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Leading in diverse times



Tropical and Topical, 2018 National Catholic Principals' Conference, Cairns Convention Centre, 16 July 2018. Listen

I thank John Loch for his very Rockhampton introduction. I join with you acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and honour their elders, past, present and future. Dan McMahon opened this conference with a bold declaration: 'Our bruised and battered Church has never been in greater need of our schools.'

Frank Brennan with the protesters outside the venueBuilding on the challenge that Kristina Keneally put before you last evening with the suggestion that you might 'throw the Hail Mary pass', thereby saving the day for our beleaguered Church, I want to console you this morning with Pope Francis's disturbing reassurance: 'A faith that does not trouble us, is a troubled faith; a faith that does not make us grow, is a faith that needs to grow'.

You school principals are the nurturers of the Catholic imagination, the witnesses to Catholic social teaching, helping to form and inform the consciences of your students and staff, and being the convenors and presiders at the most regular liturgies attended by the majority of young people who identify in any way as Catholic.

This conference provides you with the opportunity conscientiously to fire that imagination, to strengthen that witness, and to confirm you in your role as enablers helping your staff and students to shape their world view, their understanding of sin and grace, of oppression and liberation, of mercy and forgiveness.


A tropical perspective

I've been coming to Cairns on and off for the last 40 years. When I first came here as a Jesuit, I met the then bishop John Torpie. I was wondering what possibilities there might be for a ministry amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this diocese. He told me, 'We don't have any real problem here, because very few of them are Catholic.' Established mindsets and ways of setting apostolic priorities change over time.

Then in the early '80s I used to come more regularly when John Bathersby was the bishop. I used to visit Far North Queensland making my way to the remote Aboriginal communities for ongoing consultations about land rights and community government. I often stayed at the bishop's house in Cairns. Coming down to breakfast one morning, I asked Batts what was on his agenda for the day. He was a little despondent, replying that he had to attend a meeting of the ministers' fraternal. I have always believed in trying to cheer up bishops over breakfast, so I remarked that such ecumenical activity was a good and worthy thing. Bishop John said, 'Yes, but they want me to sign a letter opposing the building of a casino.' I thought that was not such a bad thing either. He scratched his pate and lamented, 'But it's a bit hard when your old man was an SP bookie.' It takes all types in this world and in our church. Even our most senior church elders are shaped by their own backgrounds and family situations.

Our MC John Loch was wondering whether any good could come out of Rockhampton (Queensland's Nazareth). I'm happy to tell you that the answer is a resounding 'Yes'. My father came from Rockhampton. His own father was the judge there for many years. Last week, Dad, aged 90, published a letter to the editor in The Australian. It's only the second time he has done so. The first time was in August 1971 when Sir John Bjelke Petersen declared a state of emergency here in Queensland, so the police could exercise untrammelled power against protesters agitating against the all-white Springbok rugby tour. My father suggested that lawmakers as well as protesters needed to examine their consciences so that the rule of law might be protected. After he published the letter, Queensland's leading barrister of the day told him that he would never become a judge. Well, he ended up as Chief Justice of Australia having written the lead judgment in the Mabo Case. His second letter appeared in The Australian on 12 July 2018:

'The world watched and waited and millions prayed for the safe deliverance of the boys and their rescuers. The prayers were offered in every faith; they strengthened and supported the compassion, the courage and the competence of the rescuers.

'Perhaps the universal concern for those in peril, and the brave and selfless devotion of their rescuers, have shown us how to make our world a better place.'

That letter is the fruit of a lifetime's prayerful reflection on what it is to be a Christian in our complex, multicultural, multi-religious, increasingly secularist world. We don't know the future shape of our world, but we know the contours of hope which point to a better life for all.

You have asked me to be 'tropical and topical' and to reflection on 'Leading in Diverse Times in the Church and in the World'. Let me put a couple of tropical questions. As a school principal flying back south after this conference, how should I be feeling and what things should I be alert to, ensuring that my church is more accountable and transparent and true to the gospel in the wake of the royal commission, what should I be thinking about school funding, what should be my approach to employment of LGBTI staff and to pastoral care of LGBTI students in the wake of the same sex marriage debate, and what should I be drawing from Pope Francis to animate my school community about stewardship of the environment, responsibility for the poor, spiritual contentment in an age of disruption, and getting the mix right of truth, justice, love, mercy and joy?  How are we to give women their place at the table when they cannot preside at eucharist?  How are we to assure Indigenous Australians their place at the table when governments make laws and policies impacting especially on them and their heritage?

This conference should be a sacramental moment, food for the journey, sustaining us and providing a sense of true north as we head south into the complexity of the family relations of our students and staff and into the disruption of our politics and public life.


Making our way to the conference

I had the good fortune to arrive a couple of days early for the conference. On Saturday, I had the splendid opportunity, courtesy of your conference organisers, to visit the outer reef on the Quicksilver. It was a stunning experience. I called to mind Pope Francis's declaration in Laudato Si':

'If we approach nature and the environment without openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our at­titude will be that of masters, consumers, ruth­less exploiters, unable to set limits on their im­mediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.'

