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Justice, the Church and the Ignatian tradition

On Ash Wednesday, I was trying to get my head around the new Collect for the mass which reads: 'Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.' Yes, I might give up the grog for Lent (except on really, really special occasions — and there even seem to be a few too many of them on the horizon) and I will try to pray a bit more and to be more available to the person in need. But it did not seem quite the stuff of weapons, campaigns, and battles. Was I missing something? Or was it just the clunky language of the new translation?

I got home from mass and received a text message from one of my nieces whose five year old boy had come home from school reporting that he had to write a promise on a leaf for Ash Wednesday. He told his mum that he was 'to eat less chocolate for Lent — but not give it up.' His mother delighted in his thinking as did I. It's probably a five-year-old's equivalent of my own approach. An hour later I received another text message from my niece. Her husband had returned from work and she told him about their son's Lenten promise. The Dad laughed uproariously as he had just seen his son with a chocolate covered face and said to him, 'You found some chocolate.' The boy had replied, 'Yes, but less than usual.' The Lenten promise made sense of this otherwise strange reply from the boy sprung with his hand in the chocolate bowl.

We adults know that real conversion, real change of heart, real change of behaviour and character doesn't come all that often — and not every Lent. The ideal may include prayers and commitments to campaigns and battles against our baser natures, our less generous behaviours and our more cynical dispositions. If we could just do, think and pray the good, the true and the beautiful a little more than usual, doing and thinking the bad, the false and ugly a little less than usual, we might, with God's grace, be on the Lenten right track to Easter taking up battle against spiritual evils armed with weapons of self-restraint.

Those of us schooled in Ignatian spirituality know that the great grace to pray for is the deep interior freedom which comes when we are liberated from all disordered affections so that we might be able to respond generously to whatever the Lord asks of us. We crave freedom so that we might be bound together as Church in mission to the world.

We Jesuits are the least democratic Order in the Catholic Church. The Superior General is the only superior in the order to be elected. All others are appointed. Every now and again we do need to elect representatives to attend a 'General Congregation' which elects the new Superior General and legislates for the good of all Jesuits and those who work with us under the Ignatian mantle. There have been only 35 of these congregations in over 400 years. At the most recent Congregation, the Jesuits there assembled in Rome drew up a document entitled 'Challenges to Our Mission Today: Sent to the Frontiers'. The recurring images are bridges, frontiers, and crossroads. As Jesuits we can never be content to remain anchored safely in port, sedate and satisfied with the middle ground, the settled turf and terra firma. We are to be found on the edges where we expect to find conflict and division. We are called to be reconcilers. The General Congregation put it like this:

Ignatius and his first companions understood the importance of reaching out to people on the frontiers and at the centre of society, of reconciling those who were estranged in any way. From the centre in Rome, Ignatius sent Jesuits to the frontiers, to the new world, 'to announce the Lord to peoples and cultures that did not know him as yet'. He sent Xavier to the Indies. Thousands of Jesuits followed, preaching the Gospel to many cultures, sharing knowledge with and learning from others. He also wanted Jesuits to cross other types of frontiers between rich and poor, between educated and unlearned. He wrote a letter to the Jesuits at the Council of Trent on how to behave and insisted that they should minister to the sick. Jesuits opened colleges in Rome and in the great cities of Europe, and they taught children in villages across the world.

If we are to get our teeth into issues of acute injustice, we need to mix with both the decision makers and those affected by those decisions and who would never dream of being master. We must always be eyeballing both. Otherwise we risk becoming sanctimonious. Eyeballing both, with both eyes, looking for things which are unspoken, we might detect the tell tale signs of a faith that does justice, on the margins, in the tough times, with some of the unlikeliest characters. The Jesuit General Congregation put it like this:

The complexity of the problems we face and the richness of the opportunities offered demand that we build bridges between rich and poor, establishing advocacy links of mutual support between those who hold political power and those who find it difficult to voice their interests. Our intellectual apostolate provides an inestimable help in constructing these bridges, offering us new ways of understanding in depth the mechanisms and links among our present problems.

