What difference does it make now that Mary MacKillop is a saint?

Mary MacKillop canonisationLast week, the world went into iMourning, at the death of Apple's Steve Jobs. Many of us on our iDevices looked back to the Stanford graduation address he delivered in 2005 just after he thought he had beaten cancer. While the cognoscenti debate whether he was an inventor or a visionary, there can be no doubt that he was the embodiment of so much of our contemporary technocratic culture. He spoke of death in these terms:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

He concluded the talk with the words inscribed on the back of a 1960s world guide for hitchhikers: 'Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.'

Even those of us Australians committed to our religious faith are infected by much of this, our contemporary cultural context. Death is presumed simply to be the end. Human beings are disposable. Others' opinions are always suspect, and often classed as interfering static at best. Dogma is anathema, no matter what the authority. Social institutions are crumbling. Membership of community organisations — whether political parties, unions, churches or community service groups — is declining. People prefer to join virtual communities through social media which they control at the click of a mouse. Authority is mistrusted. Truth is illusory.

But for us who are Christian, death is not the end; it is not merely the clearing house for terminal subjects. It is the gateway to life eternal. Those of us who are Catholic always see a place for dogma and for others' opinions. We cherish the Church both as a community in which we might celebrate and as an institution in which authority can be exercised faithfully, so that the present generation might share the fruits of reflection on experience in the light of the kerygma handed down from generation to generation. But like Jobs, we are always attentive to the inner voice – that voice of the formed and informed conscience where we attend to the opinions of others, where we scrutinise the dogma, but then ultimately take our stand before God and before others because we can do no other, in good conscience. Like all social institutions, the Church is not perfect, and some of these who exercise authority in it, do so unhelpfully, perhaps ineptly and even scandalously. Some of them are very removed from us and our concerns and seem motivated by some of the more base human desires. And thus the need for saints like Mary MacKillop.

Let me contrast Steve Jobs' advice with the observations last month by Pope Benedict when he visited the Augustinian Convent at Erfurt where Martin Luther undertook his theological studies. Benedict said:

What constantly exercised (Martin Luther) was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life's journey. 'How do I receive the grace of God?': this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.

'How do I receive the grace of God?' The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God's position towards me, where do I stand before God? – Luther's burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one.

In our reflections on the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, we Australians are better able to address these questions raised by the Holy Father.

On this very day one year ago, I flew out of Australia. The customs man asked with a smile if I was travelling on to Rome. There were obviously going to be quite a number of pilgrims on board. I happened to be on my way to an annual meeting of Jesuits who gather at the Jesuit Curia to plan co-operative international initiatives involving universities and our commitment to social justice. This was the second time that my Jesuit meeting was to coincide with the canonisation of a saint of interest. Five years earlier, Pope Benedict in one of his first moves as pope canonised Alberto Hurtado, a 51 year old Chilean Jesuit lawyer who was very committed to social justice. Being 51 at the time and a Jesuit lawyer, I felt some connection with this guy. At the canonisation mass, I stood behind a Chilean woman in tears, clutching a photo of two boys I presumed to be her sons. I never learnt their story, or hers. But I was left in no doubt about her faith and confidence in the intercession of Alberto and the Christian community gathered around that enormous Eucharistic table in St Peter's square.

This time the connection with the one to be canonised had a nationalistic flavour and a local pride that a little Aussie battler was to be declared saint. Like most Australian Catholics, I have come across the Josephites established by Mary MacKillop in some of the unlikeliest and toughest places in Australia, as well as East Timor. I also feel connected through her brother Donald, a Jesuit who ministered amongst the Aborigines of Daly River in the Northern Territory at the end of the nineteenth century. He wrote one of the great letters to the editor when he penned a note to the Sydney Herald at Christmas time 1892: 'Australia, as such, does not recognise the right of the blackman to live. She marches onward, truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The blackfellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart; her heel is of iron and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet.'

I also feel connected through Julian Tenison Woods the one rightly credited by Mary as a co-founder of the Josephites. She once told Archbishop Kelly that 'nearly all was due to him...He may never be overlooked in the history of what God has done by our sisters.'

