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Frank Brennan's Cardinal Newman Lecture, March 2008

'Combating those Church Practices 'which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition'', Cardinal Newman Lecture, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Newman College, University of Melbourne, 28 March 2008


Fr Rector, Ladies and Gentlemen: I dedicate this lecture to your fellow alumnus Professor Gerard Crock. I acknowledge the presence of his beloved Jacqueline and his twin brother Harry. There is one, but only one, consolation in Gerard's passing. None of us any longer has cause to confuse the ophthalmic and orthopaedic Crocks. We note our appreciation of each, in death and in life.

This year we are marking the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Two weeks ago Seamus Heaney marked the occasion writing in The Irish Times:

Since it was framed, the Declaration has succeeded in creating an international moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always as a remedy: it exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold standard in the monetary system. The articulation of its tenets has made them into world currency of a negotiable sort. Even if its Articles are ignored or flouted — in many cases by governments who have signed up to them — it provides a worldwide amplification system for the ‘still, small voice'.

We still need to hear the clear prophetic word of the poet and preacher. We do need the precise articulation of principle by the philosopher. We also need the pragmatism of the good politician and advocate. Few of us are blessed with such a simple faith as to believe that there are no moral paradoxes in life, especially for the elected politician or public official charged with acting in the interests of innocent, vulnerable citizens.

In 1995, I attended the international human rights course at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The professor, Robert Drinan, was a Jesuit priest and lawyer — as am I. After treating any topic, he would turn to me in a half mocking tone and ask, 'And how do you deal with this down under, in Australia?' Initially, I thought he was an American imperialist convinced that the United States always found the best way of addressing any human rights question. While the US had the answers, the rest of us were playing catch up. But over the course of the semester, I realised that Drinan who had travelled the globe extensively had no preconceived notion about the best way. Much depended on the local circumstances. There were principles to espouse and to act upon in the search for any solution. Drinan died in January 2007. At his funeral, the preacher observed:

Any society built on the practice of rights is not so sweetly transcendent as the holy mountain of feasting and joy which Isaiah summons up for us; it is not so intimately and delicately responsive as the virtue of charity or agape which St Paul commends to us. But it is essential to the realisation of the common good in a world which is marked by enormous human diversity and intermittently intense social conflict. It is a reality which protects those of us who are neither beasts nor angels from our own worst impulses and from the harms which others would do to us. It is not the realm of the best but of the imperfect good and the necessary.

Much of our lives are spent seeking justice and hoping for truth in the realm of the imperfect good and the necessary. Justice and truth are asymptotic in those instances deserving political debate. While each participant in the political process has their 'take' on truth in the process and justice in the outcome, we never quite reach them though they be our destination. Of course, there are many instances where truth is articulated and justice achieved and thus there is no need for political deliberation. Heightened political controversy occurs precisely because there is no consensus about justice or truth.

While claiming not to be crass utilitarians, we still acknowledge that nothing succeeds like success. How do we form and inform our consciences when considering the truly hard political and moral questions? What place is there for church teaching? Tonight we pay our annual homage to John Henry Cardinal Newman here at Newman College and we look to him for guidance.

Let's consider some of the moral and political controversies that do confront us, and on which not even those gathered to honour Cardinal Newman at Newman College would expect to agree completely.

The Morally Pure and the Politically Pragmatic

After the 2001 Tampa Election I was wandering around the corridors of Parliament House and met with Senator Bill Heffernan, a member of the Howard government, who explained the government strategy starkly and simply. Having been a local councillor and being a lifetime farmer, he described to me the moral dilemma that confronts you during a major bushfire. You have to build a firebreak. You have to choose someone's property as the firebreak. In destroying their property, you will save the neighbourhood. ‘It's not pretty. These are hard moral decisions. But you have to do it.' The government's boast a year after Tampa was that the refugee firebreak seemed to have worked. There had been a need to be tough on those arriving in Australia without a visa. The boats had stopped coming. The borders were secure and Australia could choose those refugees to whom it wished to offer places under its generous offshore refugee selection program.