Yesterday afternoon, I walked here to the convention centre and took a detour to the Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair. There was art from all the remote indigenous communities in Cape York and in the Torres Strait and wonderful displays of dance and song. I called to mind Pope Francis's visit to the Second World Meeting of the Popular Movements at the Expo Feria Exhibition Centre in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia 3 years ago. He told the participants:

'To our brothers and sisters in the Latin American indigenous movement, allow me to express my deep affection and appreciation of their efforts to bring peoples and cultures together in a form of coexistence which I would call polyhedric, where each group preserves its own identity by building together a plurality which does not threaten but rather reinforces unity. Your quest for an interculturalism, which combines the defence of the rights of the native peoples with respect for the territorial integrity of states, is for all.'

You as school principals are called to bring students and staff from diverse cultures and backgrounds together in a form of coexistence where each group preserves its own identity by building a school community which does not threaten but rather reinforces unity. I daresay that even John Torpie would have rejoiced if he were alive today and saw the indigenous art fair. He might even wonder where is the Church in all this vitality, hope and imagination.

As a nation, we are presently bogged down in working out how best to recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution. Senator Kristina Keneally, who was a member of Referendum Council forcefully espoused the Uluru Statement from the Heart in her opening keynote address last night. I've been involved in this difficult space for the last three decades. I wish I could see the matter as clearly and simply as Kristina does. But I can't. Just last week, the great Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson had cause to comment on my approach to these matters. I was very privileged to be describe by him as 'my great and old friend Fr. Frank Brennan, the Jesuit lawyer and priest'. But that meant I was on notice that a rocket was coming. Noel said:

'I have known Frank for over 35 years, since I was a very young man and his commitment to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the cause of reconciliation has been long-held and profound.  However, I think the mistake Frank made in this debate and in other debates in which I have been truculent with him, is in thinking that reconciliation is about compromise. That Indigenous people should compromise their current position in order to achieve reconciliation.  That cannot be the case.   For people who have lost everything, how could there be an expectation of further compromise?  This is about common ground, locating common ground and, for my taste, Frank has mistaken the search for common ground with his predilection for finding compromise. He was mistaken in this and I pray that in the journey that now begins afresh, he will understand that.'

I think it is a very long, difficult and winding road from Uluru to constitutional recognition. I don't know how you find common ground except by compromise, unless of course there is agreement about the principles at stake and agreement that there is only one way to apply those principles to the challenges at hand in the contemporary context. Even amongst indigenous Australians there is no unanimity on that.

230 years after settlement or conquest, and after generations of migration from every other country on earth, common ground will be found and occupied only by those who are prepared to come together in trust seeking compromise – a bit like Mr Fourmile and his white Irish wife and their precocious 7-year-old daughter finding common ground through the everyday compromises of family life.

To find common ground, we must be committed to trusting conversation. We need to build bridges and forge relationships across differences. I think we need to be uncompromising in stating our principles – our understanding of what is right and wrong, our understanding of what is optimal and what is not. But then we need to be able to compromise in effecting laws and policies which give due weight to the varying viewpoints agitated in the process of political deliberation. And if that goes for laws and policies which can be drawn up today and changed tomorrow, it must go even more for constitutional change which requires a supermajority to adopt, which binds even the elected lawmakers (no matter what their popular mandate) and which is very difficult to change once enacted.

You school principals know that the art of leadership is found in the political deliberation able to find the solution to a problem which is appropriately principled, workable and popular.

 On approach to the Convention Centre yesterday and again this morning, I met some protesters who are upset that Senator Kristina Keneally and I are keynote speakers. They disapprove of what each of us said during the same sex marriage plebiscite last year. Their protest is being co-ordinated out of Virginia in the USA by a group called 'Church Militant'. Yesterday afternoon, I introduced myself to the handful of protesters and offered to chat anytime. They declined. One said, 'We know what you think.' My offer to chat over the next couple of days here in Cairns remains open. All was peaceful as you would expect and hope in Cairns. Nothing is to be lost by greeting these protesters as we come and go.


Steps for leading in diverse times

Pope Francis gives us four steps for leading in diverse times so that our school communities might be more inclusive and more expansive. His teachings in Laudato Si' and Amoris Laetitia urge us to expand our horizon of concern to include the whole of creation, and to expand our circle of inclusion to welcome all to the table, whether that be the table of learning, the table of public deliberation, or even the table of the Lord.


1. Embedded in the mess and complexity of life and the world

Francis never tires of telling us that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, 'always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street'. Jesus 'expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people's lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated'. The days of the firm school principal who sat in the office issuing clear directives for inclusion and exclusion have gone. As leaders we are invited to display tenderness and not to be threatened by complexity as we immerse ourselves in the lived reality of our staff and students, and their families which come in all shapes and sizes.


