Tag Archives: Catholic Church

John Cornwell’s Dark Box

John Cornwell, The Dark Box (Profile Books 2014)

1781251088 In Ken Loach’s movie Jimmy’s Hall, the Communist hero visits his arch-enemy the parish priest in the darkness of the confessional and asks for advice on how to deal with the Pharisees who encourage oppression of the Irish poor. The priest, outraged, exclaims: ‘This is sacrilege!’ Jimmy shoots back, ‘I’ll tell you what’s sacrilege. You hate more than you love.’

At the beginning of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary we see a priest in extreme close up as a voice from the other side of the confessional grille announces the intention to kill him in revenge for sexual abuse committed by another priest.

It’s unlikely that the writers of those scenes, Donal O’Kelly and Paul Laverty for the first and John Michael McDonagh for the second, had read The Dark Box or even knew much of the history it recounts. An Irish Catholic childhood would provide more than enough acquaintance with the confessional box as symbol of pervasive clerical power. But this book could have been written as an explication of these and similar scenes.

It actually was written as an explication of the experiences of generations of Latin Rite Catholic children in the first six decades of last century. (I believe it was different for the Maronite and other rites.)

The practice of frequent sacramental confession was introduced at the Catholic Reformation, in the mid 16th century. Under pain of excommunication and hell all Catholics who had reached the ‘age of discretion’ had to confess at least once a year. In large part this was to strengthen priests’ hold over their parishioners’ inner lives, with the aim of detecting and deterring heretical tendencies. At about the same time the confession box was invented, reputedly by St Charles Borromeo, as a way of preventing priestly abuse of the intimacy of Confession – you could tell your sins without the priest recognising you in the dark or being able to touch you through the separating wall. John Cornwell argues persuasively that it also fostered an approach to morality that was individualistic, introspective and divorced from the narratives of people’s lives – which is pretty much the approach that was taught in the schools of my childhood.

In the 16th century, the age of discretion was generally taken to be somewhere in the late teens. It was Pope (now Saint) Pius X in the early 20th century who decreed that Catholics must make their first Confession at the age of seven. To put it crudely, 17 was too late if you were going to get a solid grip on people’s minds, and steel them against the amorphous threat of ‘Modernism’ – which seems to have been a word for openness to current philosophical and other thinking.

Cornwell spends a lot of time on the link between child sexual abuse and Confession as it existed from the time of Pius X to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. First, the ultra private nature of the confessional provided opportunity – though paradoxically it was when priests began hearing confessions in places other than the box that opportunity increased, as his personal recollections attest. More interestingly, though, Cornwell argues that the training that had grown along with the practice of confession created a skewed understanding of human sexuality among priests. He quotes extensively from the text books used in British seminaries for the first half of the 20th century: homosexuality was seen as mortally sinful but rated a very brief mention; rape was a mortal sin but not much discussed; child sexual abuse wasn’t mentioned; masturbation was also a mortal sin, possibly worse than rape for reasons I can’t bear to repeat, and discussed at length.

Through it all, priests were to see themselves as the authorities. As children they had recited laundry lists of sins; now they had more elaborate laundry lists and a host of arguments they could rationalise with. Nowhere was there room for thinking about life as it is lived.

Catholics of my generation sometimes swap stories about childhood confession. The word for ‘sex’ was ‘impurity’, for example, and what was a seven year old boy to make of the information that if he touched his ‘private parts’ except for bathing or peeing purposes he risked burning in hell for eternity? I remember curling up with embarrassment when I went to confession with the Archbishop of Brisbane in the early 60s, when I was perhaps 14. The Archbishop had a deep, loud voice, and when I confessed to impure acts (a term that covered everything from pack rape to a cheerful roll in the hay, but in my case meant touching my own erect penis – and I do mean just touching), he rumbled for the whole cathedral outside the box to hear, ‘Alone or with others? And how frequently did you do it?’

It’s a dark kind of joy, but a joy all the same, to have history’s unforgiving light shone on this part of my childhood. I recommend the book to anyone who has a close relationship with a Pre–Vatican Two Latin-rite Catholic.

Mary and Human Liberation

Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation: The story and the text (1990, this edition with additional material edited by Helen Stanton, Geoffrey Chapman Publishers 1997)

This book inspired two of my November blog sonnets, but that’s no reason not to give it a separate entry.