Julian and Mary did much to educate and liberate the poor Irish Catholics who migrated to Australia, though neither of them was Irish. My own Irish forebears owe much to Julian who eventually fell out with Mary, thinking in part that the Jesuits had infected her mind permitting her to loosen up too much on their original shared vision of poverty and obedience for the sisters. Woods on one of his scientific expeditions turned up in Maryborough, Queensland where my widowed great great grandmother Annie Brennan had arrived in 1863 with her five children – a courageous move by any reckoning. Family legend has it that Woods got my great grandfather Martin off the grog and back to church. So his next son, my grandfather, was named Frank Tenison Brennan, as am I. One of the good things about a canonisation is that ordinary events and ordinary connections in life take on a graced dimension. Our history becomes holy, while our present remains messy.

Heading for Rome, I recalled that Mary had cause to visit there as a young religious woman aged 31 years. Why? Basically she was being persecuted by local bishops who were wary of her sisters being too independent. She got a good hearing from the Pope with whom she was able to meet personally, and she received great assistance from Fr Anderledy who became the Superior General of the Jesuits. She met with him 26 times in Rome. If only the very pastoral Bishop Bill Morris in Toowoomba could have received the same sympathetic hearing in the 21st century. Many of us have visited Toowoomba in recent times, feeling the pain of their priests and pastoral workers, wondering whatever became of transparency and due process in the Church.

In his recent commentary on the Regulations for the Examination of Doctrines, the Jesuit canonist Fr Ladislas Orsy says:

The virtue of justice, as integrated with faith, hope and love among Christians, is a powerful factor in forging unity in the community. For this reason, it is never enough to do justice, it must be done publicly. The people should see that justice is done.

Of course, prudence and discretion may require some confidentiality. When it is needed, so be it. But when there are no greater values in jeopardy, openness should be the rule. A trial is never about one single individual: the accused is a member of a community of believers. Whether he is guilty or not, the community nurtured him and suffers with him. It is fair, therefore, that the community should be informed in a prudent manner.'

Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, describes the Church as the people of God. Many of the people of God anxious to respect the human dignity of all and to ensure that the Church be as perfect a human institution as possible now think that natural justice and due process should be followed within the Church, while always maintaining the hierarchical nature of the Church and the papal primacy. Of course, there are some who question the papal primacy or the need for an ordained hierarchy, but they are not our concern here. The question for the contemporary Catholic is: can we assent to the teaching of Lumen Gentium without having a commitment to due process, natural justice and transparency in Church processes and structures thereby maximizing the prospect that the exercise of hierarchical power and papal primacy will be for the good of the people of God, rather than a corrosive influence on the faith and trust of the people of God?

It is no longer appropriate for Church hierarchs to claim that notions of transparency, due process and natural justice are antithetical to the hierarchical nature of the Church or to the primacy of the papacy. The primacy is not to be exercised arbitrarily or capriciously; and defenders of the Church will want to go to great lengths to ensure that the papal office is not perceived to be exercised without sufficient regard to the circumstances and evidence of a case.

The laity, the religious, the presbyterate and the bishops of Australia are sure to have a heightened 21st century notion of justice, transparency, and due process. This heightened notion is a gift for the contemporary Church. It is one of the works of the Spirit. The Church of the 21st century should be the exemplar of due process, natural justice and transparency – purifying, strengthening, elevating and ennobling these riches and customs of contemporary Western societies which are the homes and social constructs for many of the faithful, including those most directly impacted by the decision to force the early retirement of Bishop Morris.

While there can be little useful reflection and critique of the final decision of Pope Benedict to force the early retirement of Bishop Morris, there is plenty of scope to review the processes and the evidence leading to the submission of the brief for dismissal provided by curial officials to the Holy Father. Those officials acted primarily on written complaints by a small minority of the faithful and of the presbyterate of the diocese, the report of the Visitator, and the responses provided by Bishop Morris who was unable to cite the complaints or the report. There has been a resulting confusion about the pastoral effectiveness of Bishop Morris. His fellow bishops have been happy to attest publicly to his pastoral gifts. They said:

We appreciate that Bishop Morris' human qualities were never in question; nor is there any doubt about the contribution he has made to the life of the Church in (his diocese) and beyond. The Pope's decision was not a denial of the personal and pastoral gifts that Bishop Morris has brought to the episcopal ministry. Rather, it was judged that there were problems of doctrine and discipline, and we regret that these could not be resolved. We are hopeful that Bishop Morris will continue to serve the Church in other ways in the years ahead.

