed even unto the High Court was a sensible way of getting an entirely unintended minor legislative technical anomaly corrected. 

And the argument about the need for 'policy champions' from the other 'gender warrior' (and lawyer) present, Margaret Thornton just came across as naive.  Margaret complained about anti-intellectualism in the media, and the extent to which the term academic has become a term of abuse.  But her view that academics are the 'idea generators' while public servants are the mere 'deliverers', and complaints about the need to actually persuade someone in the system of one's views rather than have them accepted automatically as self-evident, perhaps helps understand just why academics don't get the respect they think they deserve!

The virtue of humility?

There was also an interesting debate on whether being in the media frequently in order to get your views out (as economist Warwick McKibbin is) is helpful or outright counter-productive.

In fact, the consensus seemed to be that in general, one's influence is inversely related to one's media profile!

There was a particularly nice anecdote from Bruce Chapman about an econometrician in his department who didn't view himself as impacting on public policy at all -  but in fact had quietly changed the economic models used by several countries, with significant policy consequences.

Similarly, there was something of a consensus that while saying something public can be helpful early on in a policy development process, there is a point when it becomes counter-productive.

Perspectives our bishops and their apparatchiks might take due note of...

The psychology of change

One of the questioners from the floor queried why there were no psychologists or sociologists amongst the newly selected fellows.  I'm not sure whether or not I agree that is a real concern, but certainly some understanding of some basic psychological principles is important if you want to influence public policy.

The reality is that most people, however discontented they may be, are reluctant to move away from the status quo: they are extremely risk averse and work on the 'devil you know' principle.

Gabriele Bammer's presentation suggested some of the reasons why that is the case.  In particular, she suggested, academics tend to struggle to identify and deal with effects of the 'unknowns' that lead to unintended consequences when policies are implemented.  Academics (and policy makers) also tend to assume universal laws such that policies will work the same way wherever they are transplanted: but in reality context matters.

Her presentation was in effect a plea for a degree of humility on the part of academics, and acknowledgement of the limitations of the advice they can offer and appreciation for the different skill sets of policy-makers and bureaucrats respectively.  But also a plea for thinking more broadly, on a cross-disciplinary basis.

The case of nuclear power

Unfortunately, as several speakers pointed out, academia does not typically work well across the silos.
Ken Baldwin, for example, lamented the effects of the Fukishima accident on the nuclear power debate.  The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he noted, had killed thousands, the resulting nuclear accident had killed (and he claimed, was unlikely to) kill anyone.  Yet any prospect of nuclear power in Australia was once more off the agenda as a result of it.

But he was wrong on the facts.  The latest epidemiological study (in a peer reviewed journal too!) suggests that up to 1300 cancer deaths are possible.  And of course there were the other major impacts he might want to consider - there were a number of deaths due to the indirect effects of the accident; there were mass evacuations; and it will be decades before the land surrounding the plant will be habitable again, so that thousands have lost their homes for ever;  and the shutdown of the reactor is still impacting on electricity availability and hence production in Japan.

More fundamentally, there is the trust element involved.  The failure of planners to take into account adequately the possibility of a tsunami of the size that occurred, and the subsequent mismanagement of the disaster illustrates the real problems of effective regulation in areas of this kind: catastrophic risks trend consistently to be underestimated; regulators can be subject to capture by the regulated; and politicians and others are often reluctant to act swiftly and decisively to take prudential measures that impose large costs on the electorate (such as evacuation).  Nuclear power itself might in principle be potentially safe if managed properly, but can we know that it will be, given the human factors involved?

Finally, there is a basic tenet of the risk management literature that applies here: people are much more concerned about risks that are not under their own control.  In the end we can't prevent an earthquake or tsunami; we can, however, ensure there is never a nuclear accident!  In most countries, it is many many times safer to get on board an airplane, for example, than to go for a drive in your car.  Why are we willing to spend so much on aviation regulation but not, for example, to take measures such as banning trucks from the roads?  The psychologists will tell you that it is because behind the wheel of a car we have the illusion at least of control, whereas as a passenger in a plane we do not.  The basic principle is, the bigger the size of the potential risk, and the less control an individual has over it, the more risk averse he or she will be.

Now it seems to me that scientists who wish to express views on such subjects, and presumably teach them to their students in the context of public policy development, have a duty to familiarise themselves with the literature not just of their own field, such as the physics of nuclear energy, but also the literature on risk management and regulatory failure.