2. Bringing conscience to bear

The cardinals and archbishops who have expressed their public upset with Pope Francis have done us all a favour. There is no getting away from the fact that Francis sees conscience having more work to do than simply determining church teaching and applying it to the case at hand. Each of us is called to form and inform our conscience and to that conscience be true. This is how Pope Francis explains the threefold role of conscience as we make our objective assessments, generous responses, and prayers for mercy:

'Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.'


3. Transforming the mess and complexity of life through participation in the sacramental life of the church

Francis says that a person can be living in God's grace while 'in an objective situation of sin', and that the sacraments, including the Eucharist might help, because the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'.  Francis demands that pastors and theologians not only be faithful to the Church but also be 'honest, realistic and creative' when confronting the diverse reality of families in the modern world.  Just as he discounts those who have 'an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding', so too he dismisses those who 'would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations'.


4. Always discerning

In his latest Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis says: 

'Certainly, spiritual discernment does not exclude existential, psychological, sociological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences. At the same time, it transcends them. Nor are the Church's sound norms sufficient. We should always remember that discernment is a grace. Even though it includes reason and prudence, it goes beyond them, for it seeks a glimpse of that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us, which takes shape amid so many varied situations and limitations. It involves more than my temporal well-being, my satisfaction at having accomplished something useful, or even my desire for peace of mind. It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he. Ultimately, discernment leads to the wellspring of undying life: to know the Father, the only true God, and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 17:3). It requires no special abilities, nor is it only for the more intelligent or better educated. The Father readily reveals himself to the lowly (cf. Mt 11:25).'

For you as school principals, the difficult decisions are not choosing between right and wrong, but discerning the greater good in the light of your students' needs, the resources you have to hand, and the challenges of the world into which those students are stepping. The Church's norms, though sound, are not sufficient. It's not just a matter of collating the evidence and making a prudent judgment. There's something bolder we're asked for: the grace born of a deep interior freedom and a passion to do more for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God here and now in my staff room and in my playground.


Topical issues deserving our consideration

1. Women and the Church

Kristina Keneally was unapologetic in putting the place of women in our church front and centre. And so we should. How do we make our church credible in a world where human rights and the principle of non-discrimination are trumps? The Church's teachings on moral issues will maintain currency in the world in future only to the extent that the Church's own structures and actions reflect the rhetoric of human rights, and only to the extent that those rights are enjoyed by all within the Church. The place of women in our Church and the respect shown to laity when church fathers deliberate and pontificate are key indicators of the Church's capacity to be credible when agitating its distinctive perspective on the human rights challenges of the age.

Ours is the Church of the west which is most behind in accommodating the place for women at the Eucharistic table. When asked about women's ordination in June 2013, Pope Francis replied, 'The Church has spoken and says no. . . . That door is closed.' The one consolation is that he used the image of a door and not a wall. At least a door can be opened if you have the key or if you are able to prise it with force over time.

Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, 'The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.' It is even more divisive if those who reserve to themselves sacramental power determine that they alone can determine who has access to that power and legislate that the matter is not open for discussion.  Given that the power to determine the teaching of the magisterium and the provisions of canon law is not a sacramental power, is there not a need to include women in the decision that the question is not open to discussion and in the contemporary quest for an answer to the question? Francis's position on this may be politic for the moment within the Vatican which has had a long-time preoccupation with shutting down the discussion, but the position is incoherent.

No one doubts the pastoral sensitivity of Pope Francis. But the Church will continue to suffer for as long as it does not engage in open, ongoing discussion and education about this issue. The official position is no longer comprehensible to most people of good will, and not even those at the very top of the hierarchy have a willingness or capacity to explain it. As school principals you know that gender inequality is no longer an option.

The claim that the matter 'is not a question open to discussion' cannot be maintained unless sacramental power also includes the power to determine theology and the power to determine canon law.  Ultimately the Pope's claim must be that only those possessed of sacramental power can determine the magisterium and canon law.  Conceding for the moment the historic exclusion of women from the sacramental power of presidency at Eucharist, we need to determine if 'the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church's life' could include the power to contribute to theological discussion and the shaping of the magisterium and to canonical discussion about sanctions for participating in theological discussion on set topics such as the ordination of women.  As Francis says, 'Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.' If they continue to be evaded, the Church's credibility as an exemplar of human rights will be tarnished irreparably.


2. A safe, transparent and accountable post Royal Commission Church

For children to be safe in our schools, for victims to be respected and cared for, and for the reputation of our Church to be restored, we all know that the bishops and clergy cannot do it on their own. In the past, that's been part the problem. You school principals have the expertise, the knowledge, and the passion to put children first. In your midst are great educational leaders like John Crowley from St Patrick's Ballarat who have done the hard yards, sitting down with victims, studying overseas developments, espousing best practice, and reflecting on recent experience in the light of the gospels.