I’m a stepchild of the Enlightenment; my natural parent was the Catholic Church. Of course most children don’t get to swap a natural parent for one who makes more sense to them, but if the analogy is allowed to stand despite that, I can say that reading this book was the equivalent of renewing contact with my birth parent, and discovering that she is no longer as I remember her – only to find a bit later that she really is pretty awful after all.

Father Tissa Balasuriya is a Sri Lankan scholar and liberation theologian. The essay at the heart of this book – the ‘text’ of the subtitle –  first appeared as a special double issue of the journal, Logos, published by the Centre for Society and Religion which Balasuriya founded in 1971. It scrutinises Catholic doctrines, dogmas and devotions related to Mary the mother of Jesus, and puts the case for an approach to Mary more in keeping with a liberatory version of Christianity. ‘From a Catholic perspective,’ he writes, ‘the sources of Christian theology are the Bible and tradition. Both of these should be subject to critical evaluation.’ Given that most Catholic doctrine has been developed by celibate European men, it needs to be approached with ‘a hermeneutics of suspicion’: one needs to ask constantly whether particular formulations and interpretations are influenced by self interest and limitations of that group – whether they might not be contaminated by male domination, by colonialism, by taking Western culture’s assumptions and practices to be universally human.

I read the book with a double mind: one part that of a settled atheist (for whom the book was mostly inconsequential, and I won’t pay much attention to him here), the other of the young man in whose life as a trainee Marist Brother, roughly between the ages of 16 and 23, the BVM was the primary feminine presence and fascination, of whom he has never quite let go. That young man was reminded of his pleasure years ago when a teacher said, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the Church. But I don’t have to believe that anyone has ever gone there,’ when he read Balasuriya’s strikingly similar statement about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that is, the doctrine that she was conceived free of sin):

It is taught by the Church on the basis of tradition. I have no difficulty in accepting it. My problem is rather with the idea that the rest of humanity is stained or sinful at conception.  … Suffice it to say here that while I appreciate the holiness of Mary, it is not necessary to deprecate the rest of humanity by contrast.

My young self was exhilarated to find the pale, most pure, most holy virgin being talked about as a mature working class woman who joined her son’s dangerous and deeply principled challenge to the oppressive order of their day. He found it bracing to be told to get his mind above the waist, to stop thinking of Mary primarily in terms of her miraculous reproductive history, and to focus on the song attributed to her, the Magnificat, which talks of psychological, political and economic revolution. He was delighted to read a powerful argument in support of the ordination of women. He (and the atheist he has become) smirked approvingly when Balasuriya pointed out that all but one of the future popes, bishops and priests of the Church deserted Jesus in his darkest hour.

That was the ‘text’. The ‘story’ is another matter altogether. In 1994 the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka issued a statement warning Catholics not to read the essay, and shortly after that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict 16) weighed in with ‘Observations’ pointing out a large number of deficiencies and errors in the essay (in this kind of writing, deficiencies and errors if defended are heresies – you know, the kind of thing that used to get people burned alive). Both those documents are included in this book, along with Balasuriya’s careful, thorough, mostly civil and at times enraged responses. It makes shocking reading. It looks to me as if the thing that really stung the bishops and the Vatican was Balasuriya’s daring to challenge the Eurocentrism and male domination of the Church authorities, because the conversation moved quickly away from the text itself (after all, it’s not clear how well the members of the CDF could read English – the misrepresentations in their Observations may well have resulted from language difficulties rather than authoritarian deviousness) to a demand that Balasuriya sign a statement of belief that was especially tailored to him. Paragraph 34 of the statement read, ‘Therefore, I firmly accept and hold that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.’ To cut a long story short, Balasuriya refused to sign off on something that no other Catholic is required to subscribe to, and in 1997 he was excommunicated with no right of appeal. (According to Wikipedia the excommunication was rescinded a year later, after this book was published, when Balasuriya signed a different, more generally acknowledged statement.)

If the current crop of militant atheists were seriously interested in anything beyond grandstanding and stirring up conflict, they would do well to engage with thinkers like Tissa Balasuriya. They wouldn’t reach agreement, but they might discover the possibility of mutual respect, and much common ground. Much more common ground, I expect, than you’d find between, say, Tony Abbott or George Pell on the one hand and on the other Tissa Balasuriya or, I’m willing to bet, any of the now oldish Marist Brothers who were my confreres in our youth.