If you aren't prepared to do that (and not everyone has the time or skills do make that effort), you have to be prepared to accept that your discipline's perspective will need to be integrated with those of others, so that your view of the best possible outcome will not necessarily prevail.  A purely technical, pure science perspective is never going to be enough. 

And that's a lesson that applies in many other fields too, because if you want to seriously try and get nuclear energy (or any other 'elephant in the room' type issue such as promoting the virtues of adoption over abortion) back on the table in this country, you need to find a way of addressing those broader contextual issues as well.

Hasten slowly: the case of HECS

But lest it be thought that I'm just picking on the scientist, a similar lack of appreciation of the broader psychology of change seemed to me to underpin former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry's attack on Governments over-compensating, or 'bribing' of the electorate to get tax reform through.

His comments attacking 'overcompensation' on Monday actually contrasted quite nicely with Bruce Chapman's discussion on Tuesday of how he managed to sell income-contingent loans for higher education (HECS) to the Labor Government in 1988.  The issue was how to make a very big change indeed: to move from a system where Australian students paid no fees whatsoever for higher education (courtesy of Whitlam reforms) to one where (unlike the pre-Whitlam system where around 80% of students received scholarships covering their fees) pretty much everyone paid.

There was a good case for re-introducing fees: the education system needed to be expanded, but no one wanted to increase taxes to pay for it back then; and the system of free higher education had proved to be highly regressive.  But while there would certainly be winners (ie the extra students who would be able to get a University place and the academics employed to teach them), there would also be a lot of losers in the form of students now forced to pay.

Providing income contingent loans - that is, paying back the fee when you were earning enough for it to able to afford to do so -  helped soften the blow.  It was in fact a form of 'overcompensation' if you like (particularly since students initially didn't pay any interest), to ease in a major change.

Moreover, it was a particularly bad form of overcompensation from a Treasury/Finance perspective, because its design meant that while the expansion of higher education was going to start immediately, the revenue raised from fees came some way down the track: students didn't start paying back their loans until they graduated and started earning a reasonable amount of money.

Yet because of these very features, the HECS system has been an enormous success: it now has wide acceptability, even having recently been expanded to TAFE.  It has been adopted overseas.  And it has helped to fund a vast expansion of our higher education system.

Why Ken Henry is wrong on over-compensation...

Turning back to Ken Henry's concerns at 'bribing' people in order to get tax reform, it may be that Henry's real concern goes to the quantum of the compensation given in the case of the carbon price.  But he put it as a general principle, so let's look at it in those terms.

Imagine a Government wants to introduce a measure like carbon pricing.  Inevitably there will be some winners (the electricity generated by the solar panels on your roof saves you more money/those who grow their own food) and some losers (those who have to buy in energy or products requiring transport).

The Government could take a couple of  approaches. 

It could, for example, decide not to offer any compensation at all, and instead sell the virtues of the reform, and attempt to persuade the 'losers' that they are sacrificing for the good of the future of the world. 

First you have to be able to do an extremely good sales job, something that seems pretty much beyond the capability of Government at the moment.  But even then, it will surely only be tenable if the size of price increases the 'losers' face is relatively small, and falls mostly on people who can afford it.

If, however, as in the case of a carbon price, the effects are actually likely to be highly regressive and quite large, offering compensation to people makes sense.

Now from a purely economic perspective, in an ideal world, you could exactly compensate people for the impacts of the carbon price, and still get the desired policy outcome.  The idea is that if you given them the exact amount of money they need to maintain their old consumption pattern, they mostly won't actually keep spending their money the way they used to.  Because the price of electricity has gone up relative to food for example, they might decide to turn off the heater for a few extra hours, and buy a nice bottle of wine instead!

In the real world, however, there are a few problems with the notion of 'exact' compensation.

First, outside the purist world of Treasury modelling, it is pretty much impossible to design an effective compensation mechanism tailored to individual household consumption patterns (costs will increase with the size of the family for example), and to take account of the variability of expenditures (say if a winter is particularly cold, or a summer particularly hot).

The reality is that any system is going to be based on averages and assumptions, and when it is paid will not match up to when you pay out for higher costs, because of institutional constraints and more.