And yet Bishop Morris was led to believe that the visitator's report and the anonymous complaints alleged 'flawed' and 'defective' pastoral leadership.

Due to a lack of due process, natural justice and transparency, the papacy has been harmed, the standing of the Vatican Curia has been harmed, the public standing of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference further undermined, and the confidence of the Australian Church in the public square compromised. The Church cannot credibly proclaim a message of social justice in a pluralist democracy when its own processes fall so demonstrably short of ordinary community standards of justice.

Let's hope our bishops are able to shed some light on the processes and reasons for the dismissal of Bishop Morris after their meeting tomorrow morning with Cardinal Levada of the Holy Office and Cardinal Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops. We and they can invoke the assistance of St Mary of the Cross overnight, reflecting on her time as a 31 year old woman traipsing the corridors of the Vatican dicasteries seeking redress for the administrative injustices and ecclesiastical misunderstandings she had endured in Australia.

Today I spoke with Bishop Morris and told him that we were meeting tonight to reflect on Mary MacKillop and his situation. I asked if he had a message for you. He replied: 'You have a voice; you are the Church; you must be heard; we must breathe together as one.' So let's do it.

There were actually five non-Australians canonised saints on the same day as Mary MacKillop. But all Australian eyes were on Pope Benedict XVI as he added the first Australian to the Roman canon of saints: Maria della Croce MacKillop. Though nationality counts for nothing in the communion of saints, it surely counts in the reception given saints by local churches. The streets of Rome were filled with Australians sharing stories about the 'Joeys', with the Australian media crews leaving no cobblestone unturned making the arcane Roman processes of canonisation comprehensible and appealing to the average viewer.

Indigenous Australians placed their indelible mark on proceedings with song and dance in the Vatican Gardens on the Friday night before the canonisation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics from across the land mixed with bishops, donors, politicians and pilgrims accompanying the Joeys wearing not brown veils but their light blue pilgrim scarves. William Barton on the didgeridoo joined his mother Delmae and a string quartet under the lights of the dome of St Peters. Four years previously Delmae had lain uncomforted with a stroke at a university bus stop for hours as hundreds passed her by, prompting a national reflection reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This night she and her son gave all Australians a place of belonging in a sacred place. The Vatican Museum put on display Aboriginal art sent from the missions back in 1925, predating by 50 years most of the Aboriginal art on display in galleries back home.

Just before going to Rome, I had the chance to check out the wonderful new galleries at the National Gallery in Canberra. They are spacious, making great use of natural light. In one gallery, there are two paintings by the late Hector Jandany from Warmun in the Kimberley. One painting is entitled 'The Ascension', and the other, a bequest from Sir William and Lady Deane, is entitled 'Holy Spirit'. It is now replicated with a fantastic outdoor mosaic at the National Centre for Christianity and Culture. Hector was encouraged to paint in his home community by the Josephite sisters who had established a spirituality centre nearby. They also ran the community school and assisted at the old people's home. The sisters were not trained anthropologists or art advisers. Like Mary MacKillop they came amongst the poor in a remote area, shared what they had, educating the children and encouraging the adults. None of the sisters would claim any of the credit for the art of Hector and his school of Turkey Creek painters. But for the sisters' presence at Warmun all those years, I doubt that Hector's paintings would now be hanging in the National Gallery. But for the selfless dedication of the sisters all these years throughout Australia, I doubt that there would have been 8,000 Australians in St Peter's Square a year ago attesting the holiness of Mary MacKillop.

The prayer before the mass summed up Mary's life so well: 'God of all blessings, you revealed in Mary MacKillop a woman sensitive to the rights and dignity of every person, regardless of gender, race or creed. Help us to value each person. Help us to respect different cultures, faiths and peoples. May we learn from Mary to overcome prejudice and fear.'

