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Discerning the place for the churches in the great moral questions of the age


'Discerning the place for the prophetic voice and pragmatic cooperation of the churches in the great moral questions of the age', address by Frank Brennan SJ to the Association of Practical Theology in Oceania conference, Australian National University, 26 November 2015. Listen on Soundcloud

Thank you for the honour of having asked me to deliver the opening address for your Association of Practical Theology in Oceania conference. I ask you to join me in acknowledging and celebrating the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and pay our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present. I speak with my limited experience as an Australian Catholic priest, hoping that the reflections from my tradition and from my experience might be of some assistance in sparking further reflection and insight for all of you, especially those from other countries in Oceania and those of you from other Christian traditions. I take heart from the declaration of the Second Vatican Council in its decree on ecumenism: 'All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honoured by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church'. So I greet you as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Might I assure those of you from the smaller countries in Oceania that we Australians are learning a new humility in the wake of our now constant losses to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup and our increasing reliance on players coming from other countries in Oceania to add gravitas to the Wallaby scrum and to enhance the speed of its backline. And there is absolutely no risk of us Australians taking the high moral ground given the way we have prostituted our aid program and undermined nation building in the Pacific simply so as to find a place to dump asylum seekers who have come to our shores. We welcome you to a country which has exploited its status as a wealthy island nation continent for short term political gain playing on the fears of an isolationist public.

30 years ago next month, I was ordained priest in St Stephen's Cathedral Brisbane.  I was privileged to have the Catholic bishops of Queensland joined on the sanctuary by the Primate of the Anglican Church and the Moderator of the Uniting Church in Queensland. Archbishops John Grindrod and Frank Rush had worked together in the country diocese of Rockhampton before going to Brisbane. John then became Primate of Anglican Church and Frank was President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. I worked with them and Doug Brandon, the Uniting Church moderator, in our joint commitment to improving the lives of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders during some testing political times including the Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane in 1982. We sometimes came into conflict with the native New Zealander Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen who was the colourful premier of Queensland. When it came time for my ordination, it seemed only natural and appropriate that the leaders of the three major Churches in Queensland pray together that the Spirit come upon me in priestly service. It was by doing something co-operative together for the cause of justice that we found our way clear to worship together and that we wanted to pray together in the most formal of liturgical contexts. But for our joint endeavour in the public square for justice, there is no way that we would have all prayed together on that sanctuary that night in Brisbane.

In recent years, our ecumenical efforts have grown a little stale, I daresay. I well recall staying with Bishop John Bathersby over 20 years ago when he was Catholic bishop of Cairns. Coming down to breakfast one morning, I asked what was on his agenda for the day. He lamented that he had to attend a meeting of the Ministers Fraternal. I exuded that such ecumenical activity was very worthwhile. He responded, 'But they want me to sign a letter opposing the building of a casino.' I opined that this was a worthy social protest. He scratched his bald pate complaining, 'But it's a bit hard when your old man was an SP bookie.' We need worthy causes that fire our passion to bring us together ecumenically.

In recent years, no longer isolated in our confessional ghettos, all of us have had to become more engaged in giving an account of our hope to those who do not share our faith tradition or even our faith. Since September 11, 2001 we are all aware of the need to engage with Muslims. The rising tide of secularism demands that we engage in the public square in a way which is comprehensible and appealing to those of all faiths and none. The crisis of child sexual abuse in our societies, from which the churches are by no means exempt, has required that our institutional procedures be more transparent and that we learn from the ways of the world in exercising power openly and justly. This means we have to restructure some of our church arrangements so that power is exercised accountably and transparently. All of us who have positions of influence and power in institutional churches need to be attentive to the voices of those who have suffered within our institutions. Only yesterday, Julie Stewart a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest gave evidence in the case study into the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese being conducted by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Making her opening statement, she concluded with these words (Transcript 13253-4):

I still cry for the little girl I once was. The little girl that never got to be a normal little girl, doing all the things that little girls should do. The little girl who always just wanted to fit in, but always felt like a weirdo, like a problem. Nothing can ever give that back to me. It is a life sentence, and every day I make a choice to keep going.

