Religion, the Media & Controversy

The Religion Report

Wednesday, 5 February, 1997 .

“Religion, the Media & Controversy”

John Cleary: Welcome to this, the first Religion Report.

And in today’s Religion Report, a source of solace and a centre of power. In a few moments, the power of the Papacy, as Pope John Paul II exercises the ancient power of excommunication against an aging Sri Lankan priest; also the charity of chaplaincy and a new Zen Roshi for Australia .

But first, Scientology, the religion created by L. Ron Hubbard, a sometime science fiction writer in the early 1950s, and today lauded by devotees among the rich and famous and damned by critics for its cultic status.

Antagonism between German authorities and the Church of Scientology has boiled over into outright hostility. An open letter signed by a distinguished list of Hollywood film stars brought the issue to public attention and involved the United States government last week.

The letter accused the German government of treating church members as the Nazis treated the Jews in the 1930s. The United States State Department, in its annual report on human rights last week, tempered this claim, but nevertheless held that Scientologists in Germany had been unfairly targeted for criticism.

Sabina Weber, a spokeswoman for the Scientologists in Germany , explains what she believes members of her organisation have to fear.

Sabina Weber: When you’re a Scientologist in Germany and you are faced with discriminations like your child in school is being harassed, or your child in the kindergarten is not allowed to play with his friends any more, or does not even get a place there, or if you’re confronted with losing your job and we in the church, of course, get these not from just one single case, but various cases where people are spat at, they are beaten, they are harassed, they are being insulted; basically forms are being distributed where the government or the Chamber of Commerce or whoever, forwards the slogan ‘Don’t buy at Scientology businesses’ or something like this.

Then of course you cannot help it, you feel reminded by the ’30s, so of course we don’t compare our situation with the Jews in the ’40s or during the Holocaust etc. etc. But you also have to say you should be aware of the very beginnings of such a campaign, and these comparisons are absolutely convincing because you have the same language, you have the same accusations like longing for world power, not being a religion, infiltrating society, all these accusations were used in the same way against the Jewish community, and the reactions from the government were very similar. And you will find that there are only a few persons with strong connections to the established churches in Germany that are forwarding this campaign that are demanding to expel Scientologists from public positions, and the like.

John Cleary: German Scientologist Sabina Weber.

Well from someone directly involved, to a broader perspective. Steven Kent is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta , Canada , and a specialist in the study of alternative religions.

Steve, thanks for joining us. What is the substance of the German allegations?

Steven Kent: The substance of the German allegations are threefold. One , Germany is claiming that Scientology is an economic organisation operating under the cloak of religion; second the German government is claiming that Scientology is psychologically totalistic and controlling; and third, the German government is claiming that Scientology is totalitarian and anti-democratic.

These allegations have to be viewed in the context of what’s going on in surrounding European countries. Just in the last few months and in France , 14 Scientologists were convicted of fraud-related charges and a 15th was convicted of involuntary manslaughter involving putting pressure on a person to take courses that apparently he couldn’t afford and the person committed suicide.

Just in December, a Greek court ordered Scientology to leave the country. That case is under appeal. Germany is also aware that Scientology is making tremendous inroads in countries like Russia, it’s applying its administrative technology in Albania; the Russian city of Perm, for example, which has over a million people, apparently is using Scientology technology to organise and run a lot of its government offices.

So Scientology is making tremendous inroads in a lot of places, especially in Iron Curtain countries, but it’s also under significant scrutiny in a number of European countries near Germany . Germany is important in these debates because it has a unique history of experiencing national socialism, but also communism. Consequently it’s unusually sensitive to what it considers to be anti-democratic, totalitarian ideological movements.

It also is pivotal because it’s got contacts with a number of former countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc because of East Germany . Consequently, what goes on in Germany in many ways will set the pace for what goes on in a number of European countries.

John Cleary: So what are the US State Department’s concerns about Germany in this context?