We need to do the hard thinking and we need to be connected with decision makers and those most affected by those decisions. Nowadays people are always looking for a code which determines the one right answer. They want an unequivocal answer about what's just: 'Just tell us what to do and we'll do it.' If only life were so simple. I have long enjoyed the writings of the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor who wrote the very influential book A Secular Age. Last year he published a book of essays entitled Dilemmas and Connections. In his essay 'The Perils of Moralism', he spells out why the moral/ethical life can never be summed up in a code of behaviour. Following Aristotle's account of the plurality of goods amidst situations and events which are unforeseeably various, he tells us:

There is more than one good; this is not recognised by Kant and Bentham and all those who try to derive morality from a single-source principle. These goods can conflict in certain circumstances: liberty and equality; justice and mercy; commutative justice and comity; efficient success and compassionate understanding; getting things done bureaucratically (requiring categories, rules) and treating everyone as a unique person; and so on.

Let's apply some of this thinking to a handful of the issues you have raised at the outset of our evening together.

The abysmal state of national politics

We have endured a dreadful couple of weeks of politics coming out of Canberra. Whether you are a Gillard, Rudd or Abbott supporter or none of the above, you could not help but be appalled by the vitriol displayed in recent days. Our politicians were not only ungracious; they were uncharitable; they were uncivil; and they were just downright nasty. They and the Rinehart family are probably showing up some of the increasingly rough and raw underside of our society and of ourselves as Australians. The politician who impressed me during the conflict was Anthony Albanese who tore himself apart in the heart and in the head, weeping on national television and declaring:

I was raised by a single mum and I was told that you always had to stand up for what you believed in, regardless of the odds. Mum raised me with three great faiths: the Catholic Church, the South Sydney football club and Labor. She said to be true to all three. Well, with regard to the Catholic Church, I believe that the social justice values that I was raised with, I have kept. With regard to South Sydney, in spite of 41 years of constant disappointment, I have remained faithful. I have also remained faithful to the Labor Party. I have devoted my life to advancing the cause of Labor.

He voted for Kevin Rudd because he thought Rudd had been treated so unfairly. Rudd had been treated in a way that betrayed the value of the party. We all need to do more to bring back civility, charity and graciousness to our public life. These attributes should be rewarded by us the voters. The contrary should be punished by us the voters.

The state of the Church — justice and fairness

Just as Anthony Albanese was concerned that the Labor Party was not being true to its values in the way it dismissed Kevin Rudd in 2010, I am one of those Australian Catholics concerned at the Vatican's handling of the inquiry into Bishop Bill Morris who was then forced to depart the diocese of Toowoomba.

That diocese has been without a resident bishop now for almost eleven months since Pope Benedict removed Bishop Bill Morris, who refused to submit his resignation when requested by three curial cardinals who formed an adverse view of him.

Morris had offered to retire by August last year provided only that the sexual abuse cases in the diocese had been resolved. This timetable was judged inappropriate by the Vatican cardinals who conducted an ongoing inquiry into Morris' fitness for office. They wanted him out, immediately. Almost eleven months later, no one is able credibly to defend their methods.

Morris was denied natural justice. No one, including the Australian bishops, quite knows why he was sacked — or at least they cannot tell us; the charges and the evidence remain a moving target, a mystery. Clearly Morris has not been judged a heretic or schismatic. He has maintained his standing as a bishop, being asked to assist with Episcopal tasks in his home diocese of Brisbane.

There have been some suggestions of defective pastoral leadership by Morris — an assessment not shared by most of his fellow Australian bishops, who expressed their appreciation '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 Toowoomba 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.'

The key resident church leaders of Toowoomba commissioned retired Supreme Court judge and esteemed Catholic layman, Bill Carter QC to review the Vatican's curial process demanding resignation and culminating in papal dismissal.