It is important to me to tell my story now, because I want peace for myself. I want peace for Mr Sleeman [the school principal who fought to have the dreadful abuser Fr Searson dismissed]. I've got kids and I want to be a voice. I want people to know that this happened. I'm not ashamed anymore, and I no longer blame myself. I will no longer be a victim. My name is Julie Stewart.

We need to express our gratitude as well as our sorrow to those like Julie Stewart who have courageously come forward helping us all to understand, and reminding us what we truly profess in the name of Christ.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and Mali, it is timely to revisit Pope Benedict's confronting Regensberg address, particularly the Christian emperor's observation to his Muslim interlocutor: 'Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.' Whether our enterprise be interfaith dialogue, ecumenical relations, or engagement with the state and society in the public square, there is no substitute for speaking well and reasoning properly.

The good speaker knows their audience and appeals to their cultural predispositions and historical consciousness as did Pope Francis when appearing recently at the US Congress. Wherever we speak in Oceania, we need to be immersed in the local cultures and situation. Think only of the brilliance of Francis during his address to the US Congress quoting four noted Americans, two of whom were not Catholic, one of the Catholics being a woman who had an abortion and was a single mum, and the other Catholic a monk who had an affair, a peace activist who was silenced by his superiors. The four were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Francis commenced his address going in the audience's door with the words:

I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in 'the land of the free and the home of the brave'. I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.

He praised the American people for their culture and their history despites its many blemishes:

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to 'dream' of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

The prophetic voice has more chance of being heard when it resonates not with jingoistic nationalism but when it accords with the audience's sense of their abiding values and salvation history marked out on their land and in their time.

The acute thinker knows that their interlocutors speak on many levels, at times invoking religious and philosophical edicts, and at other times applying those edicts to the situation at hand. The interpretation of the edicts requires attention, as when our Australian ex-prime minister Tony Abbott delivering the Margaret Thatcher oration says, 'Justice tempered by mercy is an exacting ideal as too much mercy for some necessarily undermines justice for all.' Mercy for one never undermines justice for others. We can be committed to providing each their due, providing justice for all, while then being able to offer mercy only to some. Even if mercy be selectively shown, an inequitable distribution of mercy does not undermine justice for all. I can be committed to justice for all and then to mercy only for those proximate to me. So too a government or a group.

In his Thatcher Oration, Tony Abbott eloquently said: 'Implicitly or explicitly, the imperative to 'love your neighbour as you love yourself' is at the heart of every Western polity. It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees. It's what makes us decent and humane countries as well as prosperous ones'. But then he went badly off the rails with his observation that 'right now — this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error.' The gospel imperative of love of neighbour is not just an instinct; it is an injunction by our Lord and Saviour. Those of us who exercise public office know that we will be called upon to discharge a public trust which often fails to extend love to all who are our neighbour. Each of us must ultimately give an account of ourselves, not just to the electorate for the exercise of the public trust but to our Lord and Saviour for the conduct of our lives, including public service.

The application of the edicts requires scrutiny as when Mr Abbott applying the edict of justice and mercy fails to distinguish the situations of boat people headed for Australia and those headed for Europe. He told his British Tory audience: 'So it's good that Europe has now deployed naval vessels to intercept people smuggling boats in the Mediterranean — but as long as they're taking passengers aboard rather than turning boats around and sending them back, it's a facilitator rather than a deterrent'.

Writing in this week's Spectator, he acknowledges that there are two different situations at play in the waters off Europe: 'For a couple of years now, thousands of people a month have been coming by boat from Libya to Italy; and over the past few months, new routes have opened by land from Turkey and by sea to Greece'. The French Ambassador Christophe Lecourtier when speaking on the ABC Q&A discredited completely the Abbott comparison and identification of the Australian and European situations when he observed politely, 'But, you know, you just have to look at what is the geography and also the geopolitical of Europe and it's not something you can do like that'.