Steven Kent: The particular issues right now in Germany have to do with the US State Department’s perception that Americans in Germany are not being able to exercise their right to practice their religion freely. Also there seems to be some financial reservation possibly behind the US State Department’s position. One of the incidents that spurred the critical human rights evaluation of Germany was the unsuccessful boycott of Tom Cruise’s movie this summer, ‘Mission Impossible’. Tom Cruise, as you know, is a Scientologist and the youth wing of the German Democratic Union had tried to organise a boycott. The German market is extremely lucrative for American businesses, and within the first four days, ticket sales for ‘Mission Impossible’ went over 760,000 purchasers. So a lot of financial interests are also involved in the US State Department in what it perceives as its defence of American citizens’ human rights overseas in Germany .

John Cleary: So the State Department has made no judgement of Scientology and its practices per se.

Steven Kent: It has not made any judgement of Scientology practices and this point is an important one. The German government has not responded harshly to the US Government’s human rights evaluation. What it has done, however, in some press releases, is mention that alleged human rights abuses by Scientology are going on in the shores of the United States . Indeed in one set of allegations, very close to the Hollywood locals themselves.

These allegations that the German government are throwing back in its defence, involve claims that Scientology runs a penal colony for its high-ranking but deviant members.

John Cleary: It seems strange that the State Department have put sort of, if you like, sort of willing blinkers on themselves. What’s your response to this approach by the State Department?

Steven Kent: Well much is at stake here, and if the German government is successful in getting the United Nations to initiate an international inquiry about Scientology’s alleged human rights abuses, then the State Department runs the risk of looking very bad. A lot of critics have wondered why the State Department or why government officials have not investigated some of these rehabilitation camps. The one that gains mention in German government documents supposedly is surrounded with barbed wire, it’s a heavily-armed camp, there’s supposed to be ground sensors, hidden microphones and so on, and it really gives the impression that that facility is a concentration camp. And I don’t use that word concentration camp lightly, but I’ve seen it in some the material written about these camps. In the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior Dr Gunter Bechstein refers to brainwashing and punishment.

John Cleary: Steven Kent. This line quality is awfully rough, I think we should probably end it there, but thank you, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada , Steven Kent.

And it’s time to introduce the Melbourne end of our team now, to Lyn Gallacher.

Lyn has been out into the streets and lanes to take a look at religion in life. Chaplains are agents of the church in the world. But what happens when pastoral care must cope with the demands of the economically rational marketplace? How will chaplains sell themselves? ‘My pastoral care is better than your pastoral care, and it’s on special this week.’ Can they award frequent flyer points for compassion?

The Reverend Ron Cross is running a conference in Melbourne this week which wants to update the image of the pastoral carer, one which has meaning in a consumer culture.

Ron Cross is also the Director of the Health and Welfare Chaplains Association.

Ron Cross: This year the conference is for purposes of formation of pastoral people, and that will take a wide range of interest into how people are actually formed to become caring people, whether they are lay people or whether they are ordained.

Lyn Gallacher: And will you have to discuss how the recent cutbacks in health care are affecting chaplains?

Ron Cross: I think inevitably that will be part of the dialogue that’ll go on during the congress. I think part of the given-ness of working in health care is doing things leaner and sometimes unfortunately, meaner; and chaplaincy is certainly part of that journey of learning how to do things quicker, more imaginatively and certainly within a tighter budget.

Lyn Gallacher: Do you expect your keynote speaker to be controversial?

Ron Cross: Denham Grierson is never dull.

Lyn Gallacher: Well, was he dull? Here’s the Reverend Denham Grierson speaking at the Conference of the Australian Health and Welfare Chaplains’ Association.

Denham Grierson: Not so many years ago, Seward Hiltner claimed that whatever perspective one took on pastoral care, it had to be focused through the image of shepherd. In this he was drawing on a deeply established biblical tradition which culminated in Jesus being designated as The Good Shepherd.

In our time, that is a broken image. Shepherd is seen as patriarchal, sexist, culturally confined, since not all cultures have sheep, and in practice, individualistic. Further, the 90 and 9 seem abandoned for the sake of the one who was lost or injured.