Do not be downhearted. You cannot do this on your own. Our Church cannot do it on its own. We needed the help of the state to put our house in order. We now have the help of the state as we work out together how best to protect all children in our care.

Not for a moment do I want to downplay the disproportionate number of victims who came forward describing abuse suffered in the Catholic Church. But I think it is important and consoling in solidarity for us to bear in mind four things Justice McClellan said on the last day of the royal commission's sitting on 14 December 2017.  I set out the key quotes.

'Just over 8,000 people have come and spoken with a Commissioner in a private session. For many of those people, it has been the first time they have told their story. Most have never been to the police or any person in authority to report the abuse. More than 2,500 allegations have been reported by the Royal Commission to the police.  Many of these matters came to our attention in a private session.'

'The failure to protect children has not been limited to institutions providing services to children. Some of our most important State instrumentalities have failed.  Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse. Many children, who had attempted to escape abuse, were returned to unsafe institutions by the police. Child protection agencies did not listen to children. They did not act on their concerns, leaving them in situations of danger.'

'There may be leaders and members of some institutions who resent the intrusion of the Royal Commission into their affairs. However, if the problems we have identified are to be adequately addressed, changes must be made. There must be changes in the culture, structure and governance practices of many institutions.'

So when all is said and done, it has to be admitted that in the past, victims did not come forward to police or to other authorities — neither at the time of the offence nor years later when they were adults.  In the past, the whole of society was prejudiced against the victims, and going to the police was known to be worse than useless.  All this has now changed.  There have been many changes for the better — within police forces, within churches etc.  What's not changed is this last observation by Justice McClellan:

'This Royal Commission has been concerned with the sexual abuse of children within institutions. It is important to remember that, notwithstanding the problems we have identified, the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.'

'The sexual abuse of any child is intolerable in a civilised society. It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are being abused. We must each resolve that we should do what we can to protect them. The tragic impact of abuse for individuals and through them our entire society demands nothing less.'

Even though you be employed by a bishop, it is essential that you offer frank and fearless advice to your bishop on these issues. It was respectful silence from the laity or the presumption that 'Father knows best' that compounded the problems in the past. I had said and written things to bishops in the last five years that I would never have said or written in previous times. This is not Ordinary Time. We are dealing with an extraordinary moment of change in our church. The old-style clerical pyramid has had its day.

In recent days, I have been quite outspoken about the need for Archbishop Wilson to resign. As a lawyer, I think he has very good prospects of appealing his conviction and sentence. But that's not the point. His appeals could take another year or two. Meanwhile he has told the court and the faithful of Adelaide that he is suffering the early onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Whatever of any legal errors made by the magistrate, he has made a fairly unappealable finding that the complainant was honest and reliable in recalling what he said to Wilson when he was a boy and that Wilson was unreliable and not credible. Philip Wilson did great work for the church in cleaning up the mess later when he was bishop in Wollongong and then nationally when he was Archbishop of Adelaide and a member of the Permanent Committee of the ACBC. But that's not the point either.

In view of Archbishop Wilson's decision not to submit his resignation pursuant to Canon 401.2 of the Code of Canon Law which provides, 'A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfil his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office', it is necessary that we all give closer attention to Recommendation 16.7 of the Royal Commission: 'The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women. This review should draw from the approaches to governance of Catholic health, community services and education agencies.'

During the royal commission, our bishops and the leaders of the religious institutes appointed a competent Truth Justice and Healing Council to monitor and co-ordinate the Church's response to the royal commission. That council included competent laity from differing professional backgrounds, and individuals with quite diverse perspectives. They have now provided detailed reports to the bishops. Those reports include some dissenting opinions. For the good of the Church, it is essential that those reports be published and considered by people inside and outside the Church so that we can assure ourselves that we have done all we can to make our Church fit for purpose in contemporary Australia.

In the months ahead, there will be talk in your school about the trials of Cardinal Pell. And no doubt prayers will be offered. Could I sound one warning note, and provide one suggestion. The warning: Those convinced of Cardinal Pell's guilt don't know what they're talking about. They have not yet heard the evidence. They don't even know who the complainants are. Those convinced of Cardinal Pell's innocence don't know what they're talking about. They have not yet heard the evidence. They don't even know who the complainants are. We have to wait for the legal processes to run their course. The suggestion: when offering prayers in your school or parish, do not pray only for Cardinal Pell. Pray for all those involved in these proceedings, including the complainants. And pray for all the institutions involved – the Church, the police, the legal profession, the court system, and the media. These trials are putting all these individuals and all these institutions on trial. Let's hope and pray that justice is done.


3. School funding

In May last year, I was walking around Parliament House minding my own business, and the business of Catholic Social Services which is my day job. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spotted me and called me into his office to talk about school funding. I then had follow-up meeting with Cabinet Minister Christopher Pyne and Education Minister Senator Birmingham. All three of them insisted that the days of special deals for Catholics are over. I agreed. All three insisted that there was a need to settle on some key principles for fair and transparent school funding. I agreed. All three agreed that it was necessary to ensure that the principles were rightly applied.