Even if it be legal and safe to return boats to Indonesia when asylum seekers are not in direct flight from persecution in Indonesia, no one could in good conscience return Somalian and Eritrean asylum seekers on the Mediterranean to the transit country of Libya which is now a failed state. I would be so bold as to suggest that not even an Abbott government could have been elected in Australia with a commitment to return asylum seekers to Indonesia if Indonesia were a failed state unable to ensure compliance with the principle of non-refoulement.

Tony Abbott told his unknowing audience on the other side of the world, 'The immigration detention centres have all-but-closed'. If that were so, it would surely be time for Malcolm Turnbull, with support from Bill Shorten, to close them. What part of the 'all-but' can be justified as fulfilling any purpose at all, other than wanton cruelty in the name of political advantage? Now that the boats have stopped, immigration detention should be used only for health, security and identity checks and for holding, pending deportation. The detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island do not pass muster.

The report of the expert panel led by Sir Angus Houston in August 2012 stated:

The Panel is of the strong view that there are a range of conditions that need to be fulfilled for the safe and lawful turnback of boats carrying asylum seekers. The Panel does not believe those conditions currently exist, although they could at some stage in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place.

I have accepted the decision of the Turnbull Government and Shorten Opposition to stop the boats provided two conditions are fulfilled: (1) an immediate assessment is made that no person on board is fleeing persecution IN Indonesia; and (2) the boats can be turned back legally and safely. I would prefer that those intercepted were picked up and flown back to Indonesia safely and decently.

I would like to know what has happened to the boat that was intercepted off Christmas Island last week. Are the people who were on that boat safe? What has been done to them in our name? What are the new regional and bilateral arrangements that have been put in place since August 2012 which satisfied our military personnel last week that they were acting lawfully and honourably?

I do wish our Parliament would demand that the government make clear how such turnbacks are safe and lawful. After all the Labor Opposition is saying that it will retain the option to turn back boats only where it is safe to do so. Is Labor satisfied that the boat which disappeared from sight just off Christmas Island was safely turned back? How would they know unless they asked? I wonder what Sir Angus thinks. On Monday afternoon, Senator Hanson Young asked the Attorney-General in the Senate: 'I would like to ask the minister if he can please explain the sighting of a boat just three days ago, when a refugee boat reportedly made it to within 200 metres of Christmas Island. Could the minister explain why this boat was there, how many people were on it and where it is now?' George Brandis, the Attorney-General, refused to answer, pleading that it was an operational matter. And the circus of Australian democracy and the so called rule of law moved on. We are not to be told, and it is all done in our name. It's revolting. Here in Australia, our church leaders have published fine and lofty statements about the rights and entitlements of asylum seekers. But where is their voice to be heard when a boatload of hapless souls arrive only to be towed into oblivion? Where is the church agency with the mandate to follow up on the fine church statements, calling our elected leaders to account?

Religious leaders in the public square of the pluralist, democratic society founded on the rule of law are charged with being prophetic, appealing to the better nature and the nobler aspirations of the public, drawing unapologetically on the strengths of their own religious tradition, while being pragmatic and sufficiently respectful of those charged with the public trust of exercising the power of the state in the name of the people.

Living and working in societies where there is no philosophical agreement about the basis for, or the limits of, state power interfering with personal autonomy, and being members of faith communities and churches without any theological consensus about the basis of human rights and human dignity (whether inherent or attributed), how can we authentically and usefully contribute to the development of laws and public policies which enhance human flourishing, and perhaps even counsel a social striving for perfection? This is a question which confronts all religious leaders in a pluralistic democratic society. It may be an even more pressing question for the citizen of faith who occupies a position of public trust, whether as legislator, judge or administrator. What can we do? What should we do? What should we forbear from doing, regardless of our personal convictions, when discharging that public trust? What can we learn from each other coming from countries with diverse constitutional arrangements about how best to resolve disputes about law and policy relating to contested moral questions? How can the human rights actor best speak out for those suffering, whilst maintaining the agency of those suffering?