Shepherding has become a dysfunctional image for pastoral care in our time, and may well be unrecoverable. The very images that have secured the identity of pastoral carers in the past are under scrutiny. The profession I believe, has lost, or is losing, the sharpness of its defining language.

Lyn Gallacher: But who’s to say this kind of theorising isn’t completely beside the point? One of the conference delegates that I spoke to didn’t really think that the image of the shepherd was ever up to much.

Woman: I don’t know. Shepherd is not a strong image for me. You see I think we come from our images. Shepherd, yes, in Australia we have sheep, but we don’t actually have shepherds, we don’t have people who stay with the flock and live with them at night. So I think that in all theology and all things, we change our images as we develop, as we grow older. Because I’m a laywoman, I have an image more of a nurturer, which comes from a mother image, a mother image of God. Now that could be a whole new discussion.

Lyn Gallacher: Yet the struggle to find a new vocabulary is important, because unless chaplains have their own definitions of what they do, they become embroiled in the discourse of the day. And at the moment, that happens to be economic jargon, the kind of language that leads to the question, ‘How much money is love worth?’

Denham Grierson: How is it possible, you see, to love your neighbour as yourself, which suggests a kind of friendship pattern, if we are locked into this diminishment, which the language which we employ has lured us into inescapably? The other as neighbour, has been narrowed down, so that neighbour became client and client became service user, and now we have customers.

Each change in image increases the distance between the carer and those who are cared for.

John Cleary: Love your customer as yourself. That was Lyn Gallacher reporting.

Well from the church as charity to the church as a power, particularly the power of the papacy and its ultimate exercise on the errant believer, excommunication: the casting out of someone from the heart of the faith into outer darkness.

At the beginning of January, word came from Rome that Sri Lankan priest and theologian, Father Tissa Balasuriya had been excommunicated and excluded from the life of the church.

Among the several grave errors enunciated by the Vatican are: that Father Balasuryia denies the necessity of baptism; denies the dogma of original sin; he reveals, according to the Vatican , that he does not recognise the existence of an infallibility of the Roman pontiff.

Well it so happens, there is one Catholic priest in Australia who knows Father Balasuryia and has himself written on the nature of papal authority, someone well known to listeners on Radio National, Father Paul Collins.

Paul, welcome. What’s the essence of what Father Balasuryia is saying?

Paul Collins: Basically as I understand what Tissa is trying to do is that he’s trying to relate Asian culture to Christian faith, and in many ways Christian faith has been presented in a very western form. Balasuryia is certainly provocative in the sense that he says that often these western forms of Christianity were used by the colonial powers as a way of oppressing local people, and he gives specific examples of that, particularly in terms of speaking in the kingship of God, if you like, or the kingship of Christ and kind of casting the English king or whatever king in that kind of mould. So it’s a kind of colonial way of operating.

So what he’s tried to do is to break out of that, and tried to express the faith in terms that make sense to Asians. So I suppose then, he’s quite prepared to draw on the Buddhist and the Hindu traditions that are very much part of his own culture. And I suppose therefore people conclude that somehow he’s saying ‘You don’t need baptism.’ I mean even the Vatican Council itself says quite clearly, Vatican II says quite clearly that salvation is possible outside the church, and one of the last people excommunicated was Father Leonard Feeny, a Boston Jesuit who was actually excommunicated because he said you had to be a Catholic to be saved. I mean where are we with this? That was back in the late ’40s.

So my problem is that it really seems to me that we’ve only got the Vatican ‘s version of what Balasuryia says, and often it’s a very un-nuanced and unsophisticated version of it.

John Cleary: Hearing the word excommunication still has a sort of doom-laden, medieval ring about it, as though forever cast into the outer darkness – does it still have that sort of weight?