Blessed-to-be John Henry

Assuming that the Pope isn’t arrested when he sets foot in the United Kingdom, he will be beatifying John Henry Newman there on 19 September.

I admired JHN greatly in my early 20s, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua is high on my To Be Reread list. His notion of the Development of Doctrine was a bit of an intellectual lifesaver to me as a young Catholic facing such dogmas as ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus‘, which would have condemned all non-Catholics to Hell for eternity, and helps me to have some grasp of how friends I respect can adhere to a church that requires one to believe, for one example, that Mary was a virgin before during and after the birth of Jesus (ante partum, in partu, post partum).

Sadly, the heroes of one’s youth look a little different forty years later. I recently read a friend’s Eng Lit Hons thesis on Newman’s novels, and was shocked to encounter this quote:

He is only half a man if he can’t put his book into the fire when told by authority.

I suppose that’s not so different in spirit from the challenging line from Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, ‘The truth is not always revolutionary.’ All the same, this beatification is not one that betokens a softening of hard line Catholicism.

Every Secret Thing

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing (UQP 2009)

I read this immediately after The Tree of Man. I’ll wait to post about the latter until we’ve discussed it at the Book Group  – enough for now to tell you that it was Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint that prompted me to follow White’s novel with one by an Aboriginal writer.

The books have more in common that you might expect – mainly a contempt for Irish Catholics and selected white middle-class people of whatever religio-ethnic background – but where White’s contempt is accompanied by patrician amusement, attacking from on high, Maria Munkara’s, behind its veneer of cheerfully knockabout calumny, is fuelled by powerful sorrow and rage at the damage done by missionaries.

In fact, scrap the word ‘cheerful’ in that last paragraph. The opening chapters have the form of rough humour as they introduce the people of ‘the Mission’  – the ‘mission mob’ of priest, brothers and nuns and the ‘bush mob’ whom they are out to convert. But from the beginning we are told of endemic sexual abuse and corruption, and  the humour comes with such heavy sarcasm that it’s hard to find it actually funny. For example, when some boys are disobeying the nuns while their parents are standing by, the nuns have an inkling that they may be encountering deliberate resistance rather than incidental lack of cooperation, ‘but they all knew that the bush mob were God-fearing people with a deep and abiding respect for the mission and its papally sanctioned quest to strip them of every vestige of their culture so they would never be defiant now, would they?’ The whites of the Mission are mostly presented in unforgiving caricature – closed-minded, arrogantly confident of their own superiority, sexually predatory (the men) or quietly lustful (the women). The Aboriginal characters aren’t treated much more kindly. They’re rough, pragmatic, disorganised, venal, and only slightly more fleshed out than the non-Aboriginal – but there’s no doubt where the book’s sympathies lie.

The book progresses mainly in a series of skits: the children ask the visiting Bishop curly questions about Christian teachings, the old man of the bush mob helps an anthropologist fill his notebooks with misinformation, a couple of French Hippies arrive in a shipwreck, a cyclone virtually destroys the Mission when the mission mob disregard the warnings of the bush mob, and so on. It takes a while for the narrative gears to mesh, and when they do it’s not so much that the sarcastic caricaturing lets up as that a deeper current asserts itself, and we begin to understand that we are reading about an appalling spiritual tragedy. The moments where the narrative voice tells it straight are incredibly powerful, as at the point when the bush mob have been ‘dying in droves’ from a flu that has only mildly inconvenienced the missionaries, and are persuaded to convert en masse not only to Christianity but also to Western materialism, mainly in the form of cast off clothes. The narrator comes out into the open:

The almighty God that most of the bush mob now believed in was nothing more than the grim reaper of human souls with the mission mob as his helpers and the cast-offs the sad compensation for the relinquishment of their own beliefs. And even though the tenth commandment mentioned that you shouldn’t covet your neighbour’s house or wife or donkey or anything else, the church must have decided that coveting someone’s soul was an entirely different matter. And even though the eighth commandment stated quite clearly that it was very naughty to steal, the mission mob ignored this too and stole the things that were dearest to the bush mob’s heart. They stole their resistance to change and they stole their belief in themselves and they stole their children. Because each black soul that was harvested and each child that was appropriated was another rung higher up the ladder to heaven for Father and his crew and another step closer to salvation from this cesspool of earthly temptation and sin.