Those of us who profess to be Christian living behind secure national borders buttressed by wealth and the rule of law being shared only by the citizenry have been wrestling with the gospel imperatives of justice and compassion expressed in the parables of Jesus such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Oxford academic John Finnis 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? Think just of the absurd situation in Tasmania at the moment where it is suggested that the Catholic bishops may have a case to answer under the state's anti-discrimination law because they have had the temerity to inform their faithful about the church's traditional teaching on marriage.

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 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.

Discourse in the public square is a two-way street. Thus, for example, there is a place for Pope Francis at Lampedusa to be prophetically declaiming the moral turpitude of present European state practices in relation to the rescue of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea. There is a place for the Australian church leaders to be prophetically declaiming the moral turpitude of present state practices towards asylum seekers on Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island. There is a place for church leaders drawing on their religious tradition trying to call political leaders and the public back to values, policies and laws which resonate more with the tenets of religious faith.

The migration and asylum debate is one debate in which the voice of community leaders, and not just lawyers, needs to be heeded and in which we need to have due regard for political deliberation. It is one of those debates requiring an attentiveness to the still, small voice of conscience. Often nowadays the best amplifiers of that voice are not the religious leaders but the poets, novelists and folk singers.  In Australia, one of our finest novelists Tim Winton made a rare appearance on the public stage on Palm Sunday 2015, dissenting from Australia's refugee policy. Conceding that he was 'no expert, no politician', and expressing no envy of 'those who make the decisions in these matters, those who've sought and gained the power to make decisions in this matter', he declared, 'But I know when something's wrong. And what my country is doing is wrong.' He lamented:

We're losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you. For the children's sake. For the sake of this nation's spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there's still time.

The distillation of the prophetic message is often assisted by ecumenical critiques by those outside the circle of church hierarchy and tradition, as for example when Rowan Williams writes a reflection on Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si. The coherence of the pragmatic engagement is enhanced when ecumenical discernment and joint action results in a message being communicated which is not dependent on only one church tradition or authority.

My appreciation of Laudato Si has been enhanced by Rowan Williams' observation:

If we can lift our heads from the trenches of contemporary media-driven controversy, what we are being offered in this encyclical is, in the very fullest sense, a theology of liberation, drawing our minds and hearts toward a converted culture that is neither what T. S. Eliot called 'ringing the bell backwards,' pining for a lost social order and a lost form or style of authority, nor a religiously inflected liberalism, but a genuinely ecclesial vision. The pope's cultural revolution is about restored relationship with the creation we belong with and the creator who made us to share his bliss in communion; it is about the unbreakable links between contemplation, Eucharist, justice, and social transformation. It constitutes a major contribution to the ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching, and a worthy expansion and application of the deeply impressive doctrinal syntheses of Pope Benedict's major encyclicals.

And yes it does make a difference to me that these words are uttered by an Anglican theologian who had been Archbishop of Canterbury rather than by a Catholic who may still be awaiting further promotion within the hierarchy enjoying the favour of the present Holy Father.

If those of us from diverse Christian traditions cannot agree on the moral basis for arguments about inequality, climate change, same sex marriage or euthanasia, we cannot expect our politicians to take our distinctive religious arguments as much more than quaint observations from the sidelines by those who bear no responsibility for exercising power which impacts on the citizenry, the marginalized and the common good. Respectful ecumenical dialogue is an essential pre-condition for any meaningful engagement by church leaders in the public square. But you could be forgiven for thinking it is the step most often overlooked with the result that even the most resourced church campaign for or against an issue is perceived and caricatured as special pleading by a religious sect. Good ecumenical relations, ecumenical co-operation on projects, and respectful, informed ecumenical critique are indispensible tools for any faith based engagement on the great moral questions of the Age.

Professor Margaret Somerville who directs the Center for Law, Ethics and Medicine at McGill University in Montreal has just published a book of essays entitled Bird on the Ethics Wire: Battles About Values in the Culture Wars. Somerville has been a long time participant in the public square involved in debates on euthanasia, stem cell research and same sex marriage. She says 'that we can no longer assume, as we once could, that we all share more or less the same fundamental values. If society was ever that homogenous, those days are long gone.' She sees a 'crisis of conflict between respect for individual autonomy and protection of the common good' with too much emphasis on individual autonomy.