Rejoicing in the life of holiness and service of Mary and delighting in Australia's first entry in the Roman catalogue, we are all too well aware that the Joeys are not as young or numerous as they once were. And yet the needs of the world are still great. There is plenty for people to do under the auspices of Catholic Social Services. Mary's injunction still sounds to all Australians of good will, especially the young: 'Never see a need without doing something about it.' This is the particular challenge to all who work for Catholic Social Services. May she long inspire us, especially those early years of her ministry before she took on the religious habit. The temptation for all of us nowadays is to presume that the primary responsibility for meeting difficult needs like education for the poor and disadvantaged in the bush is a task for the State rather than for us who are the people of God. Where in the past, we created a Church apostolate we tend now to expect a State intervention. Inspired, excited, and freshly motivated, may we serve God, the Church, our nation and the poor of our world with faith and humility. Otherwise so much of the celebration a year ago will have been just for show – an exhibit for the archives rather than an emblem for the future.

Most Australians were a little 'MacKilloped-out' once the canonisation was over. I heard recently that one bishop frustratingly proclaimed, 'Can we just forget about Mary MacKillop for a while and get back to Jesus?' But the canonisation has been noted and has had effect far beyond the church pews. Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Parliament, 'The canonisation of our first saint is an historic event for our nation and I think a moment of joy for every Australian.' Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott said that 'In an era when the church and its representatives are often thought to have failed people, her canonisation is a timely reminder of the good that has been done in this country and elsewhere under the influence of Christian faith'.

It is timely one year on to reflect on the canonisation, as a process and as an event, which has been embedded in our national public life. In the television coverage, we all saw the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the sisters and political dignitaries. We saw less of the Indigenous Australians who played a key role in the accompanying celebrations. I was sitting with an Aboriginal group at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Paul's Outside the Walls. Aboriginal dancers participated in the Offertory procession. Aboriginal deacon Boniface Perdjert from Wadeye in the Northern Territory, who had welcomed Pope Benedict to Barangaroo when he arrived by ferry for World Youth Day, assisted Cardinal Pell — who incidentally preached superbly with a very down to earth and historically grounded message about the graced life of Mary MacKillop: 'We are grateful that she was not eccentric, not religiously exotic. We warm to her advice, are encouraged by her perseverance in sickness and adversity. Her faith and moral goodness are heroic, but not in a way which is off putting or surreal. She does not deter us from struggling to follow her.'

The Aborigines around me were very proud of the Aboriginal participation in the liturgy. It was their participation which rendered the celebration most Australian, even for those of us who were not indigenous. Evelyn Parkin an Aboriginal woman originally from Stradbroke Island off the coast of Brisbane beamed a wonderful smile as she surmised about her people completing the circle: Italian missionaries had come and ministered to her people in 1843, establishing the Catholic Church's first mission to Aborigines. 167 years later, her people had come to Rome as people of faith proclaiming their faith to the Italians just as the Italians had done to them.

There is a plaque on Stradbroke Island commemorating the first recorded meeting between Aborigines and Europeans. Matthew Flinders was sailing past in 1803. He and his sailors were short of water. The Aboriginal traditional owners not only invited them ashore. They joyfully showed them where to find fresh water and farewelled them on their way.

The first missionaries then arrived in 1843. Fr Vaccari reported to Archbishop Polding: 'They hold us in veneration and show us great affection, this being quite the reverse of their treatment of other Europeans, for, these, they say, do not act kindly towards them but betray them and deceive them, so that they have lost all confidence in them.' Fr Vaccari once told Archbishop Polding that the local Aboriginal people did admit the existence of a Supreme Being. They had told him, 'We have not yet spoken to Him, for He has not yet spoken to us; but we expect to see and speak to Him after death.' Then last year, Evelyn Parkin was at St Paul's Outside the Walls expressing delight at being able to proclaim the gospel to the Italians.

Sitting behind Evelyn was Agnes from Kununurra in the Kimberley, the other side of our vast continent. At the beginning of the liturgy she whispered to me: 'Father, this a sacred place?' I answered, 'Yes'. 'Then I could take off my shoes?' 'Of course', said I thinking of God's declaration to Moses at the burning bush: 'Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.'