In a chapter where a stolen child finds her way back to the community as an adult, the tone lurches from silly farce on a crab hunt to plainspoken desolation when the narrator again intervenes. The final moments of the book are as devastating as you’re likely to read anywhere.

Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award as a manuscript and then in February this year it won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award. In an interview on Awaye in February, Marie Munkara said her story had ‘little wisps of truth and huge bits of embellishment’. The book makes no claims to be a historical record, but the truths it tells are a far cry from wispy.

Once Were Radicals

Irfan Yusuf, Once Were Radicals: My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Once Were RadicalsOver the years, I’ve regularly resolved to rectify my appalling ignorance about Islam. My bookshelves bear witness to my good intentions with a smattering of titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam (though I don’t have that precise book) and What’s Wrong with Islam, and none of them have I ever read.

Enter Once Were Radicals. Perhaps it was the hint of B-grade horror movies in its subtitle that made it seem accessible, or perhaps it was the ludicrous cover image of the author – dark-skinned, bearded and brandishing an automatic weapon, but wearing a boxing kangaroo T-shirt, one cricket pad and a Gen-X smirk in front of a bullet-pierced rifle-range target. Whatever, this is book broke through my worthiness barrier.

Irfan Yusuf, Pakistani Muslim from North Ryde, former member of the Liberal Party, old boy of St Andrew’s (Anglican) Cathedral School, blogger (in fact, the book has its own blog), winner of the Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues the year my niece Paula Shaw was runner-up, has written a kind of demotic Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an extended episode of Pizza with political Islamic writings in place of bongs.

The comparison to the Apologia isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Compare John Henry Newman’s opening words

I cannot be sorry to have forced Mr Kingsley to bring out in fulness his charges against me. It is far better that he should discharge his thoughts upon me in my lifetime, than after I am dead.

to the way Irfan Yusuf begins his acknowledgements:

Believe it or not, the first person I’d like to thank is the former US President George W. Bush for popularising the clumsy term ‘Islamo-fascist’.

Both writers take personally the insult – of untruthfulness and terrorist tendencies respectively – to their religion, and respond with what Newman described as ‘draw[ing] out the history of [his] mind’:

I will state the point at which I began, in what external suggestion or accident each opinion had its rise, how far and how they were developed from within, how they grew, were modified, were combined, were in collision with each other, and were changed; again how I conducted myself towards them …

In Yusuf’s case this is a history of growing up as a middle-class immigrant in Sydney, revisiting Pakistan a number of times as ‘an Aussie kid’, gradually learning to distinguish among the interpenetrating religious heritages of his South Asian ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’,  going to Muslim youth camps, learning parts of the Koran by rote in Pakistan and at home, reading books given him by his Wahhabist aunt, toying with conversion to Christianity, engaging passionately with Islam in a number of ways in his teenage years, and in the end achieving an impressive equilibrium. He is given a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but his parents remove it deftly before he can read any of it; he reads The Satanic Verses, and his mother objects because it might interfere with his studies.

As one who was deeply involved in Catholic matters in my teenage years, I could relate to young Irfan’s trajectory, including the bit that involved learning by heart slabs of text in a language he didn’t understand. Even though I’d be hard pressed to name withy any confidence even one of the authors who attracted him to political Islam, the sheer complexity of his reading is in itself instructive: everybody knows there’s not just one Islam, but following the teenage Irfan’s quest made the complexity of Muslim cultures tangible, almost tasteable.

The Pizza connection: Once Were Radicals is at times very funny, with plenty of a specifically Australian quality of ethnic self-mockery. Yusuf impresses on us early in the book that his mother is highly educated, and that she made a calculated decision to speak Urdu in the home so that her children would not lose the language of their cultural heritage, and there’s no disrespect in his lampooning of her heavily accented English in the rest of the book. Lakemba’s Sheikh Hilaly features in one or two scenes whose comic effect couldn’t be further than the pot-shots taken at him by journalists and aspiring satirists: he treats a young bikini-clad Australian woman with friendly courtesy, and tells his astonished teenage charges:

Ostraalyan beebul goodh, nice friendly beebul. Wee Muslim fighth thoo mush. Vee should lurrn from za Ostraalyan beebul how show respect.

All of this is pretty much what I expected of the book after hearing the author speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears. It’s against my religion to tell how a book ends, but I can tell you that for me this one did end in tears.