You don't necessarily have to be religious to think that doctors should do no harm, that patients are free to forego futile or burdensome treatment, and that palliative care be utilised to relieve pain. Suicide will occur from time to time, but why the need to enact laws conferring medical legitimation and increasing its likelihood? I readily concede that in jurisdictions like the US state of Oregon, to date, they have maintained a bright line between euthanasia and physician assisted suicide — but it's a line which has been dimmed by the Canadian Supreme Court's bright spotlight of autonomy recently illuminated in their 2015 Carter decision. It's a line which would be extinguished were the Canadian judicial thinking to take hold elsewhere. I do worry about the slippery slope for vulnerable patients who might think they have no option but taking their own lives. I remain committed to the simple Hippocratic Oath, 'Do no harm.' Don't take life. Care for the dying by relieving their suffering  And that's not just because I'm Catholic.

As we wrestle with these issues, maintaining the balance between autonomy and the common good, we need to maintain what Pope John Paul II called 'a convinced and pondered trust in the heritage of virtues and values handed down by our forebears'. Those of us with religiously informed ideas about the common good and human dignity need to be active participants in the intellectual and cultural dialogue which is 'essential to the discovery of truth in a historically conscious world'. Any church interventions should, as the US Jesuit ethicist David Hollenbach says, be 'carefully cast as documents that (seek) to persuade rather than coerce'.

It will be some time before we come back to level ground on contested issues such as euthanasia. While welcoming a prosecutorial policy which does not threaten the compassion for, or the dignity of, those who assist invulnerable and competent, horrifically disabled persons, we should continue to have a community care and a state concern for those many others who can be dissuaded from suicide with society's legitimate concern and commitment to kill the pain and relieve the existential angst without killing the person, and leaving others to carry the burden of yet more suicides. We need to consider the dignity and integrity of those suffering dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, no longer able to communicate free, informed decisions, let alone to reverse those decisions even should they so wish. The law needs to have a care for the dignity of all these persons, equally. Facilitating assistance with suicide for any autonomous person who wants it is not the way to enhance the dignity of those radically questioning the utility or worth of life that 'you'll feel safe and cared-for in a community where everyone supports each other'. We need to maintain our toehold on the slippery slope no matter what the superficial appeal of the judicial reasoning that we can extend autonomy, non-discrimination and individual human rights universally, all the way down to the valley of death.

I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table discerning the place for the prophetic voice and pragmatic co-operation of the Churches in 2009 when chairing the National Human Rights Consultation for the Rudd government. The various spokespersons for the three majority Christian denominations put a variety of viewpoints to my committee about the desirability of a federal Human Rights Act.  The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference submitted:

In considering the question raised by the terms of reference of the National Human Rights Consultation, it is noted that much discussion has been about whether or not there should be a Charter of Rights. On that particular issue, the ACBC does not take a particular stand at this stage.

In their submission, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference restated: 'The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference does not have a position as to whether or not there should be a Charter of Rights.'

The Anglican General Synod submitted:

We support the enactment of human rights legislation because this has the potential to have a beneficial effect on government policy and the legislation and administration, which give effect to that policy. Legislators and administrators will be compelled by such legislation to consider the impact of their decisions on all Australians, especially the most vulnerable. Further, the existence of human rights legislation could encourage greater understanding of human rights in the community.

But then again, the Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney submitted:

We consider that the adoption of a Federal charter of rights would, at best, make little difference to the protection of human rights and may, at worst, undermine the protection of human rights in Australia.

The Uniting Church National Assembly submitted:

The Uniting Church believes that a Human Rights Act, operating within Australia's system of open and democratic government, will provide greater protection for fundamental rights and freedoms, promote dignity, address disadvantage and exclusion, and help to create a 'human rights culture' in Australia. Furthermore, it will serve to promote Australia's commitment to human rights in the Asia-Pacific and globally, and formalise the current Government's commitment to the United Nations by those putting it into effect.