Shortly after the Howard government announced the 2007 federal intervention on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, a Newman College alumnus crossed Collins Street to greet me, presuming I would be pleased that at last government was doing something, regardless of the overriding of individual rights and liberties, including restrictions on: grog and pornography, the right to dispose of ones individual welfare payments and the right to manage ones own land. Afterall the emergency situation demanded dire measures. The Rudd Labor government is also convinced of the need for maintaining some of these tough measures even though they be racially discriminatory and invasive of personal rights and liberties.

The 2003 deployment of the Coalition of the Willing into Iraq was justified on the grounds that post-September 11 conditions required novel responses including the overriding of previously agreed principles about the preconditions for just war. Had the post-war reconstruction of Iraq been more successful there would undoubtedly have been greater community acceptance of the novel doctrine of pre-emption.

The fire bombing of German and Japanese cities during World War II fails to excite much moral angst nowadays in Anglo-American countries even though we have had over 60 years to let the dust and radiation settle so that we might review the situation more dispassionately.

Any residual concerns most of us have about human embryonic stem cell research are likely to subside if the research yields abundant results for the benefit of sick and dying persons.

There are many instances in which we live with a mix of the prophetic, principled and pragmatic. Cardinal Newman and his controversies can still speak to us. Tonight I would like to draw fruit from two of those controversies before leaving us to ponder the relevance of Catholic moral teaching for those of us active in the public square.

The 1859 Rambler Controversy

In 1859 there was considerable tension between the English Catholic bishops and the circle of Catholic intellectuals who edited and subscribed to The Rambler which had commenced publication in 1848. It had a circulation of only 800 and its aim was 'to rehabilitate Catholic thought in a non-Catholic world...by combining standards of scholarship previously unknown in Catholic journalism with attitudes critical of ecclesiastical authority which had become equally uncustomary'. To stave off pending censure by the bishops, John Henry Newman had reluctantly agreed to take on the editorship in March 1859.

The May 1859 issue carried Newman's unsigned editor's commentary on contemporary events including the English bishops' response to the proposed royal commission on elementary education. Prior to Newman's editorship, The Rambler had carried two articles by Nasmyth Scott Stokes urging the bishops' participation in the work of the royal commission, followed by the bishops' response and extracts from Bishop Ullathorne's pastoral letter, the details of which need not concern us who are of another time and another place. In his May editorial note, Newman apologised that 'we did not know that the Bishops had spoken formally'. He continued:

Acknowledging, then, most fully the prerogatives of the episcopate, we do unfeignedly believe, both from the reasonableness of the matter, and especially from the prudence, gentleness, and considerateness which belong to them personally, that their Lordships really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned. If even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception, it is at least as natural to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical questions.....If our words or tone were disrespectful, we deeply grieve and apologise for such a fault; but surely we are not disrespectful in thinking, and in having thought, that the Bishops would like to know the sentiments of an influential portion of the laity before they took any step which perhaps they could not recall.

Dr Gillow, Professor of Theology at Ushaw, a long time critic of The Rambler and unconvinced that such a leopard could change its spots under new editorship, took strong exception to this statement and told Newman so. There was no need and no precedent for consulting the faithful on matters of dogma. Newman discussed the matter with Bishop Ullathorne on 22 May 1859. A week later Newman wrote to his friend Healy Thompson recalling the fateful meeting. Ullathorne, repeating The Tablet's criticism of The Rambler, had observed: 'The Catholics of England were a peaceable people; the Church was peace. Catholics never had a doubt; it pained them to know that things could be considered doubtful which had had ever implicitly believed. The Rambler was irritating.' And Newman agreed to relinquish the editorship by July.

In his last issue of The Rambler, he then published his tract On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine attempting to still the controversy asserting that the English word 'consult' 'in its popular and ordinary use' was 'not so precise and narrow in its meaning' as to mean only 'consult with' or 'take counsel': 'it is doubtless a word expressive of trust and deference, but not of submission. It includes the idea of inquiring into a matter of fact, as well as asking a judgment.'

He concluded the tract with a dire warning of the results when the teaching Church (Ecclesia docens) fails to consult the faithful — when church authorities cut off 'the faithful from the study of her divine doctrines and the sympathy of her divine contemplations, and requires from them a fides implicata in her word, which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition.' If this goes for theological doctrine, it must go even more for moral teaching and for prudential political assessments in deciding how the Church is to engage in debates about law and public policy — striking the right balance of prophecy, principle and pragmatism.