All of which means that your guestimates of how much compensation is needed may prove to be quite wrong. The fact that you are unlikely to be able to get it right (or even close to right) for a lot of people is one of the good reasons for 'over-compensating'.

The second reason for 'overcompensating' seems to me to relate to what economists call adjustment costs. If prices go up, we can't always immediately change our consumption patterns. And doing so is not costless: we need to think about it and make decisions, and we may need to buy new more energy efficient fridges and heating systems for example, or an extra cardigan!

The third reason is that some goods are more substitutable than others, and some dollars are more valuable than others.  In theory as the price goes up we can cut back the length of our showers, turn off the heater and so forth. But there are some kinds of cuts to our lifestyle that we are likely to feel far more acutely than others, and those on low incomes with little disposable income will feel the impact of increases in 'fixed' costs (such as electricity) far more acutely than those on much higher ones. 

All of these factors also influence our reaction to change: most people are risk averse to some degree, those struggling to get by financially (or who believe that they are struggling) are likely to be far more risk averse than those on the income of a former Treasury Secretary turned academic!
So all in all, 'bribing' people, or rather hastening slowly and cushioning the initial impact of major reforms is, in my view, good policy.

And there are lessons in that in trying to sell some of the kinds of other policy reforms we'd all like to see...

More in the next part of this series.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

How Melinda's money might be better spent...

There is a nice article up at the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse site on Melinda Gates' plan to contracept the third world out of existence. 

It starts by demolishing some of the vastly inflated claims about pregnancy as a cause of teenage death in the world (the claim by Save the Children was 1 million; in fact the WHO figure is 50,000), discusses why pushing contraception is unlikely to be a successful strategy (even one accepted that it was moral), and then goes on to point out some more cost effective ways Mrs Melinda Gates could spend her money if she really wanted to help Third World women in poverty.

In particular the article suggests:
  • funding the provision of midwives, a measure that has been shown to reduce maternal mortality by 75%;
  • funding the education of women - there is a strong correlation between maternal mortality and education, partly because more educated women delay and space their pregnancies, partly because they can access health education more readily, and partly because it promotes increased responsibility for oneself; and
  • funding basic health care.
The $20 per woman, or $4.5 billion that Melinda Gates is providing for contraception would go a long way for the billion or so people who survive on less than a $1.25 a day.

Sad that over at Cath News, Ms Gates cause continues to get a positive push.

You can find another useful critique of her program over at Lifesite News news (originally published on CNS).  Don't expect to find any articles presenting the actual catholic position over at Cath News though...

How can we influence the public policy debate? Pt I - Death and taxes

My public policy seminar binge continued with two seminars this week, both of which raised interesting questions about how to influence public policy.

Is it possible to get good outcomes in the new world order?

How to influence public policy - how to get an issue on the agenda, get a particular proposal implemented, or shape the development of someone else's proposals - are important issues for Catholics to think about, since in this country as well as many others, we are losing badly in the public square at the moment.

If it's any consolation, so is the public policy 'establishment', such as it is, for both seminars were in fact rather counsels of despair from former politicians, public servants and current academics.

The fundamental issue identified in both of them was the way policy development paradigms are being impacted by the new media.  As Lenore Taylor of the Sydney Morning Herald on yesterday's panel pointed out, a decade or two back, if you managed to get key opinion leaders in the media on side, the rest of the journalistic flock would largely follow.  That centre of gravity has gone, and journalism has collapsed to much narrower narrative around the political contest, challenged from the sidelines by bloggers and others. 

This post focuses primarily on Monday's ANU Crawford School of Public Policy seminar on tax reform.  In the next post I'll talk more about yesterday's seminar on the role of academics in influencing public policy.

Is (real tax) reform possible?

At Monday's seminar, on the Henry Tax Review, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not the Mining Tax as it was finally implemented had ultimately been worth the effort - would it actually raise any revenue, and would it be more economically distorting than the existing taxes it was originally intended to replace? 

A group of economists who originally lent public support to the idea of a mining resource rent tax back in 2010 were polled recently by The Economist, and on balance most of them thought it probably was (despite the mess the Government made of it). 

Monday's group, which included some big names (Chaired by Bob Gregory of ANU; Ken Henry (former Secretary of the Treasury, now Executive Chair of the new Institute of Public Policy); John Freebairn (University of Melbourne); Patricia Apps (University of Sydney); John Hewson (former leader of the Opposition), and James Merlees (UK, Nobel Laureate) seemed rather less convinced!