As if all that was not confusing enough, in contradistinction to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference which sat on the fence, the Archdiocese of Sydney submitted:

There are initiatives which could be taken to better protect and promote human rights in Australia, but there are serious reasons for doubting that a statutory charter of rights is the best way of doing this.

This submission followed upon Cardinal Pell's address the previous year when he stated his opposition to a charter of rights in any form. He told the Brisbane Institute:

The suspicion of majority — that is, parliamentary — rule, the preference for judicial, as opposed to political, determination of fundamental questions, the unacceptable transfer of responsibility from the parliament to the courts, and the unspoken assumptions which inform not only these tendencies but the particular social and political agenda which a bill of rights is intended to implement, are some of critical problems with proposals for a bill or charter of rights. These problems are compounded by confusion over the foundations of human rights, freedom and truth.

Moving beyond the neutral position of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Catholic Archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne then co-operated in activities with the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) during the inquiry. The Lobby was vigorously opposed to a Human Rights Act in any form. The then Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, joined forces with other church leaders opposed to a Charter in any form, despite the submission from the Anglican General Synod supporting a Charter. For me and my committee members, it was difficult to get a handle on just who the ACL represented.

Once church leaders join forces with a group such as the ACL, it is then difficult to know how to assess the earlier formal statements of the church leaders which may not be fully consistent with the Lobby's implacable opposition to a measure such as a Human Rights Act.

Given the diversity of opinion expressed by the ACBC and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, as well as the diversity of opinion between the Anglican General Synod and their Sydney Archbishop, and given the ambiguous role and relationship between the ACL and some church leaders, it became too complex a task to try and represent in the report the viewpoint of the various churches on a Human Rights Act.  Thus we omitted all reference to same. I daresay this will become a common response by public inquiries which doubt the public's interest in investigating the complex arrangements now in place for church leaders to express views under various guises. After our report was published, one Church leader wrote to me saying:

The decision to exclude different views expressed by the churches seems to suggest that on social issues, if the churches cannot speak in one voice they will not be given a say at all. You clearly foreshadow that this is what can be expected from similar sorts of public inquiries in the future. All this would do, if it were to happen, is to call into question the good faith of those conducting such 'consultations'.

The impugning of the standing of the consultation need not be the only consequence; in fact it might not be one of the consequences at all. One consequence might be the churches condemning themselves to irrelevance.

Though sceptical about the more overblown claims of human rights advocates, I became convinced as our committee criss-crossed the country that the language and architecture of human rights are necessary for our ongoing commitment to recognise the inherent human dignity of every person, giving them their due and ensuring that the State does not violate their human freedom.

If those of us from diverse Christian traditions cannot agree on the moral basis for arguments about inequality, climate change, same sex marriage or euthanasia, we cannot expect our politicians to take our distinctive religious arguments as much more than quaint observations from the sidelines by those who bear no responsibility for exercising power which impacts on the citizenry, the marginalized and the common good.

Religious leaders in the public square of the pluralist, democratic society founded on the rule of law are charged with being prophetic, appealing to the better nature and the nobler aspirations of the public while being pragmatic and sufficiently respectful of those charged with the public trust of exercising the power of the state in the name of the people. How do we ensure that the inherent dignity of the stranger is part of the calculus deciding what is fair and appropriate? The unvisaed asylum seeker is often viewed as a person without inherent dignity. Their dignity is acquired only once they obtain a visa. On the edges of society, and at the beginning and end of the life cycle, the utilitarian sees no case for espousing or affirming the inherent dignity of all. Dignity is acquired and forfeited depending on where the person is in the cycle or in the society, depending on the balance of good and bad consequences for others in attributing dignity to that person.