We moderns might assert that it would be even more the case in relation to moral teaching relating to sexual matters when the all male church hierarchy is vowed to celibacy, and moral teaching on political matters in a pluralist democracy which require deft distinctions of law, social policy and morality. It would be most especially the case in those hard cases making bad law and those emergency cases said to warrant political action regardless of individual rights and liberties. Those confronted by moral paradoxes in public life are unlikely to gain help from the ecclesia docens unless those teachers have themselves wrestled with the paradoxes from every conceivable standpoint.

The 1874-5 Exchange Between Newman and Gladstone

The disputed place of the Catholic faithful in the intellectual life of the Church was later to be overtaken by the contested place of the Catholic intellectual perspective in the public square. Smarting from the defeat of his Irish University Bill in 1873 and from the subsequent loss of the 1874 election, ex-prime minister W E Gladstone wrote to the Contemporary Review questioning whether 'a handful of clergy are or are not engaged in an utterly hopeless and visionary effort to Romanise the Church and people of England'.8 He lamented this time 'when no one can become (Rome's) convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom, and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another; and when she has equally repudiated modern thought and ancient history.'

Gladstone was convinced that the Irish bishops' opposition to the University Bill was fuelled by directives from Rome. In England at the time, it was not only non-Catholics who were troubled by novel Roman developments such as Pius IX's 1864 Syllabus of Errors and Vatican I's declaration on papal infallibility, and so soon after the Catholic emancipation measures.

Gladstone then published his pamphlet The Vatican Decrees in their bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation. It sold over 145,000 copies. Among the propositions 'all the holders of which have been condemned by the See of Rome during my own generation, and especially within the last twelve or fifteen years', he listed:

  • those who maintain the liberty of the press
  • or the liberty of conscience and of worship
  • or the liberty of speech
  • or that any method of instruction of youth, solely secular, may be approved
  • or that knowledge of things philosophical and civil may and should decline to be guided by ... Ecclesiastical authority
  • or that in 'countries called Catholic', the free exercise of other religions may laudably be allowed
  • or that the Roman Pontiff ought to come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation.

Most Australian Catholics would now join their fellow Christians in affirming the core truth of these propositions. They would not be guided in their public life by past papal condemnations of these views. They would be ably assisted by the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II in placing these blunt, universal anathemas into a more nuanced context, often abandoning the anathemas completely, and in good faith.

Back then, Newman came to the defence of intelligent, politically engaged Catholics with his Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr Gladstone's Recent Expostulation. He considered the main question raised by Gladstone to be: 'Can Catholics be trustworthy subjects of the State?'

Gladstone repeated his fear that 'no one can now become (a Catholic) without renouncing his moral and mental freedom, and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.' Newman refuted this fear conceding that there may be 'extreme cases in which conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word.' He asserted that 'infallibility alone would block the exercise of conscience' but that 'the Pope is not infallible in that subject matter in which conscience is of supreme authority' and thus 'no dead-lock, such as is implied in the objection ...can take place between conscience and the pope.'

Neither Gladstone nor Newman perceived the extent to which the state might legislate in centuries to come about all manner of things. Newman had no idea about the range of issues on which subsequent popes and Vatican congregations would issue declarations not just on the faith but in relation to morals, law and public policy, and in considerable detail. He would have had no comprehension that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would issue very detailed guidelines on law and policy, providing guidance for Catholic politicians having to vote on vexed moral and political questions. Newman was confident that there would be little overlap between the state's law and policy, and church teaching. He thought there ought to be little overlap. He thought Gladstone was being censorious. But given that there now is overlap, there is a need to investigate the restrictions on conscience so as to determine if Gladstone's fears now have substance.

Political, legal and moral advice are needed to inform the citizenry about law reform and public administration. Issues of law reform are not primarily moral questions; they also require prudence and political savvy best practised by those who are imbued with the local culture and who are experienced in the law and politics of that society. For this very reason, religious leaders, and especially those from other countries, are less likely to be competent no matter what their place in the hierarchy of the religious community. The more expert they are in moral and political philosophy, the more they should be attuned to the limits of their competence and the prudence of silence in the wake of the local faithful trying not just to live the individual moral life but also to contribute to public life, true to their public trust and responsive to the cultural, political and legal ethos of their society. With prudence, religious authorities can ensure that Gladstone's fears remain groundless and Newman's defence sound.