Paul Collins: Yes it does I suppose have a medieval ring about it. Of course nowadays they can’t burn you or incarcerate you as they could up until reasonably recently. But certainly the ecclesiastical consequences of the penalty are that you can’t celebrate the Eucharist or any of the sacraments if you’re a priest, that in many ways you are excluded from – well you are excluded from communion, and in many ways excluded from the life of the church. And in fact there would be some interpretations that would go so far as to say that an excommunicated person would not be welcome at any ceremony of the church. But I think that’s an over-strict interpretation.

John Cleary: They have said he does not recognise the existence of an infallibility of the Roman pontiff, and of the College of Bishops . Now that goes very close to the heart of material you’ve published just this week in a book called ‘Papal Power’ in which you raise these very questions.

Paul Collins: Yes, I raise them precisely because it seems to me that the present day Vatican – and it’s happened really only in the last five to eight years – there’s been a kind of a slippage in the Vatican in the language that they use. And what they’ve started to do is to identify the infallible magesterium with what actually Vatican I called, (the Council which defined the infallibility of the Pope in 1870), the universal, ordinary magesterium. And what the Vatican at the present moment is doing is kind of conflating those two terms – the infallible and the ordinary magesterium – they’re conflating them and implying that everything within the ordinary magesterium is actually infallible.

What I’m trying to do is to remind people generally of exactly what the teaching of Vatican I was; it’s very restrictive on the question of infallibility, very restrictive indeed.

John Cleary: Now you’re a practicing priest. Many of the things you’ve argued in your book would seem to have at least some similarity in surface argument with what Balasuriya is saying. Where do you stand in regard to Rome on such issues? Is it because he’s a theologian and you’re an historian that perhaps you won’t get the telephone call?

Paul Collins: Well look, I’m sure, John, my book’s already gone to Rome or it’s well on the way to it. I mean I think that being an historian does have a certain amount of protection built into it, but inevitably I’m in a way more than an historian. In some ways it’s a little bit simplistic to say I’m just an historian; I certainly use history to try to look at the present and the future of the church. And I’m convinced that unless we are prepared to tackle some of these hard issues, one of which involves the question of authority in the church, and unless we are willing to contextualise Papal authority, which I fully recognise, within the context of the broader church – the Pope can’t teach what the church does not believe. The Pope can’t make up doctrine. It’s one of the popular myths that are around, but in fact it’s true.

So there’s a way in which we’ve got to get Papal authority back within the context of the broader church; we’ve got to re-establish the theological magesterium, the teaching authority of theologians. And it’s up to other theologians to tackle theologians. It’s if you like, an academic freedom in which theologians battle out the way in which a doctrine will be related to culture and the way in which the two will interact.

One of the things that I’d want to point out though – and I think that this is something that needs to be emphasised – that here we have a case of a man who has spent most of his life trying to relate faith to culture, and he ends up excommunicated. Nevertheless priests who have abused the civil and moral law and broken both and are often now serving jail terms, or have served jail terms for crimes against children, are in fact often not even suspended. Now I find that quite incredible, and that’s why in many ways I think the excommunication of Father Balasuriya is a complete over-reaction.

John Cleary: Father Paul Collins, author of ‘Papal Power’. Thanks for joining us today on The Religion Report.

Paul Collins: A pleasure, John.

John Cleary: And should you wish to hear more of Father Paul’s observations in detail, he’s the guest of Phillip Adams in tonight’s ‘Late Night Live’, here on Radio National after the 10 pm News. And if you wish to read his book, it’s called ‘Papal Power’ and is published by Harper Collins.

Well, on Sunday Ross Bolleter will become Australia ‘s second Zen Roshi. The first is Subhana Barzaghi, who along with Ross’ teachers, Robert Aitken and John Tarrant, will take part in a five-day transmission ceremony in which Ross will become a teacher, rather than a disciple of Zen Buddhism. The ceremony is being hosted by the Zen group of Western Australia , and Ross Bolleter is a founding member of this community and also a well-known composer.