The late Edmond Pellegrino who chaired the US President's Council on Bioethics once observed:

Two contrary, but not necessarily contradictory, world views will dominate the discourse in our post-secular civilisation. Two images of human dignity compete for moral authority. One is the scientific, the other the religious. Neither is likely to capitulate to the other. Is a productive dialogue and dialectic between these two world views possible, and how is it to be conducted?

Extremists on both sides, militant atheists and intransigent dogmatists, insist there can be no common ground. More responsible proponents of both views hope for a productive dialogue and appeal to the necessity of a common ground in the public arena, even while metaphysical foundations remain disputed.

We need to be more confident in the expression and living of our culture of faith if we as Christians are to contribute distinctively to our world. Such a task is not disheartening; it fires our passion and imagination as did the stranger that day on the road to Emmaus and that night at the table: 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'

Pope Francis went to Rome's principal Lutheran church on Sunday 8 November 2015. Benedict had done the same five years ago. And John Paul II had been there back in 1983. On arrival Francis presented the Lutherans with a gift — a chalice for celebration of the Eucharist.

A Lutheran who was married to a Catholic then asked him why she could not receive communion when she attended mass with her husband. Francis replied:

As to your question, I will just respond with a question: how can I do (this) with my husband, so the Supper of the Lord can accompany on my journey? This is a problem to which each person must respond. But a friend who's a pastor told me: 'We believe the Lord is present there. He's present. You believe the Lord is present. What's the difference?' — Eh, there are explanations and interpretations. Life is greater than explanations and interpretations. Always make reference to baptism: 'One faith, one baptism, one Lord', as St Paul tells us, and draw the consequences from that. I would never dare to give permission to do this because it's not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak to the Lord and go forward. I dare say no more.

He's let the genie out of the bottle. Perhaps we are on the verge of being able to recognise each other and the other in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus.

None of us has all the answers as we struggle against eternal irrelevance — not even, dare I say it, the Holy Roman Catholic Church. The poet Emily Dickenson reminds us, 'The possible's slow fuse is lit by the imagination.' As we look at the faces of others, including perfect strangers to us and our traditions, turned towards God, let us do things together committed to the inherent dignity of all persons, and let us embrace the multi-faceted mystery of God reflected in the diverse expression on those myriad faces turned towards God in churches, mosques, synagogues, crowded streets and open fields this night.

In 1985, I was walking along the beach at Mapoon on the west coast of Cape York in far north Queensland and saw the largest mango tree I had ever seen. Mapoon had been established as a Presbyterian Aboriginal mission in the nineteenth century. Under the tree I saw Jean Jimmy who had just become a great great grandmother. As ever she was rolling a cigarette. I admired the tree and asked if the missionaries had planted it. 'No', she replied, 'I planted this tree. I am very blessed to sit under the shade of this tree and to see it bearing fruit.'

As we sit under the shade of the mango tree each of us has planted contemplating the bread and wine, may we commit ourselves afresh to justice, reconciliation and human rights for all, confident that if we work at that together we will naturally pray, eat and drink together helping even the secular, populist utilitarians in our midst to stave off eternal irrelevance. And let's stick up for each other when attacked by those whose power base is threatened by the prophetic utterance. In 2005 when being feted with an honorary doctorate at the Melbourne College of Divinity, Peter Carnley, one time primate of the Anglican Church in Australia observed, 'In the course of the little spat I had last year with (his fellow Anglicans) Messrs Howard and Downer (over the Iraq War and the contested causes of the Bali bombing), I was not conscious of receiving much concrete support from within my own church. The person who most fearlessly and vocally came to my support was Fr Frank Brennan SJ. This signals the truth that it is a fact of life these days that we often find our most supportive kindred spirits across the denominational divide, in Churches other than our own.'