I wrote about the issue in Eureka Street. In the original article published on 23 May 2017, I said, 'When it comes to the application of the principles, the Catholic educators are stating two sound principled objections.' I set out the first principled objection in these terms: 'The Australian Bureau of Statistics assessment of the socio-economic score (SES) is very inaccurate as it draws on clusters of households averaging income and education. Also, the government is wanting to abandon the student weighted system average SES. The Catholics point out that especially with low fee-paying primary schools, the parent base, even in better-off suburbs, includes families who can ill afford to pay high fees. Any significant jump in fees will result in many of those families simply shifting their children to government schools, which will then be bursting at the seams. Some of these Catholic primary schools are being expected to increase their fees radically in the next few years because the increased Commonwealth revenue stream will not come on line for another four years.'

On 19 June 2017, I raised the question, 'Is the application of the principles right?' It turns out that it was not. The Chaney Review has now been released. The present SES score methodology first introduced in 2001 and reviewed every five years was found to be deficient. 'The data show that capacity to contribute is not evenly distributed within Census statistical areas and that patterns of school selection mean that the current methodology, while accurate in many cases, materially overstates the SES of some schools and understates that of others.' The Chaney review panel found, 'Based on extensive analysis of the alternatives, the Board concluded that the current approach is no longer the most accurate measure available and a direct measure of parental income is currently the most fit-for-purpose, transparent, and reliable way to determine a school community's capacity to contribute.'

Everyone is agreed that the system would be fairer and the principles more appropriately applied if there could be an assessment of the personal income of each family rather than an averaging of income in a geographic area. Most of the Chaney Panel thought the system would be fairest simply by considering parental income. The dissenting member of the panel, Professor Greg Craven who is vice chancellor of ACU thought there should also be an assessment of each school's income and wealth, with particular attention to the fees charged by the school. The Guardian newspaper has accurately reported that 'Craven suggested that the fact some parents could afford fees of between $20,000 and $30,000 was a fair measure of their capacity to pay, in the same way as a “significant number of Australians' would draw conclusions about the financial capacity of people who could afford to buy a C-class Mercedes Benz Cabriolet at a cost of $95,000'.

For you as Catholic principals, the mantra should be clear. No special deals. Just give us clear, fair principles, and apply those principles transparently and accurately.


4. An inclusive, non-discriminatory society that respects freedom of religion

I voted 'yes' in last year's ABS survey on same sex marriage. As a priest, I was prepared to explain why I was voting 'yes' during the campaign. I voted 'yes', in part because I thought that the outcome was inevitable. But also, I thought that full civil recognition of such relationships was an idea whose time had come. What was needed was an outcome which helped to maintain respect for freedom of religion, the standing of the Churches, and the pastoral care and concern of everyone affected by such relationships, including the increasing number of children being brought up in households headed by same sex couples committed to each other and their children. I thought it appropriate that at least a handful of clergy should come out and, when asked, express their intention to vote 'yes'.  

I would draw three distinctions: marriage as a sacrament, marriage as a natural law institution, and marriage as a legal construct of civil law.  

Marriage as a sacrament is one of those graced moments in the life of the believing Christian who is a Catholic.  As our Catechism puts it: 'The sacraments are “of the Church' in the double sense that they are “by her' and “for her'.   They are “by the Church', for she is the sacrament of Christ's action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are “for the Church' in the sense that “the sacraments make the Church', since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.'  The sacrament of marriage typically is celebrated by two baptised persons (a man and a woman) who are free to marry, are committed to each other exclusively for life, and are open to the bearing and nurturing of their children from the union.

Sacramental marriage follows the contours of marriage as a natural law institution.  Unbaptised persons for example may enter into a natural law marriage, once again the classic instance being of a man and a woman committed to each other permanently and exclusively and open to the bearing and nurturing of children.  One might even argue that baptised Catholics might enter into a natural law marriage even if their marriage not be recognised as sacramental. For example, one of the parties may have been previously married and their spouse is still alive, and the first sacramental marriage not annulled.

Marriage as a legal construct of the civil law might follow the contours of the natural law institution, but then again it might not.  For example, in Australia, the couple who are civilly married need not have any intention of bearing and nurturing children.  They may even decide to preclude all possibility of same by seeking sterilisation, for example.  They need not have a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other.  They might decide on a variety of relationships outside marriage.  Either party will be free to terminate the relationship unilaterally on one year's notice.  There is no need to give reasons or to establish a breakdown of the relationship.

All three institutions are called 'marriage'.  But I think I have said enough to indicate that they are very different from each other.  No doubt there is a lot to be said for maintaining the contours of all three institutions as consistent as possible.  But they have grown more and more apart.  

At federation, most marriages were performed by clergy.  Now most marriages are performed by civil celebrants.  For a couple of generations, we have had developments in the civil law.  First there was legal recognition of de facto relationships.  Then in some jurisdictions there was legal recognition of civil partnerships between same sex couples.  