They also sought a canonical reflection on Carter's report from the respected canon lawyer Fr Ian Waters who stated, 'I presume I have been invited because I am not a Queenslander. I have never met Mr Carter, although I know he is an eminent and highly respected jurist.' Waters concluded:

In accordance with Canon 19, the Holy See, departing from the earlier precedents for the removal of Australian bishops, could have designed a process similar to the process for removal of a parish priest, thereby according procedural fairness and natural justice consistent with the Code of Canon Law. This was not done. I respectfully concur with Mr Carter's conclusion that 'Bishop Morris was denied procedural fairness and natural justice.'

In his report of last October, Mr Carter, having access to all Bill Morris's files and having heard directly from Bill Morris, scrutinized the Vatican processes including an Apostolic Visitation to the Toowoomba Diocese by Archbishop Charles Chaput from the United States. Carter wrote that when Chaput first met with Bill Morris, 'he expressed a measure of surprise that he was being asked to investigate Morris because as far as he could see, from the material provided to him, things 'that (Morris) had reportedly said and done were happening in other places as well'. In a later conversation with Archbishop Bathersby, Chaput also questioned the need for him to investigate Bishop Morris. Again when being driven to Brisbane by Fr Brian Sparksman (Diocesan Chancellor and Canon Lawyer) at the conclusion of his visit, Chaput remarked that he would be astounded if the Diocese was to lose its bishop. Not only was Bishop Morris, at all material times, totally ignorant of the material in Chaput's possession when he arrived in Toowoomba, nor was he told anything to identify his accusers of the real reason for the visit, nor was he given a copy of the Visitors report or any information concerning its contents. As of now he still has never seen it.'

Archbishop Denis Hart saw fit to write to the secular newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne on 4 February 2012 asserting that Archbishop Chaput 'said he discussed the contents of his report with Bishop Morris in Toowoomba'. Archbishop Hart's claim contradicted the statement made by Bishop Morris in his letter to the Holy Father dated 24 December 2008 in which he said: 'I have not seen the report prepared by the Apostolic Visitor; the Apostolic Visitor did not discuss his findings with me; I have not been shown any of the 'evidence' that was gathered or even the list of the 'accusers'.' (as quoted in the Memorandum of William Carter QC). Archbishop Hart's claim was strenuously denied by Bishop Morris when he then wrote to the same secular newspapers in response to Archbishop Hart on 8 February 2012 stating: 'I categorically deny that Archbishop Chaput ever discussed with me what he was going to put in the report.'

Members of Christ's Faithful who have access only to the public documentation are left confused. Seeking clarification for the good of the Church, I have written to Archbishops Chaput and Hart and discussed the matter with Bishop Morris. Neither of the Archbishops wants to engage in any public dialogue. That of course is their prerogative. If indeed Archbishop Chaput did discuss the content of his report with Bishop Morris, it would be helpful for Christ's Faithful to know that. If he did not, it would be helpful if Archbishop Hart could be duly informed so that he does not repeat a falsehood.

Even more troubling, we are left confused as to whether Morris was sacked chiefly for what he wrote in his 2006 Advent letter or for what was reported by Chaput. If he was sacked for what he wrote in his Advent letter about the possible ordination of women, married priests, and recognition of other orders 'Rome willing', there would have been no need for Archbishop Chaput to make his visit and his report. But then again if he was sacked for matters outlined in the report, we are left wondering why Chaput being apprised of the Advent letter and having completed his visit would have told the Diocesan Chancellor how extraordinarily surprising it would be if Morris were to be sacked. The matter is a complete mess reflecting very poorly on a Church which prides itself on a Code of Canon law which provides for the protection of the rights of all Christ's faithful.