Accordion Music

Ross Bolleter: Before the 17th century when clocks sprouted minute-hands, we had pissing time, the time of one unhurried piss. Paternoster time, the time taken to say The Lord’s Prayer once. Egg time, the time of ferociously boiling one egg. Relaxed and imprecise times, well adjusted to the imprecision of my body. But now a minute is just long enough to drink a lukewarm coffee, of 78 pulse beats, walk from my shed to the deli quickly under the Southern Cross, have a quick shit, do my hair, time enough to die, probably not enough time to get born, time to say goodbye, goodbye – just a minute!

Lyn Gallacher: Is it appropriate for me to congratulate you?

Ross Bolleter: Is it appropriate? Well, if you’d like to, yes, sure.

Lyn Gallacher: Well congratulations.

Ross Bolleter: Oh, thank you.

Lyn Gallacher: So tell me, what is it actually, the transmission ceremony?

Ross Bolleter: Exactly what are you congratulating me for?

Lyn Gallacher: Yes, what exactly —

Ross Bolleter: Well, transmission is the passing on of the teaching responsibility from teacher to student. So the student in turn becomes a teacher. And there’s a kind of line, like what’s called a lineage, and for Zen Buddhists this goes back to the time of the Buddha himself, and how he passed the responsibility for teaching on to his disciples. And then the line comes down from India to China , and from China to Japan . Interestingly when Zen Buddhism looked like dying out in any culture, it jumps, it’s like a jumping spark that jumps to another culture. So when it was in decline in China , that spark jumped to Japan .

Lyn Gallacher: And now it’s jumped to Western Australia .

Ross Bolleter: Yes, from Japan it went to the United States . There were many teachers in the ’40s and ’50s and then from the United States to Europe and to Australia .

Lyn Gallacher: These are the sounds of ruined pianos and old accordions. Old accordions and ruined pianos have made Ross Bolleter’s reputation as a composer. It’s a music that flows out of his Zen practices and beliefs. How will Ross’ new status as a Roshi affect his music? Well, he’s not really sure. And he’s not even sure if the title ‘Roshi’ suits him.

Ross Bolleter: This is the term in Japanese which means ‘old teacher’ and in a sense the transmission ceremony means that the teacher could use that title if they so wish. I think I’d like to wait till I have ten grandchildren or something, before I use the title.

Lyn Gallacher: Have you always wanted to teach Zen Buddhism?

Ross Bolleter: No. I didn’t come into Zen with any view of wanting to teach at all. I guess I grew into it; it was not something which I set out to do, and indeed to set out to teach is probably a profound mistake.

Lyn Gallacher: Why is that?

Ross Bolleter: I think that probably the ambition to do these things in itself tends to block the way and block the light.

Lyn Gallacher: Because you don’t want to set yourself up as a person who has disciples?

Ross Bolleter: Yes, and all of that kind of thing. I mean it’s something which here in Western Australia grew fairly naturally out of the ordinary processes of the group.

Lyn Gallacher: And now it’s your chance to give something back to that community.

Ross Bolleter: Yes, it is.

Lyn Gallacher: Now, the big question is, how does this relate to your music? Is there anything particularly Zen about a ruined piano?

Ross Bolleter: Yes, that’s a really interesting question. The sound of the ruined piano itself is a kind of sound which is open at the edges, which admits the other sounds of the world, you know, like the sound of tractors or the sound of sheep station owners complaining about the drought, the sound of dogs barking, the sheep – all seem to fit incredibly comfortably within one long bending note of a ruined piano. So I would say yes.

Lyn Gallacher: What about time, does being a Zen teacher give you a different concept of time?

Ross Bolleter: In the simplest sense, doing Za Zen changes your perceptions of time, and this is a kind of rich and subtle business. But one aspect, or one thing that seems to flow from doing Za Zen is that you seem to have more time, if you do an hour’s Zen meditation a day.

John Cleary: And that’s just about all the time we have. That’s all from The Religion Report, the first one. Thanks to Lyn Gallacher and the team.

return to index of transcripts of The Religion Report

The Religion Report is broadcast every Wednesday at 8.30am and repeated at 8.00pm on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s national radio network of ideas.