At the conclusion of the liturgy, some of the Aborigines invited those gathered around them to join them outside the entrance to the church. They had visited the church the previous day, concluding their researches and ascertaining the burial place of Francis Xavier Conaci. They led us in the most moving prayer for Francis, an Aboriginal boy who left Western Australia on 9 January 1849 for training as a Benedictine monk. He had been presented with his religious habit by Pope Pius IX who said, 'Australia needs a second Francis Xavier; may the Lord bless this boy, and make him into one!' Francis died on 17 September 1853 aged about thirteen and he lies buried outside the front of the basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls. Gathered around his burial place, we were moved to tears. The didgeridoo was played; a traditional dance was performed; Graham Mundine and Elsie Heiss led the prayers; and Vicki Clarke from the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry here in Melbourne led the singing of 'The Old Wooden Cross' (the hymn which is sung at most Aboriginal funerals) and the Aboriginal Our Father.

Many of us who had arrived at this grand basilica knew nothing of this story. The simple Aboriginal ritual over the burial site of Conaci was in stark contrast to the pomp and hierarchical ceremony in St Peter's Square the previous day. Here were indigenous people not only finding voice but leading those of us who are the descendants of their colonisers, teaching us the history, sharing the story, and enabling us to embrace the mystery of it all in prayer. Our role was to follow, to join in prayer and to express thanks for the gracious sharing and leadership of the indigenous people. Mary MacKillop would have been well pleased.

Prime Minister Paul Keating was right when he told Parliament back in 1995 at the beatification:

I trust honourable members will understand what I mean when I say that the beatification of Mother Mary MacKillop rings with significance for all Australians. The qualities she embodied—openness and tolerance, courage, persistence, faith and care for others—are qualities for individuals, communities and nations to live by. The Josephites continue to practice those virtues in their work for the poor in Australia and New Zealand, and increasingly in countries of the Third World.

I think all honourable members will agree that we will serve Australia well, and future generations of Australians well, if we allow the values which inspired and guided Mary MacKillop's work to inspire and guide our own. There is nothing to be gained from pretending that religious faith and the place of the church in our communities have not declined since Mary MacKillop's day, yet the message of her life easily translates to our much more sceptical and secular society. It would, I think, bring a blessing on Australia, on future generations, if as a result of the beatification of Mary MacKillop that message spread.

These sentiments are even more true today, 16 years on, a year after the canonisation of Mary. With the ageing and diminishment of the Josephites, the challenge goes out to all Australians, especially those committed to Catholic Social Services: 'Never see a need without doing something about it.' The parliamentary record of one year ago is replete with stories by our national leaders reminiscing about the good work of the sisters in demanding circumstances. Joe Hockey recalled getting the phone call in Parliament from his old primary school teacher Sr Vincent: 'Mr Hockey, whenever you sit in that chamber, please do not slouch in the chair; sit up straight.' Who will call us to account, and who will help when there are no more Sr Vincents? Mary's life stands as an inspiration, and as Deb O'Neill told Parliament, her canonisation 'has liberated in the public space a recognition of the place of faith and spirituality in the current lives of ordinary Australians.'

The canonisation of the popularly appealing Mary MacKillop provides us with a fresh opportunity to reflect on the place of religion in the public square. Much of what Mary regarded as charity and the apostolate is now treated in the public square as human rights and the relationship between the State and the individual. The Oxford academic John Finnis in his new book of essays Religion and Public Reasons identifies three types of practical atheism: that there is no God, that God is unconcerned with human affairs, and that God is easily satisfied with human conduct or easily appeased or bought off.3 He reminds us that 'neither atheism nor radical agnosticism is entitled to be treated as the 'default' position in public reason, deliberation and decisions. Those who say or assume that there is a default position and that it is secular in those senses (atheism or agnosticism about atheism) owe us an argument that engages with and defeats the best arguments for divine causality.'

Though it might be prudent and strategic to suggest that religious accommodationists carry the onus of persuasion in a public square with a secularist prejudice, might there not be a case for arguing that the representatives of the more populist, majoritarian mindset in the public square need to be more accommodating of religious views?

Professor Finnis, a Catholic but making a point equally applicable to all faith communities, says, 'Outside the Church, it is widely assumed and asserted that any proposition which the Catholic Church in fact proposes for acceptance is, by virtue of that fact, a 'religious' (not a philosophical, scientific, or rationally grounded and compelling proposition), and is a proposition which Catholics hold only as a matter of faith and therefore cannot be authentically willing to defend as a matter of natural reason.'

For Finnis, much of what John Rawls in his Political Liberalism describes as public reason can be equated with natural reason. Whereas Rawls would rely only on an overlapping consensus not wanting to press for objective reality of right and wrong, Finnis would contest that the only content of an overlapping consensus would be that which can be objectively known through natural reason.