Over the last decade, even those jurisdictions such as the UK which provided recognition of civil unions moved to expand the definition of marriage to include a union of two persons of the same sex.  This created an issue for those jurisdictions in similar countries which gave no legal recognition to same sex marriages.  What was to happen with same sex couples married overseas who then migrated to Australia? Also, there has been an increasing number of children being brought up by same sex couples.  

I spent some years advocating for the legal recognition of civil unions.  Neither the gay advocates nor our bishops were interested in that option.  So it was then a matter of 'winner take all'.  Either there would continue to be no legal recognition of the increasing number of same sex partnerships (including children in their care) or these partnerships would be given the same legal status as a union of a man and a woman (including children in their care).

I am one of those citizens who thought the time had come to extend that legal recognition, and yes I am a Catholic priest.  I still adhere to the natural law view of marriage, though I concede to its critics that natural law does not make much sense to a lot of people nowadays unless they have some grounding in traditional philosophy.  And it helps to have a Catholic heritage.  Even those of us who espouse this natural law view of the institution need to concede that in Old Testament times, polygamy was clearly seen not only to be natural but also God's will for those like Abraham. And of course, I still adhere firmly to the Church's teaching about sacramental marriage.

Even though most Catholics who voted ended up voting 'yes' as I did, I presume that the majority of our bishops voted 'No'. But I know that some bishops did vote 'Yes'. In the lead up to the vote, a couple of bishops (and there were only a couple, though others may have been upset while deciding not to communicate directly with me) wrote to me taking strong exception to the position I had taken. One of these bishops claimed, 'With regard to the current postal survey on legally redefining marriage to include same sex unions, a Catholic is morally obligated to vote “no'.  There is no option to claim that in good conscience that a Catholic can vote “yes'.' I disagreed strongly with this bishop. I think I voted 'yes' in good conscience. I thought his argument was the twenty-first century equivalent of a bishop telling the flock that they had to vote for the DLP. I think those days have gone, and they've gone forever.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, an accomplished scripture scholar and vice president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, got it right when interviewed on national television during the plebiscite campaign. He said:

To think of a Catholic vote all going one way is just naïve. Of course, it's possible to vote 'yes'. It depends why you vote 'yes'. It's possible to vote 'no', but equally it depends why you vote 'no'…As a Catholic you can vote 'yes' or you can vote 'no'. I personally will vote 'no' but for quite particular reasons. But I'm not going to stand here and say: you vote 'no'; and you vote 'yes', and you're a Catholic, you'll go to hell. It's not like that.

No matter how we voted, we all now need to accept that the civil law of marriage will permit the exclusive, committed relationship of any two persons to be legally recognised, granting the couple endorsement and respect for their relationship and for their family.

I take heart from the pastoral letter of Vincent Long:

'Throughout much of history, our gay and lesbian (or LGBTI) brothers and sisters have often not been treated with respect, sensitivity and compassion. Regrettably, the Church has not always been a place where they have felt welcomed, accepted and loved. Thus, regardless of the outcome of the survey, we must commit ourselves to the task of reaching out to our LGBTI brothers and sisters, affirming their dignity and accompanying them on our common journey towards the fullness of life and love in God.  

'Let us pray, discern and act with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Catholics, in keeping with the tradition of the Church, are asked to exercise their consciences, ensuring that they are informed as they come to exercise their democratic rights in the coming postal survey.'

Bill Wright in his pastoral letter said:

'What I urge, therefore, is that you give careful consideration to all information that comes your way, think hard, talk a lot, pray about it, and vote. Look beyond the campaign slogans and anecdotes, and vote for what you believe will be best for our Australian community — now and into future generations. And let's all accept that people of good will might honestly disagree.'

It is now for us, and particularly for you as school principals, to work out how best to accommodate all students including those being brought up by same sex couples and those who identify as L,G,B, or T, and how best to treat all staff including those who enter into a civil same sex marriage. We are entitled to conduct our institutions consistent with Church teaching but not in a manner which discriminates adversely against those of a different sexual orientation. We should treat them in the same manner as those of a heterosexual orientation. If we were to insist that all heterosexual teachers be celibate or living in a sacramental marriage, we would have a case for discriminating against teachers in a same sex relationship. But given that we turn a blind eye (or perhaps even a compassionate and understanding one) to those heterosexual teachers not living in a sacramental marriage, we should surely do the same for those thought to be living in a same sex relationship.