When I first studied at Georgetown University Law School 20 years ago, one of my mentors was Fr Ladislas Orsy SJ. While holding the Gasson Chair at Boston College in 2014-2015, I had the opportunity to meet again with Las. Now in his 90s, he gave me a copy of his last published article entitled 'The Divine Dignity of Human Persons in Dignitatis Humanae'. It is Las's reaffirmation that Vatican II is the Catholic Church's affirmation of belief in the human person who has a conscience. Orsy is a great advocate for true human freedom as the precondition for human flourishing and the thriving of any society buttressed by the rule of law. He espouses individual freedom:

Persons are free internally when their spirit in its deliberations, decisions, and actions is independent, when it is not imposed or hampered by an outside agent or by their own unruly passions. They are free externally when no outside power coerces them physically or sets up obstacles for their intended actions.

While being a great advocate of human freedom and individual virtue, Orsy makes no claims to human infallibility. He observes, 'Integrity does not guarantee the truth of a judgment or the prudence of an intended action.  For that it must rely on critical intelligence. The task of conscience is not to create infallible knowledge or unfailing wisdom but to keep a person faithful to his or her honestly acquired conviction.' Having had a year away from the Australian public square, I had the time and space to ponder what Las would call the grace of integrity, knowing that I was returning to a church scene and a public square which is often very sterile, bereft, and unanchored. All any of us religious believers can bring to the public square is our integrity and inner freedom, together with our simple faith that God is with us giving us hope as we go forward. After a lifetime of engagement in the Church and the public square, Orsy writes:

Persons have integrity when their inner being is transfused by harmony; when their decisions and actions flow from their honest judgment; when they faithfully pursue the values that they comprehend as means to their perfection. In contrast, they lose their integrity when their volitions and operations are divorced from their vision. Should such a disaster happen, the persons in question become traitors to themselves. Their inner world shatters; it becomes fragmented.

Integrity, however, does not mean that the individual judgments held by persons of integrity are by that fact alone correct and critically unassailable. Quite the opposite: their convictions must be open to critical examination and verification.

I have returned to Australia open to dialogue with anybody, happy to have my convictions questioned and verified, and free on my part to question especially those who exercise authority. Without freedom and integrity, there is nothing any of us can contribute to the swirling mess of institutions which have lost public confidence, including the hierarchical church and the materialistic secularist public square which is marred by short term political conniving, an increasingly isolated and sterile jurisprudence, and a titillating shallow media. We are called into trusting, honest, self-disclosing dialogue with those seeking human flourishing for all, regardless of the utterances and strategies of those who enjoy short term power and success. We need to proclaim in comprehensible language and with incarnated symbolism the breaking in of the kingdom of God here and now. And we need to do this, grounded in our social reality, alert to the claims of those who are marginalised and suffering ongoing injustice.

When the going gets tough and the way ahead is not clear, we Church people can take to heart the observation by Morris West:

The pronouncements of religious leaders will carry more weight, will be seen as more relevant if they are delivered in the visible context of a truly pastoral function, which is the mediation of the mystery of creation; the paradox of the silent Godhead and suffering humanity.

That's what Pope Francis has been doing so well of late. At all times in the public domain, whether in dialogue with government about social policy or in giving a public account of church perspectives, we who speak with a Church mantle must speak with the voice of public reason. Therein lies the tension. Without trust between those whose consciences differ, we will not scale the heights of the silence of the Godhead nor plumb the depths of the suffering of humanity; we will have failed to incarnate the mystery of God here among us. This mystery is to be embraced in the inner sanctuary of conscience where God's voice echoes within, to be enfleshed in the relationships we share as the people of God, and to be proclaimed in our calls for justice in the public domain.

It is only together, and through dialogue, that we will discern the place for the prophetic voice and pragmatic co-operation of our Churches in the great moral questions of the Age.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, sexual abuse, Royal Commission, Pope Francis, Laudato Si



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Existing comments

The Prophetic Voice is a cry in the Wilderness.

davidnelson | 27 November 2015  

Haven myself been a president of a Ministers Fraternal and been a member of many nationwide, I applaud ecumenical solidarity though acknowledging that proclamation of dogma and morals by the Catholic Church alone even if ecumenically unpopular is not a hindrance to Christ given mission of the Church. Pope Francis on intercommunion is still in process as African Cardinal Prefect Sara has vigorously demonstrated!

Father John George | 03 December 2015  

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