In 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave an insightful address at the London School of Economics pointing out that rights and utility are the two concepts that resonate most readily in the public square today. But we need concepts to set limits on rights when they interfere with the common good or the public interest, or dare I say it, public morality – the concepts used by the UN when first formulating and limiting human rights 60 years ago. These concepts are no longer in vogue, at least under these titles. We also need concepts to set limits on utility when it interferes with the dignity of the most vulnerable and the liberty of the most despised in our community. Addressing the UN General Assembly to mark the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), Pope Benedict XVI said, 'This document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science ... (T)he universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity.' It would be a serious mistake to view the UNDHR stipulation and limitation of rights just as a western Judaeo-Christian construct. Then again it would be hard to envisage its formulation without a deep drawing on the western Judaeo-Christian tradition engaged intelligently and respectfully with other traditions.

Mary Ann Glendon's A World Made New traces the remarkable contribution to that document by Eleanor Roosevelt and an international bevy of diplomats and academics whose backgrounds give the lie to the claim that any listing of human rights is a Western culturally biased catalogue of capitalist political aspirations. The Frenchman Rene Cassin, the Chilean Hernan Santa Cruz, the Christian Lebanese Adam Malik and the Chinese Confucian Peng-chun Chang were great contributors to this truly international undertaking. They consulted religious and philosophical greats such as Teilhard de Chardin and Mahatma Gandhi. Even Aldous Huxley made a contribution. It was the Jesuit palaeontologist Teilhard who counselled that the drafters should focus on 'man in society' rather than man as an individual.

Once we investigate much of the contemporary discussion about human rights, we find that often the intended recipients of rights do not include all human beings but only those with certain capacities or those who share sufficient common attributes with the decision makers. It is always at the edges that there is real work for human rights discourse to do. On one of my recent trips to Cambodia, I met a woman concerned for the well being of a handful of children who had both cerebral palsy and profound autism. There are more than enough needy children in Cambodia. It is not surprising that religious persons often have a keen eye for the neediest, not only espousing their rights but taking action for their well being and human flourishing. Speaking at the London School of Economics on 'Religious Faith and Human Rights', Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury boldly and correctly asserted:

The question of foundations for the discourse of non-negotiable rights is not one that lends itself to simple resolution in secular terms; so it is not at all odd if diverse ways of framing this question in religious terms flourish so persistently. The uncomfortable truth is that a purely secular account of human rights is always going to be problematic if it attempts to establish a language of rights as a supreme and non-contestable governing concept in ethics.

No one should pretend that the discourse about universal ethics and inalienable rights has a firmer foundation than it actually has. Williams concluded his lecture with this observation:

As in other areas of political or social thinking, theology is one of those elements that continues to pose questions about the legitimacy of what is said and what is done in society, about the foundations of law itself. The secularist way may not have an answer and may not be convinced that the religious believer has an answer that can be generally accepted; but our discussion of social and political ethics will be a great deal poorer if we cannot acknowledge the force of the question.

Once we abandon any religious sense that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God and that God has commissioned even the powerful to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with their God, it may be very difficult to maintain a human rights commitment to the weakest and most despised in society. It may come down to the vote, moral sentiment or tribal affiliations. And that will not be enough to extend human rights universally. In the name of utility, the society spared religious influence will have one less impediment to limiting social inclusion to those like us, 'us' being the decision makers who determine which common characteristics render embodied persons eligible for human rights protection. Nicholas Wolterstorff says, 'Our moral subculture of rights is as frail as it is remarkable. If the secularisation thesis proves true, we must expect that that subculture will have been a brief shining episode in the odyssey of human beings on earth.'

Before I left for Rome at the time of Mary MacKillop's canonisation, and to the disapproval of some of my family and friends, I agreed to appear with the ubiquitous atheist Christopher Hitchens on Tony Jones's Q&A program on ABC TV. As I said to family and friends at the time, it is part of my day job. Someone has to do it. Something crystallised for me that night when a young member of the television audience said:

Hello Comrades. Can we ever hope to live in a truly secular society when the religious maintain their ability to affect political discourse and decision making on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, same-sex unions, abortion and discrimination in employment?