Aboriginal issues

On my way here I stopped at Padthaway in the Coonawarra for a meat pie. I received a phone call from Townsville telling me that an Aboriginal friend of mine was having a hard time of it in prison at the moment. She is doing life in the Townsville Women's prison. Though Aborigines are a single-digit, small percentage of our population, they are the overwhelming majority in that North Queensland institution. Last year I got to Townsville and we talked for hours. As I was leaving my friend said to me: 'Look with two eyes. Look beyond. Look for things which are unspoken. They are the things that matter. When your spirit is broken you cannot communicate your pain. That's why my people are sick.' Those of us schooled in the Ignatian vision dare to dream and take practical steps towards building a just society — looking beyond for the things which are unspoken while providing practical help for people breaking cycles of poverty and incarceration.

There has been a lot of controversy about the so-called federal intervention in the Northern Territory first instituted by the Howard government in 2007. As our Parliament prepares to do good yet again for the benefit of Aboriginal communities in remote Northern Australia, we who draw strength and inspiration from our Church tradition should insist that respect for inherent human dignity and trusting relationships be central if we are to make a place of real belonging for the first Australians. As Pope John Paul II put it in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

When individuals and communities do not see a rigorous respect for the moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity of the person and on the proper identity of each community, beginning with the family and religious societies, then all the rest — availability of goods, abundance of technical resources applied to daily life, a certain level of material well-being — will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible.

Whatever affects the dignity of individuals and peoples, such as authentic development, cannot be reduced to a 'technical' problem. If reduced in this way, development would be emptied of its true content, and this would be an act of betrayal of the individuals and peoples whom development is meant to serve.

These are not fashionable sentiments in the Aboriginal debate in contemporary Australia. But they are our tradition, and they find resonance in everything presently being said to government about Aboriginal welfare reform by both the Social Inclusion Board and the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. While applauding Minister Jenny Macklin's commitment to improving school attendance and educational achievement in remote communities, I would urge her to leave the conditional welfare payment stick behind, and to take on the harder and more expensive challenges elucidated in the Stronger Futures Report on Consultations released last year, namely the provision of mentors and parenting education, greater indigenous involvement in school teaching and curriculum, greater involvement by parents and elders in school activities, the provision of more local or regional high schools, the need for 'vocational education, careers advice in schools, and education that was linked to jobs' and 'the need for school to be an interesting and positive experience for children living in remote communities'. If these things are not provided, what purpose is served by docking the welfare payments of parents lacking the motivation to send their child to a school which seems irrelevant and useless probably because it is? The Commonwealth should embrace one of the benefits of a federal system and await clearer outcomes from the Queensland experiment with the Family Responsibilities Commission before making Aboriginal parental welfare payments conditional on child school attendance.

Let's not be treated to another Federal Labor charade that the targeted docking of Aboriginal welfare payments is to be classed as a special measure under the Racial Discrimination Act for the benefit of those who will not receive full payment. I commend Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin for giving priority to Aboriginal demands for education, employment and alcohol management. But I think we should be more focused on developing relationships of trust recognising the inherent human dignity of the first Australians. With trust, a commitment to relationships built on respect for inherent human dignity and cultural difference, we can strengthen the welfare safety net for the neediest First Australians without constructing a nanny state bound to fail with Commonwealth truancy officers wandering remote communities wondering about their purpose in being there at all.

Refugee questions

Until the treatment of asylum seekers in transit countries such as Indonesia is enhanced, we Australians must expect that some of the world's neediest refugees will engage people smugglers and come within reach of our authorities. For as long as they do not excessively skew our migration program, we should allow those who are proven to be genuine refugees to settle permanently and promptly so they may get on with their lives and make their contribution to our national life. Let's not forget the honest assessment of immigration detention centres by Professor Patrick McGorry, Australian of the Year: 'You could almost describe them as factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder'. Community partnerships with government could assist with the accommodation and transition needs of those asylum seekers most likely to succeed in their claims. In hindsight, we know that proposals such as turning back the boats, temporary protection visas for those who will be refugees for many years to come, and the Pacific solution are not only unprincipled; they fail to stem the tide nor to reduce the successful claims. We always need to ask, 'Why is it right to treat the honest, unvisaed boat person more harshly than the visaed airplane passenger who fails to declare their intention to apply for asylum?' If the answer is based only on consequences, then ask, 'Would not the same harsh treatment of the visaed airplane passenger have the same or even greater effect in deterring arrivals by onshore asylum seekers?' The Qantas 747 does not evoke the same response as the leaky boat, does it?

