A note to the Archbishop of Singapore

Edit: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and, I believe, some growing up. I wrote about it here.

In taking it upon yourself to inform Catholics in Singapore that it is our moral obligation to boycott Madonna’s concert this Sunday, you’ve revealed you have rather a lot of time on your hands. This is surprising for a religious representative of a country, even a small one. I thought I’d help by suggesting some other topics that could use your attention:

1. The death penalty. Your boss, Pope Francis, gave a rousing address this week asking for a global abolition of the death penalty. Several media are calling it his strongest message on this yet. As the Catholic leader of a country where the death penalty is not only practised but, in the case of certain crimes, is mandatory, I would have thought this an ideal time to raise the issue again to our governing bodies. You should never tire of repeating this message, especially when the opportunity to do so is laid in your lap. By your boss.

2. The stateless status of Yuvethra Selvanaiyagam. Have you heard of her? Despite being born and bred in Singapore, despite mothering two Singapore citizens, Yuvethra inherited her own mother’s “stateless” status and has on that basis repeatedly been denied Singapore citizenship. What a wonderful opportunity for you to talk about racial and gender inequality in Singapore, legally-mandated discrimination and the failure of a system to protect one of its own. I would have expected the Church to extend its support in caring for the needs of Yuvethra and her family, since her status has also denied her employment. It seems like the sort of thing Jesus would have done.

3. The film “Spotlight”. I’d mistakenly thought you’d commented on this already, but have been unable to find a single quote. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this film, which lays bare the systemic and systematic sexual and spiritual abuse of children, the cover-up of these crimes and protection of the perpetrators by the Boston Archdiocese. It was a story we all knew, but brought to light the details and nuances that made the facts even more heinous than we’d thought. Even more disturbing was the long list of towns and cities where similar abuse and cover-ups had taken place, not just in the US but all over the world. It makes me wonder if it’s simply a matter of time before the history of something similar rears its head in Singapore. Have I received Holy Communion or absolution from a priest that has molested a little boy? Raped one? A little girl? I have no idea, and that truly shakes me to my core. Given the ongoing investigations into similar allegations against Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, a comment from you would have been even more important and timely.

You do have an awful lot to say about Madonna, however, which confuses me. Is Madonna controversial? Yes. Is she provocative? To the extreme? Yes and yes. Does she cross the line? All the time. But here’s the difference between Madonna and the three issues I’ve mentioned: everything Madonna sings, dances and wears is metaphor. It’s symbolic. Representative. It’s not real. Not in the same way that the rape of a child by a priest is real. Or the denial of citizenship to a life-long resident of Singapore is real. That’s why I’m confused — do you truly believe symbols like the crucifix, the nun’s habit and holy water are more worthy of defence than actual people?

Art is about finding the best way to say what’s in your head and heart, and to challenge others to examine what’s in their heads and hearts. Madonna’s music and shows — which are art. Whether you like them or not doesn’t factor in that definition, just as how someone who disagrees with Catholicism doesn’t make it a pseudo-religion — are how she expresses her own exploration of the world and herself in it, much of it in relation to the religion she was raised in. I imagine it would be extremely difficult for someone with her name to not view their life through those lenses. My point is those aren’t real nuns who were coerced into dancing for her; they are not servants of God duped and then silenced with hush money. None of it is real. So please believe that Madonna’s concert in Singapore is far from being a great slight against the teachings of Jesus. It is not a slight at all.

The death penalty, however, is. The sexual abuse of children is. The failure to prosecute criminals and going so far as to shield them is. The failure to help someone whom you know needs help is. Yet in a week where all three of these very real issues are dominating the headlines, in your own diocese, you choose to ignore them in favour of guilting your community into boycotting a concert. A concert.

If you need reassurance, here it is: I spent 13 years of my life attending some form of catechism, both at school and in church. I also have a conscience, which guides me in most everything I do. So between church teachings and a common standards of ethics, I have developed a solid, stable code that will not be compromised by attending a sexually-charged show. Nor will be the morality of the other paying, consenting adults who are *choosing* to attend the show. None of us will be inspired by the concert to attack people or steal, or kill or rape. Our own moral codes will prevent us from doing such heinous things. You’ll find Madonna’s moral code prevents her from the same. What we will do when we leave the concert is feel elated, empowered, overjoyed, like we can do something good with our lives. That’s how Madonna’s music makes people feel. That’s what Madonna does.

I suggest you do some soul-searching, to assess if Madonna really is the biggest problem you see facing the Catholic community in Singapore today. If you truly believe this to be the case, then God bless and good luck to you.

Because you will be so very, very wrong.