Jones and Hitchens were clearly simpatico with this approach, as were many in the audience, but I was dumbstruck, wondering how can we ever hope to live in a truly democratic society when secularists maintain their demand that people with a religious perspective not be able to claim a right to engage in the public square agitating about laws on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, same-sex unions, abortion and discrimination in employment? We have just as much right as our secularist fellow citizens to contribute in the public square informed and animated by our worldview and religious tradition. We acknowledge that it would be prudent to put our case in terms comprehensible to those who do not share that worldview or religious tradition when we are wanting to win the support and acceptance of others, especially if we be in the minority. But there is no requirement of public life that we engage only on secularist terms. And we definitely insist on the protection of our rights including the right to religious freedom even if it not be a right highly prized by the secularists.

We need to distinguish between moral teaching and pastoral advice offered our co-religionists and reasoned advocacy for laws and public policy applicable to all persons. For example, on the issue of civil recognition of same-sex unions it is not appropriate in the public square simply to agitate about the Catholic view of the sacramentality of marriage. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: 'The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination...constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.' How then could the law best express this respect, compassion, sensitivity, and non-discrimination for all persons including same sex attracted persons who commit themselves to loving, faithful relationships? There is room even in the community of faith for a diversity of views. I have taken the line of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, President of the UK Catholic Bishops Conference, who says, 'We were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognised that in English law there might be a case for those.' It is not appropriate in the public square when designing laws and policies for all, believers and unbelievers alike, to focus only on the call to celibacy outside of marriage and the need to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross.

One of my US role models, Fr Bryan Hehir put it well when reflecting on the great US Jesuit John Courtney Murray's mode of engagement in the public square. Hehir said:

I am deeply interested in, but not yet convinced by, the argument that a more explicitly theological style of assertion, using religious symbols to interpret and adjudicate justice claims, is more appropriate to the questions faced by the Church in the United States today. To specify both my interest and my skepticism, it is necessary to distinguish the need for shaping 'the mind of the Church' (as a community and an institution) regarding social questions from the task of projecting the perspective of the Church into the societal debate about normative questions of social policy.

Mary MacKillop would want Catholic Social Services to contribute theologically to shaping the mind of the Church while at the same time projecting the perspective of the Church into the great national debates about indigenous well being and welfare reform, the appropriate treatment of asylum seekers, the equity of proposed arrangements for aged care and for persons suffering disabilities, and the need for new initiatives to assist the homeless and those suffering mental illness – to name but a few of the contemporary social policy challenges confronting the nation. She would want you to advocate from experience with the poor and in the light of Catholic social teaching. She would expect you to be the hands and voice of the Church, respectful of authority, tradition and dogma, but always true to your self, your God, and your neighbour. She would urge all of us to be more attentive to Pope Benedict's contemporary question: 'Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us?' And she would permit only one answer. So I wish you well in your deliberations tomorrow. Stay hungry for justice; be happy to be invited to the Lord's banquet. Stay foolish for love; give thanks for the wisdom and insight of our tradition offered through the Church which occasionally canonises one of our own giving us grounded hope whatever the shortcomings of the Age and our leaders.


Frank BrennanText from the keynote address, titled 'What Difference Does It Make to Catholic Social Services that Mary MacKillop Is Now a Saint?', given by Fr Frank Brennan SJ at the Catholic Social Services Victoria Annual Conference, Cardinal Knox Centre, East Melbourne, 13 October 2011.

 

 

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Mary MacKillop, Catholic Social Services

 

 

submit a comment

Similar Articles

What’s wrong with Voting for Jesus?

  • Scott Stephens
  • 27 February 2007

I must confess to growing bored very quickly when I hear that our real problem today is the erosion of spirituality, of belief in a deeper dimension of life, and the consequent rampant materialism. From a properly Christian perspective, the problem today is not materialism, but religion itself.

READ MORE

Muslim at the heart of an Indonesian Christian office

  • Greg Soetomo
  • 27 February 2007

When I reflect on this conversation, I am also struck by how different what I see in daily life is from what I read and watch in the media about about Muslim militants, the clash between Christians and Muslims, fundamentalism, or terrorism. Every age has its own false ideas. In our time, it is the notion that identifies Islam with hostility and aggression.

READ MORE

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review