5. A reconciled nation with appropriate recognition of Indigenous Australians

Earlier this year, the nation farewelled one of the great public servants, Barrie Dexter. Barrie's father Walter was a decorated Anglican chaplain at Gallipoli. Barrie and his four brothers all served in the Second World War. Barrie then became a diplomat until Prime Minister Harold Holt handpicked him for a domestic role after the 1967 referendum. At that referendum, the Australian people voted overwhelmingly to remove the two arguably adverse references to Aborigines in the Constitution. The political effect of the strong vote for change was pressure on the Commonwealth government to act directly to improve the living conditions of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

Holt set up a three-member Council for Aboriginal Affairs consisting of 'Nugget' Coombs who had been a major contributor to post-war reconstruction and to the Reserve Bank, Bill Stanner who was a leading anthropologist at the Australian National University, and Barrie Dexter.

In his delightful self-deprecating mode, Dexter says that Harold Holt was looking for someone who was 'honest, just, sympathetic with underdeveloped or deprived peoples, knows his way backwards through the public service and [would] not squeal when he was kicked.' When asked by Holt to join the three-member Council for Aboriginal Affairs with Coombs and Stanner, Dexter replied, 'But I don't know anything about Aboriginals.' Holt said, 'That's why I asked you to take on the job. I'm frightened by the people who think they do know something!' Dexter then said, 'Mr Prime Minister, you are asking me to open Pandora's box!' Holt replied, 'That is precisely what I am asking you to do, Barrie.' These 'three wise men' or 'the three white men', as they were often called, helped navigate the policy changes for land rights and self-determination.

The eulogy at Dexter's funeral was delivered by the nation's most distinguished Aboriginal public servant, Patricia Turner. She said:

'The late Mr Barrie Dexter most certainly paved a promising pathway to right the way for Aboriginal people to live a more fulfilled and decent life in this country. When I gave the eulogy at the funeral of my late uncle Charlie Perkins, I recalled that he was an “unorthodox public servant'. I know Mr Dexter would have understood that very well. Mr Dexter on the other hand, I would characterise as an “orthodox public servant' who was well equipped for his tasks. He was a career public servant who brought his significant experience, intellect and a fair dinkum sense of, and commitment to, all people having a fair go, in the many positions he held in the Australian Public Service and in CARE. His esteemed service in the Defence forces, in Foreign Affairs and his flair for speaking new languages, all added to his abilities to serve even his most neglected fellow Australians, with decency and integrity. He witnessed the most depressed of living conditions and lack of access to services for Aboriginal people and worked tirelessly to achieve improved outcomes for us.'

Barrie Dexter and Charles Perkins had their differences and their blow-ups in the public service, but they came to respect each other. How fitting it was that the formal eulogy was delivered by Perkins' relative Patricia Turner one-time CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and deputy secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Nothing gave Barrie greater pleasure than to see Aboriginal Australians replacing him and taking their rightful place in the administration of the nation, determining the best use of Pandora's box.

On his last day as Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1977, Barrie had written an account of his stewardship to his minister Ian Viner. Viner replied, thanking Dexter for his insights and assistance, having come to his position 'as a "new chum" in Aboriginal Affairs as well as to the Ministry.' Viner confided: 

'It seemed to me that we had a common approach through a simple philosophy and fundamental truth – all men and women are equal in the sight of God and deserve to be accorded the dignity of that status within the Australian community. Where it has been diminished by disadvantage or discrimination or inadequacy on the part of Govern­ments, then that is where the resources of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs should be directed.'

A tribute was also delivered at Dexter's funeral by Professor Gary Foley who as a young Aboriginal activist had been sacked by Dexter when only six weeks into his employment in the Commonwealth public service. Foley told the congregation that he used to hate Dexter, but that later in life he grew to love him. It was Foley who organised the publication of Dexter's book Pandora's Box recounting the activities of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Gary Foley said that reconciliation had to be founded on truth. Looking back over the decades, Foley and Dexter had come to appreciate each other's perspectives on difficult times which included the setting up of the Aboriginal tent embassy in front of the old Parliament House.

Fifty one years on from the 1967 referendum, we are still wondering how to recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution. At the moment, they don't even rate a mention in our founding document. On this, the country is stalled. It will remain stalled until there is a more inclusive respectful dialogue about what is appropriate and achievable in the Australian Constitution. At Uluru a year ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from around Australia strongly supported a call for 'the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution'.

Australians will not vote for a constitutional First Nations Voice until they have first heard it and seen it in action. Presumably the First Nations Voice would replace the existing National Congress of Australia's First Peoples which boasts, 'As a company the Congress is owned and controlled by its membership and is independent of Government. Together we will be leaders and advocates for recognising our status and rights as First Nations Peoples in Australia.' When the extensive Aboriginal consultations for the setting up of the Congress were conducted in 2009, the committee charged with proposing the model concluded, 'The new National Representative Body should be a private company limited by guarantee rather than a statutory authority.' They had 'consistently heard the aspiration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that the National Representative Body become self-determining over time'. They said, 'This cannot happen if the body is a creation of Parliament whose existence is dependent on the goodwill of Parliament and the government of the day.' They thought a company limited by guarantee would have the advantage of flexibility and enhanced self-determination: 'The structures of the Body will be able to be flexible, with the members able to alter the Constitution when necessary. If the Body was a statutory authority it would have to rely on Parliament to approve such changes and may also have unnecessary or politically motivated changes foisted upon it.'