The Gillard Government's proposal for a regional processing centre in East Timor was unprincipled and unworkable, as is its proposed Malaysia solution, and as would be a simple restoration of the Pacific Solution by an Abbott government. The Malaysia solution proposes a serious moral recalibration of the acceptable bottom line wanting to move us from offshore processing to offshore dumping. At least the bona fide refugee under John Howard's Pacific solution was assured eventual resettlement in a third country, usually Australia or New Zealand. Under the Malaysia solution the bona fide refugee would be sent to the end of a queue which is 95,000 long. The Abbott Opposition has now conceded that boats can be towed back only with the full co-operation of the Indonesians, and even then there would be serious questions about safety at sea, invoking our obligations under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Convention. Philip Ruddock has conceded that the Pacific Solution second time around would not be sufficient to deter hazardous boat journeys from Indonesia.

The long-term work still needs to be done in Indonesia which is the main transit country to Australia. Both sides of politics know that the vulnerable will continue to arrive on our shores uninvited. We need to maintain the faith of Petro Georgiou who told our Parliament in his valedictory speech:

I believed that politics was a tough business. There were two dominant parties, they were in conflict, they had power and they had resources. They were strong and evenly matched. They punched and they counterpunched, and sometimes low blows were landed. In my view, however, scapegoating the vulnerable was never part of the political game. I still believe this.

I pine for the day when one of our Jesuit Alumni in the Australian Parliament could make a similar speech. Let's not forget that it is only because we are an island nation continent that we can entertain the absurd notion that we can seal our borders from refugee flows. All borders are porous in our globalised world. We need to manage those borders firmly and decently. That is the challenge. At the very least, we must remain committed to processing and resettling those bona fide refugees who reach our shores regardless of the co-operative regional solutions we put in place to deter their arrival in the first place.

Same-sex marriage

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. 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 been greatly assisted by the line of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, elected President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales by unanimous acclamation in 2009, who has said, 'We were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognised that in English law there might be a case for those.'

Archbishop Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, when speaking about civil unions and same sex marriage has said: 'Clearly, respect must be shown to those who in the situation in England use a civil partnership to bring stability to a relationship. Equality is very important and there should be no unjust discrimination. (However) commitment plus equality do not equal marriage.'

I concede that some Catholic commentators might argue for limits on non-discrimination and compassion on the basis that the very recognition of a same sex relationship is contrary to the natural law. For example, the Catechism states: 'The natural law, the Creator's very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature.' But these commentators would then need to establish that the extension of non-discrimination and compassion to same sex couples would undermine the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community.

Even if the Australian Parliament does legislate to expand the definition of marriage beyond its traditional meaning in the Marriage Act, there will undoubtedly be a constitutional challenge in the High Court given that the Parliament does not have the power to expand its legislative competence beyond the wording of the Constitution. Under the Constitution, the Parliament has power 'to make laws with respect to marriage'. In 1991, Justice Dawson on the High Court observed that the Commonwealth power to legislate with respect to marriage 'is predicated upon the existence of marriage as a recognisable (although not immutable) institution'. He then said, '[J]ust how far any attempt to define or redefine, in an abstract way, the rights and obligations of the parties to a marriage may involve a departure from that recognisable institution, and hence travel outside constitutional power, is a question of no small dimension'. So this debate has a long way to go. It would be a pity if those of us trying to contribute the strength of the Catholic tradition to the debate were simply characterised as homophobic naysayers. And it would be helpful if some of the nuances of the experienced UK bishops could get some airplay here from our own bishops who also wrestle with the pastoral and moral dimensions of this question.