But there was quite an interesting discussion on things that could and should have been done to better manage processes such as the mining and carbon taxes, such as quarantining the revenue from the mining tax and devote it to infrastructure and having the Competition Commission put out a price list of increases from the carbon tax and have the Competition Commission jump on anyone who attempts to hike up their prices above that (as happened under Professor Fels when the GST was introduced in Australia).

Death and taxes?

The real frustration at the tax seminar though, was how to sell the need for tax increases.

Tax reform, in the popular mind, it was argued, equates to tax cuts.

Now personally, I have to say, that I think it is a bit rich for a bunch of economists to blame this on the media or anyone else, because this perception is largely the fault of economists.  You only have to think back twenty years or so to the era of economic rationalism and microeconomic reform - back then economists were arguing long and loudly to cut taxes in order to make Australia a more internationally competitive economy.

But claims of the mining industry aside, economists no longer seem to believe the rhetoric about tax rates and international competitiveness as strongly.  More fundamentally, Australia needs to find ways of  increasing its revenue base in order to cope with the costs of our ageing population, and the infrastructure needs created by our rapidly growing population.

Now increasing Government revenue is obviously not the only possible solution to the first problem at least: other approaches could include measures to promote tighter family ties and mutual support and greater emphasis on self-provision (for example by making people sell the family home to pay for their nursing home care, a proposal the Howard Government backed away from) and more. 

But there is a hard reality that has to be faced, and we need to be thinking about it because, as we all know, some are already working hard to promote a very simple solution to the costs of an ageing population.  It is called euthanasia.

Instead of providing appropriate care for the elderly in hospital, for example, the latest edition of the British Medical Journal carries an editorial protesting a court decision to prevent doctors dehydrating patients to death as they wish.

Similarly, the push to reduce the 'costs' of disability by the simple expedient of aborting any babies identified as having downs syndrome or other disabilities identifiable in the womb is building momentum.

Accordingly, getting genuine tax reform back on the agenda should be a key issue Catholics should be concerned about.

Other mechanisms?

The seminar touched on several other issues that we should want to see on the agenda too: how to make the system more progressive/reduce inequality in Australia, for example through a wealth and/or land tax; and how to get rid of the 'bad taxes' that distort decision-making and undermine productivity.

And there was an entertaining discussion on how best to go about reform: do you, for example, have a Henry Review-type exercize and layout a possible long-term agenda - only to see most of it quickly rejected by both sides of politics!? 

Or to you try to do things as much as possible by stealth, taking small incremental steps that ultimately completely transform the system (as Patricia Apps argued, correctly in my view though she was rather shouted down by other members of the panel, happened under the Howard Government)? 

Is there a way of setting up an institutional arrangement at arms-length from Government to do the job?  It might sound implausible that politicians will ever vacate the field, but John Hewson provided a useful reminder that once upon a time Australia's exchange and interest rates were set by a bunch of politicians with vested interests sitting around the Cabinet table...

All approaches worth pondering further how they could be made to work. 

But in the end, I suspect that none of this thinking is really radical enough to deal with the challenge presented by the changed paradigm presented by the invasion of ipads and applications.

And at both seminars there seemed to be, in my opinion, a certain failure to understand some basic psychological realities about change, most clearly manifested perhaps in Ken Henry's widely reported comments about the evil of overcompensating, or 'bribing' the losers of reforms.  But I'll come back to that in the next post on this subject...

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The confessional under attack?

There are various media reports today that the Victorian Inquiry on child sex abuse is considering ideas like attempting to force priests to breach the seal of confession and report any sex abuse sins confessed, as well as make bishops criminally liable for the conduct of their priests.

I think it is too early to really panic about these yet - start an inquiry of this kind and all of these kinds of ideas will inevitably be raised.  Whether they will gain any traction remains to be seen.

Still, that such ideas can get traction these days is illustrated by the attempt by legislators to do just these kinds of things in Ireland.

Which illustrates why our bishops really really need to think about being pro-active on this debate, and consider, for example, setting up their own independent, well resourced review of the handling of all abuse cases in Australia, with a view to identifying cases where the action taken so far looks inadequate in the light of current standards, identifying responsibility, and making recommendations on changing procedures where necessary.  Maybe individual bishops or groups thereof should consider doing it State by State, or even diocese by diocese if the ACBC can't get its act together quickly enough...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Is it a liturgical abuse? What should I do...