What is the role of church leaders in the political process, proclaiming the truth from their religious perspective, when that perspective is not necessarily shared by the majority? When should politicians vote for a law or social policy according to their religious convictions rather than according to the policy of their party or according to the opinion of the majority whom they represent?

In countries like Australia and the United States, these questions most often arise when Catholic bishops or Catholic politicians start talking about abortion, euthanasia or stem cell research. But they also arise when community leaders and politicians of all faiths and none buy into the question of tax reform and wealth redistribution, or ponder the morality of going to war, or wrestle with the right balance between border security and the dignity of asylum seekers, or determine when to override individual rights and liberties of indigenous citizens for their own good.

Oxford legal philosopher, John Finnis clarifies that Newman puts two propositions on conscience in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: One should disobey papal orders which are contrary to morality, and one should disobey papal orders which are contrary to one's conscience. The object of one's inquiry is to 'to discover what (as best one can see) is the truth of the matter'. Newman puts the second proposition not because he doubts the first 'but from concern to show that Catholics are not mental and moral slaves, since they make their own judgments'.

Coercion of conscience even within the confines of the religious community is no longer defensible.

Newman's Guidance Today

At Boston College in 2004, I was able to visit the archives of the New England Province of the Jesuits and read the papers of Fr John Cuthbert Ford SJ whose biography has just been published. I have long been an admirer of Ford for his 1944 article in Theological Studies on the 'Morality of Obliteration Bombing'. Here was a moral theologian who was prepared to take a strong public stand contrary to public opinion and contrary to the perceived national interest at a time of national emergency. A year before the dropping of the first atomic bomb, Ford wrote that obliteration bombing 'is an immoral attack on the rights of the innocent. It includes a direct intent to do them injury. Even if this were not true, it would still be immoral, because no proportionate cause could justify the evil done; and to make it legitimate would soon lead the world to the immoral barbarity of total war.'

A year later, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities with the objective of bringing the war to an end without the need to stage a bloody invasion of a nation whose leadership was implacably opposed to unconditional surrender. Truman's military advice was that a land invasion of Japan 'would cost at a minimum a quarter of a million American casualties'.

Without the use of the bombs, war was expected to last another year. 1 million Allied troops were being moved into place for the invasion of Japan. After the war, Truman observed, 'It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.' Having authorised the use of the atomic bomb, Truman told his wife three weeks before Hiroshima that 'we'll end the war a year sooner now'.

While some scientists urged that the bomb not be used until the enemy be first warned of its existence and prospective use, other scientists asked, 'Are not the men of the fighting forces...who are risking their lives for the nation, entitled to the weapons which have been designed?' They further asked, 'Are we to go on shedding American blood when we have available means to a steady victory?' They answered, 'No! If we can save even a handful of American lives, then let us use this weapon — now!' In his Memoirs, Truman wrote:

Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used. The top military advisers to the President recommended its use, and when I talked to Churchill he unhesitatingly told me that he favored the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the war.

Back on 25 July 1945, the day he authorised the military to go ahead with preparations to use the bomb on Japanese cities, Truman wrote in his diary:

I have told the Sec of War, Mr Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and saves lives.

After the dropping of the second bomb, the Emperor decided to 'bear the unbearable' and surrender. Five days after the two bombings, the Japanese accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered. Three years later, at a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the custody of the atomic bomb, Truman insisting that it remain under civilian control, said:

I don't think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn't a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.

To this day, I daresay most US and Australian citizens (whether Catholic or otherwise) think President Truman did right in authorising the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japanese cities, regardless of whether such bombs are classed ordinarily as military weapons or not, and regardless of whether or not the dropping of those bombs entailed an immoral attack on the rights of the innocent with a direct intent to do them injury. They thought, and still do, that the obliteration of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally excused if not justified because this, and only this, helped to end the war, without the need for hundreds of thousands of Allied Forces having to face annihilation invading Japan with its citizenry blindingly committed to the Emperor's honour.