I don't think the public debate in Australia will be much assisted by agitating the present canonical view of the Catholic Church that 'a valid marriage contract cannot exist between baptised persons without its being by that very fact a sacrament'5. We all know many baptized persons who profess no religious faith at all. It stretches our understanding of a sacrament to propose that two adult persons without religious faith could be administering a sacrament to each other; and it offends our sense of natural justice to say that such a couple are incapable of entering into a marriage contract in good faith. The distinguished canon lawyer Ladilas Orsy has said:

There are concrete cases when the wise advice to a couple, baptized and unbelieving as they are, is to tell them to contract a nonsacramental marriage. This is no more than to respect the state of their mind and heart, to honour their honesty. We have no right to refuse to recognize the genuine human value of their commitment. If one day they are given the fullness of faith, become believers, and ask for the sacrament, it should be given to them in joyful celebration.

I will continue to advocate against same sex marriage, while being in favour of civil unions. Discussion about the sacramentality of marriage in the Catholic Church is unlikely to provide any clear answer or direction to those seeking a just law for all couples, including same sex couples.

Most young people who marry nowadays have already been cohabiting. They usually marry because they think it is time to start a family. The State's interest in marriage as an institution has arisen because the State has been concerned with the procreation and nurture of children of the union. We are just around the corner from scientists being able to produce a child from the genetic material of two ova or two sperm. I think the State still has an interest in preferencing a social institution which maximises the possibility of children being nurtured by their known biological mother and their known biological father. Call me old fashioned if you will. But I think the State should proceed slowly in this field. We should have learnt some lessons from the Stolen Generations and those who were adopted out contrary to their parents' wishes. I would support the recognition of civil unions now, but I would want to reserve consideration of same sex marriage until the majority of those who are married (and not just the young) favour it, and until we have dealt with the complex issues of parenting children produced from the genetic material of two men only or two women only.


I think we have probably visited enough frontiers and crossroads for one night. I hope I have assisted you in building a few new bridges. I don't pretend to have all the answers at these frontiers and crossroads. We can be very grateful for the strength of our Catholic tradition, the robustness of our Catholic teaching, and the liberating effect of Ignatian spirituality in wrestling respectfully and humbly with these issues. For the remainder of Lent, let's take to heart the challenge extended to the Jesuits by Pope Benedict XVI when he addressed our 35th General Congregation:

Nowadays the new peoples who do not know the Lord or know him badly, so that they do not recognize him as the Saviour, are far away not so much from the geographical point of view as from the cultural one. The obstacles challenging the evangelisers are not so much the seas or the long distances as the frontiers that, due to a mistaken or superficial vision of God and of man, are raised between faith and human knowledge, faith and modern science, faith and the fight for justice.

This is why the Church is in urgent need of people of solid and deep faith, of a serious culture and a genuine human and social sensitivity, of religious priests who devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace. Only thus will it be possible to make the face of the Lord known to so many for whom it remains hidden or unrecognisable. This must therefore be the preferential task of the Society of Jesus. Faithful to its best tradition, it must continue to form its members with great care in science and virtue, not satisfied with mediocrity, because the task of facing and entering into a dialogue with very diverse social and cultural contexts and the different mentalities of today's world is one of the most difficult and demanding. This search of quality and human solidity, spiritual and cultural, must also characterize all the many activities of formation and education of the Jesuits, as it meets the most diverse kinds of persons wherever they are.

Praying for virtue, not satisfied with mediocrity, let us work at the frontiers to bridge the harmony 'between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace'. 

Text from Fr Frank Brennan SJ's Lenten presentation 'Justice, the Church and the Ignatian tradition' at St Ignatius Parish, Norwood, 13 March 2012 and St Michael's, Clare, 14 March 2012.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Lent



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