I received a question from a reader, L, about some liturgical abuses she witnessed at a Mass in Brisbane.

Should we tolerate liturgical abuses?

Now I have to admit I've become rather resigned to liturgical abuses - it is a rare mass indeed I encounter these days, novus ordo or otherwise, that does not involve a failure to follow the rubrics in matters greater or smaller.  Nonetheless, the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) does say:

"...it is the right of all of Christ’s faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms."  

To be honest, that is pretty much a joke in this country as far as I'm concerned, and complaining about it privately to priests and bishops, in my experience, is rarely a fruitful experience, and the prospect of Rome acting seems pretty remote. Though I'd have to say that blogging about it has sometimes proved effective..

On the whole though, I have to admit that I try and shut my eyes to them and pray, and find another Church to go to when I can't stand a particular set of abuses any more!

Nonetheless, it has to be said that Redemptionis Sacramentum does in fact impose a serious duty on all of us to do what we can to correct such matters:

"In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected. This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and every one, and all are bound to carry it out without any favouritism."

Accordingly, I thought it might be timely to look, once again, at some of the liturgical abuses one regularly encounters.

So I'm compiling a list, for which I'd welcome your contributions!  My list has, at the moment three categories: serious liturgical abuses that warrant a complaint to the bishop; other abuses which should be corrected if possible; things that aren't technically abuses but should be avoided because they offend good liturgical sensibilities!

I'm not an expert on these matters, so I'll just cite the relevant documents, but feel free to jump in if you think I have it wrong.

Let me start off today though, with the ones raised by my correspondent.

1.  The (lay) Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion poured poured all the remains from three chalices of the Precious Blood into one vessel and consumed it.

 OK so a few issues in that one!

First, pouring the Precious Blood between chalices is strictly forbidden at any time:

"However, the pouring of the Blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided, lest anything should happen that would be to the detriment of so great a mystery." (RS 106)

The instruction states that this is a grave matter, so worth pursuing.

Secondly, who should consume the remaining Precious Blood?  RS says:

"Furthermore all will remember that once the distribution of Holy Communion during the celebration of Mass has been completed, the prescriptions of the Roman Missal are to be observed, and in particular, whatever may remain of the Blood of Christ must be entirely and immediately consumed by the Priest or by another minister, according to the norms..."

The question, does 'another minister' include an Extraordinary Minister?  Well no.

The General Instructions on the Roman Missal for Australia (2007) clearly state that the priest must undertake this duty:

"163. When the distribution of Communion is finished, the priest himself immediately and completely consumes at the altar any consecrated Wine that happens to remain..."

The only exceptions seems to be if there is another priest or deacon present at the altar: minister really does mean minister.

This is in the category of abuses that should be 'carefully avoided and corrected'.  I'd note though that is pretty well universal wherever communion is offered under both kinds...

2. The Extraordinary Minister, AFTER the consecration, walked to the separate room where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and brought the covered chalice full of hosts to be divided amongst the other servers. Should they not have already been on the altar for the Consecration?

On this one I would give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that hosts brought out had been consecrated at a previous Mass (and thus were valid).  It is a fairly common practice (including at traditional Masses). 

It is, however, disgraceful that the faithful should have to worry about whether they have actually received the Eucharist.  Moreover it is easily preventable.  First, why not consecrate enough hosts at the Mass concerned, and only use those reserved if there prove to be insufficient?  The Instruction actually says:

89. “So that even by means of the signs Communion may stand out more clearly as a participation in the Sacrifice being celebrated”, it is preferable that the faithful be able to receive hosts consecrated in the same Mass.

Secondly, those churches that have hidden away the tabernacle in rooms invisible to the faithful need to be revamped!  RS actually says:
"[130.] “According to the structure of each church building and in accordance with legitimate local customs, the Most Holy Sacrament is to be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is noble, prominent, readily visible, and adorned in a dignified manner”..."
Redemptionis Sacramentum states that:
"Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. It is fitting, however, insofar as possible, that the report or complaint be submitted first to the diocesan Bishop. This is naturally to be done in truth and charity."
More anon...
In the next part of this mini-series I'll cover some common abuses and poor liturgical practices.  Feel free to contribute to the list...