If the Congress is to be replaced by a First Nations Voice which is recognised in the Constitution, that body will need to be set up by legislation which sets out what it's to do, the way it which it is to operate, and how representation is to be organised. But mind you, the Congress has now told a parliamentary committee:

'If properly funded and supported, National Congress could function as the Voice to Parliament. National Congress now counts over 9,000 individuals and 180 organisations and members. As the national peak representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, much of the work which we do already substantially aligns with the role to be filled by the Voice: we provide input into and critique of government policies relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, facilitate consultations with communities and organisations and engage in policy development.'

Those of us who are not Indigenous need to wait and hear from Indigenous Australians whether they think the National Congress could be the Voice to Parliament. The only certainty is that there will have to be compromise within Indigenous ranks. It won't be a matter of unanimously finding common ground.

When ATSIC was first established in 1989, the number of Australians identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander was less than a quarter of a million. At the last census, it was almost 650,000. The aspirations of these self-identifying Indigenous Australians are very diverse. A constitutionally recognised body would have much less flexibility than the present Congress. There is a need for a lot further discussion both within Indigenous communities and within Australian society generally about what such a First Nations Voice might look like, and what it might do. The challenges are great. But great Australians like Barrie Dexter, Patricia Turner and Gary Foley have shown us the way. There needs to be a place at the table for both the orthodox and the unorthodox.


Becoming a listening and learning church for the young, and not just a talking, teaching church of the ageing clergy

Together, we are now commencing the journey towards the 2020 Plenary Council of our Church here in Australia. The organisers of the Council tell us that 'we are on a journey of listening to God by listening to one another. We invite all Australians to engage in an open and inclusive process of listening, dialogue and discernment about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. Your voice is needed – join in! Speak boldly and with passion, listen with an open and humble heart. With faith and guided by God's Holy Spirit, we journey together, toward the future.'

It's now important that the Bishops engage with groups like the Catholic Principals. The greatly respected Emeritus Professor John Warhurst recently had cause to observe: 'The Australian Catholic Bishops haven't helped at all by failing to respond publicly to the Royal Commission's recommendations on the church and by not releasing the strategic advice it has received from its own Truth, Justice and Healing Council. Lay Catholics can't dialogue productively with a blank canvas and they have been let down yet again by their leaders. This is a major failing of process, much less of responsiveness and responsibility. The usefulness of this first stage of listening and dialogue has been severely limited because the bishops, who hold all the cards, have failed to put their own position on the table.'

When Pope Francis met with the Vatican Curial officials before Christmas last year, he told them:

'Christmas reminds us that a faith that does not trouble us is a troubled faith. A faith that does not make us grow is a faith that needs to grow. A faith that does not raise questions is a faith that has to be questioned. A faith that does not rouse us is a faith that needs to be roused. A faith that does not shake us is a faith that needs to be shaken. Indeed, a faith which is only intellectual or lukewarm is only a notion of faith. It can become real once it touches our heart, our soul, our spirit and our whole being. Once it allows God to be born and reborn in the manger of our heart. Once we let the star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where the Son of God lies, not among Kings and riches, but among the poor and humble.

'As Angelus Silesius wrote in The Cherubinic Wanderer: "It depends solely on you. Ah, if only your heart could become a manger, then God would once again become a child on this earth."'

As you leave this tropical and topical conference, ask yourself: Is your school a manger where God is daily manifest in the children of this earth? Are your students bored with Catholicism because your faith is only intellectual or lukewarm? Do you really believe that your faith can become real touching your heart, your soul, your spirit and your whole being?

At my old school, Downlands College, Toowoomba, the motto was: Fortes in Fide: strong in faith. To be school leaders in these diverse times in the Church and in the World, you need to be strong in faith, practically grounded in hope, and all-inclusive in love. I plead with you: Instead of burning the institutional Church down, let's hold our clerical leaders respectfully and firmly to account, and let's recreate the manger in our own local community, in our domestic church, in our home and in our school.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

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You can follow the activity of the Virginia USA based 'Church Militant' at https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/faithful-to-protest-pro-gay-speakers-at-catholic-school-conference

Frank Brennan SJ | 17 July 2018  

There's no let up with the Church Militant folk over there in the US of A. See https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/australian-bishop-wont-silence-pro-gay-priest

Frank Brennan SJ | 18 July 2018  

Too often in our times the "rhetoric of human rights" is a formula for self-interest severed from social obligation. To the extent that it is, it cannot be allowed to affect the "currency" of Catholic teaching. The call for the primacy of freedom of choice in the individual common to the classical liberalist thinking of Locke, Kant and more recently, Rawls, is inadequate for ensuring a minimal public coherence of values and practices necessary for maintaining a viable plurality, let alone unity, in society.

John | 18 July 2018  

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