Ford's arguments helped to inform the specific declaration of the Second Vatican Council thirty years later:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

There is no moral teaching of our Church which has been so solemnly declared. John Finnis gives this as an example of one of the 'few but vital norms which specify the negative responsibilities common to all human beings.' He says, 'To these negative moral norms there are no true exceptions. In their application, they are the exception to the ‘rule' (generalization), reiterated throughout the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, that to every rule (generalization) there are exceptions.'

I daresay there are some of us here who if placed in Truman's shoes would in good conscience, and with a very heavy heart pleading for God's mercy on us all, invoke an exception and do exactly the same again, no matter what any church leader said. We all know Catholics of good will who invoke Vatican declarations for all manner of moral positions but who still do not concede the correctness of this moral judgment on obliteration bombing. In good conscience, each of us weighs up the prophetic, the principled and the pragmatic.

The American philosopher Michael Walzer has been a long time critic of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his classic Just and Unjust Wars, he states 'Our purpose, then, was not to avert a ‘butchery' that someone else was threatening, but one that we were threatening, and had already begun to carry out.' He rightly distinguishes Japan from Germany and argues that there was no need to demand unconditional surrender. '[A]ll that was morally required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown.' Walzer claims, 'In the summer of 1945, the victorious Americans owed the Japanese people an experiment in negotiation.'

His book of essays Thinking Politically has just been published. In the essay 'Terrorism and Just War' he writes: 'Consider the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945: this was surely an act of terrorism; innocent men and women were killed in order to spread fear across a nation and force the surrender of its government. And this action went along with a demand for unconditional surrender, which is one of the forms that tyranny takes in wartime....There can't be any doubt that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki implied, at the moment the bombs were dropped, a radical devaluation of Japanese lives and a generalised threat to the Japanese people.'

Walzer is not one of those thinkers who yields to popular sentiment in recasting the balance between principle and pragmatism. And yet it was he who 35 years ago wrote the famous essay on 'The Problem of Dirty Hands' in which he posited the moral paradox of the ticking bomb. A suspected terrorist is being held and the state officials assure the president that the terrorist has information about bombs which have been planted in schools and apartment buildings. Should he authorise the use of torture?

This essay has come into vogue since the discussion of the torture memos from the Bush administration. When interviewed in 2006, Walzer said 'we should want leaders who were prepared both to give the order and to bear the guilt'. He is not so keen on Alan Dershowitz's approach of drawing up rules for the authorisation of torture with judicial warrant that the rules have been complied with. Walzer thinks extreme cases make bad law. He says:

I don't want to rewrite the rule against torture to incorporate this exception. Rules are rules, and exceptions are exceptions. I want political leaders to accept the rule, to understand its reasons, even to internalise it. I also want them to be smart enough to know when to break it. And finally, because they believe in the rule, I want them to feel guilty about breaking it — which is the only guarantee they can offer us that they won't break it too often.

When confronted with any of these truly awful moral dilemmas, whether as private citizens or as politicians, we seek the prophetic voice and principled discussion before taking pragmatic action. We can heed Newman's advice:

I should look to see what theologians could do for me, what the Bishops and clergy around me, what my confessor; what friends whom I have revered: and if, after all, I could not take their view of the matter, then I must rule myself by my own judgment and my own conscience.

This advice is consistent with the Second Vatican Council's injunction to the laity in Gaudium et Spes:

Lay persons should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let lay persons not imagine that their pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the laity take on their own distinctive role.

The Toast

Newman's confidence that there would be no prospect of an overlap, let alone a conflict, between the matters on which the Pope would speak infallibly and the matters on which the citizen would have to decide political and moral questions accounts for his notorious declaration:

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink — to the Pope if you please, — still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

The Episcopalian philosopher Alan Donagan proposes an amendment: 'Were we obliged to bring morality into toasts, we should not refuse to drink to conscience; but we should beg to drink to a truthful consciousness first.' Philosopher John Finnis finds this toast the more satisfying.

So in the spirit of Newman, and incorporating all Catholic views, I invite you to stand, acknowledging the place of the prophetic word, principled discussion, and pragmatic action in confronting the moral paradoxes of public life, and to toast truthful consciousness, and conscience, combating any church practices 'which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition'.

Ladies and Gentlemen of Newman: Here's to truthful consciousness, and conscience.



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